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Scaling SaaS Platforms: Configurability vs Customization

Michael Cassin, VP of Product Management, AppDirect
Michael Cassin, VP of Product Management, <a href='' target='_blank'>AppDirect</a>

Michael Cassin, VP of Product Management, AppDirect

As multi-tenant SaaS platform providers grow, it’s important for them to enhance their feature sets to support more customers with different use cases over time. As they do, it’s almost inevitable that they will need to confront the challenge of how to meet the unique functional requirements of customers in the short-term, while also building generic capabilities for scalable growth over the long-term. This tension between acquiring new business today and building for scale tomorrow is more acute among SaaS platforms who target the enterprise segment.

  There are many factors enterprise customers take into account when evaluating the SaaS platform solutions who are competing for their business 

Enterprise customers have invested heavily over the years in complex businesses and operational support systems that are key to running their companies. They rarely decide to replace those systems overnight to adopt a new provider’s solution. Instead, most enterprises expect technology providers to adapt their solutions to the unique, and often bespoke, environments of the customers they hope to serve.

As a result, SaaS platform providers often struggle with the choice of whether or not to build a feature generically. Meaning, should they build features customers can adopt without additional coding (also known as ‘feature flagging’), or build more targeted customizations to meet the unique needs of a specific customer’s use case? Out of all the factors, time-to-market can be a key consideration in such a decision, since it usually takes more development time and effort to create the generic feature than the customization.

When confronting this scaling conundrum of configurability versus customization in SaaS platform development, below are a few considerations for an enterprise SaaS provider (and its customers) to examine:

Visionary platforms are extensible

The most visionary multi-tenant SaaS architects design their technology with expansion to additional customer use cases and markets in mind from the start. They provide a well- structured set of APIs on top of a service-oriented architecture and, importantly, as much configurable functionality as possible.

Contemplating such ‘extensibility’ from the start, or at least investing in the refactoring work required to add it in later, enables the platform to meet the needs of new customers, while also allowing their existing customers to seamlessly adopt the features they need. This flexibility is important to enterprises, as their own internal technology stacks and related operational processes evolve and become more tightly integrated with the SaaS platform’s solution.

Balance product investments to avoid technical debt

The main challenge for enterprise-focused SaaS platforms is how to provide the flexibility that larger customers expect without building one-off customizations that can cause technical debt to accumulate.

Why should an enterprise technology buyer care about a SaaS platform’s amount of technical debt? Simply put, it can impact the ability of the SaaS provider to maintain code quality.

The SaaS platform’s product development team is responsible for prioritizing features and capabilities that will achieve the best product-market fit in the shortest period of time, as well as creating balance across the platform’s product roadmap. Specifically, a balance between:

a) Building new generic functionality that is flexible enough to be reused across multiple customers;
b) enhancements to existing functionality to address additional use cases; and
c) maintaining product quality and reliability via bug reduction and elimination of technical debt.

Given the urgency to acquire new revenue and secure reference customers, it can be all too tempting for the product management team to compromise on that balance – accepting more customization requests to the detriment of generic feature development and maintenance. The lack of balanced product investment across (a), (b) and (c) can cause the accumulation of technical debt, negatively impacting the scalability and quality of the product that customers rightly expect from their enterprise SaaS platform providers.

Prioritize customers’ access to innovation

How much configurability a SaaS platform offers can be a key area of differentiation. Without it, the ability of your customers to quickly and cost-effectively take advantage of your platform’s innovation -- in the form of new generic feature enhancements and capabilities -- may be reduced.

This is because those new features may be incompatible with a customer’s specific prior customization. As a result, the customer may have to wait to adapt its customizations before they receive the value that other customers receive “out of the box.” This is sure to frustrate the customer, as timely access to innovation was probably one of the factors that influenced the customer’s decision to select your solution in the first place.

Let’s say an enterprise customer is trying to digitally transform a process that uses terminology specific to an industry that your platform’s front-end user-interface (UI) doesn’t support. You could add a ‘hard coded’ customization to the UI to replace the SaaS application’s terminology with that of the customer’s, which is probably the quickest and most cost-effective route to close the gap in customer requirements. However, it will undoubtedly add technical debt to your platform. To create flexibility and extensibility down the line, the product team should resist similar temptations for one off customization and instead, advocate for investment in a reusable core platform capability to allow simple configuration.

Naturally, some customization to fulfill unique customer requirements may be unavoidable, particularly in the enterprise segment. There are many factors enterprise customers take into account when evaluating the SaaS platform solutions who are competing for their business. However, creating balance on your product roadmap and investing in configurability over customization will, in the long run, help you attract and retain customers and position your platform for scalable growth.

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