Leaving for the Competition: The End of an Incredible ride at WooCommerce and the move to Shopify

originally posted on joelbronkowski.com July 24, 2016.

My journey of becoming a ninja, an Automattician and beyond

When I joined Woo 3.5 years ago, who would’ve thought I’d become besties with an American- Norwegian, my two bosses, an Italian dancer in support, a theme designer from Portugal, the co-leader in marketing who thought I was full of shit, and a developer in Holland. I certainly didn’t, and that’s been the amazing thing: more than the places Woo took me, Woo allowed me to meet incredible people. And I’ve witnessed the beauty of our diverse team, with a wide variety of skills, overcoming some amazing challenges.

New chapters tend to begin when we least expect them to. As of Monday I’ll be joining Shopify, and to mark this significant change, here are some thoughts on the journey up to to today and the decision I had to make.

The past: Wonderful times at Woo

I’ve led a varied career. If there is anything I’ve done well it’s been proving my ability to be thrown into any situation and, for the most part, thriving. Woo took a chance on me; many friends said outright that I fell ass backwards into the best gig ever.

Woo gave me a chance to really throw myself into the deep end, repeatedly. Many of the situations I jumped into were scary — I’d turn to Mark and Magnus (and others) and — like someone who’d just bungie jumped for the first time — be thrilled just having survived! Working for Woo was like being handed the keys to a Ferrari and having the owner say take it for a spin. I loved every minute.

I’m grateful to a lot of people: Adii for rolling the dice on me and believing in me; Mark and Magnus for, trusting me and encouraging me along the way. More than what we’ve accomplished as colleagues I was fortunate to form meaningful friendships, including with my bosses. I’ve always loved the humility and down-to-earth nature of the leadership at Woo. In many ways I think the culture, brand and story of Woo is a big part of what made us stand out and that I helped foster and carry that forward into the thousands of interactions I had with people.

Beyond building an amazing product, we cared about our customers, partners and each other. It felt like we were part of something meaningful.

Some highlights, and an acquisition

Many of the Woo highlights for me required us taking some pretty big risks! Meeting the whole team a few months in at WooTrip 2013 in Leiden, Netherlands (which coincided with WordCamp Europe) was a memorable experience, and the first time I met people from the WordPress community. I was blown away at how accessible people were and left the conference feeling excited. I got to spend time with people I’d only read about and followed: Brent Shepherd, Per Esteban, Kim Gjerstad, Dre Armeda, Brad Williams and Noel Tock were just a few that were all quick to befriend me, and it made me feel I could succeed in the WordPress space. Later that year, Pressnomics only further instilled excitement and confidence that I could use my skills to make an impact.

Everywhere I went I gathered little nuggets of wisdom and knowledge that helped shape decisions at Woo.

Accelerating partnerships was my greatest endeavor and challenge. We had no program, and then we stumbled upon a huge opportunity to build better product, gain brand equity (notoriety) from working with companies and generating revenue in a more sustainable way. Every company you speak with is different; I had to develop at least a baseline understanding across a vast array of areas. Plenty of times I was out of my element, scared, or suddenly on calls with team of reps from an array of large eCommerce companies — at times with little idea what was going on.

Attending and exhibiting at IRCE in 2014 — after persuading the leadership team to do so, was the first time we met all these companies face to face. I’ll never forget sitting there at breakfast with the leadership team in Chicago and knowing I needed to brief them, all the while not really knowing what to expect.

WooConf in 2014 was a huge undertaking. We often considered pulling the plug on it because it just seemed like too much to handle. For weeks, checking the ticket sales counts would be the last thing I do before I fell asleep and the first thing I do when I woke up. I’m pretty certain that the for Maria and I we both gained a few gray hairs in pulling off these events in 2014 and 2016, I’ll surely miss it.

And then, in May 2015, the acquisition.

Being acquired by Automattic and facing a new group leaders I’d only heard about, was a big one. Sitting in Matt’s apartment, waiting to hit ‘publish’ on the news we’d kept a secret for months is something I’ll never forget. It was the stuff weird dreams are made of (good weird dreams). What followed was a whirlwind of integration, new things, and new ways of doing things (like suddenly being dropped into Automattic’s slack room -going for 50 to 400 is pretty insane). The only thing I can equate it to is scuba diving: you jump off some ship into the unknown and it takes a while to catch your bearings as you descend into the unknown.

Building and running a team was both a great joy and challenge. It’s been amazing to watch the people I helped bring on or refer to Woo flourish and I have full faith they will continue to excel.

My decision to leave Automattic

Lets face it. I am not a developer, I speak no code language, my relationship with WordPress has always been about the people and about using my core skill of strategic relationship building, to grow revenue. I have built a network of relationships and an understanding of what it means to grow an eCommerce platform — if and when I were to make a change, moving over to an eCommerce service provider within the industry I’ve come to know, made increasing sense.

In 2015 I met several Shopify reps at various conferences in Europe. I was incredibly interested in learning more about how they operated and kept in touch with them a bit in that time. In those interactions I became increasingly interested in their platform. Shopify approached me early this year, and while I was slow to make the choice to leave Woo, it became increasingly clear it was the right decision for me.

A former partner of Automattic, supporter of WordPress and a pioneer in commerce, Shopify is a formidable and amazing company. The opportunity they presented me with was one I could not ignore. They are looking to better support and grow their partner program in Europe, the Middle East and Africa (EMEA), and offered me a position heading up a team that will be focusing on managing partnerships in this region. I’ve loved managing partnerships at Woo and foresee a ton of positive things for Woo in the future, but I am excited at the challenge of joining Shopify.

In fact, I’ve been a Shopify fan for a while, often suggesting it to friends and family that aren’t ready to take on WordPress. I’ve had a chance to get to know the team over the past months and while I was initially skeptical but they won me over with their passion and commitment towards partners. Is it a risk? For sure. But I know from my time at Woo that fear alongside risk, whilst being entrusted with something big, is where I come alive.

Difficult decision, tricky timing and goodbyes

I had to make decisions about my departure and was aware of the sensitive nature of moving to a competitor. There would be no baiting another role to create a negotiation, it was a stay or go situation and as I’d chosen go, wasn’t able to discuss the change with my leaders or colleagues.

Immediately after WooConf 2016, I headed up to Ottawa in what was actually the peak of my uncertainty about moving away from Woo, coming off the buzz of WooConf. I watched most of Unite Conf during the flights and two things stood out: a commitment to create value for partners (and the ability to do so) and product innovation. Meeting the team made me realize that in spite of Shopify being a fairly large company they feel like a family. The passion and excitement for their product and journey was infectious. At lunch I heard about the hiring process and journey many of the employees have been on. The underlying feel at Shopify was a deep-seated belief that they not only have the best product but they believe in the future of their platform. It was a bewildering but exciting time!

Leaving was unceremonious. A departure from a remote working environment is always going to feel a little strange: the moment you are removed from all channels is not a nice one. I didn’t have a chance to wish my colleagues farewell via the traditional channels but hope many of them will find their way to this post, and know that I have only well wishes for everyone at Automattic. Anyone at Automattic or Woo should feel free to pursue other opportunities without fear when the time comes to move on to new adventures.

A bit about Shopify

The world of commerce (not just eCommerce) is huge and I truly believe we’ve collectively just scratched the surface. I know this because of the growth I’ve seen at Woo and in the industry. One thing I’ve always been fascinated by in the partnerships and business development space is the role of developers, agencies and really all system integrators. Collectively these stakeholders make a platform what it is, both by helping the end user and by representing solutions. I believe in the value proposition Shopify has created for developers and their ability to accommodate them and help them grow.

In contrast to the current position of WooCommerce, Shopify is wide open to taking on new apps, enabling thousands to generate revenue via their platform. In terms of growing partnerships and empowering communities and markets I’m so excited about helping businesses grow. In parallel with this openness they are able to ensure quality, a stable environment and provide support in a sustainable way. They are doing an incredible job of helping sellers to sell everywhere, and I feel fortunate to be joining them. With the launch of Shopify Plus I am so excited to be part of growing Shopify’s enterprise solutions.

If you don’t mind the rain and the grey

I’m excited to be able to work for Shopify from London, where I live with my amazing wife, Annchen. We’ll be here for the foreseeable future and we love hosting people so to my a11n colleagues and all the people I’ve worked closely with in the eCommerce world: hopefully, our paths will continuously cross again in the exciting world of eCommerce, partnerships, and whilst enabling as many people as we can to sell on the web. Gladly working for Shopify does not mean the end of the road in terms of my involvement in the WordPress community so it’s just a matter of time before I see many of you at a WordCamp.