7. Challenge Accepted. with Philipp Triebel, Head of Engineering at Highsnobiety

HighSnobiety.com went a long way from a startup to an established media platform - now eCommerce. How did Philipp implement eCommerce features?  How did he deal with high performance requirements? Why microservices aren't always a great idea (complexity!). What are Highsnobiety's future plans and the next challenges Philipp is currently faciing! This is a React based framework with the commerce tools platform case study, as well as a great story on a modern, headless eCommerce implementation. Read on!

Piotr Karwatka: Hello, everyone! My guest is Philipp Triebel, CTO of Highsnobiety.com, a media company that has 6 million unique users per month,which is awesome. It's really huge. I'm so excited to guide you through the story of Highsnobiety and how they introduced e-commerce into their business.

Philipp Triebel: Thanks very much!

PK: Maybe first tell us what Highsnobiety com is all about.

PT: Highsnobiety is a platform for content and shopping in the streetwear fashion conscious space. We have been around for 15 years now, so basically somebody started as a blog and we have organically grown for like the whole time pretty much. And, as you said, today, we have around like 6 million monthly visitors. So just to give you like some perspective. We are headquartered in Berlin, but we also have offices in New York, LA and London. So it's a global company and also our traffic is global. We actually have the majority of our users in the United States. And, besides that we are a media company, so that's where we came from. Highsnobiety is like a digital magazine, but we have kind of extended that now in the last year into eCommerce. So we are doing content driven commerce and, that's in the form of like fresh sales, more like “drops”, in the kind of fashion and art space basically. And on the media side we worked with brands and in that space too. So we have clients like Adidas, Levis, Ralph Lauren, H& M. So, yeah, basically that's, that's kind of where we are operating.

PK: Right. Gotcha. I really like how this story begins. Like “we started 10, 15 years ago”. It shows that those overnight successes usually take more than 10 years. Last time I was interviewing Ulrike Mueller from Demandware (now Salesforce commerce cloud), and it took them like more than 10, maybe 13 years to build and sell this company. It's usually a long run. And you joined the team, Highsnobiety pretty early. Because it was 2013, I guess, as a full-stackdeveloper. What were the biggest challenges you were facing back then?

PT: So, this was a very different time. As I said, we have been around for 15 years. Highsnobiety was run by or founder David like for many years on his own. So it was really a one man show. That also shows kind of like the organic growth, it wasn't like that he, decided, okay, I'm going to start this company and I'm going to get funding and hire like 50 people right away. For multiple years he was on his own. And at the time when I joined was like seven years ago we were a smaller, much smaller company. Maybe five people or so. And, the, the main challenge that I got there was, I mean, I was the only developer, so I was the first hire, the first developer in the company. Highsnobiety was working with like several agencies at that time. And, my mission was to do in-house like development, to basically not immediately hire, but in the beginning, really take over that work. Which kind of evolved a lot of course, over the time.

PK: So you are like almost the founding team of the company first, one of the first employees, which is great. And I believe that across those, you know, seven years your role but also the whole company changed a lot.

PT: Yeah. It has been really exciting to witness that growth. In that time we've grown up to 200, but still like it's, of course like a really different game. Compared to when you're just like five people and, you know, all the growing pains and so on. And then also the fun of growing, like it's superexciting. In the beginning, like I said it was mainly like, hands-on myself. And then, then I moved over the last couple of years, second to leading to the product teams. So we have grown also our product engineering quite a bit, and, and kind of professionalized a lot of things there. On the business side also there's been a lot of changes. We came from a one man company. So like there has been like this phase of building the company at costs, also in the beginning when I joined, we were still working with a partner, that was running our advertising.

So that was one of the major steps that we took as a company. Was to in-house that advertising business and get like a sales team and, agency business as well, like that's catered to clients. So that was like one major phase we went through. And, besides we also had, several platforms next to Highsnobiety that'd we built.

E.g we released snapshots, which was like,a tweet. You know, like street style. I'm not sure if that’s a familiar term,but it's basically people taking photos of themselves and showing off their sneakers and so on. So we had a community platform for where people could upload their photos and, you know, get connected to Instagram and so on.

And lastly, the last major phase for us has been e-commerce. So that’s very exciting. And on my end like there has been like, you know, kind of phases of, you know, First of all the hands-on work then growing and building teams, you know, hiring talent, super nice phase.

But this year has been a little harsh with COVID and navigating through a crisis you know, and doing everything to kind of come out stronger. At the same time, we had to scale down our product engineer team quite a bit. And now we're kind of navigating through this, you know, changing processes and trying to get as efficient as possible.

PK: You mentioned the eCommerce part, and this is actually very interesting for me because as you said, most of the episodes I recorded so far were about eCommerce. I believe that we first met about two years ago and this meeting was all about, starting this new e-commerce venture. So can you tell us how it all started? What were the challenges, with starting, you know, being mediacompany, starting e-commerce channel and you know, all the things around?

PT: We, have like the history of working with products. We are a bit different from the usual media company, because, if you look at our site, maybe 70%of what's there is products, brands. You know, it's just very intrinsic to what we do. So, we have been like that for years before, and this lead us to moving properly into commerce. We had been, running product drops occasionally, you know, so we, for example, for our 10th anniversary, we had  multiple products dropping one of the biggest collaboration we did with Adidas. We released like this Ultraboost sneaker, andit's still my favorite shoe until today. So it's a really cool one. And basically, for that trip, for example, like we had like huge traffic. So we got like a signal that, okay, we have a huge potential for Ecommerce. So let's solidify that and give that a team, you know, to actually make that really successful. So, yeah. Up to that point. We on the tech side, we've been running with the Shopify, so it was really low-key effort. And, that served us just fine, you know, but here we had a global audience, you know. That was one point where we knew that, okay. We, we, if we want to do this, we need to do it poperly. We, we need, to step up our game, tech wise as well. And otherwise, basically this was, you know, then like this business opportunity, o which he wants to invest in. Which kind of turned into this big challenge not only for tech, but I mean also across the company building  commerce team operating commerce and so on. And on a tech side, I mean, coming from media, I mean, I've been, I I've had like, at least some e-commerce experience like in my career, but still like I’m not being super deep into that and exposed to it every day or so.

PK: This is what I would like to ask you next. You're a great developer architect, a guy entering this e-commerce space. At first it might sound easy, right? What could we get wrong with shopping carts, making orders, but we all know that it's not that easy. So, tech wise, what was the biggest challenge for you entering the space? Making first steps?

PT: Yeah. So tech-wise the challenges were mainly three things. So, so we knew that we need like, something that gives us freedom on the front end. We are very visual company. That makes our front-end maybe more important than for the average brand. Also, also given the model that we'd want to do content driven commerce,like, we knew that we want to integrate commerce very smoothly and seamlessly into our existing front end and like our existing experience. We already had some technology choices there. So, on the front end that also played into it. Which led us to the surge of something versatile. So, basically finding a technology that gives us this freedom, but also allows us to iterate, you know? So that was one of the main challenges, tech wise, then we also knew that from the sneaker release, for example, that I've mentioned earlier. That's kind of resulting in these very, very unpredictable traffic spikes running mostly predictable. You have like the state when something's releasing, so you can kind of like scale up, before that, but still like, this, like for somee-commerce system, might, be a nightmare. Depending on what choice you made, like on the system. So that's a man, we need somethingthat's very scalable and, and, and scales in a, in a fast way. So  you canquickly scale up and scale down if you need to. And the third point was, as I mentioned at the beginning, we are truly a global platform. So we have users from, you know, the U S we have users from Europe, but also from Japan, Asia, Australia. So, that meant, okay. We need, something that will allow us to kind of cater to the typical needs for running global e-commerce. So, things like price lists, you know, but also, looking ahead into the future to be able to run with multiple warehouses in different locations. So that was like some of the kind of things that we needed to consider there. And at the same time, like, we're not you know, a startup we are a site and there's like hundreds of users. It's more like, okay, we are releasing and there's, you know, millions of users immediately. So we, we need to, make sure that this feature completion, you know, is there from whatever we choose.

 

PK: Gotcha. So, kind of building, a plane during the flight. You cannot get this wrong because if you just fall down that's going to be pretty challenging. Iguess you started with choosing the platform. May I ask you what platform haveyou considered for giving you this, scalability, versatility, and, and thefuture commitments?

 

PT: So, Imean, first of all, it was kind of a challenge to, to get to. Get to the pointthat we even knew which platforms are in the market. I'm not, exposed, or Ihaven't been exposed to, kind of the latest and greatest on e-commerce, becauseit wasn't really an area that we were looking at so much. So that meant like I,I first needed to find and get a good grasp of what's happening on the commerce technology market. So, that was like a discovery process where we had like alot of conversations with different people. As I mentioned, like we were meeting at the time and also, but also like some other consultants, you know,that, we, we brought in to, to kind of help us with, with navigating through the difficulties and, pointing us in the right direction there. At the sametime also meeting a lot of like providers, and just, talking about thesolutions and just using common sense also to just, challenge, what makes senseand just previous experience with that, and to answer your question, regarding the candidates.

So maybe the first- the most obvious candidate. That's probably like on every list in the beginning- Magento. So Magento, I have frankly, you know, rather negative experiences with it, but at that time I think we were still considering it. But it wasn't like my most favorite. And since we have beendoing a lot of Ruby, we, we also looked at Spree Commerce, which is an opensource, Ruby shop system. And then there was Spryker which is a Berlin based,more like modular PHP based shop, shop software. And then there was Shopify. Sothat was actually one of the most promising ones and the ones that I was like hoping we could use it because it's a very lean system.

They have like a great ecosystem and at thesame time, it’s very user friendly and so on. And there were obviously somethings which I, probably get back to in a, in a moment, like when we’re talking about our decision.

 

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