spree commerce for ecommerce interview with Zack Kanter of Suspension.com

How One Entrepreneur Is Building the Zappos of the Auto Parts Industry with Spree Commerce

by Jenna Compton
September 30, 2015

Zack Kanter of Suspension.com & ProforgedLast week I was introduced to Zack Kanter, CEO of Suspension & Proforged, and founder of Leanflix. I was expecting to interview a typical business-savvy founder and (kind of) expected normal, non-tech answers. Zack didn’t give me those. He is a deeply knowledgeable owner when it comes to tech and business, and is a person who challenges the future (Check out his 2015 TED Talk here).

Zack chose to build Suspension.com on Spree Commerce, so I wanted to interview him specifically about Spree as an ecommerce platform and see how it has impacted his business operations.

Let’s have a look at Zack’s business, and find out how his choice of using Spree as his ecommerce platform has impacted Suspension.

A Niche Opportunity

Before Suspension, Zack owned and operated the auto parts brand Proforged (and still does). He saw an opportunity to expand his business by acquiring Suspension and becoming the retailer for Proforged products. He put it to me this way:

“There’s Nike and there’s Zappos. I have a business like Nike, which is Proforged, and then I wanted to also be the person retailing it, so I bought Suspension.com in order to be Zappos as well.”

Proforged Zack Kanter

When the opportunity arose to acquire Suspension, it seemed like a smart and logical decision. Automotive specialty equipment is a $36 billion dollar industry, so potentially being a brand and a retailer in this space looked pretty good in terms of capturing revenue in a such a niche, hobbyist market.

On top of that, this niche market is largely operated (according to Zack) by mom-and-pop shops that are known only by enthusiasts, so the market is a bit “behind” in comparison to other industries’ adoption of the ecommerce business model. Many brick-and-mortar stores do not have an online store and still manage sales in-person only. This makes Zack’s acquisition opportunity seem even sweeter by positioning him not only as both brand and retailer in the market, but an early player as well.

Related: Retailer Ecommerce 101: The Playbook For Taking Your Brick-and-Mortar Store Digital

Why did Zack Choose Spree Commerce?

To be fair, Zack has a huge leg-up (in my opinion) on many owners and founders in that he’s previously managed various software development projects. Before seeking out an ecommerce platform solution, Zack already had a good grasp on what it takes to build an efficient platform solution. Plus, he had an in-house Ruby on Rails developer from Proforged (smart hire!).

His in-house Ruby developer actually introduced him to Spree (Spree is built on Ruby on Rails), and Zack began researching the platform. As there was no previous ecommerce platform element in place for Suspension.com, he got to start with a clean slate.

I asked Zack what his criteria were in choosing a platform and he said, “I knew I wanted something open source so we could heavily modify it and it needed to be written in Rails.”

Even though his developer strongly recommended the platform, Zack still needed to vet it. How would he know for sure that Spree could perform? It could just be another open source project on GitHub that his developer happened to prefer. How could he guarantee it would be the best choice?

Zack used two criteria to judge:

  • Analysis of Spree on the open source repository, GitHub
  • Analysis of successful ecommerce brands who’ve chosen Spree

Let’s look at those criteria a bit more in-depth in case you’re a non-technical founder and you don’t understand fully what “open source platform” means.

Choosing Spree as the Best Open Source Ecommerce Platform

Open source anything can be tricky. Though it’s becoming more commonplace now (and actually preferred), some tend to fear code that is open to anyone. How can you trust it?

One way to validate that open source code is worthwhile is to analyze the update frequency on the repository (A repository is a website which hosts open source projects and allows anyone to download the code). In this case, Zack was reviewing the Spree Commerce project on GitHub to see how often it was being contributed to and updated.  You can also view the amount of contributors to the project

Spree Commerce project on GitHub

This matters because you are able to qualify the code as being a solution for which you’ll have constant community support, or a project that’s rarely receiving any activity from the developing community based on the frequency of updates and amount of contributors. In fact, the pace of contribution to the Spree project has actually put it in the top 50 open source projects in the world.

After seeing that Spree was frequently updated and had a good community of developers, Zack needed one more thing: proof.

Seeing Spree in Action With AYR

If you are involved in ecommerce and have done your research, you will hear the name Bonobos pop up – it’s a certainty. We’ve mentioned them in various posts for the example they’ve set for many ecommerce brands in terms of making smart technology decisions, upholding their unique value proposition, and providing an overall great customer experience.

AYR Spree Commerce

[Image via AYR.com]

Bonobos had to learn their lesson the hard way before they implemented Spree. They were running on a home-grown platform solution that began to cost them in terms of resources and lost orders. After implementing Spree these issues made a complete turnaround. They were so pleased with the platform that when it came time to choose a solution on which to launch their women’s brand, Ayr, the team chose to implement Spree from Day 1.

While Doing his diligent research, Zack read about Ayr and their choice to use Spree. “If it’s good enough for them then it can work for us.”

Implementing Spree Commerce

Now that Spree was deemed the ‘chosen’ platform, Zack took his next step to implement the solution. He contracted out the design of the site (HTML & CSS), but unlike many founders, he didn’t have to hire an ecommerce development agency to develop his backend. Instead, Zack worked closely with his in-house developer to get their site up and running. He acquired the business on May 31 of 2014 and went live in August 2014. Not too shabby.

However, there was one pain point that is possibly the most valuable thing about Suspension.com: It’s search function.

“Auto parts are different in one major way: there’s a “fitment” component. One part might only fit certain cars (2-door to 4-door to manual to automatic).”

Building this search is what Zack referred to as “engineering as marketing”. Zack and his developer spent most of their time breaking the search function. Meaning, they tried to create all possible use cases of customers doing their year/make/model searches, then modify the logic used to create the search based on their tests.

spree ecommerce platform filters

Detailed view of Suspension.com’s dashboard view of search filter in Spree Commerce.

When talking about his search function, Zack was the most animated I’d heard him during the call. “Spree API is awesome! Getting data in and out of Spree is much easier and a competitive advantage. A lot of competitors are using home grown solutions that can’t be as easily modified as Spree.”

He’s probably excited because he knows his search feature is translating into sales. And who can blame him? Being able to easily modify your backend to grow and change with your business is ideal, and Spree Commerce has that innate flexibility.

Ecommerce Platform Advice for Non-Techie Owners

OK, so maybe you’re not a techie. You’ve been doing your research and, unlike Zack, you have no idea what the difference is between frontend and backend. That’s OK. I asked Zack if he could give us a few pointers for founders looking for help with their ecommerce platform, yet have no tech knowledge. Here’s what he had to say:

  1. Find a site you love, sit down, and map out exactly how their features and functionalities work. What do you want to keep? What do you NOT need? What does it NOT have that you DO need? When you don’t have an in-house developer, being able to explain what you need up-front will save you time and money.
  2. You probably don’t need most of the features you think you need (categorized features).
  3. If you’re not coming from a very tech background, it’s not the software that you choose, but the person you choose to implement it. Look at their portfolio. Find the pieces you DON’T like and ask the person to explain what happened on that project. Look with a critical eye and do your homework.
  4. Choose something that talks to other softwares in an easy way — it’s getting more and more important to be able to easily integrate with other apps and software is starting to become unbundled. You will save yourself so much time and headache if your platform integrates with other things easily.

Related: Open Source or Full Service Platform: Which Is Right For Your Ecommerce Business?

Ecommerce Applications to Integrate with Spree

To close out, I asked Zack if he could recommend some of his favorite apps that he’s integrated with his platform. His top 7 are:

  1. Helpscout
  2. GrooveHQ
  3. Aftership (monitoring)
  4. Ship Station
  5. NetSuite
  6. Feedback Genius (selling on Amazon)
  7. Segment (“it’s just fucking awesome”)

These apps are only a few of the many that you can integrate with Spree, so check out each link above for more in-depth information on each.

Keep Up With Zack

In addition to his various companies and projects, Zack has a personal blog and you can keep up with him on Twitter at @zackkanter. I had a really insightful interview with him, and am glad we can provide our audience with a deeper look into an actual application of an ecommerce business using Spree.

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Jenna Compton Jenna is our Director of Marketing and provides regular contributions to the blog. When she's not reading about business, she can be found running, drinking good coffee, and fiddling with projects.

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