Get to Know Allen Smith, Developer Advocate at WooCommerce.com

Do the Woo - A Podcast for WooCommerce Builders
Do the Woo - A Podcast for WooCommerce Builders
Get to Know Allen Smith, Developer Advocate at WooCommerce.com
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Allen takes on the task as Developer Advocate at WooCommerce. You can often find him on the WooCommerce Slack or working with teams to build up the the developer community. We get an inside look on what he deals with on a daily bases, as well as a deeper glimpse into Allen himself.

Building Developer Advocacy at WooCommerce

Noelle and Ronald talk with Allen about:

  • A typical day at WooCommerce for Allen [00:55]
  • Knowing what Allen will be doing in 30 days [02:45]
  • Allen’s idea of success at work [05:00]
  • The importance of who you know rather than how [09:40]
  • A bit of Allens history, variety is the spice of life [11:35]
  • The parts of the job Allen likes and that not so favorite part [14:50]
  • Ideas, teams and relationships [16:35]
  • Requests and feature requests [21:40]
  • Better documentation [23:20]
  • Blocks as an integral part of WooCommerce [27:50]
  • The future, Allen’s role and his wish list [31:22]
  • Working music and Allen’s favorite tunes for getting into the zone [33:40]

Connect with Allen

  • Find Allen on the WooCommerce Community Slack or WordPress Slack, with the handle AllenSmith
  • Or you can email him at Allen.smith [at] automattic.com

Thanks to Our Pod Friends

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Ronald: Hello, everyone. Here's another episode of Do the Woo. My name is Ronald, and I have Noelle here with me. Noelle, we have a special guest.

Noelle: Yes. Our guest for today is Allen Smith. Allen is developer advocate at WooCommerce. I actually read that before Woo, he worked for GitHub to help nurture their community. I thought that's pretty cool. Hello, Allen. It's great having you here.

Allen: Hey, there. It's so nice to be here. Thank you all so much for inviting me on.

Ronald: Yeah. I'm assuming it's pretty early for you today, right?

Allen: I'm actually on the East Coast of the U.S., so it's not super early for me. It's about 10:00 AM here. So, I'm doing good. I've got my coffee, so I'm in good shape. Plus, our kids just started back to school so we had to do the whole morning routine and stuff. So, we're wide awake here.

A typical day at WooCommerce for Allen [00:55]

Noelle: Nice. So Allen, to jump in, I'm curious, what does a typical day at work look like for you as a developer advocate? What does that look like?

Allen: So, somebody had asked me that the other day and I had to think of about it, because there's not really a typical day. Everything varies so much for developer advocates, which is great for me because I like things shifting. I think I would like things shuffling around. I like doing a bunch of different things. Some days, I'll get up and we review threads that have come in. Automattic operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week. And so, a lot of times these discussions will be going on early morning hours here, because people in Europe and Africa and Asia, they've been having conversations while I've been asleep. So I'll catch up on threads, discussions, projects, things like that.

Some mornings we'll have developer office hours on Slack. So, that's just a facilitated conversation, where a developer advocate helps developers connect with each other who are trying to build things with WooCommerce and maybe running into challenges, or if they have questions about how somebody else has built something, that's an opportunity for developers to connect with each other and help each other solve those problems. Developer advocates just sort of facilitate those conversations, and to a certain extent they help people find answers. If there's nobody around who can answer a question, we can steer people in the right direction. Some days we will spend writing, like written guidance around the platform. So some days that means doing blog posts or tutorials or putting together examples for how to use new features that are launching in WooCommerce. It just varies from day to day, but I like that. It's very exciting for me because it means that I don't have to go too deep into any area and I get to try a lot of different things.

Knowing what Allen will be doing in 30 days [02:45]

Ronald: Do you know what you'll be doing in 30 days time, or is it very much whatever comes that you'll just deal with it?

Allen: To a certain extent, we do. We do annual planning with the entire company and then we will do quarterly planning as well with our teams within the division. So what that does, it gives us an idea of generally the types of projects that we're going to be taking on. So I have a pretty good idea of what kind of big projects we're doing. And then on the other side, we have what we call ongoing work, but this is sort of the work that keeps the business running basically. So that's anything that has to be done on a regular basis, like developer office hours, moderating channels. A lot of times we'll go in and moderate spam on boards and things like that. So, I do have a pretty good idea of what I'm doing as I go along, but it's nice because maybe one or two years down the road, that's sort of like a blank slate. We have a general trajectory, but the sky is the limit. So we get to decide that as we go along.

Ronald: Yeah. So in a nutshell, you filter a lot of the incoming requests, messages, problems from third-party developers. You filter that. You connect other people, but you also then communicate within the WooCommerce developer team.

Allen: That's right. Yeah, to the extent that I can. I'll give you a great example. So internal extensions or private extensions, we should say, these are proprietary marketplace extensions that we sell, that we maintain. There may be a developer out there who wants to integrate or extend one of those plugins or extensions. They are running into an issue with it, but they can't file an issue on GitHub because the repository is private, of course. And so, they'll work with me and I'll help them troubleshoot. If we need to, we can file a bug report on their behalf. It's just another pathway for people to give feedback, probably more technical feedback than would come through, say like a support channel or something like that.

Allen’s idea of success at work [05:00]

Ronald: Yeah, that's a good example. Do you also have a typical example of a success, where you think, "I'm really proud of that. I've made those two connections and look what came out of it," something that maybe we're all familiar with or something we recognize as seasoned WooCommerce users? I know I was putting you on the spot there, but-

Allen: Yeah. Well, so it just varies. What I've noticed is that people and it's the weirdest thing. So the WordPress community is so different to me, for many other community I've been a part of, because as interdependent as we all are on each other, so many developers have such a very specific niche, but it's interesting to help people out because they have a very, very specific problem they're looking to solve. So, it's just interesting to see people who are so focused in almost like polar opposite areas come together in certain parts of the code base.

So for instance, there's someone in our community who works a lot with pricing tools and modifying that part of our user flow. This person will help during developer office hours weighing in on things, like rounding and things like tax issues. Taxes are always a big issue in WooCommerce, right? People have trouble figuring out how to extend them, how to implement them in certain ways, because it varies geographically even. But it's neat to see these people who are working on the surface look like very disparate subject matter areas, and they can come together over these technical challenges, which is just really neat. I know that's very vague in general, but that tends to be the trend that I see.

Ronald: It must be a rewarding way to see these things come together and solving solutions and solving solutions for developers, but also for nations, because like you said, with tax issues, rounding, currencies, and those sort of things, they are so different wherever you are in the world. So, seeing that you make those connections happen with third-party developers and WooCommerce either adopts it or make some integral changes. Great. You should make a little reward or some board, where you say, "I've made this happen. I've had a little part in this."

Allen: What's so great to see, too, is I contribute to a certain extent, but it happens organically, I found, in the WordPress community, because what will happen is somebody will ask a question and I may be able to provide somebody resources and look at the code and say, "Well, you may want to try something this way." But because there are so many different ways to do things in WordPress, in WooCommerce, then you'll have another developer who will come into this thread and they'll add to the discussion and they'll say, "I did this. About a year ago, I ran into the exact same challenge and here's how I solved it." It's a completely different solution, but it works. It's just neat to see all the different ways and people just helping each other. I think from those discussions, you get to see the best solution rise to the top.

Noelle: Yeah. I really experienced the diversity and people coming together when I joined the Slack group for the dev office hours. I felt a little bit shy, to be honest, because when it comes to development, I'm a drag-and-drop builder, turning developer, and many developers who are in there are veterans and very knowledgeable. It's just amazing how people whose time is valuable, I'm sure, are willing to take a bit of their time and help somebody out. I'd love to get to a point myself where I can do that more for other people or more at that level. But yeah, I think people are listening to this who haven't checked the dev office hours out, they really should. I really felt it's like very open, welcoming, chilled out, and lots of different questions. Yeah.

Allen: I feel the same way. If it helps you feel any better, I'm in the same boat. I'm not what I would consider a veteran WordPress or even PHP developer. I came from the Ruby and Python world. And so, it's like a night and day difference for me. So a lot of times I feel like I'm completely out of my element, but the community is so welcoming and warm and it's just nice to... I feel that too, I guess that's just to say that. Yeah.

The importance of who you know rather than how [09:40]

Ronald: Is it fair to say that it's probably more important that you need to know who rather than how? So, Slack is that extended network of there are people out there who might know it and utilize that channel to find the right person, because I doubt there is anybody out there who would say, "Yes, I know everything. You don't need to tell me," or "I don't need to Google anything." Come on, that would be impossible. I'd like to meet that person, by the way.

Allen: Right. Yeah, me too. I think you're right. I think it's important to know people in the community that have those connections. But I would say from my experience, it's even been things tend to be so welcoming in our environment that a lot of times it's just if people can ask their question and say the right way, that can spark an idea with somebody who has been through the certain challenge before, I think that helps as well too. So I wouldn't even say you have to know the right people, but being a part of the community, I feel like people forged those relationships very quickly.

Ronald: Is the WooCommerce community different to the WordPress community, or is it an extension of it? Do you notice differences in the way that people interact with each other?

Allen: So, I don't spend a ton of time in, say, our WordPress Slack. I'm in there just a little bit. I don't notice huge differences in the way that people interact. There's probably a more specialized subset of users in the WooCommerce community. But what I've noticed is that most people in the WooCommerce community are themselves already WordPress experts and they have built tons of WordPress sites and they know the ins and outs of things. They are building with WooCommerce because it's something they really enjoy. It's something that it's like a niche within that community that they're passionate about.

A bit of Allens history, variety is the spice of life [11:35]

Ronald: Yeah. I want to move a little bit to the past here, because we'd be interested in who you are and how you got to where you are now. So, I wonder if you could take us through some key parts in your life that equipped yourself the way you are now and how you maybe use some of those past experience in today's world, because you've said it yourself, you use Ruby and Python. You work with GitHub. It's very much outside of the WordPress and WooCommerce ecosystem. Have you taken some of those flavors elements? Maybe talk us through a little bit about it.

Allen: I think so. And this goes back to what I mentioned before when we were chatting with Bob that I like variety, right? The way I operate in life, I guess, is that I want little bits of everything, but not too much of anything. There's a restaurant called Shoney's here in the U.S., and it was just a buffet. You could go and you could have little bites of everything, and that's how I like to approach life and that's very much how my career has gone.

I've always been a computer nerd my whole life. So I was into programming and I was writing batch files and creating little menus and stuff on my family's computer when I was a kid, but I never studied computer science in college or grad school or anything like that. I studied film of all things. And so, I came into the tech industry with a very non-traditional background. I think that over the years that has served me well because I've been able to cultivate a balanced skillset. So I don't have any very deep technical knowledge of any particular area, but I have a pretty broad base of knowledge in a number of different areas.

So to bring that back to developer advocacy, I feel like that's a critical skill for developer advocates, because it's not just about the technical bits. That's super important. You do have to have that technical knowledge, but so much in my experience about developer advocacy has been about building relationships with people and helping get information from one format to another, being able to be like a technical translator almost, who can put things in different terms to communicate with different people in different ways. I feel like studying things that were not specifically related to computer science helped me with that because it helped me polish my communication skills, my interpersonal skills. And that's something I'm still working on all the time too, but I feel like having that balance has been really good. I can go into more detail about other jobs I've had, where I can do that as well. It's up to y'all, but I think that that has been something for me that made a huge difference, was having that balance.

The parts of the job Allen likes and that not so favorite part [14:50]

Noelle: You say you like life to be a buffet, little bit of everything and work and in your work as well. I'm very much like that as well. I get bored very easily. So I just like to switch things up constantly. So, what else is there that you specifically like about your job at Woo? Are there also parts that you're like, "It's not my favorite thing," but it comes with the job?

Allen: Yeah. So hands down, my favorite part of my job is the people I get to work with. So these are people inside Automattic, my colleagues in the company, but also the people in the community. I feel kind of fortunate because my position is set up in a way where I get to sit on the fence between the community and the people inside the company. And so, I get to have these relationships with everybody. And so, I learned so much from people who have all this experience that I don't have with WordPress, with WooCommerce. It's fascinating to me, which that, I guess, takes me into the things that I'm not super wild about, which is maybe more of an internalized thing for me.

A lot of times I feel like I don't possess enough technical skill specific to this code base or this ecosystem. And so, for a lot of people in the tech industry, they have that imposter syndrome that wells up a little bit. I think that activates a little bit for me, but that's counterbalanced by all of the warmth that I feel from the community. People in the WordPress community especially are super forgiving of people who don't know answers because I think we're all just trying to find things out on our own.

Ideas, teams and relationships [16:35]

Ronald: That's actually a really good question, Noelle. I want to carry on on that, because I just have this image of you passing on a request to, let's say, the payments team within WooCommerce and it's like, "Oh, here's Allen again. What does he want now?" And then you have this great idea that somebody else wants to integrate with. How does the relationship work with all the different teams and you? Do you find getting easy access and people are very understanding? And maybe also quite a powerful role you have there.

Allen: It is. Yeah. I think the way that we figured out how to manage it, because we have so many different teams internally who manage very specific parts of everything from WooCommerce.com, the marketplace, all the way through the core code base itself. We've had to find a way to manage that feedback to make it a little bit more processable so that it's not just more of this fire hose of information. So one of the things that we do is we have a monthly digest that goes out for any issues that have come through, say, developer office hours or if somebody has reached to me in Slack directly. We have an opportunity, where we can highlight specific issues and we ping the teams that are related to those things. If let's say we have a private repository that I've gone and filed the bug report, and that might get added to that digest just so we can shine a light on it and make sure that it gets the attention that it deserves.

Having structure around that, I think, has made it a lot easier for all the various teams to focus on specific things instead of just seeing it as one more bug report that comes in or one more issue request. The other thing that helps it, too, is this strategic planning that we do. Everything is in the open here at Automattic. We can access all of the teams, like strategic plans and things. And so, it's nice that we can go in and look for information before we put a request in. So if a developer has feedback around an issue or a feature that they want to see, I can go and I can look at that team's priorities and I can see before I even file the issue, whether or not it is something that's a priority, and that helps me frame that request in a way that it might be more well received.

Ronald: Yeah. How is that process done? Does every team have their own P2 category that you go in and check? Or how would you describe that infrastructure?

Allen: So, it varies from team to team. I think we are left to implement the system that works best for us. It starts at a high level. So we'll have a company-wide objective for WooCommerce specifically, and that lets all the teams in the different... We call them groups basically. So all the different groups will set their objectives based on this central priority for the next fiscal year. We organize all of our project work around that. Each team implements it a slightly different way, but we all do it at the same time, which helps us make sure that we're coordinating with each other.

BobWP: Hey BobWP here and I’d like to take a moment to thank to of our Pod Friends for their support of Do the Woo.

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Now back to the show.

Requests and feature requests [21:40]

Noelle: So about dealing with requests and feature requests from other people, I mean, I'm sure you got lots in, but if you could make one yourself, is there a feature you would really like to see in Woo?

Allen: So the big one that I would love to see, and I know lots of people in the community have asked for this and it is something we're working on, but is implementing a custom data structure of some kind, so custom tables in WooCommerce.

It is a huge barrier to scaling that we're well aware of and we're working on implementing, but as I found out as a developer advocate diving into this, it's a much more complicated technical challenge than it would be in other platforms because we prioritize backwards compatibility so much. And so, to do it in a way that is backwards compatible requires the creation of, to get kind of super nerdy here, an intermediary of sorts. We have to have look-up tables that get populated with legacy data and all of these tables have to stay in sync. Over time I think we could deprecate things, but it's a very complex thing that has a lot of moving parts, which is probably why it hasn't been implemented quite yet, but that's probably what I would list as one of my top priorities because I think it would unblock so many people.

Ronald: On that and from what I've read from some of the developers' blogs, you're working on a stock management improvement and one of the requests is for people to get involved. So reading that and for somebody to then want to take action, what would the process be for them?

Better documentation [23:20]

Allen: So that's in the work we've been putting together. I think over the past year or so, we've been trying to have better documentation around the entire platform. And that's one thing that we've gotten a lot of feedback on, is that it's difficult to figure out how to build with WooCommerce. Part of that contributing to the code base itself comes into that as well.

So I would recommend people start by going to our developer portal, digging through the docs and guides that we do have, but that's still acknowledging that we have that as a high priority is to improve that documentation and guidance for people around how they can build things, how they can contribute to the code base itself. One thing I do recommend, too, to people in office hours is to go in and look at the repositories where a lot of these projects are maintained, because a lot of times it's separate from WooCommerce itself and they'll maintain their own README files and things, and they have specific instructions for how contributors can get started. So that's an approach as well.

Ronald: Yeah. Have you seen a change since you started documenting these procedures and where we are today? Are more people getting involved? Are you feeling like we're getting somewhere here?

Allen: I think we're getting somewhere. As part of rolling out all these changes, we've also started measuring things a little bit more. So we've been sending out surveys, where we measure satisfaction and those types of things. Slight changes, we have data coming in that we can use to shift things around. One thing that I do see is that we're getting lots and lots of traffic and engagement on our developer docs, which means that people are using them or at least trying to, and that's a good sign to me. So if we can improve the way that they can be consumed, I feel like that's going to make a huge impact for people.

Ronald: Yeah. I personally really like it. I use it every week for the London WooCommerce Meetup, where we just go through it and look at what's been released or the blog post of the last seven days and just go through it. It's like, "Oh, there's a new release there. There's some new features or maybe nothing major, some just small fixes." But I think it helps to give everybody a little bit of an idea of what's going on, but also the work that's put into it and keeping it up to date all the time and preparing for the next release. It's just continues ongoing cycle. As a shop owner, it means very little until that goes wrong. As a developer, you might get frustrated a little bit as well, but the closer you get to the core of WooCommerce, the more appreciative I get or I have become seeing that open communication line. Have you got any more feedback from other people, having implemented this developer's blog?

Allen: Absolutely. So we've gotten feedback from people about the format that we're putting things out in. I would say generally it's been positive. What I really appreciate are the people who have given us feedback about how to refine it, how to tweak it. I know that one bit of feedback we do get is a lot of people feel swamped when we have... We've shifted to a monthly release cycle about a year ago, a little over a year ago, and I feel like a lot of people who operate in that, maybe they're not a third-party developer building extensions, but they are building stores, trying to keep updated on the latest version of WooCommerce and they want to test everything.

One bit of feedback we've gotten is that monthly pace is a little bit too fast for them because it feels like every time they get done testing the new version, there's another version that's about to come out that they have to test. And that's something that we have taken to heart. I think we are sticking with the monthly release cycle because it lets us have a smaller release. But to counterbalance that, we're trying to make it easier to test WooCommerce. We have testing tools and we have our beta tester plugin that people can use to test those beta versions as soon as they come out. But yeah, we're getting some good feedback and we're trying to adjust based on that feedback to the extent that we can.

Blocks as an integral part of WooCommerce [27:50]

Ronald: A little bit about the future, I know Gutenberg blogs or blocks are a big thing. I see a lot of releases with regard to blocks. Can you paint a little bit of a picture how blocks will be an integral part of WooCommerce and how different it will be from what it is now?

Allen: Yeah, definitely. So without going into specifics, I will say that we see WooCommerce very much as a part of the bigger WordPress ecosystem. So to the extent that things change in WordPress, that they become the norm, we do our best to track alongside that. Any new features that are landing in WordPress core, we are doing our best to make sure that we can implement those, or at least make sure WooCommerce supports those things. So it started with Gutenberg. Now, with full site editing coming into WordPress, we are aligning ourselves, prepping core in WooCommerce to support full site editing in the future. That's something that's on our roadmap, or at least it's something that's in our future that we're trying to plan.

WooCommerce in general, at least from an admin standpoint and from a shopper flow standpoint, I believe is going to become increasingly JavaScript based. So that will be something that we're trying to help legacy developers upskill on, because we've gotten some feedback from developers that these are veteran PHP developers who know WordPress and they know how the platform operates, but they are wanting to know a little bit more about JavaScript and some of these newer tools, like Node. A lot of the end-to-end testing that we do is based on JavaScript. It's just a different tool set. And so, we're looking to put together more guidance around how to use those tools so that these developers can feel supported because many of them have built extensions. They've built plugins. Many of them, their livelihood is based on selling these extensions. If they're no longer compatible with WooCommerce core, then that affects them in a big way. And so, we want to make sure that they are able to update their extensions so that they can continue to provide a seamless experience for those merchants as the platform itself evolves.

I'm trying to think of what else we have on the roadmap. One of the groups that I work closely with focuses on platform quality. A lot of improvements that are happening over the next year or so are going to be around automated testing, making sure that WooCommerce is, as I mentioned before, easier to test for compatibility and just putting together tooling basically for that to make it easier for people to test WooCommerce to ensure that the platform itself is reliable. At a high level, what we would love is... I think everybody in WordPress has that anxiety sometimes around pressing the update button on any of their plugins and we want to do everything we can to take away that anxiety for WooCommerce and just make it a seamless thing, like how your browser updates. It's like I don't even know what version my browser is on. It's just constantly up to date, and we want to make people feel that way about WooCommerce.

The future, Allen’s role and his wish list [31:22]

Noelle: So, that's looking into the future of WooCommerce. What about yourself and your role within WooCommerce? Are there certain wishes that you have long term?

Allen: I see myself as I'm just along for the ride. I'm glad to be here. I like doing impactful work and I like helping people. And if I can give a quick plug here, we're hiring more developer advocates. We got approval to hire more people in my role, which I'm super excited about, which means we'll get to do even more cool stuff. And so, that's a big part of our future, at least in the immediate future is I get to have other developer advocates to work with and we can team up and really make an impact on a lot of these things that we have been planning to have an impact for over the past year or so since I started. For me, that's the immediate future, is just helping build out a practice here for developer advocacy.

Noelle: If people are curious about the roles that have become available, where can they go to find out more information about that?

Allen: They can go to WooCommerce.com/careers. We have a dedicated careers page just for WooCommerce. Automattic has its own careers page and I believe our roles might be listed there too. But for people who are interested in working specifically with WooCommerce, take a look at that page, anybody who's listening, WooCommerce.com/careers. You can find all sorts of positions that are listed. Come and work with us. It'll be fun.

Noelle: I've actually said to myself, if I ever get bored of freelancer work, I'm saying to myself like, "I've had it" and something else, WooCommerce is actually my number one that I would think of. You never know.

Allen: Yeah.

Ronald: I think you would be well-equipped, Noelle, because you've got a lot of experience. I think what I've learned from Allen as well is knowing both sides, knowing the frustrations from a store owner or developer, and then working on the other side as part of that team that makes it happen. It's very much a two-sided coin to make things happen and understanding and pushing things forward. That's one thing I've learned. I know Noelle is really keen and eager to ask you this final question.

Working music and Allen’s favorite tunes for getting into the zone [33:40]

Noelle: Yeah. It's a bit of a personal one. I'm curious, when you work and get in the zone, do you like to listen to music? And if so, what do you listen to? What helps you to go into that mode?

Allen: Oh, let me think. So again, it comes back to that variety thing, right? I always have something shuffling on. Lately, I have been really into 1970s country music, so outlaw country, like Merle Haggard. I've been really into that. My parents went to an estate sale. They live in Alabama in the Southeast U.S. here. They went to an estate sale and they bought tons of old LP, like vinyl records, at this estate sale. And so, when I went to visit, my mom said, "Well, go see if there's anything you like." And so, I have this stack, it was maybe 15 or so, of these vintage vinyl records and I have this old record player that they used to use them in schoolhouses here for science presentations and things like that. It just sits over here and it's probably from the 1950s or 1960s. And so, I put these old records on it and it's just this fantastic, warm, crackly sound while I'm working and I kind of like that, at least for right now.

Ronald: I love that answer. That's just so fantastic, the way you describe it. I can just imagine you just being perfect for this role, because the way you describe things and help, and it's just great. Allen, how can people get in touch with you? I mean, surely by now, it should be pretty straightforward to find you, but just a reminder.

Allen: Absolutely. People can always reach out to me via email. So my email address is allen.smith@automattic.com, or you can find me in our WooCommerce community Slack. My handle is Allen Smith there. For anybody who's watching here, I'm also in the WordPress community Slack every now and then. I'm Allen Smith there as well. So there's a number of different ways to reach out to me. I'd say Slack and email are probably the most straightforward.

Ronald: Yeah. Nice. Fantastic.

Noelle: Perfect. Allen, thanks so much that you could join us. I really enjoyed our chat today.

Allen: Yeah, me too. Thank you all so much for inviting me.

BobWP: Hey everyone, thanks again for tuning in to today's show. I would like to give one more shoutout to our two Pod friends. If you are looking for a seamless way to build your next client membership site, do check out WPQuickstart at Nexcess.net. And for that boost of SEO, grab your copy of the Yoast WooCommerce SEO plugin over on Yoast.com.

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