Alexander Graf of Spryker: “I carried this curiosity into e-commerce”

Writing a book brings with it a new level of credibility that’s not achievable via other media formats. Even though my podcast might have millions of listeners, in our world that doesn’t count as much as being a successful author. It’s definitely helped to create my own brand: Alex, the expert, the author — instead of Alex, […]

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Writing a book brings with it a new level of credibility that’s not achievable via other media formats. Even though my podcast might have millions of listeners, in our world that doesn’t count as much as being a successful author. It’s definitely helped to create my own brand: Alex, the expert, the author — instead of Alex, the blogger. Over time this has led to more invitations by CEOs, or to give more talks, which has led to more business success — and ultimately more revenue for the businesses I own.

As a part of our series about “How You Can Grow Your Business or Brand By Writing A Book”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Alexander Graf, joint CEO of Spryker.

Alexander Graf is one of the top e-commerce minds in Germany. He is a passionate e-commerce entrepreneur — in his words “Not a digital guru; not a motivational coach; not a trend researcher” — who to date has built more than 10 companies, including Spryker Systems which he co-founded. He is also an active shareholder in a number of innovative digital companies.

Alexander’s motto is ‘Innovate or Die’ — believing businesses, especially those selling or distributing products, will not stand a chance in the future if they continue to bet their future on bricks and mortar. He is evangelical about e-commerce and marketplace selling, and warns of the risk of B2B suppliers losing direct customer access. These are themes Alexander explores via his blog, Kassenzone, now also the largest German podcast on e-commerce and digitization, which he launched in 2008, as well as in Spryker’s Commerce Talks podcasts.

In 2014, Alexander co-authored the best-selling book, The E-Commerce Book: About a channel that became an industry, with long-time colleague Holger Schneider (they continue to work together at eTribes, one of the leading digital consultancies in Germany, which Alexander co-founded in 2011).

Spryker Systems is an e-commerce leader which specializes in enabling large companies to become digital pioneers across B2B, unified commerce and B2C channels and online marketplaces.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share a story about what motivated you to become an expert in the particular area that you are writing about?

When I joined the e-commerce industry in 2005, my job description was business development and corporate development, e-commerce. Essentially I was paid to become an expert in the subject. My remit was to find out what trends/technologies/businesses would be successful in the future in e-commerce, and what this meant for my employer — Otto Group, a German mail order company (and now one of the world’s biggest e-commerce companies).

I was so intrigued that, the more I found out, the more I wanted to keep digging into the different e-commerce business models.

I then became the author of a blog, with my colleague Florian Hermsdorf — which is at the root of my books. This was in 2008, when having a blog was seen as essential if you wanted to participate in the “Web 2.0” conversation about all things related to “digital” business and e-commerce, with other industry players and thought leaders.

Can you share a pivotal story that shaped the course of your career?

Yes, this was during my role as this kind of “digital e-commerce expert” in around 2005 or 2006. One aspect of the job was to help other people from other departments — e.g. mail order or offline marketing — move into the online world; to help them understand what e-commerce meant for those functions, and those teams, something that wasn’t well understood at that time.

A colleague of mine at Otto Group, Holger Schneider (the co-author of the book), and I collected a list of tips and tricks: how to do e-commerce; how to start an online shop; etc. And this list grew bigger and bigger. By default we became a kind of library or resource for people who wanted to become online experts. It was how people came to see us — as the e-commerce experts — and over time this became an established fact. This journey — though it wasn’t planned — paved the way for where we are today.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? Are you working on any new writing projects?

Right now, a part of what I do is to exchange ideas with international thought leaders and other e-commerce experts from around the world via podcasts. Through this activity, I’ve learned a great deal about e-commerce development in other countries such as Mexico, Russia, Dubai. And it’s been eye-opening to discover how those other countries, each starting from a different point, have developed their respective e-commerce journeys.

I can definitely imagine creating the next book from 100 of these podcast interviews. It could become an international edition of our first book (about e-commerce and how the channel became an industry), looking at where we are now and what e-commerce means today. Because now it’s not just “e-commerce”: it’s more of a “platform” economy — so we could look at what this means, combining the global perspective with the local viewpoint.

Thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the core focus of our interview. Can you please tell us a bit about your book? Can you please share a specific passage or story that illustrates the main theme of your book?

The title is The E-Commerce Book: About a Channel that became an Industry, and we published the first edition in 2015.

It’s designed for people who want to understand e-commerce, and it’s full of case studies, interviews and opinions. For instance, Why is Amazon dominating the market? What happened between 1995 and 2015? Why were the incumbents like Walmart unable to fight back? What will become of the herd of new unicorn e-commerce companies? And what will happen to the traditional value chain on which retail companies operate?

Originally, e-commerce was just another sales channel — providing access to vendors’ product portfolios through a web browser. In fact the biggest problem in e-commerce 15 years ago was how to maintain an experience that worked in Firefox and Internet Explorer. It wasn’t about user journeys or different interfaces, or e-commerce as an entire industry in its own right. How this came to be, and how the industry became so dominant, that’s the theme of the book.

You are a successful author and thought leader. Which three character traits do you feel were most instrumental to your success when launching your book? Can you please share a story or example for each?

Curiosity, definitely. I’m really interested in everything; in how stuff works. When I see trade — whether on a street or in a market — I want to understand how that came about: what created this offer and demand situation, and who really earns the money here? Is it the marketplace? The owner? Is the seller or the buyer getting the best deal? How were those discounts created? Are they sustainable? Is this a situation you could expand and scale?

I carried this curiosity into e-commerce. To thrive in this industry you need to be interested in understanding why, which was an interesting business model, or why eBay, which was a sensational business model 10 years ago, is kind of failing today. Before us, no one had really tried to describe what was happening — so we had to come up with our own thoughts and ideas. And this is driven chiefly by curiosity.

Our networking capabilities are very important too, because lots of stories and content in the book came from interviews. I wrote to people asking if “the CEO from company ABC” would like to sit down and talk to us for a recorded podcast or interview because we were interested in learning about their business model. Through this process of hearing their stories, we were able to extract a lot of knowledge from other people’s heads.

The third trait, which was key to the success of the book, is customer empathy — i.e. the ability to really understand what readers needed. A lot of thought went into the title of the book, for example. It wasn’t just any old book about e-commerce — it would be “The e commerce book” — the definitive book people needed to read on the topic, and go on to recommend to others. This ability to think in terms of customer journeys has been vital to the book’s success.

In my work, I have found that writing a book can be a great way to grow a brand. Can you share some stories or examples from your own experience about how you helped your own business or brand grow by writing a book? What was the “before and after picture?” What were things like before, and how did things change after the book?

When I only had my blog or the podcast, people would refer to me as “an e-commerce expert who’s writing a blog.” Writing a successful book elevates you to somewhere between PhD and professor. My opinions counted more.

If a friend came to you and said “I’m considering writing a book but I’m on the fence if it is worth the effort and expense” what would you answer? Can you explain how writing a book in particular, and thought leadership in general, can create lucrative opportunities and help a business or brand grow?

Writing a book brings with it a new level of credibility that’s not achievable via other media formats. Even though my podcast might have millions of listeners, in our world that doesn’t count as much as being a successful author. It’s definitely helped to create my own brand: Alex, the expert, the author — instead of Alex, the blogger. Over time this has led to more invitations by CEOs, or to give more talks, which has led to more business success — and ultimately more revenue for the businesses I own.

What are the things that you wish you knew about promoting a book before you started? What did you learn the hard way? Can you share some stories about that which other aspiring writers can learn from?

I really underestimated the promotional aspects of publishing a book, assuming it was something a publishing company would take care of. But it’s actually part of the job of the writer to think about promotions. A publisher might develop a 1–2 year promotional strategy for very famous authors, but it isn’t something a first-time author can bank on — especially not a specialized author.

If it was now, I would probably start a podcast around the book, to promote it for a couple of years. I would think about a smart translation strategy, too. That might be to have a full German version and then break it down into, say, 10 smaller books, while perhaps translating chapters one and two for the English-speaking market, chapters three and four for other markets, and breaking out other chapters into more digestible pieces/ other formats — such as a podcast or a white paper.

Based on your experience, which promotional elements would you recommend to an author to cover on their own and when would you recommend engaging a book publicist or marketing expert?

My current book project is seven years old now. I’m not sure if I would work with a publishing company again. In an Amazon-dominated world, I don’t think it’s needed now, and not just because of the potential price difference. Price or earnings were never a goal, really. If we look at the book as a purely financial endeavor, it has probably turned a loss.

But if there’s a more complex distribution plan — such as translating the book into different languages — a publishing company could help accelerate the process.

Most of the successful books by German digital thought-leaders now are published under their own steam: they don’t tend to work with publishing companies. That’s because the role of the publishers is changing. And I think this “promotional XX pack” aspect — being able as the author to book, let’s say, 10 podcast guests to talk about your book — that’s the kind of activity that’s crucial now. It’s like being an entrepreneur. Being able to sell yourself, to promote yourself, to promote your idea, is almost as important as — maybe even more important than — the idea itself. I think the same is true for authors.

Wonderful. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your own experience and success, what are the “five things an author needs to know to successfully promote and market a book?” If you can, please share a story or example for each.

Well, first, you can’t be successful without Amazon. Second, you can’t be successful if you don’t have your own excellent promotional ideas. Third, you can’t be successful if your thinking is too complex. You can break it down into digestible parts — because nowadays people don’t have time to consume a book and then talk about it with a friend and to help them understand it. It can’t use specialized language: it must be able to grab the reader like a headline on the BBC web site. Fourth, be careful of involving too many stakeholders. If it’s a collective effort with lots of guest authors: it’s like breaking Brookes’ Law. Finally, think seriously about creating podcasts that work alongside your book.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we both tag them 🙂

Oh, that’s a good question! There are a couple of founders for marketplaces around the world, in particular Hiroshi Mikitani, who built the equivalent of Amazon for Japan (Rakuten) but was unsuccessful in rolling out this idea globally. He was my first podcast guest, but I’d love to have more time with him to reflect on how or why this kind of expansion didn’t work out, or what he would do differently, and also what he deems to be financially successful — as he’s worth billions of US dollars today.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

I’d encourage them to subscribe to Spryker’s Commerce Talks podcast.

Thank you for these excellent insights, and we greatly appreciate the time you spent. We wish you continued success with your book promotion and growing your brand.

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