An Article

Picking a SaaS Product is Tougher Than Ever

Nick Walsh By Nick Walsh // 12.18.2023

In the market for an ecommerce platform or a payment processor? Wondering which you need in the first place? Neck deep in CRMs, CMSs, APIs, and other three-letter initialisms? You’re in good company.

Apps these days (kids these days) are pretty complex, mostly on purpose. They do more. And, they rely on tools that are also complex and do more. Subsequently, the buy half of build versus buy is harder than ever to sort out.

Third-party products are wonderful, necessary, and tougher to choose from every time you try. Let’s take a look at the customer’s uphill climb.

Modern Software Leans on Third Parties

Custom applications are rarely wholly unique, self-contained volumes of code. There are really big features — like the aforementioned CRMs, CMSs, payment processors, and so on — that (almost) never make sense to build from scratch. Industry leaders have used millions of dollars (or more), thousands of employees (or more), and years to reach the peak. It’s much easier to pay a subscription fee.

With that, we come to our first hurdle: the sheer number of options. With each search, you’ll find:

  • A handful of household names that try to do everything for everyone
  • Some smaller players that focus on an opinionated set of features
  • Nimble newcomers that aren’t quite there yet, but make exciting promises

It’s all best visualized, perhaps, by those Gartner Magic Quadrants that pop up everywhere. Rinse and repeat for every tool you need. Year over year, more of ‘em are necessary to match user experience and developer experience expectations. (Developer experience expectations is neither easy to say nor a good band name.)

Lots of tools, lots of options. Now we’ll delve into the sifting part.

Pricing Apples and Oranges

The easiest go/no-go question should be “how much does it cost?” Should be. As you can probably guess, there’s a murky quality to our first comparison metric.

What’s Meaningfully Measured?

Right away, you’ll notice that we’re not comparing apples. Depending on the tool, cost may be tied to:

  • The number of users (your customers) in there
  • The number of admin users or licenses needed
  • A percentage of each transaction
  • A fee per transaction
  • Usage, as in storage space, bandwidth, or compute time
  • A flat fee per month, or year, or for lifetime access
  • A set-up fee and integration assistance
  • Support, or different tiers of support

And so on. Step #1 is comparing the field to your use case. If the right third-party solution meters the wrong thing, it’s the wrong choice.

Call for Pricing

The dreaded ambiguity of “call for pricing.” High-touch, flexible products often opt for humans to chat with humans, leaving you stuck:

  • Spending extra time on calls and follow-ups
  • Wondering if you’ve settled on or negotiated the “best deal”
  • Sorting through more choices, if the proposal has options

Sales teams are happy to help, and can’t be avoided when a deal hits a requisite level of complexity. You’ll just lament how quickly the research time adds up.

Multi-Year Commitments

Those “call for pricing” products are also investing time in the sale, and they’ll seek to recoup with a multi-year contract. It’s the toughest decision point yet: Are you ready to hitch your application to a tool (before it’s integrated) for 3+ years?

We’ll round out the pricing conversation with a test of foresight: Is the best pricing option today still the best if you grow?

Matrices of Software Features

Once we’ve settled the cost question(s), it’s time to really get in the weeds. Which suite of features best matches your idea? Will that continue to be the case if you hit your goals?

The “How” Behind Every Capability

Product demos, videos, and sites paint a rosy picture — as they should — but SaaS research has to peel away the marketing gloss. If we need a payment processor, which of Stripe’s 20+ products are vital? Are they similar to Square’s 20+ offerings?

Most of your scrutiny will focus on the “how” of all of these features, with examples like:

  • Additional administrative users can be added, but can their access be limited to certain areas of the application? Will they be able to see and/or change everything?
  • If an order is fulfilled in stages, can the payment be captured in stages too?
  • Are there secure options to handle checkout within our custom app, or will we need to send customers to a different page?

For all of those caveats, asterisks, and slightly-less-than-ideal implementations, you’ll have to decide if “their way” is something you can tolerate.

Can We Live Without the Stuff That’s Missing?

Third-parties will rarely check every box on your list. There’ll be a collection of missing features that need attention: Can you live without them? Do they need to be achieved in a different way? Can they be achieved in a different way?

The Sales Cycle

Just like our “call for pricing” woes, the sales cycle has a role to play with features, too. Honing in on the how and confirming what’s missing usually takes meetings, homework, and follow-up.

These products are ecosystems in their own right. Knowing the details and limits of every capability — and the stuff on the roadmap — usually requires more than one specialist. That’s all to say that research here (as with cost) takes a series of conversations.

Developing Developers

Onto the implementation team, where the developers have a new tool to play with. Will they resent it, coexist, or thrive?

Documentation Status

We’ll invoke Stripe one more time, highlighting just how amazing their documentation is

It’s a mixed bag out there. Developers are going to turn to the docs, and their accuracy, completeness, and thoroughness make all the difference. Errors have an impact. Best case is a momentary annoyance; worst case is a difficult-to-track production issue.

A New Ecosystem to Discover

As mentioned before, big products are ecosystems unto themselves. Part of the discovery process will see the team seek out:

  • Community. Discussions, code samples, best practices — developers are drawn to their own kind, and aim to learn from folks who’ve been there.
  • Add-ons. The good news: If the tool has its own marketplace for plugins and add-ons, some of those missing features could be fixed. The bad news: You’ll also need to investigate each for cost, capabilities, etc.
  • The roadmap. What changes are coming to the product? Will they break stuff?

Ongoing Support and Feedback

If there’s trouble, or if the community can’t help, who do we talk to? How quickly are they obligated to get back with us?

Third-parties carry all sorts of support options, from a 24/7 phone line to direct implementation assistance. It’s (another) tiered cost to consider against the relative importance to your application when things go wrong.

The Right Expertise

The right tool and your favorite developer may not fit together. Whether it’s a domain or programming language mismatch, you’ll have to decide:

  • If you’re willing to limit third-party options to your team’s specializations; or
  • If you’re set to find additional talent for a given tool

If you’re not in the mood to hire or find outside vendors, the pool of products to choose from may narrow pretty fast.

Tips for Your Next System Selection

As you’ve probably experienced firsthand or gleaned from all the stuff in this article, picking third parties is a chore. Companies specialize in it, and the process is as varied as it is long — longer than we have space for here. Here are a few quick hits for your next third-party search:

  • Tap your network. Word of mouth is still king, especially for decisions this big.
  • Pros and cons. A good ol’ fashioned list of pros and cons really helps to visualize the situation, especially in a team setting.
  • Know your must-haves. Document the non-negotiables before you start your research — you’ll be able to rapidly disqualify products that don’t meet the need.
  • Rank the rest. There’ll be plenty of nice-to-have features to consider; if you have a rough idea of their priority, it’ll help you score third-party options.
  • Be specific. Sales teams can be a bit vague with how features work, so you’ll want detailed and direct questions.
  • Keep it in writing. New products are willing to be flexible with terms, but those agreements should be firmer than a handshake.
  • Research crises. Every tool has downtime and unexpected issues — the differentiator is how the company handles them. Take a look at the communication and resolution of past issues before, during, and after they happened.

Making Big, Impactful, Imperfect Choices

If this all seems like a lot, you aren’t alone. We’ve spent more time helping with system selection this year than ever before. As far as parting notes go: document everything, and make sure you’re setting aside ample time for research.

It’s really, really painful to find a disqualifying trait after weeks of calls, conversations, and proposals. Seek the non-negotiables as quickly as possible.

Next Up

Hard-Won Wrong Opinions on Software

Nick Walsh By Nick Walsh // 11.8.2023

In software development, opinions and preferences are plenty. Learn why reevaluation is the key to success and which “truths” may need unlearning.