Our own approach to outsourcing software (or, Sticking to what you're good at)

We recently posited that it makes a lot of sense for small schools to outsource IT-intensive assets like their information systems. We think so not just because our service lets you do that, but because it really does save a small college a lot of time, money, and software migraines. And besides, colleges exist to educate, not build software. Small organizations—colleges and software companies, for instance—should stick to their core competencies. It's a key part of embracing constraints.

At Populi, our core competency is providing college management software as a service. We do one thing (though, that one thing does a lot of different things), and it would be foolish to spread ourselves thin designing other software or maintaining other services.

We know this firsthand. Back in the emsi days, a programmer built the first version of the Populi help system. It consisted simply of a custom search that scanned a hand-coded, wiki-style knowledge base.

This worked okay... for a little while. The search did only one thing—it searched—and it still required our maintenance. And writing in a wiki knowledge base was about as much fun as getting caned with a bamboo rod.

More importantly, when Populi got going as an independent company, we knew a lot more about our customer support needs. We needed not just a searchable knowledge base, but also a way to efficiently channel support requests, embed training videos, get support metrics—and make support comprehensible to our users.

Now, we could have devoted one of our developers to expanding our custom search to do these other tasks. But that would have been to the considerable detriment of Populi itself. So, jettisoning the custom approach, we signed up with Zendesk. While Zendesk costs money—money we watch go out the door every month—those are dollars well-spent:

  • We don't have to divert people, time, and money away from Populi to build a support system.
  • Zendesk has a great API, so it integrates seamlessly with Populi—better, even, than our in-house custom search did.
  • Our customers get access to a great support tool—we believe Zendesk enhances the service we offer and helps us make good on some of our core company values.
  • Zendesk provides updates and support for their software, helping us improve what we offer our customers with zero effort on our part.

We've also outsourced* our project management and related tasks to the folks at 37signals, our accounting to Xero, and our email to Google Apps. While none of these are customer-facing like Zendesk, they nevertheless help Populi run a lot more smoothly, which frees us up to do what we need to do. It's safe to say that we pretty much can't live without them.

Sometimes, however, we find ourselves going in-house after using other software. For instance, we once used Freshbooks for invoicing, but now we route our customers to our in-Populi payment system. Now, Freshbooks is a great product,** and it really fit the bill for a time. But the same things that drove us to outsource other things—reduced cost and a better experience for our customers—drove us, in this case, to roll our own:

  • We were asking our customers to use Populi for their work, to view an invoice in Freshbooks, and make payment by yet some other means. This needed streamlining.
  • We couldn't offer automatic payments—something that's expected of web-based software.
  • We spent too much time manually creating invoices and troubleshooting problems; our new system cuts down on that, for instance, by showing you which students you were charged for.
  • There was too much room for manual error; for instance, we had to re-enter invoice amounts into our online banking every month in order to do ACH drafts.
  • The guts of the system were already there when we added online payments. It didn't take a lot of work to turn that into our own invoicing-and-payment system.

This post is subtitled, "Sticking to what you're good at"—both our use of Zendesk and our move away from Freshbooks were both done with this in mind. Zendesk makes Populi better by making it super-simple for our customers to get support. Scooting in-house for invoicing helped us simplify our customers' bill-paying experience, and gave us another opportunity to improve what we do.

In other words, we certainly don't preach outsourcing for outsourcing's sake. Outsource when it makes sense to—and, as we've already said, we think it makes sense for small schools to outsource their information systems (to us, hopefully!).

* Lemme just get this out of the way: when we say "outsourcing", we hope you know that we'll NEVER outsource development or support. Put another way, never outsource your core competencies!

** Our own Mark Ackerman says that Freshbooks "is nearly flawless."