From 0 to 0.1: the Journey of Bootstrapping a Small E-commerce Plugin to a Scalable Business (Part 3)

Fierce Competition & Commodization

Well, it’s been 3 and a half years after I published part 2 of the series. Since I was busy working on different projects, I didn’t have the time to update the series for a while. Time flies. My app has changed a lot and the Shopify ecosystem is very different from the early days.

For my Shopify app, SEO Product Optimizer (SPO) is slowly growing with more than 1,000 merchants joining on board. The first version of SPO was published in Dec 2016. After 4 years of bootstrapping, I don’t make a big-money but I feel very proud of myself to keep everything going.

During the time, I didn’t ever stop customer support work for one single day and I had consistently deployed fixes to SPO. Now the app becomes more stable in terms of performance. However, the Shopify apps market is more competitive. As a maker, I am too focused on the making process. Distribution is more important to up the game.

Let’s make a quick recap!

What I’ve done: ?

  • Launched an URL shortener called
    In 2017, I tried to separate a core social sharing function of SPO into a separate project. It could help users to set up a custom link preview in a minute for any URL. Unfortunately, there were too many spammers abusing the service.

    Though I’ve enforced more measures like porn detection, whitelist, I couldn’t stop new spammers trying to game the service. My server was shut down by the service provider Digital Ocean several times. So I had to close down the service.
  • User Growth
    The user number was slowly growing. But now the organic growth is stagnated. There’re simply too many SEO apps on the AppStore. I need to find a way to reignite the growth engine.
  • Revenue
    Pass through $1000 MRR and the total revenue passes through $20,000. It’s not a big money but I believe a small success will lead to more lucks.
  • Side projects
    • Launched the fastest Startup / SaaS Product Name Generator called
    • Launched a SaaS affiliate programs collection site called
  • Clone app

What I’ve mastered: ?

  • Technical: I am good in web development with Django / Python, Vue, server setup with Docker
  • Business: How to deal with Shopify merchants. How to get them onboard. The upcoming trend of the Shopify platform.

Is Shopify AppStore still a profitable market for bootstrapping? ?

Yes and No. In 2020, the competition is at an unprecedented high level. You can find at least 10 apps in any category. For SEO, it’s even worst. There are more than 50 apps in this single category. Many companies try to commoditize the market by providing free apps.

I believe these companies are trying to use their apps as a lead magnet to upsell other services like themes, custom development services, etc.

My Strategy:

  • Focus on solving real SEO problems ?
    While other free SEO apps are providing a basic version, I will focus on solving real SEO problems, which merchants are eager to solve them. Listen and focus.
  • Make SPO as an Investment ?
    Under the COVID-19 pandemic, most merchants are trying to lower the cost due to dropped revenue. I definitely feel the pressure from merchants to perform cost-cutting. When the market strains, merchants can only keep the necessity to stay afloat. My app costs $15.99 / month, which is very cheap. However, I definitely have to change my marketing preposition to be at the top of the mind. In other words, SEO => more organic => more revenue
  • Share precious resources to my users
    How can a paid app win a free app? What’s better than free? A paid app can share a precious resource to its paid users while free apps can’t do the same. There are simply too many free users to drastically increase recurring costs.
  • Develop a new app with synergy ?
    While I won’t spread myself thin to develop many apps, I will consider investing in a new app if it’s possible to upsell to my existing users. Though I will take the move cautiously. If it’s possible, I hope I can launch a free app as a lead magnet.

Fake reviews ?

Now many apps are filled with hundreds or even thousands of reviews. Newcomers can hardly win the incumbents without a strong market reach. The opportunity left for indie developers is obviously smaller.

Some app developers like Booster, Avada, Hextom are trying to dominate a category with reviews. The strategy:

  1. Develop some free apps to accumulate a user base
  2. When they find out a high potential category, they will become the predator. Just replicate the functions of the existing players and publish their own version.
  3. Boost the app ranking with incentivized reviews in a short time. It’s a sure-win formula. Unless Shopify takes action, small players can hardly compete.

Recently, Shopify took the Booster apps off selves as a publishment for malpractices. I hope Shopify will continue its effort to make the AppStore as a level-playing field for large companies and small developers.

Unfortunately, it’s getting hard to discover good apps for merchants. All apps are filled with hundreds of 5-star reviews.

Shopify upcoming changes in August 2020:

Though the competition is keen, Shopify has improved the app ecosystem. After watching the Shopify Partner Town Hall, I will share the highlights here:

  • You can charge annual billing for your app
  • The authentication flow has changed to JWT. The processing time is significantly reduced (not tested yet)
  • There’re more than 1M Shopify stores. Instead of selling physical goods, more users are using Shopify to sell digital services, subscription services, b2b / wholesales which means more opportunities to theme designers or app developers.
  • There will be more developer tools rolling out to empower Shopify partners like Shopify CLI tool

Personally, I think Shopify support for Python is quite bad. The whole development system leads toward Node.

What’s next for me?

I am not sure yet. I’ve been trying hard to add new features to SPO. SPO is gradually pivoting to an All-in-one SEO app instead of focusing on solving a single problem. But the marketing work is not catching up.

This year, I am trying to research which niches are profitable and doable for me. I don’t limit myself to Shopify apps only. However, I don’t find any field suitable for me at the moment of writing. Finding an idea is easy. But it’s hard to find a profitable idea suitable for me.

You may ask “What are the profitable fields?”

If you have a good understanding of the problem space, then it’s a good niche for you. A developer can easily copy the functions in your app. But he can hardly copy your domain knowledge.

Keep Grinding!


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