Bug-Out Business: Surviving eCommerce Platform Disasters

Recently, Shopify decided to ban merchants from selling firearms and gun accessories. I’m not going to use this space to debate the legal and ethical issues around selling guns on the internet.  I won’t comment whatsoever on a company entering the political hornet’s nest. And, I can’t even begin to speculate on the next industry that could be affected by the whims of an eCommerce platform’s leadership.

What I’d like to discuss are the merchants that get caught up in the crossfire.

I support the right of any company to refuse doing business with customers for any reason. Where I have a problem is when you already agreed to do business with them and then suddenly stop, at no fault of a customer’s behavior. If Shopify could no longer functionally serve their customers, I would support this move. However, because of a change in policy, they’ve given merchants in the gun industry until December 31st, 2018 to holster activity on the platform.

Come on, guys, seriously?

This requires a little perspective. Gun merchants are now having to find the resources to execute on complex platform migrations with the busy 4th quarter holiday-season looming.  Some of these migrations require extremely intricate builds, and most of the impacted merchants have already sunk a lot of money into Shopify. Having interacted with some of these business owners, it’s safe to say all of this isn’t going down too well.

Compared to the 600,000 merchants on Shopify, this is a small number of affected businesses. But, they’re still affected—and so are their customers.

Circumstances on eCommerce platforms out of a merchants control can and will happen. So what’s the lesson learned here? What happens when your platform lets you down—either from a policy or sometimes functional standpoint?

I subscribe to Kenny Rogers’ “The Gambler” philosophy when advising merchants in dealing with ecommerce platforms:

“You’ve got to know when to hold ’em
Know when to fold ’em
Know when to walk away
And know when to run
You never count your money
When you’re sittin’ at the table
There’ll be time enough for countin’
When the dealin’s done”

You’ve probably heard of “bug-out bags.” They’re portable kits that help you temporarily  survive in disaster situations. I’m a big believer in what I call “bug-out businesses.”

Here are five ways you can help insulate yourself to eCommerce platform craziness:

1)    Create a platform-independent growth strategy

I listed this as #1 because this is the #1 mistake I see eCommerce business owners make. A good chunk of merchants that I encounter have been forced to retrofit their entire eCommerce strategy around the capabilities (and policies) of the platform they’re on, versus choosing a platform right for the strategy. Every platform says they’re the greatest thing ever because their marketing demands it. Don’t fall into the hype.

Take a minute and forget about ALL platforms, including the one you’re currently on. Then, write out a list of what your business requires now and in the future. You may need some help to construct such an important list, but it’s vital that you have it. Now needs are easier to envision than future needs because of the rapidly changing nature of technology, individual industry trends, and customer behavior. Regardless, the point here is to try and reduce as much exposure to “platform-ceiling” as possible to enable growth.

2)    Know your critical functionality requirements 

The essential tools that belong in your business bug-out bag are functional ones. These are typically a combination of inherent platform abilities, third-party code additions, and custom elements a developer has created specifically for your site. The big question is: how much of all that can be replicated in another location?

It’s very important that you understand your exposure risk in having to recreate functionality. Third parties are typically the easiest element to plan around, given the fact that providers usually service more than just one platform, and there are more competitors that can replace the solution if not. However, when considering more complex areas like ERP integrations, it can sometimes require a lot more effort.

3)    Keep your data in good shape

If you’ve been on the same platform for any number of years, the odds are your store data could use some serious re-organization. Put simply, the time to organize isn’t in a crisis situation. Investing effort into making sure your product and customer data is in a manageable state will help you sleep better at night, trust me.

Mishandling your data will wreck every other area of preparedness if you’re not careful. Keep in mind search engine requirements as well as how the data is ultimately presented to your customer. Doing so will make a potential platform evacuation much easier and more efficient.

4)    Maintain a brand standards guide 

If you don’t have a brand standards guide, get one. Your brand is everything in a customer’s heart and mind that differentiates you from the other guy. In other words, it’s much more than the sum total of everything you’ve put in place from a technical and product standpoint. While a platform migration is largely technical in nature, it’s vital that you plan for the overall customer experience.

Would your usability and merchandising ability improve or degrade by making the big move? I encourage you to use your heart as well as your head when considering your customers in all of this. While it’s important that your business needs are met, the main requirement is meeting your customers’ needs.

5)    Keep your staff nimble 

Far too often, I’ve seen business owners spearhead platform migrations without taking into account how it will affect their employees. Your staff largely determines if the migration will be a success based on how effectively they adapt to new working systems. The first thing I recommend is to be open and transparent about the reason for the move. Let them understand this is not change for change’s sake, especially if they felt comfortable with the old environment.

Once willingness is addressed, you then have to address overall capability. Do you have staff whose skills won’t immediately transfer over? What about freelancers or third-parties that may have worked well until now? What training is available to your organization to assist in the move?

It’s important in an eCommerce company culture to never become complacent with technology.

Final Thoughts

Inexorably tying your fortunes to the independent moves of an eCommerce platform can be dangerous. Although any investment into a platform is going to be expensive, there will be an even greater price to pay for not being ready. No matter what, don’t make a move out of pure emotion. Look at every possible scenario and get wise counsel from within and without. Whether you ultimately decide to bug-out or stay put, always stay prepared!

–      Eric

Eric Yonge is CEO and Creative Director of EYStudios