Building an Ecommerce Business, Part 2: Selecting Platforms

Selecting an ecommerce platform is among the most critical decisions of a new entrepreneur. There are hundreds of choices — hosted, licensed, open source. Key factors in the process typically include ease of use, flexibility, growth capabilities, and cost.

This is the second installment in my series on launching, growing, and selling an ecommerce business. For the first installment, “Part 1: Choosing Partners,” I interviewed my Beardbrand co-owner, Lindsey Reinders. She and I discussed the importance of supportive and knowledgeable partners. We addressed how to choose the right partners and how to resolve inevitable conflicts afterward.

For this installment on selecting an ecommerce platform, I spoke with Carson McComas. He is the founder and CEO of Fuel Made, a Spokane, Wash.-based ecommerce agency, launched in 2000, that specializes in Shopify development and email marketing using Klaviyo.

What follows is my entire audio interview with McComas and a transcript of it, edited for length and clarity.

Eric Bandholz: Can you give us an overview of Fuel Made?

Carson McComas: Fuel Made is a digital agency. Our focus is ecommerce. The platform that we work with is Shopify — we’re a Shopify Plus partner. We also are a Klaviyo platinum partner. Klaviyo is an email automation tool for ecommerce. I started Fuel Made back in 2000. I’ve been around a long time. We’ve been locked in on ecommerce and Shopify for about the last eight years.

Bandholz: Why did you pick Shopify?

McComas: In the early days of ecommerce, the options were pretty slim. I could never find a platform that gave us the flexibility we wanted. Shopify came on the scene with the promise of design flexibility. That was important to us. So I keyed into them in early days, when it was in beta.

We finally had an opportunity [to use Shopify]. I said to the client, “Look, we’d like to build your shop on Shopify. If it doesn’t work out, we’ll build it again on another platform.” So it was fairly low-risk for them, except for their time. They were game. So we built that first site on Shopify and fell in love with the platform. The rest is history.

Bandholz: I’m cheap at heart. I used to lean toward open source with the two main platform options, Magento and WordPress. I quickly discovered, back in 2010 or so, that Magento would just crash. It would just use all the resources of the server.

McComas: Unfortunately, that still plagues a lot of folks working with Magento. You have to know what you’re doing and have the right team behind it to keep it from doing that.

I hear from a lot of Magento folks who say, more or less, “I’m tired of being an IT company. I want to be an ecommerce company. I want to focus on product and customer experience, and that sort of thing.” And that’s something Shopify has done a good job with — taking that technical burden off of store owners.

Bandholz: What are the major ecommerce platforms?

McComas: The big players on the self-hosted side — in terms of market share and the ecosystem around them — are Magento and WooCommerce. Shopify and BigCommerce are two major hosted options.

Bandholz: What should a new entrepreneur look for in a platform?

McComas: I confess a bias towards Shopify. Look for a solution that will allow you to focus on the things that really matter, which is creating good products, good assets, and a good customer experience. Do not spend much time in the weeds from a technical standpoint. That’s kind of a pitch for Shopify. BigCommerce will do those things as well.

If you want to stay open source and you love the WordPress world, consider WooCommerce. There are lots of successful shops on that platform. You need a bit more technical sophistication. Magento I wouldn’t consider for a startup.

Bandholz: Should a new entrepreneur reach out to web designers for assistance?

McComas: You can get pretty far by just grabbing a theme from the theme store on Shopify, WooCommerce has themes as well, as does BigCommerce. Even Magento does. In the Shopify world, a theme will cost a couple of hundred dollars. There are free ones, too. With good photography, a new merchant can get pretty far with that.

The time to start using a web designer is in going to the next level — after you’ve got traction and a product market fit. You’re looking to grow from there.

In terms of budget, there are three levels. First, there’s the do-it-yourself mode, which is the cost of the theme and your time to set it up. The second option would be bringing somebody in to improve on your theme. You could probably get that for a few thousand dollars. The third option would be an entire custom theme — something unique. That would cost $30,000 or more, typically.

Bandholz: Should merchants emphasize mobile optimization over desktop?

McComas: I wouldn’t even consider building a site without thinking mobile first. For roughly 85 percent of our clients, the majority of traffic comes from mobile.

Bandholz: What are some innovative design elements or features for ecommerce sites nowadays?

McComas: We see exceptional uses of photography and other assets, such as illustration and storytelling, to build a sense of community. It’s a cohesive experience from mobile to the desktop site and back again.

Bandholz: How can a merchant acquire more email addresses?

McComas: It varies based on your goals. The most effective thing to do is to make sure visitors see the email opt-in, and you’re giving them some kind of an offer. That can include a pop-up or an opt-in that slides up or down on the screen, and says, “Do you want 15% off? Click here and give us your email address.”

Depending on your brand, running contests can be extremely effective.

Bandholz: What are common mistakes in building an ecommerce site?

McComas: Seeing photography and copy as an expense and not part of your brand and story that brings a return. Another one is not designing well for mobile. That’s a huge mistake. If you don’t do that, you’re in trouble.

New merchants sometimes don’t think about return policies and shipping policies, and they’re not communicating those to buyers. Or maybe their shipping rates are hidden until shoppers get to the checkout.

Early on you want to be collecting email addresses, and connecting them to your social accounts. Engage the subscribers so that they can be repeat customers.

See the third installment, at “Part 3: Early Days.”

Eric Bandholz
Eric Bandholz
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