Adam Coyle of Digital River: 5 Things You Need To Know To Create A Highly Successful E-Commerce Business
An Interview With Jerome Knyszewski
If you haven’t started, start now. If you’ve already started, double down. It’s not too late to get started if you have had ecommerce on your to-do list for several years now, but it’s going to be too late very soon. The COVID crisis has permanently changed the way consumers (whether B2C or B2B) behave, and they’re not going back to the old way of doing things. If you’ve already started your ecommerce journey, now is the time to double down and invest more, for the same reason.
As part of my series about the “5 Things You Need To Know To Create A Highly Successful E-Commerce Business”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Adam Coyle. He has spent over 25 years in the financial technology industry in a wide range of executive roles. Adam joined the management team at Digital River after spending three years at Siris Capital, where he is an executive partner and member of the Digital River board. Before joining Siris he was executive vice president of strategy and corporate development for Vantiv (now WorldPay), a role he assumed after serving as the president of one of Vantiv’s major subsidiaries, National Processing Company. Adam’s prior experience includes three years as operating partner at Advent International, a leading global private equity firm, and a variety of senior leadership roles at First Data Corporation, including president of First Data’s Integrated Payment Systems group and general counsel for Western Union North America. He is a current director of Transaction Network Services and Intralinks, and a former director of FirstBank, Paymentech, NYCE and First Financial Bank.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I studied computer science as an undergrad before attending law school. I’ve always been interested in the intersection of technology and business. After five years in private practice as a lawyer, I realized I wanted to be more directly involved in a business and its products, so I went in-house as a lawyer with a large payment processor, First Data.
Over time, I got more involved in the business side of things, and at some point — I can’t exactly say when — I wasn’t functioning as a lawyer anymore. I left First Data for the opportunity to work in private equity, and there I got to look at a lot of payment and technology companies.
Eventually, I was part of a team that did a $2 billion carve-out of the payment processing businesses from Fifth Third Bank in 2009. We took that business public as Vantiv in 2012; it later acquired Worldpay and ultimately merged with FIS in a transaction valued at $43 billion.
After leaving Vantiv/Worldpay I went back to work in private equity with Siris Capital, and after a couple of years as a board member I volunteered to become CEO of Digital River, a Siris portfolio company, because I am such a believer in the opportunity Digital River has in ecommerce.
What was the “Aha Moment” that led to the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
I spent a lot of my career in “bricks and mortar” payments, where I realized early on that the critical technology for payments wasn’t the credit card terminal, it was the software that companies used to run their business. This led to me becoming one of the early proponents of the concept of “integrated payments” — the idea that payments capabilities could be embedded in that software.
My “aha” moment at Digital River was the realization that the same thing was true for online merchants. It’s a real benefit for merchants to use technology to integrate all of the back-office functions they require — things like payments, tax, risk, fraud, compliance, subscription management, fulfillment — into the software used to run their online businesses. That’s what Digital River is focused on today; we provide a seamless, integrated technology solution for all the back-office functions that occur after you hit the “Buy” button.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
It can be challenging to get people to understand the things that made you successful in the past aren’t always the things that will make you successful in the future. When I came on as Digital River’s CEO, we were facing a technology pivot in our marketplace. Initially it was hard to convince people of the need to make that pivot when they’d been successful up to that point. We were an established, successful company and we were telling people we needed to think more like a start-up. Experience and genuine belief in the opportunity gave me the confidence to keep going.
So, how are things going today? How did your grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
While the early going was rough, the payoff came when I began to see everyone get behind the concept and start running with it themselves. Looking back, I can see we’ve made monumental changes and created really exciting new technology, and that’s what motivates me to keep going. The journey ahead might be long, but it’s less daunting when you have confidence that you’re on the right road.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
It wasn’t a mistake exactly, and it wasn’t mine, but early in my career I worked for a large organization that was going through a fundamental restructuring that involved a lot of layoffs and business consolidations.
People were pretty down, so someone in the Corporate HR department had the brilliant idea to provide every employee — 30,000+ people! — with a copy of the book “Who Moved My Cheese?” If you’re not familiar, it recounts the inspiring story of two mice, Sniff and Scurry, who, when faced with significant change at their current place of employment, do what smart mice do… and LEAVE! It was certainly not the message management intended and definitely not what employees expected, but it reminded me that it is easy to be well-meaning and tone deaf at the same time. I’ve never forgotten that.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Digital River has a completely integrated solution for all the back-office functions of ecommerce — everything that happens after you hit the “buy” button — and we enable businesses to sell across the world with a single connection to our platform.
We also work across what I like to call the “six dimensions” of ecommerce: B2B and B2C, physical goods and subscriptions, cross-border selling and onshore. As we like to say, we let you do what you do best, while we take care of all the complex back-office functions associated with selling around the world.
A recent example of how our solution worked for one client is a company called Spaces. They work in Augmented Reality and built huge AR experiences for theme parks and shopping centers. When the pandemic hit, their business dried up. They pivoted to creating AR experiences for virtual presentations and needed a way to stand up an ecommerce store to sell their product through subscriptions. We were able to get them up and running in a few days. The company made a complete and successful pivot, and in August, they were acquired by Apple.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Early in my career I worked in a large office building and I had a boss who gave me some great advice: he said, “don’t eat in the cafeteria, go out for lunch every day.” He didn’t mean because the food was bad; he meant that you should make it a point to step away and clear your head every day, especially if you’re working long hours.
My go-to advice for anyone with a job that requires a lot of mental focus is to force yourself to step away for an hour each workday, whether that’s to exercise, meditate, read a book, or just go to lunch. I’m a believer that burnout starts at the daily level. Too many of us think “I’ll just work really hard for the next X weeks, and then take some time off to make up for it,” but, like sleep, you never catch up. My experience has shown that if you take care of daily burnout, you’ll go a long way toward fixing longer term burnout.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
There are too many to recount just a single story here. SO many people helped me along the way that it has become something of a philosophy for me: no matter how much you achieve, don’t ever forget you were lucky. As smart as you may have been, as hard as you may have worked, in the end you were still lucky. And reflecting on all of the ways you’ve been lucky — because of your educational opportunities, the boss who took an interest in you, the chance encounter that led to some huge opportunity, the people you hired who worked tirelessly for you — is something that we should all take the time to do. It also reminds me that some of us are luckier than others, and as one of the lucky ones, it inspires me to be someone else’s “luck.” There’s nothing more satisfying than helping others succeed.
Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. The Pandemic has changed many aspects of all of our lives. One of them is the fact that so many of us have gotten used to shopping almost exclusively online. Can you share a few examples of different ideas that eCommerce businesses are implementing to adapt to the new realities created by the Pandemic?
For businesses that already have a strong ecommerce channel, or who were exclusively online to begin with, the biggest challenges have been keeping up with the volume of traffic and making sure orders can be fulfilled.
Some of our clients have seen extraordinary traffic due to the type of products they sell. We’ve seen first-hand how important transparency is in this regard. If you are out of stock, when do you expect the product to be available? Be up front with shoppers about shipping times and work closely with your fulfillment partner.
If you’ve been on a marketplace, consider your own direct to consumer (D2C) channel. During this pandemic, we’ve seen times when products deemed “essential” on marketplaces were prioritized over other products. If your products didn’t make the marketplace’s subjective cut of what they thought was essential, then it was your brand and your customers who suffered, as shoppers had to wait longer to get their items. Having your own D2C channel gives you the ability to meet customer needs, regardless of the circumstances.
Many ecommerce businesses that also have brick and mortar stores have worked across channels to allow people to shop online and pick up their product curbside at the store. Those stores have essentially become mini distribution centers, allowing more of the product in demand in that region to be closer to the shopper who wants to buy it. Shoppers are quickly adapting to this new era of choice, and it’s likely these new patterns of shopping will continue.
Amazon, and even Walmart are going to exert pressure on all of retail for the foreseeable future. New Direct-To-Consumer companies based in China are emerging that offer prices that are much cheaper than US and European brands. What would you advise retail companies and eCommerce companies, for them to be successful in the face of such strong competition?
Some shoppers do buy on price alone — but most prefer a relationship with a merchant they know and trust. That’s where brand-building comes in, and it’s why we’re so focused on helping brands create a direct relationship with their customers. Delivering a satisfying and dependable experience, from the moment a customer lands on the website to the moment goods or services are delivered, is key to establishing that trust and building the value of your brand. You don’t have to be local to do that, but you do have to behave like a local, offering the right payment types or shipping methods, for example, that consumers in a particular country or region expect. Price is important, but in ecommerce we think the buying experience matters just as much, if not more.
What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start an eCommerce business? What can be done to avoid those errors?
An ecommerce business is usually built on either an idea for a great product, or the need to expand a business that already has a great product. Managing the infrastructure required to make that ecommerce business successful is not necessarily what the company is good at. The company is good at making a great product and knowing their customers.
Successful ecommerce solutions involve a great user experience layer, relevant details about your products or services, effective merchandising, and a strong back office component that ensures you are using the right payments for the locale in which you are doing business, handling all the taxes and compliance for each locale in which you are doing business, and managing risk and fraud. These are each highly specialized areas — brands can either try to handle all of them on their own, building out a team who will be forever trying to keep up with the evolving nature of these various components, or find partners with the scale, expertise and focus who can do that for you. In terms of both simplicity and cost, it’s much better to partner with venders who already possess the necessary knowledge and expertise than to try and manage all of that complexity yourself.
In your experience, which aspect of running an eCommerce brand tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?
Aside from the business elements I just discussed, I would say understanding the culture and customs of country where you are selling. To be successful selling globally, you need to act like a local. If you’ve ever purchased from a site from another country that might offer the language you speak, but you don’t recognize the payment choices, or the currency is in euros when you want it in dollars, you know what I mean.
Deciding whether to operate cross-border or “onshore” through a local entity also makes a difference. Cross-border may sound easy, but cross-border credit card transactions are often more likely to be denied. Selling through a local entity, with a payments processor that has in-country relationships with the local card issuing banks, makes that same credit card transaction completely “local,” and makes the transaction more likely to go through.
Can you share a few examples of tools or software that you think can dramatically empower emerging eCommerce brands to be more effective and more successful?
I don’t think you can overemphasize the importance of the consumer experience in ecommerce, and we work with ecosystem partners who have really amazing products — Adobe Experience Manager and Magento, Salesforce Commerce Cloud, WordPress VIP, and others. The capability to deliver an immersive, efficient and guided shopping experience exists in these tools. That’s the key; defining what kind of experience you want your customers to have. Our whole strategy as a business is tied to the idea that businesses should focus on the things that will differentiate their products and their brand, and leave the management and operation of the back-end to us. That’s why we’re so excited to be seamlessly integrated with partners like Magento, Salesforce, Adobe, and WordPress; we can help brands find the solution that’s the best fit for who and what they want to be.
As you know, “conversion” means to convert a visit into a sale. In your experience what are the best strategies an eCommerce business should use to increase conversion rates?
Quite a bit of research goes into figuring out why a customer does or does not abandon their shopping cart. Shaving a few percentage points off those abandonment rates can make a world of difference to profitability. Making sure you offer local payments is a big one. We get back to that question of what is familiar to a shopper and what makes them feel confident in their purchase? How you pay is another. Some regions of the world are biased against credit. In Japan, cash on delivery is a popular payment method. Are you set up for that? Beyond that, do you understand the customs and nuances of the country you are selling into? The major shopping holidays that might affect your promotional calendar in that country.
If your product is subscription-based, which we are seeing more and more of, unintended churn is something we pay a lot of attention to — that’s when a customer intends to renew automatically, but for some reason, their payment method was declined. It could be an expired credit card, or a momentary lack of funds in their account. There are a variety of methods, including machine learning, that we use to mitigate the loss of customers who don’t intend to leave.
Of course, the main way to increase conversion rates is to create a trusted and beloved brand. Can you share a few ways that an eCommerce business can earn a reputation as a trusted and beloved brand?
Accurately represent your product, be transparent with your customer on costs, shipping times and return policies. If they do return something, make it as painless as possible. Beyond that, brands are increasingly putting their values into actions consumers can see. Love Your Melon, based in here in Minneapolis, donates 50% of its net profits to non-profits leading the fight against pediatric cancer. Other brands are committing themselves to a zero carbon footprint in the coming decades, while others earn trust by having a very customer-focused approach. There is no secret sauce that guarantees success, but living your values consistently goes a long way toward establishing trust and customer loyalty.
One of the main benefits of shopping online is the ability to read reviews. Consumers love it! While good reviews are of course positive for a brand, poor reviews can be very damaging. In your experience what are a few things a brand should do to properly and effectively respond to poor reviews? How about other unfair things said online about a brand?
I think how you respond to poor reviews is critically important. Consumers are becoming increasingly suspect of good reviews; they are easy to manipulate, and an entire industry has developed around helping less scrupulous sellers improve their reviewer ratings.
As an unintended result, bad reviews are in some ways becoming more trustworthy, more authentic. I think the most important thing a business can do in addressing bad reviews is to take them head-on and “own it.” Apologize, acknowledge the specific issue, suggest resolution and connect offline.
Consumers who search the bad reviews will recognize automated answers, so have real humans do the responses. If the review suggests something that is patently false, I think it’s fair and even important to call that out, but don’t argue with the reviewer. If you fix the problem, ask them to go back and update their review with the solution. I would argue that a bad review that reports a happy ending is probably the best review of all.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a very successful e-commerce business? Please share a story or an example for each.
One: Focus on the experience. If it isn’t clear by now, the ecommerce experience is what defines your brand. Customers will find you online before they will ever buy your product or set foot in your store, and the most amazing thing to me is that statement is true whether you are a global B2B software company or a local candy shop. Businesses that have historically spent millions thinking about how their product will look on a shelf or a showroom floor should be spending as much or more thinking about how their product will look on a mobile phone.
Two: Don’t do it alone. The biggest mistake you can make is to let your tech team, your programmers or your CTO say, “I can build our ecommerce solution from scratch!” There are amazing solutions out there from companies that spend every waking minute thinking about how to make their specific component of the ecommerce technology stack better. Your tech team, your programmers or your CTO can’t keep up with them. Focus on the things that matter (see #1 above) and have your people work on that. Work with experts and specialists on the rest.
Three: Going global may be easier than you think. Don’t assume that going global has to be hard. As I said above, there are experts and specialists for that. At Digital River, our whole business is about helping brands sell online globally. Think big and work with partners who can help you think even bigger.
Four: If you haven’t started, start now. If you’ve already started, double down. It’s not too late to get started if you have had ecommerce on your to-do list for several years now, but it’s going to be too late very soon. The COVID crisis has permanently changed the way consumers (whether B2C or B2B) behave, and they’re not going back to the old way of doing things. If you’ve already started your ecommerce journey, now is the time to double down and invest more, for the same reason.
Five: Focus on the experience. So important, it’s worth saying again. If you need convincing, think about the last time you bought a product you weren’t already familiar with, and I will bet the first thing you did was look it up online. Now go ask a college student what is the first thing they would do to learn about your product or service, and you’ll see what I mean: your online experience is the future of your brand.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
The fact that we can’t do everything keeps too many of us from doing anything, so my movement would be to do away with movements and start focusing on the things that are right in front of us.
The whole idea of a “movement” is getting a group of like-minded people together to convince other people to change. That can have enormous value, but too often we use it as an excuse to not change ourselves; we think that merely supporting a cause emotionally gives us a pass, so to speak.
I’d like more of us to focus individually on doing the things we know are right, but that might make us a little uncomfortable or that don’t give us an immediate sense of satisfaction. Personal responsibility goes a long way toward real change, and it’s often a lot harder than simply adding our support to the efforts of a large group.
How can our readers further follow you online?
LinkedIn works well for me: https://www.linkedin.com/in/adcoyle/
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!
About the interviewer: Jerome Knyszewski (Kenchefski) is the CEO of HeavyShift. Jerome serves as an advisor to CEOs of Fortune 500 companies as well as entrepreneurs who disrupt their industries and therefore tend to be targets of malicious online attacks. His company builds, protects, and repairs the online presence & reputation of many celebrities, products and beloved brands.