In this interview series, we are talking to leaders of ecommerce businesses who can share their strategies for creating a very successful ecommerce website. As part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Chris Bach.
Can you tell us a bit about your backstory and how you got started?
My name is Chris Bach, and I’m a co-founder of Netlify, a web development platform. I started Netlify with one of my oldest friends, Matt Billmann. We grew up together in Denmark before moving to San Francisco. Before that, I spent 14 years in agencies creating digital solutions and campaigns of all sizes. Together, we created Netlify because the web as a standard was threatened by performance scalability and security issues.
What was your original vision for your company? What pain points were you trying to solve for your customers?
We realized that web experiences could be more secure and scalable if they moved away from traditional monoliths to decoupled, headless architecture. We coined the term “Jamstack,” a set of best practices for the web developer to connect, build and run headless digital experiences.
Two things were needed for this better version of the web to take off—first, an ecosystem of best-in-class composable components, such as headless CMSs and headless commerce solutions. Secondly, we needed a way to tie those components together in viable workflows that would result in cohesive digital experiences. This is what we aimed to solve with Netlify.
Today, the category has exploded. The ecosystem includes thousands of companies and services, and Gartner claims that headless adopters will outpace the competition by 80% in the speed of new feature implementation in 2023. With Netlify, over 3 million businesses and developers worldwide are building web experiences with composable architecture.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? What lessons did you learn from that?
There have been a lot of mistakes made along the way, so fortunately, there have been plenty of learning opportunities! As Mario Andretti, the famous race car driver, once said, “If everything is under control, you are not going fast enough!”
One example is early on when we were integrating a new billing system. We originally approached billing as an engineering problem, and since we had world-class engineers, we figured deploying them would solve it easily. However, it turned out that we’d need a nuanced understanding of how billing would function with our services, and we had to take a step back and reevaluate.
Is there a person you are grateful for who helped get you to where you are?
It's difficult to pick just one person! First, the success of any startup depends on its people. What began as just Matt and I bootstrapping grew into a small handful of engineers. I'm grateful our early team took a chance, often leaving bigger companies (and paychecks) behind because they shared our passion for a new, better approach to web architecture.
And, again, it took an ecosystem. I’m grateful to all the early adopters that took a chance on us, including our many partners that fortified our space by turning it into one of the largest architectural shifts since the move from on-premise to cloud.
How does your company relate to ecommerce? What was the “aha moment” that led to the idea for your current business?
Ecommerce is one area where we see a massive opportunity for impactful headless web architecture. You could be selling an incredibly in-demand product, but if navigating your ecommerce experience is challenging or you are too late to market, you'll lose business. This is especially important when you consider just how much shopping happens online today. From the first impression to the final transaction, the digital experience really is the brand.
Headless ecommerce offers tremendous benefits over traditional monolithic ecommerce solutions. A faster time to market and more flexibility allows for differentiated brand experiences, faster performance equaling higher conversions, reduced cost, and more.
However, it’s not enough to get a pre-built headless commerce solution from a single vendor. The majority of the benefits come from how you build your digital experiences on top. If you keep your old IT operations in place, you won’t get that faster time to market, increased developer productivity, or highly performant results.
With Netlify, you get an orchestration layer that abstracts away the administrative burden. It takes the operation and creates code. Now, you can choose your ecommerce tools (and other tools such as search, payment, content management, and so forth) and plug them into a streamlined platform.
The combination of the right commerce tool and a platform like Netlify unlocks the promises of headless commerce architecture.
There are more than 12 million ecommerce businesses out there. What do you think makes your company stand out?
Netlify helps you orchestrate, connect, build, and run your digital experiences, regardless of what headless commerce solution you use.
We’re different because we offer an open platform. We don’t box developers into just one solution. We empower them to use whichever tools best fit their needs.
This is seen in the diversity of examples we have on the platform. On the one hand, we have Spring, which migrated from a monolithic to a microservices-based web architecture to produce customizable brand experiences and faster build times. On the other hand, we have companies like Sennheiser Audio, which built their flagship mobile commerce with headless architecture. Investing in headless architecture enabled Sennheiser to double its conversions in less than three months and improve user engagement and site interactions.
Every piece of web architecture a team needs, each possibly from a different vendor, fits cohesively on the Netlify platform. Our goal is to give ecommerce development teams freedom, choice, and flexibility in building their customized web experience. We pride ourselves on being able to support businesses of all kinds, including a significant part of the Fortune 500.
Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things you need to know to build a highly successful ecommerce website?
1. Embrace headless web architecture. Rather than embrace a monolith that tries to cover all use cases but is best in class in nothing and is slow, bloated, and ungovernable, build your solutions with each best-in-class component. This gives you a number of advantages, including speed, efficiency, flexibility, scalability, and security.
2. Embrace full composability. Choosing headless APIs like a headless commerce solution and a headless content management layer is not enough. If you want to cash on the potential benefits like faster time to market, performance, and flexibility, you need to use a workflow and frontend cloud to abstract away the traditional operations. This will enable service from multiple points of origin and incorporate edge infrastructure and serverless into a single source of truth using centralized release management.
3. Migrate gradually. If you’re familiar with web development, you know that traditional re-platforming has consisted of “lift and shift.” You build out a new monolith, migrate all the old content, feature lock, and, ultimately, go live with dated software 18 months later. However, the headless architecture allows you to gradually migrate. You don’t have to off-board the monolith all at once. Instead, you can start in a corner, go live in weeks, and move from there.
4. Understand each stage of your customer’s journey. No tool will replace your need for understanding your customers and how they use different digital touchpoints. Collecting upfront data and truly understanding the user journey help inform what kind of tools you need where and what changes will drive impact, thereby helping you understand where to start your journey towards headless architecture.
5. Prioritize frontend optimization. Choosing a headless commerce solution and a front-end cloud are ingredients for success. But make sure you optimize your actual digital experiences. Optimizing load sequences, minimizing code, setting up the property for SEO, using the right lightweight frameworks, and applying best practices around image optimization are all considerations when building a great customer experience.
If there were one part of the website development process you would recommend your ecommerce customers spend 50% more time on, what would it be and why?
When building an ecommerce website, I’d recommend taking significant time to understand what headless architecture is and how it can support your business goals. Implementing the right architecture is step one. Headless web architecture unlocks more time to be spent on every other aspect of the web development workflow, including alleviating IT burdens, powering personalization, and reducing costs.
Can you share a few examples of tools or software that you think can dramatically empower emerging ecommerce brands to be more effective and more successful?
Empowering ecommerce brands is about more than just one tool or piece of software. It’s about changing the way they’re building digital experiences entirely. Monolith infrastructures often hinder ecommerce providers more than they may know. A shift to headless architecture can have a significant, tangible impact on the business.
What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start an ecommerce business? What can be done to avoid those errors?
The biggest mistake I’ve seen is not thinking holistically enough. Ecommerce CEOs and founders need to understand all the different factors that play into their digital customer experience: functionality, workflows, flexibility, and speed. This is the same lesson I learned when building our billing system. When you think holistically with the end goal in mind, you get a better sense of what you need to achieve that goal.
In your experience, which aspect of running an ecommerce brand tends to be most underestimated?
Success comes from understanding how human processes and technology fit together. Disregarding that connection will hinder any chance of success, and often that relationship goes underestimated.
Headless architecture will engender better results, but only if you consider every aspect. If you keep your silos intact, don’t consult the stakeholders, or fail to consider the business impact and only approach challenges technically, you likely won’t have a successful outcome. And vice versa; if you don’t understand your technical operational approach, your results will lack successful outcomes. Thinking cohesively about the relationship between human processes and technology often goes underestimated and underutilized.
If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most people, what would that be?
I truly believe that developers—in ecommerce and beyond—are using headless architecture to build a better web. The experiences they’re building now will forever change the way we all live and work online, making lives easier and bringing us closer together.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Check out the Netlify blog, where we talk about everything surrounding web development and headless ecommerce.
Don't miss out on the latest tips, insights, software recommendations, and expert advice from The Ecomm Manager. Subscribe to our newsletter today!
More great ECM content: