Building small business websites

I’ve been using Perch as my Content Management System of choice since starting out in the summer. It’s a commercial CMS, built in the UK, and is supported by a small team of two people.

Paul Boag, of Boagworld and Headscape, recently initiated a discussion about whether you should use open source, essentially free, CMS platforms, such as Drupal, Joomla and Wordpress, or whether it is worth paying for software. Paid systems include Expression Engine, Craft and Perch.

Here’s my tuppence

I’m looking at this discussion from the position of somebody who runs their own business alone, who occasionally build small websites for other small to medium businesses. My clients, generally speaking, lack budget, technical competence and time. The websites are often fairly simple, perhaps having a news section, a form and a gallery at most.

If you are already making money on websites then the cost of a CMS should not be prohibitive to you or your client. A one-off price is therefore very attractive. CMSs* are general systems and, as such, they need to cater for a wide range of customers.

Many CMSs, like Wordpress, require quite a lot of add ons to make them work properly as a fully functioning CMS. This can add to the cost, but it also adds to time, which in my book is equally as precious. These add ons also often come with different UIs, or move essential data into areas of the admin pages that are not intuitive to the end user. Add-ons are often great but equally there are some which are poorly maintained, or worse abandoned, they can even break websites when updated, and it’s hard to predict in the rat-a-tat pace of web design which add-on is going to survive and which one isn’t.

Clean code

I stopped using Wordpress earlier this year. Wordpress has many excellent advantages: a large user base and community, easy to use admin, huge amount of add-ons and templates. It’s also free! That makes it very enticing to small businesses like mine and the entry point for new developers to start building add-ons is easy.

The main reason I’ve stopped using Wordpress is to do with its structure. The theme system makes it very hard to get a basic html template into Wordpress and start adding content. You need to understand The Loop, themes, child themes and hooks just to get your data into web pages.

It’s different with a tag-based CMS. ExpressionEngine, Craft and Perch all use tags of some form or another. Basically you build a static page, using HTML, CSS and Javascript. You then replace your static content with a series of tags that pull data from the CMS.

Perch uses simple php tags you can assign inside a normal HTML tag, like an H1 title. You then open the page in your browser and then access the control panel. The H1 area of content will appear as a field you can then assign a field-type to. In this case you’d assign a simple title field-type to it. Once done you can then edit this as you would in any CMS. You can do this with any content, including images, maps and movies. In fact, because the templates inside Perch are just html files, you can then tweak them to suit your own designs or just create your own.

What I love about tag-based systems is that it simplifies my process and cuts down on development time. You can also convert old static sites to tag-based CMSs in a matter of hours. It’s so easy I can do it. I did used to code in ColdFusion so perhaps that explains a lot!

Pay for it

Which brings me back to Perch. It’s £50. That’s it. If you build a lot of websites they offer a developer programme that saves you money. They also occasionally offer discounts so you can stockpile licenses if you want to.

Perch is advertised as the “really little” content management system. It’s targeted directly at people like me, I’d like to think. It’s designed for building website for small businesses and comes with everything you need to get a CMS-powered small business website off the ground.

Perch comes bundled with add-ons. These include blogs, events, forms and basic connectivity to payment systems like PayPal. These add-ons are built by the same team. They are updated regularly. The UI is the same. You don’t have to pay extra for them.

Their support is also exemplary. Drew and Rachel respond to support requests very quickly. They have ever-improving video and online guides. They make it all easy to understand and there’s so much less head scratching from this old-timer than with other CMSs I’ve used in the past.

I have also used ExpressionEngine for a number of projects in the past, but the high cost and further cost of add-ons means that most installs cost around £400-600 in software licenses alone. That’s too much for a small business website that is only billed out at perhaps between £1000 and £2000.

For larger projects, ExpressionEngine is more justifiable and it has much more functionality than Perch, such as creating relationships between entries and more granular caching. ExpressionEngine also has excellent support, but its more established community also chip in readily with advice.


The last Perch install I rolled out, apart from this website, was for TennisZoo. The client understood how to use it immediately. I didn’t need to explain anything. I’m not exaggerating. I haven’t had one support request since its relaunch in July.

Perch is such a simple system that it’s easy to understand for most levels of user competency. I can’t tell you how satisfying that is. Most time with older CMSs was spent showing the end user how to use it. They always end up breaking something. Or you end up maintaining the website yourself. And what’s the point of having a CMS if you are editing it for the client?


Of course there are things about Perch that are a little irksome. Media management is behind the curve, adding metadata is a bit of a hack to get working well and the small user community is very quiet. But irritations are few and far between. It’s the system I’ve chosen to use for my small business clients going forward. Choosing a CMS, or building your own, is a ultimately business decision. I’ve made mine.

But who knows what’s around the corner. Other rival systems may come along to make my head turn but until that time or if thermonuclear war erupts I’ll keep …**

* CMSs just sounds wrong – what is the plural of this horrible acronym?
* * This is the end of the post. I’m still alive.


Drew said on 09 Oct 2013

Thanks for the write-up, Jonathan. I’m really pleased that Perch is working out for you. Media management is one of the next big things we’re going to be working on, so hopefully that will make Perch even more useful.

Jonathan Elliman said on 09 Oct 2013

Thanks for taking the time to read the post Drew. That’s exciting to know. Keep up the good work!

Leave a comment