Benchmarking eCommerce talent with Nathan Bush



Talent – it’s a small word that can cause big problems for any eCommerce company.


Where do you look to find talented people? How do you upskill your staff? And how can you measure talent in a rapidly-changing industry like eCommerce anyway?


To discuss talent in eCommerce we spoke to the perfect man – Nathan Bush, Director at eSuite Talent and host of the Add To Cart podcast.


Benchmarking eCommerce talent with Nathan Bush

Nathan lives and breathes eCommerce. He is an eCommerce Director, strategist and advisor who has led teams that have grown from $1m to $140m. He has been named in the Top 50 People in eCommerce four times, written for Inside Retail and hosts the Add To Cart podcast where he gets to speak to leaders in eCommerce every week. Today, Nathan is a Director in the eCommerce talent agency eSuite. He is passionate about growing the talent pool of eCommerce specialists in Australia and gets a real kick in seeing great people land new opportunities and fast-growing businesses build brilliant teams.


You can subscribe and listen to the full episode on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, and elsewhere podcasts are found.


You can also check out this Q&A from the episode (edited for clarity and brevity).


Adrian Wakeham: A lot of people seem to fall into the world of eCommerce by accident. Was that your experience? And is that how it’s still working today?


Nathan Bush: Certainly that’s been my experience. What we generally see is that people come into eCommerce typically from three peripherals, either marketing, technology or retailers who come at it from an operational point of view. But more and more, there are more specialist positions opening up. Whether that’s UX or product, or finance, specific for eCommerce, it’s allowing people to use skills they may have developed at university or in other areas and go into eCommerce with a specialization.


Adrian Wakeham: How did you gain skills and knowledge at the beginning of your eCommerce career?


Nathan Bush: It was probably my biggest mistake coming over. I went from an advertising/marketing agency, and I’d got to the point where I was setting up strategy for clients. And that included a lot of eCommerce clients but I had never actually worked in a retail business. I came over with some great advertising and digital knowledge and tried to apply it to this online business. But I didn’t realise the intricacies of retail. That’s an area a lot of people have to get up to speed with because retail in itself has its own mechanisms and rhythms. Once you start learning them you can put the layer of digital and data and everything else over the top of it. I spent a lot of time with career retailers. Absorbing as much as I could from people who have been in the retail industry for a long time helped me get up to speed.


Adrian Wakeham: Was there a light bulb moment for you to realise that there is an eCommerce talent problem in Australia that you could address?


Nathan Bush: I was in an organisation, a large retailer, a household name to help develop their eCommerce functionality. They had some of the best-in-breed tools, we’re talking Salesforce, Adobe, it was really nice stack. But for simple tasks, like sending an email, no one had the capability to send an email without using an agency. They had a good-sized team and it was costing them a fortune. That was the moment where I realised there’s no point in having all this tech and marketing capability if you don’t have the people who can run it and get the value out of it. So that was my lightbulb moment that lead from consulting into eSuite.


Adrian Wakeham: Were you seeing IT companies mistaking what was actually a talent problem for technology or marketing issues?


Nathan Bush: Marketing and tech are often positioned almost like a silver bullet. As if one email platform will solve all your problems. That’s how it’s often seen and people who have been around know that there are no silver bullets, but those are the solutions that are often proposed. Whereas managing people is hard, it’s hard to attract, engage and motivate people. So it’s often the last thing that businesses turn to when they aren’t hitting their targets. The great businesses out there, the ones that are sustainable, and the ones that are growing, have brilliant teams and their leaders put so much time and effort into developing and making those teams happy.


Adrian Wakeham: Do people working in eCommerce need to upskill with a greater frequency than those in other industries or even traditional retail?


Nathan Bush: Yes, but I’m not sure whether it’s upskilling, or just being endlessly curious. I don’t think you can be in eCommerce without wanting to know more about what’s possible out there. If you’re not curious, you won’t learn no matter what opportunities are given so I think it’s probably more curiosity than training. In terms of training, we use the old training breakdown, the 70-20-10 model. So 70% on-the-job experience, then 20% mentoring, or peer-to-peer learning, and 10% formal learning. If you’re relying on formal learning to bring you up to speed to be the best eCommerce person, it’s just not going to happen. It can definitely give you the foundations, but you’ve got to be really curious to go after it and get it yourself.


Adrian Wakeham: Are there any big risks businesses or employees face when upskilling in eCommerce?


Nathan Bush: Shiny object syndrome is one of the risks because retail can be repetitive. We talk a lot about year-on-year results, about squeezing as much as we can, so shiny object syndrome can come in and really take the focus off what you’re trying to do for a business. I’ve seen a lot of people get wrapped up in new concepts and new ideas, which are absolutely fine, but they won’t replace the overall model. A lot of people get caught up in thinking that retail needs to be reinvented, but it doesn’t, it just needs to evolve. 


We also get caught up in the notion of wondering why wouldn’t you shop online. We shop online, we build websites, we show how easy it is to shop them on, so why the hell are 85% of people still shopping in store? Surely, that’s got to stop at some point? Well it won’t because we are a certain segment of society that is so ingrained in eCommerce, it doesn’t mean that all our customers care about eCommerce as much as we do, even though it’s great, and it will continue to grow. But there’s room for everything. I think if you dismiss all other channels, such as the power of a physical store, then you get wrapped up in your own world, which isn’t representative of customers.


It’s actually funny speaking on Add To Cart to a lot of founders in eCommerce, as the thing that I hear the most is that they don’t like shopping online. The thing that’s made them successful founders is that they look at the world through a retail perspective.


Adrian Wakeham: Would the eCommerce industry benefit from a more universally accepted skills benchmark? Would that ultimately benefit consumers?


Nathan Bush: It’s an interesting question and it’s one that I’ve never actually been asked before. I think my answer is no. I think that if we standardise eCommerce, we’re actually doing ourselves a disservice. Our accelerator courses, I tell people that we don’t teach everything about eCommerce, I want to give you the foundations in terms of teaching how to think and analyse, rather than teaching you every nook and cranny of eCommerce because the ways we do things are constantly changing. You’re never going to know everything. There are definitely some areas of eCommerce that you have to have an understanding of, mainly around the legal side of it and your obligations around data and things like pricing and promotions. But as long as you understand the fundamentals of how an eCommerce business works and the levers that you have available to you, it’s up to you to make the most out of them. I don’t think there’s a playbook you can follow that will work for every business and every person.



Adrian Wakeham: Would it be safe to say rather than standardisations we should be setting a foundation or a benchmark?


Nathan Bush: Yeah, we always call it foundations. If you’ve got those foundations, that gives you the ability to think more creatively. The most frustrating question for an eCommerce business owner is what should my conversion rate be? Because no one can tell you that. Every business is different, and every customer is different.


Adrian Wakeham: Should a benchmark be driven by any particular part of the industry? Whether that’s retail associations, the retail industry itself, educational institutions, or private organizations like yours?


Nathan Bush: I think we have a part to play in it, but we’re not the answer. I don’t think anyone’s the entire answer if I’m totally honest. As we both know a lot of eCommerce leaders in Australia don’t have formal qualifications, but they’re bloody brilliant at eCommerce, and have built billion dollar businesses. I don’t think we want to get to a point where you need certain qualifications to be in eCommerce. We’ve never been in a time where it’s easier to have an eCommerce career. If you are curious and driven, you can start a Shopify site in 10 minutes. There are roles to play and specialisations in retail in and eCommerce, whether that be data, pricing, finance, promotions, whatever it is, you can absolutely go do those specialisations. They offer a lot of value. But we’re going down a slippery slope if we start trying to require qualifications to have an eCommerce career.


Adrian Wakeham: Would your three top tips be for any company looking to hire new staff for their eCommerce division?


Nathan Bush: First, if you haven’t embraced flexible work, if you’re still hanging onto “I’ve built this beautiful space, I don’t understand why people aren’t coming into the office, I want to be here, I want to be with them, they should want to be here.” Get over it. Because even if you like working that way, the first question we always get asked by candidates now is how often do I have to be in the office. That doesn’t mean that they don’t want to be in the office but that they know they don’t need to be in the office all the time to do their jobs effectively. Don’t think of it as people are lazy, it’s that people want to make the most of their time. So if they work in the office for two days a week while the whole team and it’s an effective use of that time they can justify travelling for an hour on a bus or a train in the morning. It’s not about laziness, it’s about effectiveness.



The second one is you’ve got to pay well, and I don’t mean paying over the odds every time. We find we get the best results from understanding where the absolute top tier is that businesses are willing to pay and then working down. It’s not setting the salary at 85k, it’s determining the experience you want and setting an upper price limit of say 100k for the absolute right person, but it could be anywhere from 70 to 100. Being flexible with that based on experience and being able to have those honest conversations with people is really important. 


The third thing is I think you’ve got to be able to tell your story. it’s no good now being a big retailer, turning over millions of dollars with 200 stores and brand names and beating your chest and saying how big you are. “Look how good we are, why wouldn’t you want to come work here?” doesn’t work now. You’ve got to tell the story of the why. When we’re putting opportunities out that have a real story, whether that be a sustainability story, a founder that people love, or a team culture that resonates, it’s so much easier to hire people. People want real meaning in their work.