Gavin Terrill knows what it’s like to build on Shopify from the ground up, and has some fantastic advice for those just starting out.
Hey! What’s your background, and what get’s you out of bed every morning?
I’m an unashamed software geek. I got into it early when my Dad got a TRS 80 in the late ’70s and I would transcribe BASIC programs on to it so I could play games.
Since then I’ve worked in small companies through to major banks through to VC backed startups.
At the end of the day, I love building software that people find valuable so that’s what gets me out of bed every morning.
What motivated you to start Zetya?
As I moved into management roles in my software career I found I missed the programming side of things, so I was looking for something that allowed me to keep my hand in.
To be honest, I didn’t really have any grand designs for the business initially. It was a side project. But over the years it kept growing until in January 2015 it had reached a tipping point and I was able to make the leap to a full time gig. I haven’t looked back since.
What did it take to build and launch the initial product?
Our first App (“Searchify”) was an autocomplete tool. It was one of the first Apps on the store. Since I had a day job I would work on it a few hours every night, hacking away until the wee hours. It was a very simple App but I learned a lot from it. It was my first exposure to Ruby on Rails.
How have you attracted users and grown the company?
My strategy initially was to expand our portfolio of Apps so when I noticed a lot of folks building daily deal style stores the next App I created was ‘Products Assistant’ which basically allowed you to schedule when products/collections would be published. This App has been moderately successful. Today most folks are using it to synchronize inventory between variants (for bundled products).
I was also doing some theme customizations earlier on and was approached about putting a datepicker on a product page to capture rental booking dates and from this, ‘BookThatApp’ was borne.
However, there is a balance between servicing the needs of the existing Apps and building out new ones. I’d rather have 3 Apps that do their job well than 6 that are half done so at this time we are focussing on building out the existing Apps before launching new ones.
Why did you chose to build on Shopify’s platform?
I was living in Canada at the time and my friends from back in Australia were running a flower shop. I was pushing them to get online and offered to build a site for them and after looking around a bit I quickly determined the ecommerce options at that time consisted mostly of antiquated, bloated and complicated self-hosted systems.
I figured there had to be a better way and that’s how I came across Shopify who had about 400 shops back then. I really liked their approach (simplicity first), and being cloud based it was perfect for my florist friends who could care less about managing servers.
Tobi (Shopify’s CEO) was, and still is, truly a technology visionary. Many of the ideas that companies are struggling to build into their platform even now were there from the start with the Shopify platform.
Fast forward to today and they continue to roll-out innovative features on a rock solid platform, and the incredible growth of the company reminds me of the aphorism “a rising tide lifts all boats”. I’d say it is a great platform to build on.
What’s your business model, and how have you grown your revenue?
Our model is based on recurring revenue, so in a nutshell it’s all about increasing the number of shops using the product while managing the costs of hosting, support and developing new features.
The strategy for growth is around reducing churn and increasing use. Drilling down on that a little, we want to make sure our Apps are providing value to the store owner so the metrics I most focus on are app adoption and engagement. These guide our decisions in terms of where to invest time and resources to achieve growth.
What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced and obstacles you’ve overcome?
Early on we had problems scaling up from an infrastructure point of view, and we had reliability issues including an outage of 4 days for one of the Apps that made me sick to my stomach and barely able to sleep.
After that incident we moved to Amazon Web Services (AWS) and now have amazing performance and plenty of capacity that can be dialled up or down as demand dictates. We’ve also invested heavily in monitoring and alerting so now I sleep better at night.
From a product point of view, we’ve really had a tough time getting POS support rolled out. Our BookThatApp customers are screaming out for it but we were stymied initially by technical hurdles. We are closing in on the finish line now I’m glad to say.
The other challenge is around support. I moved back to Australia six years ago and most of our customers are in North America so there were plenty of late nights. We now have hired help desk staff to give us business hour coverage across the Americas and the UK (and I still cover this side of the planet), and we’ve improved our documentation substantially.
What are your goals for the future, and how do you plan to accomplish them?
There are a ton of features in the backlog for each of the products. As we grow we’ll continue to invest in the engineering side in order to deliver on those.
I’d really love to bring Searchify back to the App store as well. We took it off a while back as we couldn’t provide the right level of support, but my previous job (at the largest pure play online fashion retailer in Australia) taught me a lot about what a good search solution is and I feel there is a gap we could help fill.
What are your biggest advantages over your competition?
As a boutique software shop we strive to be accessible and approachable. When you contact us you are talking to a real person, deeply knowledgeable about Shopify and our Apps, who can provide quality advice and solve problems directly. You won’t be passed off to another department or asked to see if this “other article” solves your problem.
What’s your advice for others who are just starting out?
I’ve introduced the platform to quite a few developers now. I’m a big fan of using a Lean approach so my first piece of advice would be to validate the idea before investing too much time and effort on it. Build the App but don’t worry about publishing it on the store initially. Instead, find a few stores that are willing to actually pay for it and work with them closely to get feedback on what is valuable versus what is adding friction.
From an expectation point of view, first be prepared to spend a lot of time on support. Second, you aren’t going to get rich quick I’m afraid. It takes time to build up a substantial user base to the point where you can cover costs.
Where can we go to learn more?
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