Two strategies for shifting from big box to composable tools

Kelly Goetsch, Chief Strategy Officer at commercetools, outlines two ways that companies can make the shift from cumbersome monoliths to composable tools.
March 28, 2023


You’ve heard the buzz. Composable is a thing. But what exactly is it? For this series, we asked industry experts what composability means to them. See what Kelly Goetsch, Chief Strategy Officer at commercetools, has to say in the video below, then read on for two approaches companies can take to make the shift from cumbersome monoliths to composable tools.

How we went from mega-vendors to composable tools

With composable, companies can mix and match vendors to get the best technology for their business instead of being limited by mega-vendors who do a little bit of everything. Emphasis on little.

We’re part of a composable ecosystem of vendors that go exceptionally deep in their areas of expertise. At commercetools we have 700+ people focused on commerce. Contentful has 800+ people focused on content. That's pretty different from the past, when commerce platforms had their own lightweight CMSes and nobody was happy.

Before cloud became a thing, it was ridiculously expensive to build a new software company. As a result, organizations only had a few mega-vendors to choose from. With cloud, you could write an app to solve a specific problem, expose it as an API, and use a credit card to start a company. This meant more people could bring their ideas to market and challenge all-in-one solutions with a field of specialized alternatives.

As these technologies became more available and easier to use, retailers and brands began building technical competence. A majority of brands have in-house teams that can implement composable tools. 

These changes coalesced to form a new composable economy that vendors like Contentful and commercetools are leading. 

Technology Partner 2023: commercetools

Choose the best tools for your business

Mega-vendors do a little of everything — but not very well. Composable lets you choose a mix of vendors that are the best at what they do. Teams can choose tools that meet their exact needs and deliver experiences that differentiate their brand from the competition. You get the best of the best tools for your business.

With composable tools, teams get:

  1. Solutions that fit your unique needs: If everybody is using the same few monoliths, no one gets an advantage. To compete, you’ve got to pick the best product out there for your business. In a composable ecosystem, each vendor has its own niche. Companies can pick tools that align with their unique needs. 

  2. New functionality without upgrades: SaaS vendors can release constantly to production. No more waiting months to get access to new features and diverting resources into bulky, annual upgrades. Instead, you get new functionality twice an afternoon without any disruption.

  3. Products that solve problems: Legacy vendors aren’t investing as much in their products. They make small innovations and throw money at sales and marketing. Startup companies like ours are growing quickly and investing tons in our products. We’re run by product people, often founders, who are enthusiastic about the product and built it to solve problems they've experienced firsthand. 

  4. Speed and agility: Mega-vendors that bundle functions together slow everything down because changing one component affects other components. With composable, it’s faster to bring experiences together and it’s easier to add or change vendors as business needs evolve. For example, you can develop content and commerce parallel to one another and pull them together in the digital experience composition layer where you deliver the experience. 

How to prove early success with composable commerce

As promising as the benefits of composable are, change is risky. Nobody wants to get fired by replacing their and failing (not that I think they'll fail). Managers also need an approach that lets them bring along teams who love their legacy tools.

A composable approach lets you make incremental improvements while moving away from legacy tools and monoliths. Teams get a chance to see the value before saying goodbye to tools they once loved. Managers can rest easy without the stress of a big-bang replacement. 

Martin Fowler uses the metaphor of a strangler fig to describe how an incremental approach eventually overtakes and strangles the host — in our case, the monolith. We're increasingly seeing customers use this piece-by-piece approach to replace legacy solutions. 

Let’s look at two ways you can get started with composable and plant the seed that'll strangle the monolith. 

Approach #1: Start with a small piece of your

My preferred approach is to start with a small piece of your flagship business. Why? Because it'll help you see how composable works at scale. You’ll see a bigger impact, sooner. 

In this approach, we look for a pressing need within the flagship business. These needs are easy to pinpoint. People know where the problems are and what systems are causing them pain and frustration. Choose one that's discrete and can be carved out, such as your check-out process or FAQ page content.

Often we see customers start with content and then bring in commerce. After you successfully solve one or two business problems, it becomes easier to keep making incremental changes and experiencing the benefits of composable tools.

With the Contentful Composable Content Platform, companies can integrate and pull from legacy tools enabling them to modernize content incrementally. At commercetools, our portfolio of composable commerce services also empowers companies to shift to composable at their own pace. 

Approach #2: Start with a smaller line of business

The second approach is to take an entire line of business and do a production proof of concept (POC).

Look for smaller business lines that are less likely to be exposed in earnings statements or press releases if the site goes down for a short time. This could be a site you acquired, a small country site, or a discount brand. 

To get the most out of your production POC, choose the largest line of business you can comfortably experiment with.  

Composable lets you structure teams to deliver better experiences

Composable tools open up new opportunities to structure teams that are more specialized, able to go deeper, and deliver better experiences.

Conway’s Law states that organizations design systems ‌based on how the organization is structured. If you have a big centralized team, you’re going to end up with a big centralized monolith. If teams are siloed and disconnected, your digital experiences will feel disconnected too. 

With Conway’s Law in mind, companies need to structure teams around what they want to deliver. Structure is a big change, though a necessary one to get the most out of composability. 

Composable tools allow an organization to adapt their technology to the way people want and need to work to deliver better experiences. Think specialized tools, in the hands of specialized teams, with a deep understanding of the audiences they want to reach. And everything is connected.

Historically, you had tech teams organized around horizontal functions: infrastructure, networking, databases, backend applications, frontend applications, and development. This was necessary because each layer required a lot of work. For example, a storage admin had to buy million-dollar storage devices and move them into the data center. 

With cloud, anyone with a mouse can provision some compute storage networking in 30 seconds. It doesn’t make sense to have giant horizontal teams now that many of their functions can be done more easily. 

Organize around business domains 

With cloud handling most of the infrastructure and composable tools enabling teams to work independently, companies can organize around business domains. 

People, whose sole job is to focus on promotions, content, product pages, or some other business domain, can go much deeper and get more specialized. That person owns the product APIs in the backend, the content, the UI, the entire stack top to bottom for their area. They have the power to bring their visions to life with tools that meet their specific needs. 

While composable might start as a technology decision, it has the power to set larger changes in motion.

What comes next?

Are you ready to get started with composable tools? commercetools is the Contentful Technology Partner of the Year 2023. Together, commercetools and Contentful are enabling businesses to provide high quality digital commerce experiences.

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