In this interview series, we talk to founders, CEOs, and ecommerce business leaders about choosing the best platform for ecommerce. As a part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Firdaus Syazwani.
Firdaus Syazwani is the founder of Dollar Bureau, a personal finance blog. He also runs a web development agency helping his clients build ecommerce stores on WooCommerce, Shopify, and Squarespace.
What led you to this specific career path?
I initially started the Dollar Bureau blog during my university as I had just learnt SEO and wanted to try my hands out on a blog. While trying to build this, I started freelancing as a web developer to earn money while studying. I started getting a lot of clients and couldn’t balance it while in school, so I started outsourcing and slowly structured it as an agency. This continued until I graduated last year, and I’m now managing the agency and blog full-time.
Can you share the most exciting story that has happened to you since you began at your company?
There aren’t many exciting stories apart from horrible clients, but I’m sure everyone had one or two bad clients while running an agency. If I had to choose one, the most exciting story would be when the Dollar Bureau blog picked up about two years ago, and I started earning a full-time income from it a year ago. Pretty exciting since I was just a student balancing the blog, clients, and my studies!
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?
One of the most exciting projects I'm working on is this big ecommerce website for a big client. I'm not just a web developer but also an SEO guy. So, when building websites for my clients, SEO is essential as there are many technical things to take note of to create a search engine-optimized website. The thing is, unlike regular websites, not all ecommerce websites are built the same.
There are many things to consider based on the client's needs – product category pages, product tag pages, product variations, and blog pages (categories, tags, author pages, etc.). To decide on the best configuration, I'll have to ask my clients the following:
- How many products do you have? How do you want to display your products?
- By brand
- By categories
- By subcategories
- By tags
- How many variations does each product have?
- Which product variation do you want to show first?
- Do you need a filter? How do you want to filter them?
There are many other questions depending on the client, but the above are the main things to consider. Some products belong in multiple categories/tags, too—so there's a need to consider duplication issues. Depending on their answers, the choice of optimization would be different too!
The thing is, most ecommerce websites are unique and use different platforms. This being one of my biggest clients makes it challenging and exciting at the same time!
To those looking to build an ecommerce website, take note of the above questions I've asked; you should already know how you want your entire website to look like.
Agencies and web developers need to understand the importance of SEO and how websites are built affect it. Building a search engine-optimized website gives your clients an advantage. Should their store take off, it will give you more business in the future.
You’re a successful business leader. What are three traits about yourself that you feel helped fuel your success? Can you share a story or example for each?
Adaptability is one of the most important traits that helped me fuel my success. I started in mid-2019, just months before lockdowns began due to the pandemic. I’m much better at making the sale face-to-face. Due to the lockdowns, I had to adapt and learn how to make sales via video platforms.
This was much more challenging as it was much more difficult to build rapport and trust between myself and the prospect. So I had to adapt how I talked to clients and pivot my business to online-first. When lockdowns were eased, I had to adapt again to the changing business environment.
As a student and someone who tried dipping their toes in business, this was stressful as there was no income coming in. Furthermore, assignments and exams added to this stress. I wouldn't be where I am today without learning to adapt to changing business and academic environments.
Being empathetic is another trait I consider helped me succeed. As a student managing clients, I often would be unable to service my clients on time. This meant that I had to outsource some work to better manage my time and focus on value-adding activities.
As someone who hires freelancers, being empathetic is vital. Understand that everyone has their own challenges and may not be able to submit work on time all the time – once in a while, people get sick or have emergencies.
If the deadline is near, take over. You’re supposed to outsource stuff that you know how to do. Thus taking over the work, even though it means working more hours and past midnight, is part and parcel of starting a business.
You also have to be empathetic that not everyone knows how to do stuff the way you want, and not everyone will learn as quickly.
Create videos and written documents of your processes and teach your freelancers how you want stuff done. Answer their questions and be patient as much as possible. When you’re patient and understanding, freelancers will stay longer with you.
Lastly, determination is one of the most crucial traits that helped me get to where I am today. It took me over 2 years for the Dollar Bureau blog to earn a full-time income. Before that, it was barely making $100 monthly. Pushing through by continuously publishing content despite not increasing in revenue helped.
The freelance/agency side too. Getting clients when I was just a student was challenging – especially when I started out. My prospects would reject my proposals due to me being a student and leads not being interested in talking to me once they found out I’m still a student. They tried to lowball me to build a website for them for $300, knowing that I had no leverage.
I took any client I could and started to build a portfolio, gather reviews, and develop case studies. Without the initial push I did, I would have stopped freelancing and working on the blog.
What was the original vision for your ecommerce business? What pain point(s) were you trying to solve for your customers?
Looking at the landscape I was in, many web development agencies knew how to build beautiful websites. However, when it comes to technical SEO, loads of websites were not made with SEO in consideration, causing these businesses to struggle with their SEO/blogging efforts. I’ve even seen SEO agencies charging $20,000+ per website promising a search engine optimized website, but it wasn’t.
Creating ecommerce websites isn’t easy, let alone optimizing them for search engines. It doesn’t help that each ecommerce website differs in terms of the optimization they need. Thus, I came in trying to solve this pain point for customers – especially those who already knew that blogging would be one of their marketing channels.
What ecommerce platform does your business use, and what key features were you looking for when you selected it? Was it your first choice, or did you switch from a previous one?
For my websites, I use WooCommerce as it is highly customizable due to the number of plugins available. Even if a function doesn’t exist, there are many more developers (compared to Shopify & other platforms) that can help me build it at much lower prices. Since blogging is my main marketing channel, I prefer WordPress, as optimizing it for search is easy. Due to this, I choose WooCommerce. WooCommerce is also easy for search engines to optimize category, tag, and product pages.
I’ve helped many clients build ecommerce stores on Shopify, Squarespace, and WooCommerce. I recommend either of these based on what the client needs and wants. Shopify is easy to use but more expensive relative to the others. WooCommerce integrates easily with their current WordPress sites and is highly customizable. I rarely recommend Squarespace, but I’ve built on it as the client wants to build it there.
When should an ecommerce business consider switching platforms? Which factors should drive a decision to make a change or upgrade?
As much as possible, I don’t recommend switching platforms due to the trouble it takes. These are some of the problems you’ll face when changing:
- You spend more money to build two ecommerce websites, and ecommerce sites are not cheap. You have to manually upload products on the other website.
- If you’re doing it yourself, you must learn different programming languages. For example, Shopify uses Liquid, while WooCommerce uses PHP. I think it’s easier to edit code on WooCommerce than on Shopify.
- There will be mistakes when you switch platforms.
- You have to make many changes—switching product URLs on every channel you have.
- You’ll affect your SEO efforts.
Thus, I always recommend my clients have a long-term view before they get their websites built at the start.
If you absolutely must switch platforms, you should only do it due to the following:
- Platform limitations: If you think a specific feature would help you increase your sales or cut costs, then go ahead and switch. For example, if your ecommerce store needs to do something that Squarespace and Shopify can’t help you with, switch to WooCommerce. Vice versa.
- Change of business model: Were you previously an ecommerce store holding stock? Planning to move to dropshipping? Then you can switch to Shopify. I believe Shopify is much better for dropshipping than WooCommerce. If there’s something better on WooCommerce, make the switch too.
- Need something simpler: Looking to cut costs, or is the current platform too confusing? Then you can and should make the switch. Doing this would usually cut valuable manhours working on the site. Use the time saved for more value-adding activities, like marketing.
Given the number of ecommerce platform options available—big name, open-source, headless, etc.—what questions does a business need to ask itself to make the right choice?
It’s best to choose a big brand name platform, as big names are likely to have:
- Developers that can help you.
- A reliable support channel.
- Third-party plugins/extensions for customization.
- They are unlikely to go bust.
These 4 factors are the most factors someone should consider when choosing an ecommerce platform, and these are what big brand names usually go after.
For example, for (1), there are more developers at competitive pricing on WooCommerce than on Shopify should you need someone to help you with any issues.
You can also get better support (2) on Shopify because it is an all-in-one platform. If you’re on WooCommerce, you won’t know which plugin is causing compatibility issues. My experience with this is that developers from one company would blame another, so it gets into a huge mess when trying to troubleshoot problems.
For (3), many more plugins and features are available on WooCommerce than on Shopify. If you’re building a highly customized store, you might want to consider WooCommerce for this. Of course, do your research first to see if the platform could do this – usually, a plugin/extension is available. Otherwise, get it built.
And (4), you wouldn’t want to build your business around a business you won’t know exists a year later just because you wanted to save money.
Lastly (5), once you’ve shortlisted a few platforms, you’ll need to decide which combination of factors you prefer: cheap (platform fees and payment processing fees), high customization abilities, great support, or easy to use.
Easy-to-use platforms are rarely cheap, and high customization platforms rarely have great support due to the high customization from multiple third-party plugin developers.
Is there a specific feature or functionality you haven’t found in any platform that you would love to have?
If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
The movement I would start is to get homeless people homes and jobs. For example, we could put homeless people in a building filled with apartments. The first 6 months of rental could be free, and we could charge $100-$200 monthly. This gives them time to earn and save their salary for the first 6 months and prevents them from freeloading for the next 6 to 12 months.
This could be available for them for two years, subject to renewal. Those earning above a specific income must move out and find their own apartments. At the same time, those still struggling (elderly, large families, disabled/sick spouses) could extend their stay if they show progress and effort in improving their lives.
We remove homeless people off the streets, which means:
- Better tourism
- Safer streets
- Cleaner streets
- Improved health
Taxpayers are helping to pay for this. Better health means tax revenue could be spent on other things:
- Provide jobs
- Reduce unemployment rate
- Economic growth
As you can see, many people would benefit from this directly and indirectly. We also show that we care for the homeless and provide them with a roof over their heads.
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