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Article · 19 April 2024

How to protect yourself against website vendor lock-in

Building a new website is exciting, but choosing a vendor to help you do it can be intimidating. Here's what you need to consider to protect yourself.

How to protect yourself against website vendor lock-in

Image credit: Entle x Midjourney

Building a new website is an incredibly exciting prospect, but choosing a vendor to help you do it can be intimidating. If you choose the wrong vendor and you need to switch, there could be a significant switching cost down the line, not to mention the sunk cost of the time, energy, and money spent on the first vendor. In a worst-case scenario, you'll need to start from scratch with a different vendor.

It is understandable, then, that managers and executives tasked with making this choice often fixate on the issue of vendor lock-in as part of their due diligence work. In this article, we show you how to properly contextualise vendor lock-in and how to evaluate and minimise your vendor lock-in risk.

Eliminate the reason you need low vendor lock-in in the first place

Reducing vendor lock-in reduces the bad consequences when things go wrong on your website project. Choosing a vendor to create your website comes with uncertainty and risk. If you make the wrong choice, i.e. you choose a vendor who turns out to be incompetent or unreliable, or the wrong solution, i.e. one which turns out to not be fit for purpose, having low vendor lock-in allows you to switch.

However, if it turns out you made the right choice, vendor lock-in doesn't matter at all, because you won't need to switch.

Instead of focusing on reducing the magnitude of bad consequences if you make the wrong choice, focus on reducing the risk of making the wrong choice in the first place.

Reduce the chance of making the wrong decision rather than reducing the consequences of making the wrong decision

To do this, you need to make sure you have all the right information about the vendor and their solution before you make the choice. Looking at the vendor's past work, seeing product demos, and getting referrals are all important sources of information. However, the best way to get good information is to work with the vendor in a low-risk setting before making your choice.

At Entle, the way we help clients do this is to first run through a strategy process together. This is low-risk for the client, financially and time-wise, and allows them to get to know our approach, our trustworthiness, and the solution we can offer before they make the more consequential decision of working with us to develop their website.

How to reduce your lock-in risk to acceptable levels

Don't settle for commodities

It's important to realise that an exceptional website vendor provides a unique solution, not a commodity.

Commodities are equivalent and interchangeable. For example, whether you buy an orange from Supermarket A or Supermarket B, it's still an orange. There may be a slight difference in quality or taste, but if the difference is small enough, the products are essentially equivalent, and choosing between them is just a question of price.

A website created by a good website vendor should not be a commodity. If you can get essentially the same product from a different vendor, that is a sign that you are, by definition, buying from an average vendor, not an exceptional vendor.

If you're looking to buy from an exceptional vendor, it follows that you should be comfortable with the fact that aspects of their solution will be unique and not easily found in another vendor's solution. By implication, if you need to switch to a different vendor, it's not useful to ask whether you'll be able to create exactly the same solution with a different vendor. Instead, a better approach is to acknowledge that there will be some compromise if you need to switch, but to focus on whether you can achieve a similar, if diminished solution when moving to a different vendor.

Lock-in, then, is not being unable to get exactly the same solution from a different vendor down the line, but being unable to get a similar, if diminished, solution from a different vendor if you were to switch.

Open technologies are essential, but don't need to be all-encompassing

A good way to minimise your lock-in risk is to choose a vendor who uses open technologies, because by definition, these can be used by other vendors. If you need to switch, there will be a significant level of transferability, i.e. you won't be starting from scratch.

A technology can be considered "open" if any of the following is true:

  1. It is an industry standard, i.e. widely used;
  2. Any experienced, competent senior developer can understand or learn it;
  3. It is open source or, if not, doesn't come with a huge license fee.

Keeping in mind the previous section, if a vendor's entire solution consists of open technologies, and other vendors can deliver exactly the same solution, they are delivering a commodity. For example, a WordPress website with an off-the-shelf theme and plugins and no specific optimisations or customisations, is a commodity: you can get the same solution from thousands of other vendors. Depending on your requirements, this may be fine, but if you're looking for an exceptional vendor, it's a red flag.

If you're looking for an exceptional vendor, then, it's not essential that their entire solution uses open technologies, but that a large enough part of their solution uses open technologies, so that you can achieve a similar, if diminished solution with another vendor.

Look for modularity and composability

A large source of lock-in is if a vendor's solution is "all or nothing", i.e. if the solution is so integrated that you can't swap out parts of it later. By contrast, looking for modularity (the solution consists of individual modules) and composability (modules are combined to produce the result) are valuable ways to reduce lock-in.

As much as we love Apple products, they are a good everyday example of an "all or nothing" hardware solution. Apple's MacBook Pro is famously un-customisable and irreparable at the level of individual components: it's all or nothing. You can't add more memory or a larger solid-state drive later on, you have to decide at the very start, when you're buying the MacBook Pro. And if one of your keyboard's keys stops working, well, it's time for a whole new keyboard, or worse!

If you're looking to minimise lock-in with your website, you should look for modularity and composability in a vendor's solution at the following levels:

  1. Infrastructure: if you switch, can you use services from a different platform, or are you locked into the existing infrastructure;
  2. CMS and front-end: are the CMS and front-end of your website tightly coupled (e.g. a WordPress-managed website running a WordPress theme), or can you swap out the CMS if you want to move to something else? Inversely, if you wanted to have your website's front-end revamped without changing the backend data, can the front-end be updated independently?
  3. Integrations: can you connect new tools and services to the solution, or does that require major redevelopments?

In summary

  1. Work with a vendor in a low-risk setting to gather as much information as you can about them, their approach, and their solution. This reduces the risk of making the wrong choice and thereby reduces the need for low vendor lock-in.
  2. Don't hold out for website solutions that can be replicated perfectly (commodities) by other vendors. Instead, look for a unique solution for which a similar, if diminished alternative can be created by another vendor, if necessary.
  3. Look for open technologies, but again, don't hold out for a solution that is 100% replicable.
  4. Examine how modular and composable a solution is in terms of its infrastructure, CMS and front-end, and integrations.

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