Geoffrey Smalling (Wine.com)
Joshua Bixby: I am Joshua Bixby, President of Strangeloop Networks. Welcome to another edition of the Web Performance Today Podcast. If you have been following along, you will know that I have been talking to a lot of players in the performance solution space. Today I am going to flip things around a bit and talk to a site owner, someone who actually buys the solution. Geoffrey Smalling is a Chief Technology Officer at Wine.com, the world’s number one online wine store. Geoff and I have had a chance to sit down and talk about Wine.com’s performance epiphany, his experience in ramping up the company’s performance efforts for their extremely complex and dynamic site and probably most importantly, the impact all of this has had on Wine.com’s business, enjoy.
Joshua Bixby: So you are the first e-commerce customer on the podcast. We’ve actually had some really interesting people already from other companies but you are the first e-commerce guy and as you know I talk a lot about e-commerce. So tell me about Wine.com, I am interested and just give me the, you know, you have been there since, what is it 2002, so you have been there for a decade. Tell me about Wine.com?
Geoffrey Smalling: I am old, yeah well Wine.com is a great intersection of technology and wine, you know many people go into the wine store and then see isles and isles of wine and it's like you know organized by varietal or a region but it's really hard to slice and dice and move them around, so we’ve sort of built this huge database of wine and we try to bring the consumer information about wine and let them access it, let them research, let them track what they like, get recommendations, it's just all about empowering the consumer with wine knowledge and making it easy and fun to slice and dice and find the right wine out of the thousands and thousands we carry.
Joshua Bixby: And you are the CTO, you are the head, you are the head honcho?
Geoffrey Smalling: Yeah I am the guy that keeps it running, mostly these days and builds the new features.
Joshua Bixby: Tell me about how lives change, I mean it's 10 years in the e-commerce business is like the guy who started the model T and has come up to you know modern production standards so tell me about that, tell me about that evolution, how has that been?
Geoffrey Smalling: Oh it’s been – it's been quite a rise. I really started before even Wine.com in the e-commerce as a consultant so you know it's been a pretty fun, I mean the technology always think that it can’t any better and boom it gets better every year, people are – our vendors are coming like you, are coming up with great ideas all the time and there is just this vast array of knowledge to learn and new techniques and new marketing methods I mean that’s been the most fun from being a guy whose electrical engineering degree is learning all the marketing and that keeps changing, so it's a space that I think it's going to keep evolving for quite a long time.
Joshua Bixby: What's hot on the plate right now, I mean we just came, we just came through the Thanksgiving Day weekend and obviously you know Christmas and all the rest of it, what's high on your agenda, has this lockdown time for you, is this or you’ve done your experimenting and now put it into the black box and pray or where are you at?
Geoffrey Smalling: Theoretically, yes but we are still small dot com, I mean we have been around 10 years but it's, the issue with wine is there is a lot of state regulation, so it's been you know we haven’t boomed and grown like Amazon or others. We are at this cusp of always wanting to lockdown but always struggling to grow, so we are pretty risky. We are, it makes it fun, we have done all of our big projects, we actually have a release tonight. It's Wednesday, so it's 11:28 but we’ve put some best practices in so we ensure that we are not going break stuff and roll back the plans and then we are going to actually release on Monday too.
Joshua Bixby: Oh cool.
Geoffrey Smalling: So we keep releasing through the holidays as long as it's low risking, a new one that I am pretty excited about is we are going to do something that we have always wanted to do and it's something you can do in this store, but you can’t do very well online and it's probably going to affect our performance while we are watching it, all of our bottles were, not all but a majority of bottles will turn into a spinable bottles where you can actually sort of reach out and grab it, where you grab it, spin it, zoom in the label and actually be able to read the back label see if it has an interesting story, look at the alcohol content so trying to make it more engaging.
Joshua Bixby: And so do the suppliers provide you with the pictures or is that something you guys do in house, I mean how do you get that?
Geoffrey Smalling: We decided to do it in house.
Joshua Bixby: Well that’s a great repository, that’s a great dataset though I mean I am sure that that’s going to be valuable long term to have all those pictures and the history.
Geoffrey Smalling: Yeah I mean integrating with you know people like Amazon have launched a wine marketplace and other kinds of marketplace out there, that bigger picture they keep asking for bigger and bigger pictures so it's just we decided to make an investment so we have got you know domes, light domes that spin the bottle -.
Joshua Bixby: Cool, when am I going to see this, is that live now or is that part of the new release?
Geoffrey Smalling: It's going to be a new release probably on Sunday or Monday.
Joshua Bixby: Nice okay.
Geoffrey Smalling: We are still getting through a couple of kinks with it, it's on our QA site, I can send you a link.
Joshua Bixby: Nice yeah, yeah sure I am not going to post that on the blog but yeah send me a link I would love to take a look. What's -.
Geoffrey Smalling: We are a little worried about performance and so hopefully we have done our best to ensure its delay loaded and all that stuff but -.
Joshua Bixby: Yeah we got you covered on that side. Tell me about what's keeping at night you know are there things that you know either micro, macro trends that you can share with us that keeps a CTO up at night?
Geoffrey Smalling: Right now it's just a lot of stuff going on with Cyber Monday and Cyber Tuesday and you know that the peak is coming and unlike most e-commerce companies I think and I would say most because I am sure there is others like us but we have a lot of warehouses because of the state laws so this time of the year the backend keeps me up at night more than the frontend just making sure all the warehouses are operational, running, making sure it's fast and then you know watching performance of the website you know there is always something we uncover that’s a little glitch, you know maybe a feature we added in June and now we are at a hundred percent capacity of June and boom the glitch uncovers itself.
Joshua Bixby: Yeah, yeah.
Geoffrey Smalling: So we are always watching out for that it's like I think every year we have some stresses in that uncovers a little weakness.
Joshua Bixby: And you also have children?
Geoffrey Smalling: Oh yeah.
Joshua Bixby: Which I mean keep me up at night I don’t know about yours but you know -.
Geoffrey Smalling: Yeah the little guys yeah.
Joshua Bixby: There is – that element is, it also keeps one up.
Geoffrey Smalling: It's pretty embarrassing when your child goes hey daddy let's go to the office and brings his toy computer. That means you have been at the computer away too much.
Joshua Bixby: Yeah mine is that when they grab the iPhone and or iPad and start playing with it as if they have spent their entire life on it and then you are looking to other parents like no, no that’s occasional right I don’t use that to babysit my children so yes I am, you know I am interested in your perspective something that’s come up a lot across my desk has been performance measurement, real end user monitoring, synthetic monitoring you know the idea that you know as you said how fast is my site, is it fast tell me about how you see that problem, how you guys look at performance measurement?
Geoffrey Smalling: Oh my god it's in art form these days, I don’t know if there is a quiet of a science to it yet. We are pretty addicted to a new tool, called New Relic.
Joshua Bixby: Yeah I love those guys.
Geoffrey Smalling: We watch it like a hawk because it has the eyes and ears of everything so we can watch transactions from the web user, all the way down to the database and it's been an incredible tool, we are always watching New Relic and just seeing the trends and seeing the averages that’s sort of real user monitoring and then we use Gomez just to make sure the network level is all working all properly. I also use Gomez to sort of get an SLA on vendors and you know I will reach out to the CEO or VP of a beacon company and say hey what's going on here you are firing, you are slowing down and so there is this sort of monitoring tools that we use, we try to monitor I think my team is sick of me about performance that is like, that’s a sort of my pet area because it's the one thing marketing and the business side can’t really get and it's like you know they can’t really voice their opinion on it, they just like that’s it's faster.
Joshua Bixby: Yeah, yeah.
Geoffrey Smalling: And so this is an area that you know we are always trying to make the site faster with every release and every new feature and sometimes we do that, sometimes we don’t, so we have got you know a New Relic we can actually undeploy to a little bookmark in and so we can watch ourselves over time and that’s what tonight release is, it's just actually a performance tuning release, we are trying to speed up a couple of key pages with doing some optimizations and -.
Joshua Bixby: Do you find, how long have you guys been using New Relic, how long has that been sort of operational?
Geoffrey Smalling: About a year.
Joshua Bixby: And so you have had a long enough history to have sort of used it through a lifecycle of the product and it's, you know well I am a big fan of what those guys are doing and a lot of our customers are using them as well so it doesn’t surprise me you are seeing a good experience, I have also, our experience is also in the customer service side quite a high standard there too so that’s always nice?
Geoffrey Smalling: Yeah that’s been really great.
Joshua Bixby: Tell me about obviously you are a CTO of an important e-commerce site in North America, it puts you squarely in sort of scope of every sales guy in the world, right every sales guy wants a piece of you, they want your budget, they want your time, they want you to try it, try it, try it; tell me about the sales guys and this is a topic that really interest me obviously you know we all have wears to pitch. Tell me about when they make big mistakes, what are the big, what are the you know if you are to train my sales team and say here are the top three things that I just can’t stand that technology vendors do, can you tell me what those are, are top fifty?
Geoffrey Smalling: I guess the biggest kind of any kind vendor of me is when they, haven't even looked at our site and don’t even know what we do that you just can’t immediately tell that they got our, my name from a database.
Joshua Bixby: Yeah.
Geoffrey Smalling: And have my title or even an old title and if you don’t know what we do it's like you know that’s just pretty much almost hang up at that time it's, that’s my biggest pet peeve – but yeah, you know we get a lot of calls I would like to listen to almost everybody at least but sometimes you know I can’t afford you in some, I pretty much go there at first and you know I like a lot of technology you know I think I have picked out a lot of the technology that we really like and you know it fits sort of like Strangeloop did or New Relic did with sort of our core cost or core initiative, but we are going to look at it and work on it. I guess the other one for sales teams is I have actually had a great experience with a CDN vendor recently and the guy was really persistent but not overly persistent, you know you just ping every quarter and he knew I was in a longer contract and couldn’t get out of it but he pinged in just to say hey how are you doing and nothing pushy and then the time just happened where he pinged me and I needed him and I remembered oh god this guy was great, he wasn't pushy and you know we did a little business deal so it worked out to be persistent but not pushy.
Joshua Bixby: Yeah that’s a balance I spend time on with our sales guys trying to strike that balance and man do people ever get it wrong in the technology side you know it's just an, I get inundated with these calls and I find it so I sometimes just pick up the phone and think you know I want to educate you as a sales guy because you are never going to meet your quota this way you know it doesn’t, you got to have a long term horizon and you have to add some value and yeah so I have the same level of frustration.
Geoffrey Smalling: Really my biggest issue as a vendor is not really the sales, it's the sales to implementation and that transition and I think almost every company has gotten it wrong for us a lot of times and then you know it's a big issue and I don’t know how people can do that better. Except for the sales guys bring the transitional guy so there is nothing lost in the whole sale.
Joshua Bixby: Yeah that’s, that’s I mean that’s such a struggle, either overpromising on delivering or just or which is the worst but even just things that get lost in translation right?
Geoffrey Smalling: Exactly that’s the biggest issue and we have a, we have a simple site in theory selling wine but you know our state selection process has thrown every company for a loop and you know the sales guy won't, we will think through it and maybe talk to the sales engineer that come up with solution, that solution theoretically does not get translated down the line to the implementers so then you will back at round one, level one.
Joshua Bixby: Yeah I have unfortunately experienced that from both sides so I am well aware of, I am well aware of dropping both balls. Tell me about the cloud, you are a buyer of technology, you actually spend money on it where does the cloud fit into your vision and is it a game changer for you in anyway?
Geoffrey Smalling: So you know I love the cloud personally and if I were to do my own startup I would probably make the technology cloud friendly. Unfortunately we have been in business for twelve years so we have got a lot of technology that we have built and we have got investment in the datacenter.
Joshua Bixby: Yeah.
Geoffrey Smalling: So for us it's quite an investment that we don’t have yet to move to the cloud but we use it for services that we you know we, services like you know Strangeloop or you know one cloud vendor we are loving right now is called Mailgun so we part here with a lot of the cloud vendors for technology in using their API’s and you know we love people that have taken core functions that we don’t have to manage anymore like e-mail management and you know so that you know our vision is using the services that other people have and you know we use Amazon S3 for sort of community image and content stores, we use things but we have a pretty big database and a pretty big legacy one and you know that we caused it out, it's almost cheaper to stay in the datacenter right now because we have that investment.
Joshua Bixby: Yeah.
Geoffrey Smalling: Maybe down the road it won't be the case for us and what we are looking to do is use the cloud for better disaster recovery. So this is the strategy we have sort of got is to have some virtual machines that are off in the cloud and or parked if you will and then you know we pop them up every week to deploy to it and then bring back down just to save cost and you know just have the DR in the cloud for now and maybe we will switch to it down the road. But the barrier right is we have, we don’t have the distributed database model that many of the new startups would have. We have sort of got the legacy, huge database model, big iron and you know getting the eye ops we need in the cloud is very expensive.
Joshua Bixby: Yeah and that’s a very common theme that I am hearing it's exactly that which is if it was new which is not the case for almost of any of the established e-commerce businesses right.
Geoffrey Smalling: Correct.
Joshua Bixby: Then I would do this or if it was a new project or I did it on my own so I am hearing that same theme continuously and actually envy, like this envy of people that you know, they go to these conferences or read these papers on guys who spin up a thousand instances for twenty minutes, pull them all down I mean people are envious of that type of utility costing but can’t take advantage of it yet for themselves?
Geoffrey Smalling: Right, we don’t really need it, I mean we are e-commerce I mean it's not like we are doing huge calculations.
Joshua Bixby: Yeah fair.
Geoffrey Smalling: It's a – you know we have got people knock it a lot down here in the Bay Area that we are probably one of the Bay Area companies still on the Microsoft dot net platform and you know those web servers can really scale out, I mean they are – we don’t have that many web servers like somebody running Ruby might have and we have got you know really optimize the sharp code in it, it doesn’t take much to run a pretty high transaction volume side on it. So we don’t have the need of a lot of VM’s, but what we have done has virtualized everything in our datacenter.
Joshua Bixby: Nice.
Geoffrey Smalling: So we have got the private cloud I guess you would call it in marketing terms and but we have got the private cloud where we have a lot of VM’s, every web service is a VM right now, the databases are physical, app servers and web servers are VM’s and it's really coming handy in a lot of ways you know being able to snapshot a server and bring it up to test or QA or figure out a production issue or -.
Joshua Bixby: Yeah, that’s actually how we run our infrastructure as well for a lot of our dev and also non-sort of appliance based tasks as everything is virtual and it's made a big difference, we are able to handle away more servers per sys admin and just be much more efficient so I hear here we have a similar infrastructure. Tell me about mobile, because I know this is something that that you know is on the minds of all CTOs, everyone is trying to grapple with, do I outsource it, if I did outsource it do I bring it back in, how important is it. So first on the metric side, has – have you seen a dramatic growth in people shopping for wine either – on a mobile device be it a tablet or phone?
Geoffrey Smalling: So we are mobile crazy here and it's a game changer in a lot of different ways. We invested early in iPad and iPhone apps, iPhone app hasn’t really panned out for us. iPad has done amazing things. So on the iPad, our app converts as well as the website and people use it a lot who like it.
Joshua Bixby: Okay.
Geoffrey Smalling: So we’ve done a lot of investment in the iPad app area. The bigger exciter is the iPad web traffic.
Joshua Bixby: Interesting yeah.
Geoffrey Smalling: So the iPad web, I will just give you the stat I looked up yesterday, 143% growth in November.
Joshua Bixby: Wow.
Geoffrey Smalling: Over last November.
Joshua Bixby: Wow, that’s impressive.
Geoffrey Smalling: And conversion is good or better than our website and just get into your company performance it's a big challenge in performance.
Joshua Bixby: Yeah it is.
Geoffrey Smalling: Because we have, it's our slowest web browser when you go look at New Relic it's so, it's converting well but it's you know not a great experience so we are really looking to make that a better experience next year, probably not this Christmas but next year because of the growth in the iPad.
Joshua Bixby: Do you now have iPad’s across the test team, how embedded is the mobile experience within your own team?
Geoffrey Smalling: Yeah we have had an iPad across the dev team, but now we have an iPad 2 and an iPad Mini and an iPad Retina just I bought it Monday.
Joshua Bixby: Nice, nice.
Geoffrey Smalling: Yeah we, our iPad app had a little issue with iOS 6, so we have been hard at work fixing it and we just decided oh my god with a hundred and forty three percent revenue growth we would better just be iPad first for a while.
Joshua Bixby: Yeah let's be serious about it.
Joshua Bixby: Not mobile first, but iPad first.
Joshua Bixby: Yeah, well we have seen I mean we published a study on two customers last year, which tracked the amazing iPad growth and it was similar to the growth that you are talking about. I mean just you know a hundred percent plus and more importantly real conversions and real money. I mean this customer was making about fifty cents for every one hundred dollars on mobile in 2010 and in 2011 or 2012 actually they were making seven dollars on mobile of which a big chunk of that was on the iPad so I have certainly seen that trend in terms of just raw conversion and dollar figures, which is as you say changes the game, I mean performance is different, the browsers are different, the capacity of the phones or the tablets are different, it makes you know as we have seen these browsers sort of coalesce around similar standards we just have had that blown up with all these different phones and different tablets that’s for sure.
Geoffrey Smalling: Yes.
Joshua Bixby: Tell me about, tell me about the you know if I give you the crystal ball and I ask you to look out a year what is a higher priority, what's new, what's changing, I mean you talked a bit about that in terms of how you focus on performance, on mobile but what else is in that list for you?
Geoffrey Smalling: Next year, you know this year we did a lot of experimenting on social and we haven’t cracked the code. I think next year we are going to keep trying to figure out how to get you know wine and social, it should be a social commerce kind of play and we haven’t figured it out so we are going to keep probably at it. But for you know things that we can count on it's definitely going to be the iPad website and trying to figure out how we can now that it's growing at a hundred forty three percent, I just was on an airplane flying to Texas for ThanksGiving and I looked around and almost everybody has the iPad, I didn’t see many androids and it's just crazy like kids playing on it.
Joshua Bixby: Yeah.
Geoffrey Smalling: Mom’s playing on it, everybody so it's just like this ubiquitous device almost and we got a, we got to optimize on it and you know we built our, we focused on our M.Wine.com you know a really big effort on the M.Wine.com and it's a beautiful site but it just doesn’t convert very well so it's fast you know we looked at making it the fastest M. that we could we you know have all the content and people just don’t convert so we are going to maybe put that same effort on the iPad this year. We are also impacted heavily from mobile on e-mail, so e-mail is you know still a big revenue driver for e-commerce and now you know I commute so I am waiting for the ferry or the bus and I am standing there with my phone so I am reading all these marketing e-mails on my phone and then I go to the site and I don’t convert so we are trying to think through that problem, not just how to deliver e-mail better to the phone but how to you know convert them better from the phone.
Joshua Bixby: Interesting.
Geoffrey Smalling: And if you think about it as iPhone traffic is thirty percent of your traffic and they are not converting, your conversion just tanked so -.
Joshua Bixby: Yeah so absolutely and I don’t think it's going down, I mean I don’t see that being a blip in the radar that’s for sure.
Geoffrey Smalling: No it's so – we have got a lot of ideas there and we are going to start testing them. We have tested a few this holiday season and so that that’s the team. We’re also still trying to make the experience better and more and more personalized on the website and this year, we’ve done a lot in that area, you know I have been 10 years and I have always wanted to do this and we haven’t had the team and now we have got a great team that we have built and we are doing amazing things so the site is getting more and more personalized, more rich which makes the performance problem, so that that’s definitely that this year we will continue on with making the site more personnel, making it work on any device and really focusing on not mobilized there but you know iPad or iPhone we unfortunately haven’t seen a lot of Android conversion or android revenue or android I don’t know if we are the only ones but we definitely have -.
Joshua Bixby: I don’t, I don’t think so I mean I think there is a real demographic skew to, a demographic that would be a wine aficionado/connaisseur to an Apple lifestyle and I think they have done an amazing job at capturing that audience so I think, I have seen the same think in other e-commerce sites and it doesn’t surprise me as always it's a pleasure to chat, I appreciate you taking the time out of a very busy schedule to chat about performance and your world at Wine.com. I am very excited for when you start shipping to my house in Vancouver.
Geoffrey Smalling: Oh just one day.
Joshua Bixby: I know, I know that’s not there yet but I am going to be a top customer when that occurs so keep -.
Geoffrey Smalling: We will get it to move down to Seattle you know.
Joshua Bixby: I could, actually I get a lot of stuff shipped to Point Roberts which is just across the border but forty five minutes from the house and I drive down, I drive back actually I was just doing this the other day, drove back and they said do you have any declare, I am like yeah I was in, how long were you in the United States, it's seventeen minutes. Do you have any declare? Yes I have four hundred dollars worth of Christmas gifts and they just always let me pass through so I might get a case of wine delivered there and see if they let me get through, I will talk to you about that discount code, you know the one that gives me like sixty percent off, I will – you got to hook me up.
Geoffrey Smalling: All right.
Joshua Bixby: Thanks man, take care have a great, have a great rest of the year and we will connect next year for sure.
Geoffrey Smalling: Yeah keep monitoring our site for us.
Joshua Bixby: Thanks man, we are on it don’t worry.
Thanks for listening and thanks so much to Geoff for taking the time to visit with me. I encourage you to check out webperformancetoday.com/podcast to hear from some of the other really smart people that I have had a chance to sit down with. If you have a suggestion for a future podcast or you want to drop me a line feel free, email@example.com have a great day.