MACH-Based Product Information Management – a Step Towards Composable Commerce
An interview with Casper Rasmussen, our new MACH Alliance President
Adam Sturrock left his first corporate job the way all of us dreamt of leaving our first job. He walked out the door with two friends, an idea for a business, and an ex-boss warning them this silly commerce API thing was never going to work. Within six years that idea, Moltin, raised $10 million in angel and VC funding and in 2019 was successfully acquired by Elastic Path. As one of the first truly headless eCommerce solutions on the market, Moltin pioneered many of the API-first strategies that are now leading the enterprise software industry using the MACH tech standard.
In 2013 the three co-founders of Moltin were young developers working at an agency in North East England who were seeing the back-end chaos that was happening as new eCommerce demands clashed with old technology.
“We were building Firesale, this PHP-based ecommerce plugin for PyroCMS, and we had clients constantly asking for interesting use cases, ideas, requirements or features and we would find ourselves either trying to find a plugin for the Magento build or be looking at the Shopify ecosystem to find solutions to the client asks. When we couldn’t find a solution we would end up building it ourselves, often fighting with the core of these platforms. ” Adam said when he recently sat down with the MACH Alliance to discuss his experience as an early vanguard of API-first technology and his recently announced role as a MACH Ambassador.
Adam explained that it was this cumbersome way of working, making custom solutions one at a time, combined with the trio’s experimentation with early API solutions that led him, Chris Roach, and Jamie Holdroyd to invent Moltin.
“I think it started out as a joke, honestly.” says Adam, “Jamie, Chris and I were just joking over lunch and throwing ideas around because the alternative, to what became Moltin, was a very slow career path, at least in the North East at the time. We were talking about the Firesale plugin we had built and how we just reinvented the wheel with all the same problems of Magento, then about Stripe and Twilio and the idea that an eCommerce API could solve a lot of the problems we were having as developers.”
The trio spun up a PHP prototype that they, in the words of Adam, “duct taped together as best we could” and started to raise funding. At the time, London’s VCs and angel investors weren’t really aware of what an API was but the trend was picking up speed in America and investors were feeling the buzz around this new approach to development. “I don’t think any of the local VCs were technologists in any capacity,” says Adam, “but everyone kept saying we were doing something cool and interesting so they thought it was worth investing in us.”
By the end of 2013, Moltin had graduated from the Ignite100 accelerator program and was on its way to become a leader in headless commerce.
Having been agency developers, the co-founders of Moltin had experienced how poor the developer experience was when companies were trying to design modern eCommerce on outdated, monolithic platforms.
“We would be running hundreds of different client sites all running different versions of Magento, WordPress, WordComerce, Shopify, et cetera and each of them had their own upgrade paths.” explains Adam. “You can imagine, for instance, when PayPal made a change you would have to go through each of those installations and update them accordingly depending on what versions they were installed in the first place. There was actually one guy in the agency whose job was just to update existing client sites one at a time. It was a full time job just keeping everything up to date.”
Multiplying that effort by all the different vendors and all the combinations of versions made the developer experience “quite hellish”. When API solutions like Stripe and Twilio came to the market, very turnkey and hands-off from a maintenance perspective, it was a breath of fresh air for the developer community.
Adam says he started seeing these solutions pick up the pace in 2013, especially Stripe, as they began to make more noise at developer events. “I remember attending a couple of events and being blown away by how simple it was, from a developer experience standpoint, to integrate payments compared to PayPal and their antiquated integration documentation.”
It wasn’t difficult for Moltin to drum up interest in the developer community. “From day one we had a lot of developer interest in-bound, with people searching for eCommerce APIs,” says Adam, “so we knew there were people out there looking for solutions like the one we were building.”
“Early on, when we described Moltin we led with eCommerce APIs. We were very much a scratch-your-own-itch business and we were speaking directly to the developers. They were typically empowered to make the decision for Stripe or Twilio and we started with the same approach to the market.” says Adam.
But there are two sides to every story, and every business software, and the Moltin team soon realized that to succeed in eCommerce they were going to have to figure out how to translate the enthusiasm of the developer community into conversations with business users who don’t speak API.
“I think the developer holds more decision power now than they used to, but eCommerce is the last bastion where the business owner really wants to be involved in the technology decision because it’s the money button.” says Adam, “Which is something we kind of got wrong with our early go to market strategy with Moltin. We were trying to solve the developer problem and, at the time, I think we didn’t appreciate the other business persona experience enough. We figured that out later down the track.”
Moltin wasn’t the only API-first solution to see the need to cater to both sides of the aisle. Over the last few years vendors have gotten much better at explaining the business value of their software. Technical terms have worked their way into the business lexicon, and the solutions have been on the market long enough to provide concrete evidence that going modern is good for business.
After successfully exciting in 2019, Adam has been consulting for both retailers and vendors and says in the last year he has especially seen the conversation mature around enterprise software. “The products are getting to the point now that the experience level, the proof points, and everything else adds up to make these conversations a lot easier. Vendors are still speaking to technical decision makers a lot of the time, but are now arming them with the right message, data points, and case studies needed to show business teams the value of these solutions.”
Looking at the landscape, Adam sees software trends as a pendulum between the developer and marketing experience. The explosion of MACH technologies (microservices, API-first, Cloud-native, headless) was driven by the developer need to reduce the size and effort of monolithic architectures and now that the MACH market is maturing the pendulum is swinging back to focus on the marketing experience.
“Now that developer experience has built back from the ground up, the same is being done so on the administration side too.” says Adam, “You’re seeing MACH maturing to support a composable architecture, and now there are new interfaces being built on the underlying infrastructure layers to get back some semblance of the editing experience marketers expected with the more monolithic platforms.”
In the image below, Adam illustrates his view of the software pendulum between the developer and editor experience.
Of course, being the MACH Alliance, we asked Adam why his diagram separates out “Headless”, “MACH” and “Composable”, as our definition of MACH encompasses the other two. He said that he saw it as the terminology that helps business users understand how the solutions evolve. With “headless” being the developer focused tool, “MACH” bringing together the ecosystem of these API-first tools, and “composable” enabling the hybrid space between MACH and legacy platforms that a lot of retailers are experiencing right now.
Adam also said that while “headless” might not have been his preferred choice of terminology, as these solutions are actually enabling many heads, the name has been very useful in maturing the business conversation. “I think it was commercetools that led with the term headless, and Moltin very quickly adopted it. It was an unknown term that we were able to define and that helped move conversations away from the API acronym and move it towards business strategy.”
Having seen behind the scenes at many enterprises over the last decade, Adam finds that this rebalancing of MACH solutions towards the business user experience means that CMOs are no longer afraid to put these tools on their shortlist.
The MACH market is experiencing explosive growth not only because it’s become easier for business users to adopt them, but also because new technologies have lowered the barriers to bring a new solution to market.
The upside is that there are innovative solutions for nearly every need. The downside is that the market is so crowded that it can be hard to know which technologies to implement.
“It seems like every two to four weeks I see another headless eCommerce platform or service starting out and getting five to ten million dollars in funding.” says Adam. “For the retailers and brands I work with, facing this noisy market is challenging. It’s very hard, even for me, to know all the possible solutions and technologies and things that are happening. Trying to keep track of the vendors that exist and educating yourself on trends is nearly a full time job itself, let alone having to orientate your business to a new approach to software at the same time.”
Adam wants to make it easier for companies to understand the market. Having worn many hats during his seven years at Moltin, including VP of Customer Success, he’s gleaned information from both the customer and vendor point of view that has helped him identify patterns in the solution landscape.
“When you’re competing against commerce platforms for seven years you get a sense of where they’re positioned, their strengths, and their weaknesses just by the nature of being in repeated deals against them. You also figure out the strengths and weaknesses, at a broad level, of the technologies that would compliment yours that solve specific solution gaps and customer problems.” says Adam.
Wrapping up his knowledge as both a vendor and a consultant, Adam is helping retailers and brands navigate through complex decisions with high level maps of the Commerce and CMS solution landscape. Published via LinkedIn, The Commerce Magic Roundabout 2020 and The CMS Magic Roundabout 2020 visualizes solutions on axes of execution and vision.
You can view a larger version of the Commerce Magic Roundabout 2020 here.
You can view a larger version of the CMC Magic Roundabout 2020 here.
While he is very clear that these roundabouts are currently based on gut feel, and may contain some biases, Adam aims to provide an alternative source of information for companies exploring their options. Especially for businesses interested in newer solutions that haven’t yet made it into more conservate analyst reports. “The top left of the Roundabout, the Index of Innovators, are the solutions businesses should be looking at to get a sense of what’s coming down the pipe and start thinking early about how to incorporate it into the strategy to stay relevant and competitive.”
The Roundabouts also provide valuable information that’s usually locked behind a paywall. For brands that do have access to gated reports, Adam believes that being a free agent allows him to provide brands with an alternative view of the landscape, “Most brands I speak to feel that the bigger analyst reports are bit pay-to-play, pay-to-win. They look at them and find them interesting, but they wouldn’t take the report and go directly to the leadership with a decision. It’s just one of the many sources of information they use in the discovery process to make up their mind.”
Overall, says Adam, “I want to make it a little easier for people to understand where we are and where we’re headed.”
As a founder of one of the first truly headless eCommerce platforms, and now as a MACH Alliance Ambassador, it’s pretty clear that Adam Sturrock is a fan of MACH. He also understands that it’s not for everyone.
“I don't have a hard puritan view that MACH is the answer to everything.” says Adam, “It’s a very complex world and while MACH is a great fit for many businesses there’s also many instances where it’s not.”
Adam understands that going MACH would be overkill for companies that either don’t have the need or the technical maturity for this type of solution. As a consultant, he helps companies identify the areas where modern software can bring benefit and where it makes the most sense, for now, to stick with legacy tools.
“Some brands are going to sit in this hybrid middle ground for the next couple of years while they continue to mature.” explains Adam “Then they can start thinking about how to break down other parts of the commerce platform over time.”
We're very excited to have Adam as one of our first MACH Alliance Ambassadors. Our team is a big fan of his Roundabouts, his writing, and his drive to help educate the commerce community about the rapidly changing solutions market.
Have a look at Adam’s recent article, Understanding the Total Cost of Ownership and ROI for MACH Architecture, to learn more from our new Ambassador.
An interview with Casper Rasmussen, our new MACH Alliance President