When you are running an agency and handle large eCommerce sites, there are a lot of twists and turns. Zach Stepek from Mindsize shares his beginnings with WooCommerce and what he has learned over the last few years.
In episode 37 of our podcast, Mendel Kurland and I chat with Zach Stepek from Mindsize.
Zach tells us a bit about Mindsize before we move into his first experience with WooCommerce. It’s an interesting story that is a perfect example of diving in head first.
The story takes us in a few directions: From the point where he knew he was going to be focusing on eCommerce to launching his business with his partner Patrick Garman.
Zach shares his insights into what it takes to run an agency that focuses on helping store owners with both high performing and scalable eCommerce sites.
I ask him about what the process looks like when a client comes to them on a specific platform with a problem—and when it’s time to replatform.
As with all our conversations, it’s filled with gems and tips that you can use with your own projects.
What we talked about.
- WooCommerce 3.9 release
- Nexcess / Liquid Web Restructures Their WooCommerce Managed Hosting Plans
- Patrick Rauland Joins Nexcess as Product Manager
- A Better Lemonade Stand 2019 Audience Survey Results on eCommerce and Entrepreneurial Insights.
Where you can find Zach
Bob: Hey everybody, we are back. This is BobWP and this is another momentous occasion. We have one of our new co-hosts. Mendel Kurland, an amazing guy. Hey Mendel. How are you doing?
Mendel: Hello. What's up Bob? It's fun to be here for the the inaugural Mendel and Bob WooCommerce extravaganza. Yeah, I mean the Bob and Mendel, I didn't mean that. Put myself first, sorry.
Bob: Hey, you know, whatever. M B, B M. Anyway, we will move on and we have a very cool guest here at this. I'm telling you, he is like one of those mainstays in the WooCommerce space. Somebody that you can always depend on. And he's full of Woo and awesome guy. We welcome Zach Stepek. How you doing Zach?
Zach: I'm doing good. How are you guys?
Bob: I think Mendel's doing good. Are you?
Mendel: Great. I really liked that Zach is full of Woo. I love that, brimming with Woo. That is good. We shall all be brimming with Woo by the time we are through.
Bob: Exactly. Zack, for those that don't know you or maybe they know you but don't really know what you're up to, can you give us a quick, in a nutshell background type of thing and then we'll dive into some more stuff.
Zach: Sure. So I'm Zach Stepek. I'm the CEO of Mindsize. We're an agency that does a lot in the WooCommerce space, but more specifically, we build high-performing, incredibly scalable eCommerce sites for the world's greatest brands. And that is a, in a nutshell what we do. Just to put it a little further we help store owners and we help them run more effective businesses. We help them make more money. So if you're a store owner and you want to make more money and you want to run a more effective business, then that's exactly what we help you do.
Bob: How did you get into WooCommerce yourself?
Zach: So I got a call on Thanksgiving from a friend Noah Currier, who is the founder of an organization called Oscar Mike. And Noah was having a bit of trouble with his WooCommerce site. They had run an interview with Jeff Joniak, the voice of the Chicago Bears on Thanksgiving day during the Bears/Packers game. And the poor little VPS that they had been set up on that also had their email server on. It was not enough to handle the load. They couldn't scale and they got about, I think 12 orders before the site just died. Everything went down and we went in and it took about four hours to get the site back up and running because he didn't know the login to the VPS.
I had never worked on the site before. So when we finally got the VPS rebooted it was four hours later, all the traffic was gone and the opportunity had been missed. So I spent a year and a half after that working on site at Oscar Mike working directly with their team, doing everything from pulling and packing orders to building out new websites and handling infrastructure. And that is how I was introduced into the Woo world in a big way. I had built a WooCommerce site much earlier than that for a record label.
I was helping to run we were going to sell digital downloads of our music through the record labels website and I had built a site then way back when woo themes was still making themes and we were using white light, I believe is the theme for that site. So, you know, I had had exposure to it before, but never at the level where I was involved in every aspect of running an eCommerce business.
Bob: Wow. Yeah. That's going back a ways. WooThemes. Sometimes it seems like a foggy distant memory. I think that was probably one of the second themes I bought was a Woo theme, I don't know when that was, maybe 2009 or something like that. But yeah, that does take us back.
Mendel: Bob, I want to get back to this whole pack picking and packing thing. Tell me why were you doing that?
Zach: Well, because we were a team of five and when you have five people and you get a hundred orders in a day, you, everybody does what they need to do to get the orders out the door.
Mendel: Ah, so you were making their site more efficient and in return you were graced with the excitement of then picking and packing those orders.
Zach: Yeah, I mean if you're going to get a site to where it can handle more traffic and more orders with the same staff, you're going to have to figure out how to use that same staff to get the orders out the door.
Bob: Was it that particular job where you thought, okay, I'm probably going to be working with WooCommerce a lot? Or was it even earlier on that you knew your focus would be so much around eCommerce?
Zach: Yeah, it was definitely earlier on. After the time at Oscar Mike, I spent almost two years trying to work in corporate America again and it just wasn't the right fit for me. And so I started applying for jobs as an eCommerce manager and doing you know, you commerce site development and I got a job with a company called Clinton electronics here in loves park Illinois and they're four minutes from my house, which was ideal. And they needed a new website. So I built a new website for them. Worked very closely with the folks over at WP engine on that.
We ended up being the first site on a new plan that allowed for a little more scale with an eCommerce site that was a business to business site that required people to apply to be able to buy the items and even see pricing. So we had it in catalog only mode unless they were logged in. And on that site I got to do some things I had never done before. Like creating product pages that were incredibly detailed. So we were able to go in and create product pages that had long form content combining kind of a landing page with with the product page itself. We were able to build these really amazing product pages that had videos incorporated in them and we were using a page builder to build out that content so that the marketing team could do that using the description for the product and the page builder to just build these really, really cool description pages.
We also built out this whole specifications page system and a plugin that let you tag videos to products in a, in a tab, a downloads plugin that allowed showing executable zip or PDF files and a downloads tab if they were attached to the product and this crazy accessories plugin that probably is not as performance as Patrick Garman would make it. But it goes through and it finds all of the accessories that are tied to that product by re-purposing upsells and cross sells because we didn't need those on the site. So repurposed upsells and cross sells and every applicable accessory for each product shows on the accessories tab. So really, really cool. Deep customization. If you look at the Clinton eElectronics website at clintonelectronics.com and then you think that this is a storefront based theme with customizations, really a pretty amazing what we were able to get out of the storefront theme.
Mendel: So I'm curious about Clinton Electronics, this was the second one where you embedded as an employee, right? And then at some point, presumably you became an agency with with employees of your own. So at what point did that, did that happen? And I'm curious if you can tell us who your first like, Holy Cow, I can't believe I got this client.
Zach: Well that was actually the story of the beginning of Mindsize. So I was at WordCampUS in December, 2016 in Philadelphia. And Mendel, I actually think that's the one we met at.
Mendel: Ah, yes, I remember it well.
Zach: But I was there and this guy that I had barely known at the time Chris Lema came up to me and said, Hey, I hear you do a lot with scaling WooCommerce. And that was because I had been speaking on scaling WooCommerce for awhile. He said, we're going to be doing some crazy things at this new job. I just started and I want to talk to you about how we might be able to work together. Well, the new job he had just started was obviously his position at liquid web and the things he wanted to do together. We're building a managed WooCommerce hosting platform.
Mendel: By the way, I just want you to know, I didn't know this story, so that wasn't a plan or something. I literally had no idea.
Bob: Good homework done there.
Mendel: Okay. Yeah. I don't know what that says about me, but anyway, I'm curious to see where it goes.
Zach: So we we signed our first contract before we even had the business paperwork fully completed. January 17th of 2017 we started the company with one client based on Chris taking a bet and you know, being willing to take a little bit of a risk on a company that was just starting up. We had already been talking about starting a company. I was already feeling that entrepreneurial pull again. And then I had talked with Patrick Garman and we decided we shouldn't be doing this separately so that we were going to start working together and I asked him to come in as a partner at mind size. And the rest is history.
We we started Mindsize. We filled an area that had extreme need. You know, my partner in CTO is really the person who has pushed WooCommerce further than anybody else in the world. And through that we've been able to specialize in really highly performane WooCommerce sites and building things on top of WooCommerce that other people would say are impossible.
Mendel: So you started this company and and got your first client after WordCampUS in Philadelphia, and then you started gaining additional clients. And I'm sure that one of the things that you talk about with clients a lot because I've talked with a lot of people in the agency space is, can WooCommerce really can do that. Right? People are like, ah, you know, it's not going to be able to take as many orders as I want or it's not going to be able to have this functionality or that functionality and, and maybe it's not secure enough. What do you say to people? How do you defend this thing that we are all full of? Which is Woo, right?
Zach: So one of the ways that we talk about that with, with potential clients and with just anybody we're talking to at WordCamps or anywhere else is by telling them that it's not the platform that's the issue. It's the decisions that people make with the things surrounding the platform. So WooCommerce core can scale. We've proven it time and time again, but if you make bad decisions on what plugins you're going to install on your site, or if you have a theme that's really, really heavy and takes a long time to load, you're not going to have a successful site. You know, plugins are not always built as well as you would hope. And so we have in a lot of cases simply gone in and rebuilt plugins that we couldn't find another solution for.
Now if it's something that they need, there just isn't another plugin that is there that will help performance, we will rebuild it. We'll make a more performant version and just by focusing on making sure that everything runs well without caching. And that's the key. Cache is a bandaid, right? If it runs well without caching, then caching is just going to make it faster. But if it doesn't run well without caching and it's suddenly running well with caching, well that's a scalability issue because that isn't going to stay that way forever.
Mendel: And it's not going make a difference then when they get to the checkout anyway.
Zach: Exactly. So you can make the site as fast as you want with caching and then, Oh, we're in a, we're at a point in the sales process now where they can't be, and now the site is running slow as molasses. And what is the worst time to have an issue with your site? Well, it's after the person has made a decision to purchase and you're adding friction during the purchase process. Any friction you add at that point will cause a bounce. It's going to cause them to leave. They're never going to complete the purchase.
So we focus on performance before caching and we use tools like new Relic to analyze where slow queries are happening on the site to determine where the bad actors are based on the decisions that the store owner or their developers have made before were involved. And just by doing that, by auditing what is on the site, which we do, you know, at a fixed fee, it's $5,000. We'd go in, take a look at everything, we give you a report and at the end of the report you have a prioritized list of things that we think you should do to make your site more performance. And you know, we try and keep that at a low price point so that anybody can get 20 hours of our time.
Just by committing that. And we can help them to have a more efficient site and sell more. Hopefully that's, you know, the goal with everything, right? If we're not helping any eCommerce store to be more successful than why are we involved.
Bob: I want to bring up the S word, Shopify. I know that you're a Shopify partner at Mindsize. Do most clients that come to you have a platform in mind? Do they think, okay, I want to start on WooCommerce or I want to start on Shopify. Then if they do come to you with that kind of a decision, how often do you actually go through the process and recommend, yes, this is your best choice. Or do you look at the criteria and subjectively say, here's why you may look at this or here is why you may look at that.
Zach: So we end up more being in a position where we're defending the platform they've already chosen. Just because we're called in when there's already an issue, which means there has to be something there. Now that doesn't mean we're not capable of taking a site from nothing to something. We just, that's not our primary business.
So most of the time we'll get a call from somebody who they're fed up because they feel as though WooCommerce isn't meeting their needs. But either they have the wrong hosting or they have the wrong plugin mix or they're getting more traffic. You know, the hosting is undersized for what they need or they just need some help to figure out how to optimize processes in their back office in order to be able to handle a larger volume of orders. So they are pretty much set. They have their needs. They want to you to work on the site and essentially make it better.
Bob: Do you ever get anybody that comes and with an established site and think another platform may be a better solution. Or are most people pretty much set with what they have and they just want you to improve on that.
Zach: So it takes scaling to a certain point before you're ready to spend the money for a replatforming. But we do get people that contact us about replatforming as well. And in those cases we really want to dive deep and we want to analyze the motivation behind wanting to replatform. And when we take a look at what the motivation is, sometimes the motivation is something we can fix relatively easily and avoid the cost of a replatform. Now I would be happy to sell everybody that comes to us and says, we want to replatform. You know, a custom theme and we're doing all of the work to replatform.
But for me it's about providing the store owner with the best solution for where they're at now that gets them to where they want to be. And if that best solution doesn't involve tens of thousands of dollars in replatforming, then we're going to provide a solution that doesn't cost as much. We're going to provide a solution that gives them what they need without as large of an outlay of cash. And you know, that all goes back to our mission to serve store owners and to make them more money and be more efficient.
I mean, those are those two things that guide everything we do and if we're having them spend money needlessly, we're not helping them make more money. I'm convinced that there's an aggregate effect that is either well positioned, well executed and efficient projects either contribute or take away from from the brand of a platform. Right? And so, you know, if, if every person out there developing a WooCommerce site is taking replatform jobs and leaving store owners with a bad taste in their mouth about that replatform and how much it costs and how they're not actually making any more money, it's just easier for them to use the platform. Or maybe they are making a little bit more money, but it wasn't worth it, right? Because, because it was just a money grab on your part. What ends up happening is those store owners talk, right? Small business owners talk. it's how people know where to go to get their books done. And what payment processors to use.
Mendel: People talk and say, there's this cool thing that I used that was pretty cost effective and it's called WooCommerce. Some people say the same thing about Shopify and used to say the same about Magento until it started climbing up more in price. But, I think it's important and I think what you're doing is doing a service to the ecosystem as a whole. Making sure you're not gouging people and giving them a bad taste in their mouth if they don't really need the services that you're offering.
Zach: Oh, absolutely. And I think that not only are we providing a service to the platform as a whole in that regard, but as, as you're both well aware, we we serve as evangelists in the platforms that we work in. Now. We go out and we speak at events. We are very active as a team in WooCommerce Slack, the Facebook groups and other places where we can have a measurable impact that may not actually cause us to make money now. And I want to give away as much as we can in order to help people while at the same time building a thriving agency. And that dichotomy between those two things, I find that the more that I pour and have the team pour into giving time, the more leads we get, the more work we have.
And it really is just this fuel that fuels the rocket cart that is Mindsize. We've been very fortunate to be in the position that we are there. The timing was perfect when we started and there isn't a day that goes by that I don't think that it's amazing that we've been able to build what we have been able to build. Now we're 11 people and that's a big change. At the beginning of 2019, we were three people and went to 11 in that year. It was pretty phenomenal. And now we're attracting the right people because we have the right mix of of salary and benefits to make people want to work with us.
And because of that, we've built an amazing team of people that are just some of the best people in the space in which we work. Now we have people that have very strong experience in development that are perfectly positioned for building custom middleware that helps our clients to be more effective. We have people that have a deep knowledge of how the woo commerce internals work.
We have people that have front end knowledge and can do everything from building the front end of a WordPress and WooCommerce site to working in Stencil or any of the other templating languages that BigCommerce or Shopify use. These things have allowed us to expand what we offer to our clients and we're going to continue looking at partnering with the right eCommerce brands to help them build the next phase of what their business is. And we want to be along on that journey with them. And the only way we can take that journey with them as if we have the right team of people behind us to do it. Store owners are the heroes in the, in our story. They always will be. They're the people that took the time and made the effort to start something that they believed in and we just want to serve them in becoming better at what they're already doing.
Bob: Excellent. Words of wisdom from Zach. This is truly, like we said, brimming with Woo.
Mendel: Yeah, that was deep. I like that the focus is always store owners. Right? Even the work that I'm doing now with Chris at Liquid Web is all on store owners. Right? It sometimes it seems like, oh, it's all about the developer. It's all about the the agency. But at the end of the day who are we all serving? Right? Whose Bob serving? He's putting out a podcast and giving it to us as a gift to the WooCommerce world. But it's really in service of the store owners. Which I think is a great thing to remember.
Zach: Absolutely. And you know, just to dig a little deeper into one of the things that I mentioned, building the right team. I know we're not quite to the news yet today, but somebody that I've been pursuing for a very long time just took a job. And Patrick, darn you. But Patrick Rauland just joined as a product marketing manager on the Liquid Web/Nexcess side. Chris is great about building the right team of people. You have to have an environment in which those people can thrive. And I think he's done a really good job of creating that environment. It shows in the people that have been attracted to work at Liquid Web and now, Nexcess, on these products. And of course with Patrick starting a product marketing role at Nexcess, we have to talk about the fact that Nexcess just released their managed WooCommerce plans. Which from what I understand is a bit of a revitalization of everything across the board with how managed WooCommerce works..
Bob: Yeah, definitely. And Zach, you couldn't have done a better segue there. I think I'll just have Zach come in and do this for every news segue. Okay Mendel, I'll call you later in the year when Zach gets tired. That was perfect and the news about Patrick is awesome. I did want to mention the fact that a lot of things changed with the hosting plans. For the entry level plans they reduced the price. And that is definitely not because Mendel was going to be the cohost this week. This actually did happen this last seven days. So it has to be on this show.
Mendel: I want to say something about that because it's funny. Okay. So I've, I've worked at Nexcess/Liquid Web for two months now. Before that I was running a company called Geek Adventures and it was deeply an eCommerce play and everything was transacted online. There was no money being transacted in person. So what was super important was performance. I have been trying to rank against local gear shops and national shops like REI and things like that. And it just wasn't possible without speed.
So it's funny because I think it's almost two years ago now that I talked to the folks over at
Bob: Exactly. And that's how I feel when I saw it, because I know my audience. I have a variety of people that have listened to me or read my stuff over the years and to find that optimal sweet spot for WooCommerce managed hosting. You have still the great features and added some others. I'll be putting a link in the show notes, take you over to my post that I wrote about it. Also, WooCommerce 3.9 came out. I'm not going to say finally came out. Any insights you have on it?
Zach: Well, it's it's definitely major in a couple of ways. And I'd say the biggest one is the push to new minimum version requirements for WordPress and PHP. The requirement for at least WordPress 5 and more importantly, the requirement PHP 7 or greater.
When I was working at Clinton electronics, we were one of the first sites on the WPEngine cluster that was running PHP 7. We were actually the first eCommerce site that they were running under PHP7. And I can tell you that the difference in performance that we saw between PHP 5.6 and going to PHP 7 was astronomical. And from there to where we are now with 7.3 and soon 7.4. All of these modifications, the underlying interpreter behind have made things significantly faster. So just by raising the minimum version requirement, WooCommerce is a platform that is going to make every site powered by WooCommerce that upgrades faster simply because they have to make the switch.
Now there are older plugins that have trouble running on PHP 7. So you know, as you're approaching this upgrade, if you aren't sure or if you have a plugin that when you look at the list it says it hasn't been updated for three years, you should probably take a look to make sure that has PHP 7 compatibility. As always, with any WooCommerce upgrade, you want to run everything locally first, test it, make sure it works on your local machine, then test any staging environment in a mirror of what your production environment is. And once you've tested in staging and you know everything works, only then should you upgrade your production site. And I can't stress this enough because if you upgrade your production site first and then things break, you've shut down your income stream. Unlike a content based site where we have to reformat some content, this could completely stop your ability to take orders if you do it wrong.
So having a testing plan in place where you test locally, you test in staging, and then you finally bring the upgrade to production is so important. Especially if you are not running PHP 7 now and this upgrade is going to require you switching to PHP 7, ask your host if you can get a secondary environment to test PHP 7 and then make the switch from having your live site on 5, 6 or wherever it is now to PHP 7. When you're ready to do so.
Bob: The other thing I just want to touch on real quick was, and I'm not going to get into it a lot because it's a huge article, but an article on a the Better Lemonade Stand. They did their annual survey. If you don't know them, they write a lot about eCommerce. The thing that I had to look at was which eCommerce platforms or marketplaces do you use to sell your products? The survey gave the top at 39.6% which was Shopify and WooCommerce was next at 34%. There was a lot more data, but for example, which was really interesting, is the question, are you truly passionate about the products you sell in the market you serve? Yes. 83%. No, 17%.
Zach: One of the things that I find really interesting, I give a talk at WordCamps about starting an eCommerce business and it's called, So you want to sell online. And one of the things that I talk about is the difference between finding a passion product and a money product. There's a way to start a business and an eCommerce business with a product you don't care about at all just because it can make you tons of money. One of my passions is helping other people, having an agency is a good fit for that passion. When you start a business around your passion, you put more of yourself into it. And because of that, it's more likely to succeed.
Mendel: When I hear and see reports like this that show market share i stresses me out a little bit because I don't think marketshare is the thing we should be looking at. I don't think any of us should care about it. So I'm not saying it's not important. I'm not saying that the volume increasing people adopting the platform isn't important. But I think that we get these indicators without seeing the major report. It's interesting. It's a passing fact and I go, Oh yeah, yeah, that makes sense. Because I know that the majority of people are trying to help shop owners create awesome stores that are performing.
What I think is more important than the stats is really thinking about how we interact with each other and how we interact publicly on behalf of any open source project. I'm not going to name other open source projects. What I will say is I've seen in many instances, and it happens with WordPress and WooCommerce as well, is when people get frustrated with the governance of a project or the direction it's going, or just frustration with the project in and of itself, maybe the code base or something like that, we have a tendency to talk about it very publicly and raise our fist and, and get on a soapbox and really talk loudly about the things that we don't like. And at the end of the day, most of us aren't going to stop using the platform because of these things that we're stressed out about. We just want to be heard. Right.
And I think it's important to raise this concept because when we very publicly talk about the things that we believe are inadequate in a product or a platform. It appears to some people for instance such as Fortune 500 companies, that there is a groundswell of dissatisfaction within the community with the way the product works. And it's simply not as true as we might think. People that are close to the project, there are things that aren't good or could be improved. But as a whole, the platform is awesome. Often these things enable a crazy amount of people around the world to to publish both content and products.
I think it's important to keep that in mind and just a reminder to communicate in a way that's helpful. That includes going on advanced WordPress forums and places like that, such as the advanced WooCommerce group. I hear a lot that, it's not advanced. Well, standing up and walking for all of us when we were kids was with advanced, right? So we have to think about that. Those are the things that I think more about instead of the the stats. If we get all of that other stuff right, then the stats, they're just going to happen, and will overtake other platforms as far as market share goes.
Zach: I want to call out here that's in the statistics, though, that I found very interesting. They have a section asking about failing at building a business. Now, one of the things that I say to my team all the time is that success is built on a foundation of failure. Because if you don't fail, you can't know how to succeed. Right? And looking at the statistics here, 50% of the people currently running a successfully commerce business according to this survey, have failed two to three times before finding success. 50%. You want to know how many people never failed? 4.5%. So 95.5% of these people who are running successful eCommerce businesses failed at least once. Yeah.
Mindsize is my seventh business. I tried a lot of different things and I had success with some and abject failure with others. It's just about taking what you've learned from those failures, moving forward, and building something on top of it. That's what we keep doing. And even in running a business, something's bound to go wrong at some point. Nobody is perfect, no agency is perfect, but it's how you handle that failure that determines what you can build on top of it. So one of our core values at Mindsize is that we know that mistakes are going to happen, but when they do, don't cover it up. Don't try to minimize it. Go to the client it's impacting and own it. Own the mistake, own the fact that it happened and then own it with your team too.
I did this, this was my problem. I caused it. This is what I'm going to do to solve it. And this is how we move forward from here. And that framework for how to handle a mistake can be applied in any business. And I think it should be a core value in every business. But in our case, you know, it came out of me living through multiple business failures and realizing that one of the most common failures was trying to be better than we were and trying to cover up a mistake that had happened. So don't cover it up. Just own it. Own it. Yeah, I screwed up.
Bob: I’m looking at this because I'm seeing where I fall into it. I'm in there for sure. I'm just looking for the option that says I had a business and this is how many ideas failed and I'm looking for that bucket load option there for me to choose.
Zach: The pivots. How many times did you pivot before?
Bob: Yeah. I’ve pivoted so many times, man. Well, let's go ahead and wrap this up. Why don't you tell everyone, Zach, where people can find you on the web?
Zach: Well, you can find my company at mindsize.me. Or you can find us at Mindsizeme on pretty much everything. And you can find Patrick Garman tomorrow. I know this probably won't release beforehand, but he's speaking at this Decode Summit that WPEngine is running. We'll have staff at WordCamp Miami. And Mark Gratch is speaking out there pretty much at any WordCamp you can think of. We'll probably have somebody there at some point and if we don't, it won't take long to find another one we will be at.
Bob: Excellent. And Mendel. You nailed it. You're hired. I won't replace you with Zach. Really enjoyed having you on for your premier appearance.
Mendel: Thanks Bob. I enjoyed it as well.
Bob: Well that's it everyone. You can subscribe to this podcast on your favorite pod platform. You can sign up for our Woo news that goes out every Saturday morning with all sorts of WooCommerce news in it. Or you can become a Friend of Do the Woo as well. And we do have sponsorship opportunities for this podcast. Until next time. Thanks Zach. Thanks Mendel.
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