Walling's Stair Step Method - Shopify (Part 2)

October 02, 2023

A visual representation of Shopify (Growtika, Unsplash)

Introduction

So, continuing from the previous post where we talked about the Stair Step Method, we will be diving into Shopify and how to use it to build a business. Before even setting up the environment for all this, I should try to find the idea what to actually build. I can peruse through the app store and see what’s there. But also, I could, as a proof of concept, build something simple I already understand, like the white pad idea I had. Probably I wouldn’t get any traffic, but at least I’d get acquainted with Shopify and its app store better, and how and what to measure once something’s out there. I think this might give me a better vantage point to make better decisions onward. And, if someone actually finds my tiny solution useful, it’s even cooler.

Exploration of Ideas

Man looking out from a mountaintop (Isaac Davis, Unsplash)

The emphasis is on finding something extremely tiny to build, not to overwhelm the scope on first iteration that’s more exploratory. But before that, I should go through the app store and see all the competition for what I am trying to build. Still - what is it that I should start with? Some useful things I have experience with is simple automatic image formatting, removing duplicate images by investigating the bytes, a truckload of different XML transformations and integrations, product recommendation algorithms, sorting algorithms, but also outside productized scopes I also know how to discriminate between good and bad SEO.

I could also join some Slack or Discord channels where people talk about their issues, so I could identify their needs better. However, at this step, I’d rather first get acquainted with a single small app I already know is useful to someone (at least in my brain). I do, however, want to not do it in a braindead way and still try to estimate its position in the competitive landscape first.

Image Editing and Optimization

Some of such competitive situations I could take advantage of is to notice a simpler type of app on the marketplace that people are using, yet is disliked with a low review score, and with not a lot of contenders. An idea with a lot of competition seems to be image background removing apps, and that makes perfect sense. Some such popular ideas might still be good to look through in order to identify how are the better ones being developed UX-wise, especially if I go with an image idea that needs a more careful UX approach.

But I see that this image editing and optimizing market on Shopify is of course completely dominated by Tiny with pristine reviews; also mentioned in the Startups for the Rest of Us podcast, so all kinds of upside potential in the image editing market here is probably pretty nonexistent at this point in time.

XML and CSV

CSV data (Mika Baumeister, Unsplash)

Working in my previous job what I’d noticed is that nobody does CSV to XML transformations very easily or intuitively, and tend to ask more information about the contents that are actually inferrable from the contents themselves. Even before all the LLM craze. There are ways to use good defaults there avoiding any work for the end-user. But this might also be more useful in the realm of custom web shops, not the ones built on top of Shopify that is in its nature already way more standardized with data feeds. I’d need to see a need for these kinds of products first. Still, if any XML or similar file format feed integrations are necessary, then this is what I am already proficient at. I think because of my expertise, this is perhaps even the best route to start with.

So let’s just search for “XML” in the Shopify marketplace search and see what’s out there. Okay, it appears exporting to Google Shopping feed is one - that makes sense. With a 14-day free trial though, a model that I am not a fan of. I feel like a freemium tier + paid options are much better for the customer generally. But still, the average rating is 5.0 with 340 ratings, so that’s also not a good avenue to pursue. The XML space at least at a first glance seems pretty depleted.

Narrowing Down

What if I find a filter in the search for popular low rated apps? There doesn’t seem to be an easy way for this. I see that the low rated ones are big businesses that have just put their one of many integrations on the app store. A random thought in my head asks whether I could just fix their apps for them by doing the integration better, but I decide against it, because that is their brand and there’s way too much risk with this. But even Hotjar is only at 3.7 rating.

I feel like I need to find a way to find a problem space that is not as big, or a domain where apps aren’t as frequent. Something I could try is something like analyzing the average image color and sentiment in the store, or text sentiment. I could match that sentiment to the brand identity the customer wants to portray and make the store super aligned with their vision. Even though there are dangers of going too big with this for the first iteration, but LLM integrations help a lot here on keeping it tight.

Going with this idea, the big picture of this would be to create a toolkit for moving closer to your brand image with your shop by ensuring that the customer-facing details are correct. This could be achieved with the help of some thoughtful, yet small, analytics about your store here and there. If I search for similar ideas already in the store, like “product text”, hoping to find AI tools, I see none the like. A lot of good tools in the results are to A/B test, and to generate new things, but nothing that would assist the expert eye of the marketeer in the sense I am thinking of. I think this type of product would be critical for me should I start up a new e-commerce store myself, because making sure the copy is correct is such a chore. But more importantly, you have to make sure that the way you offer your products makes the customer feel part of something greater.

In summary, I would build something that nudges you towards your defined vision of what your brand is. This is contrasting heavy data driven decision-making tools and standard marketing. The only thing I do not like about this idea is me paying for e.g. ChatGPT’s API. But then again, this is probably a non-issue, because if this is actually being used, then that’s a good problem to have. I might only face issues providing free tiers, but even for these I can probably sensibily limit the use of these myself.

Idea Validation

Now, I have a couple of paths forward if I do go with that idea. One, I could ask around on these communities whether this is something that would be interesting to anyone. Two, I could think of my perfect example scenarios where this solution could be useful and meaningful to a model customer.

I’ll take a quick look if there’s any good Slack or Discord channels I could find for Shopify developers. MicroConf Connect itself is interesting for more general discussion building bootstrapped businesses, but it probably doesn’t have a lot of heavy Shopify users. Shopify Partners Slack has more than 30k people, and I am trying to find the place where users are expressing any issues with their business there. But I didn’t find any merchants on this Slack. The Shopify Devs Discord, also large, seem to have dedicated roles with merchants being one of them, leading me to believe it might be a better place to find merchants. Still, I didn’t find any chats for merchants in that Discord. So where are they? It seems that even the questions some merchants asked on the Discord were quickly directed to Shopify’s official help pages instead. I even asked and got an answer that Shopify do not operate any merchant communities other than their own website. But still, I would imagine there would be general e-commerce or tech communities for which Shopify is a significant subsection of the discussions there.

I did find that the official web forum Shopify Community gets closer to what I am looking for. But it seems a bit too handcuffed by Shopify itself. It seems like the thing I am looking for doesn’t truly exist. I think there’s a reason and it’s not that no one has tried. I think it’s probably because in larger communities the merchants might be bombarded with too many messages, and people trying to sell them their services. I also checked out eCommTalk Slack that came up high on Google, but that is virtually dead.

I asked about validating marketplace ideas also on MicroConf Connect’s Slack channel. As I was writing the question down I just realized Rob had mentioned the exact same topic on one of the podcasts that doing customer development and asking around might take way longer than just building that simple app, going to market quickly and seeing what sticks. So I might just go with that, but I’ll take a break and see what others think.

A Bit Later

I got many good answers to my question from the community. The gist of these answers confirmed Rob, but added extra context. The gist is - you just got to shoot your shot multiple times, but the app landing page on that platform matters for inner searchability and attractiveness for the customers to even install your app. There’s no better way to test the market on these platforms. With any decent app you should be able to get merchant feedback in one way or another and iterate on that. Later on, you can try contact the merchants directly to ask for feedback.

So that, in essence, confirms the fact that whatever I build should go out fast.

Summary

Navigating the Shopify marketplace for gaps in the market is difficult, but seems like there are still ways to just go for it and see what sticks. I have decided to go with analyzing text sentiment and see where it takes me.


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