The build vs buy dilemma.

By Filippo Conforti on January 16, 2024

So you want to change your ecommerce solution because it doesn't give you the flexibility you need, or because its technical debt has become so heavy that time to market has become unacceptably slow. That's great. But how should you do it? Is it time to buy a new platform? Or are you better off building your own software?

We've all faced this dilemma when evaluating our technology strategy. Obviously, the answer depends on a lot of factors, but if I had to summarize my thoughts in a single sentence, I'd say buy your components and build your differentiators. In the end, this is what composable commerce is all about, a way to give this question a proper answer.

That being said, let's dig deeper into the possible alternatives and scenarios that might shift the balance more in favor of builders or buyers. A company's size, for example, is definitely one of the factors that can influence such a decision.

When you're a small business, testing your idea in the market, or finding your product-market fit, an all-in-one platform like Shopify can be your best option. Choose a monolithic solution and adapt your workflows to what the platform offers, accepting the compromises of an opinionated platform in exchange for simplicity and cost-effectiveness. Especially for new products, time to market is everything, so don't overoptimize a business that doesn't exit or isn't at scale yet.

Overengineering and premature optimization can be just as bad as an unscalable solution. Caching and database design follow the same principle. Get started quickly and scale as you go, keeping in mind that you'll eventually need to replatform your solution.

If you're a well-established business, instead, history has taught us that all-in-one solutions that offer flexibility and scalability just don't exist. Everyone would prefer to buy a solution rather than build one if they had enough budget. That is, unless you are a developer.

As developers, we are makers by definition. Technology is very attractive to us and we are very good at underestimating the time and effort it takes to build products instead of buying them. I still remember my boss at Gucci who used to double my budget estimates for developmentā€”and she was always right. Problem is, we tend to be overconfident about our ability to deliver. Sometimes it is also a matter of pride: If they built it, I can build it too! And I can do it better!

In reality, it's not a skillset thing. There's a big difference between a greenfield project and a bigger organization. Large organizations have to deal with technical debt, well-established processes that aren't always well designed but can't be changed, or at least not overnight. This is why building a new solution from scratch may not be the best idea for larger organizations looking for flexibility and sophistication.

Better yet, leverage the ever-emerging API economy, pick your components, connect them as LEGO blocks, and you'll have your beautiful set in no time. Although your competitors might have the same LEGO blocks you do, the best LEGO builds stand out because of the creativity of builders. A composable architecture solves the build vs buy dilemma in a future-proof way. A hybrid approach based on 20 years of ecommerce experience.

The need for composable commerce has always existed. What's changed is the APIs and developer tools that can connect into more sophisticated architectures. The atomic design methodology comes into software development today. Build your organism by buying atoms, composing them into molecules, and taking care of them over time.

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