On Creating A Shopify Plugin And Growing Revenue By 300% In 4 Years

Matt W.
Founder, RocketAmp
from San Francisco
started August 2016
alexa rank
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Start A Shopify Plugin

Hi there, I’m Matt and I’m one of the Co-Founders of RocketAmp - a Shopify plugin where businesses can automatically make their mobile site run faster through Amp. We were the first app in the Shopify store to implement Google Amp for merchants.

In the beginning, we had relatively basic Amp functionality, but we have grown the app and our customer base by focusing on our users, creating custom solutions, and building great relationships. Through this, we’ve been able to grow our business by 300% in 4 years.


What's your backstory and how did you get into entrepreneurship?

Starting something new and small business was a part of my life since I was born. My grandparents had started a home heating oil business back in the ’40s and it was a family business that had expanded into residential heating, cooling, plumbing, and duct cleaning by the time I started growing up. Being exposed to this really helped me see the amount of dedication and also the breadth of skills needed to run a company.

Aside from growing up into a small-medium business, two events happened before I moved to Silicon Valley that were really influential in my motivation to start a business. First, my college had this capstone class where you had to create an entire business plan with a team and we ended in 3rd place out of I think 140. It was one of my favorite classes and we did well, so from that point I figured that I would somehow be involved with starting a business. Second, after graduation, I started working at a consulting firm where I developed some update optimization software for a tool we used. Well, I had actually been asked to manually make a bunch of updates but when I realized how I could automate the whole thing I decided to just do that instead. This is where I figured out that using software to make things easy and simple was my calling so to speak. When I found that my manager didn’t care about what I had created, I realized that my current job on the East Coast wasn't going to get me where I wanted to be. So with a lot of encouragement from friends and family, I decided to come out west to Silicon Valley and look for a job in tech.

I was extremely lucky that when I moved to CA I quickly met a few people who would become some of my closest friends. One of them, Anthony, and I started working on these interesting ideas that we thought would be useful. Our first project started working on a project that was a kind roommate matching system. We had seen how difficult it was to find a place to live in San Francisco and how important your network of friends was. While that project didn’t work out we learned a ton from it. It’s quite a different thing to go through the entire product were making decisions about literally everything is on you versus a more typical environment where the work is more structured because the business already exists and you have the support of your entire team and your managers.

A few of the big things that we learned about the hard way was burnout - we had, what we thought, was a great idea so we built a reasonably robust version of the entire system upfront. We had planned out a long-term revenue strategy, we vetted it with friends, we talked to people that had sold companies, etc. but when we launched, we just couldn’t get traction. We ended up sinking all of our free time into different ideas but nothing seemed to stick. We realized there were a lot of long term problems we needed to think through (like once you find a roommate and move in, what is the value of the service to you?). We also realized that we had been chasing the shiny object - the advice from the last person we talked to who was “super knowledgeable” in this area was what we would focus on to get a foothold. This led us to spend time away from our core product. Finally, as if trying to build a two-sided market wasn’t hard enough, we also hit a classic trap - most friends and family are encouraging and won’t tell you the hard things you need to year - they won’t point out your blind spots. At one point Anthony and I sat down and decided to discontinue working on the project - but it didn’t tamper the itch to build something new.

RocketAmp itself got started several years later. We had been back and forth thinking of new interesting projects when we heard that Google was going to open up a technology called Amp (Accelerated Mobile Pages) to more than just news pages. Amp is a super lightweight version of a mobile site that gets cached by Google and loads incredibly fast. A couple of huge e-commerce companies had been exploring it and studies showing a correlation between page speed and online sales were coming out. Anthony mentioned that he thought it would be really useful for online merchants - especially ones that didn't have the same resources as huge companies. I was immediately on board.

Take us through your entrepreneurial journey. How did you go from day 1 to today?

Day 1 was exciting. Anthony started working on the core product and I was making the website, the logos, the Shopify store pages, Mailchimp campaigns, etc. This time we did a lot of research upfront to vet the market. We looked through small business and e-commerce forums, help guides, and feature requests on various platforms like Shopify, Wordpress, BigCommerce, etc. and we found that enough demand existed. Since our research indicated that Shopify had the most need for this kind of app we started there. Once we had our MVP, I went into the forums and other sites to start letting businesses know that we had a product for them to drum up business, I found merchants emails and sent cold messages, I made blog posts and how-to articles for our own SEO. It was a lot of fun and we were energized by the progress we were making.

We first built a simple model that only worked on product pages before adding other pages like collections and blogs. We talked to our customers and found out what else they needed like themes, and customization, pagination and custom domains, etc. so we started building those into the product. Anthony was responsible for all of the technical work while I handled marketing, finance, customer relations, and sales. We shared customer support. From the onset, we started to build a steady customer base and have been growing ever since. We didn’t worry about making it big, we just want to give small and medium businesses access to optimization tools that typically were only used at Fortune 1000 companies.

RocketAmp Admin Interface

Just as much as we were trying to figure out the details of our company and customer needs, many of our customers also were trying to figure out how they could use Amp to their advantage. We did a lot of consulting calls with some medium/large businesses early on but many of them ended up changing budgets and priorities. At the time it was a bit frustrating but also very eye-opening. I hadn’t been part of that large business sales cycle before and didn’t understand how much effort, education, and time was needed for these bigger deals. I realized later that had we taken any of them on we would be totally indebted to them and it could end up consuming our business, so in hindsight, it was for the better. Since I wasn’t full time on RocketAmp that could have also become an incredible time conflict and unfair to my employer. Luckily we were able to still grow our small business segment and they ended being a lot easier to work with and much more aligned with our mission.

Another thing that we spent a lot of time on was our pricing model. We followed the adage ‘if people aren’t complaining, you’re not charging enough’. We also knew that our tools provided real value and the price needed to reflect that. We aimed for a balance of accessibility for as many businesses as we could serve, and making sure we could also be profitable. We created pricing tiers to help businesses decide between features based on their needs and budgets which worked pretty well. Not too long after we started, a couple of competitors building the same Amp tools came to Shopify and completely undercut us. They started with actually giving it away for free as a loss leader (potentially as a cross-sell since a few of them had other Shopify Apps as well) but after a while, the Shopify Amp App market stabilized and we’re all very competitive. One of our main differentiators is that we’ve continually made conscious decisions to focus on the performance of our tools and our customer service. We don’t do a lot of flashy dashboards and graphics. We provide a solid, robust product that has the integrations businesses need as well as personal customer service. We’re extremely honest with our customers about what we can do for them (e.g., how much can be customized based on the limitations of Amp) and they’ve responded very well to that.

One of the biggest learnings for me was getting the legal and finances spun up. While I had taken courses in financial planning, forecasting, etc back in college, actually creating P&L statements, balance sheets, filing business taxes, etc was still all new. We used Stripe Atlas to kick off incorporating the company as well as getting some of the legal and business accounts and connections.

How are you doing today and what does the future look like?

Now, after about 4 years of running RocketAmp, we’re really happy with what we have built. We have enough time to keep things running smoothly and handle new requests while remaining profitable and growing. Our major costs are infrastructure which scales with our business needs. The Shopify app store is incredibly powerful so aside from some SEO and light marketing we’ve been able to grow things comfortably without spending a lot on the acquisition.

If you do things right, don’t cut corners, respect your customers, and really care about what you want to achieve, you will be fine.

We’ve been contemplating the future of RocketAmp and where we want to take it next. As our time has freed up on most of the core product, there are a lot of interesting directions we can go. I’ve really enjoyed the B2B space and helping small businesses and as long as Anthony and I are both enjoying what we create and remain friends with, I’m optimistic about whatever our next venture becomes.

What platform/tools do you use for your business?

We’re a SaaS tool, so everything we use is also Saas - no need for anything physical. We mainly use Heroku and Keen for our infrastructure Shopify App store for distribution and billing services, Weebly for our web hosting, Zoho for email, and GSuite.

We got started by using Stripe Atlas which came in very handy when trying to navigate getting incorporated and having a registered agent, as well as finding an attorney and CPA.

What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?

Mostly, I get a lot of inspiration from articles I find on HackerNews. It’s a bit hit or miss, but I've found that often there are enough really interesting articles by people who have thought much more deeply than I have on very complex topics and I come away learning about something I hadn’t considered before. One advantage of HN is that in the comments there are often many perspectives being represented so you don’t get this author-driven bias and the dialog is more mature than other social media sites.

For some reason, I never really got into Podcasts except for on long drives (usually radio lab and planet money) and when I read, it’s usually for fun not for work. That said, behavioral economics has always been a field that interests me so I’ve read a bit of Dan Ariely, of course, Malcolm Gladwell’s work has been really interesting as well. Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari was a great read and I’ve been picking up more and more books that are on Bill Gates’s reading list recently - that way I don’t have to search too hard to find a good book.

I’m a big believer in having downtime as well as balancing your work and non-work life. I realize that sounds like a luxury- but I see them as mixed, not one or the other. I integrate my work when and where it makes sense. For example, I might reply to a few emails while I’m in line or on the way somewhere so that I don’t spend time thinking about those emails later or working so late to answer everything that piles up.

Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting?

For anyone getting started, some advice would be that at the very beginning everything seems like a big deal, like life or death. In the grand scheme, most things are recoverable, and letting yourself get stressed about all of it won’t make things better. If you do things right, don’t cut corners, respect your customers, and really care about what you want to achieve, you will be fine.

Also, don’t make assumptions and build a bunch of stuff first - make something simple that works for your customers first, figure out what else they need, and then go build that. There is often a lot of (self-inflicted) pressure to get everything right the first time. You probably won’t - so instead focus on how you can do the best you can and learn from it.

Where can we go to learn more?

To learn more about RocketAmp you can check out our website, or you can check us out on the Shopify App Store.

Matt W., Founder of RocketAmp
Pat Walls,  Founder of Starter Story
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