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Two key developments, from over the past few months, shaped this week’s announcements at Toronto’s Shopify Unite 2019. BuzzFeed left Shopify to utilize fulfillment by Amazon (FBA). This was certainly a blow to Shopify; just months prior Shopify began working with BuzzFeed to drive demand to its many stores. But the most important of these developments? Adobe’s burgeoning partnership announcement with Amazon. In short, the Seattle-based eCommerce giant has become a threat to Shopify’s continued growth. And Magento (Acquired by Adobe), a platform that was impacted by Shopify’s growth, has long desired payback.

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No. 321: Shopify Unite and Network Effects

In a recent conversation with the founder of the infamous digitally-native brand Wone [1], 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 Lütke on Twitter

@web @fivefifths 😂

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

[1] a 2PM portfolio company

No. 306: Platforms and Halo Effects

The commerce platform report. The term “halo effect” was first coined by a psychologist in 1920. Edward Thorndike used the moniker to describe the methods that military officers used to assess the performance of their soldiers. These assessments often revealed little variance across the categories of performance. Either the soldiers were good or bad; few performance evaluations noted “good” performance in one respect and “bad” performance in another. It is said that the halo effect is influenced most by a person’s first impression. If we see them as bad, they can do no good. If we see them as good, they can do no ill. Today, this phrase is most-often applied to brands and their equity.

The halo effect is a type of immediate judgment discrepancy. It is the tendency for an impression that is created in one category to influence the opinions of impressions created in another category.

Shopify is seemingly everywhere. In December, Digiday’s Hilary Milnes reported that Shopify’s ecosystem of 20,000 partner developers generated $800 million in agency business in 2017. It’s estimated that Shopify’s partners (several of whom are mentioned here) will earn north of $2 billion in revenue in 2019.

To build a Shopify-like eCommerce platform is not hard to do. What’s very hard to do is replicate the partnership ecosystem and the value they drive. It’s their moat. It’s not the software — their competitive advantage is the partnerships.

Jay Myers, VP of Growth at Bold Commerce

The halo effect of Shopify’s ecosystem will not be easily combated. With many of the partners becoming standout B2B brands themselves, Shopify’s group of independent eCommerce agencies serves many functions: recruiting, evangelizing, and perhaps a bit of espionage – often relaying word of advancements and initiatives proffered by competing platforms. This brand halo effect is amplified thanks to the era of the direct to consumer (DTC) brand.

2019: top commerce providers that DTC brands are looking to for partnership | Source: Cloudways

The brand appeal and staff architecture of this cohort of internet-first companies are keys to understanding why so many challenger brands instinctively select Shopify. Though not a Shopify Partner, Gin Lane’s “work” page notes the many digitally native brands that they’ve steered to the platform. These names include: Harry’s, hims, hers, Sunday Goods, Ayr, Stadium Goods, Rockets of Awesome, Cadre, Recess, alma, Smile Direct, Dia & Co, Warby Parker, Everlane, Quip, Shinola, Bonobos, and Shake Shack. Similarly, Red Antler’s “work” page boasts partnerships with Burrow, Casper, Allbirds, Brandless, Crooked Media, Snowe, and Boxed. These brands, which skew mightily towards Shopify and Shopify Plus, serve as media darlings and public relations fuel.

Tobi Lütke on Twitter

I usually don’t highlight financial milestones here, but this one is worth mentioning: As Shopify passes the $1 billion-dollar revenue mark it does so with the highest growth rate of any SAAS company ever. 🎉

In this way, Shopify’s halo effect extends beyond the agencies with whom they partner. The challenger brands, themselves, become recruiting vehicles for like-minded companies looking to build brands from zero to one. As such, newer companies like Great Jones follow the same branding methods and staff architecture guidelines

On DTC Brand Architecture

It’s common for digitally native brands (DNVBs) to go to market with over $3 million raised. This pre-revenue war chest affords companies an early branding and public relations prowess that almost guarantees seven figures of revenue in the first year.

Partnering with a Red Antler or a Gin Lane can cost a brand up to $400,000. There are often added developmental costs that these challenger brands will have to incur. In addition to the cost for the brand standards, messaging, and the essence of the brand, the right PR contact can cost a young company another $180,000 to $240,000 per year.

No. 297 The DTC Industrial Complex:

There is an entire eCommerce branding industry that fosters the ideation, launch, and early growth of direct to consumer (DtC) brands. When you notice a new digitally vertical native brand in 2018, there’s a platform aura around many of them. First you’ll notice the early PR sensationalism that they can only garner if they graduate from the right school or leave the right corporation. Then, the founders must live in the right city, have the right investors, and pay the right $25,000 per month public relations retainer.

The challenger brand CEO is very well-educated and, at this stage, CEOs tend to start the brands post-business school. Founding teams tend to begin with some combination of a product developer, finance lead, and a customer acquisition lead. Software engineering is an afterthought for many of these young product companies; this competency is often outsourced to a partnering agency. Universally, the priority for challenger brands is two-pronged: (1) making a great product (2) find an efficient way to sell said products. This often reduces the urgency to partner with technical founders or hire early, technical employees. Whereas F = founder, B = early branding, and P = early product development:

F(marketing) + F(finance) + B(outsourced) + P(outsourced) = DTC founding architecture

Shopify’s ecosystem appeals to this particular architecture. The Ottawa-based company’s continued growth depends on their management’s ability to increase the percentage of challenger brands that grow into enterprise clients. And from enterprise clients to Top 1000 online retailers. Shopify’s volume-driven style of business is a mark of its commitment to small business retailers. But it’s not the only method of accelerating enterprise growth. There are several commerce platforms with notable gross merchandise volume (GMV) across their enterprise level of clients.

The Platform Landscape

From BigCommerce to Oracle and Salesforce, the DTC era of retail extends beyond the brands that are the most talked about in design, tech media, and public relations circles. Here is the data on the top nine by gross GMV. While Shopify generates the most media buzz in small business circles: Adobe, Salesforce, and Oracle are quietly leading the enterprise+ business. BigCommerce is often viewed as Shopify’s younger sibling, however their enterprise clients now generate a gross GMV of 2.5x Shopify’s enterprise clients. The following data is derived from a recent Digital Commerce 360 report (2019):

PlatformLaunch YearParent CompanyNew Vendor PreferenceTransaction FeesTotal RetailersUS based clientsAverage Annual SalesAvg Implementation TimeTop ClientsTop 1000 ClientsTop 1000 Web Sales
Magento2007Adobe13.30%No4,10055%$12.5 million4.2 monthsShinola, Jomashop 167$51.89 billion
Oracle Commerce Cloud1977Oracle3.30%No70060%$788.4 million4-8 monthsApple, Best Buy89$78.55 billion
SalesForce (Demandware) Inc.10%YesN/AN/A$325.4 million6-9 monthsAdidas, Yeti67$21.08 billion
IBM Commerce Cloud1911IBMN/AYesN/AN/A$944.3 million4-8 monthsNet-A-Porter, 1-800 Flowers44$44.51 billion
Shopify2004Shopify20%Yes820,000N/A$64.7 million1-2 hoursUntuckit, Kylie Cosmetics33$02.14 billion
BigCommerce2009BigCommerce3.30%No58,00077%$110,00057 daysSkullcandy, Toyota15$05.63 billion
SAP Commerce Cloud1972SAP SE10%Yes80035%$569.9 million4-6 monthsNew Era, Tumi15$08.55 billion
Kibo Cloud Commerce2016Kibo Software Inc.N/AYes45080%$51.1 million4-8 monthsRue21, Mizuno9$894.4 million
Oracle Netsuite1998Oracle6.70%No3,20088%$37.8 million30 daysMaclaren, Topo Athletic8$299.11 million

The platform ecosystem is vast. Of the top 1000 retailers, the majority of brands are built in-house and on custom platforms. Nearly 450 retailers have outsourced their technical capabilities to these nine companies. Moving forward, we will likely see platforms like Adobe building tools and an improved halo effect to address Shopify’s key audience and vice versa. Shopify will build tools to address more of the needs of top enterprise plus clients, as well as continuing to support the needs of the DTC brands that are adopting physical retail channels.

Specializing for a particular segment of the SMB to enterprise to enterprise plus spectrum may have dire consequences for platforms in this increasingly competitive space. As Shopify has shown, there is value in building early loyalty. Shopify is counting on a number of their industry-leading number of DTC and SMB retailers moving through the funnel to enterprise services. Additionally, Shopify’s reach grows as brands transition to Shopify from Magento or custom builds. A trend that the Adobe acquisition of Magento has potentially impacted. This continued growth would begin to tip the enterprise / enterprise+ GMV scales in their favor.

Commerce platforms advertise new capabilities with the idea that the technical merits of a platform, alone, will attract new business. To this effect, many of these platforms have deprioritized brand marketing superiority and influential partnership development in favor of technical product development and traditional advertising. Whether or not the improvement of competitor platform capabilities will outlast Shopify’s hard-wired brand loyalty remains to be seen. Objectively speaking, the sheer volume and positive brand association plays in Shopify’s favor. As does their halo effect.

Read the No. 306 curation here.

Report by Web Smith | About 2PM