Guillaume: Hello everyone. Guillaume Le Tual here, host of the Ecommerce Wizards Podcast where I feature leaders in e-commerce and business. Today’s guest is Mitchell Callahan. He’s the CEO and co-founder of Saucal, which is an e-commerce agency. So he’s an e-commerce expert, a very well established agency that works with all the big brand names out there, like Amazon and others. Today we’ll talk about everything and anything in e-commerce, we will specifically start with how to make an e-commerce project successful. So if you are either considering building an e-commerce website or if you’re currently in the process of building an e-commerce website, all kinds of tricks, techniques, things to keep in mind, strategies to make your projects more successful, some pitfalls to avoid, and so on.
So before we get started, this is our sponsorship message: This episode is brought to you by MageMontreal. If a business wants a powerful e-commerce online store that will increase their sales or to move piled up dormant inventory to free up cash reserves or to automate business processes to gain efficiencies and reduce human processing error, our company MageMontreal can do that. We’ve been helping e-commerce stores for over a decade. Here’s the catch. We’re specialized and only work on the Adobe Magento e-commerce platform. We do everything Magento-related. If you know someone who needs design, support, maintenance, training, we’ve got their back. Email our team, [email protected], or go to magemontreal.com.
Alright, Mitchell, thank you for being here today.
Mitchell: Thank you. I was going to say you turned from an agency owner to a professional radio host pretty quick there.
Guillaume: It’s practice, there is nothing natural about that. Go and listen to episode one.
Well, I’m happy you’re here. Maybe if you can start by giving a short one minute intro about your background as an e-commerce expert.
Mitchell: Sure. Like you, I’ve been in the game for about 10 years. We started Saucal
out of our apartment in Calgary. We were big advocates of Open Source software similar to yourself, except instead of working on Magento, we work on WooCommerce exclusively. So it’s the e-commerce stack for WordPress. It’s the largest e-commerce platform by market share. We primarily help customers consult, build and maintain their online stores and we help big brands integrate their software into WooCommerce in order to leverage the massive audience that is there. It’s been a wild ride. It’s a growing industry and it’s a lot of fun.
Guillaume: Awesome. So Mitchell’s a WordPress expert and I’m a Magento expert. But today we’ll try to have all the advice as universal as possible so that it’s not platform specific. It doesn’t matter if you’re on Shopify or WordPress or Magento or anything else. So let’s get started with it. What are some of the pitfalls to avoid when you’re building a new e-commerce site?
Mitchell: Yeah, I think it’s going to largely depend on where your business is, like if you’re just starting and you have zero revenue versus if you’ve got 500,000, or a million or 5 million. That’s really going to dictate the kind of approach you want to take. I think for me if you’re not making any money it makes sense to be scrappy and piece things together. I’ve seen a lot of people build a business like that. Whereas, I think if you’ve already got a successful business where you’ve got investor money and you have a foundation to build from, I wouldn’t recommend going super scrappy. The reason being, I just see people who build really weak foundations and it costs them a lot more in the long run to keep that site going and prove it. So spend the money upfront, because the poor man pays twice and gets it done right versus someone who’s an expert, is my biggest tip. And it’s the biggest mistake I see over and over again.
Guillaume: Okay, so people are just starting scrapilly, when they should have started it well and built it well. Just pay once assuming you’re an established enough company with a direct financial backing to do this. Otherwise, if you have to be scrappy, I mean, we all start somewhere, which is typically an entrepreneurship journey. I started from nothing and you have to walk every step of it, this might be a good time to be scrappy. Okay, I’m going to add to this depending on where you’re at in your business, I agree with this thing. One thing that I see a lot is small businesses wanting to invest way too much money on the design portion of it, and they will neglect the mechanics, the fundamental structure, the foundation, the technicalities, etc. So the design is of course important because your brand represents your image, but you can work incredibly hard believing that you have an amazing looking brand and when you ask a few people around and none of them agree with you, they think that the design is not that good.
So design is such a subjective thing but of course, you want something that’s a professional product, but perhaps don’t try to win a presence in the museum because it’s such an artwork. So that’s an easy way to exaggerate on the importance of design because the other person will not care that much if you’ve put a square or a circle, or if it’s blue or yellow or orange, as long as the message is communicated clearly, the brand generates an aura of trust to make people believe that those are professional people that will deliver on their promises, and so on. So it’s way more important to have the messaging right, to have the offer right, that’s, the product market fit that this is correct, this is what people are looking for. Don’t overspend on the design, start from a template if you’re in the scrappy phase and don’t invest too much. And don’t turn your template based editing into a full custom project that will cost a fortune.
So for a startup, one place where you can save a lot of money is on the design because most people will not realize how many work hours will go into editing a template. If you keep it simple, sort of go with the flow, select a template that has a general art direction, don’t turn a light theme into a dark theme and vice versa. Start from the right template that you like and just clean it up, remove sections that are not relevant, try not to change too much stuff, and just start listing your products online. With quality information this is way more important than the time you spend on the content for the product, lots of pictures, lots of videos, and all the technical specs. So all the focus is there, the website itself needs to work in a way, just put it online, make it look professional. Don’t spend too much time on that, just move on and focus on the true added value which is your product catalog and have an online website that does check out.
Mitchell: All great points and I couldn’t agree more. In fact, I’m just thinking of a site that we’re working on now and they are very design focused. I mean, I get it, the front end is sexy and people want it to look good and then they completely neglect the back end. And they’re having so many errors and glitches, anytime they have to change some of your rates. I mean, it’s by design that they completely neglected the back. And yeah, I would much rather have a strong foundation and an ugly front end, because it’s amazing how much you can sell with an ugly website too. Just to add to what you said, content is so important. The right content speaks to your audience and lots of great imagery, you’re absolutely bang on with everything.
Guillaume: Yeah. Of course, if you’re a super established company and you have a lot of budget, go for it, have fun with design, but of course the design portion should have its own separate budget and should not lower the quality of the foundation and the content generation. That’s a good first one, we’ve looked at the startup versus established company. Any other pitfalls that you have?
Mitchell: We’re a big back end people and we do a lot of performance. If you’re building on Shopify this is not something you really need to worry about, but when you’re working on WooCommerce, for example, you have to make sure you have really good hosting. And again, a lot of people really neglect that part and it’s one of the easiest ways to increase your performance. So aside from a good back end, we always have a really solid, reliable hosting. One more thing I would say, just give your content and stuff like that. Define what your MVP is, you don’t need to get everything perfect, start getting checkouts, get people to buy stuff, and then you can start innovating and pivoting from there.
Guillaume: A very good point. Often, I’ve seen hosting being seen much as a commodity but it’s not. Especially when you’re hosting an e-commerce site there is some specialization needed, do they know the platform that they’re hosting? Some hosting companies do have a page that says, ‘We do Magento hosting’ but they have a page about everything. They don’t really know any of those platforms, it’s just a page to attract clients to their websites. So do they actually have expertise on these specific platforms so that when there’s a problem, the system administrator can help the programmer to quickly resolve problems? That’s very important for all the Open Source stuff. So yeah, hosting providers are really not all equal. A few of them have some preferred vendors.
Mitchell: Again, everything you just said is absolutely correct. When they’re generalist hosting companies you’re not going to get great support. At least in the WooCommerce land we always use managed WooCommerce or managed WordPress hosts because they have support that actually understands WordPress. Some of our favorites are always WordPress VIP or Kinsta or WP Engine. Those are all made exclusively for WordPress and WooCommerce.
Guillaume: Yeah, I’ve heard good things about those. On the Magento side, there’s stuff like MageMojo, Webscale, partially or all of it, I’m not too sure. Those are two, there’s JetRails and there’s Nexcess . There’s a few more that are very good to go with someone who has certified experts on Magento or WooCommerce in-house as part of their hosting providers
in there, it really makes sense.
Mitchell: You said Nexcess, they’ve a presence on WooCommerce as well. So it sounds like they’re big and they’re niching down into the respective spaces.
Guillaume: They’re fairly big and they’ve been purchased by another bigger company. So they do it properly. So any other pitfalls or do you want to go through the positive stuff that will actually help make a project succeed other than just errors to avoid?
Mitchell: Preparation is key. I just got a tattoo the other day, and I swear it took about 10 minutes to get it done as it was really small. But the first 40 minutes I was in there, I was just playing on the iPad and drawing it out and stuff like that. Everything was about preparation and then execution was easy. So when you spend time doing your consulting and planning upfront you will have a lot less surprises and you’re not going to have to change things after they’re already there. You know, it’s crazy to change a tattoo afterwards.
Guillaume: Especially a tattoo, I agree. Yeah, lots of planning upfront is good. I’ve seen all the extremes when working with other web agencies and the most classic one is not enough upfront requirement, not enough study time upfront, agencies need to sell, they want to move fast, and so on. Actually, for us personally we’ve moved away from that model in quite an extreme way that people cannot even buy a website from us right away. You can only buy the project just like buying the architect’s plan of a building, the only thing we will sell to you is the planning. And if you like the planning and the budget that comes out of that plan then you can buy a website from us. So a lot of agencies just jump in the process and they don’t have enough information like to Zoom meet for one hour. They’re like, ‘We got it all down, let’s go’. No, you don’t. Clearly you don’t. That’s how the process has been.
Mitchell: The project plan is worth its weight in gold, depending on how advanced your customer is. If they’ve been building software for a long time, that’s a no brainer. They would expect it and maybe buy a couple times. But yeah, if you’re just starting out know that if someone proposes that project plan it’s well worth it. It’s going to save you a lot of money in the long run.
Guillaume: Sure. There’s a lot of clarification upfront of everything, the vision, the requirements, the business needs. Very often, we have notes written to say a customer wrote it this way but maybe we have a different definition of the word, marketplace. Okay, what does the word marketplace mean to you? Some people know it’s on Amazon, some other people say they’ve heard about it was not a marketplace at all, what they meant was just the product feed and stuff like that. So it’s very important to clarify on the wording, to clarify all the requirements. And very often the requirement is written in a simple way like, ‘what to do’, ‘I want this’, okay, ‘why do you want it?’ Okay, ‘who needs this in your company?’ All right, how will it benefit them in their daily job as a sales staff that will use the website to do sales in person? So we need to get to the bottom of things and to understand ‘why’. So if you’re a customer here and you’re getting an agency doing your site soon or it’s already in the process make sure they understand every single requirement and why you need it and you can even write it this way. Also let the agency suggest a solution, you may say a possible solution is this, this is what we could do. But here’s the business need, here’s who it’s for, feel free to suggest a different ‘how’ to do it, you can lean on a proper partner there to suggest how to do it.
Mitchell: Absolutely. You nailed it, and I think the more versed you are in software development, the better off the process is going to be. That’s just the thing, any company that has an online presence has to understand software development. Some are better than others but you need to have that skill going forward. Having knowledge of that and having someone on your side who can very much communicate with the technical team you’re just going to have so much more success.
Guillaume: Any other ideas on top of your mind that can help?
Mitchell: Some are totally random not necessarily a project but as someone who travels a fair bit, and I’m always at a foreign country, the one thing I really appreciate on websites is in the past if you were if they detected you’re in Portugal, for example, they would just start charging you in euros and the language would be in Portuguese, but I don’t think your location should be tied to any specific language per se. So I think the language and the location should be different. So a lot of the websites in Portugal, for example, you can register and say I’m in Portugal, but then you can also put your language as English, and it just opens you up to a better audience. So I think it’s better to not just assume everyone in China wants Chinese or everyone in Argentina wants Spanish, have language separate from location.
Guillaume: So you wouldn’t let’s say, do geolocation of the visitor to then automatically assign the language? You would leave it to what is a default choice and international choice, which is like English?
Mitchell: Or whatever their browser is in, or whatever they’re using. I think that’s a much better user experience.
Guillaume: So just select whatever their browsers are in and obviously, they speak that language?
Guillaume: Good idea, I like that. Alright, another idea would be, to be sure that you have the time for that project and that it’s a high priority for you, because it will take involvements. So let’s say if you’re the owner of the business or an executive, you don’t need to be there at every meeting for everything. But you still need to review and somebody else needs to be in charge of that project. So somebody in the team will need to be considered more or less, depending on the scope of the project, as a part time employee dedicated to the website, maybe half their time for the duration of the project. So if it’s a six month project or a one year project, again, it depends on scope, maybe it’s smaller, but that means for all that time there’s an employee that is dedicated to the website and that their number one priority is that project. This is true for any kind of project, not just a website project. When there is a new company internal initiative, who’s in charge of this and who actually has time for this, it’s their number one priority, and not just ‘one to do’ in a list of 1000.
So that’s how you guarantee success, not guarantee, but go to a much higher level of possibility of success with the project. Let’s say that there’s someone clearly assigned to that. ‘This is your number one priority, anything that comes in at some other website, you just run with it to get the approval in-house, make sure it happens, follow up and reply’, and so on, this makes a huge difference. You have the staff and bandwidth to actually handle the project.
Mitchell: We think the same because that’s what I was thinking about when I was thinking about the point of contact and also the technical team, this isn’t just something that like, ‘All right, we decided what we’re going to do and you forget about’. You’ve got to be on top of that. It’s a big deal and it really affects the mood of the team. So again, I couldn’t agree with you more.
Guillaume: Anything else on your mind?
Mitchell: Honestly, I think if someone went through all those, they’re already doing pretty good.
Guillaume: Yeah, I totally agree. So anything else that you’d like to discuss about e-commerce?
Mitchell: What were some of those items? It’s interesting with what’s going on in the world right now. I use Open Source software and I really like to see the proliferation of Open Source payments. Bitcoins is an obvious one but you’ve got a lot of other cryptos. You’ve got things like the Lightning Network, which is built on Bitcoin. It’s going to be amazing to see internet money that originated from the internet being used for e-commerce, and it will make it a lot easier for a lot of businesses to sell. Because companies like Stripe might just have made it a lot easier for developer focus, but stripe is not available everywhere. That’s something I’m super excited about.
Guillaume: Okay. Yeah, I think you’re big in crypto and you see that it will make it easier for merchants. In which regards, because there is Stripe or PayPal which are fairly straightforward to put in place?
Mitchell: Again, just because they’re limited to which countries they can operate in.
So if you’re in a country that doesn’t support cryptos in a great way, but I think more importantly, crypto should just be free from government intervention. We’re both Canadian, so whether we agree ….
Guillaume: That’s a philosophy called a political statement. You’re free of government intervention. Yeah, you can talk about what’s the future of currency and so on. This is just the next logical step. Some will argue that crypto is close to worthless, it has no GDP, it’s not producing anything, and it’s worse than a Ponzi scheme. But again, those are our opinions.
Mitchell: That’s what someone who hasn’t spent any time in crypto would say. I mean, that’s an easy and effortless opinion to have. If you put in a little bit of work it’s going to be hard to think that way.
Guillaume: Yeah, as soon as there’s enough people who care about it and who want that currency and decide to use it as a currency then it is a currency, it is what it is. There’s the volatility challenge of it, doesn’t that bother you? Like, do you accept sales from merchants for some payments in cryptocurrency that is so volatile? Tomorrow it might be worth $10,000 less than it was today at the time of the transaction?
Mitchell: I mean no, generally not. Because of the forward trajectory, there’s price discovery going on right now. Bitcoin appreciates 200% a year on average. Whereas if you look at what’s happening to our fiat money, the Canadian dollar, US dollar, I mean, most of the money that’s been created in the last year is more than 80% of all money in existence. So all you’re seeing is a trajectory down. So is that a worry for me? Not really. I’d rather my currency appreciates and depreciates, and realistically if that’s a concern, you can use what’s called a stable coin. So you can use a USDC, it’s a virtual currency. It’s a cryptocurrency that’s pinned to a fiat currency, so you get a stable value.
Guillaume: Okay, so the goal of the USDC would be just to get a stable value, but then it means you’re not trying to make money off the currency. Because right now people are buying Bitcoin just because they believe that the future is better. That they will have 200% appreciation. So in a way, it’s bought for speculation purposes.
Mitchell: That’s one way to look at it. I think the other side of that coin is they’re buying Bitcoin because they don’t want their money to lose its value. So I always tell people like, will you get rich buying Bitcoin? Maybe. It depends on how much you buy, but it makes sure you’re not going to be poor, it makes sure that your money is actually still there and it has value.
Guillaume: Now we’re talking world economics and macro stuff. Of course, each currency has had different values throughout history. I read something about currency that most currencies did not exist 150 years ago, and it’s only like 20 currencies out of over 1000 that were there 150 years ago that still exist. There was the emergency Euro, some regimes went away. So you can have legitimate concerns, is this currency stable and worthwhile to hold? Or should I actually hold a different currency from a different country, or even virtual currency? Or just split my portfolio into many of these currencies? Those are interesting concerns. Of course, the more someone has investments, the more that becomes a concern. Otherwise, you’re not concerned about that at all. You just say, reinvest in the business as a growing e-commerce store.
Mitchell: Absolutely. The thing to keep in mind, I guess we’re getting away from e-commerce a bit, but most of the previous currencies were backed by gold. So the gold was still the money, the paper just represented gold. A lot of the problems we have in this world originally started in the ‘70s, when the world moved away from gold. And that’s why you see inflation and cost of goods really going through the roof.
Guillaume: There’s someone really interesting called Ray Dalio. If you want to read about that stuff.
Mitchell: He’s great.
Guillaume: Okay, so you know about him? There you go. Anyway, you don’t need to listen to us talking about that. Just go read Ray Dalio, he’s the world expert on that.
Mitchell: Well, he doesn’t know very much about crypto, but his book on global cycles of money and empires is fascinating.
Guillaume: It is completely fascinating.
Mitchell: If anything, he’s reinforcing the point that you need sound money, that’s not yet because he doesn’t have a rosy outlook.
Guillaume: Yeah, so just as a summary of the key idea that is in that book or from that person is that, a lot of very important life cycles that happen, those cycles are so long that they have not happened yet in your own lifetime. So we have a bias as human beings to say that the last 10 years were great so the next 10 years are going to be great, or the last 10 years were terrible because there was recession or war in that country, whatever. So that person has a more pessimistic view of the future and might not capture the actual change in cycle that now it’s an upswing time to invest, whatever. So he’s saying that our bias as human beings is based on what we’ve lived during our lifetime. But if you want to understand the true big picture, those big money cycles happen more than over your lifetime or have already started before your lifetime. So you therefore need to understand history and the big cycles to really know what’s next. Don’t just rely on your own personal experience. So that’s a really major learning point from that guy.
Mitchell: Well said, very well said.
Guillaume: Alright. I’m not seeing much crypto offering on e-commerce sites right now. I don’t have any clients that are seriously asking for it. Some are asking the question, ‘Should I have Bitcoin or something?’ So I say, ‘It’s up to you. I don’t mind adding it to your website’. Am I recommending it? That depends if you care to be paid in bitcoins. Tesla just stopped getting Bitcoin payments recently. So it’s a personal decision if you want to accept or not on your website, but do you see it as a trend that a lot of sites are asking for it?
Mitchell: No. I think the challenge with Bitcoin is that a lot of people don’t want to spend it, which I understand given the environment we’re in right now. But I think with Tesla they dropped Bitcoin but now they accept DOS, I believe, which doesn’t make any sense to me. But I would like to see it more. The technology has come a long way. One thing I talked about was the Lightning Network, is a less secure but more cash layer on top of Bitcoin, the fees are incredibly low if not free, and it’s instant. So it’s good for smaller transactions.
Guillaume: There’s always a concern with anything that is cryptocurrency, like theft and fraud and so on, or the owner of the whole system can just leave with the money. You know, there have been cases like that, I mean, ‘you hold it, you own it’, so you can just leave with it. There’s been some pretty terrible fraud cases like this. Bitcoin seems to be reliable, solid, stable and secure enough, some bitcoins were stolen historically but not that much, it seems to be good. What’s your view on that?
Mitchell: The golden rule is what people say is called, ‘Not your keys, not your coins’. So they’re always stolen when you’re leaving your money in the control of someone else. That’s generally an unregulated exchange or kind of a sketchy exchange, so I would never recommend leaving your money in the hands of someone else. It does take an added layer of responsibility in your life that most people aren’t accustomed to. But for e-commerce and stuff, keep some money in your ‘hot wallet’, which is your internet connected wallet, and you can use that for buying or something like that. Just keep the bulk of your funds safe. It’s the equivalent of putting it in a safe.
Guillaume: And you feel that is safe enough and is that by sticking to the main cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin? Like, how safe can you be when you go to something that is unregulated, if the person has, let’s say, hundreds of millions of dollars of value and could actually just run away with the money as the founding company? Because it’s not backed by the government and then you would need to launch some kind of lawsuit to actually have jurisdiction over this. A few of those cases were in the headlines about some smaller crypto, not Bitcoin, where the founders were just running away with the money.
Mitchell: Can you give me an example?
Guillaume: I don’t remember the name, but basically, everybody’s depositing money to buy that cryptocurrency. It was a fraud scheme obviously. He just received all that money and just left with it. It was like, ‘Thank you everybody’, and that was done, we lost the coins. I don’t remember the exact headline.
Mitchell: It just looks like some alternative small coin.
Guillaume: Yeah, it was a smaller one but it was still a lot of millions of dollars. It’s outside of government regulation, and that’s the part that is sort of scary. Are you really going to just send $1,000 or $100,000, transfer to some sketchy currency? What’s the intrinsic value of that? There’s none until you have a big enough pool of users who decide to use this as a currency. All those small cryptos are sort of fighting for supremacy. Anyway, I’m not at all an expert in crypto. It is more like newbie questions. I’m asking you from your understanding point of view.
Mitchell: Yeah, sure. I mean, it’s the Wild West so there are a lot of scams. There’s a lot of money going into this space so it makes sense that if you’re dabbling in these weird corners of crypto you could get scammed. So that’s why I really tell people to stick to Bitcoin and if you want to venture out from that you can try Ethereum. And then from there you should be a little bit more experienced so that you can increase your risk tolerance. But if you’re just in Bitcoin, these are really not things to worry about.
Guillaume: Okay, so let’s talk about Open Source vs. SaaS e-commerce, because this is an important decision in creating your e-ommerce store. So Open Source or a platform like WooCommerce, which is on WordPress, Magento, and others like SaaS software will be things like Shopify, BigCommerce,etc. What’s your opinion on this Mitchell?
Mitchell: I mean, I’m fairly open on all my views, I’m a big proponent of Open Source software. Now, I’m not going to claim that this is the ‘one size fits all’ for everyone, but that’s the way I choose to invest my time and our company’s time. For a myriad of reasons, we can go into some of the ideological things, but even from a technical perspective, Open Source software’s moving much more upstream. You’ve got these companies that have so many different pieces of custom software that they built over the decades, it’s a lot easier to kind of integrate them together if you have full control over your stack. So if you control WooCommerce, for example, we can easily build a connector for these 10 different apps and WooCommerce can be your hub. I absolutely just love that flexibility. There are drawbacks, of course. Shopify is a wonderful platform and there’s a reason why it’s big, a lot of people are very happy with it. It’s just that for me, you’re at the whims of a company. So if they decide they don’t want to add a new feature, you might not get it, and if they decide they want to remove a feature, well, you’re going to lose it. And perhaps if they get politicized for whatever reason, they might kick you off. So I’m just a big proponent of owning your software and owning your store and keeping you in control.
Guillaume: It’s a very interesting point of view. Of course, if you have your own store, nobody’s going to shut down your store because they don’t like your industry or whatever. Let’s say you’re selling CBD, cannabis oil, or whatever, they have policies that they want of course, to create a stable market place for those companies. Now they say Open Source or SaaS in general, for most startups not all of them, it makes a lot of sense to go the SaaS route. When I offer Magento, we’re on the Open Source side of things. But SaaS will typically give you a lower upkeep cost, lower maintenance cost, and a lower startup cost. So what’s the trade off? You have less flexibility, less capacity for creating a unique user experience. If you’re setting a widget and there’s a lot of other stores online selling the same widget on Shopify, you’re all going to look more or less the same. Of course, you’re going to have different colors and different logos, but the overall experience will be more or less the same.
Of course, there’s some add ons, plugins you can put to personalize Shopify but that too has its limit. So Shopify is aiming to keep the cost very low. They do this by controlling a lot of what is possible or not possible in there. They put a very tight sandbox as to where you can play in this. Even when the extension makers are creating those extensions, it’s limited what they can change in Shopify, like the black box. So that keeps the cost the lowest there is. Then you have other platforms like BigCommerce which is a very interesting platform as well. It is sort of like Shopify but way more flexible, so that means more complex but you still have most of the benefits from a SaaS. You don’t need an IT team, you don’t need to bother with hosting and finding your hosting providers, the scalability is there. It’s a great platform. So BigCommerce is getting closer to Open Source in terms of what’s possible to do for flexibility. But you still have some drawbacks. Then you have other Open Source communities which are enormous and you can absolutely create everything. The downside is that the upkeep cost is going to be way higher because it’s on you to upkeep everything. There are version updates to publish or WordPress will automatically install the minor security patches and version updates, but you will still have major version updates to do and plugin updates to do and this is the same with Magento extension, you still need to do those.
So mostly, you need to offer a lot of personalized, unique customer experience, perhaps have more flexibility in integrating with custom softwares, perhaps accustom ERP, enterprise resource planning system and accounting system. The larger a company is the more complex their need is, typically, the more they tend to go towards Open Source. Because you may have a very large company that has simple needs, like selling T-shirts, it’s red, green, blue, small, medium, large. They may be a very big company but their needs are super simple. In that case, it’s logical for that large company to go for something like Shopify or BigCommerce. Now, if you have a large company that has a complex ecosystem they sell a lot of custom options. They have lots of warehouses in one country, they have multiple countries and multiple languages, a lot of complexity, then you naturally go towards an Open Source solution to have the added flexibility to really build what that company needs as a system for their unique needs and for a worldwide presence. So the midsize and larger companies typically have a lot of complexity, and will often prefer an Open Source approach
Mitchell: Again, Guillaume, you nailed it. It just reminded me about Open Source software and how Apple uses an Open Source CRM. Because once you get to a certain company size you don’t want to share your data with anyone. So they’re either going to build their own system or use an Open Source one.
Guillaume: That’s a good point.
Mitchell: Yeah. On the small scale, I do agree for a lot of people, you can just spin up a Shopify store, but on the other hand that is going to be limited to where they offer their services. So one beautiful thing about Open Source is the community. I go to these meetups, they’re called work camps, they happen all around the world for people who build on WordPress. I’ll never forget, I met a small team of guys who came from Vietnam, they were like, ‘We all use WooCommerce. Every store here uses WooCommerce’. So I was like, why is that? And they were like, ‘Shopify wasn’t available in our language. So we took the software, we just built the Vietnamese translations and we’re able to use it. We could use our own local payment providers’. Whereas again, if you’re on something like Shopify, they’re more or less going to dictate what payment provider you can and cannot use. It can also be really great for those small scrappy startups, depending on if the established solutions aren’t available for you.
Guillaume: A very good point, especially when you get out of Europe and America. All right, anything else that comes to mind about Open Source and SaaS?
Mitchell: I think we just covered a bunch of it. Honestly, there’s no perfect solution. A lot of it is going to be dependent on what your needs are or what you believe in.
Guillaume: Well, maybe we can add one more comparison here, which is the full custom built, not built on any framework per se, like not over WordPress, WooCommerce, or on Magento. You can say, ‘Oh, let’s build a custom app, from the ground up’ pure PHP or whatever you want to do. So that’s another category that we hear on my side less and less about. But do you have an opinion on this one?
Mitchell: You talked about how some stores, maybe they’re selling T-shirts, and maybe that it’s really complex. I think for some really simple stores, sometimes it does make sense to just build your own and you don’t have a lot of those updates to worry about. Some people build custom apps and Laravel and stuff, I get it and I understand why they do it. But using the Open Source solutions you can really leverage the community. So not everything is going to have to be built from scratch. Like if you want to increase your SEO, will you go get the top SEO plugin? A lot of things are going to be made available already and you don’t have to do everything on your own.
Guillaume: It’s huge.
Mitchell: So that’s why you see the numbers going way down. Most people are going to the platforms.
Guillaume: Yeah, it totally makes sense. Otherwise you’ll be alone on your site if you’re doing a true custom build from scratch without a platform, you’re just using a PHP framework, Laravel or some other symphony or whatever. And you’ve built everything from scratch. This is going to be unbelievable upkeep costs if you say you don’t need to do updates but at the same time you’re alone in your corner. Let’s take some old example, let’s say in 2012, 2013 when the responsive web was a new thing, in 2013 pretty much all websites were getting built and responsive. So if a technological shift like this happens and you’ve built your own custom software, you’re stuck alone to face that and to bear all the costs. But if you’re with a community on a platform, there are people who will donate their work because of the Open Source mindset or a large corporation from a SaaS e-commerce platform, who will bear all that costs and provide you with the new technical technological framework and you’re not stuck alone. So when you do something totally custom you can be at the top of the game but for a very short time, and then you need enormous investment in technology to upkeep that thing. So, any change whatsoever you want to do, you’re on your own again. On Magento you have thousands and thousands of extensions and it’s three or a few $100, and those can be 1000s of hours of work and 10s of 1000s of dollars of labor, and you just installed it for 100 bucks. So there’s the power of worldwide community versus you alone and your site. So I’m not a proponent at all of custom development, not on all of them.
Mitchell: Back to the original point, we talked about mistakes not to make. I think a good one is, invest in the good extensions, to good plugins, because if you compare it to what man hours would cost you to build such a thing, it’s not a big deal to spend a couple 100 bucks on a good add on for your store, because for someone to build it from scratch would be 100-200 way more X the cost to build it from scratch.
Guillaume: Yeah, sometimes it’s not the $100 difference between plug in one or two that should make any difference, whatever in your decision. Which one is the correct one for my business, because building this takes so many hours. So in many cases, you could even add to the list of pitfalls of building your e-commerce website on a full custom platform without using either a SaaS or Open Source foundation. If we see the requirements later, there’s a very rare use case where it could actually be good. I can try to think of some huge companies, if what’s existing on the market is not directly addressing their needs, perhaps when they’re revolutionary or something.
Mitchell: Yeah, and the only time I see people going down that path is they get ‘the shiny ball syndrome’, they just hear something is new and fancy, there’s a new language, there’s a new way of doing things, and they just want that. No solution’s going to be perfect. So pick one horse and ride it and stick it through and make the most of it.
Guillaume: So let’s talk about that new buzzword and technology, headless PWA. PWA stands for progressive web app. A brief introduction about what that is, a buzzword word we hear a lot about here, that the front end of the website when you see it, if the interface and the backend of the website are completely decoupled, meaning they’re completely separate, you can totally change the front end without touching the back end whatsoever. Which is not the case for pretty much everything right now, Magento, WordPress and so on. But there’s still some level of intertwine and connection. It could have been built this way, even 20 years ago, but it’s just not how the web was built. The web was built in a monolithic way that everything is stacked together, front end and back end. Without getting too technical, the classic model view controller technique for building things, now that headless PWA has some benefits. It’s almost like a native app, you could use almost all the native phone functionality.
So it’s like a website with the benefits of a native app and you don’t need to update it all the time. You have to always update your apps, and always have the latest version and always have the latest content. So it’s like the best of both worlds. You can even have some offline capability just like a native app. So it’s very interesting. The speed is often better than traditional, not always, but often. So those are the benefits, but let’s talk a bit about it. It’s a buzzword I’ve been hearing in Magento space since 2017. And it is still an early adopter thing in 2022. What’s your opinion on PWA headless?
Mitchell: Yeah. I mean, to be honest, we don’t have that much experience because we had a team hackathon a couple of years ago and we decided to build some headless sites and to see where we kind of found limitations. The one we always found was with the payment processing. They always had some sort of hosted iframe or something that we couldn’t build entirely headless. But now that the world or the web is moving towards everything’s API driven, API first. It makes sense to build headless. I think it’s just going to be a use case and a preference, if that’s what people want, go nuts. But in the WordPress space more of the hosts are building up in order to support that. So I don’t know if it’s entirely like a buzzword. There’s a lot of foundation and substance behind it. But at least for our company, it hasn’t been a major request. It’s only been people turning around buzzwords but they don’t really know why they need it.
Guillaume: Yeah, it’s also more expensive to do. Some people were marketing it as, it’s going to be less expensive, with rapid developments on, it was even in some recent white paper from Adobe 2022. I mean, it’s a more expensive PWA, because we’re in the early phase of that technological shift, it’s a bit like when the DVD player costed $1,000 and eventually, some years later, it’s costing $399. So we’re still in the early days of PWA stuff, and the project more or less costs double. So there’s a lot of unforeseen problems, even the experts don’t have that many years of expertise, because it’s only been talked about since like, 2017. The Magento space has been talking about for a long time before that. But it’s nothing truly new, it’s a bit like when cloud computing came out, now it’s like it has been around forever and it has just never been a buzzword. That’s not a new concept, it’s just that maybe it now makes more sense, with a faster internet connection than to just sync everything to a network. So it’s about the same thing with headless PWA. We’re still in the early adopter phase, not the first one but maybe the second wave of early adopters. And we can see almost all the platforms like Salesforce Commerce Cloud, Magento and the others don’t say that they have a PWA headless capability, which is either half true or totally true, depending on which platform we’re talking about. But we see that all the platforms are going towards that. There will be some great benefits once it’s more mainstream. They say in Magento space, again, the extensions that you can add to your store are so few, they’re just a handful of them that are PWA compatible. The great majority of classic extensions, well, are for classic Magento, and you cannot use them. So there’s that question about the chicken or the egg. Say yeah, but if I go with this then a lot of my extensions that I would benefit from having the Open Source marketplace, I’m not going to get it. So it takes a bit of time, but it’s growing in volume and it will pick up.
Mitchell: Dude, you nailed it once again. You’re always on point, I loved the comparison to the DVD player. But again, you’re jogging my memory because not a lot of the extensions as we talked about make development costs lower and more accessible, a lot of them aren’t ready for PWA. So it’s like you’re going to have to rebuild a lot of this from scratch. And that’s a huge cost to bear. So we’ve got to wait for the rest of the market to catch up.
Guillaume: I was talking with the owner of one of the big extension makers on Magento, which is called Amasty. And he was like sure, I’ll make more PWA plugins when more people buy them. Is it still a business, it has to be profitable. So he said the bulk of the market still lives in the classic. That slows the adoption of PWA because you will say but I’m stuck with so few extensions to work from, I’m going to have to reinvent the wheel or pay the cost of transforming the legislation for PWA myself, because it’s unavailable at the moment. So anyway, it will pick up. It’s for the larger companies at this point, there’s no doubt whatsoever about it. Someone who wants the best of the best, let’s say on the Magento side of things, go PWA. But expect to invest to have what’s the latest and greatest because it is still let’s say, the final, better version.
Mitchell: I like that. Guillaume you’re a true professional there, you know what is going on.
Guillaume: Anything else you’d like to cover today Mitchell?
Mitchell: No, I think we’ll save it for another time because I was thinking about NFTs. I’m sure you probably haven’t dabbled there yet, but it opens up an interesting way of interacting with the web. If any of your listeners have dabbled with NFTs specifically using MetaMask, it’s a cool way to interact with the web, and it’s an exciting space that we’re exploring a little bit too.
Guillaume: Well. Let’s keep it for another episode. As you say we can make more, that’s for sure. There’s plenty of knowledge here to make plenty of episodes. Well, Mitchell, if people want to find you, what’s the best way to do this?
Mitchell: Yeah, it’s saucal.com, or just hit me up on LinkedIn, or subscribe to our newsletter. Any of those would work, or Twitter. We’re all over the place, just search the name.
Guillaume: All right, well, thanks for being here today, Mitchell.
Mitchell: Thank you for having me, man. I think it’s worth noting, actually, we’re going to be dropping an ebook here pretty soon. We did a really big deep dive on comparing WooCommerce to other platforms, so if you guys are out there and you’re trying to figure out which one to use, it could be a good resource for you.
Guillaume: And where can they find that resource?
Mitchell: We’ll be publishing it @saucal.com on our blog here fairly soon.
Guillaume: Okay, pretty good. Well, thanks again. Mitchell it has been a pleasure having a chat with you today.
Mitchell: Thank you man. Likewise, take care. Bye.