Interview available on SellwithWP.com
Full interview transcript: Manos Psychogyiopoulos
Jai: Hi everyone, my name is Jai Sangha. Welcome to another edition of Sell with WP Interviews. SellwithWP is a blog about everything related to eCommerce on WordPress. This includes marketing tips, shop tips, plugin reviews, theme reviews, case studies, interviews like these and much much more. Sell with WP is supported by SkyVerge – the largest 3rd party extension developer for WooCommerce. And our guest tonight is Manos… Damnit, I wanted to get this right – Manos Psychogyiopoulos?
Manos Psychogyiopoulos: Good try. I think that was the best effort in a long time actually.
Jai: Alright… I’ll take that. So, Manos is from SomewhereWarm. And I’m not just saying his location, which is in Greece. I’m talking about the company that he has – SomewhereWarm, a developer of WooCommerce extensions like Composite Products, Product Bundles, and Conditional Shipping and Payments. So, Manos – welcome.
Manos Psychogyiopoulos: Thank you.
Jai: Thank you for being gracious, considering my pronunciation of your last name.
Manos Psychogyiopoulos: I think it was perfect.
Jai: SomewhereWarm. Did I cover, basically all what you do? What else do you do? I know, these are the 3 main extensions.
Manos Psychogyiopoulos: Yeah, I think that is a fairly accurate, very short account of my activities with SomewhereWarm. Which is basically, just a single person company – that’s my own home as a WooCommerce developer. And as you said, I’m the author of 3 official WooCommerce extensions. And these take up quite a bit of my time on a daily basis. Probably because it’s just me working on them. So my day-to-day activities are quite varied. To start with, there’s a lot of product management work involved. Which is an on-going process of setting objectives to ensure that each extension is fit for its purpose. And that involves, prioritizing your features, maintaining long list of tasks and making sure that these are always kept under control. Of course, I also do a lot of actual development work. If you look at the big picture – it’s quite a small percentage of the whole thing. Around 15 to 20%, I think. My duties also include – doing 2nd level customer support work behind the team of WooCommerce Ninjas who’re at the front lines. They escalate issues to me when they have a technical question or when they suspect that there is an issue with the code itself. And I also work with other WooCommerce extension development team on a quite regular basis. Mainly on compatibility, basically. Also, in a few cases – doing projects together. And in addition to this, SomewhereWarm is maintaining a small number of plugins that work on top of these extensions which are either public & free or in other cases – tailor-made for specific client requirements. Finally, of course I’m following all the WooCommerce development by looking at new code or every now & then – making a pull request and always being informed about what’s happening.
Jai: Ok. And I’m looking at somewherewarm.net, do you do any independent client work? Or the client plugins, do they come through WooThemes support and then you go and build something, if needed?
Manos Psychogyiopoulos: That’s a good question and it has to do with nature of the plugins actually, because if you look at Product Bundles and Composite Products – they are both very front-end intensive. And in some cases, there’s very specific requirements in relation to that. So, I quite often get requests to change how things look or the user experience in one way or another. But to be entirely honest, as time goes by, I find less and less time available for client work. I would say – I’m not doing so much client work as I used to.
Jai: And how much time does this – if you don’t mind me asking – how much time does this take in your day, in your week? How intensive is it – maintaining 3 major extensions?
Manos Psychogyiopoulos: I think if you look at my whole, small eco-system of plugins – it’s more than a part-time job. On average – less than a full-time job but there are periods of time that things get a bit more difficult. Usually, because of WooCommerce updates or many support tickets coming in at the same time and things like that.
Jai: And how did you start? Was it on these WooCommerce extensions or did you start – let’s go back to your journey as a developer I guess. How did you get into development, WordPress development, WooCommerce development?
Manos Psychogyiopoulos: That was way back.
Jai: What was it like? How did you get into it?
Manos Psychogyiopoulos: I will try to keep it short. I think I started building WordPress websites around 2006. The reason I started was to start with PHP actually. I used WordPress as a gateway to PHP, because at the time I had some experience with JSP. After starting with it, I started liking it, and liking PHP actually. So, I did a few projects for myself and a few projects for friends and family. Somehow I became so familiar with its ways and the code-base that I started doing some client-work while studying engineering. If we come closer to this day – actually, not too close to this day – but around the time that WordPress came out with support for custom post types. That was 2009 or something? Or perhaps earlier. I remember thinking a lot about how WordPress needed a small, well coded eCommerce plugin. Because I was seeing this pattern of more and more small blog owners who wanted to make the transition to the world of eCommerce in an easy and affordable way. Without putting a lot of risk into it. WooCommerce is actually the 1st plugin that – for me – ticked all the boxes. So I started looking into it more and more actively. Because of that, WooCommerce was the 1st platform I choose for one of my 1st eCommerce projects in 2010 or 11, I think. And, it started as a pro-bono project and somehow, somewhere along the way, I ended up being one of the co-founders – managing a fairly successful and very complex – for its size eCommerce shop. Which grew so fast that it actually challenged the limits of what could be done with WooCommerce at the time. This gave me the opportunity, of course, to learn the code-base of WooCommerce, write a lot of code to implement functionality that I needed. But also, it gave me a lot of valuable experience running an online business – managing orders, being challenged with complex inventory requirements. Basically understanding all the challenges that store owners face every day. So that’s how it all started with WooCommerce and my 1st plugin was actually Product Bundles, which was developed just to fulfill my own requirements back then. And at the time, WooThemes was actively trying to grow WooCommerce by creating an eco-system of extensions and basically, trying to make their business model work. So, I just responded to their call. I sent my code. The people there liked it. So we made a few takes and we all said, “Let’s roll with it.” And that’s how it started.
Jai: What was the name of the eCommerce shop you co-founded?
Manos Psychogyiopoulos: It was actually a manufacturer and designer of vaping devices like e-cigarettes, liquids and things like that. The company still exists, it’s called Atmizone. But I’m no longer a part of it. Because I decided to focus 100% to WooCommerce development after 2014.
Jai: And is that when you established SomewhereWarm?
Manos Psychogyiopoulos: You can say that. For me that coincides with the period of deciding that I’ve had enough of the social [inaudible]. And deciding, basically to pursue the development side of things.
Jai: What was the inspiration behind the name ‘SomewhereWarm’? Outside of being somewhere warm.
Manos Psychogyiopoulos: That was the name of my 1st WordPress blog actually, which I used to maintain as a student abroad. I was in Denmark at the time, which is in northern Europe – which is not so warm, you know. So, I liked the name back then and years later, when I returned back to Greece and decided to start a business here – I somehow felt good about using the same old name and the same old domain. And just making the transition to my new start. I don’t know, it kind of stuck – so I just kept using the same name.
Jai: What did you used to blog about?
Manos Psychogyiopoulos: Life as a student, personal things or serving in the armed services in Greece, when I returned back. Things like that. I think you can still actually find some snapshots if you look too hard.
Jai: Alright, I’ll be looking. Coming back to WooCommerce. Were there plugins you developed, while you were at the eCommerce shop? Or did you only development for the shop and not independent plugins for it that you could release? What was the progression like there?
Manos Psychogyiopoulos: In the beginning, there was so much – the business was growing at such a fast rate that I caught myself into situations that, I basically had to do a lot of custom development in the form of plugins, but also a lot of small snippets to change the way WooCommerce worked. And Product Bundles us one of the 1st, full-fledged plugins that you can say, I created. And Composite Product came 1 year after that. What’s important to keep out of all this is that, at the time, these were basically coded in a way that I felt were useful for the application that were intended. That of course changed over time because – when I started – actually, being in contact with other shop managers and seeing more and more application cases and use cases for them. Then of course, I started thinking about things that I hadn’t, perhaps done right. But that’s of course, a natural process with everything. You have to start somehow and get a product out there and the more you get feedback about it, the more you improve it. Also, Conditional Shipping and Payment – it was built out of a similar need for the purposes of the same business. It was all coming out of there, you can say. But one thing brings another, at some point, when Product Bundles came out, I would start to get more and more requests to build different kinds of small things. So, it’s always like that, one thing brings another. And then, suddenly you get more and more exposure and feedback.
Jai: Were these on – I mean, this sort of came out of organically from your needs. My understanding is – WooThemes also maintains, sort of a Trello board of all the different extensions. Did these fit in to any of the cards on the Trello board? Or were these completely independent and you said, “Hey WooThemes, here’re some extensions we can put on the marketplace.”?
Manos Psychogyiopoulos: In the case of Product Bundles, I remember just taking the initiative to contact them, based on their call to action. So, I didn’t have any access to any Trello resources at the time. And actually, at the time I didn’t even know that the ideas board existed. But then Composite Products came as a natural progression, so to say of Product Bundles because on the one hand I needed functionality that wasn’t there in Product Bundles – which was on a much grander scale, you know – and on the other hand, people wanted to use Product Bundles for something that it wasn’t made for. Which was actually Composite Products. So, it was kind of a merging of different things – my own needs and people requesting for things from Product Bundles. That was more like it. But there was no Trello board or anything specifically describing a project like Composite Products.
Jai: And how about Conditional Shipping and Payments?
Manos Psychogyiopoulos: That, kind of, came in a different way. As it happened, I kept finding around the web – small snippets to, I don’t know, conditionally exclude a specific payment gateway or conditionally exclude a shipping method and things like that. And all these snippets of course – they worked fine. But as the shop owner, if you have to look for these things – you have to spend so much time looking for it because the resources were so here & there on the web. I think that even WooThemes at the time had 1 or 2 plugins that were used for that purpose. I think there’s still Rule Based Payment Gateways, there is also – I’m not quite sure – but I think there’re a couple one’s that somehow are a subset of – if you look at them – of Conditional Shipping and Payment. So, I just made the decision to make 1 that’s general enough – that can be used to modify different aspects of the checkout experience in relation to a number of conditions. I basically tried to – I saw a need and I tried to build something that was general enough for the job.
Jai: During the development of these [plugins], what were your challenges? Can you talk about some of the challenges as a developer? Did you ever hit, sort of, a wall in terms of development? Were things taking too long? Or did things take exactly how long you thought they would take?
Manos Psychogyiopoulos: Never!
Jai: And also, sort of, getting on to the marketplace for WooThemes.
Manos Psychogyiopoulos: If we look at WooThemes and the WooCommerce extensions in specific, I would say that if you take into account the fact that I basically work as a team of one – then I’d say that being on all fronts at the same time can be very challenging and tough at times. And I know that just a few plugins and extensions might not sound like much, but doing everything from product management to design, support and development can sometimes be a bit tough. Because, the more eyes you have on something, the more brains, the less you have to go back and work to fix all your mistakes – which is basically what a developer is doing. But let’s leave it for another time. So, over time I think I’m finding myself seeking more and more opportunities to work with other people’s code and work in teams. And it really helps to be a part of Wix and the WooThemes family, because we are regularly doing both. For example, product management for WooCommerce extensions works in 2 levels. It’s not just me. It’s much like support. There’s 1 level above me, which means that when it comes to making general decisions – which are tough ones – there’s always a highly experienced team that I can rely on. But still, working solo for most of the time means that I’ve needed to learn techniques, to step back from work when I get stuck like you say, or when I reach a dead end. And find ways to look at it with fresh eyes. Which – it’ very satisfying to finally get a solution that you’re happy with, but it’s also quite time consuming.
Jai: Two things – what’s the bigger team that helps in product management? Is it – do you mean, is there a WooThemes team that helps with, sort of the higher level product management?
Manos Psychogyiopoulos: We have product managers in WooThemes over-seeing the entire WooCommerce extensions operation. Which is a very good thing, because there are so many dependencies between the extensions, and many compatibility issues that someone has to be over-looking from above. So, I find that a very smart move, and a very good thing.
Jai: And then, techniques for overcoming, sort of the wall. Can you talk about one of the techniques you use? Or is it just a matter of walking away for a few hours and then coming back?
Manos Psychogyiopoulos: Yeah, that’s why I said that sometimes it’s time consuming. Because, at some point you realize that you can’t be productive anymore. It’s too late, you can’t think right. So you realize that you just have to stop, step back, take a break, spend some time with friends and family or take a walk or do something else. When you get back to work with a fresh set of eyes and a better mood, then suddenly the problem that was impossible – becomes solved in 5 or 10 minutes. When that starts to happen again and again, there’s a pattern that you see as a developer. So you start to do it consciously.
Jai: How do you manage your time between development, support, product management? Is there an allotted time in your day? Or is it just a matter of, if there’s no support then you spend more on the rest. And has there been a time where, let’s say a lot of support tickets came in and that took away from development time and maybe timelines were pushed?
Manos Psychogyiopoulos: On one hand you need to have a schedule of things to do and a roadmap so to say. So, there’s definitely a roadmap of tasks that I try follow. I put, of course, deadlines for myself that I try to follow. But the same happens with teams. You might have your own roadmap and deadlines but then if you get too many tickets in a week or something happens that requires more work than you expected to become solved, then of course, the roadmap and the goals that you had are a bit put to the side. It doesn’t feel well but that’s how it happens – even to big companies. So, it’s something I’ve grown kind of used to it, really. So yeah, there are periods that – a lot of work is coming in and that time you just focus on getting the job done and fixing the issues that you have. And that’s it.
Jai: Can you talk about the scope. How many support tickets would you generally get? How many people are using your extensions? Would you know the numbers? In terms of scale.
Manos Psychogyiopoulos: In terms of support, I would say that the load range is between – maybe – 20 to 60 tickets per week. Most of which are actually handled by WooThemes Ninjas, without requiring any further escalation to me. Of course that’s not saying much, because sometimes you have tickets for something that appears to be a small issue that ends up requiring so much work that you didn’t expect. It’s a bit random, I would say, and that’s part of the job. In relation to the scale of the plugins themselves – we are looking at fifty [thousand] to sixty thousand lines of code in total. With Composite Products taking around half of it. Which again, is not saying much by itself, because Composite Product and Product Bundles are much more integrated with WooCommerce core and they’re much more sensitive to changes. So, they require quite a lot of maintenance work in relation to Conditional Shipping and Payments. And now, in relation to the active users – that’s something that I, myself would like to know. I mean, we’d like to have more data for our extensions. Which – it’s something that you’ll hear from other extension developers as well. What I know for sure is that the extensions have been purchased by roughly fifteen [thousand] to twenty thousand WooThemes.com customers so far. Myself, I would like to have more data in relation to the active users or the currently used versions and things like that.
Jai: What’s your advice for new developers to WooCommerce? Or existing developers, now that you’ve had the journey along both.
Manos Psychogyiopoulos: I think number 1, would be to document your code as much as you can. Even if nobody else looks at it – which actually, you don’t know when you’re starting – at some point, you will want to go back to it and fix things, or re-architect things or improve it one way or another. It doesn’t feel well when you look at old code of yours and you can’t really figure out what you were thinking at the time or how it all works. Sometimes one or two lines of code are enough and once you get into the habit, you’ll never look back. So, do it! Number 2 – based on my experience, would be – to try to work with a designer when you feel like there’s a need to. Because we are not designers and they are not developers and we are meant to be working together. If a developer starts doing a designer’s job or tries to think as a designer thinks they’re going to start looking bad, I think. Working with a designer is something that will pay off down the road. Trust me on that. And finally, spend some time for yourself and your family and get out of your office everyday– it helps a lot.
Jai: Any advice for people who are starting on development, PHP development? How do they get into – is it just taking on projects? Is it going through courses? What did you find most helpful?
Manos Psychogyiopoulos: For me, the most helpful thing to do is to look at open-source projects. Get into the code. See where one function takes you. Follow the crumble trail – how’s it called. And try to learn things through that. It really helps to look at code that’s been written by entire community of developers. It really helps you progress very-very fast. The other thing is working with other people and trying to get feedback – both form the users and from other developers, which is another thing that open-source helps with. These are both things that really help you get to the next level and then to the next one really-really fast.
Jai: So that’s the developers’ side. Which is the advice for developers. How about store owners? Since you’ve been on that side of the equation as well. For eCommerce. What’s your advice for store owners?
Manos Psychogyiopoulos: I’m seeing a lot of store owners just starting on a tight budget – focus too much on design and development instead of focusing on their products. So, if you’re just starting and you’re on a tight budget – I would say focus on your product and your customer support and keep your website and your content clear and simple. And if you’re setting up everything by yourself – then don’t spend hours looking for the perfect theme that you don’t know how it’s built at all. So just use something simple and tried like Storefront. And at the very least, have your logo made by a good designer and don’t worry too much about how things look or the experience of your user. Just focus 1st on your product.
Jai: Was it a challenge when you guys started the eCommerce store? What were your challenges for growth? Was it more a marketing thing? Or was it more on the back-end? On inventory management? Which aspect did you find was the hardest to move on?
Manos Psychogyiopoulos: It was a combination really. I mean, I remember having some issues with increased traffic at the time. The website couldn’t handle the traffic that we were getting because we were having product releases on a recurring basis. Then stock would run out and then lots of people would get on the website at the same time. So I had to deal with issues like that. And then we had lots of issues with inventory management, which is why I built Product Bundles. Which really has to do something with the nature of the product. So, the products were made up of small pieces that had to be sold as a single unit, but stock was managed on a piece-by-piece basis which was really-really challenging to do with WooCommerce at the time.
Jai: And your thoughts on eCommerce in general. Where do you think online shopping is going? What are you excited about for what’s coming?
Manos Psychogyiopoulos: I think that – I mean we’re seeing it already but – over the next few years eCommerce will be encouraging consumers more and more to purchasing habits more oriented towards subscriptions. And not just for services, like it’s been so far. But also for everyday products that we use on a – that we consume loyally 1st, but also on a recurring basis such as food or beverages and cosmetics for instance. I mean, we’re already seeing many examples of that. And if you watch Brent speaking – form Prospress – author of WooCommerce Subscriptions, speak in WooConf. He brought up some interesting examples like socks or even underpants. I think I’m seeing a trend towards that and it’s something I’d love to see more in the future.
Jai: And how about SomewhereWarm? What’s next for you? For the company? Can you share, maybe short-term and long-term goals?
Manos Psychogyiopoulos: Well the shortest-term goal that we have right now is focusing on the next release of WooCommerce, which is 2.6 and it’s right around the corner. I want to make sure that everything is prepared for that. And on perhaps short but medium-long term there’s one promising project that I’m really excited about. It’s an experimental mini-extension for WooCommerce Subscriptions by the way, which we have co-authored with the Prospress team. That plugin is called Subscribe All The Things. If you’re familiar with that, I will give you a short description – the idea behind it is basically to allow shop managers to attach multiple subscription options to existing product types, instead of following the standard subscriptions work-flow of requiring them to select a specific product type in order to sell an item on a recurring basis. And if it’s not clear enough by itself, let me give you a few examples of implications of this separation. For examples, shop managers can let their customers choose whether they want to subscribe or not when they purchase a single product, but they can also provide that option for an entire cart. So, if you have a few items in your cart that you would like to purchase regularly – I don’t know milk, yogurt, whatever – it gives you the ability to do that. And it also goes one level above that. It also gives store managers the ability to encourage that behaviour by assigning discounts to subscription options. And another thing it does for you is it makes it possible to offer existing variable products or complex product types of WooCommerce like bundles on a subscribed basis, which wasn’t really possible until now. So, this something that we’re working on at the moment. Still in an experimental phase. But we have more releases planned soon so it’s something to look forward to and it’s something that I’m really excited about.
Jai: It sounds good. I think Brent mentioned it in the WooConf talk as well. And how about for you personally? Where is this all going? Do you always want – is this sort of the end-goal? Where is this leading to? What do you want in life – I guess that’s the bigger question – from all of this?
Manos Psychogyiopoulos: I think I’m quite happy with the idea of seeing store owners happy with my work. I feel good knowing that I’m helping people in businesses basically achieve their goals. And that’s a very satisfying aspect of working as a developer and more specifically, working with WooCommerce extensions. On a more personal level, I would like to be able to keep a better balance between family life and work. But that’s the never ending exercise. The more you do it, the more you become better at it. But you have to be conscious about it. So, that’s something we all become better at.
Jai: And would you consider hiring employees and building a team for SomewhereWarm? Or do you feel more comfortable, like you mentioned – working with other developers or other teams and then just, sort of, co-authoring or co-developing plugins?
Manos Psychogyiopoulos: I think for me, a longer term goal would be – as we said before – to work more and more with other teams. In relation to SomewhereWarm, I’ve come at a point many times in the past where I felt like I needed help and up to an extent that need has been satisfied by co-operating with specific professionals that I have known and trust over the years. But I’m not sure how long that’s going to, you know, keep helping me. So, perhaps I might need to grow the team soon. I’m not sure, but it’s a possibility I would say.
Jai: Fair enough. What do you do outside of development? Spending time with the family, for sure. You have a new member in the family – congratulations on that.
Manos Psychogyiopoulos: Thank You.
Jai: But, what else do you – can you talk about some hobbies or anything personally that you’d be comfortable sharing?
Manos Psychogyiopoulos: Yeah, one thing that also helps me with my work is kite-surfing. So that’s something I do on a quite regular basis. When there’s not too much work in the office. And it’s a very satisfying thing to do. Something that gives me fuel to return back to work and family and see things more clearly. It is important, I think, to have things like that to – when you’re always waiting and things that you can always go back to and feel refreshed afterwards.
Jai: I have basically covered all the questions that I had. Anything that you wanted to say or discuss? Anything we didn’t touch upon?
Manos Psychogyiopoulos: Not really, I’d just like to emphasize the value of family really. Because I know, working as a developer – you get to become too obsessed with work and getting things done. It’s always a good thing to have your family behind your head and think about them. And try to spend more time with them. Because it’s easy to forget sometimes.
Jai: Words to live by. Manos, thank you so much for being part of the interview and taking time to do this. The website is somewherewarm.net, the extensions are WooCommerce Composite Products, Product Bundles and Conditional Shipping and Payments. Those who are watching, you can check them out on the WooThemes marketplace. And thank you everyone for being a part of this.