SBS Season 9 Episode 5
November 4, 2022

[Step by Step] Platforms Don’t Solve Problems, People Do

Open source software is such an important part of how the whole world is run, and it takes a community to build it. In fact, so much has been built up to this point, that everything new that’s created is standing on the shoulders of the giants that have solved problems in the past, problems that we don’t even have to think about much today. So what are the problems that we do need to investigate today and how shall we best address them? Yitzchak Lieblich from Web Solutions NYC shares how they do it. Listen in to this final episode of Season 9 of Step by Step!

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this episode sponsored by

Like a Light Bulb

  • “Know what you know. Know what you don't know.” - Yitzchak
  • Finding the right platform solutions may cost more upfront, but will cost less in the long run as you work with what you actually need and build from there
  • Happy developers lead to happy code which leads to happy merchants
  • “Open source, at its core, has been about sort of unselfishly sharing learnings and findings and asking others to potentially join you in helping to build.” - Phillip
  • Merchants also love open source options because of the control it offers them
  • There was the Magento wave, the Shopify wave, and a next wave will come as well
  • Some merchants will continue to use SaaS, but it’s important to base that decision on an honest look at the maturity of your business and the needs you have moving forward

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Brian: [00:00:36] Hello and welcome to Step by Step, a podcast by Future Commerce presented by Shopware. I'm Brian.

Phillip: [00:00:41] And I'm Phillip and this is Season 9 of Step by Step. In fact, this is Episode 5 of 5. So we're right at the end of this season. We've been asking the question, "Is open source still viable for the modern business?" And I think business is the keyword here because it's not just enterprises that use open source. The whole world runs on open source software. And in fact, open source today is the default de facto way that you build software. Pretty much every single piece of software that powers eCommerce is built on a software stack that's powered by open source programming languages. Frameworks and everything from there above is free and open source software, and it takes a community to build it. And I feel like we often overlook those kinds of things that most of the world runs on open source and it takes qualified teams and it takes really smart, independent thinkers, people with years and years and years of experience to be able to do it well. And no one knows that more than you and me. We've been doing this for years. Is it 15 years for me? It's coming up on 20, but we're going to round. We're going to 15.

Brian: [00:01:53] More than ten. I know that for sure. A long, long, long time for me.

Phillip: [00:01:59] It's been a long time. And our guest in this last and final episode in this series is Yitzchak Lieblich, who is the Founder and CEO of Web Solutions NYC. Someone that Brian, you and I have competed with for the better part of a decade and trying to build the future of commerce and eCommerce and open source.

Brian: [00:02:18] Open source is such an open environment. It's it's more like frenemies when you're in an open source world. There's a lot of rising tides lift all boats mindset that comes to open source and I think that's really, really powerful and that's evident in the community, as we've heard throughout this whole series. And when it comes right down to it and we're going to get into this a little bit in this episode, people solve problems, not platforms, not software necessarily. It's people that use the tool of software to get there. When you think about open source and you think about what the value of it is, what it gives you the ability to do is apply people's minds and be open to the unique solutions they come up with.

Phillip: [00:03:00] And build on the wealth of their experience.

Brian: [00:03:03] Exactly.

Phillip: [00:03:04] That, for me, is the biggest takeaway from the series is that open source is really not software at the end of the day. I know we started this series with Ben Marks saying software is the least interesting part of open source. It's the totality of human potential. And I know that sounds really farfetched and very self-aggrandizing, especially if you're in the open source ecosystem. "It's the totality of human potential all coming together." But in reality, it is building on, in the way that civilization is built, it's like we are building and creating progress and we don't have to reinvent the wheel. We stand on the shoulders of giants. We are starting from an unfair advantage. Whenever you create something new, you're creating it upon a stack that has solved a number of problems that you'll never even have to wonder how it works. It's kind of like a light bulb. You never wonder, do you ever think to yourself, you didn't learn in school necessarily how a light bulb works? In fact, you've probably taken it for granted to some degree. I'll have you know, Brian, filaments don't really exist in light bulbs anymore. Mr. Edison would be very impressed with the LED technologies. 

Brian: [00:04:12] True. True.

Phillip: [00:04:12] And yet we take it for granted often that you flip the switch, the light comes on. We don't have to service it very often, and almost anyone can plug it in. A light bulb is actually a wonderful example of how open source works, is that it just works. And a lot of things, like a lot of human ingenuity, goes into the creation of a light bulb. Someone spent a lot of time creating it. We all kind of take it for granted. That's sort of how all of the eCommerce ecosystem works from payments and logistics and inventory and tax calculation. It all is built on this totality of human potential. So let's not discount the fact that the hardest problem to solve is the problems themselves, and it takes human intellect to do it. And Yitzchak Leiblich is going to tell us how they do it at Web Solutions NYC, Step by Step. Hey, today we are joined in this continuation of our series Step by Step. We are joined by Yitzchak Lieblich, who is from Web Solutions NYC. In fact, the venerable CEO, the man whose hand is on the wheel at Web Solutions NYC. Welcome to the show Yitz.

Yitzchak: [00:05:20] Thank you for having me.

Phillip: [00:05:21] Longtime partner and co-builder in the ecosystem. It's a pleasure to have you. I feel like I'm surrounded by competitors between you and Brian. At one point in time, all three of us, I think, were competing for deals in the agency space. But for those who aren't familiar, as I am with you, tell the folks about Web Solutions NYC.

Yitzchak: [00:05:41] Okay, so Web Solutions NYC is an open source digital commerce agency. So what we do in very simple terms, as I explain to my kids when they ask me, "What do you do?" we build websites. That's a very simple answer. Getting more advanced, we typically deal with more advanced and complex eCommerce companies or companies that want to add on eCommerce and help them through the process from the beginning of conceptualization of the idea and then going all the way through to implementation and then the ongoing maintenance. And we've been fortunate to have a really good set of clients and steady clients. I think our oldest client has been with us for over a decade, which is pretty impressive, I think, to have in this space. And we continue to innovate. We have never set out to be the largest agency. We just want to be the best. And so far we've been able to have an amazing team. And shout out to any of my team members who are listening here because it's really them that drive the company. And yeah, here to have a great conversation.

Phillip: [00:06:51] Thank you.

Brian: [00:06:52] The complex part of that is in line with what we've been talking about over the course of this Step by Step season. We've been talking about open source software and what you're able to accomplish with it. And so we've asked this multiple times. I don't think it needs bearing asked again. Obviously, open source is not dead. We talked about many, many use cases for it. And I think you have a really interesting take, though. As people go to make a decision on which eCommerce platform they should be on, as Ben Marks put it in our first episode, they kind of have to make a decision about where on the spectrum their business fits, that spectrum being closed source SaaS all the way through fully custom software. They're going to fit somewhere along that range. And so when someone comes to you to make a decision about what it is that they should go build their web experience on, what do you do?

Yitzchak: [00:08:04] Great question. What do we do in reality or what do we do if we had the perfect image of a client?

Brian: [00:08:14] So give me both.

Yitzchak: [00:08:15] Okay, so sometimes or many times merchants come and they say, "Right, we are on this platform and this is what we want to do. And they haven't really stopped to ask themselves, why are they on the platform? What are the pros and cons of this versus something else? Could be that this is what they inherited, this is what they've had for years and it's worked, so why change it? But if you're looking to do a migration or a re-platform and you're not sure where, well, let's understand what you need. Let's architect it, let's get all the business requirements for today and the roadmap for the future, and then look at what we have on the table available in terms of platforms. There's no shortage of eCommerce platforms. They all have their pros and cons. How can we make a decision on which one before we know the requirements?

Phillip: [00:09:05] Let's talk about how you go about requirements gathering. What are some of those sticky points that come up along the way? And maybe you could kind of think about whether is there a point at which you've realized that they already have in mind what solution they want you to build. Because I find that a lot of buyers come in asking these days, a lot of operators say, "Oh, I already know what software platform is for us." How do you navigate that part of the process?

Yitzchak: [00:09:34] Well, it's been really easy for us because for over a decade we've only done Magento development. So if they come to us and say, "Hey, we need Shopify, BigCommerce, or whatever, it might be," like, "Sorry, we're the wrong agency." Now that we started a whole new division with a focus on Shopware, so now it's actually a conversation and a choice between the two. But we are open source developers. That's what we are. And that's what we do well, and as we've said many times, [00:10:08] know what you know. Know what you don't know. [00:10:10] We know open source eCommerce development. That's where we specialize. That's where we shine. So if someone comes to us, "Oh, I want to go on Shopify," not for us, but then let's say someone comes and says, "Oh, we want to go WooCommerce. Woocommerce is open source," that's not our specialty. We just don't have the expertise there. So if someone says, "I have to be on this platform," we've got no problem saying, "We'll help you find another developer. We'll look around, and vet something out for you, but that's not for us."

Phillip: [00:10:42] So one, the boldness to sort of willingly admit that you have a specialization and you want to focus on that specialization and not try to stray too far from that, I think is really notable and admirable. Hard to find nowadays, especially when there are, I've lost count, 600 platforms to build on.

Yitzchak: [00:11:08] Is it that many? 

Phillip: [00:11:08] I think it's pushing 500-600 if you count all of them. When you're thinking about the way that you then come into contact with a customer. Now you have this decision where it was a very easy conversation before. "We only do Magento." Is there a part in the process now that didn't exist prior that you're sort of qualifying which platform they belong on and what are some of the decision points that you're helping them make when choosing a platform?

Yitzchak: [00:11:40] Right. So until now, if they hadn't already chosen Magento, we would be very upfront with them and tell them we can do a discovery, and we've done this plenty of times where we did a discovery for the merchants to get their business processes, their business requirements, out because many times they don't know what they don't know and putting it together and documenting it is so helpful for them. And then it could be they turn around and say, "We're not ready for a project or we're going to go with something else," which is fine. We did the first step. Don't worry. It's always a paid engagement. We're not doing things for free, but they're able to get better knowledge under the hood if they're not too technical to get it explained to them in the right way. So we've had those as well. So going back until now, focusing on Magento, it was much easier, I should say, but also more limiting. Now that we've started the Shopware division, we've got choices and we're able to really dive even deeper into the requirements and make better recommendations for the merchants. So not going to lie, we were probably tunnel visioned on the Magento piece because that was our specialty. Now that we've got two platforms, we're able to really hyper-focus on the merchants and then make the right determination of the platform.

Brian: [00:13:04] I think that's really interesting because platforms, while they're often focused on known issues, they create solutions that are complete for issues that the broadest set of merchants have, and oftentimes those are older issues. So when someone comes to you and they've got requirements or things that they want to do that are cutting edge, how do you handle those? Now that especially you have a couple of platforms that you're working with?

Yitzchak: [00:13:40] I mean, cutting-edge in eCommerce is pretty tough. How much further are we going to go with cutting-edge? So that's what we're thinking and then Shopware comes out with one that features of how you have live chat on a website, so there's live video, so you can have someone in the store and it starts off a Zoom or whatever video call and the sales associate's walking around showing them. They can see the actual size, and what it compares to. So that to me is cutting-edge. That's taking it to the next level. But there's not so much on the cutting-edge piece of eCommerce. And what we've actually seen is merchants bringing down the functionality levels that they don't want so much functionality because it just increases cost of development and time to market, and more places for them to lose customers. And what they're focusing on is bringing technologies in and having the integrations more seamless, so they have the nice workflow. But in more functionality, we're not seeing that as much. Obviously, every merchant's different, and every vertical is different, but we're not seeing anymore... Like you remember the days you'd get the RFPs, 200 pages long with every feature you could imagine, and then they don't end up using half of them?

Phillip: [00:15:01] They don't wind up using half of them. Yeah, that has always been the challenge. The approach used to be in at least the agency ecosystem and custom software is, we went through a period where you sort of had a platform that you built and maintained that was sort of a starting point, so you have sort of a base build that has most of the developer tooling ready to go. And that helps you. That helps you have some sort of a starting point. Then I think we went through an era where there were accelerators. There were sort of like really kind of niche down into specific applications and use cases. But then we've had this verticalization or industry focus in the ecosystem of really focusing on solving certain problems. Where do you see the asks these days when it comes to developing very specific feature sets? Is that an open source software decision? Are you trying to find the right existing ecosystem solution? Or how are you qualifying whether or not to bring in an existing third-party piece of software that's subscription-based? This is the classic build versus buy question.

Yitzchak: [00:16:24] The build versus buy, remember back in the day they were like, "Oh, we found a module for $99," right? It costs more to install it than it does to buy it. And then you needed two features. This module officially does 100. It ends up causing major performance issues and then it modifies places that you didn't need modified and it just would have been quicker to write a small module yourself for that specific purpose. So it comes down to knowing the actual requirements of the merchant and then equally importantly, knowing the platform. And you have some developers who just don't know core functionality and they're like, "Oh yeah, let me customize that." And then you go to a solutions architect or a really seasoned PM. They're like, "That's an option in the configuration." So it's embarrassing to see projects where developers just went completely crazy when it's already there. So that's why it really takes a full team to understand the requirements and then understand the platform and how to implement it and not be scared to tell that to the merchant and say, "No, we're not going to buy this $99 module. It's going to introduce more bugs. You're going to pay more for it now, but trust us, it's worth it."

Brian: [00:18:51] I think it's a third element here as well, which is company culture and maturity. And we were talking a little bit about this in the pre-show. How do company culture and maturity play into the process of making a decision about what's the right place to be?

Yitzchak: [00:19:11] Right. It's a great question because it's not a one size fits all. Every single company is unique, every merchant's unique, and every vertical is unique, and you've got to look at it in that way. It can't be just a cookie cutter implementation, like, "Hey, we can build you a website in 30 days. We can have you up and running..." Those days are gone. You need to really focus on the merchant and within the merchant, the uniqueness. Some of them are much more mature with eCommerce and they've had the eCommerce title there for years and they've been through iterations, they've been through projects and they can see what works, what doesn't work. Others, more in the B2B space, are just starting their eCommerce. I know it's crazy. In 2022, they're just starting their eCommerce journey now.

Brian: [00:19:57] That's true. 

Phillip: [00:19:58] Wow.

Yitzchak: [00:19:58] But they're dealing with a client over 125 years old, so they've got business processes there, They've got people that have been there a long time. Now we're fortunate, they're great clients and they've got the right people in the right place. But we've also seen other places where they're putting people in the role that have never done eCommerce, but they need to fill this role because it technically falls onto their wheelhouse. So I think it's like any company. You can hire good people, and you can hire bad people, but until they are actually doing it, it's hard to know.

Phillip: [00:20:33] I hate to ask this question, but if you can hire good people and you can hire bad people, can you hire bad clients that are sort of an ill fit? I'm sure that you've never done that.

Brian: [00:20:44] Sheesh, man.

Yitzchak: [00:20:46] Well, we have fired a client, so...

Phillip: [00:20:48] Oh, wow.

Yitzchak: [00:20:49] Yeah.

Phillip: [00:20:50] I wouldn't ask you for any more details than that. Yeah.

Yitzchak: [00:20:53] No, but it needs to be a right fit. And I think that's the success of the agency that we have is not being scared to stand up for your employees and doing the right thing, even if it means losing a client.

Phillip: [00:21:07] I often wonder about where the friction points happen in the decision points around it's not just around, "I decided to build with open source in my business because I had a really great decision matrix." Like "I used the BCG," isn't going to help me make this great decision. I think often it really kind of comes down to maybe a little bit what you've used in the past definitely informs your desire to build on a known stack or an ecosystem or potentially where you're trying to go in your career next. Where is it that I'm trying to architect myself in my career? It's less about the organization and where it's going and more about the team and where it wants to go.

Brian: [00:21:57] Team or person or somebody that doesn't want to get fired. {laughter}

Phillip: [00:22:02] What are some of those decision points? We were talking before, Yitz, about the decision that you made to adopt Shopware as a capability. Do you think the merchant has a similar sort of set of criteria in what they prefer to work in and how is that typically informed?

Yitzchak: [00:22:21] So the merchants from what we've seen, typically don't know too much about the different platforms, more than the names and basic functionality. Yes, you sometimes get more informed merchants where they're much more technical and they can really speak to it in detail. But a lot of times the merchants are looking for guidance. There's a reason why they're a merchant and not an eCommerce agency building it. They don't want to be doing it. They want to be building their vertical. So they're looking for validation from the experts. And that's why they're calling an agency like ours. And they're not going on Wix and just spinning something for $9.99. They're looking for that expertise to take them to that next level. So that's the merchants that come to us is what we see.

Brian: [00:23:09] Something you said in there was developer happiness.

Yitzchak: [00:23:13] I mean, that comes down to one of the success points of Web Solutions is understanding that developers are people too, and telling merchants they're developers. It's not they're just robots you plug in and let them work. They're human beings, we speak to our developers like they're human beings. We treat them like human beings. They go on vacations like human beings, just like they want to go on vacation. Just how they want to be treated is how we treat our developers. So developers have feelings and they need to be treated that way. And when you have happy developers, you have happy code, you have happy code, you have happy merchants. So it's basically a win/win for everyone involved.

Brian: [00:23:55] I think something that's inherent in what you're saying is the role of the relationship at every level of the chain. When there are people involved, relationship needs to be involved. And actually, that's a huge part of open source. It's saying that the relationship matters all the way through and the community if you think about it, not just an abstract concept on the Internet but an actual community, all of a sudden you're thinking about it with not just your mind, but with your heart as well.

Yitzchak: [00:24:28] Right. Yeah, I think you're right with that. I like it.

Phillip: [00:24:32] I wasn't ready for you to finish that sentence, Brian. I was ready for you to sort of go into the Kumbaya. But I do think that there's this separation between the idealism of the multiplayer sport that is software development. It takes a lot of people to build enterprise software, and there's a lot of idealism that goes into how we do that, how we build that a little bit of altruism in the way that we just give the things we build... 

Brian: [00:25:00] A little bit of ego. 

Phillip: [00:25:00] Well, a lot of ego, but the way that we put things out into the world and we ask nothing more in return. [00:25:08] Open source, at its core, has been about sort of unselfishly sharing learnings and findings and asking others to potentially join you in helping to build. What [00:25:21] is one way that you find that putting people at the front of the experience has encouraged more participation in open source, rather than just consumption? Or is that not really the core of the focus in your side of the business and sort of the implementing and the client relations?

Yitzchak: [00:25:48] Idealistically, I wish we were contributing more. Unfortunately, the reality is we are so slammed with work that we just don't have time to have contributions more regularly than we would like. With Shopware... Let's step out. With Magento, it was a cutthroat ecosystem. All three of us are competing on the same deals. Yeah, some things are open source. We're keeping the good stuff internally because everyone's competing. With Shopware we're not seeing that harsh competition. We're seeing much more unity. We were working with Sander over there to build out a solutions architecture plan because to us that's one of the most important parts of building a developer training piece. And I said to them, "That's nice to train developers. What do you have before developer starts work? You need a solutions architect to tell the developer what to do." It's a good point. So they start putting together a solutions architect syllabus and work with three agencies, ours and two others in Europe. And it was amazing to see the collaboration between all three and that would never have happened in the Magento ecosystem, and it just gains respect. And now we're creating a really cool tool which we're going to be publishing in the Shopware space and contributing to it. So we are getting more involved now, especially because we're the leaders in the US for Shopware. We're their first partner here, the first one to have an enterprise client, which was very exciting here. So we're being more the leader of the pack and want to have everyone else follow suit and create and keep up that unity.

Phillip: [00:27:42] One thing, Sander was on this series already, and one point that he made that I thought was really profound is that we often think of open source as just being code-centric. It takes a lot more than just code contribution to help push forward any sort of community software development. There are a lot of folks who are maybe they're not just in product management, but there are folks that are in the design side and feature requirements, business analysts... There are people that have to contribute across an ecosystem that aren't just developers. I love the fact that you are really taking the lead and sort of modeling that behavior. What are some other ways that you see people implementing open source in the organizations? Is it just on the sort of shopping platform catalog cart side, or is there a general custom software approach or other point solution approach in the way that software is being chosen in the organization today?

Yitzchak: [00:28:43] Funny you ask. We didn't discuss any of this in the pre-session, but it ties into... 

Phillip: [00:28:48] I'm sorry. 

Yitzchak: [00:28:48] No. I mean, I'm happy because it shows it's real and off the cuff. It ties into one of my other companies called SkuNexus, which is an inventory order warehouse management software, which on the enterprise level is open source so that they have access to the source code. So we see that Magento did something phenomenal in the market. I mean, yeah, you had SendCart and OpenCart before, but I don't really hear about those anymore. But they created the culture within merchants that we want this and we need this. And with Magento, you are able to do whatever the merchant wanted. So we saw an opening in the market. Well, what about the commerce operations side of it? So you've got the eCommerce being able to, but what about the warehouse management and order management and buy online pickup in store, and all these different things? So merchants are also wanting that level of open source. And with open source, the merchant I don't think is too particular. Open source, community, contributions... When a merchant has open source they're like "Customizable. It can do what I need it to do." That's what it translates to in their head, I think. So that's where our other company has really been able to make a lot of headway, where we've got some pretty large companies using it because they're able to have it fully customized and that's what merchants are demanding. If you have the right people in place, they know what they want and they know how to get there. They can get it with other elements of the business now, not only commerce.

Phillip: [00:30:18] I mean, that's... It's almost like I led the witness. I didn't mean to. That's such a fantastic point. There's a really interesting way that we've kind of gone about asking this question in the series, Brian. There's a challenge in sort of the what does open source mean? It's like your own definition of it in sort of the business systems architect or software purchaser role. But what we found sort of consistently is, yes, open source still has a place. Open source is the thing on which we build all of the differentiating features because platforms don't really solve the problems. In eCommerce, that's the basis on which we build. Yeah. I'm really loving... 

Brian: [00:31:05] People do. 

Phillip: [00:31:05] Yeah. People. People solve the problems, not the platforms. Yitz, I really appreciated having you on. It's been a wonderful conversation. When you're thinking about the future of open source in our ecosystem, what are some of the things that you think might be ways that merchants are coming around to understanding how open source is employed or deployed in their businesses, and how might those wind up in greater outcomes for them?

Yitzchak: [00:31:37]  [00:31:38]A lot of it comes down to another word that merchants associate with open source, and that's control. They own their data. They've got control of it. Now we've got a merchant who was shut down on Shopify because they didn't approve. Someone reported something that was counterfeit and that was it. So similar to the Amazon pieces where you can have your account shut down and take forever to get it going again. And that's one of the reasons they moved over to us to work on an open source for the control element of it. So where we see things going and I believe that things go in waves. So we had the Magento wave. Remember back in the day, imagine the wave was high, Magento was up there. Shopify came and completely stole the wave and went up there. And now what we're seeing is merchants looking for, "Okay, I grew my business and now I'm looking for more control. I'm looking for more customizations," or whatever it might be, and now going into the next wave. So you're having people higher up in the customer segments looking for the next level. [00:32:53] And I think that's where enterprise software is going to be more associated with open source. And I think that the smaller mom and pops are going to stay with their SaaS solutions because that's what they need at the maturity of the business. As they mature and they want to go enterprise, yes, some of them can work within SaaS eCommerce platform, and some of them can't, and that's where we see the wave going.

Phillip: [00:33:19] Oh, that's a great place to leave it off.

Brian: [00:33:22] Where the wave is going.

Phillip: [00:33:23] I love the future outlook and I really appreciate all of your thoughts. Thank you so much, Yitz. 

Brian: [00:33:29] Thank you.

Phillip: [00:33:29] It's been amazing to have you on the show.

Yitzchak: [00:33:31] Thank you for having me.

Phillip: [00:33:35] Thank you so much to Shopware for making this season of Step by Step possible. I am a firm believer that there is still benefit to building on open ground and that the future of commerce is open. Open commerce will power the future. Whether you are a small business or you're an enterprise, the underpinnings of much of our ecosystem depends on the contributions of people and communities that are powered by open source. So thank you so much to Shopware for making this season possible. You can find more episodes of this podcast and all Future Commerce properties, including five podcasts at FutureCommerce.fm. We have content coming about every day of the week. You can get it all at FutureCommerce.fm/Subscribe where we're going to be in your inbox twice a week telling you everything you need to know, giving you the insight that you need to be able to build the future. Thank you for listening to Future Commerce.

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