Do we need yet another e commerce platform?

tldr; headless e commerce platforms are amazing, and the way ahead. I want to build a better one. 

I have been part of the IT services business industry in India for quite some time, and have worked closely with start ups and small & medium businesses in the country. As I moved through client projects, functioning either as a project manager or technical lead, I noticed the large influx of e commerce development requests that we would receive from potential clients. In fact, e commerce projects contributed to a major chunk of our revenue as a software development firm. I never truly understood our clients need for developing custom e commerce solutions, and I set out to explore and learn. 

If I were to start an e commerce business, or were responsible for running one, my first instinct would be to choose a technology solution from one of the following categories: 

Open Source SolutionsWooCommerce, Magento, OpenCart, Prestashop, ZenCart
SAAS SolutionsShopify, Big Commerce, Volusion, Shopmatic, Wix

I’ve been through all products mentioned above, and quite some of them are incredibly powerful and well designed, and could be seriously considered as a web channel candidate for established retail companies. 

PB, that in my research, I consider SMB organisations, or larger established retail businesses, and not mom & pop stores, or one man start ups. Please also note that I talk in reference to the Indian IT and e commerce market.

And yet, there seems to exist this niche market of customers who had chosen to abandon all popular available choices, and use custom solutions for their e commerce businesses. These customers had paid software development firms ( like the one I worked at ) to create complete e commerce solutions from scratch. Developing an entire e commerce platform for your retail business from scratch can cost you anywhere between $ 20,000 to $35,000 in India, if you are looking for a respectable, high quality solution built on appropriate technologies. 

Going through conversations with my clients, here is what I learned: 

Customisation is a pain

Most businesses will always have technological requirements specific to their organisation / product / geographic location / government policies that common e commerce platforms will fail to provide appropriate features for. 

In such cases, business owners will mostly rely on plugins ( with platforms such as Shopify ) or the modification of the platforms itself ( with open source platforms such as WooCommerce or Magento ). In most of such cases, the customer ends up with either of the two scenarios: 

  1. 1. An incredibly complex platform with one too many moving wheel – plugins and extensions pile up over time, and before you know it, you’re left with a behemoth of project that is incredibly difficult to manage. Plugins interfere with each other, theme and platform updates almost always lead to a slew of errors and compatibility issues, and you find your site performance degrading, costs climbing. Such scenarios will almost always happen with WordPress or Magento based systems. 
  2. 2. An incredibly large bill. SAAS platforms will bill you recurring costs for your plugins, and these quickly add up to a huge monthly recurring cost. In addition, most times these plugins do not entirely solve your problems and you end up with a lot of bootstrapped solutions.  

Not the prettiest, not the fastest

While this is most common with the open source solutions, some customers using free / pre – developed themes on Shopify and other SAAS based platforms might face this too.

Let’s face it – PHP might be a beautiful language, but it’s time has passed. When you look at the customer experience expected out of a web application in 2018 – a WordPress theme might not be your best choice. Your platform’s user experience plays an incredibly important role in the success of your business, and is often quite easy to ignore. You will want to stay at the top of your UX game, adopting all new web features as they come in, constantly growing to a better, easier to use product. 

You might contradict, and a lot of successful and beautiful stores do run on PHP + Magento / WordPress ( checkout DryBar for example ) but if I were to start an online storer today, I’d most likely choose a different technology stack. 

Making a beautiful, fast, modern, easy to use front end for these platforms is difficult, or expensive. 

There are certain other points that were shared by my clients, but I will skip over them for the sake of brevity. On my research, I came across a third category of e commerce platforms – headless platforms. 

There have been a lot of activity around building headless e commerce platforms, and you will find at least one project on every popular web framework – PHP, Django, Ruby on Rails, Node.Js, Go & more. None of these however stood out, and weren’t comprehensive enough to be considered as a viable choice to start building one’s e commerce business on. Open source platforms are however not the only activity happening around the creation of headless e commerce platforms – there were two other important names here: 

  1. 1. Moltin [https://moltin.com]: The website states “Moltin provides the only API-first Commerce Development Platform for builders who require speed, flexibility, and control – and won’t settle for cookie-cutter eCommerce experiences.”  
  2. 2. Reaction Commerce [https://www.reactioncommerce.com/]: “Reaction Commerce is the most popular open source, real-time platform that combines the flexibility developers and designers want with the stability and support businesses need.

Both of these platforms seemed to offer two very important features: high control, and high quality. For someone looking to build a 10 / 10 e commerce experience, without burning a hole through their pockets, these solutions were started to stand out as good choices. 

I did however still miss two things: 

  1. 1.An admin panel – Neither of Moltin or Reaction Commerce seem to offer an admin panel. Unlike generalised web apps, most e commerce platforms actually have the same admin panel, with the same set of common features. Custom requirements might vary some, but the the basics are common across industries. 
  2. 2.Comprehensive set of features – Running an e commerce project requires a good amount of serious features, that often span beyond your usual products – customers – orders set. Moltin & Reaction Commerce do not seem to offer a complete set of features yet, with Moltin only recently having launched product variants, a basic requirement with e commerce stores. 

Also of the two solutions, I would prefer working with an open source platform, as that allows us infinite options for customisation and extensibility – no plugin framework allows you as much freedom as raw code. 

The conclusion of my research was the understanding that headless e commerce solutions definitely look like the way ahead for the e-tail industry, even though we don’t yet have products that are ready to on take customers and provide for 100% of their feature requirements. 

All of this lead me towards building Square1, a headless e commerce platform complete with all of the features that makes it ready to power your heavy duty e commerce platform, and a powerful admin panel on top of it that significantly reduces your development times. We offer over 300 different APIs across 22 different modules that leave almost nothing to be desired. Choosing a front end technology of your choice, you could have a store ready to battle the best in the industry in days. 

My team and I have been working on Square1 for the last 15 months, and have started taking customers on in our private beta plan. We are working closely with our customers at this point, and often contribute to their development of the front end layer as well, while working out to smoothen out kinks and launch a product as we’ve envisioned above. We intend to go open source in the coming months. Some of our customers have even used our product to build platforms that do not strictly adhere to the definition of e commerce, such as Insurance Samadhan.

We intend to build a solution that makes it easy, cheap and fast to develop high quality, high performance e commerce products. We’re looking for partners, employees, clients, and friends. If our goals interest you, or if you have advise or questions, do write to me.