Dealing with a Shopify Design Agency when starting your an E-Commerce store [What you need to know]

Personally, I don’t do Shopify pages, our agency focuses on WordPress development and marketing only, but you are right to use Shopify… E-Commerce businesses – especially those who want to make their own modifications – are perfect for Shopify.

An agency sent me an Estimate or Proposal, and I don’t know what to make of it

One thing that’s difficult when parsing an Estimate/Proposal is that everyone has their own terminology so ‘basic SEO practices’ can mean any number of things. Instead, I’m going to just write a basic understanding of what each piece might might mean, in hopes of giving you some context to apply it to your business.

👉🏽 Firstly, Shopify is a good choice. There’s a reason it’s so popular and that’s because it’s perfect for so many people/businesses/uses.

Anyone building you a Shopify site will be able to “provide” that, because it’s Shopify that makes it easy. At no point should they be able to use that against you as a negotiation tactic, or to charge more.

👉🏽 When you see things like ‘basic SEO practices’ in a Proposal, they’re likely just talking about industry standard, and a ‘best in practice’ style of coding.

This is great, but for the most part I wouldn’t let an agency frame that as a value-add.

You, as a potential client, should expect them to use best practices when building your site, so instead… it should be framed as what you’re paying them good money for.

On the topic of SEO, I’m giving a brief introduction to SEO, as it’s something every business owner struggles with, and it doesn’t need to be that difficult.

Shopify websites through the lens of SEO, and big picture thinking

Modern SEO is about the unity of three things: Content, Links, and Social Media.

Content through the lens of SEO

Content through the SEO lens (ie. showing up in Google, or Reddit, or Bing, or YouTube) needs to be real content where people are actually learning something. Something they actually give a shit about.

The smaller bits of social media (ie. where you’re posting pictures of product) isn’t enough from an SEO perspective.

For it to be considered content, you want it to be a resource that people will actually seek out, and find helpful. Frankly, without this, there is no SEO… and I don’t think it’s in a companies best interest to outsource that, as I don’t think an SEO agency can possibly fulfill it; the bar to quality is too high, you need a specialist who knows the lingo, slang, etc.

Once you have relevant content that people actually need/want/seek, then your job is to build links to that content, so that more and more people see it. This will be a key to your strategy because to make good content costs real money, and building links helps recoup the costs.

An important part of building content is distributing it

Don’t get caught spending 100% of your time making content and 0% of your time promoting it. Instead, spend 10x as long making the content, and then 100x as long promoting it (ie. getting links back to your site).

The a key point of those links are that more people see it.

Many SEO companies will sell links but they’re from no name websites that aren’t getting traffic.

They’ll flash metrics like Domain Authority (DA) or Trust Flow (TF), but it’s much much much more beneficial to focus on links from actual websites that get real traffic.

They’ll send real visitors to your website and from those visitors you’ll get real sales.

Social Media through the lens of SEO

Social Media through the SEO lens is a microcosm of content & links. It’s why Twitter won’t die.

Even though you can’t link from posts on Instagram you can link from profiles, and you can tell people websites through video, etc.

Where things are really potent is when you do some cross over

Cross over! This is something I find hard to provide as an agency as it relies on the actual business too much, but I think it’s amazing when company is already doing it and makes our job as an agency way easier.

Doing one-hour live streams where you’re walking the viewer through how you’re curating, or making, or sourcing/packaging/whatever your products is the type of stuff people want to see!

Hercules Candy are masters of promoting themselves on social media

Enter Hercules Candy!

I think the the crew over at Hercules Candy do an excellent job on social media, and I use them as an example often. They constantly document their days, and everyone who works there is part of the family that has a moment on camera, whether they’re introverted or not… they see that as a positive!

They turn up the heat and overlap links, content, and social media, blending everything together

At 3:45 they switch from an interview style to music/montage style and those are the parts they pull apart and turn into Instagram posts.

Okay so that covers what it means when a Shopify development studio says something about ‘basic SEO practices’.

What does this agency mean by ‘CSS Customization’ on my Shopify site?

When you see the term ‘CSS customization’, that probably means you’re starting from a Premium/purchased theme of some sort, and they’re offering to do a 1-or-more rounds of changes atop of that.

This is a pretty standard pattern for launching a website, and a good option in a lot of instances.

To keep costs down, remember you don’t have to customize a Shopify or WordPress theme

The only thing I’ll add to this is that it’s not a necessity. You can just go with the theme itself, which is something a lot of people don’t consider, and I think is the best solution out there.

When you’re first getting started, I recommend that.

A word about premium Shopify themes

The reason themes are as cheap as they are, is because they can be sold 10,000 times, but you’re getting the value of a solid designer (plus a proven design that’s selling well, meaning others are also seeing the theme and liking it, etc.) that you would if you contracted a custom developed theme for a few thousand dollars.

That designer’s still put thousands of hours put into learning their craft, and there have been tens (often hundreds) of hours designing the theme, etc.

So while the first thing people often do after buying a theme is start tweaking it, I recommend going in the opposite direction and keeping everything as stock as possible… even down to the fonts… Leave them alone! Those were picked for a reason, that designer likely knows more about typography than you ever will – stand on the shoulders of giants!

Instead of tweaking, find a theme that’s closer to what you need.

The benefit of this is that you no longer need a developer at all. You simply buy the theme yourself, and apply it to your website.

Your only cost outside of that is the time/sweat equity that goes into setting up your pages. The upside of that sweat equity is that you will know your way around Shopify once done, and will know what is and isn’t possible without help.

This agency is talking about ‘Custom backend Development’

When you see the term ‘backend development’ in a development Estimate or Proposal, they’re talking about custom programming/custom development, where they’re not simply changing the aesthetics of the website, but building in custom functionality beyond what Shopify offers.

They’re probably talking about a totally customized theme – or extending a premium Shopify theme – where you’re taking some functionality that isn’t provided out of the box with Shopify, and creating additional functionality.

This is great and eventually every business should get to a point where they’re doing this, but I typically recommend against it for new businesses as it’s costly as is, and custom development is a precarious minefield, full of costly surprises. It can be done, but it takes a bit of luck, and keen sense of what’s needed vs. what’s nice to have… those two can be hard to discern between one another when you’re caught up in the project financially, emotionally, etc.

When it comes to decisions on backend development, it’s always a good idea to:

  • Take a step back
  • Think big picture
  • Look at the bigger pieces

This will often leave you with the realization that you’re fussing over a bunch of nothing, and that you’re ready to launch your new website!

A scene from your newly launched Shopify website after party

You probably don’t need custom backend development for your first Shopify website – Shopify is already wildly successful. Take what they’ve provided you, and run with it! 🏃🏻‍♀️

Personally, I recommend you grow into this type of option.

Start small, and only jump up to a totally customized site when it’s glaringly obvious that you can no longer manage the website as it is because it simply doesn’t function enough to manage all the business it’s driving.

Until then, keep it simple, keep it cheap, worry less about aesthetics and more about functionality – that is, the functionality of turning visitors into customers.

So depending where you are in your journey, I recommend going with one of the smaller options in the early days, and I think once you get to a point where you need custom backend development, you will have a good idea of what’s needed, and why, how it will benefit your sales/income, etc.

Once you’ve decided not to customize your website just for the sake of customization (a classic trope for the modern wantrepreneur), you can instead worry about what actually matters: making what you already have the best it can possibly be!

Many, many, many million dollar businesses have been started with nothing more than a Shopify theme, and you need not be the exception.

Here’s my advice in a nutshell for my tl;dr people…

Start small, conserve money, build in smart directions.

So, that’s my quick & dirty business advice for someone looking for a new website, who doesn’t know what they want or what they need.

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