Talk Shop with Sara Hicks, Co-Founder of Reaction Commerce

January 30, 2017

In the tech world, Sara Hicks has pretty much done it all. She’s held leadership roles at Etsy, Media Temple, Yahoo!, and CitySearch. She’s passionate about small business, and her new company puts all of her product, coding, and community knowledge to work.

All of today’s market-leading e-commerce platforms came out before the launch of the first iPhone, so a few years ago Sara set out to create a modern solution — enter, Reaction Commerce. Reaction Commerce is a totally open source platform for small and medium e-commerce businesses.

Sara is coming to Lumi HQ to Talk Shop about building a platform on open source JavaScript, building a community-focused e-commerce business, and how we can learn from the e-commerce brands that are leading the charge, online and off. Get to know Sara with the insightful Q&A below and RSVP to her talk on Thursday, February 9.

 Talk Shop with Sara Hicks, Co-Founder of Reaction Commerce
 Talk Shop with Sara Hicks, Co-Founder of Reaction Commerce

“We’re in the midst of a major revolution. Technology, globalization, and generational shifts are fundamentally changing and driving consumer behaviors.”

For people who haven’t gotten to take a deep dive into Reaction Commerce, can you explain what makes it different from Shopify, BigCommerce, or Magento?

If you do a feature-by-feature comparison of Reaction versus other leading e-commerce platforms, you’ll probably find that most solutions offer plenty of the same core features that we do. But that’s where the similarities end.

Here’s the deal: every one of today’s market-leading solutions came out before the launch of the first iPhone! A lot has changed since then, from the way we buy, sell, and build, to how quickly technology has evolved. Brands, retailers, and devs deserve to work with a solution that is modern, not to mention lightweight, open, and fully extendable to suit their needs. That’s where Reaction Commerce comes in.

We’re an open source JavaScript platform that is fast, flexible, extendable, and — thanks to event-driven technology — gives users the ability to build completely dynamic commerce experiences, from real-time merchandising to promotions to data. For non-technical business owners, we offer inline editing, drag-and-drop merchandising, and a simple dashboard to configure and manage shop settings, while developers and designers can use the platform to customize and extend to their heart’s content.

What are some e-commerce brands that are really exciting you right now?

The brands that stand out to me right now are David Kind (I love my glasses!), Allbirds, Outdoor Voices, and Glossier. Brands that are building communities and experiences — that’s where it’s at! Ultimately, retailers that combine authentic content and commerce speak to the new generation of consumers.

I’m a big fan of digitally-native vertical commerce brands. The direct-to-consumer model is just smart and more efficient, and technology is making it all possible. I recently saw this graph from Bloomberg on “The Rise of the Non-Store Retailer,” which illustrates this perfectly:

 Talk Shop with Sara Hicks, Co-Founder of Reaction Commerce

It’s no longer enough to open up a storefront. These days, I’m drawn to the brands that are cutting out the middleman and building relationships with their communities. Digital-first brands that end up opening up storefronts (e.g. Bonobos, Warby Parker) or pop-up shops, and in turn make those physical stores about experiences, engagement, entertainment, and exposure to their local communities make sense to me.

What do you see as one of the next big challenges for the future of e-commerce?

We’re in the midst of a major revolution. Technology, globalization, and generational shifts are fundamentally changing and driving consumer behaviors. From connected devices (ie. anything with a display, or anything that could have a display) and voice-enabled experiences to rapid shifts in technology that make it easier than ever to build, extend, and deploy software, commerce is changing, and retailers must adapt. Massive brands (eg. Macy’s, The Limited, Sears) are struggling to stay relevant — in some cases, they’re being forced to shut down operations. The challenge for companies, both legacy and new, is to stay current in an ever-changing environment, one that’s on a global playing field of an unprecedented scale.

Your career is expansive to say the least. You’ve done it all! You’ve had so many exciting job titles at great companies, and meanwhile, being a “woman in tech” seems to take on a role of its own. Do you get that feeling? How do you embrace that identity without feeling pigeonholed or defined by it?

I completely get that feeling. While gender inequity is certainly a hot-button issue in the industry, especially at the leadership level, being generalized as a “woman in tech” feels like it limits my identity, both professionally and personally, in a very particular way. The phrase itself suggests a broad categorization of women and their issues, yet glosses over the nuanced experiences of being a woman—it varies so much for every woman. It can also feel a little ineffectual, like lip service, when really we should be focusing our efforts on tangible structural and policy change from the top down.

Still, as problematic as the phrase might be, it’s a good starting point. As they say, sunlight is often the best disinfectant, but it’s only the tip of the iceberg. In late 2015, we were selected out of 450 startups to participate in the first-ever Google Demo Day Women’s Edition. I was truly stoked to be invited and appreciated that Google was putting their energy behind an important topic and event. That said, it also felt like a bit of a letdown due to the sole focus on women entrepreneurs. In thinking about participating, I exchanged emails with one of our Advisors to get her advice, and her feedback was spot on: “In general, I don't think you should get pigeonholed as a female business. Reaction is an exciting startup, full stop.” We both agreed that because it was Google, it was worth it, but it was important not to get siloed.

I’ve been invited to women’s panel after panel, and female founder dinner after dinner (in fact, there’s one on my calendar for next week!), and I often wonder what these events are accomplishing in the larger picture. Are we capitalizing on this momentum and awareness? The recent Women’s Marches held in locations around the world were collectively an incredible, symbolic event that I loved being a part of. All of these events are a very important start, but the problems of gender inequity, diversity inequity, and funding inequity for women and minorities need to be championed and solved by everyone, across all lines.

“Ultimately, retailers that combine authentic content and commerce speak to the new generation of consumers.”

 Talk Shop with Sara Hicks, Co-Founder of Reaction Commerce
 Talk Shop with Sara Hicks, Co-Founder of Reaction Commerce

You said in a blog post that when put together, business and open source can make each other more powerful. What’s a specific instance of something happening like that for you at Reaction Commerce?

It’s happening every day! We’re a full-time team of 10 people right now, but with our global community behind us, it feels like we’re much bigger than that, and that’s all thanks to open source. Every day in our developer chat room and forums, there’s an endless stream of activity, conversations, and contributions.

For instance, a community member recently contributed a package for Shippo, an API for adding rates from major shipping carriers. In our last release, a developer from Nigeria built a package for Notifications, which provides real-time, in-app and SMS notifications. Our community has also provided the initial language translation for over 20 languages, including right-to-left/left-to-right templates, thanks to a contributor from Tel Aviv. I could go on and on! Simply put, open source is in our DNA.

Our entire platform is open, and so is our community. We really don’t think we could be building the type of platform we’re envisioning if it wasn’t for open source. I don’t think retailers and brands can really scale on a closed system, simply because it wouldn’t be adaptable and flexible enough to meet the continual evolution of the industry. 

What’s the biggest challenge of running a business on open source?

First, staying true to our core values. It’s important that we are as open, transparent, and true to our values as possible. Everything we do related to our product and engineering is available for anyone to see. One thing I’m proud of is our Community Guidelines, which includes our Diversity Statement. Building communities requires constant nurturing. We see that as a positive challenge, so we work hard to cultivate and maintain a strong open source community.

Second, maintaining docs and pull requests for our global community. Every issue, every release, every bug has to be documented and digestible for anyone to understand. We are constantly working to improve how, when, and where we communicate, and that’s not easy. Our community is global and 24x7, so we have language barriers and time zones to take into consideration. Some of the ways we try to stay ahead of the curve include our chat room, forums, and our newly-launched livestream series, Reaction Action.

And finally, ecosystem stability. Our architecture and codebase is still growing and taking shape, so predicting how things might look or work has been challenging. The Node.js/JavaScript ecosystem as a whole is still in its early days, so we’ve had to adapt to where the trends are going. For example, when we first started out, React—and even npm—was nowhere near where it is today! Fortunately, we’re geeks at heart, so setting the foundation for these new, exciting trends is actually kinda fun.

You’ve climbed the ladder in the tech world from your days at Geocities to your role as a product strategist at Etsy. If you didn’t go into the tech world, what do you think you’d be doing now?

I studied psychology in school, so I’ve always imagined that if I were to ever leave tech, I’d open a personal counseling or coaching practice for families and individuals. I really love working with people, both one-on-one and as a group. I’m constantly fascinated by group dynamics, and how to reach the best solution for everyone’s different styles of interaction.

I think my focus on relationships is a big reason as to why I’ve been able to build successful teams and products throughout my career. I love playing a small part in helping the teams and the people I’ve led grow into themselves and into their best work. It’s always about the people and the teams. So, I guess if I hadn’t gotten swooped up into the world of startups, I’d be a social worker or therapist. Maybe some day...

Let's talk e-commerce and dive into the on and offline keys to building a business that makes a real impact. RSVP here to Talk Shop with Sara.

When: Thursday, February 9. Talk is at 7 p.m. Wine, cheese, and mingling at 6:30. Feel free to come early and check out our HQ!

Where: 3828 S Santa Fe Ave, Vernon, CA 90058

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