Why we Created a New Ecommerce Platform

The journey that led us to build Commerce Layer, the platform for digital agencies, e-commerce makers and innovators.

Filippo Conforti · August 23, 2018 · 6 min read


Almost every founder has a we-were-not-satisfied-of-the-existing-solutions-so-we-created-our-own story, and I am no exception. My name is Filippo. I'm the CEO of Commerce Layer, and I want to tell you why — at the age of 40 — I thought that the world needed (yet) another e-commerce platform.

In the past decade, I've been working with all kinds of brands, from startups to global enterprises. Massimo, my co-founder, has even a more extensive experience. We've both learned a lot about the challenges of building e-commerce the right way. Above all, we've never seen a project coming out of the box of any platform or a beautiful UX being packed in any theme.

The best projects are always driven by creativity. The problem is that creatives and engineers generally have conflicting priorities. The former always push for innovation and flexibility. The latter pull for security and stability.

All the traditional e-commerce platforms failed in filling this gap. In some cases, they actually were the cause of it. So, we created our own solution. We built a platform designed for the world's best digital agencies, makers, and innovators. A new model that radically changes the way of thinking and building e-commerce.

What is Commerce Layer, anyway?

Commerce Layer is a headless, CMS-agnostic e-commerce platform. It's an enterprise-level solution available to anyone, providing unparalleled flexibility.

As you can imagine, it was not built overnight but through a series of experiences that let us shape it as we wanted to be. This article will walk you through our journey. First, you will get an overview of what we didn't like about the existing platforms and how their limitations became our own points of strength. Then, we will help you understand the pros and cons of working with Commerce Layer and finally decide if it's the right solution for you.

The limitations of traditional e-commerce platforms

When we say "traditional," we mean all the e-commerce platforms that were launched ten years ago or more. The most popular examples include WooCommerce, Magento, or Shopify. The top-right side of the Gartner's Magic Quadrant spots the (overpriced) giants like Salesforce Commerce Cloud, formerly Demandware, SAP Commerce Clould, formerly Hybris, or IBM Websphere Commerce.

Regardless of their features and target customers that can vary greatly, all those platforms are roughly made like this:

Traditional e-commerce platforms are built on top of a monolithic architecture

Put into words, they all present a monolithic architecture that includes the following:

  • An opinionated presentation layer
  • A transactional engine
  • A limited CMS
  • Some optional APIs

This architecture doesn't live up to the modern tech stacks. Think of the rise of content management systems, Javascript frameworks, or static site generators. Moreover, it ships with three significant limitations that you better understand.

1. Traditional platforms lock you into a templating system that sucks

We don't like themes, and we never used them in any of our projects. We do think that "no coding required" is more a selling proposition than something that works in real life. That said, we understand that having a theme store can make sense for the smallest businesses, like in the case of WooCommerce, which is a Wordpress plugin, or Shopify, that targets small, U.S.-based merchants.

What we don't understand at all is how people can still believe that they can build enterprise e-commerce starting from a predefined theme. Call it "Boilerplate" (Magento), "Site Genesis" (Demandware), "Accelerator" (Hybris) or "Aurora" (Websphere). It doesn't change too much. Ask a developer how easy it is to customize those starter frameworks or ask a project manager how convenient it is in terms of budget and time to market. Finally, ask marketing people how happy they are with the final result.

Theming frameworks lock your developers into a programming language they don't like. They confine your UX experts into a navigation structure that some engineers have designed on their behalf.

Solution: Go headless!

A big step towards building a better e-commerce is to go headless. A headless platform doesn't provide any presentation layer but talks to third-party systems through an API. The benefit is that developers can keep using their favorite languages and tools and be more productive. Creatives get more freedom in designing any user experience and customer journey.

Headless e-commerce platforms remove the presentation layer and elevate the role of APIs

When we created Commerce Layer, being headless was our number one priority. We developed every single feature following an API-first approach, and we are going to do the same in the future. It's fair to mention that we are not the first headless e-commerce platform in the market. Other headless solutions already existed, namely Snipcart, Moltin, and Commerce Tools. So why not adopt one of those platforms instead of creating our own?

The answer is simple.

Despite being very smart, Snipcart was too much on the lower side of our target customers. Likewise, Moltin didn't cover most of our enterprise business requirements. The problem with Commerce Tools was quite the opposite, as their price positioning was far too high for our smaller clients. At the end of the day, our goal was to have one single scalable platform, and none of the existing ones was a good fit.

2. Traditional platforms provide content management capabilities that are mediocre, at best

Apart from WooCommerce, which is built on top of the world's most popular CMS — who doesn't love Wordpress, by the way :) — all the traditional platforms ship with very basic content management capabilities. This is true for the headless ones as well, excluding Snipcart, which just provides a Javascript shopping cart that can be attached to any site (bravo!).

I must confess that even the first version of Commerce Layer included a CMS. However, we soon realized that, like the other platforms, we were just building something fair — nothing more. So we decided to get rid of it and focus on building the best transactional engine.

Commerce Layer provides the cleanest architecture, letting developers choose the CMS the like more

You know what? This is, by far, the best decision we've ever have made during our journey. They say that "perfection is achieved not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away," and we can't agree more.

Content is not commerce

We created Commerce Layer, not "Content" Layer, and there's a reason for that. Content must be creative, emotional, and inspiring. Commerce must be secure, reliable, and flexible. An e-commerce platform that wants to manage content is like an engineer who wants to make the job of a marketing expert. It just doesn't work.

Commerce Layer is CMS agnostic. Instead of mimicking the best breed CMS like Contentful, Drupal, or Adobe Experience Manager it integrates with them with no friction. In this way, your digital agency can truly innovate and transform any boring catalog into rich content that converts.

3. None of the existing platforms scale with your business

Last but not least, the reason why we created our own platform is that none of the existing solutions were scalable enough. The term "scalability" is pretty broad, as it concerns many topics.

Performance

First of all, a scalable platform must support high-traffic, absorbing spikes. From our experience, SaaS platforms like Shopify or Salesforce Commerce Cloud are both great about performance. We can't say the same for Snipcart or Moltin, as we don't have any benchmarks on which to rely.

With on-premise solutions, performance really depends on the underlying infrastructure and developer skills. That said, it's well known that WooCommerce websites suffer when traffic grows. Magento's slowness has become proverbial, and we know from experience how tough (and costly) is to make the Gartner's giants move faster.

Business complexity

A scalable platform must support the merchants' business models, whatever their complexity. It must permit new markets and sales channels to be launched, as their business needs grow.

The problem with entry-level platforms like Shopify is that they can work fine until you start selling abroad or need to scale your business rules. For example, they don't support multiple price lists and currencies, distributed inventory models, or personalization. And, no: Shopify Plus doesn't help too much. To get this kind of feature, your only option is to leverage a five (or six) figure budget, go with one of the big players, and hope for the best.

Pricing

It should be clear that scalability is also related to pricing. A platform is not scalable if startups can't afford it. Moreover, if you piss away all your budget into your platform, you can't invest enough in your brand and make it grow.

It doesn't have to be that way.

Commerce Layer is an enterprise-level platform available to anyone. It supports the early-stage businesses as well as the most established brands. Our pricing model is sustainable and doesn't cannibalize your profits at any stage.

How to understand if Commerce Layer is the right solution for your digital agency

Now that you have e better idea of what Commerce Layer is and how different it is from other platforms, you may wonder if it's the right solution for you.

Guess what. It depends :)

Despite all its benefits, Commerce Layer is not the right solution for everyone. First, it's best suited for makers and innovators rather than theme buyers. So, if you prefer to tweak a predefined template rather than design your own customer experience, you're better off staying traditional. The same goes for if you don't feel confident working with an API or taking charge of your front-end.

If, instead, you are bored of seeing that all e-commerce websites look the same or you want to create the next Dash Button, then give us a try. We can't wait to see what you can build with Commerce Layer.


Filippo conforti
About the author: Filippo is the founder and CEO of Commerce Layer. He loves running (with no rush), meditation and building software that matters.