I’ve tinkered with Shopify App development here and there for the past few years. I’ve sadly never taken the plunge and actually released something onto the store, but one of my goals for 2023 is to launch an indie Shopify App.
A little background…
As a software engineering manager, I don’t have as much time in my day job to keep my coding skills sharp or explore new tools and platforms emerging in the landscape. Most of my time is spent on keeping the engineering flywheel moving: backlog grooming with product managers, reviewing code, coordinating with cross-functional stakeholders, and most importantly, keeping my engineers unblocked and free of burnout.
There is a lot of demand on an engineering team’s limited supply of time and focus, and it’s up to the manager to ensure that limited supply is being used in the most optimal way. In practice, this usually means telling product managers with big dreams no 😭 (or, said more diplomatically, it involves explaining the tradeoffs and challenges of implementing their ideas and trying to find more incremental ways of working towards their grand vision).
As your team and backlog grow, you naturally have less and less time to actually pickup tickets and contribute code changes. A good analogy my mentors have given me is that you go from being a player-coach to a full-time coach. In my experience, this is pretty much true. You still occasionally handle the random ticket that pops up when the rest of your team is in deep focus, or you’ll patch the late night security issue that needs to be addressed ASAP. But you aren’t drilling these skills every day like the individual contributors on your team are.
It’s my opinion though that engineering managers, especially younger ones like myself, should try as best they can to keep their coding skills sharp and combat-ready. Side projects are a great way of achieving this. Especially app development, which gives you the opportunity to explore new ideas and domains you don’t normally get to.
It is to the benefit of your junior engineers who deserve a manager that can mentor and inspire them. It is to the benefit of your senior and lead engineers who need strong backup at times they’re deep in the trenches. It’s also to the benefit of your collaborators in product and design, since building an app necessarily forces you to think like a product designer.
So why a Shopify App?
In my prior work at startups like Eat Purely (now defunct) and Molecule Mattress (acquired by FXI), I was exposed to the Shopify developer platform. It’s one of Shopify’s smaller businesses, but in my opinion it’s their crown jewel. Comparing the Shopify App Store to the dominant incumbent Apple App Store, there are a few notable differences:
- Strictly Business: Shopify is an ecommerce platform that provides a SaaS product to B2B customers. The App Store allows those businesses to gain new superpowers within the platform, add widgets and themes to their storefront, and nurture their customers in the pre-purchase, purchase, and post-purchase stages. And as of 2023, businesses on Shopify are eating apps up. It is also a generally accepted truism that B2B customers are easier to sell to, as they are usually motivated and willing to pay for products that will boost revenue, lower costs, or save time. B2C customers on the other hand usually are motivated by brand recognition, and businesses have to burn a lot of money to grow a loyal customer base (another valuable lesson I learned at Molecule). Zuck might have the runway to spend $10B on VR in the hopes that it will eventually become a profitable B2C business for Meta, but for an indie side project, that is a non-starter.
- Less Saturation: Over time, this has become less true. A few years ago, the numbers were around 3,000 apps, they’re now closer to 10,000 apps. However, it’s worth remembering those numbers are still a drop in the bucket compared to the Apple App Store. Like anything in life, success will follow a power law, but Shopify’s own stats make it clear developing an app will likely prove to be a good use of time for the average developer.
- Shopify Values Developers: Not to throw shade at Apple, but in the past few years, Apple’s relationship with developers has been on rocky waters, with their revenue sharing policy being the primary point of contention. Shopify on the other hand, has made massive investments into growing their developer platform over the past few years, and recently adopted a 0% revenue share on your first $1m in revenue each year. Which for the majority of app developers, effectively means you’ll never have to share your revenue. (Of course, there is a $99 fee to access this revenue share model, but it’s one-time and this is still better than Apple, who charges developers $99/year just to play ball.)
Why an App Store?
The reason most software purchased today is produced, marketed, and sold by companies vs indies is because it truly takes a village of talented people from multiple disciplines to provide software and internet services at scale. I experience this everyday in my role as an engineering manager at Numerator. As a side project, you don’t want to spend more than a few hours per night or on the weekends building and supporting your software.
Lead generation, customer acquisition, onboarding and education, customer support. These are fundamental to the success of any product or business, and not a single one of them involve writing code.
App Stores provide a ton of value to indie developers by automating the lead, acquisition, and onboarding pieces of your app. It puts your target audience in front of your app at the right moment, and allows you to devote most of your time to designing features and writing code. (Win!)
Of course, if your plan is to build the next Martech unicorn on the Shopify App Store, the built-in reach and distribution will likely not be enough to get you there. But it is an absolute no-brainer for building and shipping a side project. 😎
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