Let’s be honest. An online business requires a lot of moving parts, and it can get overwhelming fast.
That’s why systems such as Kartra and Kajabi and ClickFunnels exist. They claim to make your life so much easier by housing everything under one roof.
But do they really? Let’s find out.
Online Business Systems
Every online business shares a few common elements:
A website. Maybe you want to have a blog, or start a podcast, or maybe you just need a place that you can point people to who say, “How can I learn more about what you do?” Whatever the reason for it, you need to own this asset—a Facebook page or an Instagram profile just will not cut it.
Email marketing. Yes, email is still relevant and every business needs an email list. That means you’ll need a platform for collecting email addresses and staying in touch with your potential customers, plus you’ll need a way to create opt-in pages and forms.
Product sales and delivery. Unless your entire business model depends on advertising revenue, you’ll also need a way to take payments either with a credit card, through PayPal, or both, and you’ll need a way to ensure secure delivery of the product purchased. That might be a digital file download or access to a protected members area.
Those are the basics: Your home on the web, an email community, and a way to sell your stuff. Pretty simple huh? At least it looks that way until you try to piece it all together. That’s where it starts to get a little confusing.
If you’ve ever growled at WordPress or shed a frustrated tear over a missing API key, then you know just how discouraged you can get. That’s why those all-in-one solutions were born, and at first glance, they sound like a pretty sweet deal.
The Dark Underbelly of All-in-One Solutions
No lie here… it is easier to set up and manage a system such as Kajabi, where everything is already connected for you. There’s no API keys to find, no tagging to create and manage, no multiple logins to deal with.
Everything just works. And if it doesn’t? You have one single point of contact to get it fixed.
For a lot of people, that’s a big draw. But it comes at a price.All-in-one online marketing platforms can be inflexible and difficult to get out of. Before you buy, consider all your options.Click To Tweet
When you commit to an all-in-one solution, you are agreeing to do business in the way they think it should be done. That means you may find yourself having to settle for layout or design elements you don’t care for, or being unable to offer coupons or upsells, or a number of other limitations that simply aren’t a part of the platform you’re using.
Nothing is carved in stone when it comes to business. In fact, things can move pretty quickly. You will eventually outgrow your landing page builder or payment processor or email system. It’s inevitable as your business continues to grow and as technology evolves.
With those all-in-one platforms, everything is wrapped up in a single package. That means you can’t just opt for a different blog or page builder. If you outgrow a part of it, you have to move your entire business.
Yeah, that’s about as fun as it sounds. Worse yet, it may even be impossible.
Imagine having a popular membership with hundreds of customers paying you every month to be a part of your community. That’s pretty awesome, right? Now imagine you have outgrown your current provider, and you want to move.
With all of those recurring payments running through your existing provider, you are effectively stuck. You can’t turn it off, because then the payments will stop. And even if they’re all on PayPal, which would mean that the payments will continue regardless of the platform you’re on, you’ll have no way to track who should have access in your new system and who should not.
In this scenario, if you want to change platforms, you’ll have three choices:
Track each member manually, which is a whole lot of work on your part, and kind of defeats the whole purpose of having membership software.
Ask members to re-sign up with the new platform. You’ll lose a lot of them in the transition.
Run both platforms alongside one another until the old platform’s users dwindle away. This is a costly option that basically doubles your monthly expenses.
Or of course, the fourth option, which is to stay right where you are. And that’s exactly what all-in-one providers are counting on.
The Confusion of Cobbling it Together
What about the other alternative then? What if you decide that the all-inclusive tools are a bad idea? What will that mean for your business?
Let’s look at a typical online course creator to get an idea of how you might piece together a few solutions to build a business.
First, you need a place to house your courses. You can choose to either host it yourself with WordPress, or go with a fully hosted solution such as Teachable.
You’ll then need a way to take payments, and that payment gateway has to somehow notify your delivery platform that the payment has been made. There needs to be a password generated, and some kind of access details sent to your new customer, so she knows where to log in.
What about marketing? You’ll probably want to build an email list, so you can promote your courses. But you don’t want to mail current students and ask them to buy again, so your email provider will have to connect with your course platform as well, so it can know who not to mail.
Here’s another issue you might run into, too. What happens if something doesn’t work right? Who do you contact? Your payment processor will likely blame the course platform, who will point the finger right back at the payment processor again.
It can be incredibly frustrating to deal with that kind of “he said, she said” nonsense when all you want to do is make it so your customers can buy your products.
You can see that this gets hairy fast, and that might make you think that for sure an all-in-one offer must be better, even with the limitations I outlined above.
The Upside of Each Option
I’ve painted a pretty bleak picture here of both the piecemeal solution to online business, and the all-in-one platforms, but there are good things about each as well.
Pieced together systems give you the most flexibility. You get to design your business exactly the way you want it to work. You can build your member’s area just how you want it, choose the payment processors you want to work with, keep your email marketing simple or complex, have a blog or don’t, use coupons or not, take recurring payments or not… the list goes on.
It is yours to design however you like. No compromise. No settling.
That’s not to say that all-in-one options don’t have their benefits as well, and the big one is the ease of use. In fact, they hold a very strong appeal to those who feel intimidated by technology.
Branding is simpler with an all-in-one solution as well, because everything is consistent. Your emails will look like your member area, which will look like your blog, which will look like your landing pages. That’s important in business today, and it’s much easier to do with an all-in-one platform.
How to Choose Your Tech Stack
Still confused? You’re not alone. This is why so many people with amazing business ideas remain stuck at the starting point – there are too many options and variables to consider.
To make it easier, ask yourself these questions—and be honest with your answers. No one will see them but you.
How comfortable are you with technology?
If you find yourself frustrated with tasks such as setting up an opt-in funnel or creating a tripwire, then an all-in-one solution will probably be more comfortable for you. On the other hand, if you don’t mind rolling up your sleeves and digging into the knowledge base articles and how-do videos, go for the flexibility of mix-and-match platforms.
Which platforms do your ideal clients already use?
User experience is important. If your ideal client has already registered for several courses on Teachable, then setting up shop there is going to automatically give you a boost in conversions.
Will you have an affiliate program?
If you plan to leverage other people’s audiences, you absolutely must use a system they trust.
Faced with setting up an account and finding a link in an unfamiliar system, an affiliate I know recently said this to a friend of mine: “If I didn’t like you so much, I would have given up on promoting this.”
Don’t make it more difficult to recruit affiliates by using a system they don’t like or trust, or that’s so obscure they may never have seen it before. Think about the affiliates you’d like to approach and look at the products they are already approaching to see which platforms are most popular.
Where do you want to be in a year or three or five?
I know it’s tough to know that with certainty, but what are your plans? Will you have 25,000 subscribers you email every day? Will you be creating video-based courses for thousands of customers? Will you have an online community?
Thinking through what you want your business to look like in the future makes it easier to choose the tools that will grow with you, or that are easier to get out of when the time comes.
What’s your budget?
This is where a lot of people start, but I’ve saved it for last because I believe it’s the least important of all the considerations above. Here’s why: Tools such as email marketing platforms, shopping carts, and membership systems are not liabilities. They are investments that you make in your business, and as investments, they directly impact the revenue you earn.
Yes, it can feel safer to sign up for a free email account instead of investing in a full-featured platform, but the goal is to make money from your list. Done right, your email platform will pay for itself many times over every single month, as will your shopping cart and your membership and all the other tools you use to build your business.
Rather than scrimping on the essentials, focus on making them pay for themselves.
My Top Recommendations
Here’s a tech stack that works for me and the majority of my clients. It will take you from $0 to mid-six-figures in revenue, and up to 30k email subscribers without even flinching.
WordPress hosted on MomWebs or LiquidWeb: WordPress is my website builder of choice, and I never recommend using a proprietary platform, even if they say it’s easier (it’s not). If you’re just starting out, MomWebs is my top choice for hosting because of their spectacular service and support. They do not offer phone support, but in my experience, they respond quicker by email than other hosts do on the phone.
If you require or just feel more comfortable with phone support, then LiquidWeb is my choice. They offer both managed WordPress hosting (for the technologically timid) as well as VPS and dedicated servers.
Landing Page Builder
Thrive Architect: Hands down, this is the best page builder I have ever used. Thrive Architect has beautiful templates to get you started and lets you quickly create sales pages and landing pages. I use it for the home page of my site too, as do many of my clients.
In addition to Thrive Architect, I use:
- Thrive Leads for creating opt-in forms
- Thrive Ultimatum for countdown timers
- Thrive Optimize for split testing
You can purchase the Thrive plugins one at a time if you’re on a budget, or as a complete bundle if you want the most cost-effective solution.
ActiveCampaign or ConvertKit: Both offer tagging, powerful automation tools, integrations with every major shopping cart and form builder. I prefer ActiveCampaign for two reasons. First, the interface makes more sense to me than ConvertKit does. Also, I like the option to create better-looking email templates. ConvertKit has a strong preference for text-only email, so while you can add graphics, they don’t make it easy.
I have a free ActiveCampaign training course here.
Shopping Cart and Product Delivery + Affiliate Management
aMember: I love this cart. It’s cost-effective at just $180 + $80 annual renewal. It does everything expensive systems like Ontraport and Infusionsoft do (and some things they can’t do). It’s been around for more than a decade, so it’s super stable, and the developers are quick to jump in and fix anything that breaks (even when it’s my fault).
Another plus is that it has a rock-solid affiliate management system that affiliates in my circle know, use, and trust, so there are no hurdles when it comes to recruiting new affiliates. The one downside is that they are based in Eastern Europe, so it can sometimes take 12 hours to hear back from them since daytime here is the middle of the night for them.
PayPal and Stripe: Both of these processors integrate with any shopping cart you choose, and they both charge the same fees.
Other tools I’ve used and can recommend include:
- SamCart: If you prefer a hosted shopping cart, SamCart gets my vote for ease of use.
- Wishlist Member: A WordPress plugin-based membership platform.
- Ontraport: If you need a “big gun” marketing platform, this is my top choice.
- Kajabi: The only all-in-one solution that gets my vote.
- AWeber: This was my email platform for years, and it’s still a solid choice, even though they are behind the curve when it comes to tagging and automations.
What do you struggle with when choosing your tech? Leave a comment and let’s sort it out so you can move forward!
Funnel Design Workbook
Put your lead gen on autopilot with an automated marketing funnel. This step-by-step guide makes it easy!
You'll also be automatically subscribed to my more-or-less daily email newsletter. You may unsubscribe at any time.
Hi Cindy. I noticed you mention ClickFunnels in the introduction but you don’t suggest them as a recommendation. I’d be interested to hear why they don’t make it onto your list. Kajabi seems to be more expensive than ClickFunnels at the Basic and Pro levels so I’m wondering why it’s better. I appreciate your experience so any help on this would be great.
ClickFunnels is a fantastic page builder. I’d put it in my top three for sure. But they’ve bolted on a bunch of other features that just aren’t ready for prime time. Their affiliate tracking, for example, is notoriously inaccurate, and their email system is rudimentary at best. If you’re looking for all-in-one, Kajabi is by far the better choice, and well worth what they charge.
I have used Kajabi for a project and Aweber more than once and both have a great support team. Also the Thrive products are a must.
However I have tried Clickbank recently for a sales project and did not get on with them at all.
Great to see all this really useful advice, which I can relate to, especially having taken many wrong turnings in the past. Thank you Cindy.
Hi John, thanks for chiming in with your experience. Clickbank used to be a great platform, but I don’t think they’ve kept up with the times as much as they could have. I don’t see them used much at all anymore.
I saw that Active Campaign is against affiliate marketing in their TOS. I was just thinking of doing it. Yes i have squeaked into some giveaways, but how are you doing it? Is that clickfunnels sending the emails instead of AC? Is that why they don’t see it?
I don’t use ClickFunnels personally. I use Active Campaign. I’m aware of their TOS, and that was a concern for me when I moved from AWeber a few years ago, so I contacted their support about it. They asked me to send them my most recent emails as well as a link to my opt-in page. They reviewed them and assured me that my promotion of affiliate products does not fall under their TOS. I’ve not once had a problem with them over it, and I’ve been with them about 5 years now.