Don’cha Wish I’d Shut Up About CRELoaded?

Some things have gone on behind the scenes. One small improvement has occurred, along with some other troubling things. We take heart from the improvement, worry at the indicators that things are still very much up in the air where the future of this much needed software is concerned.

Some shakeups in leadership. Unknown what the effects will be.

Some forum members reinstated. This is a good thing, and they’ve come back in and are posting without recriminations. A hearty cheer for greatpcs (Jason over at Hoosier Web Design), and discounttools (Jody – sorry don’t know your major business name). I’m sure some others I do not know well enough to know about.

So, it is with great trepidation that I release a report, of sorts, which is a listing of recommendations. I’m releasing this publicly for two reasons:

1. I don’t have the ear of anyone at CRE anymore. This is a way to put this out there so it can be received in whatever spirit they choose to receive it in, or they can reject it outright.

2. I think there are great lessons to be learned about the Open Source world, and about treating your customers well, developing a project, targeting a market, support and service, and cost containment. In presenting my conclusions about what should be done, publicly, I am not just complaining and listing problems. I am giving the other half of the lesson – not just what should NOT be done, but how it might be done better, to overcome both the long term problems of the company, and the newer ones precipitated by a misguided attempt to overcome the earlier ones!

I don’t know all the inside scoop at CRE. But I know what is happening on the outside, and what those things mean must be happening on the inside. All recommendations are based on the problems I see. I’d assume there are other problems under the surface which I cannot address.

You may download the CRELoaded Recommendations PDF HERE.

I don’t expect them to like it. I don’t expect everyone in the CRE user base to applaud what I have to say either. But experience tells me my recommendations are sound, sustainable, and completely achievable, and that implementing them will turn the project around in the way it needs to be in order to not just survive, but to thrive.

I hereby throw it to the wolves.

Note: The opinions expressed in this post and in the attached report are the perceptions of the writer, and should not be interpreted or quoted as fact without corroborrating evidence.

CRELoaded’s Bad Business Example

NOT part of the Recession Survival Series – That will publish later today. Just an important interjection that should not wait.

I thought long and hard before writing this. I dislike categorizing someone else’s decisions as a bad example, but the mounting trail of actions on the part of the new CRE team comes together into some unmistakable patterns. I think an article about this, especially now, is both pertinent, and worth exploring to illustrate some points about business. I apologize for the negativity, but there just isn’t any way to be positive about this because it is SO CLEAR that what is happening is bad for everyone involved, ESPECIALLY the CRE developers. I’ve never seen someone so blatantly shoot themselves in the foot!

I think it is also relevant to point out that when CRE announced the update to 6.3, and its new pricing structure, my first impulse was to say, “Well, there goes that one, my clients will never go for yearly extortion.” (And it is that – no other software company disables part of the software if you do not renew. They withold updates or support, but they do not lock you out of the admin.) But one client said, “Oh, I can go for that.” (she is selling the store so she doesn’t need to worry much about sustainability), so we moved forward with it anyway. I thought I would be open minded about it and see whether the upgrade had value. I have now decided, irrevocably, that CRE will not be a sustainable option for our clients. I cannot, in good conscience, recommend it again unless there are significant changes in both the company policy and behavior, and the software itself. I will explain those reasons in this post.

First, it is important to understand who the target market is. CRELoaded was Open Source software, and always had a free version available. Development was slow, the software was somewhat clunky, but fairly functional. There always remained a high number of bugs. Those who used it did not use it because they loved it, or because it was fabulous – for the most part, except for a few blindly rabid fans, they used it because it was the best of the worst. Cart software tends to be old, clunky, and built on aging frameworks (like CRE), or new, immature, and lacking in important features (it is incredibly complex, so development is very difficult). There is very little middle ground. CRE just happened to have a smidge more ease of use and sustainability than others. But the margin was SLIM.

CRE had a set of longstanding problems, leftover from its OSCommerce roots. OSCommerce is an aging dinosaur, which is even more clunky and awkward than CRE. But CRE retained enough of that to be time consuming and annoying to use in ways it should not have been. Less so than Zen, X-Cart, Cube Cart or some of the other options, but still frustrating to use much of the time.

In spite of that, a gathering of people, all with the thought that at least since it was Open Source, the community could contribute and make it better together, came together and did just that. Many of the major improvements in CRE were contributed by community members. The support base was almost exclusively community contributed. You got help from other users, not from the developers. There is a certain amount of idealism in the Open Source community, people are willing to band together for the common good.

So now, with a paid scheme in front of them, the community feels betrayed. The scheme was sprung on them with no notice, no warning. Purchasers of higher priced versions have no consideration if they have purchased very recently. Too bad, pay again if you want to upgrade. Long time users, who have invested a great deal in the CRE community are now told, pay if you want to keep your store going. If you don’t pay, your store either gets outdated, or if you already have upgraded to the new paid scheme, we’ll lock you out if you don’t KEEP paying. Contributors find that their contributions are now rolled into a package that THEY have to pay for if they want to use!

The developers are crying that they did it to make the software better. But that does not appear to be the case. The new package is mostly window dressing. They also claim they did it to provide better support. But they don’t. In fact, they’ve shut out the best helpers from the forum. They say they have “new documentation”, yet it is sparse, not even current for the new version, and only contains instructions for obvious tasks. The conclusions I draw from this are not very nice, but there is so much evidence, there really is no other conclusion.

You now get a little support when you pay for the software. Complaints on the forums allude to wasteful responses, and burning the support time in clarifications that should have been obvious, instead of getting actual help. Further, since they’ve shut down the people on the forum who can help you there for free, and have driven off many others, the conclusion is that the developers resent the free source of information, and want to confine people to the paid support.

If you think this conclusion is off, consider:

  • The major contributors to the forums have been suspended from the forums. These are the ONLY source of helpful information on trickier issues.
  • The ONLY voice for the company, who ever posts to the forums, has NEVER ONCE actually answered a question, even when the answer had to be fairly simple. NOT ONCE. The answers are always hedgy, they circumvent the actual question, and then lay blame for the criticism of the project on “unprofessional” behavior of the criticizers. If you express dissatisfaction, apparently, you are unprofessional!

At the same time they have done these things, they have embedded yet MORE advertising in their software. Not only do you have to pay a yearly fee with the promise of penalty if you do not, but they have placed advertising through the whole software interface. It shows up during the install (in a way that is not obvious that it is not a required informational field instead of a request for info from a service), template ads embedded in the design area, active ads at the top of the admin.

Again, we might accept these things if there were significant improvements. But I’m not seeing that either.

The longstanding problems are still there. A little bit of eye candy (and not even GOOD eye candy, the design improvements are pretty lame) in the backend, a few more modules bundled in, and one or two tweaks which did not make things easier, only changed how it is done. No real VALUE added to the package for the average user.

Consider… Leftover from OSCommerce, the software has had a major issue in wasting time. It does this in two ways:

1. Database queries are very wasteful, and SO SLOW, that you spend an average of 15 to 45 seconds just waiting for an admin page to load. 5-10 seconds is considered normal to long for page load times. Cumulatively, this adds up, and it drives people off from the frontend also, costing in customers.

2. The interface is clunky, requiring 2-3 actions to do things that should take 1. To configure the store, I am confronted with more than a dozen links. Each of these leads to a page of config options – each page has probably 20-30 options on it. In order to edit any of those, I must first select it… and wait for the page to load. Then I have to hit an Edit button… and wait for a page to load. I can then edit the item, and… wait for the page to load again. I am spending between 1 and 2 full minutes on EACH OPTION. That means it takes me 15 to 30 minutes to edit each set of options instead of the 2 minutes it should take. All in all, HOURS of wasted time for each install and setup. This should be done in a single screen. Load the list of options, and edit fields already visible, so all options can be edited at once. A single form for each set of options, instead of hundreds of fiddly separate forms. There is no reason why it should not have been done LONG AGO. I just don’t have that kind of time to waste. I’ve used Joomla. I know what config interfaces should be.

The new version has only 2 templates. The old standard, and a new one that is WORSE than the old standard as far as coding methods and editability. It has hard coded images all through it instead of putting them into the stylesheet where they can be more easily controlled. One can only assume that the lack of quality templates, and the lack of templates in general (they reduced from 4 to 2), was to provide an incentive for people to purchase templates instead.

It is abundantly clear that all the “work” they were doing on 6.3 and the delays to release were caused not by the developers slaving night and day to bring new features or improvements, but to embed all the new revenue generation bits and protections into the code. They developed for their greed, and not for the customer need. That is pretty short sighted, because if they’d just made it good, and done some real improvements, people would not be nearly so grumbly about having to pay for it. All that coding time they spent forcing customers to pay for more and more just serves to detract from the value, and tick off the customers. REALLY foolish.

Interestingly, they are running around doing a lot of “image control”, and spending a LOT of time trying to put bandaids on all the negative reviews and comments. This is borne out in their forums and by the fact that they dug out my blog (not by any means a ragingly popular blog), and took the time to comment. Now, not ONE issue has ever been addressed other than by placating and evasive words. Had they done what they knew to be right, and were they confident in what they are doing, they’d be concentrating on fixing problems and hurrying to address issues with actual helpful information. The fact that they don’t do this tells me that they KNOW they are on shaky ground, they know they are being unfair and inconsiderate, and they know that they are also on legally questionable ground (a whole ‘NOTHER story!). Even STARTING down that kind of road is foolish. It tells me they are more concerned with ILLUSION than with REALITY. Always a deadly course for a business. And suggests ulterior motives – questionable ownership, and the possible intent to bleed the company and walk away, or to use it for other less honorable purposes. For any serious business, problem resolution and prevention is ALWAYS more profitable than damage control after the fact.

It is important to realize that a store owner cannot just “move to another cart”, otherwise you cannot quite understand the position that a cart users is put in when a cart moves from free to paid, or worse, to a situation like CRE just did. Each cart has DAYS of work involved in the setup, and often hundreds or thousands of dollars spent to get it the way they needed it. Sometimes custom coding has been done, to get just the right features, and that custom code, design, and config work cannot just be ‘ported to another cart. Most of the time, it must be painstakingly redone. So what is the struggling shop owner to do? This change will cause many to either operate a store that is at risk for security exploit, or to be forced out of business. Yes, it is that serious, especially in the current economic climate.

Now, there is a complete conclusion here. It is a lengthy one, for which I appologize, but it must be explained fully to get the whole import.

First, they deprived people of their agency. They took away the independent options, and are muscling people into a position of HAVING to buy what they did not choose to purchase in the first place.

Second, they have demonstrated over and over that they do not appreciate the help of the community, in fact, they resent it, and want it to go away. There is no other conclusion for the events on the forum.

Third, they will shut out any resources which provide any alternative to purchasing services or enhancements from them. They fear any competition, they have no willingness to develop a spirit of helpfulness.

Fourth, their actions are completely contrary to the community spirit of Open Source. They are driving away the very community that build them, and turning on them in a fairly nasty way.

Fifth, the leadership is talking a lot, but saying absolutely nothing of value. The comments on one of my previous CRE posts are clear evidence of that. Lots of placating words, an effort to manipulate me into accepting blame as the unreasonable bad guy, but no actual addressing of actual issues. There never has been, and one can only assume there is no effort to do so.

Sixth, the software has only ever been good enough to compete as a free offering. If I want bad software, I can get it free anywhere. If I want GOOD software, that is also available free. If I want to actually PAY for poor support, I can get that from ANY company out there! If I want to pay for obsolete OSCommerce underpinnings, I can get LiteCommerce. If I want nightmarish templating, I can get that from X-Cart. If I want unsustainability, I can get that from CubeCart. If I want any of those options for free, the choices are plentiful. Any one of those packages costs less over time than CRE, and is no worse. I refused to pay for them because they had serious problems – and I feel that paid software ought to NOT have the most obvious sustainability problems.

Seventh, they are spending a lot of time on image control, and on policing negative publicity. Time that could be better spent actually addressing the issues. They KNOW they are in trouble, and they know the course they are on is indefensible – otherwise they’d answer effectively, and work on fixing what is wrong.

Eighth, they did this at the beginning of a recession! People are looking at CUTTING BACK, not adding on expenses. BAD TIMING!

Ninth, the combination of poor decisions and inconsiderate actions on their part, not to mention just bad business management in their choices to just go around telling people to stop complaining and gee everything will be ok cause we are really nice people after all instead of actually addressing issues in an open and helpful manner, combined with an unsustainable payment model, means that they cannot stay in business long under the current structure and policy. I am a startup expert. I know what it takes to succeed. They have consistently done everything that would get in the way of long term momentum, and they are currently driving off their most loyal customers – those that were responsible for bringing them the most business. The only customers left are those who feel they have no choice. That is a poor base, they’ll eventually find other options.

I think the company cannot survive more than another year, perhaps two at the outset if they continue as they are. That is a well-considered opinion there, and one that I feel strongly. This is, perhaps, the primary reason I will no longer recommend it as a viable and sustainable option for my clients. The company is not stable enough to ensure that the software will go forward in growth with my clients. It is too likely to fold and simply disappear. I won’t advise that my clients invest in something so shaky.

I’ve advised that my clients get behind new projects a lot. We’ve invested our time and support behind MANY young projects, and many Open Source projects. This one, we can’t. It lacks the two most important elements in Open Source, and brings with it baggage and a developing track record that virtually guarantees their failure.

For the record, the two most important factors in Open Source, to ensure sustainability, security, and growth, are:

1. An active and responsive developer community. Theirs is obviously not responsive, and their activity is concentrated more on developing more forced revenue streams than on delivering value to the users.

2. An active user community. It is drying up so fast that only a few die hard hopefuls are left, and some ignorant newbies who did not know what they were coming into.

So the whole point here is, in those points above, CRELoaded has given us an admirable roadmap of what NOT to do if you want to stay in business. If their actions were carefully calculated to drive off their customers and go down in an unspectacular poof of electrons, they have chosen exactly the course to ensure that it happens.

Take a lesson from them:

1. Understand your target market, and put their needs first.

2. Base your revenue generation on the choices and goodwill of your customer base.

3. Give good value at every point possible.

4. Cultivate a spirit of helpfulness.

All four are things they have failed to do, and which can make or break a business. DO those four things, and you can succeed and compete even against big business. Fail to do those things and you’ll crash, no matter WHAT your business size.

So long CRE… been nice knowing you, but I don’t think I’ll be there for the funeral.

Note: The opinions expressed in this post are the perceptions of the writer, and should not be interpreted or quoted as fact without corroborrating evidence.

Grow a Garden!

Gardening doesn't have to be that hard! No matter where you live, no matter how difficult your circumstances, you CAN grow a successful garden.

Life from the Garden: Grow Your Own Food Anywhere Practical and low cost options for container gardening, sprouting, small yards, edible landscaping, winter gardening, shady yards, and help for people who are getting started too late. Plenty of tips to simplify, save on work and expense.