Headlost; why platforms are killing the headless CMS


In the bustling e-commerce landscape, a fierce debate is simmering among direct-to-consumer (DTC) companies about the best way to build their online presence. The choice between adopting a "headless" approach to content management systems (CMS) or using a full-stack platform like Shopify or Salesforce Commerce Cloud (SFCC) has become a critical decision for brands seeking to maximize profitability and efficiency while delivering a seamless customer experience.

Arthur Root

The past few years have witnessed a surge in venture capital investment in both DTC brands and e-commerce-related tech companies, particularly those specializing in headless CMS solutions. Driven by this wave of funding in the “free money” era, some DTC brands have invested hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars into building custom, headless website builds that allow for extreme customizability and site speed. While it is no doubt possible to create a fantastic website with a headless CMS, today’s funding environment has raised justified questions about the sensibilities of such investments in the face of ever-improving alternatives.

Going headless means owning the tech stack from the ground up. It involves significant setup costs for software, ongoing maintenance costs since you own the development, and unreasonable investments in infrastructure. Unlike with platforms like Shopify, there is no drag-and-drop editor; you own the front end – and this adds enormous unnecessary complexity to a brand’s day-to-day operations. While having a significant engineering team and associated line item was par for the course in a time when every DTC brand positioned itself as a tech company, shrinking budgets and more limited access to capital have exposed the folly of this expense. Great DTC founders are marketers – marketers with an outstanding ability to germinate and scale consumer movements. They are not technologists. Going headless means devoting enormous financial and temporal resources to a field outside the core competency of eCommerce founders.

Think about this as you would with cars. Headless sites are custom-built supercars – beautiful, fast, expensive, and impractical. Platforms, on the other hand, are the Ford 150’s of the world, reliable products built for the mass market which can then can then be built upon to more specifically suit a customer’s needs. Apps in this metaphor are the inexpensive add-ons that supplement the feature set that comes stock on your F150 – a heads-up display here, full leather seats, etc. They’re great, and certainly add to your quality of life, but cannot fundamentally change the performance of your mass-market car. That’s where new IaaS + SaaS edge delivery solutions come in. While they install easily onto an F150 (a platform site), they fundamentally change the way in which the car operates. They replace the entire drivetrain, giving these vehicles the performance of their supercar peers without sacrificing built-in practicality.

Platforms like Shopify and SFCC, while not without their drawbacks, offer an ever-improving alternative to headless builds. They provide an affordable website foundation to millions of eCommerce stores – trading off extreme customizability and top-shelf performance for ease of use and low costs. The beauty of platforms is that they are able to address many of their shortcomings through apps and add-ons, which, when leveraged and paired correctly, are increasingly able to match the feature sets of headless builds. As platforms have matured, so have the ecosystems around them, and enormous fortunes have been made by software providers that create value for brands by specializing in areas outside both the feature sets of platforms and the core competencies of founders. 

Today’s economic environment, paired with the increasing native and augmented abilities of platforms, has led to a clear shift away from the popularity of headless builds. However, there remains one fundamental area in which headless sites have retained their edge until very recently – technical performance. 

An eCommerce website’s technical performance has always had a direct impact on the bottom line of brands. Studies conducted by industry giants like Amazon, Google, and Walmart have drawn such correlations dating back to the early 2000’s, and the impact of (and benchmarks for) performance have only grown with the predominance of Mobile eCommerce. Site speed has an impact on a litany of key metrics, including Conversion Rate (CVR), Average Order Value (AOV), and Cost Per Click (CPC) – all of which have profound impacts on a brand’s revenue and costs. While platforms are cognizant of these well-established facts, their architecture and “one size fits all” approach have historically put them at a notable disadvantage when compared to headless sites. 

While many DTC founders pine for the free money days of the late 2010’s, the market’s recent correction should be seen as medicine. It has forced operators to refocus on their core competency in a way that is beneficial for their long-term growth – casting aside the tech company delusions of yesteryear. In this context, headless sites should be viewed as an irresponsible and impractical luxury in the face of ever-improving alternatives.

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Arthur Root
Founder and CEO of Nostra

Arthur Root is the Founder and CEO of Nostra, a product suite dedicated to optimizing ecommerce sites for performance in an impatient world. Since its founding in 2020, Nostra’s ability to deliver faster site speeds has helped brands, such as BRUNT, Pashion Footwear, Earthing, and Eat Mila, drive revenue and lower cost per click. Having grown up in the Bay Area, Arthur has long held a deep interest in technology and startups at large, gaining experience at Appthority, Titanhouse, and Comcast prior to starting Nostra. Arthur is also a partner in Remi, a fast growing, direct-to-consumer and venture-backed mouthguard startup. His love for building companies stems from a deep desire to understand, harness, and enlarge the power of people; be they employees, customers, or personas.