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Outside and Inside the WooCommerce Ecosystem with Robert Jacobi

Outside and Inside the WooCommerce Ecosystem with Robert Jacobi
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Today’s guest has taken a deep dive this year into the world of WooCommerce. Robert Jacobi, Industry Analyst Strategist has a diverse background in the web space, and in open-source. Previously, when looking at moving to an open source CMS, he chose Joomla. Much has happened since then. Robert has a pulse on the open source and WordPress space and his perspectives and insights come from what he hears from his clients and a lot of other people he connects with in the ecosystem.

A Chat with Robert

In episode 84, I talk with Robert about:

  • The interesting path he has taken since the 1990’s to land on WordPress and WooCommerce
  • What he is seeing with his own clients as they look to enter or expand into the WooCommerce space
  • The word around the web on the WordPress and WooCommerce ecosystem
  • How companies new to the WooCommerce space are learning about the unique approach it takes to become part of the community
  • What this year has meant to companies when it comes to eCommerce and WooCommerce
  • Why WooCommerce agencies may be looking to get more into the product space in 2021
  • Robert’s thoughts on static WordPress and WooCommerce

Connect with Robert


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The Conversation

Bob: Hey everyone, BobWP here. We're back to Do the Woo, Episode 84. I am co-hostless. I don't even know if that's a word, but I am. There is no co-host with me today because of a personal conflict. But hey, the beauty about this is that don't stop the podcast because you don't have to worry about it being all BobWP now. It's like, "Ugh." No, I still got a great guest. So we got that guest to basically act as both a co-host and a guest, which he didn't really expect. Yeah, just go with the flow, have a great conversation. We have a very, very cool guest, lots of experience, wide range in his background.

But before I get into that, I'd like to thank our community sponsors, WooCommerce. And one of the things I wanted just to mention about WooCommerce that you may not know or you may know that they have this resource that's kind of buried on their site called Customer Showcase. And essentially, that is the chance for people to put their WooCommerce site on there. Now, what does that mean for you as a builder? I like to look at these things as, "Okay, this isn't something that you just want to ignore." One thing is hey, just a chance to get some of the work you do on the site.

And secondly, how many times have you had to convince a client into WooCommerce? And what better way than saying, "Hey, did you know so-and-so is on WooCommerce? Did you know that AeroPress, the better coffee press, is on WooCommerce?" It's a great way to look at some of the industries that maybe your potential client is in and say, "Yeah, look at these. These are big sites. They run in WooCommerce." So, keep that as resource. It's under the community tab on WooCommerce.com.

And, of course, our second community sponsor is PayPal and I've been talking about that for some time, their pay, excuse me, their buy now, pay later solutions. And it's gotten down to the point where I'm thinking, "Okay, you as a builder, you have lot of clients. You have them using PayPal." I mean, chances are they have PayPal on there. And it's just a nice way to make you shine a bit, whether you're an existing client, whether it's a new client to say, "This might work with your product," depending on the product, but giving them the option to tell their own clients, "Hey, get more customers. Offer the pay-in for." It's no risk to you. The store owners, it's no risk to them.

So yeah, do check it out and there'll be more about that later in the show, but I want to dive into the show and I don't have to babble with my co-host. So I'm going to babble with my guests instead. Robert Jacobi, welcome to the show.

Robert: Thank you, Bob. Great pleasure to be here. If I knew I was doing double duty, I would have asked for twice as much pay.

Bob: Yeah, I know. That's why I always surprise people because I don't pay anything. So, just with glad tidings or something, whatever that is. Now, in your background, I want to get into that a bit, but I want to hear... Tell us what you do right now and essentially how does WooCommerce play into that at all?

Meet Robert Jacobi

Robert: Great. Thanks. So what I am involved in is being an industry analyst strategist, and what I also call a solution ambassador for customers of mine. I look to help guide them, especially in entering open-source markets, obviously like WordPress and WooCommerce, how to interact with those communities, everything from the community level to obviously at higher market levels. And I wrote a blog about all that as well.

It all started in the 1990’s and now, WordPress and WooCommerce

Bob: Cool. Now, you have a diverse background. I mean, I go to your about page and I read it and I just like, "Whoa." It is diverse. So give us, and it probably a rather large nutshell, a bit of that background and what paths led you to WordPress and ultimately how even WooCommerce played a part in that along the way.

Robert: So we do actually have to go all the way back to the 1990s.

Bob: Oh my God.

Robert: I know. You remember the 90s, Bob, don't you?

Bob: Yeah, I do. Very well. Very well.

Robert: One of my first career opportunities was working at a learning management solutions company. We provided training for your day-to-day products at the time, so Microsoft Office, specifically Lotus Notes, variations of Windows, and these were CD-ROM-based products with some development tools that put that all together.

I wound up being in charge of putting together the learning management platform as the internet was exploding and we needed to figure out a way to provide content to our customers and user tracking, all these kinds of things that learning management systems do today. So, that was that initial foray into management systems of any kind around... Well, actually, not even around, in 2001, one of the lead developers when I decided to form our own agency called Arc Technology Group. And we focused on Java-based content management. So we would help roll out proprietary content management solutions with our team to small, medium, large enterprise companies.

We worked with companies that supported certain brands, like McDonald's. A couple of years into that, we decided we needed to make a choice on whether we were going to support the software or support the consulting. And that's where we came into the open-source space, even though we're using Java, which was open-source-ish.

Looking for a good open-source CMS. Joomla?

At the time, we were thinking we needed something that was a bit more robust, a bit more flexible, could support the old. If our entire company got hit by a bus, what could you do with the product? And our clients and customers weren't going to be locked into anything. So we actually went with the best open-source content management solution at the time, and that was not WordPress, it was Joomla. People love that story.

Bob: Yeah, really.

Robert: They were waiting for me to say WordPress.

Bob: Yeah, that was it. That went off in a different direction there.

Robert: So we did that for a number of years and got deeply involved in the community and all things open source. And it was a wonderful experience. Near the end of that, I actually became the president of Open Source Matters, which for all intents and purposes is the president of Joomla. Serving in that role for one year was challenging, exciting, learned even more about how projects develop, evolve, run. Heck, even half the time, just trying to keep their heads from being underwater. So, that was great.

After that, I mostly sold off the agency and began looking at different opportunities. One popped up through someone who I had met on the board of directors at Joomla, and that was Perfect Dashboard, at the time, product focused on end users to help automatic upgrading, updating of both Joomla and WordPress sites.

So, that was really that first deep dive into WordPress. It was really, so now we're talking about four years ago, three to four years ago. That's got to be four years ago. I keep forgetting about 2020. Yes, that is a year and we're at the end of it. So, that was about four years ago. We were able to be acquired at the beginning of 2019 by WPEngine. So, that was fantastic. And if you're using WPEngine's auto-updating tools, that is actually now being managed by much of the development team that was also at Perfect Dashboard. So, that was a cool thing to happen.

So beginning of 2019 rolls around, what am I going to do? I'm going to figure out something in 2019. And a lot of that just came into speaking, attending work camps, everything from the local ones to Work Camp Europe, obviously, Work Camp U.S. and others. Part of that also being involved in speaking at those events, as well as hosting cons and CloudFest and tangential spaces to actual WordPress.

It also requires learning about everything and knowing, "Oh, WooCommerce." So WordPress has this WooCommerce attached platform. What does that mean? How's that impacting the community? Are people using it? How are they using it? So, a lot of this year has been actually a deep dive into understanding WooCommerce also because there's the secret 2021 project that I'm getting up the door that will also utilize WooCommerce. So, that's been very instrumental in learning much about what the tool does.

Bob: Oh, a secret project. Now you got me really curious. I'm hoping to get a glimpse into that secret project secretly sometime.

Robert: You'll have a second dibs.

Bob: Okay. Second dibs. Good. Good. Good. All righty.

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Trust me. I know the company and a lot of the people. It's a smart move.

Thanks to WooCommerce.com and their support as a community sponsor. Now let's head back to the show.

What Robert hears about WooCommerce from his clients inside and outside the space

Well, now let's go to what you've been doing lately as far as working with the clients. Basically, you're the evangelist for them and they're obviously depending on you to not only get the word out, but probably to embrace and capture all this information out there, bring it back to them and say, "Hey, have you thought about this? Are you doing this."

Obviously, and I know a million of us in this space, maybe there's a million of us, but we've seen this growing interest in WooCommerce over the year for obvious reasons. What are your clients tending towards more new products? Or are they saying, "We have this, but we can incorporate it into WooCommerce. We never really thought the focus should be there," or not necessarily focused on their product, but it should be a priority? What's been going on with it? And you don't have to point out needs specific clients obviously, but just a general feel of what they're thinking and what they are as far as getting into the Woo space.

Robert: Sure. And you've actually hit both sides of the coin on that. There are people with existing products and I'm happy to name names, I'm sure they won't complain either, that are looking to get into that space and others that are building that new product offering out and what that might entail. So on the ones with existing products, those are typically SaaS providers that have just ignored, not necessarily intentionally, just the market drove them in other directions initially, other e-commerce platforms.

So one of these companies, Omnisend is an email marketing automation platform, so similar to... Well, it's not MailChimp. It's super MailChimp. Maybe something equitable that everyone knows is Jilt. So something like Jilt would be a similar product line. They made their claim to fame in the Shopify space. And so, they've strategically tackled different markets one at a time.

So first, it was Shopify. Then it was Magento. Then it was BigCommerce. And now, it's WooCommerce's turn. So that they're waiting for that level of maturity and awareness of just the platform as a whole, and then trying to get people who utilize that platform to be aware of them, as well as understanding the differences in an open-source community.

If you're dealing with Shopify or BigCommerce, well, those are very market-driven pretty standard companies. No one's breaking out into it. Everything is very transactional. What's beautiful and what I really love about open-source communities is there's a lot more personal trust and relationship building that occurs throughout that sales partnership pipeline than I would say traditionally happens in more proprietary-based companies.

So, a lot of it is also helping people learn how to engage with the community as a whole, because it's not just about, "Here's our solution. You should use it because it's the best." It's about, "We have a solution that we think is really good and can help a percentage of people on WooCommerce. Plus, we want to give back. We want to be at the correct events. We want to send speakers. We will contribute in other ways." And that's just a slightly different mindset from a purely transactional business-to-business connection, I think. And that's what really keeps me in open source. I like doing that. I like to talk to people. I like to be out there. And I find it really rewarding at the end of the day, on top of just the regular got to pay the bills.

Companies entering the WooCommerce space

Bob: Right. And that's interesting because I find the same thing, especially in larger corporations that are looking to get into the space, WooCommerce. They come in and their expectations, whether it's through a sponsorship or somebody like you, right away, they're going to start laying out the metrics. They start looking at the numbers. There's a real education process there of... And numbers are important. I'm not saying we're numberless in the WordPress space, but there is those other elements layered on as far as those relationships.

Robert: Yeah, you can't ignore the metrics. I mean, that's still matters.

Bob: Yeah.

Robert: But there is an open-source ramp up because a lot of people are in the space not just for the business aspects. They're in it because they like the product and the product is also the community, is also the WordCamp, is also all the podcasts, all the personalities. It's much more than just running over to the grocery store, picking up a ham. You're not in and out.

Many of these people are deeply ingrained in the project and the community. There should definitely be a level of respect allocated to those kinds of people, because they don't want to be spammed. They understand what's going on. They want to have that conversation and see if you're legitimately bringing something new to the table versus all of the other spam that you can get.

What’s the word on the streets about WooCommerce

Bob: Yeah. Now, I want to piggyback on that and maybe even look a little bit in the next year. So on the flip side of it, you're working with these clients, but I know you and I see you everywhere. I mean, sometimes I pop into some meetup. It's like, "My God, there's Robert again. But he probably thinks that I'm following him around or whatever." But I see you. So that's part of what you do and you're very good at it.

So you're hearing all these different pieces to the puzzle over a vast array of WordPressness, which is not even a word, but you're hearing a lot. We're looking at 2021 and what's happened this last year. What are you hearing from just the general space out there around WooCommerce? A lot of jumping on the bandwagon, a lot of still, "Oh, do I go WooCommerce? Do I go a platform like Shopify?" Or something like that. But just from your perspective, what are you hearing? I always love it, because you're out there with a lot of feelers.

Robert: Well, I got to say that 2020 has definitely, I think, amped up the presence of WooCommerce, just because so many people want to get online and there are so many WordPress agencies that a good go-to is Woo, but they're not necessarily fully tech-savvy on WooCommerce.

So I think there's been on the agency side, a big ramp up in just understanding the tech and how it integrates well and what are the best practices around WooCommerce, because there's a lot of stuff that goes on an e-commerce platform. It's a lot more resource-intensive on labor and costs just to get a good shop up.

And this is a discussion that goes on all the time for especially do-it-yourselfers solopreneurs is to know your client. If your client is that shop at the end of the street, they probably don't need WooCommerce for what doing, and to have that awareness and then instinctively and reflexively jump to Woo is important to know.

Even though you might want to do these projects so you can also learn and teach yourself how everything works, there's that struggle to keep that client in mind. And there are platforms for very small... If there's someone selling three things, do they really need to have a WooCommerce shop up? No, they don't. Woo is great for being an e-commerce platform, but it's not going to solve all the problems. Yes, Shopify is out there.

I mean, look at Wix. Wix is slowly growing up their ability to do a shopping and e-commerce and building and payment gateways, and trying to do a lot of these things that the other providers have done. So there's that awareness, I need to make sure I take care of the clients best.

So to answer your question from 10 minutes ago about we talked about existing people entering the market with their existing products, I think the new products, and a lot of this will happen to 2021, some of it's already happened in 2019, 2020 with the hosting companies, figuring out ways to more efficiently onboard small to medium sized businesses. So that's where do-it-yourself product or solopreneurs, where the agencies can focus on much larger e-commerce opportunities.

So we're not going to necessarily see a proprietary solution like Wix, but we're going to see Liquid Web with their WooCommerce onboarding and experiences. We're going to see other hosts. I'm sure hosting companies like Convesio and WPEngine has got to have something in the pipeline. I can't imagine they wouldn't. We can go on and on through all the hosts that are figuring out the best way to onboard at different market points people onto WooCommerce. Because it makes sense, people are going to do it. We talk about Black Friday and Cyber Monday, well, it's been Gray November.

Everyone's been shopping every day online. There are stuff that I've bought online that I'd never thought I would because I was like, "No, I cannot absolutely do that." Yes, I've been hold out for things like, "I'm never going to use Instacart or anything like that." But yeah, I guess I can actually do that.

Sometimes it's a roll of dice. You're not necessarily going to get what you might get if you were picking up something at the grocery store, but it's close enough and you make do. And I think people are finding ways to make whatever they have today as a solution, a real-world or real-life solution at least accessible somehow online.

At the end of the day, if the price points are right, everyone will have a shop because if you're spending a hundred bucks a month say on infrastructure, well, you may only need to sell two things to make up for that infrastructure. You could still have your day job, but you have your store now as well. So why not do that with your blog and maybe a mini Woo that takes care of a lot of that, of the transactional stuff?

I'm just very bullish on a lot of the e-commerce solutions and a lot of the SaaS products getting in because the cost of starting up one of these things is just so much lower, so much lower than last, a year ago and infinitely lower than 10 years ago to just get something rolling. And so many people can do it as a hobby and be successful without having to deal with eBay as their outlet and the lack of trustworthiness and off. Now, you can just set up your own shipping with SaaS shipping providers and all the taxes and all this can be SaaS-based. And it's transactional and relatively inexpensive.

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Thanks for PayPal for being a community sponsor at Do the Woo. And now back the conversation.

Agencies moving into the product space more in 2021

Bob: Yeah, and I wonder if... It brings up something I hadn't really thought about, but maybe I had thought about, but if I have, I already thought about it again is a lot of the agencies we talk with on this podcast, a lot of the products that they've created came out of a need they had for their existing clients.

And I wonder if there are more agencies now, and I'm not behind the scenes hearing this, because for an agency there's that, "Okay. Well, if I start a product, I've got to have support." There's a lot of things that come with that, but at the same time, it's an added stream of pretty consistent income. So I'm wondering again, if that this whole... what's grown out of this, this last year, if that's pushing even some agencies starting to think, "Maybe it's not so much I need to even take more WooCommerce website building clients, instead maybe it's time to start looking at a product." I wonder if that's opened up some opportunities to these agencies to put another source of revenue in their stream.

Robert: Well, if you're an agency, the ebbs and flows of revenue are notorious, and I did that for almost 20 years. We had amazing years that could cover three or four other years. So of course, we had two recessions in the middle of that time, so that was also entertaining.

And we always talk about recurring revenue and how do you build that base in, because it's nice to have a floor where you're not necessarily always sweating the bullets about, "Is my income going to be zero next month? No. I mean, you can have a floor. And I think just during this discussion, it dawned on me a little bit more that the successful agencies of 2021 will figure out how to be SaaSsy.

Bob: Yeah.

Robert: So, that's SaaSsy with two As.

Bob: Yeah. Yeah.

Robert: Two As, two Ss. And really build that into their workflow and focus on their unique value propositions. So the markets they've already entered into, is that regional? Is that technical? Is it industry markets? Specializations, things like that.

Bob: Well, I think you better go and trademark that tagline. That sounds like a good one. I like that. Write that down. Yeah.

Robert: I'm writing it down as we speak.

Bob: Yeah, I was going to say that. I like that one. You trademark that and I can use and give you all this credit and say, "As Robert says, hey-

Robert: Get SaaSsy.

Bob:... it's the year to get SaaSsy." All right.

Robert: I've done a presentation in the past, actually in 2019, talking about the invisible CMS, where again, you focus on your specialties and push the technology backwards at WorkCamp Costa Rica. I had a real-time signer that was translating from English and then signing in Spanish, if that makes sense. The last slide is sort of a call to action. It was about kick some SaaS. And she stopped signing in the middle of that thinking she might miss heard.

Bob: Oh no.

Robert: We make eye contact. I point up to the sign and she's like, "Oh."

Bob: Yes, that's good.

Static WordPress with WooCommerce

Well, the last thing I'm going to touch on before we go, and this tend to take in a totally different twist out of what we've been talking about. And this may be looks at the next year what's coming up and something I know you're really into is a static WordPress with WooCommerce, and what's around the band.

Can you just leave us with some thoughts on that and what you're thinking? Because I think this is going to be something we're going to be talking about on the podcast, I think for sure, as we move into this new year, even more.

Robert: So it's not that big of a leap from what we were just speaking about. Static WordPress sites, by their very definition, don't have dynamic content. WooCommerce does. And I'm wondering, and this is speculative ideation, crazy thoughts in my head with too much caffeine, it was how can WooCommerce become a headless JavaScript, plugin-based tool set for all these static sites? So if you look at companies like FLATsite or Strattic, and the Gatsby products, all the JAMstack stuff, they're trying to move away from having to call databases all the time, but you're going to need that for e-commerce solutions.

So, it's really more of a thought puzzles. How can WooCommerce integrate into this market that's not going to go anywhere? I mean, static sites are not disappearing, so how can WooCommerce be a player and available and on top of that? Because there are other SaaS providers already trying to get into that space or already making inroads, Ecwid is one.

So how does WooCommerce compete instead of with Shopify, how does it compete with something like Ecwid, which is almost like a JavaScript drop-in store? So I'm curious what the visions are for that from the development teams, but also how third parties might magically make that happen.

Bob: Right. That'd be an interesting topic for my Woo Perspective. I was just thinking of that in the new year is to get some people coming in. Obviously, there aren't solid ideas and people are moving on things, but there's a lot of this, just like you shared, this is what I'm thinking, "How can we do this?" And I think that would be pulling in some of those people that are in that space to really... Because I'm sure there's like, "Okay. Right now, we're not doing it." But in a perfect world situation, it could make for a real interesting discussion that I could sit back and let three people just go for it.

Robert: Yeah. I mean, because why should WooCommerce be limited to WordPress? Why can't you all of a sudden use WooCommerce with some other JAMstack toolkits? And why can't it be the best of breed e-commerce platform for X, Y, Z? So I think a lot of this stuff is getting intermingled and it's not going to matter much. You're going to have multiple systems interconnected, and why not?

Bob: Well, I know we could talk on and on and I'm going to have you back. In fact, I know you're going to be on a Woo Perspective. We're not quite sure on the topic yet, but that will be coming in January and that'll be fun. We'll be pulling in some of you and a couple of other people. Well, we'll find something cool to talk about Woo.

Robert: I'm looking forward to it. Can't wait.

Bob: Yeah. So anyway, well, excellent. Yeah. Let me just give a quick shout out to my sponsors before we close out here. Again, WooCommerce.com. You know them. You love them. Probably why you listen to this podcast. And like I said at the beginning of this show, you just need to spend some time.

I think, especially as a builder, you get stuck on those development resources and you got to wade through their site. There's probably a lot of hidden gems there that you can use.

And then, of course, PayPal, get on that, check out their buy now, pay later solutions. I'm going to keep talking about that because I think there's many people that use PayPal. That's a great option to throw in there. Again, depending on your product, I know that right now that paying for it does not work with recurring automatic subscriptions, but I also know that is in the pipeline. I'm sure they'll be figuring that out. But yeah, there's some opportunity there. So check out PayPal.com, WooCommerce.com.

Connect with Robert

And where can people check out Robert Jacobi?

Robert: Oh, that's easy, RobertJacobi.com. Now, you just have figured out how to spell it. So, Robert's easy. Jacobi is J-A-C-O-B-I.

Bob: And any platforms, anywhere you hang out a lot on where people can reach out to you?

Robert: So many meetups, definitely on, let's say, Post Status' Slack, Big Orange Heart's Slack. You can always get me on WordPress.org Slack. So those three Slacks are always running around, but you'll catch me at an event at least once a week somewhere.

Bob: Cool. Well, yeah, in an event and plenty of other places to connect with Robert. So, I really appreciate you taking the time to join us today.

Robert: Thank you so much, Bob.

Bob: And everyone, yeah, do check us out on your favorite pod platform.

Also, coming up next Tuesday, I will be having a Woo Perspective with three Woo vendors and we're going to do a post-Black Friday. We're going to see what they prepared for, how it went for them, if they survived it, if they've been drinking for the last week, all that good stuff, just see what is going on with it, with some of the Woo vendors and how they survived Black Friday.

So until next time, Do the Woo.