In this episode, our host Mandy Potter interviews Kenny Trusnik, President of Forest City Digital, an eCommerce-focused marketing agency. They discuss building an e-commerce tech stack and selecting suitable platforms, payment gateways, and management systems. In addition, they talk about e-commerce challenges, misconceptions about software, and patterns seen in successful e-commerce businesses.
“Automating a back office is not a one-size-fits-all approach. You need to find the right tools and make adjustments for efficiency.” – Kenny Trusnik
“Tech stacks require ongoing monitoring and adjustments; it’s about building on the tool, not abdicating responsibility.” – Kenny Trusnik
Kenny Trusnik: Automating a back office is not always a one size fits all. You have to find the right tools and know and understand that you need to make configurations and adjustments in order to create those efficiencies and productivity, you’re not gonna buy an ERP or even Duoplane and necessarily plug and play any of those items.
Mandy Potter: Welcome to another episode of the Duoplane podcast: Navigating Ecommerce Skies, where we take a deep dive into the ever evolving world of e-commerce. Today on our show, we have Kenny Trusnik from Forest City Digital and we’re gonna be chatting about how brands can
build a tech stack to automate their back office and fulfillment. Kenny has over 10 years of experience building digital marketing and
e-commerce teams at companies like Toyota and Sherwin Williams. He has a passion for bringing marketing and technology together to create an amazing customer experience. In 2020. He started Forest City Digital with a focus on creating results-driven marketing for e-commerce businesses. Forest City’s mission is to support regional and upcoming e-commerce retailers so they can connect with people and compete with larger brands. Welcome, Kenny. It’s really exciting to have you here today.
Kenny Trusnik: I’m excited too. I appreciate you having me on, Mandy. Hey, you know, I’ve always had some great conversations. Hopefully, we can create some good value for everybody listening.
Mandy Potter: Yeah, definitely. So, where I kind of want to start this conversation is, as the founder of Forest City Digital, I want to start with a bit of background on what led you to start your own marketing agency. You know, how did you get to this point? What makes you excited about it? Why is the name Forest City Digital? Pretty much anything that you think would be interesting for people to know.
Kenny Trusnik: Yeah, so I don’t know, Forest City is a name that has always resonated with me. I’m from Cleveland, Ohio, and that was Cleveland’s first nickname back in like the 1800s. So if you ever walk through or look up Cleveland, there are tons and tons of businesses that are named Forest City: Forest City Realty, there’s a shuffleboard bar, I mean, you name it. There are a ton of Forest City businesses, but there’s no marketing agencies or anything named after it. It’s just a name that’s stuck with me. Kenny Trusnik: And it gives me a little tie back to home, which is always fun. And, you know, I really got my stumble into e-commerce. I stumbled into it at Toyota, I started as a digital marketing intern, and I really got the opportunity when I did some great work, I got asked to join a new e-commerce team over at their headquarters, and I’m like, “Yeah, that sounds like a lot of fun. Let’s give it a try.” You know, joining an e-com team at Toyota sounds fun and lo and behold, I got involved with some very complex projects and technologies going on, getting involved in marketplace technologies and all sorts of different things. B2B Commerce especially was a big piece of our value prop to what we did. And so, I stumbled into it and, you know, when we decided, my wife and I decided to move back home to Cleveland, we’re starting a family, you know, network back home in Cleveland.
Kenny Trusnik: They knew of the types of experiences I was going to have at Toyota, and they started asking me questions. Those questions really led to consulting and some freelance and side gig work, and that was really the birth of Forest City Digital back in 2020. I started about two months before the pandemic hit, and I was also working at Sherwin-Williams at the time. The pandemic hit, and everything e-commerce just exploded from that point forward. And, you know, I think, at that point in time, I think, between my experience that I’ve already had and, you know, some of the things that we were doing and what the pandemic did, it just showed me the way really, and I just, you know, followed where the path led, and it’s something that’s always been a passion of mine. So, here we are. Today, three and a half years in, we’ve got a number of e-commerce-based clients.
Kenny Trusnik: We really focus and love working with that small one to 10-million-dollar businesses that are scaling and are ready to take that next step into formalizing their marketing plan. So we almost see ourselves as an extension of their own team, which is really amazing because it makes you really care about the client, and I care about the client’s success. I believe in the rules of reciprocity. So when you do great work for them, they’re seeing growth and satisfaction and really enjoying what’s being done. You know, I get fulfillment out of that personally. And then as part of reciprocity, they want to work with you more and do more stuff, and it’s a really good give-and-take feel working with some of our clients.
Mandy Potter: That’s awesome. I’ve worked with many agencies of all different types over the last 15 years, and I feel like there’s such a big difference that the client sees in how they work with you, and a lot of it has to do with that relationship. So, you know, I’ve worked with agencies that are really, really big. There’s no personal touch. You’re always kind of talking to someone different all the time. And then I’ve worked with more boutique agencies where it feels a lot more personal, and they really do care about your business. And it’s not just about making a paycheck; it’s about them wanting to see your growth and wanting to see a change in your company. And it makes all the difference in working with different agencies.
Kenny Trusnik: Yeah, absolutely. And you always want to work with people you love to work with because it makes your days less slow and mundane. If you truly love the people you work with, it makes your life and your job so much easier.
Mandy Potter: Yeah, definitely, I 100% agree. So, I think we should give everyone a little bit of background, not too long, but a little bit of a background on the connection between yourself and Duoplane.
Kenny Trusnik: So, I actually discovered the Duoplane podcast, and it continues to prove my skepticism wrong. And yeah, that’s where we are two and a half years later.
Mandy Potter: That’s awesome. Yeah, we definitely have a great relationship, and I mean, everything comes down to relationships even with what we were just talking about. Our main goal today is to have listeners walk away with a good understanding of how to build a tech stack to automate their business. So why don’t we jump into that? And one of the questions that’s at the top of my mind right now is, what do you think are some of the most important components of a tech stack for an e-commerce business?
Kenny Trusnik: I mean, I’ll state the obvious: it’s the e-commerce platform itself. You need to find a platform that really fits the needs of your business. I mean, if you’re B2B and you’re building out customer accounts that need multiple users or doing punch-out activities or something so unique in that space, like different pricing lists, that fits a mold because you have other integrations on the backside, usually like a B2B and the connection to an ERP system and all these other things that you need to make sure the platform you choose fits that need. Whereas, if you’re a small business, a quarter-million-dollar business, half-million-dollar business, or million-dollar business, you don’t have those complexities. If you’re going direct to consumer, Shopify works and fits your needs just right. If you go internationally, you might want to consider Shopify. It really depends.
Kenny Trusnik: On what you dial in as your requirements, and if that platform can scale with you. That’s the next question. If it can grow with you, that’s another question to ask yourself: is WooCommerce scalable for this type of business? If you have 50,000 products, WooCommerce may not be the best solution for you. If you’ve got 50,000 products, maybe Magento or BigCommerce might be a better fit. So that’s really the first kind of piece that I always look at and make sure that it aligns with what you’re looking for, requirements-wise.
Kenny Trusnik: Really, the next component would be what the gateway looks like. Because there are so many different payment options, buy now pay later solutions, and fraud detection issues. I mean, it’s about the security and the sensitivity of data around your customers and clients. So, a PayPal, a Stripe, Authorize.net: will they even sign you? What? How can you protect yourself as well and protect your clients? So that’s really a big piece. We get into some of the backend stuff: order management systems, EDIAC systems.
Kenny Trusnik: Even shipping, you talk about ShipStation or Shippo. Are you shipping internationally because that plays a role in a lot of this? Or where are you shipping from? Are you working with a 3PL? These are all questions that have implications for what systems would make up your tech stack. Essentially, you really need to dial in: are you drop shipping? Are you self-fulfilling? Are you going to be a 3PL shop? Or a combination of those three? Because they have implications for what type of software should be in your tech stack. You might work with a ShipBob and a 3PL, or if you’re self-fulfilling out of your basement, garage, or warehouse, you’re going to want to use ShipStation to quickly manage all of your shipping events.
Kenny Trusnik: And then the last piece is, as you’re growing, you’re dealing with customer relationships, so a CRM of some sort is really important. I like Gorgias a lot. I can connect a lot of shops into a single version of it and manage multiple sites. There are other platforms out there and help centers that you can build up. Those would be the core components of building a tech stack, in my opinion. And do all of those integrate with each other? Do they work well together?
Mandy Potter: So, some of those components that you’re talking about are going to work more for new businesses. You think about payment gateways, shopping carts, that sort of thing. If we’re talking about e-commerce brands that are already established, you know, they’re already doing X number in revenue, so many purchase orders, that sort of thing. What types of things do you think they would want to consider to sort of get themselves to that next step of scalability?
Kenny Trusnik: Well, I mean, if you want to talk back office, what does their ERP look like? Do they have an ERP system to help them manage inventory planning, forecasting, financials, and support that? I mean, there’s obviously QuickBooks, which is probably the most well-known connected accounting software out there. But, you know, are you going to be a Microsoft Dynamics user? How complex is your product? Are you sourcing and doing product development because, you know, an ERP solution would probably be the next step as a scaling business to better manage back office and automate some of that stuff. Because a lot of time it gets neglected, and I see that quite often. But, you know, inventory planning, as you take on more orders.
Kenny Trusnik: Usually, I see the new shops and smaller shops tend to be more manually processed, and they’re dropshipping, and then they kind of catch some traction. They start inventorying stuff themselves to improve their margins and their bottom line. So, where does inventory planning and purchasing come into play, really? And how does that work with your existing dropship model? It’s kind of a roundabout way of answering your question, but it’s almost a loaded question because it really depends. If you’re a scaling, growing business and you have this intro suite of software already established, you have to follow the direction of where your business is going and where those needs are. ERP is usually almost the last piece that people think about, but it’s going to be the most important part for your business to scale.
Kenny Trusnik: So, payment processing, inventory management system, logistics software, and integration into your different accounts, the CRM platform. I think a marketing automation platform would definitely be a key role in retention-based strategies. If you go international, international software to help you manage currencies and language translation is going to be key components. And then the back-office order management software, you know, in that case, dropshipping OMS or an ERP to process orders down to your warehouse and then inventory tracking on the backside for your warehouse.
Mandy Potter: Perfect. So, when going down this route of doing this research, what are some of the common challenges that e-commerce businesses could face when it comes to automating their back office and their fulfillment processes?
Kenny Trusnik: A big part of that is the one-size-fits-all mentality. I think people have this misconception that there are software solutions specific for very specific use cases or industries. So, you know, automating a back office isn’t always a one-size-fits-all situation; you need to find the right tools and understand that you need to make configurations and adjustments to create efficiencies and productivity. You’re not going to buy a Sage 500 ERP or even, Duoplane, you’re not just going to be able to make that necessarily plug and play with any of those items.
Kenny Trusnik: You have to make adjustments within the platform to create efficiency and invest time into making it work for you. That’s really a challenge I think a lot of people face when they implement a new tool; they expect it to have immediate benefits, but it only has those benefits when you invest the time to make the system work for you.
Mandy Potter: I completely agree with that. We’ve actually been talking a lot internally about this topic, as there are so many different unique challenges that e-commerce businesses face. To solve those challenges, it isn’t a plug-and-play or one-size-fits-all solution. So when using something like a planner or any other software, you have to come with the expectation that it’s going to take a while to set it up because you want to set it up properly for your business and your unique challenges. I think it’s really cool that you brought that up because, as I said, we’ve been discussing this quite a bit internally.
Kenny Trusnik: It’s hard to think of software as being adaptive like that. It’s not a set and forget situation; it’s a set it and monitor, check, update, and refresh. If you’re not staying on top of it, it could go stale and cause issues. I just came across this the other day, where a SKU never got updated. I started processing orders down to a vendor, and it was shipping out the wrong product because I never got the right mappings in place myself. That was on me, not the system. It’s still working the way it was set up to, but I didn’t make those adjustments. It’s a hard concept to wrap your head around, but as soon as you see that tool as something to build on, not as a tool to abdicate responsibility, it makes it more powerful to you because you can really make it work for you.
Mandy Potter: Definitely, and on the other spectrum of setting it and forgetting it, there are also those people who have a hard time trusting software. They might have made the decision to automate something in their business, get an app, and even pay for it, but they still do everything manually every single day. What sort of advice or tips would you give to someone in that situation, where they feel uncomfortable letting the software do what it’s supposed to do because they’re so used to doing things manually and knowing exactly what’s going on with every single order? How can they let go of that control and trust the software?
Kenny Trusnik: I think I used to deal with this in the material handling industry, which is generally older. It comes back to what your time is worth. First and foremost, you’re spending all this time doing something that could be so simply done with technology. You could be spending half a day on it. What’s that half day worth for you, your company, and your people? That’s the message you want to get across – what’s the value of having those four hours back? Or someone on your team doing it manually, right?
Kenny Trusnik: What’s their time worth, and what else could they be doing that could add value to your company? Part of it is a money game. You might not want to pay for the software and then invest time, but what’s that software and time worth over a six-month or 12-month period? Technology has come such a long way; it’s ready to be configured and easily set up. You can go through a checklist sometimes, run down the list, get it set up, and it’s done. You just have to monitor and make adjustments. You shouldn’t be spending time on menial tasks when you have technology at your disposal like that. That’s really what it comes down to.
Mandy Potter: Definitely. And so, this brings me to another question: what are some of the benefits of automating these processes? You know, you’ve already talked about a couple just now, but in terms of cost-saving and efficiency, what are some of the benefits to automation?
Kenny Trusnik: One benefit is that you remove human error. Systems can have errors, but humans can make even more errors without checks and balances. Reducing the amount of errors and manual intervention creates efficiencies and cost savings over time if you do it right. You can also scale a business with automation, which saves on overhead. However, there are some potential trade-offs, such as losing personalized touches when working with vendors. Although you can add some personalization with tools like Klaviyo and feature snippets, sometimes you do lose a bit of that human contact, which can make the process feel stale.
Mandy Potter: Yeah, we discuss this all the time at Duoplane. Automation makes your day-to-day easier, but one of our main values is personalization and empathy, which can be challenging to maintain with automation. We believe in trying to strike a balance between automation and manual processes. For example, in customer support, we always have a live person responding to customers even if we don’t have the answer right away. So, how can e-commerce brands balance automation for scalability and growth while maintaining personal connections with customers and keeping retention high?
Kenny Trusnik: It’s really about starting small and identifying the basics that can be automated without losing touchpoints with vendors or customers. If you’re uncomfortable with automation, begin with smaller tasks and gradually progress. Understand the nuances of your business and what can be easily automated while maintaining personal touches and relationship aspects. As you get more comfortable, you can take bigger leaps with automation, but there will always be a need for human touch and relationships to elevate your e-commerce brand.
Mandy Potter: So, would you say there are different tiers of importance when it comes to building out your tech stack? Like, when you think about your back-end and fulfillment, are those things that you should maybe start with automating before addressing aspects that touch customers more frequently and need a more personalized touch?
Kenny Trusnik: In my opinion, the back office is definitely the most important aspect. It involves order processing, payments, and paying vendors. If you can’t automate some of those routine tasks, as a small business, you won’t scale and be profitable. So, focusing on the back office, where there’s less personalization, makes sense. A lot of that can go untouched on a day-to-day basis with monitoring.
Kenny Trusnik: On the other hand, for customer service, you may want to bring on one or two customer service reps that are on call at all times to answer questions and make it feel like someone’s there in your corner. Small business is no longer just brick and mortar; it’s transitioning into the e-commerce space rapidly. What makes the difference between an Amazon and your business is not the first-day shipping, but rather the personal touch, human interaction, and connection you make as a brand with your customers. So, you want to put the emphasis on that human relationship.
Kenny Trusnik: Really, what makes the difference between an Amazon and your business is not the first-day shipping. It’s the personal touch, human interaction, and the connection you make as a brand with your customers. That’s the value-add that you create and why people would buy from you instead of, say, Amazon, Walmart, or Target. So, you want to put the emphasis on that human relationship.
Mandy Potter: I’d love to hear some examples of successful e-commerce businesses that you think have implemented a tech stack in a really good way.
Kenny Trusnik: I’ve got a couple of clients that I’m now starting to model after. One is in the automotive industry, focusing on off-road and performance auto parts. They’re a small boutique shop, not large. They focus on lighting and different types of components for products. They have the right tech stack, including e-commerce platforms and customer service tools. They put a huge emphasis on customer service and building relationships with their clientele.
Kenny Trusnik: By putting more of their human capital towards customer service, they’re out in industry-specific forums and interacting with clients and prospects all day long. On the back end, they have a product information management system and automated product data management, as well as order flow management for both dropship and self-fulfillment. They’re scaling a seven-figure business with just three people on their team, which is impressive. They process hundreds of orders a month. I think they are a prime example of putting emphasis on the human touch and relationship while minimizing or creating efficiencies in the back end where it’s not necessarily interacting with the client.
Mandy Potter: I wonder if there’s a formula that can be created for implementing a tech stack in e-commerce businesses, whether it’s industry-based or company size-based. I feel like so many companies have unique needs, especially in e-commerce.
Kenny Trusnik: I think there is, but I call them frameworks. The more I work with different e-commerce businesses and industries, I see successful clients with similar approaches and mindsets in how they stack their technologies and make them work together. There are definitely strategies and synergies in how they approach client-facing relationships versus scaling their operational aspects. While the framework might not be the same for every business, there are general principles that can be applied across industries.
Mandy Potter: Are there any other examples that you could give for our listeners today of what you’ve seen that has proven successful versus, you know, maybe you’ve come across companies where you’re like, “Oh, that’s definitely not working. They probably shouldn’t be doing it that way. This is negatively affecting their business because of A, B, C.”
Kenny Trusnik: Yeah, I’ve come across some clients I won’t typically take on, like those who use Sprocket, Oberlo, type of shops. It’s kind of a cop-out way, and there’s nothing to it. There’s no meat, no branding, no people connectors that allow you to add products to your catalog, no curation involved, no offering tied, no niche that they’re targeting. That’s a formula for failure, in my opinion. That’s trying to make a quick win and a quick buck when, in reality, you’re not catering to an audience that resonates. I’ve got another client in the perfume space, a very small shop, but they do direct-to-consumer.
Kenny Trusnik: A big aspect of what makes them successful is they know their niche. They’re a high-end luxury brand that doesn’t sell high volumes. That’s not who they are, but they sell the status of their product. They have a simple approach where they have automation, a small warehouse, and pick, pack, and ship all over the world. They put the emphasis on status, customer service, and answering every call and comment on social media like it’s actually them doing it, not some VA trying to drive that home. I don’t know if that answers your question, but I can go down a rabbit hole on that.
Mandy Potter: Yeah, it definitely does. We see similar things with some of our most successful clients. They usually have a niche, and there’s generally some sort of connection or passion they have for it. Beyond that, we see them putting a lot of emphasis on their customer support and their customers’ happiness, and then automating back-end processes that are too manual and taking up too much of their time, which is why they’re using Duoplane.
Kenny Trusnik: I can’t stress it enough; I hate the notion that people say e-commerce is easy. Just buy Shopify for $30 a month, connect to Oberlo, add a bunch of products, and watch them sell. That doesn’t work. There’s nothing about that that works. It’s not that easy. If you’re starting an e-commerce business, treat it like one. Know your audience, find the brands that resonate with them, and bring them into the fold. It may not cost a fortune, but it costs a lot of your time, and that’s what people need to understand. It’s not just adding a couple of apps, adding some products, buying a theme, and making it pretty. There are business implications that you need to consider, and it drives me nuts when people say e-commerce is easy. No, it’s not.
Mandy Potter: Definitely, it takes hard work. What are some of the biggest takeaways you want brands to hear today when they’re thinking about their tech stack?
Kenny Trusnik: I think the biggest takeaway is when you set up your tech stack, it needs to scale and grow with you. At the very beginning, I mentioned finding even the right e-commerce platform depends on what you want to do. It’s about finding the right technologies that meet your needs, making sure they’re set up and working properly. At the end of the day, no tool is going to be plug-and-play. You need to put some work into it to make it work for you, but to make sure you have a successful and sustainable tech stack that can scale with you, do your due diligence. Find the right tools, research, and make sure it makes sense for your business. Don’t buy something because it’s cheap or because somebody recommended it to you. Do your homework; it’ll pay dividends for you in the long run.
Mandy Potter: Definitely, I agree. Well, thank you so much for joining us today. It was a pleasure to speak with you and talk about tech stacks, and I think all the listeners today will definitely learn something.
Kenny Trusnik: Likewise, I appreciate it, Mandy.
Mandy Potter: You can find Kenny and more information at ForestCityDigital.net, and as always, you can check out the Duoplane podcast at duoplane.com. You can find us and subscribe wherever you listen to your podcast and we will catch you next time on the Duoplane podcast.
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