(Apologies for the long post. I'm really keen to get sound and balanced advise. The only way to do that is to provide you with a good overview of the situation.. :) ..)
I would like to say upfront that i am not a programmer. I'm 1 of 3 partners in a small start up. Two of us have a business and sales background, whilst the third guy is a very experienced Java Programmer/engineer (and a good friend).
As with most start ups we believe we'll be the next big website. We have found a opportunity that the "Long Tail" really describes well. By this i mean a product range that isn't currently being tapped into online. As with Amazon, our model is about offering every available product within the niche. Through the availability of everything outside the fast selling products, we hope to become best website for the niche.
We have placed a lot of focus on building the business/technology system that allows us to build our inventory information very quickly. This was because we knew that the size of our inventory would make or break our usefulness to end users.
So now i come to the problem that prompted me to seek your help.... (please help)... :)
In my (non-technical business) mind, we now have the ability to build our inventory quickly. This is just the start though, as a business we also need the following solutions before making money:
1) A shopping cart application to allow buyers to search our inventory, communicate with our business and make orders etc. 2) A CRM application that would then allow the effective management of customers and orders.
I found my way to Magento and SugarCRM both of which appear to be very impressive. The idea being to use Magento for the buyers (search,buy,interact etc) and Sugar for our staff (order processing, customer service etc).
In my mind the long term rewards of being able to update these core applications from the communities, would far outweigh the steep learning curve. Not to mention the time/money that would be required to even attempt to catch up with what already is stable and tested....
My friend and business partner is unwilling to consider anything in PHP and to a large degree opensource. He's of the belief it would be best to start from scratch. This feels painful as he currently has a full time job and as with most start ups, we're not cash rich. My second worry is how would we keep up with any competitor who may choose the Opensource route.
Here's further details about our operational requirements:
1) Our stock is currently held across 30+ different branches. Which means that we'd need a way for each branch to sign in and manage their own customers.
2) Our business has regions and each region has branches. In order for us to focus the various management levels of the business, it would be ideal if each management level could see the business relevant to them. For example National manager (can see everything), Regional manager (can see all branches in his region), Branch manager (can see everything for his branch with certain admin rights) and Customer service (can see everything in their branch with minimal rights). This is the only way we can have one umbrella site, which can be serviced by staff in branches nationally.
3) Over and above managing orders, it also makes sense that the messages are managed centrally through the application. This way any member of staff can easily see the past history with the customer and assist. I'm thinking that the questions would almost always come in through "Ask a question about this product" link, so incoming messages could be routed to the branch who has the part. If it's aftersales, then the branch who sold it. For general questions through contact us, we'll allocate a member of staff at head office.
4) I think it would be appropriate to show buyers upfront on the product page which branch has the part and the branch information.
5) Our inventory size is currently over 300,000 products. The business plan is to rapidly increase this to 10 times that figure.
6) The products are spare parts. Therefore the buyer would need to search by the original product that the parts fits... Each part can often be used on various products.
From a language agnostic business person (non-programmer) - any opinions or advise on our situation would be much appreciated...
I'm keen to find a way of us unlocking horns, either way... I just struggle to see any strong value in "re-inventing the wheel"....
Thanks in advance, Guy