Side-project: How we successfully outsourced our Shopify App

It all started with a Spanish Bible app (more on that later)…

Hey folks, I founded Credible — a simple, little Shopify App that was built 100% not by me.

I work full time in software sales, have a brand new, 5-week-old son and a little house with a lawn that I have to mow every week. Life has a lot of demands on my time. I’ve bought countless ‘learn to code’ programs with the dream of teaching myself how to build my own business and have yet to finish one, despite my best intentions. For Credible, I wanted to learn how to build it myself but I just didn’t have the time. Lame excuse, I know.

We launched recently and I wanted to share with you how I was able to successfully outsource the entire project from A to Z.

The Idea

I read an article a while back about a kid that hired a Romanian programmer to build an app for him. His idea for the app, at its core, was pretty ingenious. He hopped on the app store and looked for top grossing apps that “sucked”. He found a Spanish Bible app that was selling a bunch, but wasn’t very well built. Took the idea, rebuilt it (added audio) and made $75k net in the first year (100k in the second)… That stuck with me and is pretty much my new strategy with most everything I work on nowadays — what is someone else selling a lot of, that I could market or do better? After-all, every new idea I have has pretty much been done before already.

Here’s that article by the way

Recently, I saw a really cool feature on a popular e-commerce blogger’s website that showed recent orders in an attractive little pop-up on his store. Through Builtwith, I could see he was using Shopify for his cart. I have some experience with Shopify from previous side-projects. After a few minutes I found the app on the Shopify app store and saw that this particular one had 100% positive reviews. Most people were saying things like ‘great idea’, ‘love the idea’, ‘really simple and effective’, ‘increased sales’ and so on.

After a little more digging, I realized the app had zero inbound links to their site and basically no marketing whatsoever. It was really hard to find anything about it at all, really. The app appeared to be a little side project by a theme developer that had been uploaded and left to sit. It was still selling (seemingly well) through its organic listing on the app store. I loved the concept and I had a few ideas on how to improve it. There are about 120,000 Shopify stores, I figured there was room for two of us.

I knew that Shopify was a great platform to attach a business to. The average Shopify store installs 3 apps and there are hundreds of thousands of stores & growing by the day. Plus, its a recurring revenue model, which is definitely attractive.

Problem was, I don’t know how to code, so I would have to hire it out. Outsourcing the creation of a business is a lot like what I would imagine it would be like to drop off your kid at a daycare for the first time. But, I didn’t really have any other great options. No one I know can build it and it’s really hard to convince a developer to build your entire product for equity these days. I would have to fork out some cash.

Figuring it Out

I’ve used Elance / Odesk (now Upwork) plenty of times before, but it was mainly for websites and landing pages. This was much different. Shopify’s API, backend UX with multiple settings and a whole lot more that I had no idea about.

First, I started on Shopify. They have a bunch of resources for developers of apps & themes, much like Apple does for iOS. I learned that Shopify gives you 80% of the revenue for each app you sell on the store. They don’t charge anything to use their API, its a pretty similar setup to Apple. So now I know I’ll need to have a connection to each store that downloads my app and that each store would net me 80% of whatever price I sold the app at. The average Shopify App will gross a little over $2,000 in revenue per month (according to Shopify) — not bad for a little green house / passive income business.

I hopped over to Reddit and searched posts and comments for everything related to Shopify Apps in various subs. I found about 15 users with relevant posts or comments and built a little Google Drive spreadsheet. Sending direct messages to each person on the list, I asked pretty general questions like; ‘was it worth it?’, ‘what would you change?’ etc.

Surprisingly, I got a lot of responses. They were a mixed bag:

Sounds like they didn’t validate the idea before jumping in.
Hire the right developers! — definitely potential though.
He was right — the development of ours ended up costing close to $6,000

This was a great experience overall. I wasn’t discouraged from moving forward, but it did help set proper expectations about what I could expect to make. This confirmed what I had in the back of my mind all along… Credible would be a fun side project and I just hoped to learn a lot along the way.

Next, I setup an E-Lance job to see what type of developers were out there and what type of bids would come in, hoping to get a ballpark of my anticipated costs.

The results were honestly, pretty lame. None had any specific experience with the Shopify or their API, which would be crucial. I knew that if I hired someone strictly based on cost, I would run in to a ton of issues later and end up paying for them to be fixed one way or another. Not to mention pissing off a bunch of customers in the process.

Note — It was pretty apparent that reviews were going to make or break the app. Shopify ranks apps by their reviews, with the best performing apps at the top. Having a bunch of negative reviews would pretty much kill any hope I had to build a small income from the project. We had to make sure everything was super easy and worked really well. That meant finding someone legit to help us build it.

So now I have to find a real developer. My only thought was, $$$$, which I don’t have a lot of. Even if I did, my wife would probably tell me to go pound sand…

I started on ol’trusty Google, but there were very few results. Shopify is a big company and there are a lot of apps on their platform, but it’s still pretty new, so there weren’t a ton of options… Most of the results were just Shopify developer resources from their own site. This was going to be harder than I thought.

I bounced around the web a lot and eventually landed back on Reddit to do some more searching. We found a couple of independent developers (mostly of Shopify themes) and I reached out with a quick direct message, keeping it simple and straightforward. A few responded and we connected via email to talk more.

There was some back and forth and eventually we set up a Skype call. One in particular was very professional and quick to respond. On the call he explained that he charged 4 figures per week for development (I think just to make sure we were serious about the project, because his actual quote was very reasonable) and that our idea was not only very do-able, but also should have a quick turnaround time.

Our next step was to deliberate on the proposal and contracts, making sure all the loose ends were buttoned up. We also checked with a source on the Shopify team to make sure our app would be a good fit for the store before getting started.

Shopify gave us the green light to begin development

Got the green light, signed the paperwork and sent our new developer the first payment to begin production.

What I’ve learned outsourcing design and development work

Before I move on, I wanted to share some insights based on what I’ve learned outsourcing multiple projects now.

#1. You don’t know what you don’t know.

I’ve heard that several times now and it makes perfect sense after working on Credible. There are so many things that I just never considered when working on the app. Little settings that some people would probably say were absolutely crucial. They were things that I didn’t even know to consider in the first place. This is where paying more for a legit developer pays off tremendously. Ours was able to add some great insights to the project that really added value. Do you homework, but also make sure to talk to people with more experience than you.

#2. Garbage in = Garbage out.

The people you’re hiring don’t really care about your app or your idea. They don’t care if it makes money or if it completely flops (they just want to get paid). So if you don’t ask for something, it doesn’t get done. Its really important to have a very complete list of requirements for your project. List out every screen, button, phrase, title and letter in detail. You can’t make any assumptions that your developer will just get it. If you give incomplete instructions, you’re gonna get an incomplete outcome. I’ve found it’s always best to give examples of what you’re requesting. Draw it out, find it online, take a picture etc.

#3. Use Milestones.

Don’t pay for the entire job up-front and don’t wait until the end to pay. You should make small payments along the way once certain milestones are hit. You can choose to break this up however you want, we had even payments for 4 milestones and then 1 final (slightly larger) payment for the development once the app was approved to go live on the Shopify App store.

The milestones should also have clear timelines laid out for each. Milestone 1 delivered by X date and so on.

#4. Do your due diligence.

Before you even hire a developer, make sure that your product is actually going to be able to do what you want it to do. For example, make sure your product is actually something that Shopify, or Apple would approve in the first place. Shopify has listed out what type of apps they do and don’t want. Imagine if you paid to have a shopping cart abandonment app built and then Shopify denied it?

Updated list of the type of apps Shopify no longer accepts..

#5. Plan for the future.

Make sure you have plans to make future improvements to your product, support the product and fix any unforeseen bugs. Write this into the contract before moving forward. Of course, you’ll have to be reasonable with this, but obviously your developer should fix any bugs that pop-up (especially during beta testing and early release).

Seeing it come to life

We knew that too many settings and customization options would be a bad thing, but we wanted the app to cater to everyone. I think we found a good balance. We worked back and forth with our developer each week on the progress. Both of us had great communication, despite a significant time difference (Gavin is from Australia). Email and the occasional Skype call worked just fine. In total, we exchanged over 200 emails and conversations.

Here’s an example of one of our notifications

We also talked to several shop owners along the way who were a big help in making recommendations on changes to the design and the general ‘feature-set’ of the app.

Here’s a really ghetto Photoshop mock-up I created for the admin panel (that we scrapped, thankfully) before beginning development.

And here’s some of the final screens.

I considered having a custom design done for the user interface of the app. Fortunately, better minds prevailed.

Its my nature to over-think really simple things. Like spending extra money to have the user-interface professionally designed. Luckily, I have some great people around me to keep me focused and on the right track.

We decided to keep the settings and the backend as simple as possible and just keep it looking like all of the other Shopify settings that each customer uses to manage their store. That way its a more natural environment for them, since they are constantly using Shopify’s system to manage their store.

Now we needed a landing page, logo and some graphics for the Shopify App store listing.

I started with 99designs — created a post, added a bunch of examples & websites I liked on top of a clear outline of the project. The benefit of 99designs is having a bunch of submissions to choose from and then tweaking the winner to get it just right. The problem was that we only had a few submissions, despite going with one of the more expensive packages. 99designs was cool and they agreed to cancel the project and refund the money. I’m not sure why we didn’t get any submissions, because I spent a lot of time describing exactly what we wanted.

Afterwards, we asked around to a few buddies and connected with a great designer in New York. She got right to work and was very reasonably priced (perhaps too cheap for what she does). All in all, it cost us $800 for a landing page, logo, some banners, favicons and icons for the app. I also should mention that the landing page and the banners had GIF animations that showed an example of Credible in action.

Shopify recently changed their policy on allowing GIF banners on the app store. So we had to use a static image about a week after having this designed.

Everything came together nicely in the end, even though it took a bit longer than I’d hoped. We had a few stores beta test the app and make some suggestions on improvements. Our developer made some simple tweaks and we were finally ready to submit to the App Store. **Fingers crossed**

The Shopify Partner team was great. They were excited about the new app and approved it after one or two requested changes. After about a week, Credible was added to the app store. We’re now live and we’ve already had several installs on the first day! I’m not sure exactly how they found us, but I think it was probably a tweet from the Shopify team that mentioned us.

Here are some screenshots of stores using Credible.

One of our first installs — the notifications look great on their site.

Costs to Launch Credible:

$5,750 for Development
$800 for Design
$10 for the Domain Name
$49 for Unbounce to create a really basic pre-launch signup page
Total Cost = $6,609

This was my first digital product or app and I learned a lot along the way, which is what its all about!

You can check out Credible here:

Our Developer (hire this guy, he’s amazing):