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WordPress may be the darling of the content management system (CMS) world, powering about 40% of the world’s websites, but alternatives are gaining momentum with the promise of a more modern approach to helping businesses create and manage all of their digital content .
One of these is Payload, a fledgling startup that recently entered the Summer 2022 batch of Y Combinator (YC), along with $500,000 in funding, promising developers “the most powerful” TypeScript headless CMS. And now the company has switched to a fully open-source model.
“Headless”, for the uninitiated, refers to an underlying software architecture where the backend and frontend are decoupled, giving developers maximum freedom and flexibility. With a headless CMS, users have the backend tools and technologies to create and manage content, but can use any third-party frontend technology (in any language they want), including popular frameworks like React.
Headless is part of a broader set of design principles known as MACH (Microservices, APIs, Cloud, and Headless) that provide organizations with greater agility and access to the best technology for any task at hand.
There’s already no shortage of options in the headless CMS space, with companies like Storyblok, Prismic, Contentful, and Contentstack each raising multimillion-dollar funding rounds over the past year. But while they’re great for managing content, they might not be right for every use case as they host all of their customers’ data and APIs – this limits the ability to customize functionality for their websites and apps.
There are also existing open source “self-hosted” options including Directus and Strapi. However, Payload argues that its “unique” approach lies in the fact that it was built from the ground up for developers, giving them “all the tools and features” they need to build websites, native apps, ecommerce platforms, and need more .
This includes user authentication, which can support individual customer accounts in an ecommerce app or SaaS product, or even an online game that allows players to track their progress over time. In addition, Payload offers GraphQL, REST, and local APIs, the latter allowing developers to create a programmatic method for retrieving data within an application without making a web call. And then there are “hooks” that allow companies to style Payload more like an application framework than a traditional CMS. Hooks can be used to create integrations with payment providers (e.g. Stripe), to process payments automatically when an order is generated, or to send a copy of all uploaded files to an object storage service like Amazon’s S3.
So payload takes care of things like the API and admin panel, saves a lot of time and effort for backend developers and lets their frontend counterparts work with whatever tools they want. It all boils down to flexibility.
“Freedom is powerful,” Elliot DeNolf, co-founder and CTO of Payload, told VentureBeat.
The WordPress Factor
But let’s take a step back. If WordPress is this ubiquitous, it must surely be doing something right – what is the real problem that Payload and its ilk are trying to solve?
“Although WordPress powers much of the internet today, it was developed as a blogging platform but has since been forced into many other use cases for which it is not well suited,” DeNolf said.
While WordPress powers all types of websites today, developers often have to force it to do things it wasn’t really designed to do. And while it’s possible to develop custom functionality in WordPress, according to DeNolf, it’s often done using “outdated code conventions and disorganized patterns.”
“Web developers these days use frontend frameworks like React to build their websites, and they want a powerful backend to make that decision,” explained DeNolf.
It’s also worth noting that the folks at WordPress have taken note of the headless CMS movement. Automattic, the parent company of WordPress.com and a driving force in the open-source WordPress project, recently acquired Frontity to help developers use WordPress as a headless CMS with React.
Originally founded in 2018, Payload has been used to test and launch various digital products, from online video games and mobile apps to web apps and websites. However, Payload has only been available via public beta for a year, and its official launch is marked by its transformation into an open-source product available under an MIT license. The reasons for this decision are varied, but ultimately it is about promoting transparency towards users.
“For us, the biggest benefit of moving to an OSS model was simply trust,” said DeNolf. “We want users to know that our product is here to stay and that they can use it however they want. An open license like MIT enables this and also reduces friction when it comes to rolling out payload everywhere.”
This also signals a gigantic business model change for Payload as previously it was only available via a proprietary license that had to be paid for more than one user in the admin panel.
“We sold a lot of licenses and got great feedback, but the fact that we had a proprietary license led to some skepticism about using our product,” said DeNolf.
The financial gap created by this transition has been filled with a new enterprise-focused offering that includes the sale of plugins for single sign-on (SSO), two-factor authentication (2FA), audit logging and metrics, and technical support and Service includes -Level Agreements (SLAs).
However, being an open-source product with enterprise support strongly suggests the size of Payload’s target market – it’s not specifically SMBs or Enterprises, just developers. And that involves a pretty large audience considering that every company these days is effectively a software company.
“Any developer or team that needs to manage digital content to enable experiences can use Payload, and that means our audience ranges from individual developers building their portfolio site to enterprises looking to build mission-critical functionality ‘ said DeNolf. “Many digital development agencies see great value in adopting Payload as their primary CMS, which allows them to become very efficient over time while still providing effective solutions for their clients.”
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