Ecommerce Innovators: Rally
The unbundling of the ecommerce tech stack
Returning autonomy to the merchants — not the platforms
His advice for new founders in today’s startup ecosystem
“Most of all, we want to bring the power in ecommerce back to where it belongs: the merchants. So we want to see more freedom in ecommerce, much like how people seek more freedom in everyday online functions, like social media or search.”
Brandon: To kick us off, walk us through long term vision at Rally. What are you trying to do, and why?
At Rally, we’re trying to do a few things at the same time.
Broadly, we want to restore power in ecommerce back to the merchants. The most straightforward way we see to do that is to unbundle the ecommerce tech stack and make Rally the default checkout for the headless ecosystem.
What’s happening in ecommerce is similar to what happened in a lot of other spaces. Centralized platforms have done a great job at bundling technologies to make it easier for businesses to get up and running. But as power accumulates in those centralized platforms, the interests of the individual users–in our case, ecommerce merchants–start to be secondary to the needs and business model of the platform itself.
As merchants strive to compete in what is now a very competitive space thanks to the pandemic, they basically have two levers: their brand and their shopping experience. The best way they can regain control of that shopping experience is through unbundling these tech stacks. And at Rally, we see an opportunity to build a checkout that can serve as a unifying force for the headless ecosystem.
In our future vision, merchants will use whatever they want on the front end and whatever they want on the backend. But they run their payments through Rally, and we act almost like a Zapier in the middle that makes integrating all these different parts of the tech stack really easy.
Brandon: This might be connected to this idea of unbundling, but I’d love to hear more of your ideas around centralized versus decentralized commerce platforms specifically, and the incentives and the value flow for each. Can you walk us through how you characterize those differences?
The way I see it, Shopify is the epitome of a centralized commerce platform. They help their merchants sell online with three big offerings:
The frontend, or the storefront that shoppers actually interact with
The backend, where the ecommerce functionality happens between products, orders, etc.
The third party app ecosystem that's connected to that backend. In between this ecosystem and the backend is checkout.
If the ecommerce platform can provide these tools to the merchant, build a set of features, outsource the remaining features to an app ecosystem, then they can build something that gives merchants everything they need to sell online. But in exchange for that, the platform gets to control the flow of payments. The money for the platform is in controlling the transactions, not in the software subscription. If you look at something like WooCommerce, that has enormous GMV also, but doesn't monetize their payment flow nearly as well, they're nowhere close to Shopify. They don't have the $100B+ market cap and access to capital and so on.
In this centralized model, the merchant loses, and the platform has all the power. It leads to propositions, like “Your pricing is a certain way if you use this processor, your pricing is better if you use our payment processor. You have access to this feature if you use our payment processor, but not if you use this other payment processor.”
Rally flips that model on its head, and literally gives ownership to the people processing revenue, the merchants on the platform. For us, decentralization is about the distribution of ownership, and less so around the tech itself.
Fundamentally, the models are a testament to who matters more: Is it the platform that built this ecosystem, or is it the merchants that make it kind of more valuable? We think the merchant should be at the center, not the platform.
Brandon: Longterm, is Rally building checkout and a shopper network of card tokenization? How are you thinking about that?
We’re building a shopper network for sure. And we're building in such a way that is platform agnostic and payment processor agnostic. That's an essential part of the ethos and I think what needs to exist on the web. The easiest way to think of our network is like Shop Pay, but not exclusive to one platform or one payment processor. We’ll face a lot of competition, but I think we earn the right to build a shopper network by providing merchants with a great checkout experience that improves their business. The network doesn’t come first–serving merchants does. We give merchants an amazing checkout experience that makes their revenue go up, and when we do that, as shoppers go through that checkout, the network is built off of that trust and excellent buying experience.
Brandon: I definitely see a people-centric approach to a lot of what you do, and I also see a lot of ambition in this very competitive environment. Does your mission and how you see the market also translate into the product you've created for other people as well?
We think about this a lot. Our team had a horrible experience with Shopify and how they treat their partners. We want our interests and our customers’ interest to remain aligned for the long term. And we build our product with that in mind.
There's this really fascinating concept in crypto and in Web3 that’s inverting how we think about competition and cooperation online. We’re all familiar with the idea of the tragedy of the commons - that individuals with access to a public resource act in their own interest and, in doing so, ultimately deplete the resource - but the interesting thing about crypto projects and tokens is that they can align incentives with people that don't know each other, and don't really need to know each other, but they can still be incentivized in the same direction.
Applying this new model in ecommerce means we can operate our checkout as a public good in many ways. We don’t need to behave like a self-interested platform that tries to control merchant behavior for our own benefit. If the team and investors own the same tokens as merchants do, and merchants earn ownership in our network as they process more revenue through our checkout, we can remain aligned for the long term.
That concept is really, really powerful. It means that we can build almost selflessly, but remain financially incentivized. And that's a completely new concept that's going to apply to a lot of different things on the web between e-commerce, software, music, art, and all these other things that are starting to kind of bubble around. Instead of a tragedy, it can be the triumph of the commons.
Brandon: I think that’s a great and optimistic note to end on. Thanks, Jordan!