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Shaping eCommerce with Kyle Capsalis, Strategic Partner Manager for Headless Tools at BigCommerce

Introduction to Shaping eCommerce with Kyle Capsalis, Strategic Partner Manager for Headless Tools at BigCommerce

Tim Bucciarelli: Welcome back to Shaping eCommerce with IronPlane. I’m Tim Bucciarelli, the Director of Engagement for IronPlane. We’re continuing our conversations with partners to help merchants understand different technologies in the eCommerce space. 

Today, I am pleased to be joined by Kyle Capsalis from BigCommerce, and the topic today is headless. If you haven’t really understood what it means, we’ll hopefully help you out there and help you understand whether it’s something that you should be considering for your own tech stack and your own eCommerce adventures. 

So Kyle, thank you for joining us today. If you could give a quick intro, that would be great.

Kyle Capsalis: Yeah. Thanks, Tim. I appreciate you having me on. I work for BigCommerce on the Channel Sales Team. I primarily work with our headless technology partnerships, and that could range anywhere from your CMS, your frontend, your frameworks, some search in there – kind of runs the full gamut of the headless ecosystem. 

Tim Bucciarelli: Okay, great. And, it’s really an interesting topic for eCommerce – it’s been talked about for the past three years, and I’d say in the past year it’s gotten even more excitement about it and honestly a little bit of confusion about it as well. But I feel like by this time everyone should have a reasonably good understanding of what headless means. They may not know the differences between headless and composable, and there are different terms that people throw around.

So, let’s stick with headless and let’s stick with composable, and let’s talk a little bit about what headless means and then a little bit about what composable means.



Interview with Kyle Capsalis

Kyle Capsalis: 

Yeah. I don’t want to call “headless” a saturated term at this point, but I think that’s what creates confusion because we’re at a point now where we’re seeing so many different use cases and all these various technologies that are super competitive, so I think the easiest way I can describe it is headless is really decoupling the frontend from the backend, right? I think everyone’s aware of how that starts to form up your tech stack, but there are so many different levels of how you can do it.

So I’ve been in the headless ecosystem for I’d say five, six years now and I’d be remiss to say I don’t think I’ve ever seen the same tech stack twice. 

Tim Bucciarelli: Interesting.

Kyle Capsalis: Yeah. So that tells you the vast majority of use cases are very different because somebody always likes to have their CMS, and someone likes to have these payment gateways, and there’s a big ecosystem that you can pick and choose from.

Tim Bucciarelli: And just to kind of back up a little bit, BigCommerce in and of itself out of the box is not a headless platform. BigCommerce is a SaaS kind of unified platform that is naturally suited to connecting external systems. 

Kyle Capsalis: I’d say we are headless out of the box. If you sign up for a storefront that is $20 a month all the way up to your enterprise storefronts, you get access to those APIs. So depending on the level of your engineers and anyone who would start building, you have access to go headless from Day 1. 

Tim Bucciarelli: Yes. So it’s headless-capable. I guess what I’m getting at is if I launch my site on BigCommerce today it kind of has everything there for me – I’ve got my CMS right there built in, I can do my drag-and-drop page builders, I can . . . it’s an entire unit that I can make use of to manage my entire website from Day 1. That’s what I’ll describe as the default for most people using BigCommerce or using Shopify or using Magento, whatever. There is, to your point, a greater capability for turning BigCommerce into a headless environment. 

Kyle Capsalis: Yeah. That’s a good point. So what you’re describing is what we would call stencils. That’s everything encompassed under BigCommerce. You can still have access to those APIs, but we’re hosting on the frontend still. So that’s how BigCommerce was founded. That’s where the platform really started to grow, and then over time we started to see – hey, there’s a lot of interest in headless. 

This is six years ago, maybe even longer, where we were like hey, we’ve got to get better APIs, we need to open up every category for these APIs to give I think the end merchant – the goal for us is the freedom to choose. We don’t want the platform holding you back, so if we can give you access to customize the flexibility that you need – that’s where you’ll see all these various use cases that we have in these different markets.

Tim Bucciarelli: So, when we talk about headless and composable, maybe touch on what’s the difference, are they the same in some ways, does one contain the other. What’s your feeling? How would you explain that?

Kyle Capsalis: Yeah, I think it was partly made to make it more confusing, but it is under the umbrella of headless. So, when I think of composable, I think of the MACH Alliance – something that we’re in – and you’re starting to have deeper integrations to be able to plug and play, right? And that includes BigCommerce.

So if we’ve got an ecosystem set up where you’ve got your search, you’ve got your CMS, you’ve got your personalization – if those technologies, again including us, aren’t doing what they’re supposed to do, it should give you the ability to replace one – rip out one and replace it. So that’s where the composable word comes from.

And we’re getting better and better as technologies of having accelerators, having the ability to connect to these large enterprise CMSs very quickly. So I’d say it’s under the umbrella of headless, but really at the end of the day it’s helping the end merchants go live faster, it’s future-proofing your tech stack, because three years down the road you can go ahead and replace that. You’re never going to hit that wall that you’ve seen with the monolith where you’re patching it, it’s built up over 15 years, and it gets pretty messy when you’re trying to maintain that.

So that’s my thought process on composable.

Tim Bucciarelli: So, let’s just think about a progression from the BigCommerce stencil environment, where I’m in BigCommerce, I’ve got my complete site ready to go using the BigCommerce stencil frontend, and I say one day – you know what? Stencil’s great, but I need more flexibility in terms of my content management. So I’m going to separate the frontend – the CMS – and use APIs to connect to the BigCommerce eCommerce engine, and I use a different CMS on that. 

Okay, so then I’m good. (And we can talk about different technologies that can be that CMS.) But then I feel good. Now I’ve got more flexibility in my frontend. I can manage my backend without neceesarily impacting each technology. 

And then I say – you know what? The search functionality – I need something a little bit different. I need to be able to customize my search functionality, so I grab an external search provider like, let’s just use Algolia as an example. There are a lot of other good search providers out there, but let’s use that one. So I then decouple the search functionality from within BigCommerce’s native search functionality and I replace it with Algolia. 

Maybe you’ve got the built-in shipping technology in BigCommerce, but I need something more robust so I go out and I implement separate shipping technology, again that’s maybe a SaaS solution that connects via APIs to BigCommerce engine. 

And you can see over time you end up with this BigCommerce engine, almost like a hub, and you’ve got all of these different elements that are componentized around it, and that to me is kind of a progressive breaking out of the technology. Does that seem right to you?

Kyle Capsalis: Yeah, honestly that was a great description of I think what we see, and there certainly are levels to the size of the organization – what issues they’re having today. And when you start to talk about decoupling, it’s like “Well, why is it faster? Why is it faster to go headless?” 

And the reason for that is because you’re configuring this ecosystem in a way where you don’t need to call everything at the same time. You can start to send products in certain areas so then it doesn’t have to go through the whole catalog to pull it up. So when you’re decoupling, you’re really configuring let’s say the frontend of where you need those products and when you need them. That can be on your desktop, mobile, in store – however you’re trying to portray that specific use case. That’s why it starts to be faster.

You think of the box approach in years worth . . . . The monolith was a great system for the eCommerce boom. And now we’re at a point where these customizations need to happen. So as you’re growing to $20 million, $50 million and up as an organization, I think that’s where we start to see these use cases of “Hey, maybe headless is good for us” where you’ve got the team who can manage it, maintain it, and grow with it.

So your description was pretty spot on and that’s how you start to build into a headless ecosystem, unless you’re a $500 million GMV merchant and you need to do the whole replatform all at once.

Tim Bucciarelli: That’s interesting. I think you touched on a couple of things I want to tease out there. One is that there are some efficiencies gained if you were to implement something more composable. Off the top of my head though, I think about it and I say well, we’re moving from a kind of unified system which is one team for support, one team knowing the technology, and then we’re exploding it into let’s say five different technologies that are connected via API. There are definitely some efficiencies to be gained there, but at the same time it strikes me as more complex in some ways.

And this leads me to the next question, which is it may not work for everyone. And so when you’re talking about, I think the range that you said, $20 to 50 million in annual sales (and in large part it probably depends on how much a company is willing to invest in their eCommerce; that may or may not correspond to their annual revenues) but it’s not right for everyone, and so I think we should touch on a little bit of where you see the greatest success.

Kyle Capsalis: Yeah, that is a really good – and this is, honestly, I think one of the most important topics when thinking about when, how, if you should go headless. You have to look at the organization because, to your point, it’s going to be an organizational shift. If you’ve been in a monolithic system for 10 years, you’ve got employees who have day-to-day jobs and they all probably go into that and figure out a way to use that technology to be successful in their jobs.

So when you start thinking about going headless, you really need to ask those questions to the team, like where are you getting stuck today? What would make your life a lot easier in your day-to-day operations? And you start to uncover this tech debt of they’re spending a ton of time on something that should be very simple. 

Then you start to say okay, well, what would you use that extra time for? And you start to build this almost cost benefit analysis, but also getting to the people that make the company run. And that’s where you’re starting to say okay, this is where you’re going to start to have to think about going headless.

And to your point about the GMV model, typically we start to see a better use case for the higher, upper echelon of enterprise because you’ve got full design teams, you’ve got full marketing teams that each of them have breakdowns of what they do in their day-to-days, engineers who need to be successful. And usually, headless is pretty technical because the engineers are the ones that are constantly getting stuck.

So the best approach I can say is we love going on site and having these conversations, because we can book out a full day and say hey, bring your marketing teams in, bring your engineers in. And that’s how you really start to uncover – is this the right fit for you. I mentioned the cost benefit analysis because you’re starting to see – yes, it’s going to be more complex, but here’s what you’re going to be able to do with it.

So it is an organizational shift. I think you have to have those teams on board to be able to do it, right? If they’re working on the search side, they have to be comfortable with Algolia. They have to know how to do their jobs. So it is an organizational shift – they’ll be doing their jobs in maybe a few different technologies, which for the most part shouldn’t be too much of a change – but as long as those are configured correctly, that’s where we’re starting to see those use cases. So, there’s a lot of information that you have to dig into to find if that is a good fit or not.

Tim Bucciarelli: Yeah, and I think that headless originally came out of the frustration of marketing departments who were like, okay, you’ve got this monolith which is managed by our CTO or our tech department, but we have needs and we don’t want to have to go to developers or use a limited drag and drop tool – we need robust, unique content quickly up on our website consistently. 

So that’s where the marketing team was like, okay, how if we separate the CMS and we integrate it with this – that gives them that flexibility, and that’s why I think they were the first stakeholders who were like, “Hey, we need something different.” And that’s, I think, the energy that came about for going headless, and that’s where Contentful came about and Contentstack and all these other technologies that are really addressing that need very well. 

Kyle Capsalis: Yeah, I think of it almost like a circle, right? The leadership is up top here. They come in with ideas of how to grow the business. That then funnels down to the day-to-day folks who are doing their jobs like you mentioned – CMOs, marketing teams. Then that falls to the engineering team to actually execute on it. So you’re going around this circle. 

There’s somewhere in that circle where it’s being stopped or there’s difficulty. So if  we can uncover what that is and who’s the group that’s having those issues, spot on. It could be multiple different options or who’s getting stuck, but that’s a pretty good description for a typical process for an end merchant.

Tim Bucciarelli: So, can you shed a little bit of light? We became a partner of BigCommerce a couple years ago and, even since that time, it seems like BigCommerce has kind of doubled down on the headless path. Can you talk a little bit about why it’s important to BigCommerce and maybe a little bit of an insight into the future of the technology with BigCommerce?

Kyle Capsalis: Yeah. So, for us as a company – and this goes from Brent Bellm, our CEO, down – it’s been a top six initiative for the company for a long time now. And that’s for a few reasons. We’re evolving with the times. 

As we’re seeing these larger brands trying to figure out how – in a very interesting market right now – how they can get to their customers in every way, shape, or form. That, for us, is the angle. There’s no better feeling, I think, when you can actually accomplish that with the technology and BigCommerce kind of being that centralized source of data.

So for us, obviously, we’re trying to grow our customer base, and for us to be able to do that and win in the enterprise space headless is where it’s going to be. I don’t think you’ll ever hear BigCommerce say we try to be the best CMS out there. That’s not something we put out in the market. But we do work with the best CMS providers out there that put all of their research and development into being the best CMS out there. 

So when you start to patch that up – really it’s for the end merchant, for us – it’s making sure that we’re not the ones holding them back from being successful, growing their business year over year. And if we can continue to do that, we’re going to see another evolving opportunity happen. It’s just constantly changing.

Tim Bucciarelli: And it seems like you guys have designed the systems from Day 1 – I mean, you guys coined the term “open SaaS” – I think you guys coined that term open SaaS. You’ve always been interested in helping merchants select best-of-breed technologies and linking them to BigCommerce rather than the Shopify approach, which is typically much more of you play within our green box or you go somewhere else, or you’re going to pay a little bit more to connect your best-of-breed technologies to our systems. 

That’s a very superficial understanding of the differences, but it does seem to me that BigCommerce philosophically has always been charting that path of openness and connecting different best-of-breed technologies. 

With that in mind, can we talk a little bit about some example tech stacks that you’ve seen in the BigCommerce composable or headless or de-coupled world?

Kyle Capsalis: Yeah. And we do try to stay best-of-breed, freedom of choice, open SaaS. We want the end merchants to fit to the ecosystem that’s most apt to make them successful. So I think of it in the easiest terms possible. If you go headless on BigCommerce, what are the components that you need? 

One of those is going to be a frontend hosting provider. We don’t natively offer that. But we work with the Vercels, the Netlifys, the Vue Storefronts – I apologize if I’m missing anyone in there. But there’s a plethora of them that you can choose – AWS, Google – so many different options. So there are partners that we can put into that category, or if their engineering team has one that they prefer that’s okay too. 

But we know that there are certainly levels to that. So I think, okay, you’re going to need a frontend. That’s one component of making you successful – we’ve got accelerators with Vercel, Netlify, all those ones that I mentioned. 

And then, for the most part, you’re going to need a CMS or a PWA – something that’s going to really drive your team to customize the frontend and the UI and the UX, and design it. So you’re going to need a CMS. We work with a full gamut of those enterprise CMS providers, the PWAs Contentstack, Contentful, Amplience, Vue Storefront – there are certainly levels to that conversation, though. 

We need to understand a little bit about the business, we need to understand a little bit about budgets and things like that to make those recommendations. And that’s why they’re never the same. Because there’s a lot of competition out in the market. 

And I think that last category – DXP, personalization – where we’ve got Uniform, we’ve got I think a few different partners that start to fill that ecosystem. 

So those are the key components. What are you going to use on the frontend? What are you going to use for your UI, UX, and hosting? And then you can really start to build out your stack from there. For any of the technologies that I’ve mentioned, for the most part – part of my job is making sure that we do have accelerators or demo storefronts, things like that – so for anyone that I’m mentioning, if there’s interest they’re out there. They may be hosted on our side or theirs, but they certainly exist in the wild. 

Tim Bucciarelli: So if we’ve got a merchant who is on BigCommerce today – and let’s say they’re using the existing stencil setup – and they’re growing quickly and they want to move forward and they see bigger growth in the future and they think that de-coupling the CMS frontend is a really good next step, can you talk a little bit about the considerations they have to make as they consider that move?

Kyle Capsalis: Yeah, and I think the first question I would ask them is what’s not working today or where are you trying to improve? There’s something to uncover and it’s different I’d say most of the time. We try to get repetitive use cases and things like that, but there’s a problem. So what’s the issue today? How big of an issue is it? What would it bring you in terms of revenue if you could fix it? 

That’s when you start to say okay, well, speed is actually killing them. They’ve got all these different areas where customers can convert, and the only way for them to be successful is by a headless ecosystem. 

So there’s an issue in there, uncovering the issue, and that’s where we start to have the conversation of graduating to a more headless-style build. 

Tim Bucciarelli: And so let’s say they’ve decided, like, we know that this is the direction we want to go. What are the steps to go through it? Is it essentially like, okay, choose your technologies, choose a frontend server, choose the CMS, and you’ll have to kind of piece those together – you’ll have to build out the infrastructure to present the frontend – is that what you do first and then at a certain point you become ready to de-couple and then reconnect? Is that more or less how it would go?

Kyle Capsalis: Yeah, so there are certainly levels to these partners, right? I mention revenue, I mention all these things because it does matter. There are use cases that we have that do $5 million online and they’re better apt for headless. And there are certain partners that fit in that category because of cost, because of feature, functionality set – all those things roll up to who might be a good recommendation for them.

Luckily, we have agencies like yourselves to help us in those conversations. I think a lot of times we get so caught up in just the tech-to-tech conversation, but you’re missing the vision. And that’s why I love working with agencies and making sure that they’re in the mix for these to happen because that’s where we see the best use cases and the most successful implementations from graduating a non-headless build or a monolith over to a fully headless build.

That, for me, is so important because sometimes we hear, “Hey, we’re going to build it in house and we’re going to use the people that are also maintaining the current website.” That is not a great recipe for success. 

Tim Bucciarelli: Yeah. So it depends – it depends on your end goals, your technical capabilities, your financial capabilities. And I guess what I’m hearing is that there are different levels that businesses can consider when they need to move in the direction of a more de-coupled frontend, and some might be a little bit more affordable, some might be completely robust and very “investment-heavy,” let’s say. But I guess your point is that there are variations on this theme that can meet the needs of diverse businesses. 

Kyle Capsalis: Exactly. And I think the best way that we can help the end merchants is by giving them a little bit of optionality. We try not to just give them one search merch provider – we try to give them a couple options and maybe there are different levels – so that at the end of the day they decide and it’s really us having to make that decision for them. 

That’s one of the most important things, in my opinion, of moving to a headless build. Let the technology partners that we work with pitch their product. We can get them started, give them the elevator pitch and how they price – things like that. But they’re the experts at selling their own solution the same way that we are.

So I think you have to open up those conversations and just make sure we’re funneling the right partner relationships to them, in coordination with the agencies. So if they’re like, hey, we can’t do the build – can you introduce us to a couple agencies that might be a good fit? It’s the same conversation that we would have from a technology perspective.

Tim Bucciarelli: Yeah. And this is a similar approach that we take with our partnerships – we find partners whose technology we believe in but we also try to approach it agnostically, so that when prospects or clients come to us and they say “here’s our problem – we need a solution” we’re not like “oh – go with this one company because we happen to be a partner with them.” Instead, we kind of lay out – “Here are three vetted technologies that we’ve partnered with and it’s totally up to you. Talk to all of them. Add two more who we don’t even partner with. And find the best technology.”

That’s a core tenet of our approach – trying to help merchants find the best-of-breed, but specifically for their needs. And that goes for eCommerce platforms as much as it goes for search providers, or CMS, or de-coupled frontends. So it’s very much in line with the BigCommerce ethos, which is (you know) find the best technology for your business and attach it to this really robust core of functionality which is BigCommerce, the eCommerce engine.

I think it’s a great opportunity for many businesses to consider, and it’s totally okay if it’s not for you. There’s still a great world out there that you can build in your eCommerce environment if you’re not even going anywhere near headless. So, that’s fine too. 

Should we talk about anything else with BigCommerce and headless – any kind of new initiatives that you guys are undertaking or anything that we missed in our conversation?

Kyle Capsalis: I don’t think anything we’ve missed. Our approach is going to continue to be to make more access to APIs and opening up categories and continuing to work with these unique use cases that we get. Sometimes if there is something that comes up we’re like hey, we’ve got to fix this. So those conversations I’m constantly having with our product teams and making sure that any conversation that we have where there might be something that could be easier for them, we’re going to continue to try to improve that. And I mentioned those top-six initiatives from Brent our CEO because that’s where our R&D is going. That’s where we’re trying to make things easier for developers and marketers to be able to go headless, and it starts with the platform, right? So I think if we’re continually improving that and making sure that we’re adjusting to what the market is asking us for, it’s a great recipe for a very long term successful in the headless space.

Tim Bucciarelli: So, I want to thank you for joining us today on Shaping eCommerce, and just a pitch for any merchants listening or anyone who’s interested in learning more, feel free to reach out to me at IronPlane. More than anything, we enjoy having conversations with merchants to see if we can find a potentially very good solution for them and BigCommerce is always part of that conversation. 

Kyle Capsalis: Thanks, Tim. I really appreciate the time.

Tim Bucciarelli: Alright. And we’ll have you back probably in the future – we’ll talk about more headless and composable as things progress, and maybe (you know) the role of AI in composable architecture! 

Kyle Capsalis: I’m still figuring that one out, so give me some time (laughter). 

Tim Bucciarelli: Alright, thanks again, Kyle.

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