Our Guide to Growing a Great eCommerce Team

This is going to be a lengthy read if you go from start to finish. All in all, it’s somewhere around 4,000 words excluding the example eCommerce job descriptions (of which I’ve assembled 50+).

I’d recommend you at least read the introduction before jumping to any one section. It’ll help establish a bit of a framework for everything else. To start you off, first get the job descriptions by clicking the button below:





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Index

  1. Introduction to The Ultimate Hiring Guide for Your eCommerce Business
  2. Team Structure
  3. Hiring Sequence
  4. Roles & Responsibilities

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Why the hiring guide for your eCommerce Business??

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When you finally get from 0 to 1, from startup to that elusive and rarely obtained milestone of having to scale your multi-million dollar eCommerce business, you need to start thinking about building out the team to support you in this scaling up phase.

For most entrepreneurs, hiring isn’t something they’ve put a ton of thought into until they have to. This typically happens when you are finally in a spot to experience enough pain in a specific area to want to hire a person to help alleviate that pain.

If you’re anything like me, this was how I hired my first 5 or so people. It was entirely based on how much pain my co-founders and I were feeling in a particular area and then we hired. We got lucky in this shoot from the hip approach. We wound up hiring some of our best people ever early on, and believe me it was more luck than the result of good planning.

Having made enough hiring mistakes, I felt it was time to assemble a big, meaty guide to building out a team to help scale eCommerce companies beyond that first million in sales.

The truth is, the people you bring into your company are either going to help you accelerate to your goals or…not, or worse, they’ll set you back!

Putting the right people in the right seats at the right time is one of the most critical things you have to do as an entrepreneur.

We sometimes forget that this eCommerce thing is still very early days, which means there isn’t a lot of literature and teaching available on how to do a lot of what many people have just figured out the hard way…on the job! You could argue that this is part of the entrepreneurial journey (figuring shit out), or you could use the help of someone who’s worked in the business for years already and seen the success you wish to replicate.

This guide exists to help you build out your eCommerce team by addressing the following potential problem areas:
 

  • eCommerce Team Structure (who reports to who?)
  • Hiring Sequence (when to hire each role?)
  • Role Responsibilities & Descriptions (what does each role do?)

eCommerce Team Structure

Who does my eCommerce team ultimately report up to? In other words, who “owns” eCommerce in your company?

If you’re a digital first, or a digital-only business selling entirely online, then the answer to the above question is pretty damn simple, isn’t it? The entrepreneur/founder owns eCommerce.

For the rest of us, those with multiple channels spanning offline and online, the answer to the above question can be a little murky. I’ve seen companies that have the CMO own eCommerce, and I’ve seen companies where the CFO owns it, and everything in between.

There are pros and cons to each approach, but my personal preference is to have eCommerce live in the realm of the CMO (Marketing) or the COO (Operations). I’ll outline the major reasons for both of these below.

But first, here’s how I want you to think about this particular part of the team equation. Keep in mind that choosing which part of your business owns eCommerce is incredibly important, so spending the time up front planning it all out will save you a lot of money and headache along the way.

Even if you don’t make a super senior hire out of the gate (probably not a good idea), you want to have a clear vision for what your dream team looks like, top down.

Ok, let’s establish a little filter and/or context first. How do we know whether to build our eCommerce team out under a great marketer, or a great operator?

Complexity! That’s how!

How complex is your business going to be as you scale it? More specifically, I like to look at the following questions to get a gauge:

  1. Geography. Which markets are you selling in and how are you fulfilling and supporting these markets?
  2. Catalog Complexity
    • How big and complex is your product catalog?
    • Lots of variants, lots of SKUs, lots of new products being added regularly, long buying cycles, complex products with lots of features…all of these things can be enough on their own to make your business less-simple, and if you somehow have many of these at play, then you have a complex business.
    • Supply Chain. Where do we get our products? Are there lots of suppliers with wide geographic distribution? Do we have conflict amongst suppliers that is going to require a lot of work?
    • Who handles buying in your company? Is it you, the owner/operator or do you have someone that can own this function already?
  3. Logistics. Shipping and returns.
    • Are we shipping small things that are cheap and unbreakable? Or are we shipping a big range of items, large and small, fragile and not?
    • Perishables?
    • What about return rates, are they going to be a problem as we scale?
    • Are we running our own warehouse, or are we using third party logistics partners (3PL)?
    • Are we using drop-ship suppliers?
  4. Customer Acquisition & Retention.
    • Do we have a high margin or low margin business? Answer affects how finely tuned your acquisition & retention machine needs to be earlier on.
    • What kind of customer lifetime value do we have? Are we selling products that have the potential for high repeatability? Or are we selling one-off type products?
    • How important is brand story / narrative?

Why the COO?

In any eCommerce business with some scale (5M+), whether your company is entirely digital or your eCommerce business lives inside of a larger organization, there is usually a good amount of complexity that surfaces as you keep growing. Obviously, not all eCommerce businesses are complex, if you went through the above criteria and most of that didn’t fit your company I’d say you are on the simple side of the spectrum (amazing!).

For those of us that run more complex commerce companies, it sometimes makes sense to have all eCommerce functions ultimately roll up to a Chief Operating Officer, particularly those companies that has the majority of its complexity in the areas of product catalog and fulfilment. These are both parts of the business that require a good deal of systems and processes to manage, something that COO’s and their teams can be well equipped for.

I think most multi-brand retailers that have bricks & mortar and online channels are really good candidates to have eCommerce roll up to a strong operator instead of a strong marketer.

In these companies, it is just too easy for the wheels to come off of the many “back of house” functions in the business. Managing a large product catalog with lots of variations in shipping size/cost is akin to a good maestro conducting a large orchestra. Lots of moving parts, lots of places things can go wrong. Perfect for operations minded leaders.

Regardless of how complex your business is, you might also be an entrepreneur that is very strong on the marketing side of the business. In this case, having a great operator take over much of your eCommerce systems and processes can help free you up to do the things you are best at. Which really, this is what all great hiring plans are made of…building a team that does the thing you either suck at or hate doing.

Why the CMO?

Note: I’m using CMO, VP Marketing, Director, Marketing as interchangeable for this article. Depending on the size and scale of your business, you may have any 1 or all of these roles present.

If you are one of the fortunate few who can say they run a far more simple commerce business, then having your eCommerce/digital channels roll up to the CMO might be the ideal model for you.

Possibly the biggest benefit to owning and operating a simple commerce business is that you can direct a lot more focus into customer acquisition and retention earlier on. This means that as you begin to scale one of these companies, building out your team under a great marketer might make a ton more sense than building out your team under a great operator.

I don’t for a second think that customer acquisition and retention is any easier than operations – not in the least bit. In fact, I think that simple commerce businesses also often have much lower barriers to entry, meaning the potential for competition is quite a bit higher, and therefore your customer acquisition strategies need to be that much better than the rest.

Regardless of the competitive landscape, building out your team under a strong marketer can have all sorts of benefits, especially in those scenarios where you are selling in lots and lots of channels, and each requires strong marketing oversight.

You can avoid a lot of potential conflict by aligning your entire eCommerce operation under the marketing arm of your business.

Potential Conflict Areas

Companies that sell into and service multiple channels, offline and online, have the potential to encounter a good deal of internal conflict areas. These areas are typically found where there is an overlapping of needs or where there are conflicting priorities.

In other words, sometimes it can be very unclear as to who should own particular processes/systems and therefore, what the reporting structure should look like.

You can find potential conflict in almost everything. I’ll do my best to illustrate with examples I’ve encountered in the real world.

Merchants with online and offline sales channels are ripe for this problem. The fulfilment function can be a particularly sticky one since many offline merchants will already have a mature fulfilment function in their business, so introducing a direct to consumer (as an example) fulfilment requirement will cause questions about who should own this new set of processes/systems. Should you keep it with whoever owns the offline? Or does this require something totally new?

These same merchants could also have problems with some marketing functions. Does your email marketer report up to your eCommerce Director/VP, or do they report up to a more general VP of Marketing? Both would require email marketing support, but who owns this function?

What about customer service? Clearly, there is a need to have customer service coverage in both online and offline sales channels? So who should own this?

I could keep going, but you can probably see that it is very easy to have some confusion/conflict over reporting structure when you start adding on additional sales channels. It usually isn’t as cut and dry as many would like it to be (including me). Sometimes it requires you to completely rethink your executive eCommerce team structure so that there is alignment all the way down the ladder.

Instead of changing your company team structure, you could also try introducing a system for aligning cross-functional teams to common objectives. Something like OKRs (Objectives & Key Results) might work…it’s what we use at Demac Media to make sure that people who sometimes have different priorities can collaborate on common ground.

eCommerce Hiring Sequence

How do I know when to hire each role?

Providing you’ve created and maintain a 12,24 and 36 month roadmap for your eCommerce business, figuring out who you need to hire and when is all about matching up the people to the needs of the business based on the needs outlined in your roadmap.

For this guide, let’s assume you don’t have a roadmap and therefore we need to work off of a simple framework for determining the sequence of your hires. Here it is:

  1. Where am I currently really strong? Which skills and competencies?
  2. What are we focusing on this year to grow our business? Are there big, clear areas that need attention?
  3. What can I afford now (cash flow)?

General Rules for Hiring Sequence

I almost always want to see someone in the role of eCommerce Manager or eCommerce Director as a starting point. I also usually want this person to be more of a task master/do-things type of person instead of a manager type person. The only time you might want to start by hiring a manager/leader type of eCommerce Director is if you know you’ll be building out a team under this person very quickly, which means you need to have the appropriate budget allocated and approved.

For businesses that are under $5 million in online sales volume, I’d recommend you start building out your eCommerce team with tactical level folks, people who do things instead of mid-level management. This is important because a lot of the people with the resume and experience you want are going to be used to having teams of people to work under them, ESPECIALLY if you are hiring from a much larger brand/company.

I have seen the above scenario first hand, where a smaller $10 million online retailer hired their eCommerce Director from a very large $500+ million brand. This was an expensive mistake, as the person brought in, while amazing on paper, had never taken a company up to that larger level. Their experience was all around managing existing large brands with very large budgets and very large teams.

So unless you are a large business willing to spend the money on building out a large team right away, you need to focus on hiring one person at a time in the right sequence. This usually means hiring tactical level instead of strategic / management level.

If we know we need that initial eCommerce Manager or eCommerce Director, and we know we need a tactical level person, what else should we look for in this first critical hire?

As a related aside, I’ve actually written another post on how to hire an eCommerce Manager that gives you a bit of an outline for how to make this critical first hire, what to look for in terms of backgrounds and experience.

Specific Examples on When to Hire Different eCommerce Roles

The best way to help you with hiring sequence is to go through a few examples and experiences I’ve seen first hand. I’ll outline the scenarios based on where the founder/entrepreneur/owner-operator was originally very strong in capabilities. Each scenario is the starting point, the foundation with which the team needs to be built upon.

Scenario 1 – Entrepreneur is a Strong Systems/Processes/Operator

One of the best entrepreneurs I’ve ever worked with is an Operator. His superpower is taking complex operations and creating repeatable systems for his company to use while they grow / scale.

He also knew early on that he wasn’t strong in marketing and he had no interest in figuring out the technology end of the business. He focused first on getting the basic building blocks for his digital channels in place, most of which were the right people in the right seats.

In this case, the first hire was an eCommerce Manager with a background and strengths leaning towards the marketing side of the spectrum. We didn’t need a great operator – we needed someone who could do things we couldn’t do without having to learn it all ourselves.

This created leverage in the business. The founder got to spend his time on building the best-operating machine while someone else took the marketing reigns.

Scenario 2 – Entrepreneur is a Strong Marketer/Customer Acquisition

Like the above scenario, this one required the complete opposite approach. The entrepreneur in this business was a very good marketer and understand their particular niche incredibly well. We determined early on that it was going to be highly unlikely that we could replace the domain knowledge that the entrepreneur had and was also able to apply to acquiring the right customers.

This business was also quite complex in that the product catalog was massive (100,000+ SKUs), and the sizes and weights of their catalog varied wildly. We’re talking about shipping something out that fit into a letter mail envelope as well as products that weighed 500 pounds.

The logistics requirements of this company as they scaled over a few million in online sales started to make its toll on the business. So they went hunting for a fantastic operator to help create more leverage in the business and free up our entrepreneur to focus on what he was naturally very good at (and what he loved).

Scenario 3 – Entrepreneur is a Generalist, Good at Most Things, Not Great at any One Thing

This one is the most tricky. What happens when you are good at a lot of things, but don’t have any one particular thing that you are truly excellent at? Side note, this is the bucket I fall into!

Building an eCommerce team out around a generalist means that you likely have to hire a lot of specialists that know a lot more about their particular area than the generalist does. This can be tricky because the best generalist entrepreneurs I know are pretty good in most areas. So they need ninjas underneath them that can own each role the business requires.

In this case, I’d want to line up our eCommerce hiring sequence to a roadmap that the business has laid out. I’d like at which sales channels we are currently really strong in, and which sales channels we are looking to enter and in which order.

For example, if we had a really strong Amazon Marketplace business and we were looking to bolster our direct site sales channel, I’d be looking for someone who is really strong in email marketing, search marketing or which ever area was going to be the first in our roadmap / approach.

If our business was doing very well in direct site sales, and we wanted to go into marketplaces / social channels, I’d be looking at what our weakest link was an indication of where we should hire. If we had complex inventory management requirements then entering, new marketplaces could be an order of magnitude more difficult than adding another marketing channel to our direct site. This means we’d need a strong operator on our team before going in this direction.

Roles, Responsibilities & eCommerce Job Descriptions

Once you know what your structure is going to roughly look like, and you know the rough sequence of which you’re going to fill those seats, then you still need to figure out the nitty gritty details of what each of these folks is going to do.

How will they be measured? How will they work with each other? What kinds of backgrounds do we look for? How much experience should they have? These are just top of mind, and I haven’t even mentioned anything about cultural fit and many other critical parts of hiring good people. That’s beyond the scope of this current guide.

Most eCommerce teams are broken up into the following functional areas. These are just the big ones; there are many, many more nuanced areas depending on the business.

  • Purchasing
  • Merchandising
  • Customer Service
  • Marketing
    • Email
    • Paid Acquisition
    • Organic Search
    • Optimization
  • Management & Leadership
  • Technology / Product Management
    • Developers
    • Designers
    • User Experience
  • Fulfillment (Shipping, Returns)

10x Your Business by Building a Rockstar Team!

Your business will go only as far as your team can take it. So, who are these eCommerce heroes, and how do I know I’ve found them? To help you, I shortlisted 50+ eCommerce job descriptions from leading companies across North America.

Learn how to leverage your existing team, and save time in acquiring your next key hire! Download The Ultimate Hiring Guide for Your eCommerce Business to get these 50+ eCommerce job descriptions. Click the button below:





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Wrapping it all up with the golden rules

Outside of the specifics of eCommerce, there are a handful of golden rules that I follow when thinking about building high-performance teams in any of my businesses. I’m far from an expert in this, but I always like hearing other people’s experiences, so the least I could do is share my own.

The Golden Rules of eCommerce Hiring (or any hiring really) are:

Always, always, always hire on culture fit first.

If I am not willing to get a social beer/drink/coffee with the person, I’m thinking about hiring then I don’t hire them, no matter how great they might be at their job.

Life is short. Shit will eventually hit the fan. I want to work with people I can be friends with.

Be the dumbest person in the room.

For me, this one is huge. I like to hire specialists that are smarter than me when they are in their lane. I’m a generalist. My superpower is being able to understand enough about a lot to be dangerous. I want to focus on what I’m great at and let other people do the things.

I have also learned that ego can sometimes push us to want a team that simply agrees and follows. That just doesn’t work for me. Having a team that challenges me on my shit is critical. A team of “yes” men and women isn’t going to get you very far.

I’m still surprised when I encounter leaders of great, big companies that surround themselves with people who cater to their ego. Don’t be one of these!

There’re so many more (i.e. – hire slow, fire fast) great tips for building high-performance teams. Way too many to go into this article and also far smarter people than I on the subject who can do this topic greater justice.

Any questions about building your eCommerce team, I’d love to chat. Connect with me on Twitter or LinkedIN below, and we’ll make that happen.

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