After 3 years of having apps in the Shopify App Store, I thought it would be interesting to give a little insight as to how I made an initial investment of $2000, and turned it into a $7000/per month side business using the Shopify partner platform..
Note: Revenue numbers are shown before deducting Shopify's 20% share.
Building an app when not a developer
I should start by saying that I'm not a developer myself, or at least wasn't when I started, I just saw an opportunity and decided to act on it. Originally in late 2011 I had planned to find an e-commerce idea to sell "stuff" online, and came about the Shopfy platform. Like any good researcher I checked out all the features and came across their App Store.. I quickly fell in love with the idea of building something which would sell itself just as easily to 1000 people as it would be 10 people, with regards to the time I would need to put into it
Scaling an app is completely different to scaling a physical product, and my time is limited with a full time job (even more true today), so it was a great fit for my purposes.
The forums really gave me the 1st idea, which later became OrderlyPrint. People wanted to be able to print Address Labels and Invoices in Bulk, instead of having to do it order by order. I figured most Shops need to ship something, and this would be a natural tool to help them.
A couple of apps existed, but they only focused on one of the needs, so I set about designing the app. Pen and paper, then mockups, and finally a fully written spec. I do this at work, so it was a natural process for me, and much more fun when it's your own idea and vision.
I researched technologies needed to build a a so called "web app", found a development company offshore (www.idyllic-software.com) and soon eagerly awaited the result of my $2,000 investment!
If you want to see the requirements document I sent to them for OrderlyPrint (v1), you can download it here:
First app launch
In early 2012 the first version of OrderlyPrint was launched. It was a bit rough around the edges but did what is needed to do, and customers started coming in from the 1st day! In fact our 1st customer is still with us today.. thanks Stafan!
Getting an app setup in the App Store was really easy, and Shopify's built in payment systems meant that we could start getting paid right away, with minimal effort. A great way to see if the idea works, and if there's actually a market for it.
So customers continued to come in and I got some good feedback. Support wasn't taking too much of my time, with 1 or 2 emails every few days with questions.. nice!
I charged $4.99 a month originally and have experimented a bit with pricing since then. Finding a good balance between many users, higher price point and also support load has been quite challenging. Price too low and you get lots of users but more support time needed, price too high and you get too little of each.
I continued to invest the revenue back into the app, and quickly added more features such as bulk fulfillment (another idea I got from the forums), which allowed me to also add another higher subscription plan. This cycle has basically continued from then. Get revenue, re-invest!
By the end of the year (9 months later), OrderlyPrint had 392 customers, and generated $1900 per month.. requiring about 15-30 minutes of my day.
It kept growing without any marketing spend, or promotion.. something that is much harder to do today. Getting good reviews was my focus, as it ranks you higher in the app store, and keeps new customers coming in.
The worst is when something goes horribly wrong, and you get 200 emails at 2am in the morning. It's only happened a couple of times, but you feel like you are really letting a lot of people down, and you do everything you can to get things up again..
Re-designing. A good idea or not?
2013 was very similar to the first year except that I was eager to grow the app to higher levels. Great feedback and ideas kept coming in, but they would simply not be possible with the way the current app was built. So I decided to design a fully new version, with many more features.
If you're interested in seeing how I design and write specifications for an app, you can download a copy of my spec for the new app here:
About 6 months later (end of 2013), the new app was almost ready, and the existing app had grown to 722 customers and about $4100 in revenue per month.
The new app OrderlyPrintv2 came in a few months later than planned, and cost $15,000 initially.. quite an investment for what is essentially a hobby.
It had all the bells and whistles I wanted. Multiple users, better order filtering, full document customization with Liquid templates.. and it's own billing system. This was great, but it was frail. We've worked out the issues long ago, but would I do it again? Probably not.. the initial version was never broken, and the new version is perhaps more complicated than it needs to be. I've read many places that you should NEVER rebuild an existing app, and after having done it, I would probably agree.
Also, with so many "power" features, support increased. Before it was an honest answer of "sorry, the app just can't do that" whereas now, it's "hmm ok, let me help you make those customizations". I love helping customers, but it started taking more time than I had.
Some users moved over to the new app, but many stayed on the original. In fact, the original OrderlyPrint still has almost 900 customers using it.. people like to stick with what they know, and if it ain't broke.. well you know. So now I run 2 apps.
We've improved the new app since then and again it only requires small amounts of my time now, but in all honesty... I like the old one better just because of it's simplicity.. so much that I recently republished it in the app store and am working on a few new features for it ;)
It's not that there is anything inherently wrong with the new app, it's just "more" than a one person part timer should be doing. It deserves a better help site, more templates, and marketing efforts.. things that are tough to spend time on when you try and limit it to 1 hour per day.
Competition over the years has increased in the app store, and Shopify also released the free Order Printer app, which also had my unique selling point.. print in bulk! A copycat app also appeared, basically ripping off every feature we had and every time we add something new.. it pops up with the same thing a few weeks later.. anyway competition is healthy I guess ;) This is not to say it's not worth your time getting into the App Store, you'll just need to put more effort into getting your app noticed.
Now I do re-targeting ads, buy a few Google ad words, but nothing major. The apps still grow, and a couple new users each day is fine with me. My family has been growing as well, so work is not always the most important thing.
This year has been great, and I've learnt to code myself. I kept realizing that I was actually doing all this for free. Get revenue, re-invest.. so if I could be the "re-invest" part of the equation, I'd enjoy this even more. Over the years I've always read the source code of my apps, and have been able to make tweaks myself.. but now I went much deeper.
Order Printer Templates
Order Printer Templates is my latest app, and I'm proud to say I built it 100% myself. It too made it's first sale on the day of publication, which is a great motivator. It creates beautifully customized documents for use in Shopify's free Order Printer app. So people can get great looking documents without coding anything themselves or needing to sign up for a monthly subscription service. As the overall concept was similar to my other apps, I could leverage on a lot of the learnings (and code) we'd had before.
I'm still growing it, but sales are steady and our collection of templates are growing. Templates sell for $19 each, and are a one time purchase.. so simple to use that there's not much support on it. The great team at www.WeMakeWebsites.com are currently working on a new design for the sales site for it, which I'm looking forward to publishing soon.
So far, and only a couple months in, it's generating over $1000 per month.
This app uses the new'ish Shopify Embedded App SDK for the backend, so it's an integrated part of the users Shopify Admin. The SDK was easy to use, although it does feel a bit slower with all the redirects on login. I decided to take it one step further and actually use a Shopify Store for my sales site as well, which I then create Customers and Orders in each time someone buys a template. This allows me to easily use all of Shopify's standard features for my app.. see vistor and sales reports, taxes charged, customer details etc. all within Shopify.. I love being able to use their iPhone app to see how things are going with the app.
The Partner Team
The Shopify patners team have always been great, and helpful both with tracking down issues but also to bounce an idea or two off every now and then. They're also kind to feature new apps, which helps get them off the ground.
A huge thanks to Blair, Aisha and Ed for the help over the years!
I just wished they'd listened to the user interview I did for the Partner Dashboard redesign, and made it mobile optimized.. here's looking at you Ed! ;)
If there was one negative to mention, and it's not about the staff, it would be that they are only available during normal Canadian work hours. So if something goes wrong outside that, then you're on your own for a while. Usually this is of course not an issue, but it can be a little frustrating.
All in all, I'd highly recommend getting into the Shopify App Store.
Monthly recurring revenue: $4000
Monthly recurring revenue: $1300
Order Printer Templates
Customers: 1-4 per day
Revenue past 30 days: $1350
That's almost $7000 per month (minus 20% for Shopify).. so $5600 for my hobby. This costs me about an hour per day in time, and $700 in server hosting and tools.
Wrapping it up
If you have some spare time, a great idea.. and are willing to give excellent customer support.. then you'd be silly not to give it a go! Ps. You should probably also be interested in technology ;)
Would I call this a success?
Yes absolutely. Financially it's been a good investment and more importantly I have learned volumes about a lot of different things.
People sometimes ask why I don't do this full-time, and the answer is quite simple. Copenhagen is a very expensive place, and $5600 doesn't get you far! Also, I love my "real" work, and that paycheck (which is multiples larger). Who knows, maybe this will change in a few years.
Plans for the future?
Keep going, keep looking for more fun ideas to build, and improve on what I've already got! A huge thanks to all the great people who have used my apps over the years, it's has been and continues to be a great experience!
Feel free to leave any feedback or questions in the comments, I've got no problem in being an open book on this.
Thanks for reading!
Chief Eternal Optimist
For those of you technically inclined, here is what the apps "are made of":
- Ruby on Rails framework
- Hosted on Heroku (Total of 6 2X dynos and 2 2X Workers for background processing). Yup, the new OrderlyPrintv2 is resource hungry!
- Intercom for customer service and messaging.
- Recurly for payment processing on OrderlyPrintv2, Shopify for the others.
- Balsamiq for mockups
- Pivotal Tracker for project and task tracking