About the Author: Kelsey Knight
Kelsey has nearly a decade of experience building, refining, and scaling digital teams. She has vast e-commerce experience across many industries including coins and collectibles, health and wellness, pet health and supplies, and more. She has led e-commerce teams in start-ups as well as mature organizations and across a diverse set of products. Kelsey enjoys building roadmaps, strategies, and teams to support new or growing DTC businesses.
So, you’re thinking about growing your e-commerce team?
Whether you’re an early-stage startup or a more mature organization, you’ve probably stumbled upon this article because you’re looking to build or refine an e-commerce team. Direct-to-consumer (DTC), marketplaces, and other online sales channels have taken the spotlight since the e-commerce boom fueled by the COVID-19 pandemic which has left brands contemplating the future of their e-commerce business. As you start to think about your business, you’ll need to consider your immediate and future resource needs, budget, potential structure, growth plan for your organization, and how this team will tie into the rest of your business.
So, let’s get started on exploring these areas so you can build a high-performing digital team that drives your e-commerce business forward.
Core Functions of Digital Teams
Before we dive into your specific needs, let’s make sure we’re all speaking the same language and understand the core functions of a digital team. Good teams have leaders and resources who can support key areas of the business. While that means there can be some nuanced needs, especially for niche industries, the basic areas are: Acquisition, Retention, Creative, Product, and Site/Development. Each of these areas support the growth and development of the company by gaining new customers, encouraging repeat purchases, understanding and evolving the customer experience, and developing the brand.
Customer acquisition, the process of encouraging potential customers to buy your product, is critical to the growth of a new brand. In order to acquire new customers at an acceptable cost, brands must understand their lifetime value (LTV) at various intervals in a customer’s journey with the brand. Once you understand your LTV, you can determine what an “acceptable” cost is for your business and start to identify the digital channels that can drive new customers for that cost, or less. For example, if the 6-month LTV for a new customer is $60, you know you can afford to lose up to that much in customer acquisition costs (CAC) in order to breakeven by the sixth month.
The type, scale, and budgets for the acquisition channels you rely on will help you determine the roles you’ll need to fill, either internally or externally. Example acquisition channels include: paid search (Google Ads), paid social (Meta, TikTok), or native ads (Taboola).
Customer retention, the process of encouraging existing customers to buy your product again, is the second half of the basic CAC:LTV e-commerce business model. After you’ve gained a new customer and they’ve tried your product, you’ll need to encourage repeat purchases or higher AOVs to drive your LTV. This is where retention channels and marketers come in.
Just like customer acquisition, the type, scale, and complexity of your retention channels will help you determine how best to fill the needs for your business. Example retention channels include: email marketing, SMS texting, and organic social.
Behind all of the ads you promote in your acquisition channels or campaigns in your retention efforts is a team of creative marketers making it come to life. This group is responsible for the look and feel, brand voice, and story behind your marketing efforts. This team is the engine behind your campaigns making your go-to-market strategy come to life. They’re speaking directly to your customers through their copywriting, graphic design, and creative skills.
For most brands, it likely all started with a product idea which stemmed from a pain point:
- Your dog has started slowing down, so you developed a healthy snack to support their joints
- You find yourself sick of mixing pre workout, so you develop a gummy with the same ingredients
- You couldn’t find a good sentimental gift, so you handmade your own for your family and friends
However your brand got its start, your product is likely at the very heart of it which is why the product marketers on your team are critical to your success. From developing new products to merchandising your site, this team has an eye for the product and can make data-backed decisions to continuously improve it for your customers.
If creative is the engine and product is the heart of your brand, your website is the vehicle that ultimately converts your customers. Your website, or storefront if you’re selling on marketplaces, needs to provide your customers with a frictionless experience that also articulates how your product solves their problems. Your User Experience (UX) team is responsible for measuring your user’s behavior, conducting conversion rate optimization, developing new features and functionality for your website. This team is executing at the very bottom of your funnel and is critical to converting new and returning customers.
The Importance of Structure for Digital Teams
Now that we’re thinking about the core functions of an e-commerce team in the same way, let’s discuss why the structure of your team matters. As you look to develop and grow your resources, you’re going to have many considerations: do you make an internal hire or rely on an external agency? Do they report to you or another functional leader? Do you need someone full time or part time? The answer to these may vary depending on the stage of your organization and the goals for your e-commerce business. Getting it right is critical – your structure is what will set you up for success – but you may not get it right the first time around and you may end up restructuring several times.
Evaluating Resources for E-commerce Teams
How to Know It’s Time to Add to Your Team
Your monthly calendar planning meeting is producing too many ideas for your team to keep up with. You have very few new products in the pipeline. Your tried-and-true promotions aren’t working like they used to. Your paid advertising dollars are falling flat. Your complaints to the customer service team are increasing. If these scenarios sound familiar, it’s probably time to re-evaluate your e-commerce resources. It’s likely that your team needs some relief in terms of bandwidth and it might be time to add to your organization.
The Four C’s
Once you’ve identified the need for a new resource, you’ll be ready to start thinking about the specifics of what kind of hire you need. Before you dive into the aforementioned questions, make sure you’ve nailed down what I refer to as the “Four C’s”: channel, capacity, cost, and contribution.
- Channel: what channel(s) or functions need support? Earned, owned, or paid channels? Acquisition, retention, product, creative, or UX?
- Capacity: how much time will it take to fulfill the needs of the channel support? Is there enough to fill 40 hours/week or does the workload differ week-to-week?
- Cost: how much are you budgeting for this new resource? Can you afford a salary or do you need a more temporary solution?
- Contribution: what outcomes will make this new resource successful? What impact will they have on your business and bottom line?
Walking through the exercise of answering the Four C’s will help to align what you need with what you can afford and what will have the largest impact on your business. Here’s an example for a business who needs an added resource for their email marketing efforts:
- Channel: Owned retention channels, primarily email marketing but some SMS experience would be a great bonus.
- Capacity: I need someone to contribute at least 35 hours to retention efforts in order to offload work from a few key employees with other priorities. They need to take ownership of the email marketing efforts.
- Cost: I am budgeted for up to 130k/year for this resource.
- Contribution: ideally this helps to open up bandwidth from the multiple team members covering this duty currently. The resource should also bring their own knowledge and experience to the table to help craft the overall strategy and execute on the day-to-day work. They will be measured by increased margin dollars and improved processes for our email and SMS channels.
Based on the above, you will need someone with specialized email marketing experience who understands the nuances of the channel. You can probably afford a full-time hire with a salary up to $110k plus benefits ($130k without) or an agency with costs of $10,500/month or less. It’s critical that your resource’s work is measured and the business outcomes are now clearly defined.
Should you hire internally or outsource your needs?
When filling a gap on your team, you’ll inevitably face the internal hire versus external debate. Both options are adequate choices and you don’t necessarily have to choose one or the other. Many e-commerce teams – including all of the ones I have built – have a combination of internal employees and agency support. There’s also the solution of external freelancers who may bring the best of both worlds – internal knowledge with the flexibility of an external hire. Let’s explore the key considerations when deciding which one is right for you:
Understanding whether the work can be outsourced is the first step to evaluating your need. Does the work you need done require deep industry knowledge or an understanding of how your business works? Do you need this resource physically at an office or location or can they be remote from the rest of the team and your product? Will you need to invest significant time, resources, or money into this resource to bring them up to speed on the product? Answering these questions will help you determine if you would be best suited for a full-time hire, freelancer, or agency.
The next consideration is to understand whether this new resource will be held accountable for specific results. While contracts are helpful in ensuring this with external agencies, it’s inevitable that internal hires, and even some external freelancers, will harness more accountability for the results. Agencies can oftentimes have competing priorities with other clients. Depending on the size of your business, you might not be the agency’s largest client which could result in other work being prioritized over your account, putting the results at risk. There are definitely exceptional agencies out there that truly become an extension of your team, but they can be costly and hard to find.
Adding a new resource to your team can come with significant costs – from both a fiscal and time perspective. With a full-time hire you’ll need to consider the salary, benefits, and other costs associated with a new team member. You’ll also have to consider that you’re pouring time and knowledge into a new individual who may take that knowledge with them when they leave (this is where cross-training and succession planning are critical!). After you’ve spent the time and resources to review resumes, conduct interviews, and make the hire, there’s still a period of onboarding that will occur before your new employee can truly make an impact. Onboarding can take anywhere from 3-6 months, and sometimes even longer if you’re in a more complicated business. There’s also the consideration of the cost that can be incurred from hiring the wrong person. Investing the time to find, hire, and train them just for them to leave can cost the company an average of 6-9 months worth of that hire’s salary.
Vetting and selecting the right agency can also be a significant feat requiring upfront time investment. The process of building a request for proposals, scoping your needs, and then conducting agency interviews can take just as long as searching for an internal hire. If you can get an agency referral from someone who has used them previously and can vouch for their results, that can decrease the time investment. Once you’ve selected the agency, onboarding can be done a bit faster than with a new internal employee. Agencies have built their own approaches, strategies, and processes so it should just be a matter of educating them on your business, KPIs, and product. However, ongoing management of an agency can be just as much of a lift as hiring an internal team member. You’ll likely need to have strong, open communication on progress and results, ensuring you hold them accountable to the scope of your agreement.
Hiring a freelancer may be a happy medium for most organizations, especially if the exact needs remain unclear. Self-employed contractors are often eager for additional work, to learn about new businesses and industries, and can bring the technical skills you need to the table. Additionally, agreements with freelancers are oftentimes less restrictive than with agencies. While an agency may require a 12-36 month commitment, freelancers will often work month-to-month or on a per-project basis. The tricky part about hiring a freelancer is identifying one with adequate skills to support your needs. References can come in handy but conducting blind references may help you evaluate them further. A great option is using a platform like The Starters, which will connect a talent pool of pre-vetted, top notch freelancers directly with your brand.
Do you need a Specialist or Generalist?
If you’ve made the decision to hire internally, you’ll need to decide what type of role you’re looking to fill – a specialist or generalist. A specialist usually has very specific domain experience and knowledge of one to two areas. For example, a Paid Search Specialist may have extensive knowledge of Google Ads and Microsoft Advertising but little-to-no knowledge of managing paid social ads via Meta. A generalist usually can dabble in multiple areas and works to hone their skills across a wide, but related, range of areas. For example, a Digital Marketing Manager may have experience managing organic social, content, and SEO – all very different channels but somewhat related and intertwined.
When I hired the Generalist
Each of the e-commerce teams that I’ve built have had a combination of generalists and specialists. For example, I had a Digital Marketing Coordinator operating as a generalist who managed organic social for two brands. She was also responsible for managing the banners/promotions, editing copy, and making other changes to the website based on a promotional calendar. This team member also learned to pull basic data to assist other team members with data analysis. She was cross-trained as a backup for many positions, including some of the daily tasks that specialists executed on a regular basis.
When I hired the Specialist
In two other areas of the business, I hired specialists – retention marketing and SEO. I hired a team of 3 to manage the retention channels for two brands. This required specialized experience and knowledge in email marketing and SMS. They were responsible for promotion planning, daily sends and automated campaigns, managing the creative process for their campaigns, monitoring engagement and deliverability, data analysis and reporting for their channels, and a slew of other areas related to retention marketing.
When I hired the internal employee AND the agency
On the SEO side of the business, I opted for both an internal specialist hire and an external agency. This was a very underdeveloped area for our brands that required significant investment to turn around. SEO is also notoriously nebulous given you’re trying to keep up with the major search engines and their algorithms. The internal specialist had very refined skills on the technical SEO side which was an area where we had a gap in on our team. He was responsible for all-things SEO and was supplemented on the on-site and off-site execution by our agency. He managed the agency’s work and ensured it aligned with our strategy while also working closely with IT to complete the more technical tasks.
When I supplemented my team with freelancers
As mentioned, the teams I’ve built have had some combination of all of these options, all at the same time. I have leaned on freelancers in a few specific cases: graphic designers and industry experts with unique skill sets. I have found a lot of success, especially in more mature organizations, in hiring freelancers for graphic design needs. The turnaround time and flexibility offered by freelancers in this area proved to lead to faster deliverables, which supported our goals related to speed-to-market. In another example, I ran a team in an extremely niche industry where I was able to find a freelancer with this unique expertise who also could manage large data sets. I hired him to conduct data cleansing and analysis to make broader strategy recommendations across our e-commerce business.
How do you build a high-performing digital team?
There’s no one right way to structure a team so understanding your needs is a critical first step that may take time to understand, and it may require multiple iterations over time. Once you’ve made the hires you need, the most important job you’ll have is to nurture your team into a high-performing digital team.
A few key learnings for building a high-performing team that I’ve gathered over my time of hiring and structuring teams are:
- Identify gaps in your current team and fill them in a way that is helpful to your existing resources.
- Align your resources on a path toward 1-2 north star KPIs and make sure you stick to them. Unless there’s a significant change in your business model, these likely won’t change very often so don’t let the extreme lows or highs take you too far off track.
- Ensure everyone understands what the ultimate goal is and how their work is getting the business closer to it. People want to feel that their efforts produce meaning to the team and business so make sure they understand how their contributions are helping your customers and key stakeholders.
- Listen to the feedback given to you by the people doing the work – it might seem like something should take “that long” but the individuals in the weeds likely know better and can explain why it might. Your job is to listen to it and help get roadblocks out of their way.
- E-commerce can sometimes feel lonely in organizations with large sales or retail arms. Digital teams in this environment can feel siloed and undervalued if they’re lacking visibility. If you’re advocating for additional resources, support, or budget, inform your team what you’re working on as well as how it may benefit them day-to-day.
- Ensure you’re interviewing for skill and fit equally. It only takes one toxic employee to bring an otherwise strong team down. If you run into that situation, handling it quickly and transparently is critical to protecting the culture of your team. HR should be your right-hand man in these situations.
- Communicate the wins of your team across the organization. As the leader, it’s your responsibility to represent the department’s goals and progress.
- Always always always be a strong cross-functional stakeholder and lead by example for your team. We all know how difficult it can be to work with other departments but when your team thinks of them as partners, the experience will be better and the results will be stronger.
This particular list could go on and on so I will leave you with the above as a starting point. Be a strong leader, hire the right people and resources, and let them do their jobs. Remove roadblocks, keep them on the right path, and over communicate your expectations and you’ll have a high-performing team in no time.
Structuring Your Team: Sample Org Charts
The structure of your e-commerce team, and of e-commerce within your organization, can vary. With e-commerce still being relatively new in the business world, I’ve seen countless structures, all with their own reasons. We’ll explore just a handful here but remember, there is no one right structure and it is common to restructure regularly to meet your evolving business needs.
Early Stage Startup: e-commerce DTC brand
In an early stage startup, it’s not uncommon for a founder, or two, to be supported by a few freelancers as they get their business up-and-running. Founders will bring the strategic vision, product knowledge, and passion to the table while freelancers can fill gaps in technical skills. Oftentimes, this might a an agency to support paid advertising or web development, a freelance graphic designer, or a freelance digital marketing who specializes in a channel or two, like email and SMS.
Mid-Stage Startup: e-commerce DTC brand
In this organization, you have four core areas of the business represented with a variety of internal, agency, and freelance support. Although titles reflect VP-level roles, it’s likely that each role is highly executionary given the nature of startups.
Maturing Startup: E-commerce DTC brand expanding to marketplaces
This particular organization has grown a significant DTC e-commerce brand and is beginning to expand to third party marketplaces, like Amazon, for example.
As they’ve grown, they’ve built out a small retention team with a specialist and generalist internal hire.
The growth leader is supported by a performance marketing agency, manages an internal CRO specialist, and leans on a web development agency for site optimization.
The product team has expanded to include a web merchandiser who’s responsible for ensuring the user’s experience with the product online caters to their behavior.
The creative team relies on a freelance graphic designer to execute their design needs and has a full-time content marketer supporting the brand with copywriting across all channels and webpages.
Finally, they’ve hired an expert leader in marketplace strategy who leans on an agency to execute on the company’s strategy.
Growth Organization: established e-commerce brand with significant retail arm
This fictional company has established their e-commerce brand via a DTC website and presence on third party marketplaces and is beginning to branch out into retail.
There’s a Chief Marketing Officer who reports to the CEO and is responsible for the e-commerce team and overall strategy. The retention team is supported by a Retention Marketing Manager who oversees a specialist and coordinator. The specialist focuses on email and SMS while the coordinator supports other owned and earned channel activities more broadly (organic social, SEO, etc.). The growth team has a Paid Media Manager who reviews performance marketing data and owns the relationship with the agency, a CRO specialist, and two on-staff web developers.
The Product team will be responsible for the expansion to retail until the division grows to the point of need its own dedicated leader and team. This initiative will be supported with a Wholesale Manager and a third party broker who will help source retail store opportunities.
The creative team in this organization has four full-time hires with a Sr. Brand Manager, Creative Lead, Content Marketer, and Graphic Designer.
Eventually, this brand will likely have a Head of Brand and Head of Creative who own different areas of the business. This need will likely grow as the in-store presence of the brand increases.
Finally, the marketplaces silo of the organization has an on-staff specialist and an agency supporting the brand’s marketplace growth.
Mature Organization: traditionally sales-based organization with budding e-commerce business
If an organization comes from a traditional sales or direct response background, selling from non-digital channels, they likely would hire a Chief Digital Officer (CDO) to lead the organization into e-commerce. CDO is a relatively new c-suite role that organizations are embracing to help build the unique gap between marketing and technology where e-commerce lives. Under the CDO, the Head of E-commerce would build out their team based on which portions of the business they can rely on versus need to have within their department. For example, the e-commerce team may need its own resources for acquisition and retention in digital channels but rely on the broader organization for support in creative, product and IT.
These are just sample organization charts – there are endless ways to organize an e-commerce team in various business structures. It’s likely that you will restructure your team many times as your business matures and evolves. Staying open-minded to changing structures when necessary is critical to the success of your company.
Next Steps to Building an E-commerce Team
Now that you’ve learned the basics, it’s time to start evaluating your needs and resource options. There are infinite possibilities for your company’s structure and you’ll likely need to evaluate them on an ongoing basis. Be sure you understand what you need before you dive in and stay cognizant of the time investment in exploring your resources. It’s easy to fall behind while looking for the perfect resource so trust your gut – no one knows your business better than you.
Sign up for an account with The Starters and start adding world-class leaders like Kelsey to your team today.