Why E-Commerce and CMS Should Be Separated

In 2014, Peter Thiel, the infamous Silicon Valley entrepreneur, published a fascinating book about startups, progress, and the future: Zero to One. Right from the start, the author asks one important contrarian question:

What important truth do very few people agree with you on?

Agreed, the question itself sounds pretty philosophical. But its answers are good indicators of how close a business is from true innovation (or to finding “secrets”, like Thiel calls them).

We recently asked ourselves this question as a startup. One answer we came up with is one of the principles at the core of our product:

E-commerce and CMS shouldn’t be considered as a whole. They should be kept separated. In simpler terms: CMS ≠ e-commerce.

Now if you Google a few of this issue’s related keywords and skim through the search results, you’ll realize most people don’t agree with this at all. On the contrary, they’ll advise clients or users to pick their CMS according to it’s e-commerce plugins, or to pick an e-commerce solution that offers a full CMS. Like PrestaShop, Shopify, or Magento for instance.

When did we realize this “truth” of ours?

Let me take you on a short trip down memory lane, before Snipcart was even an idea. As you may already know, we used to be geeks working in an awesome web development shop before our startup days. One day, one of our first clients came up to us with a pretty specific need:

I’d like to start selling stuff on the website you developed for me a few years back. But I don’t want a new website, and I don’t want to spend much on this move.

Normally we would’ve told him we were sorry and we needed to update his old-school, homemade CMS in order to set him up with some neat, modern e-commerce platform. But he was one of the first to trust us with his business back in the days, so we told him we’d figure something out.

One morning, while the team was sharing coffee in our old offices’ kitchen, Charles came into the room and simply said:

Guys, what if we injected the products and cart directly into his source code, using only HTML and JS?

We were skeptical at first. A few days and lines of code after, we were convinced. Eventually, this one-time solution we came up with for our client became a full product. That product became our startup, which became our life (at least a good chunk of it).

Technology independence: a value of freedom and a founding principle

Before we turned Snipcart into a full-fledged product, we had already decided to leverage one specific technical insight: the strong distinction between great CMS and great e-commerce platform requirements. Snipcart was built on that precise foundation.

A few definitions: CMS vs. e-commerce platform

Let’s take it back to the basics, shall we?

What is a CMS?

A CMS is a Content Management System. WordPress, Craft, Drupal, concrete5, Umbraco… there are enough CMSs out there for everybody’s tastes. Their initial purpose? Allow users to manage website content. That’s it. They were a response to all the custom-built websites forcing customers to contact their service provider every time they wanted to change something on their site. Fast-forward a few years: non-technical users are now completely autonomous when it comes to web content edition. CMSs are all over the web.

So what are they, today? They are a tool for content, brand and marketing. They allow easy content management and flexibility. Depending on the CMS, many will offer full design control, pre-made pages and architecture templates, and more. In other words, they allow brand and content management. They are a marketing tool in today’s online business world.

What is an e-commerce platform?

An e-commerce platform’s number one purpose is to allow you to sell online. People typically use it to sell products, process payments and manage orders/payments. In that sense, it’s an operational tool to manage (and process) your sales. A management application. This administrative tool is there to handle sales processing and required back-office management. Not marketing and visuals.

Gotta keep ‘em separated (here's why)

Remember the contrarian question we (Peter Thiel) asked at the beginning? It’s also an indicator of how close you might be from triggering a paradigm shift. And breaking away from paradigms often involves a troubled period where your ideas or thoughts are considered too bold, unreasonable, or worse, false. But if time has proven one thing, it’s that something isn’t true or good just because everybody’s doing it. So here’s what we think:

Administration should never mess with the marketing and vice-versa.

We often repeat that we’re in a best of breed model technology-wise. This should reflect in the tools we choose for the various tasks we need to accomplish.

The CMS is there to manage “public” content; the e-commerce platform, on the other hand, only has its shopping cart as a public extension of its whole system. The real strength of the administrative/operational tool that is an e-commerce platform resides in all it’s amazing back-office features.

The static web development trend that’s been catching on recently is a good reflexion/extension of this independent relationship. Many cool static sites are living proofs that e-commerce doesn’t need a CMS.

So basically, combining CMS and e-commerce solution leaves us with a merge of two different platforms. It kind of feels like we were back in the 90’s, with jam-packed black box systems. As if no APIs, no webhooks existed and interoperability between systems was a dream. But it’s not the 90’s anymore. The way you display products and design websites shouldn’t dictate the e-commerce “sales” tool you’re using.

So today, when opting for a CMS you love (flexibilty, cool technology, etc.) you might be indirectly restricting your e-commerce options. Why? Because CMS and e-commerce unfortunately come in “all in one packages” most of the times these days. Using WordPress? You’ll stick to Woocommerce or look through dozens of existing plugins. Using Shopify? You’ll be confined to their holistic, closed ecosystem (even though you’d prefer the features, community and openness of another CMS platform).

How we see things at Snipcart

Like we said earlier, we believe CMS and e-commerce platforms involve different use cases. For this reason, we believe they should be independent from one another. We believe today’s technology allows us to easily integrate them with one another without the need for a turnkey, black box solution.

That’s exactly why Snipcart in itself is two-fold:

  1. A JS/HTML shopping cart you can plug into any website and customize at will.
  2. A neat back-office dashboard to manage your online shop.

Whatever CMS you like, whatever technology you love, Snipcart will allow you to stay independent when it comes to using your favorite marketing tools.

Whether you agree or not with us, we’d love to hear your thoughts on the subject. Feel free to hit the comments, friend. And if you’ve enjoyed the post, go ahead and share it on Twitter.

Cheers! :)

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