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A Designer Who Codes: a WooCommerce Chat with Michael Bragg

A Designer Who Codes: a WooCommerce Chat with Michael Bragg
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Michael brings a wide expanse of web experience to the table. His diverse divings started as a teenager and he’s been going strong ever since. He loves to learn and doesn’t hold back on attacking the next challenge. For someone who designs and codes, he brings a unique talent that is truly a commodity in the ecosystem.

A Chat with Michael Bragg from Vatu

In episode 92, Brad and I talk with Michael about:

  • Building websites on Netscape, WordPress, and everything in between
  • Michael’s perception of where WordPress is today
  • Cobbling together an education on WordPress in the early days compared to current times
  • What came first, the designer or the developer
  • Building a skill set of design and coding that is a commodity in the ecosystem
  • Bouncing between back-end and front-end work
  • How the combination of back-end and design work plays in WooCommerce

Connect with Michael

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Bob: Hey, everyone. BobWp here. Episode 92 of Do the Woo. 92. We're just a few away from 100. And I haven't really planned anything for 100. So anyway, hello to my esteemed cohost, Brad Williams.

Brad: Hi, Bob. I think number 100 should be a big party, a big celebration. So maybe we'll have to, I don't know, bring some secret surprises to that show. See what we can come up with. We've got a few weeks. We'll figure it out.

Bob: Yeah. We'll do something. We might even do a special little one hundred show. Who knows?

Brad: It's a big milestone. A lot of shows don't get past the first episode.

Bob: Yeah.

Brad: So you hit a hundred, three digits, that's a reason to celebrate.

Bob: Alrighty. Well, Brad has called it. We will have an official 100 episode celebration. Well, let's go ahead and move on. We have a great guest coming up.

But before I do that, I'd like to thank our two sponsors, PayPal. Check out their extension over on the WooCommerce marketplace. Gives you some options for pay later, as well as a few other goodies thrown in. So do check that out. Again, over on the WooCommerce marketplace on woocommerce.com. WooCommerce 4.9 came out. And that happened last week, two days ago, 4.9.1. Next one is 5.0. So minor updates here recently. Yeah. Wonder what's in store for 5.0. What do you think, Brad?

Brad: Well, I would hope that 5.0 is a larger release. There's something about those whole number releases that just in your mind make you think they're big. And I know that hasn't always held true for WordPress. But certainly, WordPress 3.0 was a big milestone, introducing custom post types, taxonomies, and emerging WordPress MU. I remember WordPress MU, merging that into core as multi-site. That was a massive release. And 5.0 was another noteworthy one with Gutenberg. The first introduction to Gutenberg in core. 4.0 wasn't that noteworthy. But three and five were.

So I don't know. It'd be nice to see WooCommerce do something big. I'm curious what they're planning. I haven't been too close to it with the holidays, but I would imagine there's already discussions going on in Slack between the dev teams and contributors. So I would imagine if you do dive into Slack, you can get to some of those answers. Whereas I'm just looking for a public blog post that makes it very easy for me, and I did not find one.

Bob: Yeah, yeah. Me too. Yeah, yeah. I just wait for the secret word to go out.

Brad: They need to name these things a little bit. Like WordPress has jazz musicians. I don't think WooCommerce names their releases, right?

Bob: No, they don't.

Brad: BuddyPress has famous pizzerias. I feel like WooCommerce needs something. Some kind of a stick that they can release names under. It makes it more interesting.

Bob: Yeah. Something monetary. No, I don't know.

Brad: All right.

Bob: That's interesting. We'll start naming them ourselves. How about that? We'll start a new tradition.

Brad: Start thinking of what 5.0 is going to be called.

Bob: Yeah. Yeah. We will have one for you, for sure. Alrighty.

Well, we have Mike Bragg joining us today. And the cool thing about Mike is that I went to his LinkedIn profile, and first thing you read is "a designer who codes." Which, I don't know, maybe it's an oxymoron. But it does happen. But that's who we have today. Mike, how are you doing?

Michael: I'm good. Thank you.

Bob: So as we always start, and Mike does have his fingers in a little bit of Woo, how do you "Do the Woo"? What are you involved with these days? Tell people a little bit about how you work yourself around Woo.

Michael: Currently, I work at a UK-based agency called Vatu, where I manage their eCommerce development for a number of clients. And we work with clients to increase their performance. This is a bit of stability. And also, increased profits.

Bob: Cool. Now, everybody has a journey. I don't know if WordPress came first, WooCommerce. It's the chicken or the egg type of thing. How did you get involved in a little bit into WordPress? And then how did that actually move into WooCommerce?

Michael: My journey started as a teenager, learning bits of code on building websites for Netscape. That'll just show you how old my age is. So it started there doing that. I got into building a few hobby sites with standard HTML and GeoCities and things like that, then evolved into working with bulletin boards. As an older teenager, I did a bit of work for Iconboard and Envision Board. Doing a bit of support, doing a bit of a theme in. I doubled with B2 and catalog. Obviously, just before WordPress started. Kind of veered away. Then went to college to do graphic design, which becomes a designer part of me.

Once I'd graduated from college, I went back into the workplace doing print design. I then built up a job at Trinity Mirror, who are a newspaper publisher here in the UK. And after a few years, I worked my way into their studio just as it merged with their digital department. So I then, with my little skill set that I'd got, inherited a few projects, building PHP, holiday advertisement sites. Going through all that, fixing issues with those, rebuilding the theme. So that was when responsive design was coming in. So we changed it from a table to mobile application.

As that succeeded, I ended up with more projects from the company and I took over the development of their events websites. So that was where WordPress came into it. It was because it was migrating from a standard static site. It doesn't think a lot more dynamic. And that's where WordPress was introduced to manage the application forms, the judging panel, the sponsors. Also, custom post types and forms.

And from there, I left Trinity Mirror and joined a agency here in the UK called EDGE Creative who had several WooCommerce websites that were struggling a little bit with speed. They were making good money, but weren't quite quick enough. And that's where my love of WooCommerce became working on these sites. Improving the speed, not only improving the design, making them more reliable.

And then from there, I moved on this year to Vatu, where I've been not quite solely working on WooCommerce, but that's the main priority that I do. And we've been taking some quite big sites that have high turnovers, high number of traffic, and an extortionate amount of products and making them performant. That's probably the short story of my journey to WooCommerce.

Bob: That's a mouthful.

Brad: Yeah. There's definitely multiple points throughout that story where you definitely dated yourself. So going back to thinking about B2, the precursor to WordPress. Thinking about Netscape, that's even further back. Definitely in static HTML days back then. But yeah, it's always fun. We talk to a lot of different people in the show. I would say the majority of the people we talk to were not around, hadn't experienced B2. Myself included. I didn't get into WordPress until 2006. WordPress started in 2003, I think it was. And B2 was the foundation of WordPress. So it was around before that. So you've been doing this, clearly, for multiple decades at this point, which is pretty awesome.

So just focusing on WordPress and your path there, I'm curious, having been around WordPress very early on it sounds like, and then coming back and revisiting it a little bit later in your career, and then where we're at now, which is sounds like a number of years later, what are your thoughts on the overall evolution of WordPress? And just as a piece of software that it is, seeing it in those early days, seeing it maybe more in the middle stages, and then obviously where we're at today, just overall thoughts on the platform, the framework, do you still enjoy it? Do you still think they're pushing the needle? Or are they falling behind? Just in general, how are you feeling about WordPress these days?

Michael: Yeah, I think it started off as a beginner, as somebody that taught themselves how to code, it was very daunting in back in the early days. There wasn't a lot of people doing things with it, a lot of documentation, a lot of tutorials, things like that. So that's why I drifted away from it, tried all the content management systems at the time. But then when I revisited it because we needed a content management system with a precedent evolved from a blog to be in that little bit more. So instead of it being simple just, "Here's your blog posts," you could then expand it more with a custom post types, with a lot more of the plugins that evolved. It allowed me to do what I needed to do without it being too complicated. So at that stage, I was still very new to PHP. So I was trying to cobble together from tutorials you could find in different places that weren't always the most reliable.

But then, because the quality of the documentation around it raised it up to a level where I could walk in and have a good understanding of it. And then, obviously, as years progressed, you understand more about the inner workings of the code and how that worked. And then, I've been blessed to have a number of good mentors throughout the years who have explained things to me to allow me to progress and do more complex things with WordPress.

Brad: Yeah. What you mentioned about early on, not really having the documentation, that one definitely rings true for me as well. When I got started, there was a lot of... The codex existed. So there was that base level. Certainly, it wasn't as extensive as it is today. And everything else was really just random articles online that I would find, or random forums. Forums were very popular back 15 years ago. Random posts and forums of someone struggling with the same question I was struggling with.

Brad: And there wasn't a lot of detailed source material that really opened up the hood of WordPress and dove in and said, "This is actually how you should do it." And it's one of the reasons why I wrote Professional WordPress back in 2009, the first one, because it was the manual that I needed, and still need, back then because there weren't all these resources like people have today.

There weren't sites dedicated to WordPress or WooCommerce. And especially not with a dev focus. If there was, it was more about just writing, like you said, blog posts or how to use it, how to login. So it's easier for people coming in today, certainly, than it was when you came in, when I came in and others, because that information just wasn't wasn't available. And we had to figure it out ourselves, which is crazy.

Michael: I think, actually, your book was one of those eureka moments where you realize that other people thought the same way I did.

Brad: Oh, cool.

Michael: And it was the way that you could read that and it explained it all. Which I think there was certain stages throughout my career that I've looked at other people's codes and learned more than I could on my own. I was quite fortunate at Trinity Mirror. I had access to another company they owned website that I could read through the code. And that taught me about, "Oh, we're using custom post types using hooks and filters, things like that."

And then you were like, "Well, am I..." Because you were always insecure that, "Am I doing this the right way or the best way?" Because when you've got 20 different sources all giving you different information, "Do it this way. Add it into core code, add it into a plugin, add it into early on in your tournament stages." You don't know what's for the best. So then it was looking at other people and then seeing the quality that they do. "Oh, somebody I look up to them and respect or their site works, that's probably the better way to do this."

Brad: Yeah. Yeah. Great points. As with everything in technology, there's usually a number of different ways to accomplish the same thing. But it doesn't mean they're all the correct way or the most efficient way or the most performant way. And WordPress is no different.

One of the big examples that's over the years has been dispelled a bit, but is just like re-querying posts on a page or products with eCommerce, whatever it might be, but using the improper way of doing it, something like query posts, is not efficient. Because when the page loads, whatever's supposed to be on that page, is loaded. And then, using query posts, you're saying, "You know what? We're going to reload that information with what I actually want." So you just made multiple calls to the database that you didn't have to do.

So just having that level of knowledge of why does query posts exist then if it's problematic? Well, there are actual use cases to where it does make sense. And the book and others, like tutorials online over the years, people have really broke that down so that there are really good resources and tried and true best practices when building out things the WordPress way. And I think it's raised everybody's game. Because yeah, there's three, four or five different ways you could query data on a WordPress site. But knowing the right way and then getting everybody to follow along, and now everybody knows the right way, the level of the quality and professionalism of the plugins that we use have benefited, obviously, from that.

Bob: And Brad always enjoys hearing the word "eureka" and his book in the same breath.

Brad: Might be back-to-back episodes where people love my book, Bob. I like this trend. So maybe we can keep bringing on people that have read my book and really like it.

Bob: Yeah, that's one of the questions I asked them. First question, "Do you know Brad? Have you read his book? Okay, come on."

Brad: Yeah. I do appreciate it. And I love hearing that because that is the motivation to want to keep doing it, is knowing it's... Do I make money doing it? A little bit. But am I making enough to cover my time? No. It's a way to contribute back in a more official capacity for me is to write the books, keep them updated. Because it's the manual I needed, it's the manual people like Mike. Sounds like it helped you and others.

And I want to continue to help people that enjoy those type of resources. Because not everyone's going to read a book on programming, but I grew up reading books on programming. So I generally tend to learn that way. And maybe that's just Mike, you, and me and others are the older school that have been doing this since the '90s in some capacity. Everybody learns differently, like you said. I like to look at code, too. So between writing the book and researching and really learning, but also just opening up other plugins and looking at other code. Visually getting my hands dirty, if you will, that's always been a way that I enjoy learning.

But other people don't like learning that way. They maybe want to sit in the classroom with the teacher and be able to raise their hand and ask questions. So you just got to find what works best for you. And thankfully, WordPress is so hot and has been for so long that there's literally any and all options available in terms of how to learn to write code for WordPress. And I say WordPress, I also mean WooCommerce. I'm generalizing just open source platform. But there's just so many options that if you do truly want to learn, there's a lot of different ways to get there, a lot of the different ways to do it, including Bob's site, Do the Woo.

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Bob: Let’s talk a little bit about the designer who codes. And you said you went to school, graphic design, and then you into print. Which I've done the same thing, been there. Were you coding and then you became a designer and then you continued to code? Or what pushed you to pull in both of these talents? Or were you a designer and said, "I need to start learning this code even more"? And maybe you've discovered which one you really prefer to work on or if it's just a nice mix?

Michael: Yeah. I've always been an inquisitive person. I want to, "Hey, something works. Why it does this? How it works?" And the end point and take things apart, put them back together. Those things. So code, interestingly, was the early days of the web. Was fortunate to have an internet connection quite early. So it was exploring, "Well, how was this built?" Then you learn through... Netscape used to have an inbuilt editor. And it was just random try things, build from there. And so I'd always had quite a creative side as well. Which then, when you were sitting in school, there wasn't really, "Oh, you can be a programmer." It was, "I'll be a graphic designer. This looks really good, interesting, fun." Went to college, found the course. Turned up with a portfolio that included a single website that was my portfolio at the time, which lit their eyes up because nobody was doing it at the time.

So then I really enjoyed that. Spent four years at Walsall College getting my qualifications to do that. And towards the end, I'd created a couple of little websites as part of the coursework. So I mean Flash. So I mean HTML. And it grew at, "Well, I can do both." I've always got this slight technical thought to everything, the process that I do. My designs tend to be very technical or tactile as a design system behind it. There's a reasoning, there's thinking of how it all works together. Not just this semiotic side of it. So we'd had been in a nice marriage.

And then I learned more about the web, started building more websites. And then it merged together as I can have a conversation on two sides of the aisles. I'm quite comfortable talking to a designer, talking about your topography, your leading, your letter spacing. Then the other one, when you're talking about functions, variables, returns, IPIs. And it was quite a good place to be. Because at the time, there wasn't many that did both. So you could then, almost position yourself quite usefully between the two, made you a commodity to the companies wanted.

Bob: Yeah. Interesting because I've been a designer. I was a designer for, man, too many years. I want to say 25+ years or more. And I was inquisitive, but not that inquisitive about the code. So it's always been, "Oh, great. I don't need to know how this works. I just know it works and I'm happy." And when I was a kid, I used to take a lot of stuff apart, but I had a problem putting stuff back together, which is another whole story. But curious, Brad, have you seen the same thing when it comes to this unique combination and finding those kind of people for your own company?

Brad: We do. But finding a person that really excels in that combination is definitely few and far between. We really look at people like that as... We call them unicorns because that's what they are. They exist. Maybe unicorn is not the best term. They exist, but they're hard to find. That doesn't really make sense if it's a unicorn because they don't exist, do they? But I think you get my point. They exist, but they're hard to find. And when you do find them, you want to hold on to them because it is a rare...

Again, for someone to do it properly. I think there's a lot of people out there that probably say they do it. But an actual designer that has design capabilities and can get into the hood and write code very effectively. We've had a number of people like that over the years and they're hard to find. And when you find them, you want to do everything you can to hold on to them because it is a very valuable skill. Being able to transcend both sides of the house.

I'm a developer. So I absolutely understand that I don't have the design capabilities. I never have. I can fumble my way through it, but I'm not good. So I can tell you something I think looks good or not, but I can't make things look good, which is why I always caution people with page builders. I'm like, "Great. You can do whatever you want, but if you don't know how to make something look good, is that a good thing to have that amount of control? Probably not, because I can't make a site look very good with a page builder."

But yeah, so it is absolutely a great asset. We've had actually a couple people hired at our company that were more on the front-end design side of the house and over the years have become more interested in code. And actually have basically transitioned their job and their career from front-end design into back-end, and have been very happy to do so until they worked with us. And I'm sure you guys worked similar, Mike. But they weren't our most front-enders... Or I shouldn't say most. But a lot of front-enders out there, even designers, they don't get into the code at companies because they want really want people to stay in their lanes.

Where we're very fluid. We're like, "Hey, if writing code interests you, well, let's throw some custom plugins we need built on your plate and let's see how you do. Let's test it out and see if you really like it. And then if you do, then it might be worth exploring, making that more of your full-time role." So I'm curious, do you get to use both sides of those skills and abilities, Michael, in your day-to-day? Are you bouncing between both groups, both sides? Or is it project-based? I'm just curious how that works for you.

Michael: I started off bouncing between all of them, but it's very much the reason why I learned back-end code was needs. There was a need and there was nobody to fill that need. And it was, "I can do this. Let's have a go." And then it evolved from there. And I would have gone from probably... In the original days, it was probably 90% design. Then it moved to maybe 50% design, 40% front-end, and then it gradually evolved. And now, I probably did more back-end with a good chunk of front-end than I do design. But I also keep my designer life through external projects, personal projects, things like that.

So I've got that there. I went back just over two years ago and finished my degree, which is in design. So I spent a whole year doing design again, even though I'd spent the previous three, four years beforehand doing back-end development. Just to jump around again, revitalize it, get a bit of passion about it.

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Bob: Just want to touch a little bit, how you view or work with WooCommerce with that skillset of both back-end and design.

Michael: At its basic level, when you're building a feature, you have that mindset of not just, "Here's an important box. You choose an option." It's, "How does that option work? How does the user interact with it?" No. "Should it be an option? Should it be a checkbox? Should it be all these different types of things? How does the user journey go to get to there? Is it a button? Does it need to be a primary button, a secondary button?" All these things that you learn in design, just to make things stand out, make it easy, things like that.

And the same on the front-end. It's quite useful because you can get a very standard looking WooCommerce template size, but let's push the boat out. Let's do something fancy that we maybe couldn't do with some of the grid layout or the front-end designer in me. Okay. Let's do something. Let's say the CSS grid pattern that lays all the content out differently that we can push a lot further and hopefully make it more appealing to the end customer.

Not just the fact that the site works and they have a feature that they can use. Let's make them want to use it. Let's make it stand out. Use the different levels to draw the eyes to places. So now if we've got a product that's not doing particularly well, we can then alter the layout. Puts it in focus of the customer, makes them know it's there. And hopefully, more likely to buy it.

Brad: It's pulling in that UX, user experience, into the dev, really. Right?

Michael: Yeah.

Brad: Yeah. The benefits, again. Because normally you'd have two or three people having to work together on that versus one potentially. So yeah, I think having... the UX is such an important thing. Devs are very black and white. At least the ones I've worked with over the years, most of them. Where it's they'll take direction to do something, but if you're not explicit on every little detail, they may not do something that's obvious because you didn't tell them to do it.

Which isn't a bad thing. They're following instructions. But I feel like it's usually the designers and certainly people focused on UX that are immediately going to call out stuff like that because that's their job. That's great. That is a dropdown. That is a form field. But is that the best experience? I'm sure we come across that all the time when we're surfing the web on different websites.

Bob: I'm curious, with that experience in both of those, and I don't know whether this can be our wrapping up question, but what do you feel like at this point in time is your biggest challenge with WooCommerce?

Michael: From a back-end perspective, a lot of the work that I'm personally doing now is around testing everything. So when the site's live, we know it works, a real date that we make with a new WooCommerce release.

Yes, WooCommerce tests that, but what on our individual sites? Have we got the acceptance testing in place that says, "Yes, a customer can purchase a product. There is nowhere in that chain that it falls down and that we haven't broken a design layer through a CSS change"? So it's looking at a lot of acceptance testing and visual regression testing.

Because with the clients that we're working with are on a higher level of income, they have a lot more demands on us that if there is anything that breaks, it can cost them four or five figure sums through being down from a certain amount of time. So it's that level of trust in the product and trust in the fact that the customizations we've made as builders, that that works. So that's the back-end perspective.

And from the front-end design perspective is, "What can we do to push our eCommerce stores?" Instead of just, "Here's your product. Here's its features." Let's tell a story. Some of the best sites you look at, the Apple, Apple have a story that goes down through their product, that tells you all the benefits, all the values, why you want to buy it. Verse, "I can't think the name. It's a notebook company." And they go through and tell the story of the notebooks for each individual... They do have a lovely custom layout. It shows you that later.

You've got all the stories about how do we turn a very rigid eCommerce looking website into something that brings joy, create some motion to that customer that then makes them wants to buy the product and raise its perception over a competing product. And I think that's something with the Gutenberg Blocks could be very interesting that we could then begin to tell stories, but also include our buy buttons, our feature blocks, our variations in there with a story. So that if somebody does go, "Oh, I want to buy it now. It's there." But it's not just picture, buy button, cost, additional information.

Bob: That's a good example of the use of the WooCommerce blocks. I hear a lot of people want to basically redesign the checkout page or whatever. "When does this go on the product page? The blocks." And there's all this talk around this. But the fact that you can, like you said, put a story in there and put those call to actions in there and not make it just a simple product page, but something that they can learn from. And then at the same time, make that purchase is real valuable there. So, cool. Yeah. Well, Brad, why don't you wrap this baby up for us?

Brad: First, we want to give a quick shout out to our show sponsors, as Bob mentioned at the top of the show. WooCommerce, check them out, woocommerce.com. It's the platform we talk about. 4.9 was just released last Tuesday. And a hot fix, 4.9.1, was released today, which is a couple of days prior to the release of this show.

Brad: So anyways, if you've updated, or if you haven't, make sure you get on the most recent release, check it out. They're starting to plan. And dig in for the 5.0 release. Maybe it'll be major. Maybe we'll start naming them. Maybe you can get involved. Go check out the WooCommerce Slack channels as well. You can dive in and get involved with that team.

Also, PayPal. Bob mentioned the extension, but definitely check out the Pay in 4 option with PayPal, which lets your customers buy now and pay later and they can split their payments up in four. Basically, it's an equal payment every two weeks. So the first payment's on when they make the purchase and then every two weeks thereafter until they've made four payments.

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And Mike, we want to thank you for being on. Where can people find you online? They want to follow up the discussion, they want to reach out. Where's the best place for people to find Mike on the internet?

Michael: Yeah. My website is small michaelbragg.com. I'm on Twitter @michaelbragg. And LinkedIn is Michael Bragg UK. So shoot me a message through any of those mediums. I'm happy to talk to people.

Brad: Awesome. We definitely appreciate you coming on the show, Michael. It's been a great conversation. It's always fun to talk with people that are actually doing the building, and hearing how they got here, and some of the challenges they see and some of the cool things they're doing. So we appreciate you joining. And having the designer discussion, too. Because I think that's a very fascinating one. Talking unicorns. Need to think of a better animal there. What's an animal you don't see often, but it does exist? Yeah. Roadrunner?

Bob: Yeah.

Brad: I don't know.

Bob: Yeah. Roadrunner's good.

Brad: At least they're fast, according to the cartoons. I don't know. Anyways, anything else Bob?

Bob: No, I think that's it. Just want to let everyone know I'm doing a survey on Do the Woo. It's a WooCommerce builder survey for 2020, just to see how things panned out for different builders. And got this idea from a question on Slack. Thought it would be interesting. I'm not diving into numbers or anything. Just real simple survey. Take you just a few minutes to fill it out. You just go to dothewoo.io/2020survey. I think that's it, Brad. I think that's all I have.

Brad: Awesome. Well, for Bob and myself, Do the Woo Episode 92. Thanks again, Michael Bragg for joining us. And we'll catch you on the next episode of Do the Woo.

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