Is Your E-Commerce Platform Costing You Sales?

Is Your E-Commerce Platform Costing You Sales?

For online retailers, your software platform is the lifeblood of your business — just like that amazing first hire. However, just like an early hire, your e-commerce platform may not be capable of growing with the business. As painful as switching can be, sticking with the wrong e-commerce platform for too long can stunt your business growth in obvious and hidden ways, so it pays to be proactive.

When I built my last e-commerce business, our custom software platform was a critical part of our success.  Our system allowed us to grow from $1 million annual revenue to a $100 million run rate in under a year.  In the process we acquired 8 million Facebook fans, 11 million email subscribers, 56 fulfilment robots, and raised over $100 million in venture capital.

The revenue hacks we built into our platform were the key to unlocking the monthly revenue growth shown in this chart:

While easy to set up and use, the most popular e-commerce platforms fall short, especially for larger clients.  In fact, a recent research report from Internet Retailer revealed that nearly half of all e-retailers are looking for a new e-commerce platform.

When compared to custom and semi-custom platforms used by the majority of high volume stores “in the know,” off-the-shelf installs of all e-commerce platforms are woefully deficient, especially as it relates to optimizing conversion rates, new customer acquisition, and maximizing customer lifetime value.

These deficiencies are the reason for such an alarming rate of frustration — when Internet Retailer states that nearly 50% of existing stores are looking for a new platform, something is clearly lacking.

While building a fully custom solution offers the most flexibility, it’s certainly not for the faint of heart.  As I started my last company nearly a decade ago there was simply no other way — we HAD to build our own custom software to reach our goals.  Today, building a fully-custom solution is likely a fools-errand for all but the largest, most technologically savvy companies.

So how do you know when it’s time to pull the trigger on re-platforming and building a semi-custom solution?

In my experience, annual sales volume is the biggest determinant.

Through my conversations with hundreds of e-commerce entrepreneurs, I’ve noticed an interesting trend.  As stores approach $1 million in annual revenue, their dissatisfaction with their current e-commerce platform grows exponentially.  My team calls this the “million dollar ceiling.”  When stores reach this level of success, they must figure out a way around the limitations of off-shelf-software, or they will simply stop growing as fast as they should.

The cause for the “ceiling” is simple: the vast majority of e-commerce platforms are not optimized for customer acquisition, conversion rates, nor customer lifetime value.  These are the most important variables,  yet most platforms make optimizing these variables far too difficult — Shopify’s convoluted multi-page checkout process that can’t be modified is just one of many glaring examples.

The math is simple — a store making $1 million in annual sales that recognizes a 20% increase in conversion rate will drive an incremental $200,000 in annual sales.  If you can re-platform to a better solution for less than the incremental profit you make from those sales, you’ll payback the investment in under a year.

After talking to hundreds of e-commerce entrepreneurs in my role as a growth advisor and venture capitalist,  I’ve seen three approaches to overcoming the “ceiling” used with varying degrees of success:

  1. Augment the deficiencies of an off-the-shelf platform with a patchwork of third-party plugins.
  2. Build a semi-custom solution using a small team of developers.
  3. Hire a larger in-house development team to build and maintain a fully custom solution.

Let’s examine each of these options in depth:

Option 1:  Plugins

Using plugins can work quite well for the simplest of stores.  For smaller stores under $1 million in revenue, this is almost always the correct solution.  The plugin option does not scale well at all, however.  Over-reliance on plugins can be quite dangerous.

First, plugins for e-commerce platforms are of highly variable quality.  The upkeep and maintenance of these plugins is likewise hit or miss — most are built by individuals and small teams in their spare time.  Should you trust your store’s success or failure to a random developer’s side project?  When your revenue has scaled past a certain point, almost certainly not.

Perhaps more importantly, plugins can slow your store dramatically.  Even imperceptible slow-downs will impact your conversion rate dramatically:  Wal-mart reported that every 100 milli-seconds of improvement in page load time, they grew revenue by 1% and Amazon reported that every 100 milli-seconds of latency costs them 1% in sales.  Additionally, Google is well-known to punish slow sites in their search engine rankings.

We’ve found than when a store doing in excess of $1 million in annual revenue exceeds 6 or 8 plugins, it’s a sure sign that it is dangerously reliant on a tangled web of potentially incompatible code — you almost certainly need to pursue another path.

For all but the smallest stores, tying the success or failure of your store to a tangled web of variable-quality plugins is a recipe for disaster — plugin soup is akin to using duct tape on a rocket ship.

Option 2: A Semi-Custom Solution

For mid-sized e-tailers, building a semi-custom solution is the path we most often recommend.  This option to break through the “million dollar ceiling” involves picking an off-the-shelf e-commerce platform and heavily modifying it to suit the store’s unique needs.

Unfortunately, this path is not without its drawbacks.  The two most common mistakes we see are a) choosing the wrong platform as a base and b) choosing the wrong developer(s) for the job.

While this article is not meant to be a comparison of the various platforms, they all have their unique strengths and weaknesses.  For example, while Shopify and Woo Commerce are both insanely easy to get up an running, they are among the hardest to truly customize.  They are perfect choices for mom-and-pops selling a small selection of products — despite their aggressive marketing, they are clearly not designed for high volume implementations.

In the past, we recommended Shopify for a while with varying success.  We even ran a few stores of our own through the platform, but we were ultimately unable to overcome the weaknesses with even the most custom built approaches.

On the other hand, solutions such as Magento and Solidus are two of the most customizable, but to be successful on these platforms you almost certainly need a team of in-house developers to setup and maintain servers, manage SSL, ensure PCI compliance, etc.

Despite these drawbacks, if you have access to (great) developer talent and know exactly what you need to build, building your solution on either of these platforms can work quite well.

Likewise, using a random developer not well versed in the nuances of conversion rate and maximizing customer lifetime value is also a recipe for disaster.  There are no shortage of programmers with the technical skills to install and modify today’s platforms.  Finding a developer or development team that knows WHAT to build, on the other hand, is quite a bit more challenging.

Simply switching platforms isn’t the recipe for success.  You must switch platforms with a purpose, and doing so must alleviate the deficiencies in your current platform that are stifling revenue growth.

Recently, my team developed a heavily-modified, cloud-hosted solution to get around some of these deficiencies.  We are using this platform for our semi-custom installs today, and will begin offering a fully automated platform in late 2017.

Our platform will incorporate all the customer acquisition and conversion rate optimization “secrets” we learned building our own e-commerce companies in a cutting-edge, modern, cloud-hosted solution.  Contact us if you’re interested in building a highly optimized semi-custom solution for your store –

Option 3: Build a Fully Custom Solution

Building a full custom solution offers the most flexibility, but it’s certainly not for the faint of heart.

In 2009 when I built Acumen Brands, we had no choice but the build our own software.  Our platform gave us a leg up against the competition and allowed us to scale to ~$100 million in annual revenue in 3 short years.

Today, choosing a fully custom option should be reserved for stores approaching $100 million in annual revenue or those build an incredibly custom user experience.  A fully-custom solution is likely a fools-errand for all but the largest, most technologically savvy companies.

If you choose this route, be prepared to support a development team of 6 to 20 programmers for multiple years.  If you cant support a $1 million+ annual developer payroll, this route will likely yield sub-standard results.

IN CONCLUSION — all e-commerce platforms are flawed.  Using them without extremely intelligent, heavy modification will result in lost revenue.  Likewise, building a fully custom solution is likely a fool’s errand.

In my opinion, the best option available today is a semi-custom install built on top of a highly customizable platform.  Knowing WHAT to build is the key.  Relying on random developers without experience building revenue-optimized stores is a recipe for disaster.

My team specializes in building solutions focused on revenue growth and conversion rate optimization.  The stores we build incorporate all the revenue-driving “secrets” we’ve learned building our own companies. If you need help with re-platforming let’s talk —

Written by
John James, M.D. is the CEO of Engine, a modern cloud-hosted ecommerce platform. I paid for medical school with an ecommerce business I founded in my dorm room over twenty years ago, and eventually raised over $100 million in venture capital running Acumen Brands. Email me -- john at enginecommerce dot com.