So, I’m probably going to get a lot of hate for over-simplifying this but I thought of a good way to explain to someone the shortcomings of platforms like Shopify and WordPress.
Now don’t get me wrong, these tools can be good or bad depending on what you need, who’s setting it up, who’s using it, etc.. They are, afterall, just tools. Use a hammer when you need a screwdriver and you’re going to have a hard time. Just because you can grab a handsaw and some wood, doesn’t mean you’re prepared to build a house.
The reason e-commerce in particular, is such a difficult thing to tackle is because, when you start understanding how businesses operate, you start to see that not every business functions the same. And this is the thing about first-time founders who have no business experience, they have only ever understood consumer businesses from the point of view of the customer.
The Business-End of e-Commerce
When you cross over to the other side, and when you’ve seen as many small businesses as we have, you come to realize that selling as “simple” as selling a product can have a LOT of caveats. Each business has their own packages, discounts, specials, and nuances.
The way to understand this is to think of setting up your products like creating rules for a game. The rules can be whatever you want … “Buy 2 and get the second one half-off”, “Spend $100 and get free shipping until May”, “Bishops can only move diagonally”. Since the rules can be whatever you want, you want to use a tool that will accommodate whatever business rules you have in mind.
So now, imagine Shopify is like a game board. We can use Chess as an example. On a chessboard, we can play Chess or Checkers pretty easily. We switch out the pieces and change the rules as needed. Simple, right? But what if we want to play something else? We can add some markers to the squares and change the pieces for lettered tiles to play Scrabble. It’s still ok, and the platform works for all three games pretty well.
But as you add on more options, the ability to change up more rules, you start to use hacky solutions like adding in markers and pieces that only come into play sometimes. You have conflicting pieces that can obscure or ruin the experience of the other games if not set up just right. You can start adding squares for Monopoly, maybe walls and mounts to play Hungry Hungry Hippos.
As you add complexity to your system, as you add more options and the ability to change up more rules, the platform gets messier and messier. Yes, it can do a lot “out of the box” but at what cost?
Now, once you place your monstrosity of a platform on your table, select the pieces you want to use, and have agreed on the rules, the moment you want to deviate or change anything, you have to shift through the platform and hope that nothing breaks. Adding on more options in the hopes that you don’t obscure anything vital in the process.
So what’s the alternative? You can start with a blank slate and build in only what you need. Of course, this is more work and requires a lot more skill and planning. But in the end, you end up with exactly what you want without the extra bloat.
Is either option the “right” way to go? No. Like the tools analogy, each situation is different and what you really need is expert advice that will give you the right set up for your unique needs. Someone who knows how to use the tools and can help you build your house.
A Smarter Approach
The best thing to do is to consult an expert before you dive into a solution. Explore some important questions and try to understand what the vision for your business is going to be. It may be the case that the out-of-the-box solutions are your best bet to save time and money. It may be the case that what you have in mind is extremely custom and a one-size-fits-all platform doesn’t give you what you need.
Over the years, I have personally had many of these kinds of discussions with start-ups as well as seasoned organizations looking at the next stage of growth. Many factors come into play both on and off line when it comes time to make a decision about choosing an e-commerce platform.
Asking questions beyond the transaction are also important. How are you planning your marketing strategy around your website? Does the platform play well with your marketing tools? What does your sales funnel look like? What about logistics (shipping and order fulfillment)? Accounting? Finance? Banking? Third-parties?
An expert in the field with years of experience can walk you through the pros and cons of multiple solutions and look at implementing a plan that works for you. This is the most important step that people often forget and, instead, jump into a platform they don’t fully understand, only to realize their mistake after they are already locked in.
A Very Quick Crash Course
Some of the most important things you want to consider if you’re new to this:
This comes before up-front costs on our list for a reason.
On-going expenses are extremely important and people often forget to calculate this, or incorrectly calculate this, as part of their on-going operating expenses. Once a site is launched, there are many moving parts that you need to keep an eye on to make sure things are running smoothly and that you can actually expand.
Hosting and platform fees are just the beginning. First-time entrepreneurs are often surprised at the credit card transaction fees associated with setting up a merchant account. Shipping can get expensive if not handled properly as well. Marketing and sales also have costs associated to them. Technical issues also arise from time to time and you should bank some sort of budget for regular maintenance and upgrades. Code, like any physical machine, isn’t good forever.
Out-of-the-Box Capabilities vs. Your Business Requirements
People who have never run a business before think that there is a “standard” model for sales that works for everyone. Unfortunately, that’s not really the case. Take something as simple as offering a coupon.
Does the coupon provide you with a dollar amount discount or a percentage? Is there a minimum value before someone is allowed to use the coupon? Does the coupon code work more than once? Is there a limit to how many of these coupons are in circulation? Does the coupon only apply under certain circumstances? The list goes on and on.
While Shopify does a decent job at coupon handling, for example, it does poorly with other features. Something as simple as serving two currency options requires a separate App or a separate site.
Understanding the exact model you would like to set up for your sales process is absolutely key to selecting the appropriate system to go with.
Another extremely important point that technically has little to do with your actual e-commerce store is your marketing plan. The reason we always recommend having a clear marketing plan before choosing a platform is because different marketing strategies require different considerations.
If you are planning on creating complex blog articles or hosting content on your site, you want to make sure that your e-commerce site will actually allow for this. If you end up having to create a completely separate site just for marketing, this can sometime be difficult to maneuver if you need to do SEO or even SEM.
If you’re doing ad spend you want to very carefully track metrics that some platforms may not allow for. We often build custom system specifically because we want to collect a lot of data from our visitors and have specific metrics we want to see.
Future Scalability and Customizability
Finally, if your store is a huge success, you will want to expand. Planning ahead and talking about what your plans are will give you a sense of what you need. Some platforms are more scalable than others. Some are cheap up-front but have strict limitations while some are super expensive initially but offer huge options that will last you for years.
Having a roadmap for your growth is helpful in understanding which platform will serve you best. It doesn’t have to be a 100% certainty but it will be useful to guide the exploration of your specific needs. Every entrepreneur is different in their vision, every business is different in their needs. Understanding both is important.
The important thing to keep in mind is that e-commerce is more complicated from the business-end than from the consumer-end. A lot goes into creating a fluid, error-free experience for the visitor.
Proper planning before execution will save you time, money, and many headaches down the road. Talking to trusted experts is important in making the right decisions.
If you are interested in picking the brains of one of our experts. Please feel free to contact us.