How Maze helps brands modernize their approach to commerce

Jeremy Levine

What's in this episode?

On today’s episode we chat with Jeremy Levine from Maze Group. We dive into Jeremy’s history in ecommerce with enterprise scale retailers and how scaling has changed significantly over the last several years.

We also dive into how Maze helps brands modernize their approach to commerce and their specific intake process that allows Maze to get to the heart of what brands need to grow and scale.

So let’s get started!

Connect with Jeremy on LinkedIn. Check out The Maze Group.

Episode transcript

Chase Alderton: Welcome to Hit Subscribe, a podcast by ReCharge, designed to educate, inspire, and connect the subscription commerce space. On today's episode, we chat with Jermey Levine from Maze Group. We dive into Jermey's history in e-commerce with enterprise scale retailers and how scaling has changed significantly over the last several years, we also talk about how Maze helps brands modernize their approach to commerce. And how their specific intake process allows them to get to the heart of what brands need to really grow and scale. So let's get started.

Jermey Levine: The Maze Group is a consulting agency, we help our clients transform their digital operations. We do everything from acquisition, conversion, rate optimization and retention and CRM programs, as well as your system integrator type implementation, technology applications platforms like Shopify Plus, Salesforce Commerce Cloud, CDPs, email service providers. It runs the gamut.

Jermey Levine: Our organization, it really distinguishes itself because the majority of our practitioners come from the client side. We have a nice balance and diversity of backgrounds in our organization, some from the consulting and agency side, most from the retailer side. So we take a lot of pride in the empathy that we have for our clients, because we've been in their seats, we know how those Monday afternoon or Tuesday morning business review meetings go, we understand the challenges that our clients are facing in ever changing digital world. And we treat each of our clients as if it's our own business. And so our approach to working with our clients is vastly different than the agencies and consulting firms that I've hired throughout my career. And our clients value that and our team values that kind of relationship with our clients.

Chase Alderton: I love to hear you say that the empathy piece is so huge and that's what distinguishes you from other agencies. It's something we see lacking in a handful of agencies and part of maybe the reason why they don't scale as fast as they want to, because they don't have that client side. They don't understand, they just think we're on this agency side, we're just here to help build and grow and all that. There's no empathy for what actually is on the other side. But that's actually a really good place to start, because I know that you have a really long, interesting history in e-commerce. Give us a little bit of history about that and kind of things you've seen change over time.

Jermey Levine: Yeah, it's been quite incredible actually, the past, call it two to three years. My career in big enterprise, large scale retailers, building on either a custom technology or these massive software packages that require tons of people just to keep the lights on, whether it's infrastructure or just the day-to-day running of the business. It made it really difficult to scale. It made it really difficult to focus on the things that are going to move the business, because so much of our resources were spent on bug fixes and day-to-day and things like that. It really becomes, I think, defeating to teams at some point.

Jermey Levine: And the new generation of technology, it actually took me a while to believe in the promise that it wasn't marketing hype, that you really could stand up a new e-commerce site in three months. And you can add in these partners with a handful of clicks, and you didn't have to worry about the stability and the integration. And I think we see that quite often with some of our larger clients, coming from those bespoke enterprise scale, historically enterprise scale platforms. They're just not ready, they're not prepared for the dramatic cultural shift, the kinds of resources you need to operate, what you're on today versus what you need tomorrow.

Jermey Levine: And there really has been a seismic shift where instead of meeting a team of developers and infrastructure teams, you really allow your marketers and merchants to focus on driving the business. And that's always been the goal of anybody running e-commerce or digital retail in any way, is how do we do the things that are going to make our customers have a better experience, to allow us to feature our products faster, in a more immersive way. How do we improve options around checkout, and how do we provide more personalized experiences?

Jermey Levine: All of those were things that you just talk about endlessly, and it was so hard to ever catch up to that roadmap. And today it's the simplicity of it is incredible. And even in this world of third party apps, they're working together to integrate amongst each other, so that all of the data that's flowing within any particular system can be shared across others. And so you're able to really create these advanced automation and personalization experiences that were always the dream, but never really attainable because of the level of effort it would have taken. And so it's really unlocking incredible opportunities for smaller than enterprise type organizations, for a startup company, a small company wanting to grow. Again, they can invest their resources, people, time, effort, dollars, in the things that are going to drive their business and increase their sales rather than the day-to-day activities that typically consume those resources.

Chase Alderton: It's a phenomenal point because there's so much conversation, especially in e-commerce right now with the pandemic going on, everyone's online, that everything needs to be connected. That it doesn't matter where your storefront is or what platform you're on. Everything has to be connected, it's got to be seamless. There's not a lot of conversation about that same thing happening on the platform side. So you're saying integrations need to work together and tech partners need to work together and the platforms need to communicate and all this stuff, that's an equally important piece of that, that we're actually seeing grow now. So I guess the kind of question is how important is it to choose software and choose platforms that do work together, so that experience maintains this seamless [inaudible 00:07:54]?

Jermey Levine: It's become extremely important. And I think because the platforms themselves have become so much easier to manage on a day-to-day basis, it's really feasible and easy to test it. Right? So not even just test the hypothesis, but test a new technology, test a new partner, and it's not six months of work to implement a new partner. And then you sign a three year agreement and you sign away your first born child. Now it's [crosstalk 00:08:31].

Chase Alderton: You hope the technology works throughout the process [crosstalk 00:08:33].

Jermey Levine: Yeah. You hope it works. Yeah. And you have to spend months getting your team up to speed. And those team members have eight other jobs to do. And now, because of the ease of integration, the low cost of entry, it's really quite easy to say, "Oh, let's give these guys a shot, right? Let's give this technology a shot, let's see what happens. Let's see if culturally, we can figure out how to use it. Can we measure the impact to our business? What kind of resources will it take from our team in order to actually utilize it?" And you can figure that stuff out extremely rapidly. This promise of test and learn or fail fast, or however you want to refer to it, it was like this big idea, right? CEOs would hear about it and go, "Let's fail fast. Right?

Jermey Levine: I had a CEO that said, "Let's fail cheap." Which is sort of same mindset, but it was really hard to do. There was nothing in a big enterprise software world. Nothing it was inexpensive, nothing was fast. So that promise, or that concept was really difficult to do, unless you were in an organization that it was a sort of software development mindset. And they have that approach to things. If you were in a more traditional retailer that's just near impossible to do something like that. And today it's very easy. And one of the things we do with our clients is take this agile approach. A lot of people talk about agile and what that means in a software development methodology. We sort of approach all of our engagements in that way. We have a hypothesis. The client has a hypothesis. We have a hypothesis, let's test those out.

Jermey Levine: And the ability to execute, tests and learn and adjust is so easy now. Everything we do, whether it's acquisition, conversion rate optimization, our acquisition programs that we build for our clients, any features and functionality, the ability to test those things rapidly, learn very quickly and adjust to them. It's just gotten so easy. It doesn't take a team of developers and hundreds of thousands of dollars and months worth of work. It can be done really, really rapidly.

Jermey Levine: And so that promise and that mindset of test and learn or fail fast, or definitely felt cheap now, has come to fruition. Assuming you have the right technology stack, the right partners, the right tools. And I think as a former lifelong retailer, this is my dream to be able to do these things this quickly, this effectively, it doesn't get much better. I assume as time passes, it's going to get even higher level of functionalities, at a lower cost, at a quicker pace, as organizations and tools start to adapt more machine learning and AI and have comfort that those things are actually going to improve their business. The ideas and the vision you start to see for the future is really quite incredible.

Chase Alderton: Who would have thought that learning through middle and high school about the scientific method, that that directly translates to e-commerce in 2021, who would have thought.

Jermey Levine: Absolutely. I have a high schooler and a middle schooler and they come home and they say, "Look, there's a practical application for some of this stuff that you're actually learning.

Chase Alderton: Yeah. I think you hit the nail on the head though. It's spot on you. You have your hypothesis, you work through your statements and you work through what you're trying to figure out quickly and cheaply as much as possible. You get to this point where there's actual results and data where you can analyze and make change, because ultimately that's what you're looking for. If things aren't working, if things aren't scaling, whatever it ends up being, that's what you're trying to get to, is test something, figure out the results and then implement it.

Jermey Levine: Absolutely. And it also allows you to have a more holistic view of your business, because what you start to see is if you can reallocate your resources from keeping the lights on, to moving your business forward, you can test and learn quickly. Small optimizations, lift other areas of the business, right? So if you could improve your conversion rate by some degree, it improves your cost per acquisition, it starts to improve other KPIs of your business. And sometimes again, when you look at some of these legacy retailers, things really start to get siloed. And it's difficult to take that holistic view of if we improve our add to cart rate by X, it actually is going to help our retention teams. And it's going to help our acquisition teams. It's going to lower their total cost of running their particular areas. And then it provides more dollars to do some of the other things.

Jermey Levine: And as the organization grows larger, it becomes harder and harder for those teams sort of cross-functionally, to leverage each other. And there's a battle for resources, there's a battle for funding and what that sometimes leads to is a focus on, I think what we would say would be the wrong KPIs. Historically they're KPIs like return on ad spend, let's say. It's sometimes a necessary evil within organizations to prove, that the money the marketing team is spending is actually driving results. And that's important for the finance team. It's important for your boss on your review. It's important to explain what can be relatively complex, foundational ideas to people who maybe don't have that foundation. But as your business starts to scale, as you either reach a point where you were growing rapidly and you're plateaued, and how you get to the next level, the KPIs that you should be measuring really need to evolve. And so what you start to see is return on ad spend is a metric. I hate to pick up return on ad spend. Which is one of my least favorite KPIs.

Chase Alderton: It seems to be a constant theme.

Jermey Levine: Right. I can show a huge return on ad spend if I reduce my spend. The math will make that number higher. Great. Let's say there's a 20X return on ad spend a good number? No, it's a terrible number. Is a 2X return on ad spend a good number? I don't know, maybe. What we try to get our clients to focus on or our KPIs like lifetime value. And again, historically, it was sort of difficult for companies to track and measure those kinds of metrics and the new technology platforms really are built around those concepts and make it much easier to not only report on those kinds of KPIs, but to optimize around those KPIs.

Jermey Levine: So you can start to look at your tactics and really focus on the different parts of the funnel in order to drive the appropriate KPIs. So at the top of the funnel, you're talking about acquisition. If I was in PR and I said we got 3 million impressions on this story we did, the CEO would be super excited about it. What we don't say is, "Hey, I got 3 million impressions from this ad words campaign, or this Facebook campaign. We don't really talk about the value of that. But it's the same type of value is if you were to say, "I got this many impressions from a PR campaign."

Chase Alderton: Totally.

Jermey Levine: And so really, I think socializing the different phases of customer acquisition and retention, what the appropriate KPIs are for each of those stages. And then again, going back to this like holistic view, how do you build and prioritize your resources so that what you're going to do impacts all of those phases, all of those steps in the funnel, so that the net of it is exponentially better than if I'm just focusing on one little area.

Jermey Levine: So we work with our clients to really, I think build the right foundation. And some of that foundation is education, not necessarily to our sort of day to day contacts, who understand this because they're in this world. But when you think about a leadership team who doesn't necessarily come from digital, and some of these terms and concepts are new, it's important to take them through and help build a foundation so that they understand what's really important, right? And not focus on some buzzwords, not focus on what they heard at a dinner cocktail party from somebody, to really understand these are the foundational ideas you need to build your business. And this is how we should be measuring them. And that all of these things linked together provide exponential value.

Jermey Levine: And that takes work to do, as somebody who came from the retail side, I know how difficult that is to do within the organization. And it takes time, it takes process, it takes some level of governance, which is a term I used to hate, but becomes extremely important to the success of the digital leaders within the organization, knowing that the majority of the people who surround you in the company probably don't have that digital background. And the more you can help educate them, build this foundation of knowledge, the more likely it is that people outside of that sort of digital circle are going to come with their own hypothesis. And say, "All right, have we ever thought about trying this or doing this?" And now they understand how we measure that and how we work through this. And that is what drives innovation. That's how you get your company to become innovative and really start to think about test and learn, right? And some of the greatest ideas come from those who were outside of that digital team, because they're not boxed in by the things that they feel like may or may not work or things that have been tried before, but have not been successful.

Chase Alderton: And then that process continues.

Jermey Levine: Forever.

Chase Alderton: Then you have everybody [crosstalk 00:20:31] to continue doing the same thing and thinking outside the box and pushing boundaries and learning what works and what doesn't, and they have their hypothesis and you keep moving.

Jermey Levine: Exactly. And it gets a little bit corny sounding sometimes, right. Because people...

Chase Alderton: [crosstalk 00:20:43], let's see what you got.

Jermey Levine: Yeah. All these terms we throw around, they sound a little hokey, but the reality is when technology becomes an enabler of your growth and not a blocker to your growth, it becomes a whole different game. And when you could unleash those opportunities in your organization, it changes how people think about everything they're doing, from marketing, the customer experience, to an online, offline type conversation. And it used to be a lot of talk. And now the ability to actually do those things has become just so much easier and so much more cost-effective that you don't have to sacrifice the life of your company in order to try some of these initiatives. And that's really exciting.

Chase Alderton: You're leading me right where I want to talk to next. We've covered kind of a lot of historical what you've see in the past. We've talked through a lot of, kind of the problems of kind of being stuck in a past era or these kinds of bespoke enterprise companies who are stuck with what they're doing, focusing on keeping the lights on, talking about kind of how your onboarding process and in your scoping process allows you to kind of pick the right platform, figure out what technology you're using, all that kind of stuff.

Chase Alderton: So the next logical step to go to, is once you hit a point where you start to scale a little bit, and once brands can start to see some money coming in, they start to see things working. And all of a sudden they kind of plateau because it's all happens with a lot of brands, rarely do you come in and you just kind of scale to a million really, really quickly. So, what do you see in these kind of stuck scalers? How does that kind of play into your business model of Maze. And then how do you kind of unlock the potential to keep growing and keep scaling, is it technology based? Is it process-based, is there more of this kind of process of Q&A? How does that work?

Jermey Levine: That's a great question. We have a lot of clients who fit into almost that stuck scaler model, right? We've gotten to 10 million or 25 or 50, and we've done it because our product is great, right? Our people are smart, our brand is strong. But how do we get to that next level? How do we really explode? And we really start in a traditional discovery process, right? Any consulting firm or agency will typically start with a discovery process. And what we'd really try to get out of that process is not what do you want, but why do you want it, right? What is the driver of this? Are there specific brand goals, product goals? Are there audiences you've had trouble reaching?

Jermey Levine: How do you think about the opportunity? Right? Don't tell me you want the homepage to be blue. That's not helpful, right? Why do you want it to be blue? "We want it to be blue because all of our customers love blue." We did all this market research [inaudible 00:23:55]. We really want to understand the why's. And we also want to understand your culture as an organization, right? We really believe that a technology solution, as important as the requirements that we gather, your corporate culture is just as important to whether or not you're going to be able to adapt to certain kinds of technology. Do you have a software technology mindset? Do you understand what it takes to do that? Yes, we have a whole bunch of developers. We understand infrastructure. We understand the cost associated with these things. We understand what it means to speed to market, and all those.

Jermey Levine: And then you have others who, no we're retailers, right? That's what we do. Like technology is a facilitator of how we go to market. And understanding where your organizations sits in that spectrum is really important to help find the right software match. Because if your company can't use it, it's worthless. Like if you bought a Ferrari, but you don't know how to drive stick. It's not that much fun. So we want to make sure that you'll understand and you'll be able to take advantage of the technology that you've chosen, or that the level of investment in any particular area is in line with the opportunity. The majority of our engagements are typically start out as four or five month engagements, because what we want to do is get the client started, get something built that works well, teach their internal team how to use these tools that we've built for them, and then go and tackle the next big thing.

Jermey Levine: And again, going back to what we were talking about earlier, because we're able to look more holistically at the organization and somebody within it often, we'll often start down one path and uncover something else. And because we do take this agile approach with our clients, we often set out down a direction based upon what we've learned during discovery initially, or based on what the client has asked us to do as part of this engagement. But when we start getting into the data, when we start getting into their tools, when we start developing or implementing, we'll discover this whole different opportunity that may sometimes be bigger than the one we started down. The client didn't know it was there, or they knew it was there, and it just felt like it was maybe something that they didn't have the resources, or time or focus to deal with that moment.

Jermey Levine: But it happens often, and it could be something smaller. It could be something huge. For instance, one client, we're building a new website for them on Shopify Plus, we were spending hours talking about return logistics, with their distribution center team or their technology teams, finance, customer service. And at one point, it became very obvious to us that it was much less expensive and a much better customer experience to have the customer actually hold onto the item they wanted to return, the company refund them. And then that kicked off a series of workflows and automations that offered that customer an incentive to come and shop with them again.

Jermey Levine: So instead of this expensive, complicated return logistics and return process, we turned it into just a great customer experience that ends up leading to multiple future purchases. And so it worked out well for the client. It worked that well for the customer and you can't beat that sort of experience. And we run into those things very often because we do take a larger view of what's happening in the business and it's a data-driven view. And so we see behaviors over here that are impacted by something that's happening over here. And so when we can bring our suite of experts into the picture and have these really special conversations, and come up with these hypotheses that we can test, it creates fantastic results for our customers. And often leads to an end result the customer didn't have in their minds when we kicked this off.

Jermey Levine: And so our process, it is built around data. It's built around the customer experience and it's built around asking why, because if we can understand why then we can apply all sorts of different paths to get to that final destination that the customer's looking for. And to your point earlier, sometimes there is no final destination, right? And often there's not, it's a journey and an evolution. It's not necessarily a destination. Technology is always changing. Customer behavior is always changing, loyalty has become harder and harder to maintain. And so you have to continually test and learn, and everything you knew was true last week is not necessarily true next week. And so having people constantly thinking about the why's of your business and constantly coming to the table with tests and learnings and test and learn and fail fast and fail cheap, when you can take that approach in everything you're doing, it really opens up doors that you didn't even know were there before. And that's how you get to that next level. You test things that you didn't think were right for your business.

Jermey Levine: You're seeing these digitally native brands using things like direct mail, and newspaper inserts and TV ads. And there's a easy reason why they're doing that because your traditional media mix is still an effective tool to grow your business. And sometimes when you're "digital" that's all you think about. And it's we often see opportunities around direct mail, and how we can bring tools like that to a customer that just has built their business on Facebook ads and Google ad words and email.

Chase Alderton: I love that you bring up the why, I think all of that was absolutely fantastic. All makes perfect sense and I think you're hitting the nail on the head again, where there isn't an end goal. And there isn't a, if we just do this, that's going to be the silver bullet and that'll finish it. But I started psychology through college. So that's the why is my favorite thing to talk about. It's not what you want, it's why you want it. Because there's often a lot of different ways around this process, especially in e-commerce with the platforms, with the technology, everything changes so quickly that what you want may not be accurate. It's more of the why you want, and then figure out the solution behind that.

Jermey Levine: 100%. And I don't know, I think it may be with Steve Jobs who had said, he never wants to do focus groups. If you ask customers what they want, they don't know what they want. Right? They have certain needs, they have certain things that they want to accomplish, but if they knew what they wanted, they'd be in Steve Jobs shoes. And it's the same thing from a client's perspective, they know their business, they know their product, their brands, but there's often things that are outside of their scope that outside parties can often help enlightenment, and expose new opportunities to them to grow their business and expand what they're doing.

Chase Alderton: And that's why this e-commerce game is so fun because there is no [crosstalk 00:32:46]. So let's get into a couple of closing questions here. What is a piece of advice you would offer to an e-commerce brand who is trying to scale? Let's do a real literal piece of advice. I know a lot of your practices on scoping and trying to figure out those things, but what's something they can do implement in the next week to help them scale?

Jermey Levine: Look at adjacent brands, right? See what brands or businesses that are similar, but different enough that they may be doing some things that you can take advantage of. So obviously Recharge in the subscription business, they're understanding what your customer's core need might be. How do you build a subscription product around your core business, your core customer, what do they need? It may be adjacent to what you're currently selling, but that product creation, maybe it's a service. Maybe it's a digital product. Maybe it's a physical product, but try to think about what is a product that my customer needs that we can do really well, that we can brand and make it ours. But it also helps us continue a relationship with our clients.

Jermey Levine: And sometimes that's really hard to do, but I think when you start to bring in your merchandising, marketing, product development teams, technology teams, and you challenge them and say, "what is something we can do? What is a product we can offer to our clients that will maintain loyalty, that will keep us in touch, that they'll derive value from?" I think a lot of companies would be amazed when you get some of these cross-functional teams, just ideating and thinking about things without restrictions.

Jermey Levine: So my answer to that question would really be, take a step back every now and then, take a holistic view, talk to people who are in the day to day of what you're doing and brainstorm a little, without restrictions, because you'll get some really incredible ideas. And now that the technology can help facilitate testing out those ideas, it becomes a game changer.

Chase Alderton: That's great. That's a piece we have not heard before. So I love hearing that. Last question for you, what are physical products that you subscribe to?

Jermey Levine: Let's see, there's a box or 10 that shows up on my doorstep every day. I'd say, what are we getting now? We get flowers that I order from my wife every month, that come on subscription. My son loves fishing. He gets a tackle box of stuff every month. My daughter gets makeup and face products all the time. I'm trying to think what else? Food, different food things that we... I can't even keep track anymore. It's become a little bit out of control to be honest. So I may have to take advantage of some of the pause options that you guys offer at times, because my house is just filled with everything. And it's enough. I have a garage full of empty boxes.

Chase Alderton: It's a good time to take a step back and look at your own life and your own family as a function [crosstalk 00:36:34].

Jermey Levine: 100%.

Chase Alderton: [crosstalk 00:36:34] build some hypotheses and see what works.

Jermey Levine: I think that's a great idea. Definitely.

Chase Alderton: Jermey, thank you so much for joining us. Really appreciate it.

Jermey Levine: Thank Chase, it's been great.

Chase Alderton: We'd like to think Jermey once again for joining us, if you're interested in Maze Group, you can head over to the mazegroup.com. If you're looking for more of our episodes, check us out at rechargepayments.com/hitsubscribe, and to get the latest episodes, remember to hit subscribe on whatever platform you're listening from.

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