Today on the ETREND interview series where we interview the industry’s leading experts we have James Gurd.
James is an ecommerce strategy and replatforming consultant with more than 16 years’ experience working with B2C and B2B brands including House of Fraser, Mars, Samsung, The Wine Society, Victoria Beckham, RSPB and Dr. Barbara Sturm. He helps organisations deliver ecommerce growth based on realistic plans and budgets.
His current focus is guiding organizations through the complexities of a new platform build or replatforming project, as a technology/solution agnostic independent consultant.
James is a co-founder of the popular #EcomChat that runs every Monday on Twitter and launched the Re:platform podcast in November 2019, a weekly podcast that gives you practical advice and guidance for ecommerce replatforming, as well as running & managing an ecommerce store. HeI also co-host Re:platform TV, weekly bite-size videos with practical advice to improve ecommerce results.
Q: James, thanks so much for taking the time to interview with us today. Replatforming is one of the biggest decisions an e-comm business can take, when is the right time, if there is one, to look for a different platform and start the process?
A: There are multiple scenarios in which it may be practical and necessary to invest in a new ecommerce platform. Below are the most common reasons.
Your current platform…
- Has a total cost of ownership (TCO*) that is cost-prohibitive and unsustainable.
- Is slow to develop, so time to market for site updates and new features is too slow, creating a competitive disadvantage.
- Needs constant maintenance, patches & upgrades, which take up more time than proactive changes and enhancements.
- Isn’t fit for purpose based on the latest ecommerce good practice standards, so you can’t keep up with consumer demand and/or competitors.
- Doesn’t perform well consistently, so you have technical and user experience issues that adversely impact conversion rate.
- Is becoming obsolete! This does happen e.g. Magento sunsetting Magento 1 following the release of Magento 2, which doesn’t have an upgrade path.
Q: What are the biggest challenges you have seen businesses face when choosing to replatform their store?
A: Mainly, it’s starting with a focus on the technology instead of business needs and goals. Tech comes last; it has to be aligned with what the business needs to achieve, otherwise you end up shoehorning processes to fit with a platform that isn’t necessarily best aligned with your operational model.
Secondly, it’s resource. These projects are time consuming and challenging, so there has to be a dedicated project team who are focused on delivering the project and managing internal stakeholders. It’s not enough to expect someone to just fit it in alongside an already busy day to day work schedule, you need a project manager. Often this means using an external contractor but equally it can mean seconding someone from within the business who is ruthlessly organised and has an eye for detail.
Thirdly, it’s not spending enough time on platform and partner selection. It’s essential to be clear on your selection criteria and have a consistent approach to evaluating and scoring potential partners. No decision should be made until the core project team are in agreement and there is a clear rational for the choice. The saying only fools rush in is quite apt. A decision made in haste often causes future problems, such as unforeseen cost or an inability to deliver functionality that the business demands.
Q: What has been the biggest mistake you’ve seen a business make when replatforming? How can it be avoided?
A: Thinking that by changing the platform they’ll fix all their business woes. It’s not always the tech that’s the problem; sometimes it’s a lack of process control or poor implementation meaning the platform isn’t set up in an optimised way for your business.
There are scenarios where the current platform is a good fit for the business, provides all the functionality stakeholders needs, but isn’t performing well or justifying your investment. It is complex and costly to migrate between platforms, so you have to be certain the platform is the issue, not the implementation or how your business makes use of it.
I’ve worked on projects where the platform didn’t need changing; it just needed better implementation and configuration. Others where the SI partner, even if they’re well intentioned and working hard, doesn’t have the technical skills or resource to service the client adequately. Migrating to an alternative platform is the wrong decision (see below for a few reasons why), but switching to a more capable SI partner is the better solution.
How can you avoid this? Take time to define current issues, business goals and the potential business impact (ROI). Then evaluate how the current platform could deliver this and at what cost (i.e. is it a configuration and redesign or a complete rebuild?) and compare vs. alternative platforms. You need to know you’re moving for the right reasons before committing to change.
Q: Out of all the current platforms out there today, Shopify and Woocommerc seem to be the go-tos, what is your recommendation and why?
A: I don’t have a standard recommendation until I know about the company, its scale of operations, growth plans, business needs etc. Typically I focus on the technical and business drivers and high-level scope/budget, at which point it’s usually quite easy to narrow it down to a type of platform e.g. SaaS. For a small business with a non-complex product catalogue that doesn’t have its own IT resource, it’s hard to look past platforms like Shopify simply because they suit non-tech users really well and have an extensive ecosystem to enable key functionality to be added in a plug & play manner. If a business runs a WordPress content site and then want to quickly launch into ecommerce, then using Woo makes sense. But you need developers to maintain Woo, so you need to understand the resourcing and costs.
The reality is though no platform is ever 100% right for any business, unless you build it from the ground up specifically for that business model and then maintain it with your own engineering team. As most businesses don’t have the resource or capabilities to do that, they need to think carefully about what platform model they want and why.
If I had to list the platforms I enjoy working with, the it’s BigCommerce for the API and fully open checkout (plus the ecosystem is growing quickly), Shopify for the ease of turning on new features and pre-integrations with leading software like Klaviyo and Yotpo, Magento for its flexibility and strengths in key areas like International, SEO and B2B. But there are so many other good platforms that suit different types of business that don’t fit into the Gartner Quadrants due to size e.g. Centra, Aurora.
Q: How much does replatforming affect SEO?
A: That depends on how well you plan your SEO migration! It can absolutely destroy a website’s organic visibility if there isn’t a structured and detailed migration plan with an experienced technical SEO specialist involved from the start. If your organic search share of traffic is really low, and I’ve seen sites with less than 20%, then the risk is lower but still you shouldn’t be complacent.
The areas where people typically make mistakes are:
- Site architecture and taxonomy – under optimised catalogue structures and internal linking
- Content migration – being clear on what to retire and deindex, what to repurpose and refocus, what to directly migrate
- URL changes without a controlled redirect process and knowing how to use 301s, 302s etc.
- Accessibility and UX decisions around H tags for content, image optimisation and alt/title tags
- Structured data and accurate markup for key pages and content types e.g. organisation, product, reviews
Q: Is there a point in which a business say making around $10-20m should look to create their own customized platform solution?
A: That’s a hard one to answer, as I’ve seen a few companies around $100m+ try this and then bail out when they’ve realised how quickly costs spiral and the challenges finding the specialist development skills that are required. Try finding a senior team of engineers, solution architects, back-end and front-end devs, UX designers, integration specialists etc. It’s incredibly difficult to get all the required skills in-house. An alternative is to employ an integration specialist to build the solution for you but then you’ve got the challenge of ongoing maintenance and ownership. Why build a custom solution if you can’t maintain it yourself?
It also depends on the ownership structure of the business. I’ve been involved with private equity backed brands where the investors want a flagship platform like Salesforce as it reflects a best in class vision and is part of the packaging when looking to sell the business.
If I had a business doing $20m per year, I wouldn’t go near custom builds. If I had a simple product catalogue and simply wanted a reliable engine so I could focus on merchandising, CRM & sales growth, I’d personally be using a platform like Shopify or BigCommerce. Both are proven at scale, Shopify probably has the edge simply because of the high profile brands on it like Pangaia, Gymshark and Kylie Jenner Cosmetics. The SaaS set-up takes away the headache of hosting and application support, as well as PCI compliance and security/upgrades/patches. That peace of mind is often worth the license fee alone.
Q: What is your most valuable tip to any business thinking about replatforming? What are the do’s and what are the dont’s?
A: Most valuable tip: only replatform if you have a clearly defined project plan based on valid business goals and objectives.
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- Follow a structured process for your project and ensure you have an experienced PM
- Define clear goals, objectives, KPIs and success criteria – you need to be able to measure the impact
- Take the time to clearly define the high level business requirements – you need to know what the platform will deliver
- Be clear on scope and budget – it’s no use saying ‘we don’t have a budget’, that’s lazy – you’ve got to look at what £££ benefit a new platform can provide and then define a realistic % of GMV you can afford to invest, even as a ballpark
- If you don’t understand the vendor market, talk to someone who does – if you don’t want to invest in a consultant to guide you through the process, consider paying for a workshop to accelerate your thinking & get you on the right track
- Set clear criteria for evaluating vendors – don’t send a 500 point RFP, define detailed scenarios based on business critical needs and brief the vendors on demonstrating HOW their solution will achieve each requirement (it has to be HOW not just a tick box exercise)
- Create a scoring matrix so you can objectively compare multiple vendors; try to keep the RFP to a maximum of 3 different platforms
- Create a realistic TCO cost model as well – look at capex and opex costs over 3-5 years and think about all cost lines e.g. 3rd party plugins you’ll need in addition to the core platform
- Choose a preferred vendor based on a balance of the functional scorecard and the cost model
- Do risk mitigation – scrutinise the elements your preferred vendor isn’t so strong on and get them to explain how they’ll help you address them + get independent references (testimonials always tell you the sun is shining!)
- Negotiate your contracts hard but fair – you want the best price but this is a partnership so start it off on the right grounds
- Pick a platform because someone else recommended it; it could be great for their business, not so great for yours – by all means evaluate it, just be careful
- Rush to a decision; this will impact your entire business and teams, so if you don’t have a fixed deadline for selection, spend more time doing the evaluation
- Base your cost analysis just on the upfront build and license fees – you need like for like comparisons for each vendor, so you need to look at all costs you’ll incur such as support & maintenance, upgrade fees, 3rd party tools, training etc.
- Over burden your team by expecting them to run a major project alongside their standard daily work – invest in the right level of resource for your project
- Exclude people from the process – you need everyone to buy into this from the start as it’s a collaboration. Get people involved, brief them, be clear on what’s expected and when and communicate clearly and often.
Q: Thanks so much for your time. Is there anything else you’d like to add? Let us know how people can contact you or find out more about your business.
A: I’m always happy to chat about replatforming, so you’re welcome to contact me by email on email@example.com or via Twitter @jamesgurd. I’ve been through this process so many times and learn from each project. My parting thought would be: no project is ever 100% smooth, you will encounter some road bumps and issues. That’s normal in a big project so don’t be daunted. With a structured process and good project management, issues are handled expediently so the project remains on track. And I’d love people to check out the podcast, hopefully there’s some useful content for everyone: https://replatform.fm