How to effectively incorporate AI into the CMS platform?

Alan Gleeson, CEO & Co-Founder ● May 28th, 2024

The full transcript

Oleg

Hi, everybody! Welcome to Devico Breakfast Bar! Here we speak with different people involved in the business landscape, share their expertise, delve into the latest technology trends, and explore the ins and outs of IT outsourcing. I'm Oleg Sadikov, and today I'm excited to have Alan Gleason, CEO and founder of Contento. Don't forget to subscribe and hit the notification bell so you don't miss new episodes. Hi, Alan.

Alan

Hi, Oleg. Thank you so much for having me on today.

Oleg

Thanks for joining me. Could you please start by telling us a bit about yourself and your professional background?

Alan

Sure, Oleg. I'm the CEO and co-founder of Contento. Contento is a headless content management system. So, the way to think about it, Oleg, is, I guess, the engine for building websites. So, you'll be familiar, your listeners will be familiar with WordPress, which is the most dominant CMS in the market. So we've now launched what's called a headless CMS in the space. My background is very much in software. So, for the last probably 10 or 15 years, Oleg, I've been working predominantly as what's called a fractional chief marketing officer, or a fractional CMO. So, a bit like your model, actually, it's an outsourced head of marketing. So, I've traditionally worked, I think I've worked with over 50 venture capital-backed B2B SaaS companies, Ireland, the UK, the US, Belgium, you know, working with a mix of different clients all looking to grow their businesses.

Oleg

Okay. Okay. Great. Thanks for the detailed response. What pain points or challenges did you identify in website management that led you to creation Contento, and how does it address the issues differently from existing solutions?

Alan

Yeah. So, I guess WordPress is the big, you know, elephant in the room, right? It's like 20 years old. It's by far the most dominant platform in the world, right? But when it comes to businesses or commercial websites, it's not a great fit if you're a growing business, right? So, part of the challenges, Oleg, are it can get a bit slow, it gets a bit bloated, there can be lots of plugins in there. It doesn't scale. It's not the most flexible. So, look, it's great and will continue to be a great CMS for lots of uses, but for growing technology businesses in particular, it's just not really kept pace with kind of where we are in website development today. So, we then decided there's an opportunity here. The headless category has been emerging in the last probably 10 years. There's a lot of VC cash has gone into it. It's a different way to build websites. So, you're kind of decoupling the front end and the back end. So, the headless piece is essentially a back end, which is a content repository. And then you're using an API, and developers can basically pick whatever frameworks or tools they want for the front end. So, that's the kind of category. So, in some ways, Oleg, it's a little bit like thinking of WordPress is all in one, whereas headless is best of breed. You're using API to put Lego bricks together to essentially build a website that's really fast because the architecture really lends itself to a fast website.

You know, it can be a very beautiful website in terms of design because you're not really starting with a theme or templates. You're giving developers free rein to build a beautiful bespoke site, right? And look, it's perfect for things like Omnichannel and AI because of the course of the architecture. And the last point of your question is, let's say, how are we differentiated within that whole world? Well, what we identified is a lot of the headless players were very much focused on the enterprise end of the market. I won't name them, but some of them are already price gouging. And by price gouging I mean getting you in on a tier that's two or three thousand a year before, you know, it's 30,000 because you've hit some object limit. So, we could see evidence that there was price gouging. But actually, the usability of a lot of these mature platforms in the header space were already going the direction of WordPress. They were just getting very complicated – you know, too many features – making it very difficult for developers to learn how to use them. So, we focus really hard on a much narrower feature set focused on a headless just for websites, so not really thinking omnichannel but focused just for websites, which meant a narrower feature set but a much tighter feature set. So, that's essentially the opportunity that we see.

Oleg

The CMS landscape has evolved significantly. What are some of the biggest trends you're currently observing in the industry?

Alan

Yeah. So, like I've touched upon, there's almost these two philosophies that have emerged, right? There's the traditional CMS, which is the kind of WordPress route, and this modern CMS route, which is, you know, the headless route, which is almost like the decoupled route or the separation of the front end and back end. And they're two different approaches. So, that's definitely been a trend in the last few years, but there's also been things like AI, which I know we're going to talk about later. It's beginning to start impacting CMS because, of course, AI and content. And we can discuss that later, but that brings things like personalization into play. And then Omnichannel is another thing that's emerged. So, go back 15 or 20 years, you were predominantly building for the output of the content to be on a browser, right? Whereas now you have – this is the point of Omnichannel – you've got array of devices, be it tablets or smartwatches, or digital signage, or apps where you can push content from the backend. So, they are some of the trends that we're seeing at the moment, Oleg.

Oleg

If we already touched on AI, I would like to stay a little bit longer on this topic. So, how do you foresee AI impacting the future of CMS platforms? Are there any specific AI-driven features that you plan to incorporate into the platform and want to share?

Alan

Look, it's a great question, right? And everybody wants to do AI at the moment. And it's actually driven, you know, in part by two things. One, obviously, ChatGPT exploding in the last year or so, but actually, there's an investment premium for putting AI, right? Lots of investors are chasing AI technology solutions. So, all of a sudden, there is a lot of CMSs bolting on AI. I'm on the fence a little bit because I think that people are rushing to introduce it without thinking it through. So, one particular bugbear of mine, Oleg, is I hate anything that talks about content creation for AI, right? You know, I went to LinkedIn yesterday, and it's like, ‘Start your post with AI.’ I think content creation is not a good AI use case at the moment. Why do I say that? Well, I've tested some of it, right? And I can see that it's just regurgitating content from some other content that was written by someone else. So, there's no sort of sense checking the facts. This hallucination, you know, factual errors going in. AI is great as a kind of a complement, not as a substitute. So, I see things like companies introducing that, and as a marketeer, the last thing we want, in my view, is more noise, more badly written content that's written by AI, that lacks personalization, lacks nuance, lacks examples, lacks real-life experience. So, that's one that I've got real problems with. Of course, it can also help with summarization, or categorization, or tagging, or image generation, or image optimization, or SEO. These are all things that can help with a CMS. And I think they're the sorts of areas that are useful.

From our perspective, I think one that we will be looking to do pretty soon will be translations because I see that AI and translations is pretty mature. You're not trying to create something from scratch in terms of write a piece of content, but you are following a pretty simple prompt, which has changed from this language to that language. And part of it is the speed it can do it, right? And the bit that I will always stick with – there has to be a human element to this. So for me, it's got to be the ability for humans to override it, but also to be able to come in and edit translation. So, that's something we're looking at. I'm not sure of the other things. You can get into a whole range of different other kind of AI, you know, functions, some of them I've just referenced, Oleg. The really crazy thing is that a lot of content is actually written outside of CMSs right now. No CMS vendor wants to tell you that, but a lot of it is still written in things like Google Docs and then dropped into Grammarly, or other tools, which all use AI to sort of help. And then, there's SEO tools that people are dropping content into. So, in some ways, a lot of the stuff that's going on is the content creators are benefiting from AI in the tools that they're writing, they're dropping it into the CMS. So yeah, look, the road is long on this. I'm kind of taking my time a little bit because I think there's already examples of bad AI deployments coming out that are coming back to people.

Oleg

And not one example but many.

Alan

There's lots. I mean, there was a little case in Canada recently where someone relied on something on the website, which was factually incorrect, and they tried to use the defense that this wasn't ours, it was created by a chatbot, and therefore, they weren't responsible. So, I think we're in an interesting space, Oleg.

Oleg

Yeah, definitely. From your perspective, what are some common misconceptions surrounding the use of the CMS platform?

Alan

Yeah, look, I guess there's a couple. So, one is that WordPress is the only option because everybody's heard of WordPress, so it's very easy to pick WordPress. Now, of course, there's a huge ecosystem surrounding WordPress, lots of people earning their living from WordPress. So, they're all going to be staunch defenders of WordPress as the only route to go. I'm not for once pooh-poohing WordPress and saying that, you know, it's time to end WordPress, and that it's had its day. What I am saying is that the market for content management systems is huge. And, actually, if you are a business or commercial user that's looking to scale and grow your business, you should look at other CMSs. The other misconception is that headless is extremely technical, and difficult, and challenging, and therefore, very hard to consider it as an option. Again, that's a misconception, I think, that some of the newer entrants like ourselves are trying to address because we're saying, ‘Actually, you know what? The first tranche of headless CMS companies that came into the market have gone too far. They've made it too complex, too technical. They've got too much features in there. They're doing this to try and justify higher price points. Actually, there's another route here where you can have a headless CMS that uses things like starter kits, or components, or library capabilities to help you get going without having a huge steep learning curve.’ So, there's some of the ones that I think are common.

Oleg

What advice would you offer to individuals or businesses seeking to become proficient in utilizing CMS platforms effectively?

Alan

Look, they're complicated, right? And this is the thing. People that are in marketing, you know, it's a tough role, Oleg, right? There's a lot on your plate. You've got to do everything, from legion to brand, to email campaigns, to social, to events, particularly in B2B. So, there's a lot going on. But I do think it's worth kind of keeping abreast of some of these developments. And I know people are busy and time-pressed, but some of these decisions are often left to the CTO or the technology lead. And I think it's no harm for marketing people in particular to start understanding a little bit more about things like headless so that they can ensure that whatever CMS solution is chosen for their business is one that they can maintain and manage, because that's often the challenge. The CTO or technology lead puts a new website into play, launches it, and then, you know, under the hood, it's a disaster, and the poor marketing team are kind of trying to manage and maintain and really struggling. So, that's one of the things I think people should look at.

Oleg

In your professional life, do you have any personal interests or hobbies that you're passionate about, and how do they complement your work or provide balance in your life?

Alan

Look, it's a great question. As a CEO and founder of a business – a technology business – it's kind of all-consuming, right? So, I am a great believer, Oleg, in the kind of the balance that's needed, which wasn't probably there 10 years ago. But I think it's increasingly understood that burnout is a real problem, right? So, I do have a range of hobbies. You know, I like reading, and I started reading books again rather than reading them on an iPad. Just a small change, but good to show the kids that I'm not on a device when I'm trying to take devices off those. I'm also a rugby coach in my spare time for a junior club, which, again, is very rewarding. And you're looking at things like teamwork and resilience, and trying to spot leaders, you know, hand some values to the team, and kind of nurture the team on their journey. And I also like to travel. So, they're kind of three of my main passions.

Oleg

Amazing. Are there any professionals or leaders in your network who inspire you in your professional journey?

Alan

Yeah. I guess, you know, since I became a CEO founder, I have a growing appreciation for the challenge of startups, but what I've noticed is it's heavily male-dominated, and it's a tough role. But I've got lots more admiration for, I guess, female founders and people from minority backgrounds because in some ways it's almost more difficult for those. So, I do think that really in the technology sector, it's overwhelmingly male-dominated. So, therefore, there are people not sitting specifically in the CMS space, but people like Mary McKenna, who has founded AwakenHub. It's based in Ireland, and it's predominantly around supporting female founders in companies. And I think that's very inspirational, because I think it's badly needed. And I do think that we're badly in need of more females and more minority leaders, not just in tech, but in other industries. And they do need extra support. So, that's probably my best example.

Oleg

Can you share any memorable story or challenge you've faced while building Contento that have helped shape your leadership style?

Alan

I think there's quite a few, right? I mean, this is the funny thing – when you're the leader, everything kind of surfaces to you, particularly in the founding stages. There's probably nothing that sticks out immediately other than the kind of sheer variety and volume of challenges that you encounter.

So, at one stage, we thought we were getting pretty big extra investment that didn't materialize. Sometimes you can be late shipping products. You need to revisit your messaging. You know, there's almost a daily set of challenges, so there's nothing that sticks out particularly. But it's just the kind of reminder that the journey is not linear. And it is difficult, right? Because if you look at the context, if you step back a second, you know, we're trying to break into a market that's saturated with CMS solutions already. Lots of them are very deep pockets, and they don't want to be sharing the cake with anybody else, right? So, there's lots of ways that you get knocked back, and you've got to try and rise above and keep going and understanding where are the opportunities. So, no specific example, but I think, Oleg, it's fair to say on a daily basis, you are challenged in different directions. You know, I previously was a fractional CMO, as I mentioned, so the discipline of problems were predominantly around lead gen marketing. Whereas, of course, when you are a CEO, it's everything from product to operations, to recruitment, to legals, to accounting. So, a much broader mix of challenges.

Oleg

What advice would you give to aspiring entrepreneurs looking to enter the tech industry or launch their own SaaS startup?

Alan

I’d go for it, right? I'd highly recommend it, but I'd even go, you know, younger, right? People can be risk-averse and want to defer it, and push it down the road, and wait until they're older. In some ways, it's almost more difficult because, at that age, you're probably on a higher salary, you may have a mortgage, you may have a family. So, the cost that you need to cover each month is a lot higher. But when you're much younger, you don't have the same level of commitments financially. So, you can definitely reduce the burn and get going early because I think that's kind of the key thing with all these startups is that in the first year or so, there'll be negligible income coming in as you build something. So, then you've got to spend money on developers and builders, right? So, there's a lot of cash going out. If you're younger, and you can take a modest salary or extend the runway by keeping the cash burned down, that's hugely valuable. But you do get tested. You do learn an awful lot. It builds a lot of kind of strength around resilience and sort of dealing with different stakeholders. You know, so the advice is go do it. But also if you do it, sort of think through things like funding, because there are certain categories now where it's just very difficult to bootstrap. That might have been okay 10 years ago, but it's increasingly difficult to build technology companies without some cash. And it's getting more difficult to raise cash. So, therefore, you got to raise a fairly decent check to give you sufficient time. So, there's some of the things I'd be thinking about.

Oleg

I know that you have an in-house development team. What factors have led you to abstain from IT outsourcing so far, and do you foresee any circumstances in which the decision might change in the future?

Alan

Yeah, look, I'm a big fan of outsourcing, right? Because, after all, that was what I did for 10 years previously. I was a fractional chief marketing officer. So, I could see that the clients that I worked with could get value quite easily and quite quickly from working outsourcing. So, I'm a huge fan of it. I guess when we were building the original product, the decision as to in-house versus outsource was probably CTO-led. And in some ways, we were a bit fortunate that our network – we had some candidates that were people we'd worked with historically, that we knew, that were on the market, and were excited about the opportunity. So, initially, the small team was built from predominantly people that we had worked with and knew, right? So, that was the nuance there. I would be 100% up for looking at outsourcing moving forward. I think it's a very attractive model. It was a very nuanced decision when we made it. I guess, if we hadn't the network that we had, it would have been the most obvious thing to do. So, I would expect we will look to outsource in the future, but what that will entail exactly I'm not sure. So again, it'll depend on whether you're outsourcing product build or whether you're outsourcing, you know, other functions. I think it's a great model. I'm a big fan of it, as you'd expect, right? So yes, I think it'll definitely be something we will do in the future.

Oleg

In your view, what are the advantages and disadvantages of IT outsourcing?

Alan

I think, look, one thing as a CEO is you know that the build costs are a big part of your expense, and particularly in the first year. And I think the level of sophistication around SaaS products now has also increased, right? You can't skip on things like you did historically. You might've skipped on UI/UX specialists or design people and just try and put out a very basic functionality. Whereas now, you do need a more rounded offering to be taken seriously. So, I think that leads me then into the point as to what are the decision criteria. Well, if you're trying to hire domestically in UK or Ireland, the salary expectations are pretty high, right? So, all of a sudden, do the maths and five or six people. And all of a sudden, that's a fairly decent check. Can you get away with one or two people? Perhaps. Again, it depends on exactly what you're building. But increasingly, for SaaS companies, remote makes sense, right? Because people are doing roles that they can be managed remotely. So, you know, whether it's remote in-house versus remote outsourced, I mean, so you would assume or would hope some cost advantage, right? So, clearly, if you're outsourcing, you would be looking to make a cost savings because then that will be a primary driver.

But then you also have the advantage of potentially being able to dial up or dial down, and work depending on requirements, but also access skills that aren't a full-time requirement. So, for example, you might need a designer that you don't need full time, but you need them to do a little piece of work every so often. So, the model has a huge amount of attractions. But there are some of the kind of critical pieces. And obviously, as the cost in Poland, and Ukraine, and India, and Pakistan, and other countries increases, there's a danger that it closes the differential. So, I think there always needs to be a cost differential that will always be primary driver. Because we know the engineers in these countries and the developers are exceptional, right? They're really excellent, and it's just that kind of fine balance. So, you know, I remain optimistic that outsourced options will continue to be very attractive.

Oleg

Okay. Thanks for the answer. Reflecting on your business operations, are there specific tasks or projects that you believe could potentially benefit from outsourcing?

Alan

You know, we touched on AI earlier, right? So, I think there is a kind of twin balance between people under pressure to try and introduce AI into their solutions without thinking through actually what is the value proposition here, what's the benefit to the end user. And I go back to my earlier example that, you know, a lot of the CMSs are already introducing content creation led AI, which I just think is a bad idea, full stop, right? So, that suggests to me that it's not always being thought through properly. But I do think that there are probably side projects and side opportunities like that that are going to become increasingly interesting, where you can go to someone like yourself and say, 'Look, here are some of the AI capabilities that seem to be, you know, in the space around CMSs. Have you the capability to explore these almost, you know, tangential,' so leaving the core product team focused on the core offering and have almost like a separate project going on where people could work on a separate kind of stream.

But the other thing, of course, Oleg, which is interesting for us, of course, is a CMS on its own is not the end solution, right? Because people want websites. They don't want CMSs, right? So, let me rephrase that. The outcome needs to be a website, but you need a CMS to power it. So, you know, I could see a world where clients will come to us and say, 'Look, Alan, we don't just want the CMS. We want you to help with the build of the website and the design of the website.' So, you know, I could also see that being an outsourced capability where you're working with web development agencies that are experienced in Jamstack, and headless, and you're then able to come together and offer a full package because most of the early headless CMS companies came out of agencies themselves because it gave them immediate access to a customer base, right? So, I do think that model is also one. And because the tricky thing with headless is that the costs can run away quite quickly. It's a more technical build. It's senior devs are usually involved because of the fact that the separation of the front end and the back end means there's a load more work needed on the front end, and the wiring, and the plumbing, and design, and whatever else.

So, I see huge opportunities around. You know, as more people transition to headless that you will get developer agencies in Poland, and Ukraine, and India, and other countries, getting into sort of help with the web development to keep the cost down. Because using headless at the moment, the danger is that the cost for your website just gets too high because going back to our earlier conversation, the market is saturated with WordPress developers that have a set day rate, have a set process, have a set theme, have a set template, can kind of produce an entry-level website pretty quickly for a minimal budget, but then, you've got a lot of the headless stuff. It’s enterprise, it's 150 K territory. Whereas I think there's a sweet spot around. Can you do a headless-backed website for 20, or 30, or 40K? That becomes a very interesting proposition then. But you probably can't do that in UK, or Ireland, or the US because the cost of developers are too high. So, that's an example of something that's likely to be a big growth area for outsourced development.

Oleg

As we conclude our discussion, drawing from your own experiences, navigating challenges and uncertainties, what advice would you offer to companies that find themselves in a crisis situation, whether it be financial, operational, or otherwise? How can they best weather the storm and emerge stronger on their side?

Alan

Yeah, look, it's a great question. And I think everyone is probably facing challenges at the moment, right? Anybody in technology had a difficult 2023, right? And we're all hopeful that 2024 is better. I mean, look, there's a couple of things. I think having peers you can talk to is always useful, right? So, other CEOs in my instance or other founders of outsource agencies in your instance that are not viewed through the lens of being immediate competitors, but being people you can try and talk to because let's be frank these are difficult roles, and there's difficult times. So, having someone that you can talk to in confidence, because the more you talk to people, they may have solutions, they may have encountered similar problems, and they may have ideas to help. But the other thing is, you know, being very focused on the numbers and cash, right? Because ultimately, agencies or software businesses, going back to some of our earlier points, you know, you can have a fairly hefty wage bill every month.

And if, obviously, you get months that are following weak demand, you can run into problems pretty quickly. So, really keeping an eye on your cash flow. You know, we live in a world that now increasingly seems to have storms almost every year, so we all need to sort of be, I guess, more resilient, but also making sure that this is kind of the new norm. The amount of stuff that's happened in the last five years, you know, it's almost the perfect storm, not only in terms of tricky stuff politically, tricky stuff economically, but also the fact that there's been an explosion of technology that we're all still kind of trying to grapple with. So, things like AI, which we've touched upon, but also the proliferation of smartphones and devices, and kind of our attention is affected by that. Or even small things like infinite scrolling on social platforms just trapping lots of people in this doom-scrolling bubble, right? So, there's a lot going on, but I think staying positive and talking to kind of colleagues and peers is definitely a good route forward, and then managing your cash, as I mentioned.

Oleg

Alan, thanks for your time. Thanks for joining me today. It was a great conversation. You're very experienced in outsourcing. The advices you gave, the insights you shared, I'm sure our audience will find them useful. Thanks for your time. If you enjoy our discussion and want to stay updated on future episodes, don't forget to subscribe and hit the notification bell. That way, you don't miss on the latest insights and conversations from Devico Breakfast Bar. See you in a week.

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