Open source software has been quietly growing across the spectrum of applications. Many of us are using open source solutions and don’t even realize. Take Google’s Android operating system for instance. It powers more than 86% of the world’s smartphones – and its open source. Anyone can view and modify its code and share it with anyone else. So, where does a solution like open-source CRM fit into the equation? In this post we’ll address what open-source CRM is and discuss the pros and cons of open source CRM.

What is Open Source CRM?

Open source is when a company or an organization publishes code to the public domain with a condition that anyone who uses the code and improves it is bound to put that into the public domain as well. So, development is not done by one company but by a community of developers. 

You may be asking yourself, “why would any company want to put code out there for people to alter?”.

From the software provider’s perspective, it’s an ideal situation. They give customers the source code basics, and the customers do the work to adapt and streamline the CRM to their uses. Customers are happy because the CRM is hyper-personalized to the way they do business, and the provider is happy because, if some incredible new feature is born from the development, they can institute that for other customers. Over time, as development teams continue to tweak their open source changes, the usefulness of the CRM increases and the software itself improves. In fact, many open source solutions provide a list of features requested so developer can build these highly desired features and put them in their product.

Open Source CRM is:

  • Highly customizable
  • Reliant on other popular development languages like PHP or Java to enhance its uses
  • Able to integrate with any other software that is OSI-compliant

Proprietary CRM vs. Open Source CRM

As with any other CRM you may purchase, open source provides features for contact management, marketing automation, pipeline management, and other standard CRM functions. The difference between open source and proprietary CRM exists in how much control each type offers to the user.

A proprietary CRM is a closed system. Every feature and function is pre-configured so the solution can be quickly downloaded/subscribed to and set up. Most CRM solutions today are considered proprietary CRM. They come out-of-the-box but can be further configured with the help of a CRM consulting partner. What’s great about pre-configured solutions is how quickly and easily businesses can get started with them.

An open source CRM may offer the same basic functions and features as the proprietary CRM, but with the option to deeply develop and modify what you are given.

Community Open Source CRM vs. Commercial Open Source CRM

There are typically two variations on how companies offer open source: community open source or commercial open source. Community open source is coded by a community and is free to the public. However, there are many types of open source software, from GNU to CDDL to MIT. The rules around who owns the modified source code differs depending on the license type that the open source software is distributed under.

The easiest way to describe commercial open source is to call it the “freemium” version of open source. Think of community open source as your basic, free option, and commercial open source as the advanced version that provides the software for free but charges for licensing and better features. Some view commercial open source as a catch-22. If the point is to have open software, then why are they charging for the features and licenses people need to actually build something?

The Pros and Cons of Open Source CRM

At its best, open source provides seemingly endless opportunities for users to better meet the requirements of their business or industry. However, without an adept development team that understands the source code of the solution, businesses using open source CRM are at the mercy of 3rd party or community support resources to build out functions and mitigate issues. So, what are some of the other pros and cons of an open source CRM? Let’s drill in.

Open Source CRM: Pros

  • The basic code of an open source solution is often free to access and can be used without having to sign a contract or long-term commitment
  • Modified code can be deployed to individuals, teams, or the entire company
  • Open source developer communities help IT teams learn from one another to guide things like bug fixes and troubleshooting
  • Open source CRMs offer the flexibility to adapt the CRM to meet industry requirements, process workflow standards, and other business-specific functions

Open Source CRM: Cons

  • Open source projects require time and expertise, both of which can become prohibitively expensive
  • Support is limited to online developer communities/forums or it costs extra
  • Hosting is an additional cost if it’s in the Cloud, and it costs extra for equipment sometimes if the other operating software is on premise
  • Upgrades are not included and are an additional fee
  • Basic versions of open source CRM may offer fewer features than proprietary CRM solutions and usually run years behind commercial CRM
  • Added costs can be accrued if a full-time developer must be hired or a server or firewall infrastructure needs to be set up
  • There is a risk of infringement if the community of developers use code from a protected source, such as a product fork, which could legally prevent you from using your CRM
  • Legal ownership of the source code varies depending on the type of source license the software is distributed under

Considerations for Open Source CRM

Before selecting any software solution, every business must first define what it is they are hoping to accomplish with the tool. Automating existing processes? Analyzing MQL and SQL conversions? Streamlining the sales process? All of the above?

Specifically, if you’re interested in open source but not sure if it’s the right fit for your business needs, the process of ranking CRM requirements will help reveal that. Will most of your CRM activity involve basic functions like setting up workflows, recording contact data, and generating sales reports? Or, are you trying to accomplish something more complex?

Open source is only viable if your business requirements match the software. Otherwise, the cost of maintaining and modifying the software is usually more than if you’d purchased a proprietary solution.

If the business does not have a thoughtful plan for using the open source, or the long term resources to work with the source code, build/test/execute business-specific functions, and maintain those connections, open source may not be the right choice.

Some main concepts to consider when looking at open source CRM are:

  1. Purpose: How do you plan to use your CRM? How do you anticipate it should scale to meet your business goals? Think about the types of operations you’ll perform with your solution. If you know you have the technical resources to build a maintain your ideal workflows and functions, open source may be a good option. If you’re looking for something to maintain leads and contact info and you don’t have the budget for large-scale development, a proprietary CRM could work better.
  2. Integration Capacity: Eventually, you may want to integrate your CRM with other solutions for more complete reporting and analytics capacity. You need to know if the CRM supports a Web service or API that will make the integration possible. Many open source CRMs have limited API access.
  3. Development Factors: Open source CRM has exciting possibilities, but businesses need help from developers to get full benefits. Do you have a CRM partner that you can rely on to edit your source code? Do you have an in-house developer who will do it? If not, is there a plan to hire someone? The time and effort a development team will invest is an important consideration when purchasing open source CRM. Businesses must have realistic expectations for uptime, modifications, and prioritization of projects. Because open source is fueled by a community of fellow developers, fast responses aren’t always guaranteed. One also needs to consider the ROI of not having proprietary CRM features, such as AI, and what the cost of adding those feature would be.
  4. Hidden Costs: Hidden costs?! But you said it’s free?! At the base level, yes, open source CRM is free. However, as is the case with most things in life, if you want “the good stuff”, you usually have to pay for it. In addition to potentially upgrading your open source CRM to a more robust version, you must also consider the cost to maintain it. What’s the plan if the system goes down? Who is responsible for upgrades and integrations? How much will you have to pay someone (internally or via an outside resource) to build and manage the desired operations?
  5. Community Presence: Because open source CRM is more community based, it’s important that the solution you select has a strong following of developers and programmers from which to draw insight. In addition, it may be worthwhile to consider partnering with a consultant with specific knowledge of your CRM to get faster support for critical issues.

If you’re still confused on whether you may want open source or proprietary CRM, consider getting help from an experienced CRM consultant. Their expertise with an array of solutions gives them a definitive edge on understanding how those solutions would work based on a business' processes, long term goals, existing solutions, and team structure. They can use strategic selection processes to find the solution with the right mix of scalability and personalization for your needs.

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