Software as a Service (SaaS) is a hot topic of conversation. And increasingly WordPress has become involved in this discussion.
Here, we will look at specific reasons why you may want to consider using WordPress to power your SaaS — or perhaps power part of your SaaS. But before we dig in, what on earth does SaaS mean?
Software as a Service (SaaS)
SaaS is a software distribution model whereby software is provided as a service, rather than the more traditional, host-it-yourself software. A SaaS is hosted, maintained, and updated by the provider and, unless free, is typically billed via a subscription model.
A small but important distinction
When talking about WordPress as a SaaS it is common for people to focus their discussion on one perspective. In fact, if you take a step back you will realize that there are actually (at least) two different perspectives. The difference is subtle.
The first perspective is that WordPress itself, is the service. The easiest way in which to visualize this is to understand that the SaaS is a website builder – i.e. hosted WordPress websites. The most obvious example of which is WordPress.com. From this perspective it is likely that the end user is aware that they are using WordPress.
The second perspective is that WordPress is the technology behind the service. This perspective encompasses a much broader variety of SaaS applications, as you are no longer selling WordPress itself, you are selling an entirely different proposition to the end user. An example of this is contentcloudhq.com.
It is quite possible for SaaS applications to blur the lines between these two perspectives — a well-touted example of this being Happytables. Here, the service is a website builder for restaurants, which runs on WordPress — perspective one. However, it goes a step further by implementing an entirely new administration area to provide a more niche and focused solution, moving the customer away from WordPress itself — perspective two.
So, why choose WordPress to power your SaaS?
It goes without saying that WordPress has a vast array of inbuilt functionality, extendability, and adaptability, but this alone is not a reason to use it. While this is all hugely beneficial, let’s look at some specific benefits that WordPress provides.
MVP & Focus
One of the golden acronyms in SaaS circles is MVP; which stands for Minimum Viable Product. MVP is considered the smart way to build and launch a SaaS — build the product to the minimum standard at which it solves the users’ problem, then ship it. Ship it early and gain feedback. Launching with a MVP helps to qualify your idea. Are users interested in your product? Does the problem you’re solving really exist?
WordPress is great for quickly piecing together an early version of your SaaS. Once you’ve outlined a solid plan for your MVP functionality, you can quickly curate themes/plugins/functionality/API hooks to produce that functionality. To an experienced WordPress developer, this could be extremely time efficient.
The key here is that the MVP doesn’t have to be the best piece of development you’ve ever done: its sole purpose it to gain feedback and qualify an idea. Perhaps you use WordPress to produce the MVP version of your SaaS application, and then move onto something completely custom once your ideas have been qualified.
JSON REST API
The WordPress community is going crazy for the JSON REST API, and quite rightly so. This alone could turn WordPress into an extremely viable choice to power a SaaS. Getting data in and out is paramount to a solid SaaS. The JSON REST API offers a powerful, yet relatively simple means to do this.
With the JSON REST API, no longer are you restricted to working inside WordPress, or the WordPress theming system – you are set free to create new clients (to view data) and new admin panels (to manage data). This is appealing to a SaaS – the power of WordPress mixed with the opportunity of a blank canvas to create something truly unique.
The workings of the JSON REST API are a little beyond the scope of this post, but there are some fantastic resources available here on Torque.
In the event that a user wants to stop using a SaaS, or perhaps the SaaS needs to shut down, the major pain point for a user is what to do with, and how to access, their data. Just because the user is leaving does not mean they are of any less value to you — they need to be looked after in the same way that you would look after a new customer.
Building your SaaS on top of WordPress is really helpful in this scenario — nine times out of ten, data will be stored in the wp_posts table. Exporting data in a format that is common and widely used is straightforward. Perhaps you could provide a handy little plugin that creates any custom post types and meta fields, allowing a user to import their data into a vanilla WordPress install.
Of course, data portability is as much of a business decision as it is about being kind and helpful to customers – this should be outlined (and obvious) in your terms of service.
Things to keep in mind
Firstly, you want to avoid WordPress dictating the functionality, look/feel, and usability of your SaaS. It’s very easy to slip into this, and end up in a ‘back to front’ way of working. It’s easy to spot an awesome piece of functionality or plugin and want to introduce it immediately – for the sake of it being awesome. The smarter approach is to outline your functionality and then identify the best WordPress tools available to produce that functionality.
The smarter approach is more focused and could be the difference between launching with an MVP, or your SaaS never seeing the light of day.
Following on from this, sometimes there are better options than WordPress. It really depends on your specific product. With careful planning and consideration, you can take WordPress a long way. But sometimes there are just better ways.
This might sound like a bit of a cop-out, but it highlights a key message: pick the right tools for the job. You should consider the suitability of WordPress for a SaaS on an individual basis. What might work in one scenario, may not work in another scenario.
So how do you know? The best you can do is to limit your risk by solid planning. If, during your planning, it becomes apparent that you are going to make too many concessions with your SaaS in order to accommodate WordPress, it might not be the best choice. Or if you’re having to bend WordPress to its breaking point; you might want to reconsider it.
Experience counts: as with any usage of WordPress, the more you apply it, the more you understand about its limitations. Smart choices will probably come from a few silly choices, but remember; WordPress can do a lot of things, but it can’t do everything.
Tom Still is a UX designer & WordPress developer based in Brighton, England. Passionate about building WordPress based products, business and all things design. Loves a real ale and tweets a lot.