Some of the risks funded ecommerce startups face around over-designing and over-engineering for launch
With the rapid rise of direct-to-consumer as a retail business model, we are seeing an increase in brands with seed-funding from VCs and private equity firms.
While it’s easy enough to launch an online store on Shopify on a shoestring budget and bootstrap growth, it’s much harder than most people realize to grow a hobby side-hustle into a highly profitable DTC empire!
At Lucid, as much as we love designing and building beautiful, custom ecommerce stores, we believe in the wisdom of intentionally focusing on an MVL (minimum viable launch).
When budget is limited, bootstrapping founders have no choice but to focus on the things that really matter—such as imagery and content, storytelling, marketing, community-building, and quality products.
For brands that have seed-funding, there is a strong tendency to get caught up in the look-and-feel and functionality of the website. Funded brands tend to quickly lose sight of factors such as nimbleness, technical debt, and the ability to iterate quickly based on analytics and data.
It’s easy to look at brands like Allbirds, Away, and Harry’s and believe that the only way to succeed is to design a catchy, eye-popping brand, and launch a highly-crafted, perfectly-optimized, feature-rich website.
What’s easy to forget when clicking around these successful DTC brands is that they didn’t reach success overnight—and, they certainly didn’t do it on a shoestring.
If you look around these brands, you will notice a relentless focus on building an identity—through content and storytelling and brand-positioning.
And, when it comes to branding, it’s worth emphasizing a word of caution—branding is not a logo. A logo forms part of your brand identity but rarely will customers fall in love with your brand simply because they like your logo.
Unless you’re trying to unseat Nike or Apple or Coca-Cola, your logo matters less than you think. It needs to reflect who you are as a company and it needs to resonate with and connect with your audience—but, ideally, it’s simple and elegant and memorable. Don’t overthink it.
So, while your logo matters, it’s unlikely that it’s the most important aspect of your brand. What matters more than your logo is your story—and the feeling you emanate, and the connection you make with your audience and your customers.
While the Allbirds logo is carefully designed with custom lettering (there’s a great case-study about that on Red Antler’s website), many very successful DTC brands use simple wordmarks.
What sticks in people’s minds is “the dream”—the feeling that these brands are best-in-class. They’re aspirational brands because they’re relentlessly focused on their core product.
They’re not caught up in bells-and-whistles and gimmicks. They launched because they had a mission and purpose to do something really really well—to maybe even try to change the world!
Like the iPod, which was not the first MP3 player to market but was by far the most successful, Allbirds and Casper and Away weren’t the first to do comfortable shoes, delivered-to-your-door mattresses, or luggage. They’re not necessarily better than all their competitors—and they’re certainly not cheaper.
What sets these brands apart is that they started with a mission and purpose to transform their market segments by creating must-have products.
Which brings us back to design and engineering when it comes to launching a new ecommerce brand.
At Lucid, we tend to connect with seed-funded companies at one of two phases of their entrepreneurial journey…
- They’ve closed their first round of funding and have a long list of must-have requirements for their go-to-market plan.
- They have already launched—having built out all of their long list of must-have requirements! Less than two years since launch, their site is so burdened by complexity and technical debt, they can’t iterate or grow. They are spending time and money simply maintaining the site to keep it running and functioning smoothly.
In the first scenario, we would work to help better understand what’s truly important while guiding them to hold loosely some of the firm ideas of what is a must-have and what might be a nice-to-have—in order to stay more lean and nimble.
We would work to identify what might be better deferred to post-launch sprints—perhaps once we’ve started to collect and analyze data and metrics and respond to customer feedback and visitor behavior.
We would recommend keeping the design system lean and nimble to make sure that their (likely limited) design department will have the ability to produce assets and content on a regular cadence without being slowed down by too much complexity—or by guidelines that are too rigid.
We would encourage developing an identity and functionality that has freedom to evolve—to try things, measure, test, iterate, and repeat.
We love “big, hairy, audacious goals” but are firm believers in the benefits of focusing on “low-hanging fruit” and easy wins—with an eye on the big picture while staying grounded in the more immediate priorities.
There is a risk with well-funded companies to over-future-proof—which can be worse than over-simplifying.
In the second scenario above, we have seen many instances where brands approach is a couple of years into their entrepreneurial journey with a great product and story and a website that they can barely used.
The design might be (and often is!) beautiful but there is so much complexity—in the frontend user-experience or the backend business logic (or both!) that their ecommerce team is paralyzed and unable to make edits or even add new products.
Funded entrepreneurs tend to focus on shiny things—engaging top-level branding agencies that have beautiful portfolios but limited experience designing for digital media or ecommerce.
More traditional branding agencies (and not all, of course!) have a tendency to focus more on the aesthetic than usability—or nimbleness or conversion rate optimization.
We have seen many instances of recently-launched ecommerce stores that look absolutely stunning but are slow to load, difficult to use, and nearly impossible to maintain or update.
We have had to fully replatform recently-launched stores off their custom, cobbled-together “headless” solution, back onto Shopify Plus—just so the merchant could manage their store, add products and landing pages, and do all the things an early-stage ecommerce brand should be able to do right out of the gate.
This doesn’t mean “headless” is wrong (in fact, headless may very well be the best solution depending on your needs—but more on that in another article). Or that a big, beautiful, meticulously designed ecommerce brand is wrong. Or, even, that a comprehensive, highly-considered v1 build is wrong.
It’s more of a word of caution that what matters the most when launching a new ecommerce venture is to focus first and foremost on staying lean and staying nimble so that you can test, measure, iterate, and evolve as you respond to customer feedback, your market, changing trends, and the ups and downs of startup life.
Simplicity and nimbleness should never come at the cost of beautiful, elegant, and intentional—but over-designing and over-engineering is almost certainly worse than starting lean.
If you are a funded ecommerce brand, absolutely invest in solid, thoughtful, intentional branding. But consider very carefully how all of that will tie into the digital media you will ultimately be using to grow your brand.
UX and UI should never be an afterthought.
There are so many aspects of direct-to-consumer that are in many ways harder than retail.
Unless you are blessed with a strong influencer audience or have been fortunate to activate a huge audience before you launch, growth will take a lot of time, money, and hard work.
Direct-to-consumer brands have to identify their audience, find their customers, build a connection that leads to curiosity , engage with that curiosity, inform enough to convert curiosity into action—then, in order to really grow, scale rapidly while converting customers into fans!
D2C is hard. But, done right, can scale incredibly fast.
To move fast, brands need to stay nimble.
And, to stay nimble requires a discipline in the art of intentional simplicity and a focus on what matters most—at launch, and beyond. Adapting and iterating and evolving as you learn—and not trying to do too much too quickly.
Ecommerce startups need focus on their core mission and purpose—what makes them and their products special—devoting energy and headspace and resources to the things that really matter.
Strategy and design and implementation of the online store needs to be as flexible and lean and nimble as possible to allow for rapid iteration and rapid growth.