Build a Foundation or a House of Cards

Learn how to avoid the strong possibility of building a house of cards and instead lay a solid foundation for your store. 

Shopify house of cards

The ability to move rapidly on a platform like Shopify is one of its greatest strengths. Being able to literally (we've done it before) build and launch and get your first sale in a single day is an amazing state for the industry to be in for aspiring merchants. 

Shopify can get you started stupidly quickly. It will allow you to test ideas without hundreds of hours of design & dev time, nor wheelbarrows full of cash. But —and it's a big but— it can also set quite a skewed precedent and can create fairly unrealistic expectations going forward.

The store I mention in the first paragraph was in fact, without any deceit, built and launched in a single day. It included a single digital product and had a single payment method (Paypal). It got a single sale on the day of launch (not by the owner's proud mother) and thankfully following that string of singles, it has actually done fairly well. It allowed the merchant to test the idea and luckily for them the experiment worked and many, many more hours of design, development and marketing and refinement followed.

If they hadn't, it would have likely remained a string of singles.

Bootstrapped Ecommerce

Bootstrap (verb)
Start up (an Internet-based business or other enterprise) with minimal financial resources.

We're big advocates of bootstrapping in business (and we don't mean the framework that makes every site look like this). Especially so when the idea is in it's infancy or the brand is just dipping their toes into this exciting digital sales channel.

Market research can only take you so far. Getting your wares in front of your potential customers and allowing them to vote with their money is —I believe— the only true litmus test to prove your concept.

Unless you're an existing brand with a strong, unique visual identity or there are some very specific requirements around how things need to work or be presented on the store for the venture to be given a fair trial; making use of Shopify's best practice based pre-mades is likely the wisest choice. The way Shopify works in terms of products, collections, cart and checkout; they're tried and tested.

At the time of writing this, over 400,000 merchants are using the Shopify platform every day. Since Shopify's success is directly tied to their merchant's success, with that sort of data you can be fairly safe in the assumption that Shopify are doing things how they need to be done to promote conversion.

Is your business bootstrappable?

Is that even a word? Regardless, deciding whether or not your business concept is one you can go about without bringing in investors or pumping all your hard earned savings into is an extremely worthwhile thing to do.

If you do need to invest in a unique design or some special functionality to your store, then bootstrapping may not be the right approach. If you're selling —how you probably should be— in a manner that is recognizable to your buyers both in presentation and workflow then it is most certainly an option. 

With the assumption that you don't have an experienced internal designer/developer capable of manhandling Shopify to do your bidding, some considerations:

  1. Do you have an existing brand to which the look and feel of the store absolutely has to match? If yes, bootstrapping may not be for you as you'll need to either highly customize a ready made theme or create one from scratch. Argentum Apothecary are a perfect example of this.
    Argentum Apothecary
  2. Do you have very specific and non-standard ways in which your customers need to view and or buy your product? If yes, then bootstrapping may not be for you since you'll be embarking on a software design and development project that will require specialized skill, time and of course budget. This product page we created for CanvasIt is a perfect example of this.
    CanvasIt Custom Product Page
  3. Are you competing on aspects other than uniqueness? Something like superior customer service, better price, or similar? If so, you could consider bootstrapping as an approach and put together a lean mean transacting machine.
  4. Are you able to conduct a proof-of-concept storefront to begin with? One that you can expand upon or develop on top of it at a later stage once the revenue is there? Then yes, bootstrapping is very likely a viable approach for you.

So, to summarize, bootstrapping an ecommerce business with Shopify is certainly possible and may very well be the wisest approach for your store. On the flipside, should your needs dictate it, Shopify is still capable, but you may need to dig a little deeper into your pockets to achieve what you require. Possibly to the same degree or maybe a bit less so than with other ecommerce platforms, but should things need to be custom, there will very likely be unavoidable cost and time implications to consider and cater for.

So, what about these cards then?

Bringing this post back on-topic, I'll explain what I mean by the title of this article. Are you building a house of cards, or are you laying a solid foundation for your ecommerce business?

So often we see merchants that have built their stores based on either bad advice or misconceptions about what is important. I believe that going into something like an ecommerce business, you need to do so with your eyes wide open.

Whether you're selecting a theme or deciding on a theming approach for your store (free, premium or custom), deciding on certain apps or additional functionality or even at a more fine grained level; how the navigation and collections are built, it's good to have at least a high level understanding of what you're dealing with.

Theming your store the right way

Theming —for the uninitiated— is the process of applying the frontend (not just the look) to the store. This includes the entire UX (user experience) of the storefront which means that it covers both how it looks and the logic behind how each user interaction works and reacts to their input.

Some things to watch out for when choosing and building out your store from a theming perspective:

  1. What does your business' storefront need in terms of functionality? Does the default functionality of the theme(s) you're looking at cover your needs or will you have to bring a developer into the mix? Think things like workflows or any specific requirements perhaps relating to tax, how or how many items need to be added to the cart in a single click etc.
  2. What does your business' storefront need in terms of visual uniqueness? Are you able to choose the theme that best presents your product and roll with it or do you need to make some customizations to the theme to make it fit? Perhaps your requirements are so unique that you actually need a custom theme designed and developed.

Always remember that a custom built theme will —if built properly— almost always be leaner and faster than a premium bought one. This is simply due to the fact that fewer things need to be catered for since the theme is being built for a single use case requiring fewer settings and options than one catering for as many merchants as possible. One caveat being that often seasoned ecommerce merchants will opt for the premium theme approach since there simply are more options, settings and toggles in a premium theme and making use of them is far quicker and cheaper than having them designed and developed from scratch.

Premium theme developers are building their themes for the masses... a custom theme will be built only for your store so things like menus with 20+ fonts to choose from would be redundant and likely put you in negative ROI if you were to task your developer with going to this level of detail.

Whichever type of theming approach you decide on, make sure you follow best practice, specifically in the following three areas from lowest level to highest level:

  1. Theming best practice - Build it properly from the start. If it's a premium bought theme, follow the advice of the developers that made it. Consume their documentation and try not to customize it into oblivion. If it's a custom theme, plan it properly, make sure you have a competent (experienced) team designing and building the theme and realize that it is actually a custom software project in itself so treat it as such (version control, impeccable communication with the team etc.) and you should be ok. As much as some people seem to wish it into reality, I'm yet to see an inexperienced team or individual build a solid, futureproof, stable, reliable, responsive and ultimately performing custom solution. They don't need to be Shopify veterans, but without at least solid HTML, CSS and JavaScript skills, you're lining up a world of hurt and a house of cards that'll topple at a single gust of wind.
  2. Shopify best practice - As mentioned before, Shopify kinda know what they're doing. Their business model rests heavily on the success of their merchant clients and there is no reason for them to implement or change something that jeopardizes their bottom line. Being publicly traded now too, they are further pressed to perform and you can rest assured that things like optimization of the checkout process is paramount to their performance and therefore the way it is for very good reasons. Often in the web and especially in ecommerce it is very possible to give a man enough rope to hang himself. Sometimes restraints are good and we're all better off for it. Hacking the platform to make it do something it's not intended for is not in anyone's best interest. Do your homework and establish that what you need is condusive to the platform, the way it works, and proceed knowing that not only are you on the right platform, but the solution will be one you can grow with and into.
  3. Ecommerce best practice - Lastly and most importantly, if you want to succeed in this medium, make use of the knowledge that has been acquired and shared by your predecessors. Learn all you can about what makes online stores convert better, provide seamless, easy online shopping and ultimately succeed. A great book on the topic is Steve Krug's Don't Make Me Think which should drive the point home if I haven't.

“Don't make me think” 
—Steve Krug

If you follow best practice in these areas, you'll be laying a solid foundation for your online business. You can focus on other things like driving traffic, making enhancements to improve conversion, increase average spend, and implementing other measures that drive the business forward.

Don't trip over them apps

As you probably already know, Shopify apps are an incredible thing. They extend the functionality of your store with almost limitless potential and ability. They're also —probably because of this— extremely tempting to just install without too much deliberation.  Therein lies the problem.

With the enormous range of things an app can do on your store and the sheer number of developers out there building these things, even with Shopify's careful curation of the apps submitted and available to you, they do come with some risk. The risks are not nearly as severe (in my experience to date) as an open source project where the developer's motives are not clear, but going into an app frenzy will quickly result in a messy codebase and potentially result in a costly cleanup, lost sales or credibility from buggy, inconsistent or outright broken user experiences.

Often we're faced with a storefront that needs to be cleaned up or a merchant's long shopping list of apps they want to install prior to launch. The former is about to pay for the cleanup, the latter —if we were to just blindly proceed— about to make the mess that will need fixing and cleanup down the line (a house of cards).

Presuming you're the latter merchant in the example above and about to embark on this exciting new adventure, to prevent this situation of code soup and shaky foundations, it's best to do the following:

  1. Identify the absolute essentials in terms of additional functionality for your store to go live with. 
  2. Figure out whether an app is actually the best solution for the requirement or if it can be done as efficiently or possibly even better via some other means.
  3. Should the app be a custom one built only for your store, ensure you're working with a team or individual experienced in this area. An ecommerce store is possibly the lifeblood of your business so it's not like hiring someone to wash your car. Be sure that they know what they're doing and that they have a clear understanding of your requirements before proceeding.

A good point to also remember is that even if two apps are made by the same vendor, they may not be able to both be installed on a single store as they may need to both leverage the same resources of the platform. Ask questions, reach out to the vendors. Most of them are more than happy to help you and a lot of them will even give you extended trials, discounts and even offer the service of installing the apps for you.

Even some apps made by the same development house may not be able to co-exist in one store.

This brings me to the final point and piece of advice on apps; vet them. To do this, follow these steps or similar:

  1. Make sure they're right for your needs.
  2. Make sure they're made by a reputable vendor and that all aspects that you need to proceed with them (support levels, reviews etc.) are to your liking. Remember, they are not Shopify. They're usually small to medium sized software design and development businesses anywhere in the world. Choose wisely.
  3. Make sure the app(s) are compatible with any others you're using or intend to use.
  4. Trial them outside of your live environment. Consider setting up a development store (we can assist with this as can any partner / expert) and run the app in a sandbox version of your store to ensure that it works without breaking things on the live storefront.

If you do your due diligence in this area, you should be able to approach apps without building an ever bloating store and your future prospects in terms of upgrading your theme, adding and improving things down the line with ease will be significantly better.

Should we really Customize this?

Ask "but why"? Do you really need to customize something or would it be just as efficient to make use of available options in your store? Often that answer will be no and you'll be just as successful using some form of tried and tested solution, but equally so, frequently there is a true need to customize.

"I can't believe that any individual merchant, developer, or even agency, would be able to out-CRO the Shopify team who are responsible for the global checkout UI/X. They have data from how many 000's of stores to aggregate and test against?"
—Rick Davies from Taylor Stitch

In the cases where viable options are available that do not require customization and achieve the same or similar results, it's usually wise to follow that approach. In the cases where customization is absolutely and unquestionably required, just make sure you do it properly.

Some things in Shopify shouldn't or even can't be customized in the way that you want... even on the highest tier of the platform, but a lot, in fact more than most people know can actually be changed quite considerably.

If you've established that you need to customize things, as mentioned a couple of times above, make sure you're working with a team or individual with experience in this skill. Even small customizations should strictly be done the right way and ideally tracked with some form of version control (we use Git on Bitbucket). If you don't you're likely going to paint yourself into a corner with a store that cannot be upgraded, gets into a state of no return or even worse, having a broken store that will require significant fixing or a complete do-over when it becomes too far gone.

To summarize, this should be the ideal sequence of considerations when a customization seems necessary:

  1. Establish conclusively that it is a real need and not simply a desire. Potentially ask around or do some research to be sure that it isn't something others have tried and seen little or no return on, or perhaps not enough of a return to justify doing it.
  2. Establish conclusively that the need is not achievable via some other means that is less intrusive on your store. Perhaps an app or something built into Shopify or the theme.
  3. If you've reached the conclusion that a customization is needed and not achievable via other means, you'll need to embrace the implications of customizing your store. There will be cost implications, timeline implications and the potential sacrifice of future enhancements made to your theme by creating a fork of it.

So, yes, you can customize your storefront. The potential and abilities inherent in the Shopify platform are vast and if you go in with your eyes open, are aware of the risks and implications and proceed with the right people with the relevant skills, you can do great things.

To summarize

Summing up this article, I've briefly covered themes, apps and customizations as three points of consideration when embarking on a new ecommerce venture or redesign. It should now be clearly apparent that while things on this platform can be achieved quickly, affordably and with a high level of quality, it also allows for more intricate, unique and brand / business specific things to be design and developed on top of it if you're that way inclined.

Just be sure that you're doing things that are necessary, do them the right way and your business should benefit from better profitability, less superfluous features and visuals and fewer issues and subsequent costs down the line.

As may be obvious by the content of this article, we're certified Shopify Experts and if you're in need of assistance we'd be more than happy to help. We have a solutions page that can guide you in choosing what you need from us or if that leaves you feeling bewildered, feel free to simply ping us using hello@shopcreatify.com.




Ross Allchorn
Ross Allchorn

Author

Hi, I'm Ross, an entrepreneur, author and a specialist in e-commerce. I'm always keen on hearing about new and interesting startups and projects, so feel free to contact me using our contact page.