Category Archives: eCommerce

8 reasons my team is great (and keeps getting better)


My current eCommerce team is among the best I’ve ever worked with. In the past year, we’ve launched four mobile apps, re-platformed three eCommerce sites without any downtime at all, made major strides towards continuous deployment, and much, much more. (Even if you don’t know what any of these things are, you’re impressed by now, right?) Much has been written about building great teams, of course, and this is in no way meant to be definitive. Still, I want to share a few of the reasons my team has succeed so far (in no particular order), and why we’ll continue to get better:

1: Everyone on the team is a business owner

It would be an exaggeration to say that everyone on the team is motivated by our KPIs in the same way, or that each developer, user experience engineer, and Product Owner feels the same passion for driving revenue. Still, we do a lot of work to make sure each person on our team understands what drives our business, and the items on our product roadmap can come from any person or team. We understand both what we have to do and why.

2: We define our own priorities

Continuing on the above theme, our product roadmap is largely driven by the team. Because we understand what drives the business, we have the flexibility to work on the projects that are most impactful, in the order that makes the most sense. There are times we have to justify our priorities – and we review them with our senior executives each month – but we own the roadmap, no question about it.

3: We like to solve hard problems

Being intellectually curious is a big deal. Our team is smart, and intensely focused when it comes to finding sustainable solutions to big, hairy business and/or technical problems. Sometimes this leads to frustration – we don’t always have time to do things right, and we all despise increasing technical debt – but, by and large, our team strives to do things right, and we’re up for any challenge that comes our way.

4: We persist!

We like solving hard problems, and we don’t give up. When we can’t figure something out, we keep at it. Sometimes we wrestle with a problem for weeks – or months – before finding the answer we were looking for. Sometimes we need to try a lot of things before getting something right.

5: Our leaders push us in the right ways

When we need a kick in the pants, we get one. When we need some space, we get that too. From top to bottom, our company and team leaders understand that empowering the teams to do our best work is critical to our success.

6: We test and measure everything we do

Measuring allows everyone to see where we meet expectations and where we don’t. New functionality is AB tested until it “wins” and we’re confident we haven’t introduced new problems into the system. We’ve got dedicated testing and analytics teams, and our Agile development teams wouldn’t even think of introducing new functionality without their involvement. Of course, we still make mistakes, but when we do…

7: We learn from our mistakes

You can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs. Building and running our own web platform is hard, and despite all the great testing and measuring we do, mistakes are inevitable. Because we encourage continuous improvement and innovation, we also favor blameless post-mortems and retrospectives during and after all projects. These allow us to truly understand where we’re most effective and where we still have opportunity to improve. We’re going to make mistakes, but we really don’t want to make the same ones twice.

8: We genuinely like each other

Who wants to spend all week, every week, with people they don’t know or like? Not me. Work is a big part of our lives, but it’s not everything. People go on vacations, have babies, experience loss, and root for baseball teams (they often do those last two at the same time). And people who like each other are there for each other when they need support – in their work and in their lives.

We’re not perfect

If some of this sounds a bit aspirational, it is. My team is far from perfect, and we don’t always get these things right. We get crabby, and frustrated, and annoyed by each other. We argue, we have egos, and we break more things than we’d like. Sometimes we focus on the wrong things, and we’ve been accused of moving too fast. But the foundation of our team is strong, and our core philosophies don’t change.

Do any of these ideas resonate with you? Are you part of a high performing team? If so, what makes your team great? If not, how can you get there? I’d love to hear from you.

The glue that holds teams together

My previous post, That time I was fired, generated a lot of feedback and conversation. In it, I described two things: undermining my former company’s leadership, and getting fired for it. Here’s an excerpt:

We felt the new owners were dismissive of our ideas, and the direction they were taking the company was wrong-headed and stupid. I let the new CEO know he was wrong, again and again. I questioned most of his decisions, undermined him in company meetings, and made sure my coworkers knew we were headed down the wrong path.

My smart friend Jeanne Lakso, Marketing Programs Manager at National Co+op Grocers, said an amazing thing when we met for coffee last week. She said:

“Bitching is the glue that holds teams together.”

Jeanne was speaking in general terms, drawing on years of experience – not about her current work or team. Still, she’s really good at telling things like they are. And when I re-read the above excerpt from my last post, one sentence jumped out:

I questioned most of his decisions, undermined him in company meetings, and made sure my coworkers knew we were headed down the wrong path.

Part of the reason I complained about my boss was that it felt good – I got lots of positive reinforcement for doing it. My coworkers and I were in the trenches together, fighting the good fight. We were united against a common enemy, and we bonded over each of his dumb comments and failed ideas.

Much has been written about excessive complaining at work, how it can ruin your reputation, make things worse than they are, kill innovation, put blame on other people, and dramatically decrease productivity. (I’ll add that complaining is much less interesting than trying to help solve a problem. I’ve got some tolerance for complaints, but if they’re not followed by potential solutions, my tolerance goes waaaay down.)

Still, we often gravitate towards those who bring out the worst in us. Why?


The Echo Chamber

In his recent blog post, The Echo Chamber, noted philosopher and former Talking Head David Byrne writes:

We would like to think of the web as a place to find out what wonderful and unexpected stuff exists that is different than anything and everything you already know […] but as market forces increasingly take effect, the diversity of voices is now so filtered and targeted that you may only hear echoes of what you already believe. 

David Byrne’s post is about the web, and it covers politics, terrorism, and social media. It could be about work as well. Belle Beth Cooper writes:

If we agree with someone’s beliefs, we’re more likely to be friends with them. While this makes sense, it means that we subconsciously begin to ignore or dismiss anything that threatens our world views, since we surround ourselves with people and information that confirm what we already think.

We like people who think like us, and we dismiss those who don’t. When we think something’s screwed up, we seek out others who agree. These people help validate our thoughts and make us feel smart.

Does it have to be so negative?

Why do we especially gravitate towards people who share our negative beliefs? One reason may be the negativity bias. From Wikipedia:

Even when of equal intensity, things of a more negative nature have a greater effect on one’s psychological state and processes than do neutral or positive things.

In addition to the negativity bias, the generally accepted thinking seems to be this: it takes hard work and focus to stay positive, but being negative is effortless and fun. Or this: positive people are hiding something, while negative people tell it like it is.

Maybe this is why bitching is the glue that holds teams together?

Nightmare at my office

Have you seen the episode of “The Twilight Zone” called Nightmare at 20,000 Feet? In it, William Shatner’s flying on an airplane with his wife when he looks out his window and sees a gremlin on the wing, mucking around with the engine. Every time someone else looks out the window, the gremlin disappears, and after a while, Shatner’s wife and the flight crew think he’s insane. At the end of the show, Rod Serling shows us the damaged airplane engine and we know that Shatner was right all along, that the evil gremlin did exist. But it doesn’t matter, because Shatner’s gone insane and is hauled out in a straightjacket anyway.

Has your work ever made you feel like Shatner in the Twilight Zone? Have you ever worked on a project that clearly had no value, no matter how many times your boss explained it to you? Have you ever presented something you don’t believe in, even though you’ve made it clear you didn’t want to? If you haven’t, you’re either extremely inexperienced, or extremely lucky.

When we identify a problem, voice our concerns, and are told they don’t matter – we need to do the work anyway – feeling angry is one thing, but feeling insane is far worse. Others who share our thoughts can soothe our fears, commiserate, and assure us we won’t be hauled away in a straightjacket. Sometimes it turns out that finding people who see what we see is incredibly valuable.


Complaining v. undermining

Let’s face it, there are times when we’re going to be negative at work or someplace else. This is just being human – in small doses and at the right times, complaining to others can even be therapeutic. But undermining your coworkers – making it hard for them to get their work done, making them look dumb, slowing their career progress, etc. – is something else entirely. Complaining is temporary. Undermining can last a lifetime.

All things must pass

Daniel Gilbert‘s Stumbling on Happiness is a terrific book, mostly focused on how bad we are at predicting the things that will make us happy. According to Gilbert, human beings are incredibly resilient animals:

… within a couple of weeks even earthquake survivors return to their normal level of unfounded optimism.

Is it possible our boss who’s completely clueless today will turn out to be a little bit smarter tomorrow? Is it possible the presentation we have to give today will be a distant memory next week? Is it possible the project we’re dreading because it has no value will turn out to have value next month, or that if it doesn’t, we’ll get over it? Maybe, just maybe, that thing we’re so frustrated by today won’t be such a big deal tomorrow.

If earthquake survivors can get over it, maybe we can too?

Shiny new objects rust over time

Many of us have worked in companies that prioritize work on an annual basis. In these organizations, it’s common to invest in a few things each year at the expense of everything else. “This is the year of search,” you might say, because “last year was the year of mobile.” On the surface, this makes total sense – you can’t make big investments in the same capabilities each year. Eventually, everything will have its day in the sun.

In reality, this is a terrible way of prioritizing work, completely ineffective, because it means that – until each program has its day in the sun – it’s essentially left to wither and die. Or to almost die, which is even worse. Don’t you see it? Look there in the corner – there’s site search, begging to be put out of its misery. It had its last big investment two years ago. It knows it’ll be the golden child again next year, but in the meantime, customers are mocking its uselessness, laughing at its broken experience. Poor thing. 

A few years ago, my company addressed this by implementing an Agile, product-focused approach. Within our organization, each product area receives some amount of ongoing funding, which allows the team to make consistent progress throughout the year. The amount of funding may change according to business needs, but the idea of making consistent progress across the business doesn’t.

Take the Search product for example. Several years ago, Search had its day in the sun. Replacing our old system was one of the company’s top priorities, and the project got all the people and money it needed to be successful. Once our new Search was implemented, the big project was over, but the need to make continual progress – to optimize the experience – was still there. (It will always be there.) So although the Search team got smaller and some resources were moved to new strategic priorities, the capability continued to exist – we continued to make it better.

Search is, of course, just one example of a large company initiative – a shiny object – that needs ongoing care and feeding. (I can’t think of a product that doesn’t.) Organizations built on a product management model get this. Before they build new functionality, they’re thinking about how to support it and what the long-term roadmap looks like. Organizations that are entirely project focused, on the other hand, are likely to face poor support and unexpected costs. That’s because they haven’t planned for the inevitable, and because rust never sleeps.

Related: How much of a problem can you buy away?

How much of a problem can you buy away?

My eCommerce team is world class – the best group I’ve worked with, capable of leaping tall buildings in a single bound. From top-to-bottom, we’re defining compelling visions, creating aggressive roadmaps, delivering innovation and quality, testing into winners, and measuring results. Even still, we can’t be experts at everything, and resources are limited.

This means there are times when we need to explore the vast vendor landscape to find tools that can help us solve our problems. We tend to focus in three areas:

  • Things that have been commoditized, because we don’t think they’ll help us differentiate.
  • Things that are really, really hard, because we don’t have the desire (or time) to build or maintain world-class-systems that we can easily buy.
  • Things that are outside of our core competencies, because sometimes the best way to get started with a new technology is to have someone else build it and then take it over.

In each of these areas, there’s a sense we’re buying a problem away, that by leveraging a vendor for ratings and reviews, or personalization, or search, or recommendations, or whatever, we can free our resources to focus on other things. And this is mostly true. But it’s never completely true.

It’s never completely true because there’s no problem that can be bought away completely. Even if we’ve “completely” outsourced a program (like ratings and reviews, for example), we need to define our strategy, manage our vendor, provide customer support and issue escalation, measure the program’s effectiveness, tweak the experience, and defend our budget. Despite our vendor’s promises, these things cannot be outsourced. Not effectively, anyway.

And who would want to hand all of these things over anyway? Vision? Analytics? Roadmap? I may want to leverage a vendor at times, but I never want to hand them my company’s strategy and ask them to drive it.

What does this mean? It means that when we consider buying a problem away, we need to understand that we can very rarely buy away the whole thing. We need to allocate both resources and dollars for the activities listed above, for ongoing support, and for the cost of potentially moving a capability in-house over time. We need to understand that there’s no such things as “hands-off” management or programs that run themselves.

Related: Shiny new objects rust over time

Gilt Group sale shows it’s hard to turn disruption into profit


Having raised $286 million in funding, Gilt‘s sale to Hudson’s Bay last week for $250 million is hard to see as anything but a failure of Gilt to turn its flash sale model into a major stand alone business. According to CNN Money:

Gilt Groupe is one of the originators of the flash sale model. […] Its user base has soared over the years. […] Hudson’s Bay said the deal is a play to continue growing its discount business and that Gilt will integrate with its Saks OFF 5TH locations.

Several years ago, we saw something similar happen to Groupon, which thought is was going to revolutionize retail, and ended up doing much, much less. Here’s another quote from the CNN article:

“We plan to continue to foster Gilt’s culture of innovation, which has helped create a strong brand with a loyal and devoted millennial following,” said Jerry Storch, CEO of Hudson’s Bay, in a statement.

I think we’re seeing a couple of things:

We’re seeing the need for retail-oriented businesses to make money, and lots of it. It’s getting harder and harder for even the coolest startups to claim they’ve changed the world until they prove they can sell a lot of stuff. This is a good thing. The vendor landscape is littered with “disrupting technologies” that added little value. Turns out it’s much easier to be disruptive than to be meaningful.

We’re also seeing how hard it is for big retailers (like Saks Fifth Avenue) to innovate internally, how their cultures don’t really support change, and how – in many cases – they still haven’t wrapped their heads around what it means to be a relevant company in the era.

Rare is the company that creates something truly game-changing, lasting, meaningful to customers, and hugely profitable. So maybe Gilt did exactly what it was meant to do – create an experience that could terrifically augment an established brand and make it relevant to a whole new group of customers. Maybe Gilt’s greatest value is in extending its culture of innovation to Hudson’s Bay, ushering in a new era for the combined company.

Maybe that’s enough.