Subjectivity vs. Scale: An Ecommerce Challenge

Subjectivity vs. Scale: An Ecommerce Challenge

Everyone likes to feel special. Growing up we are even told we are unique. While this mantra can be a great way to build self-esteem, it can be counterproductive when building an ecommerce business. It can lead you to believe that everything needs to be bespoke or customised, for fear of not capturing the full potential of your concept, or doing justice to your brand's DNA. The challenge is that most businesses do not have the luxury of feeling special.

In a crowded market, building a sustainable ecommerce business usually requires significant resources. Unless you are launching with a vast amount of brand equity and a wholly unique product offer, you will need to invest in a range of capabilities. Your platforms, whether web or app, need to be competitive. Your digital marketing needs to be effective. Your operations need to function well – with enterprise grade reliability even before you scale.

So many opportunities to seize, but how do I even get there? Photo by Greg Rakozy.

Yet building these foundational capabilities is expensive. One example is that of content. Attracting and retaining specialist talent to produce high quality creative is costly both from a temporal and financial perspective. Additionally, depending on the volume of the work, it might not make any unit cost sense to go it alone. It is a catch-22 in effect – you need certain capabilities to scale your ecommerce business, but until your business scales you cannot afford them.

Surely standardisation is therefore common practice? Sadly, subjectivity is the enemy here, with people's first response often amounting to "I need something custom." This tension exists both inside business units – "my teams needs different tools and processes than their teams" – as well as between them – "how can you compare my brand with their brand?" The truth is that as in society, what unites is so much greater than that which divides.

Consider the checkout process. Rarely have I seen a legitimate business case for a bespoke checkout journey. Sure, one might argue that a brand might wish to implement different payment methods than another brand, or desire to allow guest checkout whereas others do not – but is that really a material difference? The core elements of the user experience are not only identical, but these alternative approaches can be easily incorporated.

No person is an island, and even if you are – it can get lonely. Photo by Matthew Henry.

The benefits of embracing these commonalities are manifold and obvious.

Firstly, they allow for far greater levels of focused investment, given incrementally better capabilities can be developed, instead of developing parallel solutions. While bespoke, the latter tend to be inferior to the former after a few development cycles. Secondly, they justify specialist investment. For example, one business unit might not be able to invest in a robust marketing attribution model, but when costs are spread across departments, this becomes feasible.

The greatest argument might be the least tangible one, namely culture and community. The more humans pool their cognitive resources, the more we tend to make sound judgments  – although yes, one should be wary of groupthink. Additionally, we are social creatures. Few factors provide as strong a motivation as feeling oneself part of a collective identity with a meaningful purpose. At the end of the day, winning together is far better than winning alone.

– Ryan