A pivotal early decision is made when you make the choice between using a complete, integrated business platform versus using several single-point solutions wired together with APIs.
Too often, new entrepreneurs will choose the latter option without realizing that a decision is being made at all. Typically, they’ll start with a website builder like WordPress or SquareSpace. Then they realize they’ll need to start capturing and sending emails, so they get an email service like Mailchimp or Constant Contact. Then they want to sell something, so they pick up a shopping cart like WooCommerce or Shopify. Pretty soon, they need to get organized and decide to upgrade to a CRM system, so they pick up… something.
And on and on it goes. They’ve unconsciously chosen the ‘many single-point solutions’ option, for better or worse.
At some point, though, the frustration builds. So many log-ins, so many integrations, so many monthly bills, and so many challenges.
Soon, they begin to consider tossing it all and moving to a more robust platform solution (Yes, like Ontraport.) So they start asking around in their communities about possible options.
It’s right around here that they discover that many entrepreneurs have strong opinions on the subject and that the entrepreneurial world can be neatly divided between those who extoll the virtues of using an integrated platform and those who insist on the superiority of their collection of single-point solutions.
Obviously, at Ontraport, we come down pretty clearly on the side of integrated platforms. It turns out that pretty much all larger businesses have also discovered the many benefits of keeping their data and tools under one roof, but many entrepreneurs remain steadfast in their belief that single-point solutions are the future for small business technology.
In this article, I’ll explain why we think that’s dead wrong.
The argument for single-point solutions.
The argument presented by the point-solution crowd seems like a reasonable one:
- Single-point solution providers can remain laser-focused on excelling in their category and building more features. No all-in-one platform provider will be able to compete with the 5 or 7 point solutions that they aim to replace. Because of this, entrepreneurs will choose single- point solutions which should have better features and will thus give them a small edge in conversion rates. Those incremental conversion rates add up to revenue increases far in excess of the cost of those various tools.
- Since individual single-point solutions don’t have as many features as an all-in-one platform, they’re simpler to understand, set up and use.
- It is claimed that the radical proliferation of single-point solutions in recent years proves that they are the answer to the challenge that technology poses for entrepreneurs. In fact, creating a good integrated platform isn’t even possible.
- Finally, they’ll argue, single-point solutions are cheaper. Why spend the extra dough?
There are several problems with these arguments, though, so let’s take them one-by-one:
Entrepreneurs need problems solved, not more tools.
At Ontraport, we’ve spent ten years working with thousands of entrepreneurs all over the globe. That experience has taught us a lot, and one of those things is that most entrepreneurs didn’t get into business because they love messing around with technology all day.
While any categorization of a group as large and diverse as ‘entrepreneurs’ will always fall short of complete accuracy, our experience is that there are two kinds of entrepreneurs:
- Tech geeks
- Everyone else
We appreciate tech geeks a lot. We are tech geeks ourselves, and we have a whole lot of clients who are tech geeks.
Tech geeks love marketing technology. They love nothing more than to spend their time trying out a new tool that enables some new whiz-bang marketing trick. The more options the better. They want that order button to appear on the page, right below their video, after exactly 437 seconds (but only if the visitor has been on the page twice before and at least once on their phone, while at home eating nachos) and they will find the tool to make it happen, or code it up themselves if they have to.
Tech geeks like Ontraport because there’s almost nothing you can’t do with the included tools and, if those don’t cut it, there are dozens of integrated point solutions and a set of robust APIs that truly make any marketing tactic possible. We have a long and cozy history with marketing-tech geeks around the world.
But, despite how the world might look to those of us immersed in marketing technology all day and night, tech geeks actually represent a very small portion of the entrepreneurial community.
The reality is that the vast majority of entrepreneurs got into business not because they love geeking out on landing page conversion or other web-marketing technologies, but because they love what they do, are good at it, and are out to improve the lives of their clients by making a real difference and doing great work for them.
To most entrepreneurs, technology is a hurdle to overcome, not a fun hobby.
Yes, building a business today means getting online, and getting online means learning some tools. There are some basics that need to be handled like how to get a website online, how to follow up with leads, how to deal with email marketing, how to take orders online, and so on.
It doesn’t mean, though, that you must become an expert-level marketing tech guru who knows and uses a bag-full of the most cutting-edge technologies available.
But, that’s what the many technology providers want you to believe.
Entrepreneurship is not all about the technology.
If you ask any single-point solution provider what the secret to business success is, they’ll tell you the story of how their tool unlocks the ultimate hidden power, without which you are doomed to be beaten by their other (smarter, insider, early-adopter) clients.
In fact, the fever for high-end marketing tactics runs so hot in the geek crowd that I was recently banned from a Facebook group for suggesting that one participant’s time might be better spent on things other than figuring out how to display a different form on his site to each visitor depending on that visitor’s purchase history.
It may sound odd coming from the CEO of an industry-leading marketing and business automation software company, and maybe it’s risky for me to say so, but in my experience success is created most often not by tech-tricks, but by doing really well with the basics.
- Is your product or service the best it can be? Are you providing the most value?
- Do you have a compelling lead-conversion offer in place?
- Do you have a web page for each marketing campaign that incorporates well-known best practices for page conversion?
- Are you following up with your leads over time, automatically, to position your company as the leader, ensure you handle objections, and stay top of mind?
- If you’re taking payments online, is that process simple, streamlined, and secure?
- Are you using best practices with your email marketing to ensure high delivery rates?
- Are you split-testing your email and web-page copy to see what works best?
- Do you ensure to systematically provide an ultra-high-quality new client experience, to make sure they get the most from your product or service and to generate word-of-mouth referrals?
Too often, these simple systems are overlooked in favor of some hot marketing strategy of the day. However, it’s my experience that ensuring you’ve got the fundamentals in place will ALWAYS make a far bigger difference to your bottom line than some new feature.
While single-point solution providers will always continue to add on endless bells and whistles in an effort to differentiate themselves from their competitors, that doesn’t mean you need those bells and whistles to succeed.
Can those features make a difference? Sure, they definitely sometimes can. But the vast majority of businesses we encounter on a daily basis would do much better by ensuring their fundamentals are in place.
It’s true that once your business is doing high volume, and you’ve optimized every part of your conversion process and client experience, then little improvements at each stage of your customer lifecycle can mean big bucks, and Ontraport makes that optimization process possible. But that doesn’t describe most entrepreneurs who need to focus on getting up and running quickly with some high-quality basics for lead capture, lead management, and order processing.
Integrated platforms are better.
The providers and promoters of single- point solutions have a primary argument which is this: Because they can focus on one feature, they’ll inevitably be better at it than anyone who takes on more.
However, the world is full of extraordinary examples of the opposite being true.
The smartphone, to take the most obvious example, is not better than the best camera. It’s also not a better computer. It’s not a better messaging device. It’s not a better mapping device. It’s not a better gaming device. It’s not a better wifi hotspot. It’s not a better radio or clock or calculator. Heck, it’s not even a better phone.
But for almost everyone, the smartphone is a better choice than having the best, most cutting-edge devices in each category. The vast majority of people don’t need a Nikon DSLR. And they don’t need a scientific calculator. What they need is to get the basics done well. And Apple and other smartphone makers have done the basics so well that they’ve transformed the world.
Today, for the first time ever, everyone you know carries a phone in their pocket at all times. Nikon could never have created a camera so great that two billion people (a quarter of the people on Earth, and projected to be six billion by 2020) would buy one and walk around with it in their pockets at all times.
The same is true in software.
It’s virtually impossible to imagine a world where everyone signed up for an online private-messaging service, a photo sharing service, a publishing service, and a news feed, but Facebook rolled it all into one, and now billions of people are there.
It’s our strong belief that the future of small business technology will follow that pattern. Entrepreneurs will not be required to research, select and buy a web builder and an email tool and a CRM system and a payment system and then figure out how to use each, and how to string them together and make them work right, and then spend their time logging in to these five separate systems all day long.
Instead, one platform will emerge as the leader, just as Salesforce has done in the enterprise market, and single-point solution providers will need to adjust their business models to focus on providing add-on services to clients of the platform leader. That will happen because platforms are a true solution for the problems faced by the vast majority of entrepreneurs, instead of a short-term fix that will simply need replacing again and again over time.
The advantages of an integrated system are far too large to ignore:
- You only need to research, buy, install, learn, and train your team on one tool.
- Having all your customer data in one system allows for a level of personalization and automation that is simply unachievable with an array of point solutions.
- Having a complete record of all interactions with each contact and customer that touches your company gives you information and insight that’s otherwise unavailable.
- Having one team to call when you need support saves endless hours and headache.
- There are no ‘weak-links’ in your system, which are rife when integrating multiple tools via APIs.
- And much more…
Does that mean single-point solutions will disappear? Certainly not. Just like there’s a great market for Nikon DSLRs for photography enthusiasts, there will always be tools for marketing-tech geeks. You may even have a nice DSLR gathering dust at home, like I do, because the idea of taking professional photos is compelling. But, man.. my phone is just so small, and always there, and it does a great job…
Point solutions are not easier to use.
To our mind, the idea that point solutions are easier to use is a bit silly.
Which is easier to use: your phone camera or your Nikon DSLR? The phone camera of course, which is built into your pocket-platform.
“Easy to use” is a function of design, not a function of feature-richness (or lack thereof). There are point-solutions that are mind-numbingly obtuse just as there are solid, full-featured platforms that are straight-forward. And of course, the opposite is true as well.
It’s understandable that some people have a bad taste in their mouths around large platforms. It wasn’t so long ago that legacy providers proudly touted and sold systems that required a parade of engineers and consultants to install, train, and support. Big set-up fees and long contracts that locked clients in were the norm, but now those traditions are archaic.
Today, providers win based on their merits, providing value each day and standing behind their products and services. A bad user experience is a recipe for terrible online reviews and a slow business-death, while being overtaken by competitors who care about delivering quality. That’s true for anyone building software today, not just platform providers.
However, the truth is that platform providers have an advantage in terms of usability.
Whether you like it or not, learning a new piece of software takes a little time. With single-point solutions, every time you add a new tool you have to start the learning process from scratch and figure out how each thing works. And they’re all different.
With a platform, there are typically some core concepts which, once learned, apply around the whole app.
For example, in Ontraport you have to learn how to create a landing page. Like all new tools, it takes a few minutes. The advantage is, however, that once you’ve learned how to create a landing page, you’ve ALSO learned how to create an opt-in form and how to create an email because all three of those things are built using the same editor.
The same is true for reviewing and sorting data. You learn how to do it once in Ontraport, and you’ve learned how to do it everywhere. A list of contacts (which we call a collection) looks and acts just like a list of landing pages, or emails, or users, or transactions, and so on.
Because of this kind of organization, the time you spend learning a new tool in Ontraport is time much better spent because you’ll use it again and again.
All-in-one is not impossible. In fact, it’s easier.
Some proponents of single-point solutions will admit that all-in-one is the dream but will then dismiss it as impossible. “It simply takes too long to build quality software these days to try and compete in five different arenas.”
But, as Nelson Mandela said, “It always seems impossible until it’s done.”
Fortunately, there are a few companies (like Ontraport who started over a decade ago) who have invested extraordinary amounts of time and money into creating real integrated marketing platforms. Salesforce, for example, has completely taken over the enterprise market, and created a $5-billion-a-year business, not by limiting their vision to one feature set, but by creating a true solution for enterprises who know they can’t run their businesses on a kludge of single-point solutions.
While it’s true that having more features does mean having more code to manage over time, it’s not true that the model is less efficient than the single-point solution model. Here’s why:
There are several big projects that a software company has to take on in order to be a viable, scalable, long-term provider for serious entrepreneurs. Some of those include developing infrastructure scalability and redundancy, monitoring and managing security, developing a high-quality code management and release process, dealing with messaging, handling payments, recruiting and training, building a support team, building a sales team, building a marketing team, learning to run an efficient organization, and on and on and on.
That’s not to mention all the traditional overhead a business has to build and maintain like renting office space, buying desks, managing billing and accounting, keeping HR up to snuff, buying insurance and legal services, doing your taxes, etc etc. You know the drill.
All together, these things add up to a massive cost in terms of both time and money.
Unfortunately, each point solution provider has to deal with all that technical and business overhead individually. Each one has to incur the costs, spend the time, learn the lessons, take the risks, and try to build a lasting business. Of course, some are better at all this than others.
For platform providers like Ontraport, however, that’s all already done.
So, for example, in 2015 when Ontraport decided to completely revamp our landing page tools, we didn’t have to go create a new company… we just built a landing page tool on top of our existing platform. In nine months (from initial scribbles on paper to done and out the door) we developed and launched an amazing and extremely competitive new landing page and form builder for our clients.
We were able to do that because so much of the hard work was already done. We already had robust and scalable infrastructure in place. We had security worked out. We had interface components already built, and uptime monitoring and testing suites and databases already in place. We had a support team, a billing team, a marketing team, an accounting team. And on and on.
The idea that being a platform is a drawback simply doesn’t jive with our experience.
If platforms are better, why are there so many single-point solution providers?
The idea that the proliferation of point solutions proves the validity of the point-solution model is simply wrong. What it proves, instead, is that it’s a lot easier to create a single feature than it is to create a complete, robust platform. That is certainly true, and because software is a hot market these days, the number of point-solutions on the market is exploding.
In fact, the Silicon Valley has created a kind of business-religion around the idea of building a ‘MVP’ – or Minimum Viable Product – to see if you can sell it to customers and then iterate from there. It’s a low-risk process for founders and, more importantly, for the investors who back them because they can own lots of ideas cheaply, and then let their very few successes turn into big financial wins.
Unfortunately, that model is not designed to create the best solution for customers. Instead, it’s designed to create profitable businesses for investors. No VC will fund a founder who says, “Hey, I need $5 mil to create a complete solution for entrepreneurs that includes w,x,y and z. I’ll be done in 4 years.”
They won’t fund it because that’s really hard to do, and it takes a lot of time and money to get to a point where you can even find out whether or not the market wants what you’re selling. Instead, they fund the other guy who says, “I need enough for spaghetti and rent for six months while I build the next great single-point solution.” That’s good for the founder and the investor, but not good for consumers.
Point solutions aren’t even cheaper.
If point solutions have one thing going for them, it’s got to be the price. $9 a month just can’t be beat, am I right?
It’s reasonable and responsible to be cost-conscious as an entrepreneur. And it’s true that most serious platforms have a starting cost that’s more than that of a typical point-solution.
But it’s also important to consider the whole picture, because sometimes you really do get what you pay for.
First of all, those little price tags add right up. Once you’ve got five or seven different apps hitting up your credit card each month (which is going to happen) and then add in overages and upgrades, you’re probably right in the ballpark of what a solid platform solution is going to run you, if not much more.
But the real cost to your business isn’t the monthly fee. It’s two other things that entrepreneurs too often undervalue: your time and your speed.
Your time is the most important asset you have in your business, and using it to muck around with APIs and integrations and trying four different apps until you find the one that sort of works with the other apps you’ve got is not effective. If you’ve been through the point-solution nightmare already, you know this from first-hand experience.
The other cost is speed. As a business owner, you need to be able to move from idea to implementation quickly. If you can’t, then great business and marketing ideas end up in the ‘to-do someday’ pile (aka the trash can).
For example, let’s say you want to send a promotion to the segment of your list who have visited your pricing page in the last 30 days but haven’t bought your product and aren’t already talking to your sales team.
If your pricing page visit data is in one system, and your email marketing is in another and your sales team uses a third system… well, you may not be able to pull this off at all. And if you can, it’ll be an all-day data-mining-and-merging-in-excel and importing-into-that-other-app kind of affair.
On the other hand, if you’ve got all that data in one system (like Ontraport), that project will take you about one minute.
The value of having that kind of power and ability to move quickly is hard to overestimate, but there’s no question it’s more than the cost of any of the tools you might be thinking of putting to work in your business.
Platforms are the future.
At the end of the day, technology should serve entrepreneurs and remove hassle from their lives, not add to it.
Large enterprises know that having a single database of everything you know about your customers and prospects enables you to make better decisions, create better experiences, and deliver more relevant, targeted marketing. They’re willing to spend millions of dollars to get those abilities from companies like Salesforce, Netsuite, Oracle, and SAP.
Today, small business owners have the same capabilities available to them at unheard of prices (Ontraport, for example, starts at $79/mo) and can literally start from day one with a system that will power their business for years to come.
Unfortunately, too many entrepreneurs are still learning this lesson the hard way, compelled by the big promises and low prices offered by a tidal wave of coders who put together a feature and sell it as the solution.
But, just a few years ago, entrepreneurs didn’t know what an autoresponder was. Now they do. As a group, we learn and evolve and get better and more sophisticated over time. There’s no doubt that running your business on a complete platform is a more powerful and more efficient option, and every day more entrepreneurs are leaving behind their hacked-together systems and taking advantage of the most powerful tools available.
And they’re spreading the word: Business platforms are the future.