Sale. Investment. No sale. No investment. Merger with EpiServer. No merger with EpiServer.

Whatever the heck's happening at Ektron, this is a technology company.

And the future of the Nashua, NH-based .NET Web CMS provider comes down to a simple question: Do people like its software?

The answer depends on who you ask. Some say its usability is poor. Others think the product's never been stronger. Some think its lifetime support model is its sweet spot. Others say that support's inconsistent.

"My take is that the product has never been stronger compared to older versions but that the competition in the CMS market is full of strong players that are rapidly expanding into the ‘content marketing’ world," said Chris Chodnicki, co-founder and executive director of strategic partnerships and alliances at R2integrated, a Baltimore-based Ektron partner. "If the funding means Ektron can integrate their product to meet the challenges we are seeing with clients and what other platforms are bringing -- and at a very accelerated pace -- then this will be welcomed news."

Poor Usability?

However, Chodnicki warned, the window of opportunity is now.

"How Ektron manages over the next three months across the board on customer support, product enhancements and just improving their brand name is going to be critical to a long term bet," he added.

But some think the future will be anything but smooth for Ektron.

Ali A. Alkhafaji, director of technology and customer experience manager at Westborough, Mass.-based Virtusa Corporation, told CMSWire he's analyzed Ektron multiple times for clients.

2014-8-December-Ali Alkhafaji.jpg

"Overall, it is poorly documented with poor infrastructure that doesn't adapt well to over-customization," Alkhafaji said. "Most people I talk to that use Ektron also dislike the user interface from a presentation and a functional perspective."

Ektron's past-focused roadmap and the constant struggles clients have with its usability, Alkhafaji said, make it a poor choice on most lists.

"Gartner continuously rates its ability to execute toward the bottom and the Real Story Group considers both its product development and vendor evolution to be average," Alkhafaji said. "Really the only thing Ektron has been able to hang its hat on has been the large set of current clients it is supporting with its rather unique lifetime product support."

Lack of Support?

But is that support stellar?

One former employee and current user -- who wished to remain anonymous when contacted by CMSWire -- said Ektron's support and services staff are not equipped to handle enterprise clients. The user said it speaks to a lack of processes and probably lack of product knowledge as "many people left the company."

The user also cited a change of leadership in 2011 where the "leadership that made Ektron what is was eventually were replaced." Ektron, the former employee added, went through 16 straight quarters with changes in senior management.

"This created a lot of instability in the company, and a lot of people left," the former employee told CMSWire. "The management team no longer supported the employees."

Ektron once had a best of breed editor in eWebEditPro and a rock solid set of core CMS features, the former employee added. The company's best release was of CMS400 was 6.06. But the product eventually became too big, and bugs started showing up.

Ektron: Culture, Platform Strong

2014-8-December-Tim McKinnon.jpg

Tim McKinnon, Ektron president, defended Ektron's CMS usability and company cuIture in a phone interview Friday with CMSWire. When asked about former employees discussing a disconnect between management and staff, McKinnon said to "consider the source when looking at that data."

"There's obviously a larger-than-average population of disgruntled employees, many of whom were terminated or let go in the 2011-2012 time period," McKinnon told CMSWire of his 200-employee company. "For whatever reason, they're still angry enough multiple years later where they still feel the need to comment on it."

He said the culture has changed dramatically since he's taken over as president in 2012. Retention is well above industry average, the company has implemented internal employee surveys and has shared financials regularly, he said.

"It's as good of a culture as I've seen at any tech company I've been at," said McKinnon, who previously worked at Oracle and Microsoft according to his LinkedIn profile.

Speaking to criticisms on platform usability, McKinnon said the company's made "major enhancements" the past two years in usability. He called the CMS platform a "marketer-centric tool."

Acknowledging criticism from Gartner on usability, McKinnon attributed that to analysts looking at outdated versions of the platform.

Learning Opportunities

"We have customers on 9-year-old software," he said. "Of course that's not usable by today's standards. We're making programs for people to upgrade. That's a major focus for next year." 

The recent switch to a cloud-based SaaS model has "absolutely taken off," added McKinnon, who noted his company offers the "only lifetime support" in the space.

If you listen to McKinnon's report on numbers -- record quarters in Q2 and Q3 2014, including 80 percent year-over-year growth in Q3 -- it's not as if the 4,000 customers are jumping ship.

Quest for Solid Usability

Ian Muir, an Ektron former employee in 2005 and 2006 and a senior engineer now at San Francisco-based Meltwater Group, said Ektron has some usability problems, but that's one area they're actively working on.

"My wife works on the UX team and over the past year they've gone from an independent group on the fringe to a core part of the engineering unit," he told CMSWire. "If they get the employee morale improved and form a more focused vision, this is actually one area where I think they have a plan in place that could succeed."

Muir said he worked with former CEO Ed Rogers to create the developer training program and build the first versions of the developer center and developer certification courses. 

"I think the best way for tech companies to do well with employees is to pay attention to work load and seek feedback on programs/perks," Muir said. "A lot of companies put pressure on their best employees to do more rather than encouraging them to mentor."

The product may not be quite as stellar as it once was, Muir added, but it's not so far behind that it couldn't be a top competitor again within a year or two.

"In the long run, I think the sale could be good for the company and the employees," he said, "but it's going to be an uphill struggle for a couple of years."

Still a Fan

2014-8-December-Andrew Eddy.jpg

Another former employee, Andrew Eddy, is still an Ektron fan. Now the CMS/DAM practice director at HintTech, headquartered in Delft, Netherlands, Eddy served at Ektron as principal engineer, principal sales engineer, CMS architect and application engineer over seven years.

"Ektron's greatest strength has always been, and will continue to be, its employees," Eddy told CMSWire. "Ektron was originally built by a core of engineers that remained at the company until fairly recently. There are also still several employees who have remained there, and are currently invaluable to the company. These employees brought innovation, motivation and helped shape a culture that I still hear referenced by ex-employees on a regular basis. In short, everyone loved working at Ektron, and I know people that still do."

As for the platform, Ektron's bread and butter has always been content editing, Eddy said, and offering a streamlined straight-forward implementation process. Ektron started as a WYSIWYG editor, he noted, and built around it to help manage content, and it shows in a good way. 

"While I haven't implemented Ektron in over six months since I left the company, that certainly doesn't mean that I wouldn't," Eddy said. "The Ektron product still brings to the table a strong offering to manage content, integrate with third party vendors (via DXH), and their upcoming SaaS offerings/integrations seem promising."

He called a sale of the company the impetus to give Ektron a "much needed re-focusing on what direction the product should go in."

"While you hear vocal complaints on social media about the product's integrity -- same with every other CMS -- I believe the real issue Ektron has faced is market perception," Eddy told CMSWire. "Unfortunately over the past several years, there has been very poor management on Ektron's side of the house in terms of messaging company direction to it's partners and clients, which allows Ektron to change strategies on a whim not thinking through new product offerings completely. Looking down the road, if this sale allows Ektron to reposition itself in a more favorable light, there are talented employees still there who are able to execute."

Title image by Nicu Buculei (Flickr) via a CC BY-SA 2.0 license