When I was a kid, I was told that a midlife crisis was freaking out because you suddenly realized your life is half over, which results in buying a red sports car and running away with a new 20 year old girlfriend. While I’m not sure if 38 qualifies for midlife, I’ve certainly become acquainted with the concept, and I think a more accurate depiction of midlife crisis for some, is finding yourself nearly half way through your career and still not knowing exactly what you want to be “when you grow up”.
I started as a software developer and found initial success there but I really wanted to be on the business side. So I founded my own software company which pivoted into an online retailer, then moved on to senior management roles in large established retail businesses running e-commerce and digital marketing. Now I’m going back to being an individual contributor in a software development role. I feel like I owe at least myself a well articulated explanation for taking several steps back on the org chart, after investing nearly a decade on the business side of an e-commerce career path.
First, why I chose to move away from the business side of e-commerce.
Retail e-commerce is a largely undifferentiated space.
Prior to the Internet, retail stores had to compete mainly with other physically nearby stores. Many found success largely due to this limitation on the number of competitors. Online the dynamic becomes, why should someone buy from you when they have hundreds of other options, most of them offering better pricing, better delivery times, more selection, and better customer service? It’s more important than ever to have a unique selling proposition. You can’t just show up offering the same thing for sale that everyone else is selling. You actually have to provide value (cheaper, faster, friendlier, more selection, unique selection, more helpful) to be successful. That may sound obvious but nearly all online retailers bring nothing unique to the table.
Online retail is increasingly becoming a winner take all proposition, dominated by a handful of players. The top fifty retailers in the U.S. control 75% of all e-commerce volume in the country, and the top four retailers (Amazon, Apple, Walmart, and Staples) control 40% of all e-commerce. And as lines continue to blur between online and offline, this pattern will not be unique to retail.
The lesson for me is that if your business isn’t uniquely providing value, it is just as ephemeral as the EC2 instances it’s hosted on.
When you’re on the business side of e-commerce, the expectation from senior management is often to provide transformative results while only having the autonomy to make incremental improvements. There’s this unspoken notion that you can just sprinkle e-commerce pixie dust on the website and extract your share of Internet riches. You know, just find those perfect keywords, do that hipster magic in social media, and split test the color of your Add to Cart button until you find the optimal shade of green. But all the best practices in the world are not going to move the needle if you’re not competitive on price, selection, or convenience.
Often there’s an over-emphasis on marketing to “get traffic” and “make that traffic convert”. Marketing’s role is to position ads to be in front of as many top quality purchase prospects as possible at the most effective cost of doing so, but it can’t get people to buy. That’s the job of the core business. And if the business you’re promoting isn’t better than its competitors in some meaningful way, you’re just not setup for success.
So why move back into tech?
Because the Internet has made the world so much smaller, the resulting winner take all pattern makes the company you work for really important, no matter what your role is. At many of the best companies, engineering is valued above marketing, and is a better bet to finding yourself on a winning team.
I started to think about all the companies I most respect, and the pattern was they were all innovators in technology. I realized that what I loved was working with the Internet, not retail, or selling the exact same thing everybody else is selling, or putting a SKU into a box and shipping it.
So does this mean I intend to be a geek for the rest of my days and have forever left the business side? Not exactly. As business and technology become more tightly coupled, I think this path will lead to different business opportunities – better ones.
Lastly, in regard to taking a step back from management, being a leader and being a manager are not necessarily the same thing. Being a leader does not require a title, and sometimes you can have more influence as an individual contributor than you can as a manager.