Chris Lema is the Vice President of Products & Innovation at Nexcess, a Liquid Web brand. His 20-year track record of success in senior-level management has made him an invaluable member of “corporate management, software development, and product teams.”
For his work, Chris Lema is “driven by challenge and motivated by the opportunity to add value.” He has “managed development teams” composed of members that were smarter than him, but he was the one who “motivated and managed them to deliver consistent and high quality work, in corporate and startup contexts.”
As an executive, Chris Lema has amassed a wealth of experience and shown proven expertise in the fields of “eCommerce, SaaS, and membership/subscription systems.” He has “developed strategies and frameworks for remote & virtual teams, and New Product Development.”
Over the last decade, Chris Lema has also become a coach and adviser to several commercial endeavors thriving in the WordPress ecosystem. Prior to Liquid Web, he served as the CTO and Chief Strategist at Crowd Favorite, where he “helped merge two organizations with two distinct cultures, increased production throughput (utilization) while lowering costs, reduced estimating risks by formalizing estimating procedures,” and “led a team of software engineers in developing enterprise WordPress membership sites.”
Previously, Chris Lema also worked as the VP of Software Engineering at Emphasys Software, where “he drove adoption of best practices in R&D team, increased delivery of new modules by a factor of 100, reduced product development team by 75% while increasing productivity 3-fold,” and “introduced new products into multiple domain-rich verticals.”
Jerome Knyszewski: Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
Chris Lema: I started working at Berkeley National Lab (a government research lab) back in 1994 with a desktop computer that was on the third fixed subnet of the entire internet. People were still trying to figure out what the Internet Superhighway was, and I was freshly graduated from college and using the web. It was a crazy time because the internet was tiny back then. Every single thing we did was a “first,” like connecting the web to a database, or building an online courseware platform.
Jerome Knyszewski: What was the “Aha Moment” that led to the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
Chris Lema: Liquid Web was a hosting company that started back in the late nineties. I had nothing to do with its inception.
Four years ago I was taking a year off of work, and thinking about what I wanted to build next, when I decided it would be eCommerce focused. I had built one of the earliest eCommerce platforms back in ’97. It had taken 6 of us, 12 months, and cost a lot of money.
My sense was that more and more people would go from garage sales, to Etsy or Amazon stores, to eventually wanting their own stores. And using open source technology like WordPress and WooCommerce, it could be done by one person in 25 minutes and as close to free as you could imagine.
That’s when I got a call from the executive team that had just purchased Liquid Web and they wanted to talk about WordPress — as it’s a widely-used content management system, and one I have deep experience with. My response was that I was interested in joining them, if they were interested in eCommerce. And that’s what brought me to Liquid Web to create our Managed WooCommerce hosting platform.
Jerome Knyszewski: Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
Chris Lema: Four years ago, no one had even heard of a platform dedicated to WooCommerce hosting. There were several hosts doing regular WordPress sites, but nothing that was comparable to Shopify but on WooCommerce.
The first thing we did was to build a “next-level” architecture for these eCommerce stores. On a completely different agenda, I called a CEO of a different hosting company, to see if they were interested in us acquiring them. They told me they weren’t ready because they had just burned a whole year working on a similar “next gen” architecture. They were now working to get past their mistakes and weren’t ready to focus on anything else. Internally I laughed because I felt like we had our architecture in the bag.
A year later I was laughing/crying. We walked into the same set of issues — a mistake I could have skipped if I’d asked a few more questions instead of being so confident. It delayed us a whole year. There were definitely days where I wanted to quit. But you can’t create something new if you’re not willing to make mistakes.
Jerome Knyszewski: So, how are things going today? How did your grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
Chris Lema: Things are great. We host more multi-million-dollar WooCommerce stores than anyone else. Initially we created an offering solely focused on the larger stores but after a year realized we were missing out on the young stores that had started elsewhere and didn’t want to shift to us later. So today we have tons of stores getting started at $19/ month.
Jerome Knyszewski: Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
Chris Lema: Wait, you want another mistake I made? Sure. One time, and only one time, we let one of our folks run an update on servers before they went on vacation the next day. On a Friday night. I know. Crazy, right? Well, some of the servers didn’t restart correctly. It was the only time I had to issue credits in the four years I’ve been here. And the only time we did a software release on a Friday night. And the only time I let people take vacation. (Ok, that last part isn’t true, I love for our folks to take vacations.)
Jerome Knyszewski: Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a very successful e-commerce business? Please share a story or an example for each.
Chris Lema: First, success is a multi-variate function. In other words, you need a team with a diverse set of skills and backgrounds to make things work. One of our clients runs a blog with several courses available for sale. While he’s the author of books, the blog, and the courses, his success is dependent on the media person who creates artwork, the podcast manager that does all the work to get people on the podcast, the web developer who works on the site for new features, and the finance guy who decides how much to spend on Facebook ads every month.
Second, narrow your focus. It’s hard to remember someone who is good at 27 things (except Amazon). Until you get to Amazon status, don’t try to be known for everything. Instead, take a small corner. We have a customer who focuses on dogs (iheartdogs.com) and makes millions doing it.
Third, talk to customers. You hear a lot of folks that tell you to talk to prospects and get their feedback. I reject that approach. I really only want to hear from people who have already demonstrated an ability to reach for their wallet. So those are the folks I want to talk to. A lot. When we first launched our Managed WooCommerce hosting, I talked to every single customer and asked them questions (Who did you consider? Why did you choose us? What surprised you?).
Fourth, embrace automation. I’m not talking about really complex personalization. I’m talking about sending emails to first time buyers to invite them back. And emails to second-time buyers to thank them for their repeat purchases. And then calculate the delta between first and second purchases across your business so you know when to send them an email for that third purchase. Build the systems to handle and automate all of this. It’s why I love Glew.io — because when I saw they were doing that, I reached out to their CEO to talk about a partnership. I wanted all our serious stores to leverage their solution.
Lastly, learn to partner well. You don’t have to be good at everything to have a successful eCommerce business. You need to do a couple things really well. And then you need to partner with others who do a couple other things really well. So learn to find the win-win-win that’s available — so that you, your partners, and your customers all benefit from a great partnership. When we were building our product, the companies I was talking to were used to partnerships where they didn’t get any customer data. These were “white label” partnerships and I thought that was ridiculous. So none of our deals hid the vendor behind the service. We proudly shared who we had partnered with, and encouraged our customers to trust them like we did. It created that win-win-win I was talking about.
Jerome Knyszewski: This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!