Recently I’ve been working on a few different projects, mostly web-related stuff. The same question came up a few times: do I try and solve problem X myself, or do I use a solution that someone else wrote?
Not long ago, I would have leaned towards writing my own solution. The stuff I was working on – creating a web form, for example – is stuff that I could crank out myself in 30 minutes or so. I learned to program by doing stuff “the hard way”, that is, trying to do everything myself, and it’s a hard habit to break. I’ve got a masters degree in computer science, I’ve worked as a professional web developer, and I use Wufoo to create a web form for me? It feels like I’m a trainee chef eating at McDonalds.
But, I don’t know, programming little fiddly things doesn’t really excite me any more. And now that I have a million things to deal with, I can see the value in an off-the-shelf solution that “just works” instead of something that might require constant maintenance and tweaking. Anyway, here’s the three problems I had and the apps that solved them.
The first problem I had was finding a way to auto-share posts from this blog on Facebook and Twitter. I first looked for a WordPress plugin that would do the job. There didn’t seem to be any that would do exactly what I wanted with no fuss. Then I remembered ifttt, which basically lets you chain events on different web services. I’d previously seen this marketed as a tool for non-programmers, but it turned out to be useful for me as well. With about 5 minutes work I’d set things up so any new WordPress posts were automatically Buffered and Facebook shared. This might sound small, but it removes a lot of friction to promoting this blog (not having to think “is this post worth sharing?” every single time).
The second problem was creating a form for my new mini project, Warwick Meme Posters. I decided to do the whole lean startup thing and check if there was any demand before I went to the printers, so I decided to make a “pre-order” form and see if people would actually fork over their hard-earned. I could have written one myself. I could have used Google Spreadsheets, which I’ve used for this purpose before. Instead I decided to try out Wufoo, mainly to see how it stacked up. I found out they’ve made a much nicer product than Google, and included a bunch of features I didn’t know I needed – analytics, nicer design, and so on. One drawback of Wufoo over Google Spreadsheets is that Wufoo is a freemium product, so you need to pay if you get over 100 entries.
The third problem I had was finding a way to send out mass emails. I needed to email all the Warwick Meme Posters customers, but found myself getting spam filtered. I decided to try out MailChimp. This app is awesome, and basically helped me get set up with a proper, professional level email marketing campaign with about one hours work. (One issue here was that I didn’t need a proper marketing campaign, I just wanted to update 50 customers via email without being rejected by Mr Bayes – so MailChimp was somehwat overkill). Again, it’s a freemium service.
Point of this article? Two things. First, over the last week I’ve gotten an increased appreciation for the freemium model – the “free” part hooks you in, but if the app is helping you make money, it’s easy to work out if a premium upgrade is worthwhile. In both Wufoo and MailChimp’s case, they tier accounts based on how many customers you have, so if you’re a growing business it’s likely you’ll become a paying customer. I can certainly see myself paying for MailChimp in future, and maybe Wufoo too. Second, even if you know how to program, there might be value in using someone else’s solution. In the long run I think it can save you a lot of time, both in upfront programming and long-term maintenance.