How We Developed A $29K/Month WhatsApp Plugin For Shopify
Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Heyo! My name is Preetam Nath, and I’m the co-founder of SuperLemon together with Sankalp Jonna.
Funnily, we both went to the same college but only met while working at the same company after we had graduated. After 4 years of bouncing ideas and discussing life goals, we both quit our jobs in January of 2019 to pursue our shared dream of building a profitable software business while living life on our terms.
Sankalp (left) and Preetam (right) working out of a Chai Point cafe in Bengaluru, India
SuperLemon is a simple and easy-to-use plugin for Shopify eCommerce stores to chat with their customers and also send order-related notifications via WhatsApp.
To find problems worth solving, we browsed the entire Shopify app store, which at the time had 3000+ apps.
We launched the app on April 24, 2019, and recently crossed $29,000 in MRR (as of July 2020). Our app is used by 20,000 merchants from 50+ countries and dozens of languages, of which 1700+ are paying customers.
We also take great pride in being one of the handfuls of top-ranked Shopify apps that maintain a 5.0-star average rating with 500+ reviews. We owe this to our relentless focus on providing 11/10 customer service to all our users.
I have written extensively about how our app gained traction during the initial days, lessons learned on the journey to $25k MRR (which we crossed in June), and most recently an extensive guide for new developers looking to build a Shopify app. All this in the hopes that it helps anyone else who finds themselves in the same place we were at before we started and got this far.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
I knew from the time I graduated college that the path forward for me was to build my own business. Initially, I thought it was to build a billion $ startup until I course-corrected and realized that what I wanted was to build a small and profitable business that allowed me to live life on my terms.
Before SuperLemon, I worked at 5 different startups. The purpose of my journey was to gain experience in how to build a business and to save up money for the next attempt. I can safely say that you don’t learn how to build a business until you start building one.
I even tried building 2 startups before. One was software for restaurants, another was about session recording for mobile apps. Both failed miserably. My big takeaway from both those experiences was - there are too many variables due to which a business can fail, one of the avoidable ones is to build something people want and are ready to pay for.
This is why when it came to SuperLemon, our priority even before we had decided on the idea for the product was to find an audience, a group of people who faced a problem, and who currently pay for a software tool to solve their problem. App marketplaces were a way to mitigate some of this risk.
Before settling on the Shopify app store, we browsed all other available app marketplaces - Slack, Atlassian, Chrome, GSuite, Shopify. We settled on Shopify because I had prior experience with building a Shopify store in 2017, so I was at least familiar with it. And I also had a friend in Shopify whose app was doing exceedingly well. It blew our minds that a team of 1 was running an app with >$20k in MRR. We knew we were in the right place.
To find problems worth solving, we browsed the entire Shopify app store, which at the time had 3000+ apps (now 4000). I remember going through every single app, jotting down interesting ones, especially ones that had poor reviews indicating that we could do a better job at solving the same problem. All of those ideas are on a spreadsheet that I opened up for everyone to look at.
From the 100s of ideas we discovered, we had narrowed down to 5. These fit our goals and constraints
- An existing problem that people were already paying for
- Existing apps weren’t doing the best possible job at solving customer’s needs
- The app had the potential to grow to at least $3k in MRR, which after costs would allow Sankalp and I to live comfortably in Bengaluru while continuing on our journey
We finally settled on the WhatsApp idea out of pure luck. But if I were to elaborate, it was because all the other ideas were far more generic, whereas WhatsApp had a kind of cool appeal to it. It was exciting enough and there were enough possibilities with it that we could try. And so, we settled on it.
The quickest way to validate whether all our hypotheses and theory was real was by getting actual users. And so, we built an MVP in 2 weeks and submitted it to the app store.
Sadly, our start was super rough. The app got rejected by the Shopify team twice before it finally got approved. Those 6 weeks of uncertainty were hellish, but thankfully Shopify’s process has gotten much faster and down to 1 week if your app is to get rejected.
On April 24, the app went live. The next morning, we woke up to 10 users. Our first reaction was “10 people tried our app? Is this real?”. We were beyond ecstatic. We immediately got to work, setting up feedback loops to talk to users, ask them why they liked the app or why they uninstalled.
In 40 days, we had 2000+ users, got featured on the Shopify app store, and we launched our first paid plans.
In the following 30 days, we crossed $400 in MRR, and validation was complete. We knew we were on to something.
Of course, had the WhatsApp idea failed, we had at least 4 other ideas to try next. We were ready for failure and had the mindset that we would have to continue pushing through until we ran out of savings. Sankalp and I both had about 12 months savings in the bank. And we had a contingency plan to take up freelance gigs if it came down to it.
But both of us were firm on not going back to a job. After all, if we spent 4 years in college (not) studying engineering, we have to give ourselves at least the same amount of time to build a business.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
Since we were building an alternative to existing apps on the Shopify app store, we did not have to start with an empty canvas. I worked on designing the app and scoping a complete feature set and carved out a list of features for the MVP.
Sankalp wrote all the code. Sankalp was a backend developer by profession, but in 2 weeks he pretty much-learned frontend and React and built the MVP of the app. It was amazing to watch and I’m grateful that I have such a capable person as my co-founder.
The purpose of the MVP was to validate whether we should continue pursuing this idea, or if we need to try something else. So we only included the absolute minimum set of features with which we could launch a free app and hopefully gain traction. But we also made sure that early users can;
- Achieve their primary objective when installing such an app (the primary objective was to add a WhatsApp chat button to their store)
- Customize the bare minimum necessary to make the chat widget their own (the text inside the chat button)
Additionally, we had learned from reading 100s of reviews on other apps that Shopify merchants greatly valued ease-of-use. If they could click one button to achieve their objective, that’s the best solution. And so we designed the app such that merchants only had to enter their phone number and click on a button labeled “Enable”.
Another thing that helped us in the early days was Shopify’s front-end framework called Polaris. It’s a React-based UI framework that did most of the heavy lifting when it came to building a Shopify app interface. Polaris is great and I recommend it to anyone building simple to moderately complex Shopify apps to use it.
Describe the process of launching the business.
Our goal was to acquire users organically, so we made sure we got our app store optimizations right. That included
- A clear and specific name that matched the user’s search terms
- Crisp listing page with catchy screenshots and description text
The MVP of the app was titled “WhatsApp Chat Button” because that’s precisely what users wanted to add to their store. Hence the URL of the app ends with /WhatsApp-chat-button
After the app went live, we immediately started getting installs. It was about 10 installs on the first day, and it only grew from then on. There was no big launch on ProductHunt, or HackerNews, or anywhere else. Just really good app store optimization and crossed fingers.
At the time of launching, we did not have a website for the app, nor did we have a registered company. That happened about 4 months afterward when we had started making money.
If you can make one major channel of customer acquisition work brilliantly for you (for us, the Shopify app store), it’s better than having 5 channels that are somewhat working.
We had secured $3k in AWS credits a few months before, which we used to host the app. For CDN, we used Shopify’s in-built store CDN from our development store. Essentially, our cost to launch the app was $0. The only real cost was our time.
I know a lot of people who spend 6 months to a year planning and polishing the perfect launch. That may work for some people, and we certainly hear success stories. My takeaway is to start small and launch early.
Launch as soon as your product can satisfy the user’s requirements well enough. And from then on, iterate iterate iterate.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
Since the launch and till now, we have simply doubled down on our core principles.
Super simple UX and ease-of-use
Shopify merchants want something that does-it-for-them. They don’t want to spend hours on your app. Merchants want the ability to set up the app and, they want to be done and out and go back to running their business.
Our incessant focus on simplicity and ease of use is reflected in in-app reviews.
11/10 Customer Support
15 months after launching the app, we remain obsessed about providing “wow” level customer support to all our users.
Customers appreciate the way you take care of them in more ways than just writing a review for the app. Many customers connected with me directly on WhatsApp, and they would frequently share the app with their friends or in online communities and Facebook groups.
More importantly, our stellar support is the reason why customers remain with us for a long time. There are a few customers who are still using the app after 12 months, which makes us happy.
Reviews & 5.0-star average rating
As our number of reviews kept growing while we maintained our 5.0 🌟 average rating, our app’s overall ranking on the Shopify app store kept climbing. This was strategic for us because we knew that 5.0-star apps stood out from the crowd, so from day 1, we focused on achieving and maintaining that average rating.
The results speak for themselves - We spend $0 on customer acquisition and 100% of our customers come organically from the app store. The bet on the ranking has paid off big time.
We get about 1,500-1,800 page views on the app listing page daily:
And roughly 10% of the traffic converts into app installs:
Always be talking to your customers
From day 1, we focused on creating a tight feedback loop with all users. We would send out several lifecycle emails, starting with one right after install, all encouraging users to talk to us and share feedback about what they like and don’t like.
As a result, not a single day goes by where we don’t have conversations with customers. Our pulse on what customers love about the app, and what they find lacking is very strong. We never had to sit and brainstorm “what should we do next in our product roadmap”. It was always obvious thanks to having 100s of customer conversations every month.
Cost-leadership and ROI-driven
If you are an app that’s supposed to generate money for your customers, highlighting the ROI that your app generates is very important.
Our analytics section for every relevant feature highlights the amount of $$ generated by our app, which makes it dead simple for our customers to calculate the ROI on how much they are spending with our app. An average customer gets 5-10x ROI on spend, whereas bigger customers with a high volume of messages could get 15-18x ROI.
I do admit, we can do a better job with regards to pricing. Right now, the app has one paid plan - $10/mo - which makes us a cost leader in our category. But I’ve personally had conversations with customers who have asked for a way to pay us more, considering the ROI we generate for them. In the future, we will explore tiered pricing to better tie the value generated by the app to what the customer pays us. And if I had to do it all over again, I might have adopted a tier-based pricing strategy from Day 1.
Apart from these, we haven’t explored other channels of growth or customer acquisition. No ads, SEO, or partnerships yet. Lots of untapped channels that we plan to explore in the future.
A note about customer acquisition channels
But if there’s a takeaway from our experience, it is - if you can make one major channel of customer acquisition work brilliantly for you (for us, the Shopify app store), it’s better than having 5 channels that are somewhat working.
The flip side to this is the overdependence on one channel, meaning if anything were to jeopardize it, you’re in trouble. If I had to go back a few months, I would have started working on adding another 2 or 3 channels so that if anything were to go wrong with the main channel, we wouldn’t be too badly affected.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
When we started, our goal was to build a profitable bootstrapped business that allowed us to live our lives well, learn new things, and continue growing as individuals in this adventure. Suffice to say that we have done it.
Our operations are dead-simple - Sankalp and I chat every day to decide what to work on, or not work on, you know, because it’s your business and you can just take a day off whenever. We coordinate and do pretty much all our communications over WhatsApp itself. We have been fully remote since Day 1, with our focus being “how to get work done without us having to meet”.
Key metrics about the business:
- Founders: 2
- Employees: 0
- MRR (July 2020): $29,000
- MRR 1 year ago (July 2019): $2,500
- CAC: $0
- Gross margins: 70%
- ARPU: $17
- CLTV: $170
- 4000-5000 installs per month
- 10-15% install-to-trial conversion rate
- 500-600 paid trials per month
- 50% trial-to-paid conversion rate
- 10% monthly churn (attributed to SMB churn)
In the long-term, we want to go upmarket with product functionality and pricing, as well as expand on distribution channels. We have a few concrete plans on growth, broadly:
Expand to new platforms such as WooCommerce to give us a wider footprint.
Build product functionality specifically asked for by high-value customers.
Experiment with tiered pricing to increase ARPU from high-value customers.
Through these efforts, hopefully, we can scale the business to $100k MRR in the next 12 months.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
Skin in the game
Building a business feels like living life in hard mode, most probably because of having total skin in the game. If you slack or try to find shortcuts, it will directly affect your business and therefore you.
I like having skin in the game. It creates this kind of, I wouldn’t call it to pressure, but environment and frame of mind which always pushes me to operate at my optimal levels. And now having lived in this environment for more than a year, I cannot imagine doing anything big or time-consuming (like a job) unless I have massive skin in the game.
Compounding value of time
The other thing that I knew about conceptually but have understood at a deeper level from running a business is - things compound, but compounding takes time. The longer you’re working on something, such as building your business (or it could be anything else, like running marathons), the better it will become, and the faster it will grow.
The principle of compounding has reoriented my mind towards long-term thinking. I try and apply the compounding principle to everything I do because I’m not looking for anything that only gives me returns today. Talk to me about something I can do for 10 years with every year becoming better than the previous one, and I’m very interested.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
- GSuite (customer support and documents)
- WhatsApp (team communication)
- Notion (product roadmap and feature ideas)
- Metabase (analytics)
- Google Analytics (traffic received on website and listing page)
- Webflow (website)
- Mailgun (transactional emails)
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
- The Mom Test - Rob Fitzpatrick
- Atomic Habits - James Clear
- The Startup Chat - Steli Efti and Hiten Shah
- The Indiehackers Podcast - Courtland Allen
- Business is like surfing - Justin Jackson
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
1. There’s no quick win
It might look like our app is doing so well, how the hell did we do it. But we went through multiple failures in the past before we arrived here. Had we given up at any point before building this app, we would have never gotten here. Entrepreneurs, always remember that you’re in it for the long-haul. As long as your business is not dead, you’re still in the game. Keep hustling!
2. Distribution before product
Most entrepreneurs go wrong by focusing too much on building the product and not on figuring out the distribution. In our case, we figured out the “WhatsApp” keyword and Shopify app store even before we had finalized the idea for the product.
3. Solve a real problem
Too many people like to build “cool” stuff. Cool stuff is great, but it’s not cool unless it’s solving a real problem that people cannot live without solving. You can find a real problem by observing people’s behavior. Do they say “I wish I could do X” or do they actively invest time, effort, and hacks to be able to do X. The latter means there’s a real problem to be solved.
I consider these the 3 pillars to building a successful business, I’ve written more about it on my blog.
Where can we go to learn more?
- Twitter: @hipreetam93, @sankalpjonna
- Founder’s blog: Preetam, Sankalp
- Email: Preetam, Sankalp
- LinkedIn: Preetam, Sankalp
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
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