Future of eCommerce with Bob Giovannini, CEO IronPlane

Introduction to Bob Giovannini, CEO of IronPlane

Tim Bucciarelli: 

Welcome back to Shaping eCommerce with IronPlane. I’m Tim Bucciarelli, the Director of Engagement at IronPlane. This is another installment of our future of eCommerce series.

Today, we are joined by Robert Giovannini, CEO of IronPlane. So Bob, thank you for joining me today. 

Bob Giovannini:

Tim, thanks for having me.

Tim Bucciarelli: 

Great to have you on. And I know that we have a lot of these conversations in our day to day about the future of eCommerce, our role in the future of eCommerce. But you know, the target for this recording is merchants who have these questions, and, you know, are just wanting to understand what should they be looking at in eCommerce, not just today, but also in the next five to ten years, so that they can get the biggest return on the investment decisions that they make. So the first question is really at a very high level: where do you see eCommerce going generally in the next five to ten years? 

Interview with Bob Giovannini

Bob Giovannini:

Wow. You know, those are the impossible questions, right? You know, very high level. And I love it because it's a great thought exercise. If you're merchant today, it's almost harder because there are so many options to consider.

And you want to try to get it right. And I mean, you know, from a lot of the meetings we have with clients, we'll sit down and go, "Hey, we're not thinking out ten years, a lot of the times. We're, you know, best case thinking out three years and have a roadmap, this is probably a real win in your organization because the idea that you're gonna be on the same technology without a significant investment, again, within five years, not likely. Unless things are very static and not complex in your organization. And, of course, there are the exceptions to this rule. We still have clients on Magento 1, for example, you know, years after its end of life. So when you ask this question, "Where do I see it going in the next five to ten years?"

I kind of look back. I look back to when I started in this, you know, 1998-ish, I think it was. I was in Russia. eCommerce was new. Amazon was doing its thing for a couple of years now. But as an individual, you could get into this. You could build a website, and it wasn't just HTML anymore. Heaven knows I'm not a coder. I needed tools, and there was a tool at the time called FrontPage, and this seemed to be all the rage.

And it was a way to drag and drop and build a website, and you could wire up PayPal. Okay, this is pretty cool. So I'm in Russia and I'm at this market one weekend, and I find these chess sets that look absolutely amazing. And I said, "Okay, I'm gonna do this. I'm gonna get into eCommerce. How hard can this be?"

And so I buy some of these chess sets, and some of them are pretty expensive, and I took some pictures on an old first-round Kodak digital camera at the time. And I uploaded this thing, and there was no such thing as a security certificate, at least that I knew of at the time. And I let it ride. I think I forgot about it for a few days.

Came back, you know, some days later, and I had an email saying, "Your chess set has sold," and it's some ski slope in Western Canada, has bought it sight unseen for, and I don't know, it was a few thousand bucks, right? Whatever it was. I'm going, "Holy moly, sight unseen. So you put a credit card on there and now I gotta ship this product."

And that was eCommerce, you know? And that was the beginning. And you know, now we're going back, you know, over 20 years. And that's a significant change from where that was to where we are today. Now, as significant as that change has been, it's also the same. We're taking a product, taking a picture of it, putting it up on a website, and hoping somebody buys it. 

Tim Bucciarelli:

And there are for some people, similarly simple tools and even simpler tools to build a website. You could build a website in three hours. And get ready to sell stuff. 

Bob Giovannini:

And in fact, it's gotten easier. So, you know, I guess the point being, you know, where's it gonna be in five to ten years?

I think it's gonna be, in some ways, a lot more of the same. It's gonna be, "I've got this platform, I have this way to talk to the world, show my products, and get them up there." Now, to get a little more technical, I think this idea of eCommerce, maybe in five to ten years, it won't be eCommerce anymore.

That'll feel like an anachronism. It'll just be "commerce". You know, we went through this whole period of, you know, "Is it a big e, a little e, e-commerce, what is it?" Right? And now, you know, I really think that as we talk about these ideas of universal commerce and composable commerce and all these other things, which are born of technical solutions, but really they're getting to the crux of the issue, which is companies that are starting to see a unification across all their channels and it just becomes "commerce". And depending on where you are on that spectrum, we'll determine maybe what toolsets make the most sense for you and how integrated or not. 


Tim Bucciarelli:

So I like that. And I think commerce may be too generic a term; people like to give qualifiers, but I think you used the term "unified", and I think "unified" or "integrated" commerce. I think that's really accurate.

Bob Giovannini:

So we're going back to "iCommerce", is what you're saying? 

Tim Bucciarelli:

I don't know. Or "uCommerce". "uCommerce". That has a little bit more of a ring to it. 

Bob Giovannini: 

Yeah, exactly. That's right, it does. 

Tim Bucciarelli:

So, I like that idea. And you can see kind of the indicators right now with "buy online, pickup in-store," for example. Local delivery. Certainly, you're always gonna have the eCommerce pure plays: you can only buy their stuff online, and that's it. There's no brick-and-mortar. But I think for businesses who are in the real world of dealing with people in a brick and mortar environment or a B2B sales team environment, finding ways to better integrate those systems into one commerce platform.

That, I think, that's a great vision of the future of eCommerce, and how it can be better, I'd say. 

Bob Giovannini:

Well, even four years ago, we were talking about, you know, 360-degree view of a customer, right? And it was the dream that, you know, if somebody was in your retail store, they could start there, finish up online, start online, finish up there, mobile, right?

All these were separate channels in many respects, and the dream was, could you have one unified view of that customer across all those channels? And the solutions — I mean, yes, you could make it happen, but it was never easy. It still was elusive for most even larger complex companies to pull that off.

But it's almost happening naturally, right? And this is where we're getting to this, you know, unified commerce, where the ability to see your customer across these channels and provide different ways to serve them where they are and how they want to be served is getting easier. And it's changing fairly rapidly.

I mean, you just brought up the whole " buy online and pick up in store," you know, two years ago or pre-pandemic, Amazon with their Prime two-day delivery and $3.99 for next-day delivery. You thought, "Who's ever gonna compete with this? How is that ever going to - how will you as a merchant ever be on the same footing as Amazon in this case? But whether it's the pandemic or just that you were tired of losing money, but we're up here in Portland, Maine, and we can no longer, even with Prime, get something delivered in two days.

You can if you order on a Tuesday, because Thursday seems to be the main day that they deliver things up to Portland, Maine. Okay? And there is no such thing as next day delivery. And then I noticed all of a sudden, I think this was during the pandemic, I got online, and I hadn't bought from Best Buy in I don't know how many years, and I needed a product, and it popped up.

And not only did I see that the local inventory was fully synced, at least in theory, with all the local stores, but beyond that, I can not only pick up in-store within three hours, but they said if I order by 3:00 PM, they would deliver to my door by 6:00 PM that day. At no extra cost. That's pretty cool. I mean, who would've thought, right?

This older school, you know, brick and mortar electronics retailer and they won my business. And the price was comparable. I mean, it was within a few dollars. It wasn't enough to make a difference. But I got served that day and I didn't have to get in my car and go. And so I think that, you know, with the tools and the way things are coming around, this ability to serve the customer and distinguish yourself in your market is getting really interesting. 

Tim Bucciarelli:

So I want to touch on this idea of integration and unification a little bit later in the conversation, but kind of getting to brass tacks now, I want to talk a little bit about some of the platforms that are out there and just if you can give us a sense of like - again, I know that there's so much overlap between these platforms, but if you could give us your opinion of the platforms and kind of their primary use cases so that merchants might feel like, "Oh, I fit in this bucket and I should be considering, you know, this platform or that platform." If there are distinguishing features enough for that. 

Bob Giovannini:

It's definitely getting - the overlap is getting bigger and bigger, as you would expect, right? What we consider to be the traditional SaaS-type solutions where you've got a box of a whole bunch of tools that are supported and updated and everybody can share in your Shopifys and your BigCommerce. I think both of these are fantastic tools for a lot of merchants and manufacturers.

And again, it depends on the level of complexity in your organization. Not the size, but complexity. And I think a solution like Shopify, if you are not overly complex. And what does that mean? It means the level of integrations, customizations. Are you international? 

Tim Bucciarelli:

It could be volume of sales.

Bob Giovannini:

Exactly, right? Are you exceeding their API limits? I mean, who heck knows, right? I mean, it's any number of technical final details. But in broad strokes, I think Shopify is really a great solution for people whose needs are not extraordinarily complex, and they can fit in their box, and they're gonna do very well. And probably, their total cost of ownership will be better there than things that are more complex if you can fit in that box. I think BigCommerce is at that next level. 

And we hear this theme a lot now, you know, where BigCommerce seems to be just that middle player between a true SaaS and maybe something that is more custom or platform as a service, which is a really bizarre, you know, nuance that we're getting into, right? And so we've, as a company, chosen BigCommerce as our second platform that we've gone all in on, and that we think is the right solution for the kinds of clients we serve: that have more complex needs, that have the need for integration, that go beyond run of the mill integrations and want the platform to be able to scale and do things that you can't predict today maybe.

And so you want to be on something that can grow with your changing needs that are not always known, you know, three years in advance. And so this is where I think BigCommerce is a good play. Magento is our darling; I mean, Magento, I always tell people this, for all of its strengths and weaknesses and everything else in between, it has been and still continues to be, I think, a really good solution for a lot of companies. I think that when I look at Magento, whether you're B2C or B2B, the ability to scale, the ability to customize, the ability to make it your own, sets it apart. And costs, still, whether you're talking their Enterprise Edition Commerce Cloud, or you're talking Open Source, total cost of ownership probably still comes out ahead if you're comparing apples to apples.

And you're leveraging that tool to its fullest. So I think that that is how I see those platforms. You certainly have another whole scale of what is maybe established brand names in the enterprise space like Salesforce, even SAP. These tools have their place. I think that they were, you know, just like WooCommerce on the opposite extreme born out of a content management system.

And again, it can work for certain applications. It feels to me, you know, the eCommerce part of it is never its core. It's a content management system that bolted on eCommerce. Salesforce is a CRM system, and it's not fair to say they bolted on eCommerce. It is far more substantial than that today. But that's the genesis.

Right? And so I think that that's where your eCommerce-specific platforms, like a Magento, while never will be a phenomenal CMS, content management system, do eCommerce very, very well. 

Tim Bucciarelli:

Yeah. And these platforms, when we're talking about the unification, each of them has its own flavor of that unification.

I think Shopify has gone the path, like you said, of creating this ecosystem. The Shopify ecosystem. And if you're comfortable with that, that is very unified. They've got their point of sale, they've got their payments processing, they've got their marketing platforms, and then you've got BigCommerce, which is really letting you kind of connect the dots with what they call their Open SaaS.

And then you've got, like you described, Salesforce Commerce Cloud. But then there's also like the SAP, the Oracle, the NetSuite, like these are again, similar to how you describe Salesforce being born out of CRM, those are born out of kind of more the, I don't know, like the ERP financial, you know? Like the back office operations stuff.

And they said, "Okay, well let's do eCommerce now." It's like people are always trying to integrate things but totally different flavors. And I also agree, I like where we landed with Magento and BigCommerce. It allows the merchant a little bit more flexibility to kind of pick and choose the best-in-class technologies that they want to unify with their eCommerce platform, which is very purpose-built.

So, okay. That's great. That gives us a broad view of the eCommerce platforms out there. What do you think about marketplaces? And when I say "marketplaces", to me, I think of course, Amazon, which is a huge marketplace, but in marketplace, people think Amazon sells just all their own inventory, but obviously, they don't.

They sell other merchants' inventories that's managed by the merchants. They manage it themselves. It's all over the place. It is a true marketplace. Walmart is doing the same thing. And Shopify interestingly is getting into that space as well with Shopify marketplace, which is a little bit of a different approach, but it is totally a marketplace.

Bob Giovannini:

Same idea, yeah.

Tim Bucciarelli:

Where are these marketplaces gonna fit? I mean, are they gonna kind of gobble everything up and eat away everyone's margin, or is there gonna be some reaction against them? 

Bob Giovannini: 

It's so interesting, this discussion. For me, I've always thought that marketplaces were a natural extension of any sales strategy.

I mean, why wouldn't you put your products into the marketplaces? Yes, it gobbles up some margin, although depending on who you are, the margin may not be any more than it is to acquire your own customer. There are pluses and minuses, which we can get into, but to this day, I am shocked at the number of eCommerce companies that are not a market, that started off by having their own eCommerce website. And whether they're pure plays or, you know, they're multi-channel but don't sell in the marketplaces. Whether because they have this natural visceral reaction against the Amazons of the world, or just because they don't understand it, or because it seems like they feel like they're gonna cut their own business.

You know, they're competing against themselves. On the flip side, if you talk to some of the major marketplace sellers, and these are, I mean, some of these are consolidating into billion-dollar companies. These are not small players. They'll tell you, you know, "Oh, I know I should create my own eCommerce site."

And they don't. I was on a podcast earlier this summer, and it was a gentleman who, their whole podcast is based on marketplaces. That's their entire universe is marketplaces. And we were both talking about this issue. And he consults with marketplace businesses, and he said, "They all know they need to create an eCommerce site, and they don't." So do I think they're gonna gobble up or be a direct competitor? I think no.

I think - well, yes, direct competition maybe, but gobble up? No. I think that if I'm an eCommerce business and either pure play or multi-channel, but not in the marketplaces, I would be leveraging my product data set, and getting it into these marketplaces. I think it allows you to get your brand out there in a way that you can't do on your own. I think it's like being in the mall. And why wouldn't you be there? Particularly if they're catering to segments and markets that you're not touching at all. You've got a chance to extend your brand, bringing people into your universe.

Certainly, if you do your own fulfillment, you've even got more control over that. I think it's a natural extension of any sales and marketing strategy. And I think it allows you to get into maybe even international markets easier than you could otherwise.

Tim Bucciarelli:

Yeah, and I agree with you. I think that there are some reasons why eCommerce merchants may not be kind of aware of how to get into the marketplaces effectively. So I think that might be a good topic for us to dive into a little bit more on another episode of Shaping eCommerce. I like the idea of really digging into that to expose how merchants can very easily get onto these marketplaces and kind of how to implement a smart strategy, rather than just, you know, doing it and seeing what happens.

So, conversation for another time. 

Bob Giovannini:

Yeah, but it's good. It's a tremendous opportunity for most clients though. I think that they are missing - they have the information, the data. This is really one of those, I think, a great way for a merchant to increase sales very quickly. 

Tim Bucciarelli:

Okay, so we're gonna shift gears here a little bit, and we're gonna dive into our primary platform of focus at IronPlane. And that is Magento Open Source and Adobe Commerce. You better than anyone knows the history of Magento and the many hands that have been involved in that platform. Not just the community but from eBay to Adobe.

So there are questions these days and a little bit of confusion that people have about the difference between Magento, Magento Open Source, Magento Enterprise Edition, Adobe Commerce, Adobe Commerce Cloud. Can you give us a breakdown of where they stand today and, more importantly, what are they gonna look like in, let's say, three years, not even five to ten? 

Bob Giovannini:

I'm looking forward to when we interview one of my partners, Kuba, because he's been a Magento master, he's a true developer who's been in the community at a level that we never even were in at all. And I think it's gonna be really interesting to hear his thoughts and feelings about this. My own personal feelings. I think that if I'm Adobe, I was looking to see if Magento Open Source was a lead generation, was an entree to selling my Commerce Cloud, was a natural, you know, do people outgrow the Open Source edition and move in?

And is this a great way to be in that world? My guess is the answer is no. Or they found that, you know, because we see it. Once you start building on Open Source, you realize a, you can do just about every single thing you're gonna do in a licensed Enterprise version of it. The community's very active even today, and solutions abound.

And so you can typically get to where you need to get to with actually some more flexibility. Because that's the beauty of this kind of platform, you are not hampered by the box that if you're gonna go into a Commerce Cloud, you know, version, there's gonna be just a little more - there's gonna be more guardrails.

There has to be. And so again, for certain companies that understand software development and understand total cost of ownership, this still ends up being probably a better solution because they can continue to innovate and make it their own. 

Tim Bucciarelli:

The Magento Open Source? 

Bob Giovannini: 

Yeah, the Magento Open Source. Yes, exactly.

So, it's very rare when we've seen somebody go from Open Source to Enterprise, even when it used to be called that. Right? And today, we don't see it very often either. In fact, if anything, we see people saying, "Hey, do I need to be on this?" Even complex companies and larger companies.

And it comes down to, again, some of the differences are, you know, do you not want to manage your DevOps, right? Do you like having the security Adobe, making sure that your core is secure and scalable and they're watching all those pieces? Or are you a company that likes to tinker? And you want to get in and make it your own and want to manage that?

I think that's where the distinction is. And my own philosophy has always been - and this is, you know, as much as I love BigCommerce, and I think also Shopify is a great solution for a lot of people, I always caution putting my business in somebody else's hands. And because, you know, yes, it's nice they're gonna take care of these things, but if I'm growing at a decent clip each year and I have a complex website, I'm beholden. I'm renting space.

I am leasing from this group over here. And if that group just happens to either have financial issues or takes a strategic turn technologically, I'm at their whim at that point. And depending on how complex my eCommerce business is, that can be very risky.

It's like owning a restaurant. It's like starting your first restaurant, and it's wildly successful, and the landlord goes, "I'm gonna triple your rent because you don't own the building." And you're like, "Wait a minute. I can't afford that. And I can't move because half of my success comes from my location." Right? And so you've built in somebody else's backyard.

And that always makes me nervous. Now, when we talk to clients, we say, you know, "Look, if you can plan for that, you know, how hard is it to move off of a SaaS tool? How much would it take you to move from A to B?" And if you've got that risk analysis done and you've got your backup plans in place, much less of an issue, of course.

But migration's always possible. But the more comprehensive the box that you're in, often the more challenging it is to do that migration to a different platform.

You're not talking a month, right? You could be talking a year or two. I mean, even some larger companies that have, you know, fifty products and maybe are doing 50 million dollars a year, but they're very simple products.

They're like, "Ah, I can just copy and paste my fifteen products over to here." Yes, if you've got four subscriptions you sell and no complex interdependencies? Great.

But you could be a company that's only doing two, three, four million dollars a year - not "only", it's substantial - but if you've got your ERP system connected in, and it's driving complex pricing so that when the customer comes, and they're configuring these complex, let's say, pieces of furniture, and you've gotta have all this pricing dynamic, and it's built on a custom integration with your ERP system, and multi-channel, multi-warehouse inventory, and on top of all of that, you're showing, what? 3D renderings of the product on top of it, and that's gotta fit into the platform? 

Tim Bucciarelli:

Good luck moving all that. 

Bob Giovannini: 

Yeah! You're not gonna do it in 30 days, you know? And you probably spent two years getting to where you are now. And so that's where I, you know - when we're analyzing it, somebody says, "Hey, should I be on a SaaS or should I build custom or something in between?" Platform as a service was sort of in the middle of that, I guess. These are the kinds of questions I want to answer. 

Tim Bucciarelli:

So we talk about kind of the future of eCommerce on this, but maybe it's actually that merchants themselves should be thinking about "What's the future of my business?" And working from there, think about where I'm gonna be in ten years and what platform is more likely to support me that entire way and continue to support me even in year ten, where maybe I don't have to feel like I need to jump to another platform. I like that framing, I think, a little bit more. 

Bob Giovannini: 

I think so too. I like it a lot. I mean, this is why, you know, even today we've got Magento 1 merchants, right? I mean, they are still leveraging that platform and able to do it because there was such a substantial community around it, because it was so customizable. For them, this is working. I mean, they're getting a lot of return on that investment.

Now at some point, you know, like anything, it'll be harder and harder to do that, but that's an interesting analysis I think any company needs to go through. 

Tim Bucciarelli:

Yeah, and that gets to the question of SaaS versus on-prem, or pass, whatever you want to call it. But there is a dividing line. You're either subscribed to a centralized service, like SaaS, right? Shopify, BigCommerce, where you're paying a fee every month to rent the pipes that they provide to you. And the functionality. The other is this kind of what is called "on-prem", or could be maybe platform-as-a-service, but let's call it on-prem, on-premises.

It's hosted somewhere else. It's your site that you control. You're not - you might pay a licensing fee, but let's talk Magento Open Source. No licensing fee, but you have a degree of support. So you pay an agency like IronPlane, monthly support to keep your website up to date, compliant, accessible running smoothly.

You also pay hosting. So that's kind of what I've always seen as the split. Like on the one hand, you've got these subscription fees. On the other hand, you got the support and hosting. You gotta balance it out over time, look at your six-year total cost of ownership, and see what wins. But generally, those are the kind of primary cost distinctions I think of.

Do you see one kind of winning out over the other in the coming years? SaaS versus on-prem? Or is it just that they're just serving different needs and will always?

Bob Giovannini: 

That's a good question. Do I see one winning out? I think the platforms. Your SaaS platforms will continue to improve. They'll continue to add more features and functions. It's the natural evolution. And that box will start to encompass the needs of more and more businesses as a whole, but the one business that needs something out of the box to stand out in their market or just the nature of how their business operates and they need those things that the SaaS can't provide because that would be the exception to the rule.

This is where your, what we're calling either on-prem, maybe pass, maybe full custom, right? It depends on what you're doing. This is where those will probably become more useful to those people and easier to do and customize.

But certainly, the total cost of ownership will either be the same or more going down that path, but you should be getting the requisite value out of those. Maybe the easiest way to answer this is just thinking back a little bit, five years ago, some people call up, and, you know, maybe a smaller merchant, or just starting out in eCommerce, or maybe, you know, only doing a few million dollars a year, a million dollars a year, we could say "Magento is a legitimate solution for you." 

Even with your simple SKUs that have no interdependencies, no integrations, with Magento, look, we can get you up and running here. You can have a website running for five, ten thousand dollars, and ah, yeah, you know, you're gonna have some security patches and things, but, you know, probably five hours a month on average to keep it running smoothly.

Today, somebody calls up, you know, as much as we love Magento, unless you know going in that you've gotta allocate twenty, thirty hours a month just to sort of keep it humming along, right? This is a real broad strokes, right? Depends, you know, if you're far more complex, it'd be a lot more than that, right?

So it's very rare when we talk to a startup or somebody new to eCommerce and say "Magento's the right solution" from a pure business perspective. And I'm not sure there are too many other solutions out there anymore that I would point to. I mean, I know we talk about Shop-Ware in Europe growing, and it's got a good reputation and devs like the codebase.

But you know, one of our big things, when we're talking as an agency, is, is there a community behind the solution you're going for? And if there isn't, and you're not particularly technical in your own organization, this is more experimental for you than we would typically recommend.

But if you are well versed, and you have IT departments and these things, okay, well, Shop-Ware might be a solution we would suggest in those cases. I don't think there's - we don't have something yet that replaces where Magento was at the time. And I'm not sure we need to, because - and this gets to your question, you know, "Which one's gonna win out?"

I think the Shopifys and the BigCommerces have real - "BigCommerces", I'm not even sure that's a word. You know, BigCommerce websites of the world have come forward with such a good base solution that it accomplishes a lot of what a smaller Magento site used to do. With all the ability to customize. 

Tim Bucciarelli:

Yep. And it's gonna be interesting also to see which of these platforms is more suited to the B2B businesses, because a lot of B2B businesses still have what I would call "brochure websites", and they might have a lot of product data. They might have a lot of PDFs, but at the end of the day, a lot of those B2B sites still - maybe they allow quotes, but they do not really fully allow their website to support their sales process.

They don't process transactions. They don't process purchase orders. They don't offer pricing on a customer-by-customer basis on their website. So I think when B2B, which I think naturally, is a more complicated system with more applications that need to be tied together, like that to me is like, it just screams Magento.

Like, you need something with that type of flexibility. I mean, you could probably do it maybe with BigCommerce. It's worth looking at because they have a pretty substantial B2B functionality out of the box, their "B2B Edition", they call it. But I think when you look at the level of integrations that you need, I think for the B2B, it seems like Magento Open Source, Adobe Commerce, and those bigger platforms are gonna be more likely to fit the need.

Bob Giovannini:

Well, B2C was some years ago, right? In terms of, they need that extensibility, they need that customization, they need that level of integration that you're not gonna get out of the box. Otherwise, you're gonna be shoehorning in. And that always has its own issues. And so I fully agree with you.

I think in the B2B space, I mean some ways, it's been the holy grail for years. People keep talking about, you know, B2B is the next – 

Tim Bucciarelli:

"Digital transformation." 

Bob Giovannini:

Yeah, exactly. Digital transformation. But it's happening, and it's happening naturally. And this is where, you know, we started this whole conversation about, you know, "Where's eCommerce going in five to ten years?"

And, you know, we have jokes. It's just gonna be "commerce", right? Well, I think that this is what we're seeing in the B2B space. For them, it's "commerce". Their vendors and their distributors, and their reps are all starting to demand these extra tools now to help make it easier to sell.

And I think that's driving - we're seeing this, you know, where B2B companies that have been far more traditional still are operating legacy ERP systems, are saying "We want to be in this space. How do we bridge this? How do we get there?" And it typically is something Magento-based or custom, one of the two. And there are certainly B2B-dedicated platforms out there that really try to tackle this very, very specifically.

But that's a little bit like we were talking about earlier. They're born out of trying to solve one problem and have not looked at the whole idea of eCommerce. 

Tim Bucciarelli:

And they may be industry-specific, they may depend on one primary integration to a manufacturer, ERP system, and OMS. So you may again be in a box. Which could work really well for you, but it is another type of box, I guess.

Now another area that companies come to us and they often are saying, "Well, you know, I want to go headless."  So what is this?

It is very trendy. It is very top of mind in the eCommerce technology world right now. And companies who keep their finger on the pulse of eCommerce technology are wondering, "What is it? Is it for me? And is it gonna help me build my business?"

Bob Giovannini:

You and I always start the conversation with the last question when we're talking to clients, because we're not coders, right?

We didn't start this agency as coders. We didn't come into it from that perspective. And so I came in from buying and selling eCommerce websites and growing eCommerce. So my question is always, "Is it gonna grow my business or cost me less somehow to run my business?" Right? So the general answer with headless, at least up until recently was, "Probably not going to do either one of those for you."

It was very rare in the last few years that we would go, "Oh, you've gotta be on a headless solution. I mean, you are just, this is the right thing." There have been those moments, but those are also companies that - they want to be on Magento, let's say, and I would call it a MINO: Magento in Name Only. At the end of the day, by the time you're done customizing it and setting up all your microservices and doing everything you need to do to connect to their internal systems, and they had their headless custom front end, Magento was like barely there. 

So in those cases, headless did make sense as an option, even in those early days. And I love the tools that have come out recently. Our partners like Shogun and others that we work with and view. These are great tool sets, but they're still, relatively speaking, complex solutions that take more investment and a willingness by the company to not only learn those tools but continue to invest in those tools to keep current.

So I think in the world of composable commerce and complex integrations and multi-channel, headless is probably a really good solution for those kinds of companies. Because it gives you that massive flexibility and it separates your backend from your frontend, basically. Right? And so you're not coupled and tied.

So that this whole idea of scalability and flexibility over a three to ten-year period would seem to be stronger in that scenario. Does the total cost of ownership add up? That's the business analysis that we typically have to go client by client, to say, "What is it you're gonna get out of this? What's gonna be the cost to maintain it, and what do you think your advantages are going to be over this period of time?" And that's the analysis I think. 

Tim Bucciarelli:

Yeah, and I think that speaks to kind of the one overarching recommendation I always make to a merchant who's considering eCommerce, their next play in eCommerce.

And you know, it's really: find an agency that has sufficient experience in the world of eCommerce and the multiple platforms available and who can understand your business and help guide you in making your decision. Because going with the latest trendy thing could be a big mistake. Living within a box today might work, but three, or four years down the road, maybe it won't.

And merchants may have everyone on their team to be able to make those decisions strategically, but it's always, in my opinion, a good idea to sign on with an agency just to help you figure that out. I mean, that's what we love doing at IronPlane in our initial conversations. Whether we end up working with a client or not, hopefully, we will, but we enjoy having those conversations and helping guide people to the right platform.

Bob Giovannini:

It raises our level too. I mean, if we come through a discovery with a client or an analysis with a client, and we don't think that BigCommerce or Magento is the proper solution for them, we will tell them. Because, well, A) It'd be a nightmare if we, you know, tell them it'll work out, and then it's unpleasant. They don't like us, we don't like them, and you know, it's never worth the contract for that.

But more importantly, we learn their nuances and we can steer them, put them in a, "Hey, look at these technologies over here. We think this is gonna be a better fit for you." But it helps us to better understand what's going on in the market also, and as we make our decisions about where we're investing.

And so that's good. It raises everybody's level. You know, IronPlane, the name came because I'm a woodworker and I love tools, okay? And as a woodworker, Tim, you can - it's a veritable toy store, right? I mean, for an adult. You go in and there are just tools and tools and tools and everything from the, you know, brand names that everybody knows to the most esoteric little thing out there, that's complex and is gonna do this one thing.

There's a lot of overlap between eCommerce systems and technologies. I mean, the analogy, you could take it pretty far. And I never thought, as a woodworker, that I would like hand tools. I thought, "Ah, no way. I want giant table saws and routers and bandsaws. If you look at my basement, it's filled with, you know, these fancy, big machines.

And then at one point - I'm sure I must have told you this story at some point - but at one point I was building a piece of furniture and I had spent hours and hours on this one particular joint to bring it together and no one was gonna notice. I mean, this was just me.

This was just down to these final details, right? And I didn't have anything that I felt I could bring it together. And not far from here, up north, there's a company called Lie-Nielsen, who happens to be on a Magento site, by the way, that we did not build. But Lie-Nielsen manufactures some of the finest high-end hand planes in the country, in the world.

So, you know, it was an excuse on a Saturday to go up to another tool store. And I walked in with this idea that I'm gonna buy one hand plane. And of course, you walk out with four. And I came down, and I took that tool, and it was sharp out of the box, so, you know, worked out of the box, which is nice.

And I took it to the piece. A, it was quiet, okay? I didn't have to wear hearing protection. I didn't have to wear a mask. This is pre-pandemic, so it's kind of a new thing. And it just went [wood shaving sounds] and it took off a shaving, and the joint came together perfectly right? And I was sold. I'm like, "Oh my God. This is in my toolkit.

This is going to be a tool I use regularly going forward." And as you know, when we had to come up with a name for this company, other than, you know, what was a really non-descript bad name for many, many years, I was thinking about like, "Okay, you know what I love is helping clients find the right tools.

Really, when I'm sitting down - and we're gonna talk to a client tomorrow, potential client tomorrow, and they're on I think WooCommerce. They're a well-established company, fifty-year company. And you know, decent size.

And so this is one of those examples. They're on a very simple platform, and their question is, "Do we double down on this, or do we need to change platforms? And obviously, if they stay on WooCommerce, it's not gonna be a client of ours. But I said, "I don't know. We need to talk about your business.

What do you want this to do? And where do you see its role in your organization over the next five to ten years? And is it that you're trying to unify your B2B channels, or are you just going direct to consumer in some markets? Is this just a catalog for you?" You know? And so all of those things will determine what tools make the most sense.

And I think, you know, just to round this out, you said earlier in this conversation, "A company might have all the people in their organization that can help decide the right platform." And part of what we do when we're talking to people is saying, "Hey, who are all the stakeholders in your website?

Who is everyone that interacts with that website?" We might hear from a marketing person who's found us and says, "Hey, we want to talk to you about either taking over, or building, or doing something. And the first question is, "Okay, but who else is involved?" Not that we want to get higher or lower in your organization to try to get a signup, but it's because there are expectations across the organization that are different than your perspective.

And we can help draw those out. The CFO wants to know that they don't have to recreate orders in their system. It's gotta go from ERP to this, to that, to the next. The CEO is maybe thinking about brand and messaging overall and doesn't want to step on their distributor's toes over here.

And so they gotta make sure that they're covering that, right?  

Tim Bucciarelli:

Customer service.

Bob Giovannini: 

Yeah, customer service. That was gonna be top of mind. 

Yeah. Oh, it's always, right? They gotta be able to find the orders, or they got a call center coming in, and you know, all of these things to your end consumer.

Those are the people that all need to have a say. And you've gotta rank that analysis. Because you can't do everything, but you gotta know what is mission critical across all those departments. Because if you don't take that into account, this is where we see companies run into trouble. Because they have something they've put a lot of money into that maybe looks beautiful, but doesn't solve half the issues that the company was hoping you would solve.

Or maybe solves half the issues operationally, but doesn't convey the brand in any meaningful way. Right? And so there are always these kinds of questions that come up. 

Tim Bucciarelli:

Okay, so we've covered a lot of ground in this conversation, which is great. Hopefully, merchants listening will find some value here.

I have one final question: is there anything out there today that you look at and you're like, "It's kind of like that one tool." You know, particularly innovative eCommerce platforms, service, tool, anything out there today? Even two or three of them, if you want, that really strikes you as like, wow, that's like that plane that you found. 

Bob Giovannini: 

Exactly. Listen, we always see those new tools come up, and every tool looks cool, and you're like, "Oh, that's gonna transform my business.

It's been very rare when a single tool or series of tools have single-handedly transformed somebody's eCommerce website. So I think what I like and where I see businesses, where I think they should focus their efforts is, how can you make your products stand out for the consumer? Whether that's through good education, through content, through authority, and validation.

Like our furniture company, right, with their 3D renderings, and now you can picture every single color in every single wood finish on their website. I think that that's where the tools that I really like. The ones that make it easier for you to merchandise your products in a unique way. Because I still am amazed at the sheer number of websites I'll go to and basic images are poor, right?

So to me, I don't think we have to look for this grand thing. I think making it so that people can find your product and understand your product and trust your product, these kinds of merchandising tools are gonna go a long way. That, to me, is one. If you want to get really fun, things like augmented reality are definitely coming about.

They're coming in. Right? Does this apply to every single product? No. But for products where people want to visualize how this might look in their own home? I like it. And whether that's clothes in a dressing room, or you're in a furniture retail store and you can visualize this furniture. The sales rep pulls up the manufacturer's augmented reality of all the furniture, and now you can see it in your home.

I think these are tools that are not extremely hard to implement. I mean, they're not turnkey, but they're not extremely hard to implement. And they can really carry your brand to the next level and differentiate yourselves. So I like those things. 

Tim Bucciarelli:

What do you think about personalization and AI?

Bob Giovannini: 

It's gonna happen one way or the other. I think that personalization and AI are gonna be baked in at some point, almost like search is baked in across platforms and everything else. So yes, I think that you can get real specific. I think there are industry specific, I think there are technology-specific solutions.

I think that you can latch onto those. Some of them are software-as-a-service, some of them are, you set up your own on-prem solution. But I think that personalization is one of those things - and product recommendations, all that - people have been chomping at it for a while now.

There have been good solutions and mediocre solutions. But I just think that we're gonna see that almost baked in and standardized. This is my prediction for the next five years. 

Tim Bucciarelli:

Good. I like the focus on the merchandising of your products. Like bringing it back to your core offering and distinguishing yourself through your core offering, the best presentation, most effective merchandising of your core offering. I like that. 

Bob Giovannini:

I think so, and I think it's something you can control. That's the beauty, right? If you're a merchant or a manufacturer, you know your product better than anybody else. I would leverage that asset and that's what'll distinguish you. 

Tim Bucciarelli:

Great. Well that's a wrap. We finished all of our questions. I appreciate you taking the time, Bob. We'll have many more conversations, I'm sure, both recorded and not, but I thank you for taking the time today to talk with us on Shaping eCommerce. 

Bob Giovannini:

Thanks, Tim. Appreciate it.

For more insights on the future of eCommerce, check out our series on YouTube. For a free consultation, contact our sales team.

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