Chill

#045 : Ali Afzalirad @ BigCommerce

In this Chill episode, Overdose’s Andrew Potkewitz and ecomm legend Ali Afzalirad will discuss BigCommerce’s growth and roadmap, the rise of headless/composable solutions, ecomm trends and strategies, and more.

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    #045: Ali Afzalirad @ BigCommerce

    #045 : In this Chill episode, Overdose’s Andrew Potkewitz and ecomm legend Ali Afzalirad will discuss BigCommerce’s growth and roadmap, the rise of headless/composable solutions, ecomm trends and strategies, and more.


    BigCommerce

    BigCommerce is a world-leading open-SaaS ecommerce platform used by merchants of all sizes to conduct their businesses online. With sophisticated enterprise-grade functionality, customisation, and performance, it’s lauded for its simplicity, ease of use, and scalability. Headquartered in Austin, BigCommerce has offices in San Francisco, Sydney, and London.

    BigCommerce has been an Overdose partner since 2018.

    Ali Afzalirad

    Ali Afzalirad is without a doubt a stalwart of ecommerce. His career almost spans the entire tech industry’s evolution, beginning back in the dark ages some twenty years ago.  It’s a trajectory that has seen him dabble in everything from deep tech, to early applications, to agency, and onto SaaS—the space where he happily sits now as VP Enterprise Sales at BigCommerce.

    He cut his teeth, back in the day, working for a company licensing software technology to device manufacturers. It was software development and a lot of source code. He was in sales, but there was nothing to demo.

    “We sold real-time operating systems and protocol stacks to companies that were making devices.” There was all manner of devices: early cellphones, set-top boxes, digital cameras, and personal assistant devices (remember Palm Pilot?). Also networking equipment, like routers and switches, and avionics, such as ground proximity radar warning systems.

    Then, one day, he heard about this thing called ecommerce.

    ATG

    The story Ali tells is that he was asked by a colleague, one of the SE (solution engineers), for a favour: “Hey, I know this guy who runs the SE team at ATG. It’s in this thing called ecommerce. Can you be a reference?”

    Ali agreed: “Sure. I’ll be a reference for you. But, hey, what exactly is ecommerce?”

    “Selling stuff online.”

    While Ali was on the phone providing the reference, the recruiter offered him a job too.

    “So that’s how I got hired by ATG,” he says. “I didn’t know the first thing about ecommerce, or customer service or customer experience, I just fell into it at that point in time.”

    At ATG, Ali immersed himself in the learning experience and the role really suited him. “I loved being out of the deep-tech side and being more application. And it was a breath of fresh air to be able to have something to demo and to pitch to business users and IT, not just the developers in the room.”

    Oracle

    Not long after Ali found his niche at ATG, it was acquired by Oracle. Ali describes how it was a case of “the little fish gets swallowed by the big fish and the culture changes, the focus changes.”

    The sales structure was very different, he explains. “Big companies obviously go to market very differently than little companies. There’s typically a matrix sales organisation. You’ve got product specialists supporting a primary rep that has a certain subset of accounts. You go from geographies to account-based. You might have vertical teams that pitch in retail, FinTech, etc.”

    Initially, there was a transition period where he says it still felt the same, and he had the same ATG crew around him. Then, the fiscal year turned and the very next day he was told, “You have a new assignment. Show up to Atlanta on Wednesday, you’re going to meet your new manager.”

    “Boom. My world changed overnight,” says Ali. “I was made a prime rep, was given a subset of accounts and I sold customer experience. I had several different solutions in the bag that I could sell, and I just didn’t love it.”

    Optaros

    Enter the next phase in Ali’s career. Opportunity came knocking: A friend of his was being courted by a consulting company, Optaros, to run sales, and she begged him to go too. Before he knew it, he was on a plane to Boston for an interview—which ended up being a here’s-your-offer-letter-interview, rather than an actual interview.

    Ali tells of how, to sweeten the deal, they were taken to a New England seafood outlet where five two-pound lobsters were packaged up in a to-go box, along with a couple of quarts of frozen clam chowder, all put in a cooler which he had to take as carry-on on the flight back home. “So, I’ve got lobsters clawing on the Styrofoam and I get home, make the lobsters, and the family is like, ‘You’d better take that job because we want more lobsters.’”

    The lure of the lobster aside, Ali revered his time at Optaros, where he was Director of Sales, “It was fantastic. We implemented Hybris, Demandware, and Magento. And all of them before they were acquired by the bigger companies that own them now. It was a new time.”

    Magento

    While at Optaros, and working with Magento, he met the new channel manager who was going to take over the Optaros account, Rachel Pfeffer (now of Gorgias fame).

    He recalls “Rachel was asking me questions about how we’re going to work together and establish our cadence, and I was just thinking, ‘I’m probably going to be working with you over there. I just talked to who will be my manager pretty soon. I think the offer is coming.’”

    Sure enough, before long, he jumped on board with Magento. When he got there, it was all ‘Go.’ “I arrived shortly after M2 came out, and Primera spun Magento out or basically bought it from the eBay enterprise days, and they spun out GSI Commerce or that piece of eBay enterprise to what is now Radial. And then we got spun out to Magento commerce, and Primera put, I don’t know, a couple hundred million bucks’ investment in the company. And it just took off like a rocket ship, it was a fun time.”

    As we know, Magento was subsequently acquired by Adobe (and in 2021 was renamed Adobe Commerce).

    BigCommerce

    With his penchant for progressive business, it’s no surprise that Ali moved over to BigCommerce in March 2020. He says he was drawn to the ecomm powerhouse for several reasons:

    One, because it’s a SaaS platform. Ali could see the sea-of-change towards SaaS: “I was seeing the shift in the market where people don’t want to own the core-code of the commerce platform and are willing to sacrifice some flexibility to have that ease-of-use, ease of maintenance, not having to deal with core-code.”

    Secondly, Ali had his radar on for a business that would go public. “I had the sense from the CEO around strategy that he wanted to go public more than he wanted to be acquired.” And it has—BigCommerce’s IPO was announced in July 2020.

    Also, he was attracted to BigCommerce’s technology and inherent flexibility; as well as the fact it’s a company solely focused on ecommerce.

    BigCommerce & the headless game

    BigCommerce was very early into what is now known as the ‘headless game’—no longer just a buzzword, it’s a super trend in ecomm.

    With a headless commerce platform, the front-end delivery layer (or the ‘head’)—which in most cases is a template or theme—has been decoupled and removed, leaving only the back-end infrastructure. Headless is a gamechanger because of the unbridled flexibility it allows the brand in the creation of their websites, and, importantly, it enables brands to enrich the customer experience.

    BigCommerce provides an API-driven approach (API acts as a bridge between the front-end and back-end by decoupling them from each other), giving the option of going headless. “This is a world where people want choice,” Ali says. “They may need to have some things owned by the commerce platform, but the commerce platform owns the glass. Or it may be an area of the site, or the CMS, or it’s a custom front-end, and we’re just feeding the commerce capabilities there.”

    Ali explains that typically the headless approach suits the more mature, larger brands—they can provide the level of support needed. But he sees some smaller brands that are also suited to headless. “An example is Yeti Cycles. They’re a customer of ours that has a beautiful headless site. They’re not selling just any ordinary bicycle. These are amazing bikes. And when you go to the site, it’s a very immersive experience, it doesn’t look like your traditional web store out of the box.”

    “They’re a business without a large catalog, and they don’t do a lot of promotions, so they’re not making a ton of changes to the site on a frequent basis—it’s more the experience that really matters. It’s more about educating the consumer on the bikes they have, on their brand, and really competing against the other bikes and brands in the market.”

    “If your experience is what you’re selling on, and maybe you’re a digitally native brand to start out with, it might be the right play for you to go headless.”

    Staying traditional, the monolithic way

    Headless is not for everyone and many businesses need a tightly coupled ecommerce platform with its own theming, framework, or head, where the software provider ‘owns the glass.’

    BigCommerce continues to invest substantially in the traditional, ‘monolithic’ approach. Recent enhancements to their themes include adding feature functionality, improving the speed of their themes, and they have recently released support for accessibility in the WCAG standard. They also recently added a page-builder, a drop-and-drag WYSIWYG editor, and more.

    The rise of subscription

    Subscription, spurred on by the pandemic, is another current craze in ecomm. “There are tons of opportunities around subscription,” says Ali. “I think everyone’s moved their own business to some sort of subscription service, no matter who it is.”

    And it seems he’s right—subscriptions are everywhere and range from a monthly grilled-cheese subscription to a cloud subscription where the National Cloud Society email a daily picture of a cloud (the physical, up-in-the-sky kind). Farcical as it may sound, it’s a serious thing—supposedly a cathartic experience.

    AR/VR

    “I think this whole AR/VR thing is pretty cool,” Ali says referring to AR ‘augmented reality’ and VR ‘virtual reality’ technologies.

    Increasingly used in the furniture, art, and fashion industries, AR and AV enhance the user experience by enabling customers to virtually try the product on, or see it on the wall in their living room.

    AR/VR software also has huge appeal for B2B. “When B2B companies really start using the tools that are out there for B2C merchants, like the ability to take an automotive part, spin it around and look at it and see it from all angles—it’s is another level of providing a better experience,” says Ali.

    BigCommerce has a partnership with Threekit, a leading platform in the AR/AV space.

    Channel management

    Today, to be competitive, it’s almost essential to have a multi-channel approach for your brand, including social media. Platforms like BigCommerce serve as the hub to push out products to all channels, and they work hard establishing tight integrations with the likes of Facebook, Instagram, and Amazon. “We’ve improved our ability to serve our customers and give them the ability to syndicate their products on the different channels and sell across those channels,” explains Ali.

    He says the bigger brands were once choosing to use platforms like ChannelAdvisor or Feedonomics, rather than a commerce platform, but now there’s a shift with those larger brands wanting to manage their channels from the core commerce platform.

    Andrew agrees there’s a shift in merchants requiring channel management. “We used to hear about CDPs and PIMs and DAMs only once in a while,” he says. “And now, it’s at least discussed—it’s asked about by the merchant, it’s asked about by tech partners.”

    Direct-to-consumer

    Ali says there’s another new frontier with consumer packaged goods (CPG) companies eager to try out ecommerce in the direct-to-consumer channel. It makes sense with a SaaS platform, like BigCommerce, where they can “test and learn and spin up a site really quickly, deploy it in a matter of weeks”—to see if it’s going to work for that particular brand before investing a lot of money.

    Customer relationships

    B2B brands traditionally know very little about their end-consumer, so direct-to-consumer provides a way for a brand to get to know and understand their consumers.

    “You may do focus groups, where you try and figure it out. But unless you’re selling directly to them, you don’t really ever get the data,” says Ali.

    It’s transformative for these brands to now be learning about their consumers—they can gain insights to help them with product development, with distribution, with understanding what part of the country they should be selling in, what products and which warehouse they should be resourcing from, and so forth.

    One of the challenges, however, is getting the companies to invest adequately. “There are multi-billion-dollar brands selling to the big box retailers and they have zero relationship with their customers and when they finally turn the corner to invest in an ecommerce channel, it’s astounding how little they want to spend.”

    “The end goal is not necessarily to do hundreds of millions through your ecomm channel. It’s more about the insights, having that relationship. So that, this two, three, four, five million or $10 million ecommerce site you have influences the billions of dollars you generate through your other channels. That’s what you’re really talking about here.”

    With every challenge there is opportunity. And we know that for these businesses yet to tap into their full ecomm potential, there’s a powerful big commerce business ready to welcome them to the party.

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