Full interview transcript: Daniel Espinoza
Jai: Hi, everyone. My name is Jai Sangha, and welcome to another Sell with WP interview. Sellwithwp.com is an eCommerce blog about all things related to eCommerce on WordPress, so this includes plugin and theme reviews, these interviews, marketing tips, shop tips, and much, much more. Sell with WP is supported by [inaudible 00:00:22], the largest third party extension developer for [inaudible 00:00:26].
Our guest today is Daniel Espinoza. He’s currently the developer at Shop Plugins. Some of his work includes the WooCommerce Store Locator and Multiple Shipping Addresses extensions. He is also developing the Quickbooks extensions for WooCommerce, as well as Easy Digital Downloads. In the past, he helped build the WooCommerce course on WP101, and worked on the Sugar Event Calendar plugin for WordPress. Daniel, welcome.
Daniel: Pleased to be here. Thanks.
Jai: So, did I capture what you do, or what else do you do when you’re not doing all of that?
Daniel: Professionally, that pretty much encompasses it. So, I build commercial plugins, and sell them, commercial WordPress plugins. I do training mostly through the WP101, getting started with the WooCommerce course. And we have some additional modules to that coming out pretty soon. So, I’ve been expanding that. And then I also do consulting for WooCommerce store owners. So, I also have several support plan clients, and then do custom plugin development.
Jai: Oh, okay. So, which one takes up most of your time?
Daniel: So, the custom plugin development through my agency is Grow Development, and that’s just the company that I’ve had for about nine years. And it’s changed along that time, but that’s what I do most of my work through. So I’d say it’s probably 70% of my time, whereas the plugins take up the other 30.
Jai: Okay. And sorry, you mentioned the agency is called Grow Development?
Daniel: Grow Development, yeah.
Jai: Okay. And then for the WooCommerce courses on WP101, when did you start doing those? [inaudible 00:02:16 to 00:02:18].
Daniel: That was just something that I had with Sean Huskett [SP], over at WP101, about two years ago at a work camp. And I was like, “Hey, do you want…are you interested in collaborating on this? Do you have something that would be interesting?” And he said, “Yeah, actually, it’s a really highly requested topic,” for his courses. And then it just took some time to get it all together. And finally this year we did. He taught me sort of the finer points of screen casting and making sure his process for coming out with a really high quality product that isn’t just sort of a mismatch of sound and images but something that people can actually learn from.
Daniel: That was a great experience.
Jai: And so that was two years ago?
Daniel: The idea was started two years ago, but we actually finished it and shipped it this year, right before WooComm. We were like, “We really need to ship this before WooComm.” So it was a big [inaudible 00:03:13] right before then, and then we got it done.
Jai: Okay, gotcha. And how did the introductory course go?
Daniel: So, the introductory course takes you from zero to selling. So, it helps you setup your site, install WooCommerce, setup your catalog, shipping, checkout, everything you need to get to the point of selling. The add-on modules are what are gonna take you from that, “Okay, you have a store now. How do you dial in fulfillment? How do you manage customer returns? How do you market your site, your shop? What are some of the add-on plugins that’ll add functionality to your site?” Bunch of that type of stuff.
Jai: Gotcha, okay. And then Shop Plugins, how much work is involved there?
Daniel: So, Shop Plugins…actually, a part of my bio. I used to work for WooThemes back in 2014, so for about 14 months. And then I moved back to being independent, because I just have an independent spirit. And so, Shop Plugins was a place for me to sell my plugins, the commercial plugins that I developed. And that launched in February of 2015. So it’s about 17 months old now. So, for right now, we have some plugins in development, but not really a very aggressive shipping schedule. But the support of it is very, very low. We have several hundred customers. Every revenue grows month over month, so that’s great. And support is pretty low. I mean, it’s maybe a ticket every other day type of situation.
Jai: Oh, okay. And so, if you wanted to say which one was your focus, how would you list your, I guess, priorities?
Daniel: Right now, I’d say agency-building, custom plugins, and doing WooCommerce support. So, people who come to me and say they need their site audited. Sort of they have a site but it’s not performing well and they need a new developer, I’ll do an audit of the site, give a recommendation report. And then they can either have that report and I will take action on all the findings, or they can give them to another developer or someone in-house some stuff to do.
So, I’ll bring my expertise and say, “Here’s what you have and here’s what I suggest.” I either help them out with that or they could do it themselves. Or it’s other folks who…I’ve actually this year done quite a few custom plugins for companies who either want to sell the plugin themself or they have a product that is outside of the WooCommerce ecosystem and they’re wanting to bring that product to a commerce. So, they need a WooCommerce compatible plugin for their product.
Jai: Gotcha, okay. So, you were at WooThemes in 2014. You started talking about…the idea for the WP101 course was around 2014-ish. How did you get started? So, before 2014, how did you get into development, WordPress development, WooCommerce development?
Daniel: Well, I’m sure my boyish good looks sort of betray my actual age. So, I’ve been a professional programmer for about 22 years. And so, I’ve done a lot of development. I’ve worked for a lot of companies. In 2007, my daughter was born, and so my wife became a stay-at-home mom at that point. And I saw how much fun they were having, and everyday I wake up and go to the bank that I was working at in the IT department. And I thought, “You know what, I’d be having a lot more fun if I was at home, and not having to do this commute. Let’s see what we can make happen to get rid of that.”
So, in 2008, I quit the bank and started doing freelance development full time. And that’s sort of where [inaudible 00:07:22] development started. And I started off doing eCommerce sites with an eCommerce program that I don’t know if it exists anymore. It was Cart Keeper or something like that. It was just a [inaudible 00:07:34] cart that you sort of bolt it into a site. And then I moved on to Magento. And so, Magento grew out of 2008, 2009, to have quite a few people building for it. And so that was sort of my learning curve and my introduction into eCommerce. And one thing that Cart Keeper and Magento neither of them did very well was a blog. So, the project would usually include portion design, which the designer would do, portion development, which would be building out the eCommerce site, and then let’s just throw a blog in there. So there’s this thing called WordPress. Let’s just put that on there.
So, it was usually installing a sub-directory theme to match the eCommerce site, and then just sort of leave it alone. Well, in 2011 is when WooCommerce started coming on to the scene. And actually, before then, it was Jiggo [SP] Shop. And so we were investigating using Jiggo Shop instead of Magento, just because of the large development effort that was involved with Magento getting up running and then keeping it running. The clients we were working for weren’t really big. They didn’t have huge budgets to keep stuff maintained after launch.
So we thought, “Let’s try doing WordPress.” And plus, we liked the idea of combining the blogging, the CNS platform, with an eCommerce site. So that’s sort of how I got to know Mike Jolly [SP] and James Cosner [SP], who started it. Tweeted back and forth with him, and said, “Hey, can somebody build an authorized site net plugin?” I sort of tweeted back and said, “Hey, I’ll do it.” So that was actually the first commercial plugin for WooCommerce back in 2011.
Jai: Oh, okay. And how many clients were you dealing with with the Magento store before you shifted over to WooCommerce? [inaudible 00:09:21]. Sorry, the other fallout would be, were clients generally happy to switch over? Or was it more pushed to?
Daniel: I didn’t do very many conversions. So, back then, I was a lot less nitched in what I did, and I was less experienced. And so, I worked with designers who it was their clients, so they would do the marketing, they would have the client relationship, and I was just subcontracting out to do development. And so, I think the switch…I don’t think I actually did an actual WooCommerce build-out until like much later. I was building plugins just for WooCommerce but still doing Magento work during the day type of thing.
I actually had a commercial Magento plugin which was actually a store locator for Magento, that did okay. It wasn’t a really big seller, but it was my first commercial plugin, so it was something that I had to develop, package, market, and then support. So, doing that whole cycle.
Jai: Got it. So, authorize.net was your first plugin for WooCommerce?
Daniel: It was, yeah.
Jai: And so, that was back in 2011, 2012?
Jai: And then what came after that?
Daniel: More payment gateways. So, in 2012, actually, in June…so, [inaudible 00:10:44] was still WooThemes back then. And he sort of did a bounty during that month, and he said…part of the push was to get WooCommerce compatible with as many payment gateways as possible to sort of help build adoption of the platform. Because people would say, “Hey, I’m from Poland, but I only have these payment gateways. I don’t have authorize.net. I don’t have access to PayPal. Or I have this specific Polish one that I want to work with because it’s with my bank. Do you have that?” WooCommerce would say no. And they say, “Well, I’m gonna move on to something else.”
So, [inaudible 00:11:22] put out a bounty and said, “Hey, whoever…” at that time there were a lot more third party developers, “Whoever develops a payment gateway during this month, you’ll get the normal revenue split,” which was 50% over the sale. And then you’d also get an additional couple hundred bucks. So, I did the math, and I was like, “I could probably crank out like 10 payment gateways during this month.” So I did. Actually, I don’t know if I did 10. It might have been eight. So I did an additional eight payment gateways to sort of grab as many as I could. You know, Googled “payment gateway,” and then tried to see if they had an open API and a developer platform, and just sort of built the plugin.
Jai: Okay. And so, back when you were doing IT for a bank. And then you moved over to development. How hard was that change? Did you have a programming background to begin with? Was it just a matter of learning sort of different languages and going from there? And then some of the challenges as you sort of progressed in your development know how?
Daniel: I did have a programming background. I have a computer science degree, so I have sort of a classic education in that. But even before I finished that degree, I had been programming for a startup back in the ’90s, that did mortgage lending software, and I was the only programmer. And we used Fox Pro, which was a Microsoft database application with this really crappy [inaudible 00:12:55] in front of it. But yeah, they were handling multi-million dollar mortgage portfolio sales with my crappy little software. But hey, it worked. And then 2008 happened, like a decade later.
So, yeah, I programmed that type of stuff. And then, in IT, the problem that I had with that was that banks and most larger companies, they’re not really interested in having development teams, at least these weren’t. So they’re like, “We know you can probably build this from scratch, and support it. But we’d rather just go buy something off the shelf, have you install it, and then that’s it. And if you have any problems, you have a number to call and somebody carries a liability for it.” So, I was managing payroll, wire transfer, and the HR system. So all of these three who were just third party apps that they had purchased, and I was just sort of keeping the trains running.
That really didn’t sit well with me at all because I’d rather be developing, creating things on my own, my own products. And so, that was sort of the impetus also, along with my daughter being born, for going freelance and building my own products. The challenges and hurdles were I had been in this implementation phase where I would just install software, maintain it, and build integrations. Moving that over into freelance and building other people’s sites, I had to learn all of the skills I didn’t have as far as scoping out a project, putting a budget to it, selling the project to a client, explaining to them how it was gonna solve their problem, all of that type of stuff I had to pick up.
Jai: Client management?
Daniel: Yeah, that was challenging. At the time, Theme Forest was getting started, and [inaudible 00:14:47] was around. They had a blog called “Freelance Switch.” I don’t know if it’s around anymore. I don’t think it is. But it had a lot of…I read that thing religiously, and it had a lot of blog posts and content targeted at people like me who were trying to get started in freelancing. So, I had some technical skills, but I needed to round them out to be able to be a good freelancer or a small business owner.
Jai: Gotcha. So, other than development, all the skills that are acquired?
Jai: Gotcha. [inaudible 00:15:22] struggle with?
Daniel: And in addition to that, knowing the WordPress way, sort of reading the WordPress codex and understanding the focus or the way that…the coding standards for WordPress, I had to learn that as well.
Jai: Gotcha. And then was there one thing that you struggled with the most? I mean, like, you listed a number of things. Was there something that took the longest time for you to go, “Now I’m comfortable with this”?
Daniel: Charging higher prices.
Daniel: For the business perspective, yeah, charging what I’m worth and understanding what that is, and raising prices and not working for $20 an hour or something like that. But from the development side, just having good design practice for your code and for the plugins, and how they’re gonna fit in to the ecosystem. I think I’m still evolving in that. But my suggestion for anybody who’s getting started in that would be to read a lot of code. Go read. I remember [inaudible 00:16:23] saying this like four or five years ago. Go read WordPress’s core…go read the core code and see how it does things. And see how it packages stuff. And then go read through a bunch of plugins and see how they do things, and how codes organize.
And then you’ll start to get an opinion and you’ll start to do things certain ways and mimicking other things that you think are in a good way. And you’ll see, “Hey, that worked out. Awesome!” or “Wow, that really wasn’t the best way to do it. I think I probably need to change it.” So, just reading through a bunch of code and writing your own, you’ll start to pick up and get better habits through that.
Jai: What was one habit that you developed, that you were like, “Yup, I should have been doing this”?
Daniel: Well, making my code accessible, and adding hooks and filters into the codes, where someone else could pick it up and modify the plugins. I still have that as one of my to do items for a couple of my plugins where I had built them for clients, and then I was like, “Hey, this would be good on the Shop.” So I sort of rushed to get it on the Shop. But I really need to go back and say, “Okay, if I’m a developer who had purchased this for a client, and I want to modify this template or if I want to change some of the output or some of the presentation of the data, where are the hooks and filters?” And they just need more of them. They just need more happening. So that’s one thing that I would change about my own code.
Jai: Gotcha. Was there a tipping point? You mentioned charging higher prices and sort of charging for what you were worth. Was there a tipping point in your sort of timeline of building your business, where you started doing that a lot more? When was the realization? Did you look at somebody else’s prices and go, “Really? That’s what they’re charging for them? And here I am charging whatever”?
Daniel: I think, in 2012…it was a couple of years ago. I went through a time when I had very few clients coming in, and those clients weren’t very high projects. So, we struggled with family, with income and stuff. And that was part of what led me to join on with WooThemes. I’m like, “Okay, let’s have a job with a steady paycheck for some time, and stability, and just trying to figure this out.” But my heart really is to be independent and doing my own thing. And so, in 2014, I knew, when I went back to being independent, I knew I had to charge more, and I had sort of an inkling of what other projects cost and what sort of hourly rate other people charged by. There was a lot of talk about doing project-based pricing, which was an hourly rate pricing.
And then I won a couple of larger projects that were on the higher end, higher closer to $10,000 projects instead of $2,000 projects. So that just built confidence in charging higher prices. And not just charging but providing really great value for the customer so that their plugins worked well and that really helped their business. So, just with time came confidence and trying it.
Jai: Okay, so just keep at it?
Jai: Okay. And so the advice for the developers, what’s your advice, in your experience with…I mean, you were involved in eCommerce from much, much…like, for a very long time now, over multiple platforms. What’s your advice to new store owners, or even current store owners that you see? Like, what can they do better for their shops?
Daniel: Market! Get the word out. Get people to your site. Don’t worry about the design of the buttons on your site. Just don’t worry about it. Because there’s so many stores that I’ve built in ’08 and ’09, and the projects, the design project leading into development of it, they would nitpick over so many things about the design. I mean, they had products but they spent six months, eight months just getting the store built, they opened the door and nothing happened.
I go back to a couple of those URLs and they’re just not there anymore. The store’s closed down and gone. So, yeah, you can focus…a really good looking and well designed site is gonna help you out, but focus on that marketing and getting people interested in your product, talking to your customers and making sure…talking to the people who want your product, and then finding more of them, because that’s really what’s gonna keep you open and keep you in business.
So don’t focus so much on just the mechanics of owning a site. Really be deeply involved in getting people to the site and interested in what you’re selling.
Jai: Gotcha. How do you market? Like, for your either the course, the WP101, because that’s more sort of a platform that they can use versus the one-to-one client. But if you can talk about some marketing tips that you use?
Daniel: Sure. I gave a talk a couple years ago about this. I see the business as sort of the three-legged stool, and the three legs are: development, support, and marketing. Can you develop a product that’s gonna work? Like a plugin that will work for somebody and do what it says it’s gonna do? That’s sort of step one. And I got that out of the way really early, being able to build some eCommerce plugins. Step two was, can you support it? People are gonna come to you and say, “Hey, this stuff doesn’t work.” And then you need to know the way to tactfully say, “Could you explain why it doesn’t work? Do you have a screenshot? Is there an error message?” And just sort of work through that process.
Working with WooThemes, I handled WooCommerce. I was one of seven guys at the time who were on the WooCommerce support team, so I handled hundreds and hundreds of tickets. Some people were very happy to talk to you, and some people were really irate and mad. I sort of built the muscle up for that second leg of support, you know, supporting plugins. So, I had those two. But the third part that I hadn’t really worked on was the marketing part. And so, again, when I went back to being independent, I knew I had to work on this. And that’s again something that’s still in progress.
So, for the WP101 course, the good thing there was that WP101 has this [inaudible 00:22:50] for many years. It has a huge following. This would just be an add-on to supplement what he already has there. So he has several hundred…maybe not hundred thousand but several dozens, thousands, a lot of people on his email list, on his Twitter following who are already invested in his platform and have gotten a lot of training from his original videos, that this would just be sort of an addition to that. So, really leverage that existing body of customers for that one.
When Shop Plugins launched, we did blog posts, content marketing, we contacted other folks to do a giveaway of the plugin. We tried some paid advertising, stuff like that. None of that really worked, but I think what’s really picked up on this year has been affiliate network. So we have a couple of affiliates that do pretty well. And they just blog about and talk about the plugins. And then just sort of settle WooCommerce as an ecosystem, the entire WooCommerce ecosystem, after automatic buying it, has just grown. And so we’ve seen a benefit from that in offering some plugins that maybe don’t exist anywhere else. So people are Googling for a certain functionality, they find our plugins and they buy those.
Jai: Gotcha, okay. So, in terms of eCommerce, where do you think eCommerce is going? What gets you excited about eCommerce in the future?
Daniel: So I mentioned my goals for the year, and it was I really think virtual reality is gonna hit a stride. It’s gonna be a lot easier to create virtual reality content, and I really wanna see a virtual reality store. I wanna see somebody selling their products or setting up a boutique, a VR boutique where I can be here and go walk through your boutique and see your stuff. I really wanna see that happen. But aside from that, I mean, that’s sort of a pie in the sky. How that will apply to people, I’m not really sure, I just think it will be really cool.
Daniel: But aside from that, we’ve seen this growth, really since the late 2000’s, of so many people and eCommerce really hitting a stride where it’s really easy to sell online and it’s sort of expected to sell online. I think it’s gonna be interesting to see how people use that along with creating their own brands but also competing with the Amazon’s and the larger box stores and stuff. I want to see how they’re able to survive over multiple years, how some of the people who are building subscription platforms, you know, like the box of the month club type of stuff. Some have already come and gone.
I want to see if some of those can find a way to survive multiple years, and then sort of evolve out of that. Because those are rough, right? I mean, charging somebody every month is great for you but you have to be providing value for them. They have to be looking forward to that box every month or else they’re gonna turn it off. So, VR, and then figuring out how stores are gonna really differentiate themselves from the behemoths of Amazon. And then seeing if any of these subscription type box of the month clubs can survive over multiple years.
Jai: Gotcha. Have you seen anything in the VR space at all?
Daniel: Not yet. I’ve just been watching sort of the evolution of the phones becoming headsets, the standalone headsets, and then the cameras that they’re gonna take and produce that footage or that environment. So, yeah, I’m excited to see what happens there.
Jai: Okay. I don’t know if you attended the…it was Bryce who had the talk where he demonstrated the drones and stuff. From [inaudible 00:27:00], what was your sort of biggest takeaway?
Daniel: My biggest takeaway? Biggest takeaway from [inaudible 00:27:12] was that I…well, actually, it wasn’t a takeaway. It was something I already knew, that I really enjoyed being in the WooCommerce community. I kept taking selfies with everybody and tweeting them out, and then I put like a selfie compilation of blog posts. I just have a lot of friends and people who I’ve worked with, and people who I know online in the community. So, getting to see everybody in one place is always fun. But as far as eCommerce takeaway, I think just the size of [inaudible 00:27:46]. So, talking to WooCommerce specifically, not global eCommerce, WooCommerce keeps growing. I mean, they had…Magento had [inaudible 00:27:55] the week after [inaudible 00:27:58]. So, seeing those sort of paired off of each other.
The people who are involved in [inaudible 00:28:04], totally different than two years ago. Much more established businesses getting involved, much more larger companies, like the PayPals and some of the other payment gateways getting involved. So, it just continues to grow. I’m not exactly sure what’s next, but it’s fun being a part of it.
Jai: Fair enough. And then for yourself, what are some goals, short term and long term?
Daniel: So, short term, you mentioned one of the plugins I’m involved with is the Sugar Event Calendar. We have a launch coming up, a launch [inaudible 00:28:42], sort of revamp that and to bring on a different…a much more add-ons for it. And so, long term is to take a step out of eCommerce since I’ve been doing it for eight years. I’d like to spread out and have some income and revenue coming from a non-eCommerce product. So, Sugar is not involved in eCommerce whatsoever. The training is still involved with eCommerce, obviously, because it’s teaching newcomers. But I have some other projects I’m gonna be building and selling that don’t involve eCommerce whatsoever. So, getting those up and running will be good. Plus, building more plugins for Shop Plugins.
Jai: Gotcha. And then you mentioned your agency is the big focus. What’s the main…what’s the end goal for this agency? How many people are in the agency right now?
Daniel: Myself and a contractor.
Jai: Okay. And then, do you see that…would you want to grow it into a big team, a big marketing agency? What’s your sort of vision for that?
Daniel: The vision is to support my why, and that’s a term that comes from “What is Your Why?” It’s a book by Simon Sinek. My mastermind group read it last year. We would ask each other, “What is your why? What is it that keeps you going? What is it that drives you?” And so, my why is, why I do things just to spend quality time with my family? I work at home. This is my…I’m at home right now. My kids are young. They’re elementary school age, so spending my time with them and my wife who home schools them is really important to me.
And then also being able to travel around the world with them and work wherever we’re at. So, that was important. So, any business that I do, any agency that I run or company that I run has to support that. And so, if it’s plugins, and plugins bring enough income to support that, that’s great. I’ll just stick with that. If it’s doing agency work, that’s great too. I really don’t desire to grow too dozens of employees. I’d like to grow a little bit and have a couple of employees.
But really, the focus is gonna be the plugins because plugins are nonlinear, whereas clients, client work is very hands-on and very communication, and sort of back and forth focused. So, plugins has always been sort of the focus, to build products that sell, that I can support from anywhere, and/or hire people to help me support them. So, right now, 70/30 client work products. I’d love to fill up that over the year.
Jai: Gotcha, okay. And then, have you found…the impetus was your family. Have you found the right balance with all the things that you’re doing now?
Daniel: Yeah, I mean, we have a great life. My kids home school. They’re here all the time. My wife home schools them. She’s here all the time. We have a lot of freedom. We have a lot of time to ourselves, and we really like that sort of dynamic and being able to…earlier in the year, we went to Work Camp Atlanta and we all got in the car and drove to Atlanta. It was like a day and a half trip, but we wanted to see how we’d handle driving that far across five states. Texas should count for like three states because it’s gigantic. Getting out of Texas, it took 10 hours. But it was an experiment because, before, our travel has been through flying to other countries and we wanted to see “Is driving around the U.S. a possibility?”
We enjoyed it and maybe we’ll do some more a little bit later. But yeah, we get to do crazy stuff like that. Whereas if our kids were in school, or if my wife worked a regular job, it would be a little bit more limiting.
Jai: Gotcha. Was there ever a time…sorry, gotta finish up soon. Was there ever a time where you were spending…so you switched over to do your own work after you quit the bank. Was there ever a time where you were spending more time at your work and then you had to cut down on work to go back to spending time with your family?
Daniel: Oh, gosh, yes, all the time. I mean, that’s the hustle, right? That’s the capital H, hustle. Get stuff working, get projects rolling, get money coming in to get whatever idea you have off the ground. Definitely. I mean, that happened last year when we were…when I say we, I had a partner early on with Shop Plugins who helped me get some of the stuff built out and who actually sold some of the plugins on the site. We were doing client work, but then we also had the development of the plugins, the development of the site, the writing of all the documentation.
So, all of the effort of getting this marketplace off the ground, and launched with, whatever, nine plugins that we had at the time. That was definitely a lot of hustle. So that was nights and weekends, and doing that type of stuff. When that was launched and was rolling, then it was the time to sort of exhale and then recover from that time of hustle. And that was last summer or last fall, just sort of recuperating from all of that effort put out and sort of letting this marketplace build on itself and the revenue to start growing.
So, yeah, that was rough. But my wife lets me know if I’m working too much or if the kids need to see me. She’ll just let me know and I’ll take a day off or they’ll take a day off. You know, some random Tuesday, we’ll go do something and spend time together.
Jai: Okay. Well, it’s great you’re able to do that. That’s all I had. Was there anything else we didn’t touch upon that you wanted to say or discuss?
Daniel: No, I think that’s it. Thanks for having me on.
Jai: Fair enough. Thanks for coming on. The websites are shopplugins.com, and growdevelopment.com. So, wanted to get those right. So, Daniel, thanks for being part of this, and thanks everyone for watching.
Daniel: Great, thanks.