Today, many consider Shopify the go-to landscape for creating an online storefront.
But I’ve heard from countless brands that there are clear, persistent gaps between what existing technology offers and the new types of businesses and customer experiences they want to create. In 2021, I wrote about how we need new solutions to open the door to more innovative companies long-term. It was around the same time that I met Joshua Voydik, one of the co-founders of Swell.
I immediately knew I wanted to invest in his company and learn more about his vision. At the time, Swell were raising their seed round led by Bonfire Ventures but I’d met Joshua a week too late in the process to participate. I knew something felt different about this company and we kept in touch. If you were to ask the team, they might say I was just the right amount of annoying, always asking how I could help and whether we could talk more about commerce. After a few short months Joshua introduced me to Eric Ingram, the founder and CEO of Swell, a company that I believe is the most promising technology of its class—one that I believe will open the door for the next evolution of commerce.
Swell is an API-first, headless commerce platform that is pioneering a new way forward for brands by making the back-end architecture of commerce endlessly flexible. When I met Eric, I was impressed with his platform but even more so by his humble nature. He lives in Colorado, is a true family man; he started his career in the early stages of the e-commerce industry, developing and operating ecommerce sites in the early 2000s. He talks passionately about Swell’s mission of empowering more people to build businesses online. When we met, he’d been building Swell as a side project for five years and had only spent about two of those turning the tech into a business.
“We've seen barriers to selling online come down dramatically for simple business models, but for everyone else, it's no easier today than it was in 2005,” Eric says. “We can change that once and for all.”
Now, almost a year later, my team at Headline had the opportunity to participate in Swell’s $20 million Series A, backing Eric, his team of 40, and the technology that will power the future of commerce.
Swell Evolves Commerce from Monolithic to Dynamic and Flexible
Traditional commerce is built on a monolithic architecture, where all components of the software are tightly coupled, including the back end, front end, cart, checkout and integrations. Over time, this creates a slower and harder-to-change platform, which can hold brands back from introducing new offerings or experiences. It also can create issues with customization, the cost of maintenance, the speed of the site, and overall reliability. That’s generally why Shopify grew in popularity so quickly: through its easy to use, low code platform and app store, brands can select from a suite of services to build their online storefronts. But the Shopify platform is still rigid and monolithic. And, as commerce models continue to evolve, commerce types that deal with managing many different product types and models or varying payment structures are not well served by bundled systems like Shopify.
Enter: headless commerce. Headless is the epitome of the unbundling of commerce technology, decoupling of the front end, checkout and backend in truly flexible ways. This allows for speed, scalability and ease of customization. It’s the kind of infrastructure that makes it easy to design new storefronts and catalogs, allow for mobile shopping, live shopping and more.
In some of the earliest eras of e-commerce, we’ve seen various companies create models that look similar to today’s headless offerings. Magento, for example, is still used by many larger brands that have both offline and online retail. Spree is an open-source tool used by many of the 1.0 direct-to-consumer brands like Glossier and Bonobos. But they weren’t built with easy-to-use APIs (specifically, REST-APIs), so none of these platforms are progressing at the speed of commerce itself.
Swell is the next generation of this technology, offering a truly flexible, (REST-)API-first, headless backend for complex and unique commerce businesses. Swell has done an incredible job of creating APIs to serve almost any situation and will continue to build on this over time. By having such robust APIs, the tool allows anyone to start creating with the product and testing models, making its popularity among developers similar to that of Stripe. I’ve talked to many people — from developers to the most senior e-commerce executives — throughout the diligence process of investing in Swell who agreed it’s the best product of its kind on the market.
“We've evaluated ~140 commerce platforms so far and very few offer all of the endpoints and properties necessary for truly headless commerce,” Rhen Zabel, co-founder and CTO of e-commerce API company, Violet, told me in an interview. “We're always excited to find a new platform that has everything covered.”
Flexible Commerce Powers an Innovative Future
Swell’s ability to provide flexible back-end commerce will open the door to a host of different types of companies and business models. In the last 10 years alone we’ve witnessed a rise of new commerce models driving the largest market caps, including marketplaces, local pickup services, and virtual good sales. These companies — think Uber, Airbnb, Gopuff, Cameo, Farfetch, and The RealReal — are still sitting on custom development stacks since the current commerce platform tools aren’t set up to serve them. When we think of the next generation of business, I predict a continued mass expansion in commerce models more broadly — from Web3 to yet-imagined convenience services and much more — and that Swell will be there to support them.
Already, Swell customers can sell physical products, digital goods, bundles, and gift cards, together or separate. They can offer both one-time and subscription services natively, without having to connect any apps. They can accept different types of payment, whether it’s traditional, with financing, or even using cryptocurrency.
"It's becoming table-stakes for businesses to sell in creative ways,” says Joshua. “Swell helps merchants create compelling experiences and easily adapt to accelerating change.”
As traditional commerce providers grapple with the desire from customers to purchase in more flexible ways, and new models of commerce like digital good sales, peer-to-peer sales and last mile grocery delivery crop up, Swell is perfectly positioned at the heart of this evolving world of commerce. And since commerce incumbents, start-ups, and individuals are all empowered to participate, Swell is serving an absolutely gigantic market that is just in its earliest innings.