Best software for your own community site - DIY vs Scripts vs SaaS.

What is the most resilient parasite? Bacteria? A virus? An intestinal worm? An idea. Resilient... highly contagious. Once an idea has taken hold of the brain it's almost impossible to eradicate. An idea that is fully formed - fully understood - that sticks; right in there somewhere.

So, you've got yourself an idea? And it so happens that it includes launching your own community site, right?

Well, you've come to the right guy. :)

Community Software 101

In 2016 (almost 2017 now) we still don't have flying cars, but we do have plenty of ways to create "your own online community".

  • Single-click services that let you launch a vanilla site, hosted by the software provider. Some will let you use your own domain and customise things a bit. We shall call them Community SaaS.

  • Off-the-shelf community software platforms, typically open-source, self-hosted or managed, with various templates, plugins and integrations. They'd be Community Scripts.

  • And you always have the option to use a general web-development framework and make your own software. Let's name this idea a DIY Community Software.

Community Software as a Service

Whether you'd go for something as simple as Facebook Groups or more exotic like Muut or overpriced like Hoop.la, the idea is the same - it's easy to start, easy to maintain, but...

  • Multi-tenanted servers and one-solution-fits-all approach will alway mean that you can't fully customise the site. So, you can't build a unique experience.

  • Often you don't own and can't export your site data, profiles and social graphs.

  • Monetization is either not available or limited.

  • You can't sell the site in the future, due to all of the limits.

  • You're at mercy of some other business and people behind it.

On the other hand...

  • It's often cheaper to start.

  • Bugs happen less often.

  • You get more sleep.

Community Scripts

Another popular option is a downloadable web-platform that you host on your own web-server. These come in all shapes - free, paid, freemium, open-source, PHP, ASP, Perl, modular, shitty, cool, buggy, reliable, simple, powerful, you name it. So, experiences vary. Our Dolphin software is one of the most popular "all-in-one" community platforms along with Socialengine, Buddypress and Elgg. Some caveats...

  • There is always a learning curve. You'll need to spend a few months with the platform to "get it".

  • Support can be limited. Your money will likely define a lot, but not so much if you just pay everything upfront.

  • Staying on top of version updates is very important for security. This may hinder your customisation freedom somewhat.

  • Most community scripts can't handle large-scale networks, don't support external storage, won't work on clustered server setups and have bloated UI (because demo looks more convincing that way).

However...

  • If you choose the right script, keep it close to stock setup, update regularly, pay monthly support fee and deal with reputable integration vendors, you may well have a working niche community site.

  • Playing with downloadable scripts is a great way to learn everything works.

  • You can make the site look like it's working well enough to impress early stage investors.

  • If it gains traction you would have freedom of choice - rebuild, improve, migrate, sell, keep growing. You're in control.

  • If you don't do binge-shopping for extra plugins the cost can be close to a SaaS solution, or even less.

Do It Yourself (aka "break the piggy")

If your nephew knows a bit of PHP you might think that DIY route is an option. Well, it is, but if you want to build anything that would be better than an off-the-shelf script, be prepared to pay and sweat. A lot.

  • Budget around $2m for development. You'd need a Project Manager, Software Engineer, a few coders, testers, editor, UX designer and support techs.

  • At least 1 year before MVP and another year before the site is stable.

  • Things will go wrong.

  • Ideas and priorities will change.

  • By the time you're ready to launch a few similar sites based on cheap scripts will come up and cloud your go-to-market strategy.

Not fun, but...

  • You would have a purpose-built software and massive body of experience and knowledge.

  • You can spend another $2m + 2 years to "upgrade" your software to a platform and start selling it. Join the club.