"Is this the year Shopify releases something that makes my business obsolete?"
Tu Pham, the co-founder of Cleverific Inc., asked herself this question often when launching Cleverific’s first app, Edit Order, and so do many other Shopify App Developers. Pham and her co-founder, Andrew Le, knew with their intimate knowledge of the platform that it was the right decision to build on Shopify.
But they had to learn to build for the long-term, which means building for the 20 percent of merchant needs, as Shopify focuses on building what most merchants need, most of the time.
"Despite the fear that there could be product duplication, we believed in the platform and trusted Shopify. We also knew when we launched Edit Order that Shopify would probably eventually build some version of order editing in the admin, so we were planning for a long time, and that's how all Shopify App Developers should look at it," Pham says.
I sat down to talk with Le and Pham about their shared experiences of overhauling an existing app with tons of challenges to a successful app with many positive reviews that numerous businesses rely on for their order management operations.
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Long-term business partners, new company cofounders
Le and Pham cofounded Cleverific Inc. in 2015. That same year, they acquired and relaunched Edit Order by Cleverific on the Shopify App Store. Years earlier, they were brought together through developer and design consulting projects for companies like Johnson & Johnson.
They were also working together on many Shopify-related projects during that time, building stores for SeaVees and other merchants. Their like-minded business philosophies inspired them to create Cleverific.
"We came across Edit Order through FE International, which is a business brokerage for ecommerce acquisitions. Tu and I talked, and we made an offer and decided to go ahead and do it in the summer of 2015," Le says. "Our main vision was to have an incredible app we could work on together and make it something merchants needed with an incredible customer support experience."
Our main vision was to have an incredible app we could work on together and make it something merchants needed with an incredible customer support experience.
A new take on an existing app: relaunching Edit Order
When Le and Pham acquired Edit Order, it was overflowing with negative reviews, but they already knew from previous merchant experience that the clout of any Shopify Partner is built on good customer service. Today they have an average app rating of 4.5 stars!
"Originally, the server wasn't reliable; merchants were starting to feel abandoned," Le says.
Le and Pham first hired a full-time, high-tier support person to demonstrate that Edit Order could support merchant businesses.
"Support isn't separate; it's integrated into engineering to work with the team to get things done for merchants," Le says.
Support isn't separate; it's integrated into engineering to work with the team to get things done for merchants.
Their first external move as cofounders was communicating with the existing merchants using their app. Once they were confident with the level of support they were offering, Le and Pham sent out an email introducing themselves and sharing their vision and promise for supporting Shopify merchants.
Once the Cleverific team successfully relaunched the app, it was time to create a plan for growing the business. A key strategy was keeping a finger on the pulse of Shopify's product releases to make sure Edit Order stays above the competition to keep serving merchants in the best way possible.
You might also like: Customer Empathy in Overdrive: Rewind’s 3 Principles for a Successful App Business.
Cleverific's six-point framework for scaling a tech company
Founders need to take a calculated risk when developing an app. If the merchants’ need becomes big enough, Shopify may want to offer some form of it natively. But that possibility shouldn’t deter you because competition fuels a strong business.
"Healthy competition is good," says Pham. "You'll always have a competitor, and part of a good strategy is to prepare your business to pivot and not let the fear of competition consume you."
You'll always have a competitor, and part of a good strategy is to prepare your business to pivot and not let the fear of competition consume you.
Pham and Le often talk about ways to manage the platform risk and continuously grow the business. They created a six-point framework to make sure the company—and merchants—continue to succeed:
1. Build an integrated support team
The customer service and support team is a pillar of any business. This team represents the face of your company and is your audience's direct line of communication. While common practice is to offload support to a third-party company, a solid and connected customer support team means your audience will feel heard and have a stronger sense of loyalty to the company. It will also mean that if your customers are happier with their support and new features, you'll see increased profits because you listen to your support team.
The support team knows the merchant issues that are going on, so their knowledge is key when prioritizing our iterations for product updates.
"Cleverific, early on, decided that this role cannot be off-shored and will be directly integrated into the day-to-day operations of the product and engineering teams," Le says. "The support team knows the merchant issues that are going on, so their knowledge is key when prioritizing our iterations for product updates."
2. Listen to merchants—they're the experts
Assuming or guessing what your audience wants isn't going to cut it if you're making products they can't live without. Your audience is your best source of information, so learn about their needs directly from them. Effectively listening can make your business better through improved marketing techniques and product launches, and there are many approaches you can take.
"We've prioritized things that we think are table stakes for the platform for editing and order management, but also things that we know Shopify will probably never do because it's too niche for their general use-case," Le says.
Cleverific finds unique use cases by listening to merchants through multiple channels, such as:
- Documenting and going through support conversations to find issues and use cases
- Digging into the data and analytics of how merchants are using the app
- Having one-on-one interviews and discussions with merchants
- Hanging out in the same online spaces and forums to see what merchants are talking about
- Sending out surveys to existing clients
3. Communicate with Shopify
Shopify is a company that knows the importance of communication and prides itself on its relationship with its partners and merchants to continue making commerce better for everyone. At Shopify’s annual partner and developer conference, Unite, they allow partners to speak, learn, and network to foster these relationships and create open communication.
"We're very grateful and appreciative of that kind of relationship with the Shopify team," Le acknowledges. "When Shopify releases new APIs, we provide as much feedback as possible about what our use cases are, what we'd love to be able to use the feature for, and how those APIs can help support those use cases. We're also Ruby on Rails experts, so when we see bugs in an API, we'll get down to writing test cases that prove the existence of the bug, so Shopify is aware. Having a great partner relationship is a two-way street."
Having a great partner relationship is a two-way street.
4. Pick a niche: build for the 20 percent
When prioritizing features to build for your app, try to build for a merchant's custom needs rather than general needs. Shopify will usually build features that support 80 percent of merchant use cases, leaving a percentage of niche features and requirements that partners can offer.
"When prioritizing features to build for your app, try to build for a merchant's custom needs rather than general needs."
"There are over a million Shopify merchants, and if there's still 20 percent that have some niche needs, that's at least 200,000 businesses we could help. We always knew that when Shopify builds a platform feature that directly competes with our product, they're going to build for the 80 percent use case. Our job is not to compete against that 80 percent, but to embrace and extend what that allows merchants to do," he said.
When building Edit Order's niche features, Cleverific decided to build for merchants with more custom products and expanded on Shopify's native editing with advanced editing options on existing orders. Merchants can perform address changes, switching customers, adjusting shipping rates, and adding cart discounts.
5. Move fast to adapt to new Shopify updates
A team that is prepared to move fast gives your company the advantage of being one of the first to market with a product release tied with Shopify.
"Our ability to move fast comes from our ability to get things done well, but not perfectly. So we tend to have a laser focus on just one use case," Le says.
"With Shopify Flow as an example, we use product sprints to help us brainstorm design and delivery on the Flow integration,” he adds. “And we only had 30 days. We had 30-50 ideas that we whittled down to one and made that the sole focus of what we were implementing, knowing that the goal was to be a Shopify launch partner with a compelling use case."
Being agile is more manageable with a small team, but adopting new processes becomes crucial to succeed and grow. It requires constant fine-tuning of internal processes to determine what works and what doesn't to move quicker.
It also means keeping up to date with any new product launches or breaking changes happening on Shopify. The team is constantly monitoring the Shopify developer changelog and staying informed through the What’s New for Developers newsletter.
6. Diversify your product portfolio over time
Adding another product to your company’s portfolio has many advantages like boosting brand image, business profitability, and staying above your competition. Pham and Le diversified the company’s product portfolio by acquiring ZenLocator in 2019 to ensure Cleverific kept meeting merchant needs and expanded their client base.
With Edit Order, Cleverific's primary market is merchants with online stores. ZenLocator allows Cleverific to capture brick-and-mortar retailers and CPG businesses by offering businesses a store and product location tool.
Teams are constantly evolving
The main goal for Shopify and Shopify App Developers is to make commerce better for everyone, and the most successful businesses aren't afraid of change or doing things differently.
"Cleverific found success as a Shopify Partner by being scrappy and flexible, and creating a framework to scale the company."
Cleverific found success as a Shopify Partner by being scrappy and flexible, and creating a framework to scale the company. They took a failing app with poor reviews and turned it into a tool that many merchants rely on to run their business with an average 4.5 star rating and 268 reviews.
Developers and founders will always have to evolve to meet merchant needs, and a guiding framework makes it smoother. Cleverific found it vital to:
- Move fast
- Listen to what merchants have to say
- Pick a niche
- Communicate with Shopify
- Make sure the support team is top-notch
- Diversify your product portfolio when you can
Commerce is constantly fluctuating and improving, so if Shopify changes in a way that affects your app business, there are always opportunities to offer more value to merchants.
How do you continue to evolve your app? Let us know in the comments below!