Which Platform is Right for Me?

Posted in Platform Talk

The engine behind every ecommerce site is its platform. In modern retail, selecting a platform is one of the most important decisions a merchant makes in the course of their business. The platform needs to suit their business needs today, yet have room to scale. Given that retailers will be working and growing their company with the platform for years to come, how do they choose the right one?

In this Recommerce episode, you’ll learn:

  • How businesses at different stages of ecommerce maturity should think about platform options.
  • Why emerging retailers should think about Minimum Viable Product (MVP) first.
  • Key differences between a SaaS platform, like Shopify, and a self-hosting platform like Magento.
  • Nuanced considerations between Shopify, Magento, and Big Commerce platforms.

Full Episode Transcript

Welcome to Recommerce, a podcast for ecommerce wearable brands navigating technical complexity and change, brought to you by Command C.

Sara Bacon: Hello, I’m Sara Bacon, the founder of Command C. I’m here with Tiffany Kuchta, our tech lead.

Tiffany Kuchta: Hi everyone. This week we’re going to talk a little bit about how to select the right platform for your ecommerce site.

Sara Bacon: Tif, a client comes to us saying that they need a new site. Where do they begin in terms of selecting a platform that’s going to meet all their needs and be nimble enough to scale?

Tiffany Kuchta: Oh geez, that is the million dollar question. I think there’s really two types of this particular request. The first is someone who’s coming to us because they’re building a site for the first time. They’ve never really done ecommerce before. Maybe they have some retail experience or maybe their product has been in retail for a while, and they’re looking to expand in ecommerce, but this is sort of their first trip to the rodeo and they don’t really know what to expect. Their understanding of what they need is somewhat limited to what they’ve experienced from other similar ecommerce platforms. They may or may not have some existing operations tools that need to be integrated with, but because this is the first time, everything is kind of fresh and new and more flexible.

The second type of this request comes in when we’re talking about a client who has all of their ecommerce ducks already in a row, or they’ve been in the ecommerce space for a while. They have a sense of what works and what doesn’t work, and for whatever reason, they’ve decided that what they currently have isn’t working, and so they’re ready to re-platform, or they’re ready to upgrade the platform that they’re currently on, or make some other kind of shift. But they have existing structures and those existing structures are in a lot of cases immutable. We can’t change them. We can’t tell them they have to use a different 3PL (Third-Party Logistics Provider). We can’t modify the ERP. At that point in time, we really need to enter into a lot of discovery in order to determine which of these two types of projects we’re working with. Then within that, what things does the ecommerce store need to connect to in order to maintain and to sort of provide only good disruption to the business?

Sara Bacon: Yeah. I think that there’s also sort of this in between client who has a successful ecommerce store already, but is either looking to rebrand themselves, or to try out a new market, or to try something a little bit different, which is also I think an important thing to understand because that client might also still have some of these immutable things like an ERP, or other underlying foundational business and operations piece that can’t change. But I think it’s also important to acknowledge that there’s also an in-between client. I think what we would recommend for them is also very specific to the fact that they’re trying something new. What it comes down to is: are you trying something new? Or are you recreating the same thing on a more optimized platform, or with automation in place, or something along those lines? I think those are kind of the key differentiators. Are you doing something new, or are you doing the same thing, but looking for an optimized solution to do that same thing?

What it comes down to is: are you trying something new? Or are you recreating the same thing on a more optimized platform, or with automation in place, or something along those lines?

Tiffany Kuchta: Definitely. The people in that in-between group, they tend to sort of contain characteristics from both places. For example, one of the things that we would definitely recommend for somebody who’s just entering into ecommerce is to consider an MVP (Minimum Viable Product) approach that allows them to get to market and start collecting data about how people actually interact in the ecom space with their product. That’s a similar thing that I think we would recommend for someone in that in-between group that’s trying something new. I mean, personally, those are some of my very favorite projects because they have the predictability of an established business model along with the flexibility and the excitement of a Kickstarter campaign. These ones are really, really fun to work on, and they do have a very different sort of approach that lets us possibly take an MVP. Whereas with an established ecommerce brand, there really isn’t a world in which you can go to market with something that isn’t at least as polished and final as what they had previously.

Sara Bacon: Yeah. The difference that we’re talking about between these two approaches is 1) starting with something that’s more lean and scaled back, what we could call an MVP. Or 2) going to market with something that is flushed out and feature rich because you’ve already proven that those features work and are core to your business model. If we’re talking about this MVP approach, how do we help clients define what that MVP is? What’s the benefit of going to market with an MVP versus something that’s fully-flushed out with all the bells and whistles? I can see the logic in “I want to make a splash here, I want to come to market with the thing that’s going to get everyone’s attention and make them buy from us.” What’s the difference between those two things?

Tiffany Kuchta: I think that that can be driven a lot by budget and risk tolerance. In a perfect world, yes, we all go to market with the product that does all of the things that we need it to do. But the reality is that’s often not an option for either a second brand that’s just releasing, or for a brand that is brand new. Additionally, going to market with a list of features that you have made assumptions about is and can be really dangerous. It’s not only dangerous for your pocketbook, because obviously it costs money to build those features. Then the features exist and you don’t know how people are going to interact with them. But you also risk not allowing the product to be the thing that sells the product. That goes into a level of business understanding that I, as a tech lead, typically don’t get involved in, but it’s important to consider because you can build anything you can think of. I think the speed of technology has proven that to us. You can build absolutely anything, but making assumptions about what that should be shouldn’t be the way that you decide to build it.

Going to market with a list of features that you have made assumptions about is and can be really dangerous….You risk not allowing the product to be the thing that sells the product.

Sara Bacon: We’ve identified that there’s these two types of clients depending on where their business is. We work with a number of different platforms, but the two that we work with the most tend to be Shopify Plus and Magento, which have some pretty core differences. Let’s talk about how the differences in these platforms might correspond to the two different types of businesses that we’re talking about here.

Tiffany Kuchta: Yeah absolutely. I think that the first most important thing to understand is that we’re talking about the difference between a hosted platform, so software as a service (SaaS). Here you’re paying a subscription fee, and all of the core code that runs that shopping platform is outside your control and hosted and maintained by the provider. Shopify is that. Then the alternative to that is, for example, Magento, and Magento can be self-hosted. There are also some advanced hosting options with it. We could spend seven podcasts just talking about Magento, so I’ll curb myself back a little bit there. But, it’s a platform for which you are responsible for the infrastructure. You are responsible for the maintenance. You are responsible for the system security.

Yes, it comes with a great amount of flexibility. There are no limitations. We’re not limited to what we can do with the core code. It’s open source, so we can do anything with it. Even the enterprise version, once we have it, can be modified to do anything and can be extended to do anything. But at the end of the day you’re responsible for all of that. Magento is not a lightweight. It’s a big somewhat labyrinthine application that requires a development team. It’s not something that I would ever recommend you take on if you don’t have technical folks on staff who can be responsible for it in the long term. On staff or contracted, but you need people with expertise in that platform to do it.

So I think the line becomes really clear. If you’re just getting into eCommerce and you’re not really sure, and you don’t have a high need for customization, the investment in Magento may not make sense for you out of the gate.

Sara Bacon: What if you have a fairly decent need for customization? I mean does that just mean Shopify is not going to work for you? What’s the limit there in terms of how far can I push this thing?

Tiffany Kuchta: That’s a really good question. I think it’s tempting to think of the security and the self-containment of a hosted platform as a huge limiting factor. Unfortunately, or fortunately rather, it’s not the case. Shopify, for example, has a super robust API. We can do a lot to extend it. We can build applications that communicate with it and that sort of work outside of it. The line comes, in my opinion, based on again your budget. At a certain point when we have done so much work to extend something, it may not have made budgetary sense to choose it for its less expensive startup cost. That’s where I think that line comes into play. That’s why technical discovery is so important to identify what are those things that would require hours and hours of development work to tack on to something like Shopify that maybe you would already either have out of the box with Magento or be able to readily add.

It’s also tempting to assume that a hosted platform like Shopify is going to require you to rely on a lot more third-party providers, that you’re going to need a lot more apps. As it turns out, with Magento, despite the fact that it’s self-hosted, we’re not editing the core. We’re not changing core Magento functionality. We’re using the tools that they’ve given us within the coding standards to extend that functionality anyway. Because that’s the case that means that we don’t want to reinvent the wheel any more than you do. If there’s a good solid extension that accomplishes what you need, that extension is going to get installed. Now you’re in a slightly different situation and it’s backwards from what you might think. Shopify, for example, polices and monitors its app ecosystem. Those apps don’t get there unless someone from the Shopify team has said it’s okay for them to get there. Additionally, you have sort of guaranteed support from them.

This is something that the Magento marketplace has come a long way in, but you can still readily get extensions that do not guarantee you support and that you don’t really know anything about how they were built. At that point, you’re potentially leaning on a developer to analyze the code within that extension and you’re sort of six to one half dozen of the other at that point. I think that it is a bad idea to make your sole deciding factor how many extra apps you’re going to need to make the platform work because it’s really, in practice it’s not that much different between the two solutions.

Sara Bacon: Yeah. I guess that’s bringing up for me something that I see a lot, which is I think that there’s, I don’t want to say a myth out there, but I see a pattern with more enterprise-level clients thinking that they can’t use Shopify because it’s too low grade a solution for them. I mean even beyond the myth that it’s not flexible enough to them. I think that there’s just kind of like this notion that as an enterprise level client I need to be on Magento, and likewise for the opposite as maybe a startup I need to be on Shopify. I think that that’s flawed thinking, but a pattern that I see over and over again. How do you help clients get past that notion? What’s a scenario where an enterprise level client the best platform for them really is Shopify Plus and not Magento?

Tiffany Kuchta: I think an easy scenario for that is when their ecommerce specific needs are not that unique, they’re not needing to build on a ton of extra applications. At that point what you’re really looking at is just sort of brand recognition. Like you said, it’s that idea that Magento is for enterprise and Shopify is for little startups that are selling one product. The fact of the matter is that Shopify’s ecosystem is incredibly robust and very reliable, and you don’t have to manage it. You don’t need a 10 person IT staff to manage your AWS cluster so that Magento doesn’t fall down when you get 500 orders in a second. You don’t need that.

Sara Bacon: I think what you’re saying and sort of my perspective on this is that the focus should be on the needs, not the level of enterprise you are. I see that getting confused a lot.

My perspective is that the focus should be on the needs, not the level of enterprise.

Tiffany Kuchta: I think so, too, and it’s sort of my favorite thing to – complain is maybe too strong of a word, but we’ll use it anyway – my favorite thing to complain about is self-prescription. Without the technical underpinnings to understand why one solution is better for you than another, choosing a solution without that information might land you in the wrong bucket. That doesn’t always mean it’s a catastrophic mistake. I mean so you landed on Magento and you didn’t really need it. What that means is you maybe spent a little bit more money to get it there and now you have some longer-term maintenance that you have to deal with. There were trade-offs, so it’s okay. But at the end of the day, you weren’t operating with all of the knowledge you would have needed to make the absolute best decision for you in either the short or the long-term in that case.

Without the technical underpinnings to understand why one solution is better for you than another, choosing a solution without that information might land you in the wrong bucket.

Interlude: You’re listening to Recommerce, a podcast for ecommerce wearable brands navigating technical complexity and change, brought to you by Command C, a development team that saves ecommerce retailers from outdated tech and ineffective operations with a strong focus on Magento and Shopify Plus. You can learn more about how we help at commandc.com.

Sara Bacon: Alright, so pivoting a little bit. Say that we have gone through a technical discovery with a client and everything about this client says hosted platform. They don’t need super intense amount of customization that really makes Magento feel like the right choice for them, but within the hosted platform world there are some fairly comparable platforms. The two that we encounter most frequently and work with most frequently are Shopify Plus and Big Commerce. I think maybe the more nuanced question is how do you help a client decide whether Shopify Plus or Big Commerce is a better solution for them when those solutions are pretty comparable in nature?

Tiffany Kuchta: Yeah, and they really are. Before I jump into answering that, one thing that I just kind of want to bring up is that we keep talking about customizations and I want to clarify that I’m not talking about what it looks and feels like on the front end. All of those platforms can really truly be made to look and for the most part function in any way that you can imagine. We’re not talking about the difference between picking a cookie cutter theme that 500 other people have versus something that your designer brought to us and we built for you. This is not what we’re talking about when we say customizations. When we say customizations we’re saying, let’s say you need to build a full-scale model that implements a configurator into your site. That kind of level of functionality may help to drive the platform decision based on what your specific needs are.

Sara Bacon: Yeah, good clarification there.

Tiffany Kuchta: To go back to your original question though which is, how do we pick between these two or more hosted platforms that are relatively similar? There are some key differences and I think that’s where to start. The key difference that I see between Shopify and Big Commerce has to do with faceted search. What we mean by faceted search are the filters, the filters on the side of your categories page that help users to narrow down and drill down into the product set that they want specifically. Think about Amazon. Every time you’ve ever shopped on Amazon, you get this really robust set of filters that is generated based on the page that you’re currently on. I firmly believe it uses a whole bunch of other stuff to add things to that column, but we just talk about that filter list.

The key difference that I see between Shopify and Big Commerce has to do with faceted search.

In Magento, it’s called layered navigation and it just kind of comes out of the box. In Big Commerce, it’s faceted search, and it’s there for you. You can assign product attributes to be filterable in this manner, and you can also specify the logic by which those get filtered. With Shopify, those filters are tag driven out of the box. Not only are they tag driven, but they also have, because they are tag driven, they have a very specific way that they function out of the box. What that means is that if I want to see products that are green and red, I can absolutely pick both green and red, but it is going to show me only products that contain both of those colors, so only a green and red plaid shirt, whereas a faceted search that uses a different query for searching might serve you a green shirt, a red shirt, and a green and red shirt. This is sort of tag based out of the box, but Shopify can absolutely be extended to handle all of those filtering scenarios.

It’s just something to remember that if faceted search is really important to you, but not so important that you want to spend a lot of time and effort getting it set up and rolling, then that would be one thing that I would consider. Shopify also uses collections for managing products as opposed to a true category hierarchy. What this means essentially is that all of your product categories are at the same level. There aren’t really children of one another. In practice, this almost never matters. Although in theory, you can see that the difference is that you basically don’t have a tree structure for your products anymore, you have kind of a set of groupings. Collections can also be really flexible and add a lot of flexibility because it forces you to think about your products in a slightly different way, and so there are pros and cons to both of those.

Those are the two biggest things that I see. As far as reliability goes, both platforms are extremely reliable. Pricing depends on your unique needs. We won’t get into that here, but they’re both worth considering. Ultimately, just like the decision between a hosted platform a not hosted platform, what you’re looking at is an ability to understand the technical needs of your project to determine where it will best fit.

Sara Bacon: Great. Well, thanks for another great chat. I’ll talk to you next time.

Tiffany Kuchta: Sounds great. Thanks.