Creating your own ecommerce store is inevitably both exciting and daunting. Taking the chance to offer your wares online (perhaps even globally) affords you rich opportunities to capture a broad customer base and establish a strong brand, yes — but it also requires you to move past some tricky design obstacles.
Is development one such obstacle? Well, you don’t have to delve too far into the past to recall a time when business owners would be forced to grapple with coding syntax (or hire teams of costly experts) before they could proceed.
Muscling into the growing crowd of established online businesses was once a costly and laborious affair, but SaaS has democratized the global marketplace, allowing anyone to set up shop with relative ease. Easy-to-use tools make it possible for anyone to develop their own site, negating the need for coding or endless bug-fixing.
The issue with relying on slick SaaS solutions, though, is that you typically lose some control over your system. Much of Shopify’s architecture is obscured and inaccessible, for instance. Want to change something?
Unless it’s doable through an app, you’re out of luck. This lack of flexibility is one of the big reasons why open-source systems (those you’re free to modify) are still popular. WooCommerce is particularly huge.
So which approach is right for you? Should you opt for a convenient closed-source SaaS solution, or should you keep your freedom by going with an open-source alternative?
That’s what we’re going to consider in this piece. Let’s get started.
The pros and cons of the SaaS route
This is the quintessential plug-and-play model. SaaS platforms are perfect for newcomers or business owners who want to avoid the hassle of building their stores from the ground up. Website hosting is usually thrown in too, so searching for a suitable provider is a non-issue.
You can proceed with confidence that the core functions are properly covered.
Furthermore, you mustn’t be fooled by the relative simplicity of SaaS solutions.
They’re finely honed with excellent designs, and they don’t boast about wide feature sets, but they typically allow users to customize their stores extensively (whether drawing upon existing themes and plugins or adding in custom code for particular sections).
The variety of options is staggering, with sites like Envato built specifically to provide all manner of themes for the budding store designer (at a price!). The overall idea here is that store owners can get as deep as they feel comfortable, without the danger of ever becoming overwhelmed. It’s a great approach if you don’t have high-level expectations.
If you do, though, there are some obvious drawbacks. As is often the case, convenience comes with limitations.
While options like Shopify are great for small or mid-sized businesses, larger operations may feel a little hemmed in. With no access to the source code, you’re limited to the tools your chosen platform provides you with.
There’s also the issue of pricing. Most SaaS solutions are priced using subscription models. While the lower-priced plans may seem appealing to begin with, many growing businesses may find that they’re lacking certain features crucial in scaling, and climbing up the price tiers can get expensive. Before you jump in, consider how much you’re likely to pay once your store has grown.
The pros and cons of the open-source route
For those seeking total flexibility, going open-source is the ideal option, allowing absolute customization and freedom of hosting. If you’re willing to get into the weeds of technical development and add to your skill set (the information is out there: Magento has its own Github page, for instance), you can achieve superb results while spending less than you would on a managed solution.
Additionally, staying away from locked-down SaaS solutions means you won’t be at the mercy of their update schedules.
Managed service providers can suddenly remove features you value or add some you don’t, and you won’t have the option of sticking with older versions. You get what you’re given, for better and for worst. Running an open-source store means you can update it at your leisure and on your terms.
Going this route will significantly increase your workload, though. Alongside the work on the site itself, you’ll need to put time into figuring out things like hosting and security.
It isn’t easy to choose the right services, and using multiple providers adds complexity. There’s also the aforementioned matter of getting into the technical weeds.
You may have a great attitude, but web development is hard, and the industry keeps changing. Do you really have the time and means to stay ahead of the curve? What happens when your split workload becomes unmanageable?
And while the ability to update your schedule can be nice, it can also be a problem because it puts the onus on you to ensure that things are running smoothly. If there’s an issue, you can’t pass the buck.
The answer may be the platform-as-a-service (PaaS) route
The titular framing of this piece reflects how these approaches are perceived, as they’re often thought to be mutually exclusive. Either you choose an open-source solution and do everything yourself, or you pay for a managed service and leave the admin to the experts. But this isn’t an accurate reflection of the choice ahead of you. There’s another way.
That way involves the platform-as-a-service route (Microsoft has a good guide).
In essence, instead of paying for a closed-source content management system, you pay for a cloud platform that allows you to deploy the apps of your choice (even open-source ones) while enjoying the main benefits of SaaS: security, speed, accessibility, and general convenience.
Consider an option like ecommerce hosting from Cloudways: you get to choose your CMS and your server before scaling performance as needed.
In short, you can take the traditional high-flexibility route of using an option like WordPress with WooCommerce while enjoying all the convenience of modern cloud architecture. Is it right for everyone?
No, of course not. If you’re not interested in picking a server, you can use a conventional SaaS option. But if you’re feeling caught between the titular options, it’s a fantastic middle-ground path.
No matter which route you take, be sure to take into consideration your budget, your level of expertise, and the size of your business. If in doubt, it’s sensible to stay away from open-source customization — but if you’re absolutely convinced that you want to make your store unique, there’s much to gain from getting more involved.