Memo: Shopify Unite and Network Effects

In a recent conversation with the founder of the infamous digitally-native brand Wone, Kristin Hildebrand was opining on her recent struggles with her eCommerce cart. With a price point of $320 per pair of her leggings, dropped carts are a way of life for luxury products. But BigCommerce, her platform of choice, wouldn’t let her review dropped carts for outreach to potential customers.

When the issue was researched, 2PM received answers from nine separate eCommerce agencies. Each confirmed that dropped carts should be reviewable across any platform. The irony wasn’t lost on me. Nine separate agency executives responded publicly or privately to highlight a key differentiator between Shopify and BigCommerce. They were all Shopify Partners. In the month of May 2019, Shopify’s stock rose 12.9% after earnings reflected that the company beat analysts’ estimates. As of this post, the company’s stock has risen 907% over the last three years and 2019 has seen 120% growth, thus far. But is Shopify the most technically capable eCommerce SaaS? The vast majority of honest observers would contend that while other platforms are technically superior at the enterprise stage, Shopify owns pre-enterprise ($0 – $5,000,000 in annual sales).

If you were to sit in a room with BigCommerce or Adobe’s c-suite and explain that product differentiation can be more than a software iteration – you won’t be sitting there for long. And that is part of Shopify’s mounting advantage. It’s unclear whether or not the original intent of the Shopify Partner ecosystem was to be a catalyst for network effects. But that’s certainly the case. Founder Tobi Lutke, Harley Finkelstein, and team stumbled upon a new form of competitive advantage in commerce SaaS. Here, at the intersection of influence and efficacy, sociological advantages of retail brands have interfaced with an ecosystem of software as a service.

For enterprise-level customers, Austin-based BigCommerce’s platform has maintained tremendous technical advantages, as does Adobe’s Magento. But it seems to matter less and less, relative to Shopify’s continued momentum. Shopify’s network effects are unlike any in SaaS. We’ve seen Microsoft Windows exclude Netscape in favor of its own Internet Explorer. Some of us can vaguely remember when Instagram only serviced iOS users. For a time, Apple’s app store was its own network effects-driven moat. But Shopify’s defensibility is slightly different. It’s been bolstered by human resources and sociology.

BigCommerce and Handshake Announce Strategic Partnership to Deliver Joint SaaS Solution for B2B Ecommerce. (January 2018)

As with any tech platform that possesses network effects, platform improvements are a development cycle or acquisition away. In a recent report by Tech Crunch, Ingrid Lunden detailed the quiet acquisition of a company that – until recently – was a competitive advantage for the BigCommerce ecosystem.

This is big business: a recent report found that B2B e-commerce sales in the U.S. alone passed $1 trillion for the first time in 2018. As with consumer-focused sales, platforms like Handshake’s offer merchants the ability to handle these sales directly, rather than handing off the sales to third-party marketplaces, where the merchant also needs to pay a commission to the third party and need to play by its rules.

In a flash, Shopify acquired Handshake for a number that hovered around BigCommerce’s 2017 gross revenue. It’s been reported that this acquisition was such a surprise frustration for BigCommerce that their editor removed their partnership announcement from the press release page. And rightfully so. Handshake will enable Shopify Plus’ existing enterprise clients to grow their B2B business. And it will remind early-stage customers (and ones who’ve yet to be sold on Shopify’s services) that they are the end to end solution from launch to exit. The author of a recent essay on the network effects of Bird scooters, Lightspeed’s Jeremy Liew explains network effects in this context:

We’d all like to believe that innovators with the best product win. Sometimes that’s true. But in the consumer world, where your product is easily observable by your competitors, product innovation is a fleeting advantage.

Are you attending Shopify Unite?

Shopify in blue, Adobe’s Magento in yellow, BigCommerce in red.

Leading up to the annual event, this is the most frequent question that you’ll hear in the DTC ecosystem. When rumors of Shopify’s Handshake acquisition began to surface, it was all the chatter among Shopify’s impressive circuit of loyal agencies. Prior to the announcement, this buzz materialized online like a massive public relations coup. Both a sales channel and a PR platform of sorts, Shopify’s partner ecosystem deserves the credit for a considerable amount of Shopify’s explosive growth – of late. In a December 2018 report by Digiday, it was reported that Shopify’s agency ecosystem generated nearly $800 million in revenue.

This is in addition to the $1.1 billion in forecasted revenue for Shopify, Inc. By most measures, Shopify’s business is outpacing that of Magento’s and BigCommerce’s. With over 16,500 partners referring potential vendors, the growth makes sense. Shopify boasts agencies like Winnepeg’s Bold Commerce, a group that’s grown to 256 employees. And San Diego’s Brand Value Accelerator, an agency with 151 employees and growing.

Tobi Lutke on Twitter: “😂 / Twitter”


For the most successful agencies in the space, it means big business. For Shopify, it means referred sales, an organic public relations arm, and a community of enthusiasts that operate – quite literally – as a defense mechanism. And there’s no bigger event than Shopify’s annual Unite. It’s a yearly capstone that should remind analysts that Shopify is effectively commoditizing technology, making human relationships the differentiator. It makes the platform’s advantages that much harder to duplicate. Shopify COO Harley Finkelstein made this clear at last year’s event:

The future of commerce needs to be owned by all of us — partners, merchants, service providers, tech enablers and shoppers. The masses, not the few. So we need you to join our movement.

In a sense, Shopify has grown by way of the technological advancements of its competitors. On occasion, the company builds and democratizes new technology for the different stages of its own customers: Basic Shopify, Shopify, Advanced Shopify, and Shopify Plus. Lightspeed’s Jeremy Liew concluded his essay with the following, “Unfortunately, the leaders in industries with strong network effects cannot be overcome through product innovation alone.”

The growth of the DTC era can be attributed to SaaS companies like Shopify, BigCommerce, Magento, and Demandware. But in an industry where innovations are finite development cycles away, community and brand equity has become the key differentiator. The city of Toronto is the home of the first, international NBA title and a certain, best-selling musician. But it’s also home to the annually sold out Shopify Unite – an industry-leading display of a SaaS company’s network effects. It’s unlikely that either of these mainstays will be duplicated any time soon.

Report by Web Smith | About 2PM

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