Memo: Shopify’s ‘Cool Kid’ Paradox

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An open letter to all eCommerce merchants. In a recent chat with 2PM Executive Member Damian Soong, the DTC founder replied with a poignant thought:

Someone needed to say that DTC isn’t Shopify.

Paul do Forno, the Managing Director of Deloitte’s Commerce Practice, chimed in with the data to support Soong’s thought, adding:

If you plotted by total platform revenue: HCL Commerce, Oracle, SAP, SalesForce would be towards the top.

Shopify has made the industry more interesting, accessible, and newsworthy. But it is not the only participant in this burgeoning ecosystem: Magento (now Adobe), Demandware (now Salesforce), SAP, BigCommerce, Squarespace, BigCartel, WooCommerce, Webflow, Square, and Wix have played pivotal roles in the development of either enterprise or merchant-level markets. Shopify is neither the biggest platform with respect to merchant volume or gross merchandise value (GMV). It sits squarely at the center of the two extremes. Yet somehow, it became the de facto operator of the DTC era.

To understand the direction of eCommerce, you must understand its past and present. During what was likely the most pivotal year in my early eCommerce career, I studied Magento from the perspective of an eCommerce brand that employed 100 or so. That earlier version of Magento was a complicated platform to understand. Its management required the employment of a dozen engineers and an equal magnitude of talent in user experience and front-end design. When I soon had my own opportunity to build an eCommerce brand alongside Kevin Lavelle, we went not to Magento, but to Shopify. We didn’t have the money to hire technical talent, nor did we have the patience to manage it on top of the challenges that we faced in manufacturing and early customer acquisition. But it’s important to recognize that this decision was made nine years ago – a lifetime in technology.

That same company of 100 is now over 1,000 strong. In under one decade, a small industry competitor became a global manufacturing leader all through direct-to-consumer channels. And they’ve done so on Adobe’s Magento. If any SaaS platform has the right to claim the dawn of the DTC era (2008), Magento could easily make that argument. Instead, it gets lost in the conversation.

Standing in a hallway of Shopify Plus’ most recent New York City conference in 2019, I sat with Shopify CEO Tobi Lutke, one of the industry’s most admired executives. I remember marveling at the production of the event. The friends, the networking, the branding of the space all communicated Shopify’s place in the eCommerce ecosystem. I applauded the entrepreneurs who shared their stories on stage with highly produced short films. Also notable was the accessibility of the C-suite executives who, frankly, should no longer be that accessible. This availability is a part of Shopify’s secret sauce. You won’t find another retail CEO of his caliber who is willing to respond to customers on platforms like Twitter and Instagram.

What I remember most about that particular meeting is the intensity of Lutke’s product focus. Suggest an idea that is outside of Shopify’s product pipeline and he will explain why Shopify isn’t right for it. He rarely waivers on his vision for what Shopify and Shopify Plus are to the eCommerce industry, or the functions that they are willing to build.

It’s this same galvanizing vision that rallies Lutke’s base of thousands of platform evangelists. Shopify’s ability to amplify its message through its partnership ecosystem has done wonders in furthering its narrative of perceived inevitability. In Shopify Unite and Network Effects [1], I wrote:

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.

Shopify’s primary arguments for the attention it gets are valid. Its holistic approach to fulfillment, returns, and no/low code architecture will become fixtures in North America’s market as eCommerce’s percentage of retail continues to inch above and beyond 20% or 25% or 30%. And consider Squarespace or WooCommerce’s volume and Magento’s GMV: Shopify’s ability to capture mindshare despite these other companies’ advantages are as much the fault of the competitors who haven’t valued the marketing and branding aspects of business.

By weaponizing network effects, Shopify has become the proverbial cool kid of SaaS. Its brand voice is the life of the party and the center of many public discussions. There is market value in this positioning. Like Amazon, Shopify’s fortune is tied to eCommerce’s continued growth in North America. Public investors reward Shopify simply for being tied to the movement towards direct-to-consumer. It’s deserved.

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The Traditional, The Cool, The Quirky, and The Hustlers

It is important to note that this is not winner-takes-all, and what Shopify does next matters. There are eCommerce founders building on custom sites that have accomplished profitable growth. There are leaders who’ve chosen Salesforce or BigCommerce to fit their technological or philosophical needs. And in the process, they’ve built companies spewing $10s of millions in monthly EBITDA. Of course, there are examples of these feats on Shopify, but that’s the point. The democratization of eCommerce doesn’t only refer to platform simplicity.

Shopify’s ecosystem stands to benefit greatly by expanding the definition and character of the DTC industry to reach out and include the brands, founders, agencies, and technologies enabled to support them on other platforms. Some of the best and brightest stories, people, and brands are building outside of the spotlight.

The cool kids often earn the lion’s share of attention. But some of the most notable progress happens where the cool kids aren’t. That’s the paradox.

By emphasizing stories and anecdotes from founders who’ve eschewed the industry spotlight or brands that have managed growth differently than is commonly advertised, we’re closing the knowledge gap. Perhaps there was a brand founder who chose to use WooCommerce to scale and now has insights that could help Shopify-based brand founders accomplish the same. Or perhaps a Shopify Plus founder who’s successfully captured five years of year-over-year growth could explain a key strategy to a brand owner who’s built on Magento 2.3.4.

As eCommerce grows beyond 25% or 30% of American retail, we will see more examples of brands and retailers achieving a growth velocity that would have previously seemed unimaginable. In some cases, these brands will not be built with one’s preferred technical architecture. But the credibility or inclusion of these founder perspectives shouldn’t hinge on their platform preference.

Shopify Inc.’s job is two-fold. Their sales team works on converting potential users into new merchants. Their partnership ecosystem plays an essential role in replatforming existing merchants to Shopify or Shopify Plus. There are limits to this, but Shopify’s pronged ecosystem that pulls in new users and levels up existing ones is an advantage in the market, and it has an unparalleled opportunity. Where it reaches from here will determine its next phase of growth.

But they’re on notice. For every great success narrative that you hear from a Shopify partner, there five stories on competitive platforms. The DTC industry isn’t Shopify, it’s bigger than its technology or its ecosystem. This means that there is a greater opportunity to learn from, endorse, encourage, or evangelize the great work of builders who chose a different approach to a positive outcome.

By Web Smith | Editor: Hilary Milnes | Art: Andrew Haynes | About 2PM