The Front End Trap
People spend more of their time on digital platforms than ever before. Simultaneously, privacy changes from Apple and Google have made targeted online advertising a more expensive and less effective means of customer acquisition. This leaves many audience platforms turning to commerce as a way to drive the continued growth of their business and add utility to their products.
Importantly, these companies don’t want to become merchants and they don't want to hold inventory. But, they do want to keep users in their experience and reduce the friction between product discovery and product purchase. In essence, they want the simplicity of an affiliate model, with the integrated user experience of native checkout. But when building these new commerce capabilities, that tension often leads teams right into the Front End Trap.
The Front End Trap
Over the past decade, we have worked for some of the world’s largest merchants, and have built technology for some of the most innovative consumer experience companies in the world. In the course of that work, we’ve observed a repeatable pattern: the people building the next generation of ecommerce experiences often get so focused on the innovative customer interaction, that they gloss over the backend innovation needed to power that experience. That causes them to rely on temporary, unscalable solutions to power the backend, which eventually results in the failure of a product, initiative, or entire company. We’ve seen this so many times at so many companies, that we’ve come up with a term for it: The Front End Trap.
First, it’s important to appreciate that The Front End Trap is actually a trap; that means that someone enters unknowingly. It also means that it’s easy to enter the trap (usually due to a false assumption based on past experience). And finally, once you’ve entered the trap, it’s very challenging to escape without someone else’s help.
So how do people find themselves in “The Trap”? The sequence of events goes something like this:
A company develops a fantastic idea
They build a set of beautiful designs and get buy in and/or capital
These designs turn into a digital experience that they launch to great fanfare
The experience is flinstoning* the ecommerce part of the equation (this is okay because the first iteration of the product is considered an MVP)
The backend challenges are deeper and more complex than the team had assumed or have the resources (time, money, headcount) to solve
The company or initiative flounders and eventually dies due to the inefficiencies driven by the flinstoning* approach
* Flinstoning: using a manual, unscalable workaround as a stand in for scalable automation
This pattern comes from the way we build internet companies today. Move fast and break things. Spin up a design. Throw it to your frontend team. Run a demo for some customers. And then launch what they’re building by hosting with AWS, using Elastic, Vercel, or whatever other infrastructure is available off the shelf.
When building most apps, the user experience is the hard part. It’s how most consumer apps differentiate themselves. The backend is simply a series of services, sdks, and configurations that are either:
Self-contained or managed within the company’s infrastructure, or
Powered by a handful of sophisticated SaaS companies that abstract away complex infrastructure - these are vertically integrated APIs like Stripe, or Plaid
Smart, capable, and experienced product people fall victim to the Front End Trap because they assume the same will be true when building something new in ecommerce: They’ll be able to build the UX, and grab a series of off the shelf services to power the backend…
Unfortunately for them, in the world of ecommerce this assumption is FALSE.
Building a new commerce experience relies heavily on external systems in order to function (because the products, pricing, inventory, tax tables, shipping options, OMS, IMS, etc. are all external to the digital experience itself). This requires solving a backend, Server-to-Server set of dependencies across hundreds of potential systems, all with different paradigms and standards. Ecommerce is fundamentally different than a basic photo sharing or messaging app where users are uploading and distributing content through the app’s own internal systems.
Until recently, there have been no SaaS companies that simplify this complexity in ecommerce, including the normalization of the processes from the different systems. And this complexity covers a lot of surface area due to the fact that merchants use one of more than 200 ecommerce platforms. Ecommerce integrations also require deep orchestration functionality to normalize and facilitate checkout across all of those platforms.
To be clear, there is a reason why organizations don't want to have to build this; it takes a lot of time and resources, but is not actually their core differentiation. Andy Jassy wrote about this same shift as it related to data centers:
“Before, companies and startups had to lay up all this capital for data centers and servers, and take your scarce resource, which in most companies is engineers, and have them work on the undifferentiated heavy lifting of infrastructure. What the cloud has done is completely flipped that model on its head so that you only pay for what you consume.” - https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/andy_jassy_1192193
What’s it feel like if you’re in “The Trap”
There’s a moment in every story of this trap where the team looks at what they have built so far and where they are as a company, and realize there’s no turning back. Sometimes this comes from success: users are engaging with the app, and that usage is breaking the unscalable ecommerce workarounds. And sometimes this evaluation is spurred by a lack of traction. In either case, they usually come to the same conclusion: they’ve already spent too much time (and money) on their current system, so they can’t start over and build what they need.
Worst Case: the company has failed based on the inability to orchestrate the checkout step of ecommerce
Best case: orders are already flowing through their system but even if they don’t want to, they need to figure out that transition
In fact, even switching to a provider is difficult given the investments they’ve made and how these systems often work. This is the classic sunk-cost fallacy. There is also a real psychological trap here and it is as follows:
‘Don’t invest in the backend part. We don’t even know if people will use this thing yet.
So, let’s build little MVPs. Small stop gap solutions.’ This continues every week, every sprint, every month, until 2 years have passed and the product is about 50% successful, while the backend is at about 20% in terms of functionality and quality.
The team thinks they need to increase the product success 70-80% to finally place a focus on fixing the 20% pain in their backend. This is the road to failure. The lack of product success is often caused by the backend issues. If you fix the backend, the functional utility and user satisfaction will improve and the experience customers and merchants have will be smoother. We’ve seen it happen with our customers.
The unfortunate takeaway here is that the backend can be an anchor on a product’s frontend (and thus its users’ satisfaction). This is true in any other app - but with other apps (photo sharing, etc.) the product team controls that backend… The same must be true for ecommerce - and so it’s imperative to implement scalable backend solutions to realize the full potential of an ecommerce experience.
How to escape The Front End Trap
The focus goes to the frontend every time. This is the trap. It’s a trap, because you don’t know it’s a trap. Unfortunately, many teams get lured into this situation where the door closes behind them and they struggle to find their way out.
As a leadership team, when evaluating how to overcome the four key challenges in The Front End Trap, the best approach is as follows:
1. Awareness of your team’s expertise and responsibilities
Focus on the things your team does best (and why your company has been successful to date). Focus on how your system operates internally and lean on an external partner for the dependencies. Be cognizant of the functional expertise, and limitations of your team: the business person only knows the business side best, the designer only knows the design side, and the technical person only knows your own stack. Refer to #3 for further evaluation here.
2. Lean in to time pressure
Time is the one currency you can’t buy more of. So don’t try. Move fast. The right partner will allow you to not only meet your timelines, but exceed them. It isn’t just about building the first version, or even the scalable version, it's about finding a permanent and reliable version that won’t require constant maintenance and development from your team.
3. Lack of ecommerce integration experience
Individuals on a team have to have experience building an ecommerce integration or must have designed for an experience that relies heavily on external ecommerce integrations. If a team doesn't have that, it's vitally important to find it externally.
As a test, you can ask: How many integrations has your team built into which platforms? Build a matrix with the name and the platform, placing a number in each box. Opt to find a best-in-class partner to fill the boxes here. The right partner will have the expertise and solution at the intersection of the technology and design that will allow your team to operate from their greatest strengths.
4. Be honest about the scope you can tackle
Think honestly about the scope you are uniquely positioned to solve. That could be true at many levels depending on your team, budget, and the ambition of your product. Where is your team most focused?
The user experience
Your internal systems and application
The business model
What is your team best at? What is your competitive advantage? That’s where you should deploy most of your resources.
The hidden benefit of The Front End Trap, is you can take an existential risk, and turn it into a competitive advantage. Having a scalable ecommerce integration backend is a foundational capability that’s essential to scaling across a wide variety of merchants and their products. It allows you to build an uncompromised, differentiated experience without limitation.
Focus on the frontend, the part you are uniquely positioned to solve. And instead of neglecting the integration challenges, optimize for them. Grab a best-in-class API that gives you exactly what your team would have built if given 3 to 5 years with the right people and experience mix (better yet, they won't have to keep building it). Until now, that product hasn't existed. Enter Violet.
Your team will execute much in the same way you would have by focusing on the frontend, but there’s no trap door to fall through because of the neglect and rot on the backend.
Go. Build. Innovate. Don’t integrate. We did that for you.