One night, while surfing around WordPress.tv, I found a video from a fellow named Matt Jones on e-commerce and WordPress. Matt is the guy behind Storefront Themes, a niche theme store–’niche’ because their themes all work in conjunction with a plugin they have nothing to do with: WP e-Commerce (WPEC). This struck me as both very interesting and a little risky from a business perspective, so I decided to reach out to Matt and see if he would be willing to chat with us a little.
WPT: You’ve made a successful business centered around a plugin that you didn’t develop, which is a unique business model. How did Storefront Themes come about?
It really came out of necessity for me. I was working for a company that went under. I didn’t even know they were in trouble until my paycheck bounced just before Christmas in 2008. I spent the first eight months of 2009 trying to get whatever freelance work I could, until I had a request from an e-commerce store to sell golf balls. I knew I was going to use WP e-Commerce because, at the time, it was the only one I knew of. However, I noticed that there weren’t any themes available for it that really looked like a store to me. I decided to design a custom site that plugged into the database tables created by WPEC, and I made a deal with the site owner that I would give him a price cut if I could resell the theme when I was done.
Two months later, I released “WPA Storefront” on ThemeForest. It took off immediately, and I had plans for doing more, but ultimately decided that I could accomplish more by way of support if I ran my own site. It was a bit of a gamble, as I had to take about 3 months off to work on a new theme and build the support site, but it seems to have paid off. The site went live in August of 2010 and has seen very steady growth since then.
WPT: How closely do you work with the developers of WP e-Commerce?
Initially, not very much at all. This changed with the release of version 3.8 of WPEC when they went to custom post types. I found they were listening to my needs a bit as far as templating, and they’ve been great at giving me traffic, so for that reason alone, I’m pretty loyal to them. I got to meet Dan Milward finally at WordCamp San Francisco and have worked with the staff at http://getshopped.org to fix any bugs in our themes, etc. We’ve looked at other platforms, but we feel they’re inferior and that WPEC is on a better path. We’ve been asked to develop for other platforms, but we always steer people back toward WPEC for serious e-commerce jobs. I think Dan recognizes that in us, so there’s a mutual loyalty there.
WPT: If you listen to the chatter online about WP and e-commerce, the standard line is something along the lines of “WordPress is great for small to medium e-commerce stuff, but isn’t built for heavy duty e-commerce sites” Do you agree or disagree, and why?
As far as handling the actual bulk of having thousands of products, WordPress is not limited at all. Most all of the major shop plugins have now moved to custom post types. That means products are stored and queried from the same table as posts are and can use similar functions. The short answer is this: How many blog posts can WordPress handle? That’s how many products WPEC can handle.
Apart from that, variations on products can require a little more PHP memory when creating them if you have thousands of variations for one product, but this is where WPEC, in my opinion, is way ahead of any other WordPress e-commerce system. As far as the finer points of a robust e-commerce platform, WPEC is the best at product variations, tax settings, checkout forms, shipping, and coupons/marketing.
WPT: For someone looking to put together their first online store, why should they consider using WordPress and not another hosted app like Shopify or Etsy?
It really comes down to how much flexibility you want to have. What if your Shopify store grows and you have money to pay a developer to do some custom things? With a closed system like Shopify or Etsy, you can’t modify the functionality of the shop. You can make styling changes, but with WPEC and WordPress, you own the code! That means you can customize the functionality to do whatever you want. Not to mention the fact that there are WAY more themes available for WordPress, and they can all be modified to adapt to an e-commerce situation, so you can end up with a more custom design as well.
WPT: In what is becoming an increasingly competitive WP theme marketplace, how do you differentiate yourself from the competition?
Being that this is my first foray into an online business, I have been pleasantly surprised to find out that good, old-fashioned business principles still apply. It basically comes down to this: look after your customers, and they will look after you. It’s that simple. Brand loyalty is really powerful in a saturated market like premium themes. Customers have too many options and find it hard to choose. Inevitably, if they’ve had a good experience with you before, they’ll be more apt to go with you when choosing between themes. To achieve brand loyalty, you need to establish trust with your customer. This comes down to one word: support. We try to have the best support materials of anyone in our market, including full-time support forum staff and high-def video tutorials.
The second reason we stand out is simply because we’re in a niche market. We were the first-to-market in terms of a theme shop that develops WordPress e-commerce themes exclusively. There’s a few more now, but it’s still only a handful of shops even when you include the other platforms.
WPT: What’s the most common mistake you see from people starting out in e-commerce?
I’m sure there are a lot of them, but I find I deal with too many perfectionists, and they never get off the ground as a result. What I mean to say is that if I were running a site selling apparel, I would put my top sellers in first then launch the site and start to have orders come in while I continue to add other products. I think it’s important to get your first sale as quickly as you possibly can. If you can do that, it’ll stir up a desire in you that will push you to work harder. Sadly, many people delay their launch over and over as they keep working on their site to get it perfect.
Here’s a newsflash: If you don’t change some portions of your site in the first month, you must not be listening to your customers. You might like the way your newsletter signup box looks on your site, but if no one is signing up, then you need to put it somewhere else. Don’t be so arrogant as to think you know exactly where to put everything. Launch your site, get some feedback from your customers, and adapt according to how they shop…not how you want them to shop.
WPT: Do you do any site development, or are you strictly focussed on theme development?
Like probably any other theme developer, I dabble in the odd freelance project here and there. However, Storefront Themes provides me with my full income, so I get to be a lot more selective. For example, right now I’m working on my dream project. Don’t tell anyone– –but I’m doing the redesign for TheOneRing.net, right now. It’s more of a labor of love as I’ve been a fan of the site for almost a decade now. The design process is taking a while, and the site won’t be done probably for a few months, but again, Storefront Themes offers me the opportunity to work on things like this.