Episode 272
September 23, 2022

The Quiet Builders

eCommerce is in need of a deconstructionist movement. Brands should question the norms of their behaviors and their beliefs of “best practices,” but we don’t always take time to reflect. In this episode, Phillip and Brian explore the nature of deconstructionism, why eCommerce is due for a deconstructionist movement, the quiet builders in our space, and the influence of artists in our space. Listen now!

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this episode sponsored by

Building the Future

  • An eCommerce deconstructionist movement is needed where we question our norms and we question our beliefs and why we do the things we do
  • People who build the future do things that haven't been done yet. 
  • “If you want to build a pretty successful brand using only best-practices, go for it. But if you want to build the future, you have to do things that have never been done.” - Phillip
  • “In reality, the thing that is differentiating you is your efficiency in your ability to build something new, not to reinvent the thing that already exists.” - Phillip
  • “You can build a successful business without questioning things. You're just never going to be a front-runner.” - Brian
  • If you can’t question why and what you’re doing as a brand, then maybe you shouldn’t exist as a brand
  • Like Ju Rhyu who “quietly built” to her huge success, there are many out there who are quietly building
  • It’s interesting to learn what inspires your heroes, especially when their heroes are people you’ve not even heard of before (Phillip and Brian have some intriguing examples of who has inspired them)
  • “I think that fiction writers and musicians are infinitely more effective than nonfiction writers. I believe in the power of story and the power of mediums that can convey more than one meaning at once. I believe in multi-dimensional thinking.” - Brian
  • “In the future, there are a scant few who actually can create an impact and emotional resonance and shape the way that customers' desires pull other parts of the industry forward. They are artists in their own right.” - Phillip

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Phillip: Oh. Are you recording on your other device or no?

Brian: No. Do you want me to?

Phillip: You don't need it. It's fine. We'll just say you're coming Live.

Brian: I feel like the audio is like, worse. Almost.

Phillip: Hello and welcome to Future Commerce, the podcast about the next generation of commerce. I'm Phillip.

Brian: I'm Brian. I feel like we don't even need to say our names anymore. Like 300 episodes in, I feel like people know us at this point.

Phillip: If you're watching on the YouTube, you can see me rolling my eyes through closed eyelids. People don't know, Brian, because we've had explosive growth the last three months.

Brian: Oh, good, good point.

Phillip: The last three months have been the largest three months of downloads in the history of this podcast, especially since we moved to an IAB-rated platform. We are certifiably popular, so we do need to introduce ourselves, Mr. Brian Lange.

Brian: You're right, of course, Phillip. Of course.

Phillip: You are coming to us from the road yet again. You are where these days?

Brian: Vegas. I'm at Groceryshop.

Phillip: Better you than me. Last year's Groceryshop was sort of a weird event. I remember we did a recap of Groceryshop. We might weave that in here a little later, but I don't think we need to.

Brian: Yeah, I don't want people to think this is going to be like a Groceryshop recap episode.

Phillip: And I don't want this to be a boring retail podcast that just talks about industry events all the time.

Brian: Because I go to a lot of them?

Phillip: Yes. We're not that show. If you haven't subscribed yet to Future Commerce, I'm going to implore you to do so. Subscribe in your podcast player, and subscribe to our newsletter. But I'll tell you why.

Brian: If you don't, you're going to miss out on some really important content.

Phillip: Two weeks from now, about two weeks from now, two-ish weeks from now, we're going to make an announcement about an event and a big fundamental change, a shift for Future Commerce that's going to change things forever.

Brian: Forever? 

Phillip: And that is about the most I can say at this point. Things are going to go bonkers here in Q4 and we've got some cool things coming up. We are building with our most exciting partner yet for a big physical event. You know what, I'm not going to say anymore. If you want to know what that is...

Brian: Say more, Phillip. Say more. No. Don't say more.

Phillip: {laughter} You could stereotype me as a person who likes to leak things a little too... 

Brian: You do. 

Phillip: I'm definitely I'm the archetype of a person who likes to put that kind of stuff out into the world.

Brian: I would say. So I'm the archetype of somebody who likes to tease things but not leak them too far.

Phillip: I'm leaking. I'm leaking all over the place. All right, I'll stop. I sort of subscribe to a theory, I don't know if you're on that same sort of bandwagon. I like to celebrate other people's things. Because I feel like it's like good karma. You celebrate someone else's thing, and maybe one day they'll celebrate yours. So there are a few folks, some content in the world that I've really been digging on lately. So two newsletters that I feel like have really been inspiring to me... There's a newsletter, they're both substacks. There's a newsletter called Dirt, which is sort of a new media company that sort of kind of started as a "Hey, we're an NFT backed, bootstrapped, fundraised, Kickstartered, new media brand founded by a bunch of sort of culture reporters from various news organizations. Dirt is so much fun. It's a daily letter. It sometimes blows my mind, their culture reporting. It's amazing.

Brian: I gotta go look at that now.

Phillip: The Dirt newsletter. Yeah. Dirt.fyi. And they're building a community over there. They have a DAO that they're launching. And I know that certainly, I know some of our listeners roll their eyes that some of that. They really just cover culture and media, in particular a bunch of film and television, but they often cover interesting consumer brands, one of which that they covered was a company called Early Majority and the aesthetic of an outdoor brand of a Web3 native outdoor apparel brand. It's like Patagonia, but make it Web3 if you can even imagine such a thing. Early Majority. I found that brand through Dirt, and I am loving the vibe and aesthetic and the overpriced parkas in particular. Haven't bought anything just yet. So I'm discovering cool things through it. That's all there is to say about that. And the second newsletter I've been checking out lately is one called Blackbird Spyplane. This one blows my stinking mind. They do a lot.

Brian: That's a cool name. 

Phillip: They do a lot of cool brand exposition. They do a lot of in-depth analysis of culture and brand and especially like logo work. Blackbird Spyplane, really scratching an itch I didn't even know I had lately. So if you're looking to sort of outfit your daily media consumption diet in a way that sort of I feel like is resonant, at least with me, sort of augments the other side of the things that I care about at Future Commerce, I think Dirt and Blackbird Spyplane are very, very cool publications.

Brian: I'm going to have to go check those out as soon as I finish getting through the four-hour Amazon podcast that Acquired did. Because it is a long and it's taking up a lot of time.

Phillip: Acquired.fm did a big exploit... What is it? Like the oral history retelling of the story of Amazon?

Brian: The Amazon Origin story. 

Phillip: Yeah. 

Brian: Yeah. It's actually really good. I actually do recommend you listen to it because it goes into details that I didn't know, like genuinely didn't know. It adds a lot of color to the origin story of Amazon and how it became what it is and hat tip to Grace Clarke for shooting that my way and saying, "You've got to get through the whole thing because it's that good."

Phillip: Wow. 

Brian: It is actually really good. There's a lot of stuff that happened at Amazon. People think these big companies just happen. There are connections and growth through being there at the right time, the right place, and they were there at the right time in the right place. You definitely find that out. Getting from Internet startup with explosive growth because everyone had explosive growth back then to what they are was a lot of hard work and it took a genius to do it. And Jeff Bezos was that genius. It is, at least it made me believe, that Jeff Bezos is a genius.

Phillip: There it is. I don't know that you can get to the level of success without having a little bit of genius, a little bit of madness, and maybe a little bit of being a bit of a shrewd operator from time to time as well. I'm sure some of that is in that. I'll have to check that one. I'll queue that up for an upcoming very, very long run. There are a lot of folks that are sort of heralded as genius in our space these days. I think a contemporary, very timely, or relevant one right now is Tobi Lutke from Shopify.

Brian: Yeah.

Phillip: He's sort of of that level up and coming, sort of rising to stardom. Rising to fame.

Brian: I really want to know what his childhood was like because I heard a little bit about that with Jeff on this podcast.

Phillip: Oh, wow.

Brian: No, no. They go deep.

Phillip: They go deep. Wow.

Brian: Jeff Bezos pioneered the gifted kid program as a gifted kid. He was like the first one in the program.

Phillip: So those are pieces of media that we have been checking out recently, and I think they're a fitting complement to the things that we make here at Future Commerce. I did want to touch on a subject here today, and we can go as deep as you like, Brian, with as much time as you have something that you called Born Again retail. But that's not what I said.

Brian: {laughter} I thought we were going to use the Jeff Bezos thing to transition to our Amazon stuff. So we'll have to get to that later. But yes, let's talk about Born Again Retail.

Phillip: Yeah, well, I think part of being born again as a consumer is deciding, you know, what needs to exist and what doesn't is doing the same sort of process of examination and qualification of your faith or beliefs as to where you spend your money.

Brian: Yes. You wrote a whole article on this. Where you spend your money. We're going to talk about that. But yeah, you wrote this incredible article. This is actually why you said I said you need to subscribe to our newsletter because if you don't, you're going to miss absolute bangers, as one of our readers said, like the one that Phillip just wrote. And Phillip, you wrote this article, just so our audience knows, you're like one of the most efficient writers that I know. This is not hyperbole. This is not ego-raising. This is not flattery. Phillip is genuinely one of the most efficient writers that I know. He wrote this incredible article about how the standards of the day are kind of like religions that don't allow you to question them. And so the way that I sort of rephrase it was like, current eCommerce standards of the day, or best-practices like the Baymard Institute, you referenced the Baymard Institute, are like the Catholic Church pre-reformation and Phillip's bringing a little bit of born again retail to the scene.

Phillip: A little bit yeah. Well, I appreciate the nice words. The real thing, if we had to have one takeaway, is I think that there is a process of deconstruction that would be healthy for everyone to go through in whatever context you might have in your life where you hold beliefs but you've never really questioned why you hold those beliefs. For instance, there is a fascination for the past decade with conversion rate optimization, and we have said it a bunch of different ways. Why do we optimize for conversion? Is all friction bad? Maybe. Maybe there's some friction that's good. And let's explore that as a potential antidote to having a samey samey website experience where everything feels the same. You don't even have to check the source code to know what platform everyone's running because you can just tell, has a certain feel to it.

Brian: You don't even need a Webalizer.

Phillip: You don't need it, you don't need a browser plugin, you don't need anything to tell you what the tech stack is. You already know what the tech stack is. You can see it with your eyes because you've been here before because everything kind of feels the same now. And we yearn for something new and exciting. And that was where I wrote this piece. That is basically a call for an eCommerce deconstructionist movement where we question our norms and we question our beliefs. And they're certainly blogs like Conversion Excel, who have pioneered sort of the one true way, the one right way of doing things that is optimized for conversion. But I don't know that futurists optimize to make the right now as slick and efficient as it could possibly be to extract margin. People who build the future do things that haven't been done yet. And that's what Future Commerce is all about. So yeah, if you want to build a pretty successful brand using only best-practices, go for it. You could probably do that. But if you want to build the future, you have to do things that have never been done. And we have an upcoming series, Brian, a Step by Step series with some friends of ours. And we're asking the question, "Do eCommerce platforms compete on features anymore?" Well, not really. Everybody can do the same thing, right? So if you're not competing on features, what are you competing on vibes?

Brian: Yep.

Phillip: And not ecosystem either because most of the third party technology platforms all play in everyone's backyard now too. They're on every platform. You can have the same experience across all. So in reality, the thing that is differentiating is your efficiency in your ability to build something new, not to reinvent the thing that already exists.

Brian: To put things in terms that I would put them in, you are advocating for the Descartes approach to doing eCommerce.

Phillip: Yep.

Brian: Question everything.

Phillip: Everything. And take nothing for granted.

Brian: And if you don't, that's fine. You can build a successful business without questioning things. You're just never going to be a front-runner. And you're going to put your business, your future business in jeopardy because you're never going to do anything different. You're always just going to run in the pack. And that is a recipe for a long, slow death.

Phillip: It is also, it's a risky thing to do. One of my most cherished website brand experiences that I have talked about for four, maybe five years on the podcast now was the work that Entireworld did. They very purposely did not do the eCommerce thing and then the company ceased to exist after a few years. One could argue maybe they went too far. Maybe they were too experimental. Maybe they tried to be a little too cute. And my retort to that would be. Or maybe, I don't know, apparel, especially unbranded, color block apparel for millennials, expensive unbranded color block apparel for millennials, only in an eCommerce distribution is a hard category to penetrate no matter what you do, even if you have a really interesting...

Brian: Right. They stood out for a while is actually really impressive because it's really hard to stand out.

Phillip: Extremely impressive. Right.

Brian: It's really hard to stand out. Yeah. And you're right. Maybe they did a little bit too much power testing.

Phillip: Maybe.

Brian: But I think if you went in, we should do our own for our podcast, but instead of on Amazon, we should do it on Entireworld and do their origin story. I would love to do that actually.

Phillip: I would pay money for that origin story, to be honest with you.

Brian: Oh, my gosh. Yeah, I would too.

Phillip: For you to be... Let's go back to the original idea here to deconstruct. For you to be born again, you must first die. Die to yourself. And that's, we're being a little cutesy with the language here, but I do think that there is a very philosophical approach to discarding what you hold to be true and really questioning the things you believe. And not to say that you don't draw on communal experience and lived experience. And we're not going to start... To first invent a cappuccino you must, you know, invent the whole world. To do it from scratch would require you to go back to a first principle which is basically atoms and electrons. We're not talking about that. It's not starting over completely from scratch, but it's questioning, in an existential way, if every decision you make has really been thought through, or if you're just putting Lego bricks together.

Brian: Be an existential brand. I am all about this. If you can't question why and what you're doing, then maybe you shouldn't exist.

Phillip: This is also interesting. For this big announcement that we have coming, I just got off a 90-minute conversation with Ju Rhyu, one of the Co-Founders of Hero Cosmetics, who just had a $620 Million exit. 

Brian: The biggest success story of DTC.

Phillip: Yeah, huge success story. Oh. So you can't misspeak. You can't say DTC because people will freak out at you.

Brian: It's not DTC. I hear you. I know. I know.

Phillip: I've experienced this already. Even though they started on Amazon and they certainly sell direct to consumer, they're not an eCommerce brand. Don't say it. They're CPG.

Brian: I love it. Good for them. That's the right way to say it.

Phillip: You know what Ju told me in her own words, philosophically, they looked at the era in which they built. And there were a bunch of contemporaries that were famous women, in her words, "girl bosses." And they talked to a bunch of PR firms that were like, "We can do that for you, too. We can make you a celebrity." And her response was, "I don't think this category or the categories that they're in are venture scale, venture level type categories that warrant the kind of fame or the kind of capital raise, and then the growth numbers that come along with it. I'd rather just quietly build." And she held that philosophy from 2017 to 2022, and she was wrong until she was right.

Brian: I'd rather just quietly build. Never better words have ever been spoken. That is incredible.

Phillip: There are so many quiet builders, too. I'm realizing now there are folks that are finding us through our podcast, and then there are other folks finding us through the newsletter that they're quietly building empires.

Brian: In fact, if you're a quiet builder, please reach out to us.

Phillip: Yes, please.

Brian: We want to talk to you. We just had a conversation with another quiet builder. I'll save that for an upcoming thing that we're doing. And that quiet builder, someone forwarded them something that you wrote and we got to talk to them. And it was the best thing ever.

Phillip: Quiet is death, actually. They're just very quiet, very, very quiet people.

Brian: You're such a leaker. {laughter}

Phillip: Yeah. I'm the archetype of a leaker. I don't think that's an archetype, but it should be.

Brian: Oh my gosh.

Phillip: Mike Lackman from Trade Coffee, who is on our Visions podcast...

Brian: I love Mike.

Phillip: He sort of points to the fact that there are things that are happening in the world right now that have never existed or could not have existed before. Social media has given us a lot of new challenges and this build-in-public thing is in itself maybe an aberration, in his words, it's an aberration. It's a thing that has never existed. It's very popular at the moment. But building a business, and entrepreneurship in particular, up until like maybe 15 years ago wasn't very sexy. People would tell you, "It's hard. Why would you want to do that?" Maybe I'd have to go back a little further.

Brian: Yeah, go back like 25 years. Yeah. 

Phillip: It was very hard.

Brian: Then it was like a slog. "I built my way up from nothing."

Phillip: Correct.

Brian: Yeah. You built your way up from nothing.

Phillip: And so I think having that building by yourself... I asked Ju, "Who are your heroes?" And she gave me a list of people I'd never heard of. I don't even know who these people are.

Brian: I love it.

Phillip: Never heard of them. And brands I had never heard of because actually the world is quite large and the people that influence you... It's like you ask Billy Corgan, who most influenced Melancholy And The Infinite Sadness, and he'll tell you New Order. And I'm like, I don't know who New Order is. Did they have like one song in the seventies or eighties? Like, I don't know who that is.

Brian: I feel like you know who New Order is now.

Phillip: Not really. Well, it's one of those interesting things. The people who influence your heroes are often heroes to them. There are people that are held in different levels of esteem and have a different level of notoriety and a different level of influence. Not necessarily everyone's...

Brian: But who influences you? This is a good conversation. 


Phillip: Oh, I love that.

Brian: Yeah.

Phillip: I'm extremely impressed with certain writers. I mean, in particular, recently Catherine Norwood, one of our listeners, suggested that we check out some literary criticism. And so I've been really diving into Susan Stewart, who does a lot of poetry criticism and writes quite a bit on that. In fact, I just finished On Longing, which was a really tough read because... 

Brian: You finished it!

Phillip: Yeah.

Brian: Yes!

Phillip: I'm not an academic exploration of literature or the written arts sort of a person. So this was like really meaty, really hard for me to get through, quite honestly. But I love being sort of inspired by things like that. So that's like certainly top of mind for me.

Brian: Nice. You said Billy Corgan already.

Phillip: I've said Billy Corgan already. I do think that there's an idea of a performance artist who is not necessarily the person that they play on TV and just kind of knows the role of being... He's sort of he puts on a face and has a persona that is very specifically inspired by a lot of pro wrestling, believe it or not, like having a heel. It comes from the circus. It comes from being a person that can be seen as... 

Brian: A performer. 

Phillip: Or even a villain to some degree. But an unbelievably creative mind. And that guy's certainly out there. Certainly inspires me. Who inspires you, Brian Lange?

Brian: I feel like it's shown up quite a bit in my writing, especially. Maybe not on the podcast as much, obviously. Marshall McLuhan recently has been very influential on me, but for me, it's a lot of writers and musicians mostly. Obviously, when we brought on John Beeler and Lowell Brams, I was dying when we had them on the podcast. I am the biggest Sufjan Stevens fan and he actually influences my writing and actually a lot more than that. Sufjan and then obviously I like philosophy quite a bit so a lot of philosophical influences. I won't go into all of them. And then I love classic literature. Like Dostoevsky influences me more than, I don't know, name your run-of-the-mill thought leader from today. I'm not going to name any names. I take more inspiration from Dostoevsky than I do from just about anyone. In fact, for me, Dostoevsky is like the number one writer of all time, and then maybe Tolstoy. And then way down at the floor is everyone else. {laughter} I think Dostoevsky is where I draw most of my inspiration from. And I also want to say something that I think is really important. I think that fiction writers and musicians are infinitely, I will actually use that word and without hyperbole, again, infinitely more effective than nonfiction writers. I believe in the power of story. I believe in the power of mediums that can convey more than one meaning at once. And I think that that's how our brains work. We get so locked into like linear thinking and I don't believe in it. I believe in multi-dimensional thinking. And so Dostoevsky is the ultimate example of that. There you go.

Phillip: Yeah. On that note, we were going to try to do this little segment on Amazon. Maybe we could hold it off. I do think that we both at some point might do a longer form episode on how things that are acts of creation or pieces of art influence how we think about the way that we approach... You know, there's literary criticism. There's criticism of the arts. I think we do eCommerce or retail criticism. A lot of what we bring is sort of explaining the why something exists, the story and the time of when it took place, and why it's important. That is effectively a new emergent form of criticism. And we are inspired by other completely unrelated fields of arts, one of which I would love to get into in-depth at another time. We both watched The Rehearsal by Nathan Fielder.

Brian: Honestly, it is the best show I've watched. It might be the show of the decade. I know I said The Bear is the show of the year and really, I love The Bear. But I did not know The Rehearsal was coming.

Phillip: So I want to get into that at some point. If I had to have like one hot take about The Rehearsal, it gives you a perspective and insight into the personal and the interior experiences of one character in particular in the show, who's being watched but who is so unbelievably authentic. I believe she is just who she is. And we are meant to examine her in a way that's supposed to be critical. I think as the audience we're supposed to look down upon her. In fact, in one scene, you see the character sort of praying quietly to herself. And we're positioned in a camera shot that's from above as if you're peering down on her as if you are a god of some sort.

Brian: Yes. 

Phillip: I felt like a really strong, very sort of grossed out feeling, watching that through the lens of I feel like that's how we examine a lot of the work and the behavior of a lot of people in our industry as sort of looking down upon them and criticizing and saying they should be doing this or that or they're not behaving in a way that I feel like I would behave. So that was for me, a really strong sort of philosophical takeaway was to be able to put us in a position like that to sort of an elevated position and sort of draw attention to it. If we could ever accomplish anything like that in a podcast of drawing attention, I feel like Visions was that is to draw attention to the way that we bring criticism to this space and to say, are we chasing the wrong things? Are we asking the wrong questions? Sort of a more introspective and philosophical approach to industry criticism. So I took that away from The Rehearsal.

Brian: I have so many more takeaways. And actually, I'm going to write an article on this. This is why you need to subscribe to FutureCommerce.fm. If you haven't, the article I am writing... I am losing my mind about some stuff right now, like literally losing my mind. Okay not literally. That was hyperbole. {laughter} But I think that The Rehearsal is going to be a big part of that article.

Phillip: Give me one takeaway and how it pertains to the work that we're doing here.

Brian: Gosh, I don't want to give away my whole article yet, and I feel like...

Phillip: If people have made it 30 minutes into a show...

Brian: The Rehearsal is a central point to the article. No, it's the thing about The Rehearsal is that it represents something that actually, back to what I just talked about. It approaches things in a multifaceted way, more so than most other shows or whatever. Most shows are like they're artistic, but they're not making points at multiple levels the way that The Rehearsal does. And so I'm finally going to be able to get after and define something that I've been chasing for years now. I think. Which manifested, I shouldn't say started. It manifested itself maybe first in Future Commerce when I wrote the New Dada piece. I'm going to be getting after that concept again and I'm going to go to town because I think I might have finally figured out what it is that I'm getting after and that makes me really happy.

Phillip: I think it's unfair for us to try to look at the whole of retail and consumer goods and say that they should all behave a certain way. Like they should all be artists. I don't think that everybody should be an entrepreneur. I don't think everybody should be an artist. I don't think every brand should have some higher-order purpose. And I think to do so would be inauthentic and probably unnecessary for most of the things that need to exist in the world. But I think that the future, and especially the ones that create an impact and emotional resonance and shape the way that customers' desires pull other parts of the industry forward and the way that we react to that, there are a scant few who actually can do that. They are artists in their own right. So that is what Future Commerce is all about. It's going to be amazing another few weeks here as we lead up to this announcement. We're so glad that you tuned in to another episode of Future Commerce. If you want to hear more podcasts just like this one, we have a few others you can check out over at FutureCommerce.fm. And we also have, as we've mentioned multiple times already, a growing community of over 10,000 people who are subscribed to our newsletter over at Future Commerce. You can get that at FutureCommerce.fm/Subscribe. Thank you for listening.

Brian: Thank you.

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