As an early startup founder, I am acutely aware of the abundance of SaaS solutions for nearly every part of running a business. Whether it’s task management (Trello, Workast, Asana, Monday.com, Notion), scheduling (Calendly), customer support (Freshdesk), outbound sales (MixMax), content management (Blogwise, Airtable, Hubspot), email campaigns (SendGrid, Mailchimp), communication (Intercom, Slack, SimpleTexting), design (Canva, Figma)... The list goes on and on.
For those of us hoping to run our businesses efficiently, these tools can be a doubled-edged sword: using the right software can often lead to massive improvements in your day to day. However, it is also possible to get overwhelmed and end up with a convoluted workflow that’s not much better than where you started — but now you’re paying hundreds every month to maintain it.
Of all the choices to make when running a business, what ecommerce platform you choose involves perhaps the highest stakes. Both from a design and functionality point of view, it is important to build an ecommerce business on a reliable service that both looks great and has a flawless UX for customers. In addition, it can be nearly impossible to pivot to a different platform for your product once it has achieved a large scale, making this early decision critical to your long-term success. In this article, I will review the three platforms that I have had experience with.
Founded in 2004, Canada-based Shopify is one of the most well-known e-commerce platforms today. I worked closely with The Harvard Shop, a student-run retail company based in Harvard Square with three storefront locations and a massive e-commerce presence in the niche Ivy-league retail sector. Legend has it among Harvard Shop employees that The Harvard Shop’s ecommerce website was store #52 on Shopify’s platform. Whether or not that is true, The Harvard Shop is still a loyal user of Shopify today.
However, if you are new to website design or do not have specialized designers and engineers on your team, it will be difficult to customize a Shopify store. That is because Shopify themes are built on a custom template language called liquid, and has a pretty steep learning curve. If you are well funded or have engineers on your team, you could easily find one of the many Shopify expert firms to help build your theme or learn the language.
Also founded in 2004, Squarespace is a marriage of near-comprehensive ecommerce customization options as well as design support for amateurs. If you are looking to set up an ecommerce website quickly, Squarespace may be the best bet. It is relatively easy to find a template that works for your company (unlike the gross behemoth that is Wordpress), and its lack of customization options will save you time. Just upload your brand logo, favicon, colors, and fonts, and editing the website will be as simple as it gets. If your team is looking to get a functional ecommerce site up quickly without going through the expert design process that Webflow is built for and the liquid coding that Shopify requires, Squarespace is the most reliable bet.
Webflow Ecommerce was launched in 2018 as an extension of Webflow, an incredible website design platform that’s UI is optimized for skilled designers and emulates the design interface of the Adobe suite. Webflow Ecommerce is best if your company is looking for a responsive, sexy site that supports simple products for purchase. Webflow Ecommerce has limitations due to its relative youth - it only supports up to 50 product variants per product and does not support discounts or coupon codes. If your company sells products with few variations per product (like an online bookstore or grocery store), Webflow may be an incredible tool for you to build a website that stands out. You will need experienced designers to take full advantage of its design tools though!