An honest reflection of what it takes to build a successful Shopify Plus agency
Since becoming a Shopify Plus Partner, DotDev has replatformed some of Australia’s leading fashion, jewellery and homewares retailers including Calibre, Tony Bianco, alice McCALL and Patagonia.
In this article, co-founder of DotDev, Brendon Nicholas, provides an honest account of what it took to build his Shopify Plus agency and some practical, non-fluffy tips for anyone else hoping to do the same.
Consistently do great work
The most important thing is to deliver results by meeting client requirements consistently. Everything else is secondary.
Don’t get distracted by events, conferences, buzzwords and the latest shiny new toys — focus on what matters most for your clients and the services you provide.
Every project has its challenges and the game in agency-land is to overcome these to deliver for your clients again and again.
Results speak for themselves, and doing great work leads to referrals and loyal clientele. This is your best growth strategy — it was for us. The following tips should help with this.
Make time management a priority
As your business grows, do what you can to minimise context-switching by planning your time well. Group your meetings and ‘deep work’ tasks in blocks of time as much as you can.
Even if you become a champion of time management, that doesn’t necessarily mean that you will get any more time for rest. I still only get 5–6 hours of sleep most nights, but my time awake is organised well. Most of my days are spent removing blockers, assisting the team and attending client meetings/calls, and nights are reserved for ‘deep’ work and strategy-related tasks when it’s less likely I will be interrupted.
Figure out how many hours of sleep you need to function and work out a system that works for you around that.
Set processes early
I tried 20–30 project management tools over the years before finally settling on Productive for our team. I am extremely particular when it comes to processes. I spent a lot of my downtime during the early days of DotDev documenting and creating assets, tools and processes to make it easier for us to scale. To this day we still use improved iterations of what I started then.
The best way to consistently achieve outcomes over time is by following delivery processes that are scalable and as easy to follow as possible. Make your processes the path of least resistance for your team.
At the same time, so much of project management is finding the right balance between following processes and being flexible. Projects very rarely run exactly to plan — you have to roll with the punches, adapt and manage the changes as they happen.
Focus on communication
One of our clients once remarked that our team were developers who speak plain English. This was a great compliment for us, since it meant that we did a great job communicating technical details and terms, and our client didn’t feel ‘in the dark’ throughout the project.
The ability to communicate clearly within the team, and to partner agencies and clients is paramount to building a successful development agency. We are starting to see it as a key unofficial requirement when brands search for a Shopify Plus agency partner.
What has helped DotDev to be excellent at communication is to outline roles, responsibilities and communication methods of all key parties before a project is kicked off. It’s detailed enough that there is no room for doubt as to who and how any potential issues should be raised with.
These ‘communication rules’ may seem somewhat draconian but in the thick of a challenging project, it helps immensely — and it produces lasting professional relationships.
Hire carefully, and treat your team well
Talent is hard to find, let alone in a niche industry like the one we play in. What’s worked for us in terms of attracting and retaining talent is to treat our team well. This also extends to our partners and brands we work with.
This goes beyond team building activities, catered meetings, study days and office perks. Those are great, but the most important thing is to support and back our team members so they can do their best work. For us, this includes daily check-ins, raising and removing blockers, weekly 1:1s, daily standups, project retros and more.
This has been fundamental for us in terms of hiring and retaining the talented people we have on our team.
Know your niche
Why should someone choose your agency over the rest? What aspects of development and Shopify Plus do you ace?
It’s normal at the beginning for early-stage agencies to take any jobs coming their way, and quickly find a niche if they hadn’t already.
We found our niche very quickly — we specialise in custom Shopify apps and providing the best third party integrations for fashion, homewares and jewellery ecommerce retailers. Knowing what makes us different and leveraging that for our marketing has helped with attracting the right clients for our business.
Discover your niche and make sure it’s very clear on all your marketing from website to social media.
Market yourself well
Maximise the benefits of being a Shopify Plus partner and use all the channels that are at your disposal to stay updated on product updates, and update others on your wins. Submit an article to the Shopify Partner blog, let your Shopify representative know when you secure a new client and get involved on the Shopify Slack channel.
Even though word of mouth is the best marketing channel, don’t rely solely on that. Pick 1–2 channels e.g. content marketing, Google Ads, and experiment with how that works for your business.
Seek out partnerships
The success of DotDev can be attributed to our strong partnerships with other agencies, brands, consultants and most importantly, between the co-founders. Karson, Aaron and I have mutual respect for what we each bring to table, and we’ve held onto the ‘partners, not clients’ ethos of DotDev since the very beginning.
By approaching our relationships as partnerships, we focus on what matters and seek to deliver results in the short and long term.
It is a challenge to build any business, and this applies when it comes to building a successful Shopify Plus agency. The good news is that there are always things you can do to improve and overcome these challenges. The bad news is that there is always a new challenge waiting for you, even as a profitable and growing agency.
Stay committed to your cause throughout the highs and lows of building your agency. Keep your vision front of mind and remind yourself constantly of your goals. Work hard to get buy-in from the right people and surround yourself with a supportive team both professional and personally that understand and share your vision.