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BigCommerce: a homegrown online success story

Online stores powered by three year-old Aussie business BigCommerce have sold more than 30,000,000 items to more than 230,000,000 unique visitors worldwide. Mitchell Harper and Eddie Machaalani, the young entrepreneurs behind the fast-growing company with offices in Sydney and Texas, are making eCommerce easy for small businesses.

BigCommerce is a huge and ever evolving success story. While there’s some clever business brains behind it, it’s clear the two mates complement each other as co-founders and that only employing people they’d like to go for a beer with has served them well. Company culture, in both the Sydney and Texas offices, is everything to them.

Following a recent $15 million financing round, the company revealed it now powers more than 20,000 online stores for retailers who have processed sales of more than $350,000,000. Having set up in 2009, they now employ almost 100 people with plans to double that number in the coming year. While the eCommerce boom is fuelling their growth, they’re aware that many Australian businesses are still lagging behind in the online department and they’re passionate about helping them compete with the big boys, selling both here and to potential overseas customers.

The beauty of BigCommerce’s offering is that it’s (pardon the cliché) a one-stop-shop for businesses wanting to sell online. “We have combined an easy-to-use store builder with a suite of marketing tools and integrations that let you do everything from SEO, to selling on Facebook, coupon codes, mobile commerce and multi-channel retailing. Our platform allows even the most non-technical business owner to really generate huge returns from ecommerce,” says Harper.

“eCommerce isn’t a one-size-fits-all business and our new API allows third party developers and integrators to build on the BigCommerce platform. Disparate systems such as accounting, ERP, email marketing and point-of-sale can now be tied into BigCommerce effortlessly. This gives our clients unlimited flexibility whether they’re starting form scratch or looking to integrate BigCommerce into their existing business processes.”

The friends basically started BigCommerce because they were searching, unsuccessfully, for a solution for business owners to start and run their own website where they didn’t have to sue different providers for hosting, web design, online payments, registering domains etc. “I decided to write my own,” says Machaalani. “We launched it and then got a call from the Us saying they’d like to partner so we did that.” He and Harper started talking to each other in a chatroom and the rest, as they say, is history.

“When we started in 2009 we probably had around 30 employees,” says Machaalani. “We found a marketing consultant after reading his foreword in a book we liked and he happened to be in Austin, Texas. “He helped us hire our first couple of salespeople. Texas happened because he happened to be there and it was also a lot cheaper to be there than in Silicon Valley. As we grew the team we had five people in the US and 70 to 80 percent of our revenue was coming from there. In the end we decided to bite the bullet and get an office there. We had six people in an office that could fit 50.” Clearly there were always ambitious plans for growth.

The pair are now comfortable with flying back and forth between Sydney and Texas. “We’re both sued to Austin now,” says Machaalani. “We have a pretty structured routine.” While most of their business has always been in the States, they’re now starting to see more traction in the Australian market and their focus in 2012 will be very much on Australian SMEs. “We’re seeing Australian businesses starting to get eCommerce,” he adds.

Harper says the reason many Aussie SMEs have been resistant to ecommerce is because it’s been too hard. “There are to many people involved, the process was cumbersome and you had to piece together so many different systems and people. We can give everything to them in one product. We do it all.” Machaalani says a lot of small businesses have been burnt in the past too. “They’ve maybe spent $5,000 on a website which they then can’t make changes too and it’s too fragmented. It becomes too hard and they give up on it.”

Machaalani says stubborn bricks and mortar retailers who whinge about online stores stealing their business, should look at the other side of the coin. “they could be selling online as well and supplementing their income. Resisting it is like selling CDs in an MP3 world. You can try and ignore it but it’s not a good business model.” Like Harper adds: “It doesn’t have to be an either/or scenario.” BigCommerce’s packages start at $24.95 a month. “You can get a site up and running really quickly and cheaply and test the waters,” says Machaalani.

Managing the fast growth of their own business hasn’t been without its challenges. Finding and keeping the right people and giving up some control to other advisors and employees have been learning curves. “You can’t grow into a big company by micro managing everyone,” says Harper. “It’s been a mindset thing for me,” says Machaalani. “I’ve given up some of the hands-on leadership to look at the bigger picture. It hasn’t meant I’ve had any more time on my hands though!”

Harper says culture is “the most important thing in the company”. And it’s been that way from day one. “If you get the right sort of people you can foster that. We like people who are smart and get things done. We only employ people we want to have a beer with. We also have a no jerk policy! We attract people because they want to work in our kind of environment and that’s great for retention.” Machaalani adds: “We despise any kind of office politics.”

Harper and Machaalani are optimistic about their plans to concentrate on the Australian market in 2012. “There’s a big opportunity in Australia. The market’s very fragmented and there’s no one dominant player. We can see an opportunity to come in and be the leader. We can show businesses how we can make them successful at this stuff,” says Machaalani.

Harper adds: “There’s a lot of education that needs doing around certain aspects of eCommerce. A big part of our work is around making Australian SMBs feel more confident about it. That said, business owners don’t need to be that tech-savvy anymore. There was a lot of jargon to confuse people before but these days someone else can do it all for you.”

Their aim for the business in the next two years? “To double and double again,” with 200 employees by the end of 2012.

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Jen Bishop

Jen Bishop

Jen was the publisher at Loyalty Media and editor of Dynamic Business, Australia's largest circulating small business magazine, from 2008 until 2012. She is now a full-time blogger at The Interiors Addict.

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