Continuing with our eCommerce Series, I bring you Magento – a self-hosted eCommerce platform that many small business owners look at and should realize is, 99% of the time, not a good fit for them. Don’t get me wrong, Magento is a great platform, it’s just not the best fit for basic small businesses eCommerce sites.
To help explain exactly what Magento is, and outline its pros and cons, I reached out to my stellar Magento partners: 303 software. Specifically, my favorite Magento developer: Dan Fugina. Dan and I have been working together for a few years, and I truly believe that he has a “Magento Magic” button on his keyboard! Ok Ok, there’s no magical button on his keyboard… Dan is a highly skilled and Magento Certified developer who has been working on Magento sites since Magento first launched in 2007 – it’s not magic, it’s skill. But, thinking it’s magic is a lot more fun. =)
Back to business… Magento. Everything you are about to read is based on an interview with Dan. You’ll see a few quotes from him, along with lots of information about how amazing Magento is, and who it’s a good fit for. I’ll also be interjecting some of my own input from having maintained Magento sites (with Dan’s assistance of course!). Let’s get started.
What is Magento eCommerce?
If you have been researching eCommerce, you have at least heard of Magento. It officially started development in 2007, and the first public beta version was released in August of the same year, by Varian. Varian was originally a web development company that was building a lot of eCommerce sites. They built their own platform to handle their clients’ needs, and thus Magento was born. It was eventually sold to eBay and is now owned by Permira, a global investment firm that finds and backs successful businesses with ambition.
Just under 20% of all eCommerce sites are running on Magento, according to HiveMind’s 2015 eCommerce Market Share Report. And, less than 7% when looking at “The entire Internet” data trends on builtwith.com.
Regardless of what data you are looking at, Magento is a solid platform and powers many successful larger eCommerce sites.
Why Use Magento eCommerce? Customization
I asked Dan why he recommends Magento, and it all came down to, at a broad level, the ability to customize it. By customization, he wasn’t talking about the ability to style the look and feel. He was talking about functionality and complex product offerings. As Dan put it, “Magento can be anything you want it to be.” He also cautioned that this should not be the sole driving factor when choosing an eCommerce platform.
If customization isn’t at the heart of your business, you probably shouldn’t go down the Magento road as the cost of customizing Magento can be rather extensive. I asked him for some broad examples of what he meant by custom products. He outlined how Magento can really help set your business apart from the competition by providing a better user experience for items like personalized clothing, stationery, or any product that is more than an item that ships off the shelf. But again, be wary of the cost of developing such a personalized user experience.
Pros to Using Magento for eCommerce:
The most powerful of the Magento eCommerce features is how flexible it is to customize—it’s the perfect developer’s playground for building your perfect site.
- Magento has a massive developer community , which means there is readily accessible support for your site.
- Magento is well documented with a lot of information available online to help developers target specific solutions (or issues) to a specific setup.
- Magento’s vast community also means there are lots of extensions being developed which continuously builds the list of Magento eCommerce features.
- Dan has been able to use Magento to develop sites based on code others have developed (which saves time and costs when creating a custom site).
- It’s popular!
- Many 3rd party extension and tools find that the easiest way to gain market share for their product is to support Magento out of the box. That means developers avoid a lot of custom development simply due to Magento’s popularity.
Magento isn’t for Every eCommerce Site—Customization Means Complexity
Magento is a complex platform because it’s a platform that can be customized. You can’t have one without the other. Because it’s so complex, your developer has to really know their stuff (like Dan!) in order to successfully build out a site. Basically, if you are hoping that your nephew who knows a little PhP can build out your site, he will not be able to build a successful Magento site.
Cons to Using Magento for your eCommerce Site:
When reviewing other platforms, cons tend to focus on limited capabilities. But with Magento, it’s all about the quality of your developer.
- Magento is a complex platform. As a result, the cost of development is high because it requires a high-quality developer to successfully build out a site.
- Magento is a poor performer out of the box, and you need a quality developer to make it work.
- There are a lot of poor quality Magento developers building sites for unsuspecting business owners.
Developers in Magento make more money because they are a highly skilled. But how is that a con, you ask? You see, some developers simply want that high dollar paycheck, so they start developing in Magento and bill as if they were highly skilled at it. But in reality, the site owner just paid a hefty price tag for low-quality code and now has a bad taste in their mouth for Magento. They should have a bad taste for their developer, not Magento.
How to Vet a Magento Developer
I couldn’t sleep at night if I posted this article on Magento eCommerce without including details on how to find a qualified developer. So I asked Dan for his professional opinion:
- Certification. While Dan isn’t really a fan of certifications in general, he’s a huge fan of Magento Certification. Basically, you have to be experienced with Magento in order to pass this certification. While official certification doesn’t mean they are a great developer, it does mean they know Magento. Selecting only Certified Magento developers will greatly cut down on the number of prospects for developing your site.
- Ask them for links to other Magento sites they have developed, and be sure they can walk you through the customizations.
- Just like any other project, ask for referrals.
- Talk with current and past clients and get an idea of what it’s like to work with the developer.
- Try to talk to clients that have been using a developer for more than just a few months. If a client has maintained a relationship with a developer for a year or more, that’s typically a good sign.
You can read more tips on vetting a web developer, as well as download a checklist to help you through the process here. I’ve outlined everything from reviewing contracts, to making sure you are getting everything you need from design and code, to SEO.
Why Magento Probably isn’t a Good fit for Small Business Owners and Startups
Have I mentioned customization yet?
Since Magento is so complex and costly to set up, 99% of the time, it’s not a good fit for a startup or a small business. Dan references a rough number of $250k / year in sales to justify a Magento site. “If your sales are under $250k / year, and you do not have an effective growth plan, along with a strong need for customization, then don’t do it.” You are going to find it very difficult to justify the expense and time necessary to build a successful Magento site.
As an example, let’s say your business sells Chocolates. There’s nothing innovative about selling chocolates, so why use Magento? You will end up incurring a very hefty development expense for a site that could have been built out for the fraction of a cost with Shopify or WooCommerce.
Now, if you are selling Chocolates and want the consumer to select the ingredients for each one, customize the design, and even custom order amounts or delivery dates, then Magento would be worth looking into. In this case, the question to ask is: will your business model support the expense of development and maintenance?
Growing into Magento
During our interview, Dan made a great point about growing into Magento, which is something he often helps clients do. Just because Magento wasn’t a good fit for your startup, doesn’t mean it won’t be a good fit a few years down the road when business is booming and you can start looking at customized offerings! Many hosted solutions (Shopify for example), and structured platforms like WooCommerce, offer merchants the ability to enter the world of eCommerce, and to even test their products in the marketplace. There’s nothing written in stone that says you have to stay with a platform after you outgrow it… although Dan did say that he has never had anyone outgrow Magento.
An Overview of Magento (and a few different “flavors” it offers)
With a complex platform like Magento, it makes sense to have a few different versions to choose from…but, which “flavor” of Magento is the right one for your business? I asked Dan for a simple explanation of each of the Magento offerings to clear things up for us:
- Provides a solid eCommerce foundation
- Leverages 3rd party extensions to provide functionality
- Suitable for most sites
- Community Edition plus a bundle of extensions, all developed by the Magento core team
- You can use the Community Edition and add on some pieces included with Enterprise, but if you need them all (or a large chunk of them) Dan recommends that you “buy” them as a bundle via Enterprise
Enterprise Cloud Edition
- A new platform-as-a-service offering from Magento
- Includes everything in Enterprise edition
- All of the underlying infrastructure is handled by Magento (hosting, security, and content delivery)
- Unlike other platform-as-a-service options, with Magento, you can still fully customize your code base.
Commerce Order Management Suite
- Not an eCommerce platform
- A modular, cloud-based suite of tools, services, and technology designed to manage your orders, inventory, and fulfillment.
Is Magento Right for Your Business?
Magento is a good solution for a mid-market eCommerce business with a strong need for customization. With Magento, “…everything’s possible, it’s just a question of price, and you can burn through a hefty budget overnight.”
Magento’s customization niche is what allows it to be a great resource for merchants looking to compete with platforms like Amazon (which doesn’t allow for highly customizable product options). But, it’s generally not a good fit for small businesses or startups who should look into WooCommerce, Shopify, 3rd-party marketplaces like Etsy or Amazon, or even contemplate further whether or not they should start selling online. Whichever platform you choose, do your due diligence prior to selecting a platform.
Dan Fugina is a Magento Certified Developer with over 8 years of experience developing on the Magento platform and over 12 years of experience as a PHP developer. He’s personally developed hundreds of extensions, with extensive experience in custom ERP integrations, advanced promotions, upgrades, and mobile optimizations. He’s worked on Magento Enterprise, Professional, and Community editions as well as Magento Go.