Build Beyond: Sui’s Place in the Commerce Tech Stack

A conversation with Director of Commerce Product Lola Oyelayo-Pearson about the value of internet-ready blockchain

Build Beyond: Sui’s Place in the Commerce Tech Stack

Recently we sat down with Lola Oyelayo-Pearson, Director of Commerce Product at Mysten Labs, to talk about the ways blockchain tech can serve commerce enterprises and why Sui is particularly well-suited to those use cases.

Let’s start with a short introduction to you, your role, and how you found yourself in Web3.

I head up the commerce product team at Mysten Labs. To be honest, commerce is everything. It's probably at the root of most things; it goes across gaming, retail, loyalty, travel, ticketing, you name it, it's commerce.

I think this is my sixth year messing around in the land of blockchain. I first got into it about 2017. I had taken about 14 months out to have my child and I was preparing to come back to work. And I wanted to work on interesting, difficult, challenging tech stacks. I’d spent a long time as part of the leadership team of an agency so I felt really good about where I'd gotten in that part of my career. I wanted to look for unsolved problems. I didn't want to sell another “Let's build you a company homepage,” or “Let's do another retail checkout page.” I kind of felt like there were solved problems online and I wanted to work on unsolved problems. Through mutual friends, I gravitated towards blockchain and had an amazing rollercoaster of an experience getting to know blockchain. A lot of it was like WTF.

My background is in user experience. So I very much optimize for the lowest common denominator. What's the simplest way for me to understand what this is? I found that the information available on blockchain then, as it is now, is a trash heap. Most of it's incredibly confusing, a lot of it is very financialized. Eventually I found my way into believing in the problems that blockchain solves. People describe blockchain as a solution looking for a problem. I actually feel like it has a very clear problem, which is asset ownership and digital agency. We don't have that in what you would typically class as Web2. My data does not belong to me, my behavior online does not belong to me, it belongs to the companies I interact with.

Blockchain turns that on its head and my transactions are mine. My assets are mine. My outcomes are mine. Also, I was really interested in the privacy implications of some blockchain tech. I've always been really into zero knowledge and the idea of how you enable things you’re used to doing online in such a way that it's easier for somebody to protect their privacy than it is to give it up. Zero knowledge felt like a really interesting proposition. So I kind of fell in love with blockchain in 2017, but funding got pulled from the startup I worked for so I went and did other things, while staying close to the blockchain world. I was finally able to come back to blockchain this year with my current role.

I've always been really into zero knowledge and the idea of how you enable things you’re used to doing online in such a way that it's easier for somebody to protect their privacy than it is to give it up.

I like blockchain, not as a separate thing that you do, but as a type of infrastructure that makes the internet better as a whole. And Sui is actually capable of that. It’s internet-ready infrastructure. I think a lot of the other blockchains are great, but they're so much slower, so much more expensive. So much less enterprise ready. Whereas I believe that Sui has much more potential to serve all of that with ease. I'm really invested in Sui proving my own personal hypothesis about what blockchain can do for the internet in general.

With enterprises that are well established in Web2, how do you get them to think creatively about the problems they're having in their business and how blockchain is the solution?

Let's ground this in the commerce mindset. In commerce, we talk a lot about funnels. At any given time, if I attract 100 people in to the top of my funnel, some of those will drop off, a bunch of people will engage a little bit deeper, and then there’ll be drop off, and then at the bottom of my funnel will be those people who convert, those people who actually buy or take the action that I really need them to do. That funnel game is the fundamental tenet of any commerce business. Whether you're a cinema or a shoe retailer, you are trying to get as many people in at the top of that funnel as possible so that with the natural drop off that occurs as many people end up at the bottom of the funnel and convert.

I'll give you an example. Top of funnel is a really complicated place because that's basically where advertising lives. You're trying to attract as many people as possible to learn about your business, learn about your product, and be engaged with your brand. My previous role was at Shopify, and Shopify is kind of like the small business advocate. Their entire mission is around making more and more people entrepreneurs and giving people this agency to define their own business and destiny. The biggest challenge that every entrepreneur on Shopify faces is the challenge of acquiring customers. It's how do I tell my story? How do I find people who want to buy what I'm selling? How do I adapt the way I'm selling to suit the people who might be somewhat interested in me? How do I do that consistently over time, so that even if I get like, one random great week, I can actually build on that next week. These are perennial challenges for a small business. But those challenges have been made really, really hard on the internet right now for a bunch of different reasons.

First and foremost is the question of privacy. Web2, and the internet, went down this rabbit hole of saying, “I need to gather as much data about you as possible in order to advertise to you.” I remember in my early internet days, there was a lot of hyper personalization and making you feel like you're having this very special experience when you interact with sites. The problem was the only way to do that was gathering and holding a lot of very personal and private information. Therefore a trade began in selling this information, and so the advertising world is kind of addicted to buying private data. This is where we got GDPR, and the CCPA in California, and all of these rules that are designed to protect the individual from having their private information shared without their consent or even collected without their consent. Now, the unfortunate implication of that is, the quality of data available to build a customer pipeline has also gone down. So whereas before I could literally buy your gender, name, and home address with high confidence from a reseller, I actually can't buy that information anymore. So I'm now guessing about those things, or I'm trying to infer that data. And that's the vacuum that's allowed Google and Facebook, for example, to dominate because they have applications that give them a right to collect that data. They have become the only places where you can go and advertise in order to find new customers.

At Shopify, for example, Apple changed their privacy rules so that on iOS devices, on iPhones, we observed a huge decrease in the sales being made by Shopify merchants because so many of them had relied on Facebook ads based on data being collected through your mobile phone. Without intending to, Apple basically killed the marketing pipelines at the top-of-funnel for thousands and thousands of small businesses. These are not like huge brands that have million dollar budgets. We're talking about your side hustle or the store around the corner that wants to target somebody in their neighborhood.

So the question is how can a blockchain contribute to that data ecosystem and use zero knowledge techniques to serve information about people's behavior back into the internet. But not by sharing private information. Zero knowledge allows one to be smarter about verifying facts. And Sui’s speed and scalability enables it to be the right place for solutions which use zero knowledge to serve real-time internet queries.

How do I tell my story? How do I find people who want to buy what I'm selling? How do I adapt the way I'm selling? How do I do that consistently over time? These are perennial challenges for a small business. But those challenges have been made really, really hard on the internet right now.

Not everything is solved, but pretty much in the same way that the entire online advertising world was built in the early 2000s as we saw behavior come online, right now we can see that something can be built here using blockchains that helps bring the cost of customer acquisition down.

You could argue a lot of blockchains offer zero knowledge proofs. The reason I think that Sui stands out is because Sui can serve that at internet speeds with predictable costs. If you're on a volatile blockchain where the more demand, the higher the gas fees, you would not build a data pipeline because you can't control your costs, whereas you can do that on Sui.

Here’s another example, loyalty. Every time I come across a company wanting my email address, I think  what are you doing for me to make me feel good? Why should I be loyal? With digital asset ownership, you can give me something that belongs to me forever, it could update, it could change, it could evolve. Sui’s ability to serve dynamic, composable NFTs (at internet speeds and low cost) means that suddenly, a loyalty program can mean more to customers, it can actually give more than just more emails and discount codes.

It’s about adding this technology to your tech stack for things that you're trying to do within your broader business model.

It is honestly my belief that Sui is a type of blockchain that just becomes a must have in your tech stack. The era of cloud computing basically introduced us to this idea of being able to stand up capacity really, really quickly. And now if you're a business, and you're starting tomorrow, or you're investing in your infrastructure, you absolutely are including cloud computing because you would be stupid not to. I see Sui as an era of blockchain that you would think of in the same way. That there are going to be things that are only possible, or only safe to do, with a blockchain like Sui, therefore it would be ridiculous to try and do it any other way. Sui is new to the game. It needs partners willing to build and go on that journey with us.

In many ways, what you are describing is the other side of the coin of what one typically thinks about with blockchain, building a Web3 business.

It's interesting. The distinction between Web2 and Web3 is only useful in helping to describe the difference between blockchain tech versus standard infra internet tech. There will come a point when it's an irrelevant distinction, because we're not trying to create an internet that you go to, we're just trying to make the internet you're already on that much better for everyone involved. The win-win should be a little bit clearer for everyone, including the end user, and saying Web2, Web3, helps you describe that distinction right now. But at some point in the future, we're just talking about the internet and generalized internet behaviors and activities and what becomes a norm.

We're not trying to create an internet that you go to, we're just trying to make the internet you're already on that much better for everyone involved.

What role do end users have in understanding the value of decentralized tech and blockchain as it pertains to their own privacy? Do you expect they will demand it from businesses or more that they will begin to receive the benefit once the businesses are ready to provide it?

All of the above. Let's start with that decentralized tech stack. The incredible thing about having a decentralized blockchain with this kind of capability is you get that participation from many people to make it true. You have a lot of people invested in its success, not just the company that started it, and not just the investors who invested in it, you have all of the participants. And that collective investment in an outcome, we have seen that be the fundamental basis of successful open source technology for years. But there's always been this idea that if something is open source, it can’t make people money. What blockchain does is it says you can make money within this open source culture because decentralized tech stacks allow you to do both of those things, specifically blockchain ones. A bunch of people will care deeply about validators, staking, node operations, all of those economies that need to be active and working really, really well, for a blockchain network to be stable and globally available. Another group of users will just care a lot about what it means for their activities.

Then I think we'll get another group of people who honestly couldn't give a toss whether it was blockchain or something else. They just want really good loyalty programs. They want really safe experiences online. They want to feel like they can trust companies to not do bad things with their information. And they want to feel like they have access to experiences and value propositions that serve them. So they want to buy a hat and have that concept of ownership reflected in a way that means something to them. They want to engage in a loyalty program that really goes with them wherever they go so it doesn't just live inside this tiny box or if they've scratched this particular voucher or whatever. You're gonna get the entire spectrum of users invested in this if blockchain achieves its potential.

That's kind of how the internet is today. You have some people who are super technical and deep in the weeds, and then you have your grandparents who just need a smartphone with a very large font. They're excited that they can do stuff on the phone that they physically used to have to go to a bank or a travel agent for. Sui will serve every single one of those.

And I also think, ultimately, a bunch of people will feel much safer with the choices that they're offered, even when they're not trying to engage technically. Then the expectation will be that this is the default. My privacy is offered to me as a default. Any applications that aren't offering me that, well, they must be dodgy. Because why aren't you offering me that? We'll just pivot the conversation to a point where the individual has more options. And I think that's a net good, ultimately.

What are you most excited about for the future of Sui?

zkLogin is incredibly exciting to me. Sui will offer a primitive that allows you to use what most people consider to be a sensible pattern of logging in, using my email to log in or my existing account somewhere else. You get access to the chain, but Sui takes away the need to remember keys or forgetting the private key for this transaction. Those really high stakes requirements go away.

That's a really powerful step forward in being able to say Sui can onboard a billion users to blockchain. It’s exciting to see that brought to life and the work being done to make it easy for non-blockchain businesses to exploit that capability. And we'll see what use cases emerge as more and more people adopt it.