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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Shopify App Marketing: The Ultimate Playbook By An Independent Shopify Partner (Updated in April 2020)

In the last 6 months, I have been looking for different ways to market my new Shopify App – SPO. If you are also a newbie in Shopify App business, I am sure you feel headache about how to let other people know your new baby.

Note: According to the FTC disclosure requirement, there are affiliate links included in the post. By clicking the links, I will earn commissions at no cost to you. Also, the links are essential to start a successful project.

Read more Shopify App Marketing: The Ultimate Playbook By An Independent Shopify Partner (Updated in April 2020)

What’s your biggest challenge in Marketing?

Happy New Year, SPO Users!

Happy New Year, SPO users! I wish all of you’ll have good lucks in 2018.

Thanks for staying with us for the year. We appreciate your opinion whether it’s negative and positive. When there are new support emails coming to my mailbox, I always feel happy because it means our users really care about SPO and we can do better to fix their problems.

Personally, I would like to thank for your support as the Customer Success Officer in 2017 (as you saw in our notification email).

In the coming year, we’re planning what features will help our store owners to get more values from SPO. If we can do a little bit better, our store owners can be beneficial to the little changes we made.

The Findings:

From our user research, we found that:

  1. Store owners care about social sharing of products or the store’s home page
  2. Store owners want to look good when visitors share their online store
  3. Store owners want visitors to generate referral traffics via social sharing.

If you find other issues more critical, please let us know by filling in the form at the bottom.

What’s next?

Currently, we are researching how we can help our store owners in SEO and Social Media Marketing. Most SPO users want more sales and more traffic.

But I would say that there is NO silver bullet.

There is no app that you can install and Boom!… more sales coming in.

What we aim is not making a silver bullet. Instead, we strive to make a painkiller to solve your hair-burning problem. Finally, it can help you to save time and increase efficiency. And you’ll be happy to pay for the solution at a reasonable cost.

Enroll To Join Our Pilot List!

If you have any opinions regarding new features in SPO or new problems you wanna solve, please feel free to let us know. It would be great if you describe it more specifically so that I can put myself in your shoes.

If you wanna join our pilot list, you can also fill in the form (5 questions only) below. You can leave a remark if you have other painful problems to solve. We may be able to help you think in another perspective.

We would be eager to hear from you. 🙂

Enrolled users will receive notifications to try the latest features before other users.

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Bug Fixes Update v1.4.1: Bugs Appeared with More Products

Dear SPO users,

Thanks for your support to SPO. We have noticed some bugs where there are around 1,000 products in your store.

The bug fixes are listed as below:

  1. The search button is not working when there are around 1,000 products
  2. The next page button of paging is not working when there are around 1,000 products
  3. A hint pop up will be shown in the onboarding process. Users should turn off Adblockers to read the configuration instructions & edit the theme.liquid file.

If you like our App, please leave us a review on our Shopify App Store listing page! We’ll need your support in order to continuously improve the app.

Please let us know your opinions about SPO. We would be happy to hear from you!

New Feature Update v1.4: Optimize your blog for better SEO

Dear SPO users,

Thanks for your support to SPO. We have noticed more users are using blogs to drive SEO for their stores. Therefore blog section will be included in SPO now.

Here are some latest features update or enhancement:

  • New features:
    • You can optimize your blog posts just like your products now
      • keyword research for your posts (boost post rank for niche keywords)
      • set Facebook and Twitter share image
      • show related posts for reference
  • Fixed:
    • Optimize installation process
  • Enhancement
    • Content editor can support link and image editing
    • Store display URL will change from URL to user’s domain

And more are coming!

If you like our App, please leave us a review on our Shopify App Store listing page! We’ll need your support in order to continuously improve the app.

Please let us know your opinions regarding the update. We would be happy to hear from you!