Many companies have information about their products scattered across multiple departments and stored in a hodgepodge of spreadsheets, databases, and content management systems. Bost0n-based startup Salsify has created content management software designed to bring all that product-level information together in one cloud-based system. Not only does a centralized approach make it easier for companies to collaborate, it also makes it easier to customize and publish the data to ecommerce channels such as Amazon and eBay.
I recently interviewed Salsify’s Rob Gonzalez. The co-founder of Salsify talks about his vision for creating a platform where manufacturers and retailers can collaborate around content.
“We Make It Easy to Customize Content”
Content Ping: Why did you decide to start Salsify?
Rob Gonzalez: My co-founders and I had spent many years working at Endeca, which powers the search and navigation for about half of the top 500 e-commerce sites. We all knew that good, consistent product information is critical to having effective site search and navigation, and a large part of many e-commerce deployments is spent preparing data for exactly that. You have to make sure that your category taxonomy makes sense, and that any property you’d like to navigate by is consistent across all products. Today, this work is basically drudgery done by mostly by IT with input from the marketing team.
Existing systems have this religion about “one version of the truth,” which just isn’t how the world works.
Anyway, there weren’t any really good tools out there in which marketers could enter, clean, normalize, and publish data to their own sites without going through months-long processes with IT, let alone customize content for sites downstream like Amazon or other distributors. So we felt that if you could make this task of collecting and preparing product content easy enough for marketers to use, and then also give them the ability to add new attributes whenever needed, that it would make managing an effective ecommerce site and downstream distribution channels so much easier.
Content Ping: What are the specific problems with how content is managed?
Rob Gonzalez: The biggest one is simply staging customized versions of your product content for different audiences. You need SEO-optimized content for your own ecommerce site, and you need consistent product attribute data for search and navigation. However, you also need different versions of product content for downstream channels, like Amazon or other distributors. Your site might need a 2,000-character product description, but eBay limits you to 1,000. Your site might use PNGs but some distributor only deals with JPGs. There are a million one-offs like this that happen.
So while you’d like a single place to manage all product content, you still need to be able to easily customize it for every usage. Existing systems have this religion about “one version of the truth,” which just isn’t how the world works.
Right now most manufacturers are just passing Excel spreadsheets all over the place. They’ll have 3,000 or 4,000 products and they’re keeping track of all the product data using a different spreadsheet for every single use case or channel. They might have an ERP [enterprise resource planning] system or centralized PIM [product information management] or bespoke database, but almost no one actually has all data in just one place. There’s some product data—typically that written by marketing—that exists in a spreadsheet somewhere, and other product data in back end systems managed by IT, and then maybe a shared folder with all the product images, and no place where you can get everything.
We really want marketers to have control over their own data. They can upload and download data using spreadsheets and edit everything right in their browser.
So at some point keeping track of this information becomes miserable, but people still do it anyway since there’s no great alternative.
Content Ping: How is Salsify going to fix that problem for its clients?
Rob Gonzalez: First of all, our tool offers collaborative product data management. It allows a bunch of different people to edit product information in real time and share it with each other. We built Salsify so that you wouldn’t need to have a technical background to use it; we really want marketers to have control over their own data. They can upload and download data using spreadsheets and edit everything right in their browser.
For many people, simply being able to have their data in one place for just one website is enough value, and some of our early customers are just using us as an easy-to-use cloud-based PIM system, which we’re excited about.
For those who publish their products to many channels, we make it easy to create new attributes and define custom data feeds for each downstream audience.
Content Ping: But it doesn’t really eliminate the copy and pasting, does it? People still need to get the information into your database.
Rob Gonzalez: What we optimize for is to make it super easy for people to get product data from any shape at all into the system. We don’t put requirements on data types or field lengths. If you have a big spreadsheet, you can just drag it in and the product information is imported immediately. You can also add pieces of data separately. For example, you can upload product data from your ERP system and then marketing copy from Excel separately and it will be joined together in Salsify.
Once the basic data is in, if you need add new attributes, just add them. You can edit the stuff that’s there.
Content Ping: And then can you just push the data out in a format that works for retailers?
Our big vision is to create a product content hub where brands, manufacturers, distributors, and retailers are all collaborating in real time all through the entire supply chain.
Rob Gonzalez: Yes, you can pick and choose which attributes you want to include for each of the downstream channels. For example, Amazon’s Health and Beauty department has a specific spreadsheet, so you can tailor the export to fit those requirements.
Content Ping: How do you see retailers interacting with Salsify?
Rob Gonzalez: Our big vision is to create a product content hub where brands, manufacturers, distributors, and retailers are all collaborating in real time all through the entire supply chain. Retailers can pull the data they need from manufacturers and distributors and easily map it into the format they need for their own sites.
For example, if I’m a stroller manufacturer, when I get a new model out, I add the product information to Salsify. A product manager at Babies R Us would get a notification that the new stroller was available. If they had a drop-shipping arrangement on the supply chain end, Babies R Us could hit a single button and get the product on the website. We’re talking about new product introduction across a supply chain instantly.
Content Ping: So can Salsify automate getting product data on a website?
Rob Gonzalez: Currently, if you’re a company and you’re using a Magento platform solution for your site, it does work automatically. For other sites, there’s an extra manual step, or your technical team can pretty easily call our REST API to get the data required for the site.
Content Ping: The kind of product information we’ve been talking about is structured data of the sort that fits easily into a database. How does unstructured content, such as enhanced product descriptions, fit into what you’re doing?
Rob Gonzalez: Our system is a product content management system. We can store more than just the attributes about the product, we can also store files about a product like images, whitepapers, and datasheets.
Rob is a co-founder of Salsify.com. The content management software makes it easy to collaboratively organize, share, and publish all product content for ecommerce. Salsify’s Rob Gonzalez previously worked at Endeca, which popularized faceted browsing on ecommerce sites around the globe and was purchased in 2012 by Oracle for just over $1 billion.