Let's Choose an Online Shop Platform

Originally posted April 26, 2017 on the Tiny Cables Medium publication.

One of the great perks of an entrepreneurial pursuit is the freedom of creativity and choice. This freedom means many things, perhaps most importantly that there are thousands of ways to address each challenge along the way.

When it came time to build our online store so we could, ya know, sell short cables, there was no shortage of opinion on who we should work with.

I spoke with two friends who are launching a high-end e-commerce business and I nearly puked when I heard they were paying a $20,000 for their site. I had breakfast with Ryan Kulp, a talented musician/former programmer/guy who runs an e-commerce plugin called Fomo, and he insisted his “mission in this breakfast is to convince [me] to use Shopify.” Whenever I listen to a podcast, I’m told Squarespace is the best place to create a beautiful website. During college, I built custom Wordpress themes and I know dozens of people who are thrilled with WooCommerce.

There are many options that will help you launch a store and accept payment, so the point of this post is to dig into the differences that we found. We offer a full comparison matrix at the bottom of this post.


NOTE: This post was revised on 4/27, one day after it was originally posted. We changed our minds about which direction to go.


First, our goal: to have a functional (and pretty) web store, built for both desktop and mobile. Other key points:

  • The site should be easy to manage (add/change products) and should be cloud-based. I want to be able to make changes from my phone.
  • We want to use a simple payment gateway that we’re familiar with, like Stripe or PayPal.
  • We need a CSV order export at the end of each day to pass on to our warehouse.
  • The website should also offer the ability to host content, like these blog posts.

Finally, there’s cost: we’d like to keep the annual spend under or around $500. We just can’t justify spending anything more than that at this stage.


Shopify
Seemingly the market-leader, Shopify offers a scalable storefront and shopping cart system that can handle everything from simple six-product shops (like Tiny Cables at launch) to shops with 50,000 products.

The big difference: in addition to offering pre-built templates, Shopify is completely customizable, so you’re free to build the exact look you want. Shopify also offers a plugin platform so you’re not limited to the functionality that comes out of the box.

WooCommerce / Wordpress
I’ve built a number of Wordpress installations with WooCommerce over the years, and users are generally happy. The fact that these are open source tools is, in some ways, a big win: customization options are endless and it’s free/super cheap.

It also means you’re largely on your own for security — I had 3 Wordpress blogs of my own hacked in the last year — and there’s no official customer support to contact when your affiliate blog about Puffy Jackets turns into a disturbing anti-Israel manifesto. I just don’t want to deal with that again.

BigCommerce
While BigCommerce offers the same basic functionality as the others, it falls short in a few ways: poor/difficult inventory management, no plugins/add-ons, and the platform appears to make custom design changes difficult.

Squarespace
After a decade (or longer) singing the praises of Wordpress, I’ve migrated my entire portfolio of websites to Squarespace. Squarespace makes some nice websites, offers outstanding tools, has an active support community, and as a hosted solution, is secure. Squarespace lacks any plugins/add-on features but does a nice job of offering a seemingly complete set of tools out of the box.

Not only does Squarespace check all of our boxes, it’s the most familiar. There’s no learning curve (and it already hosts our landing page at TinyCables.com). Did I mention they make nice websites?

Custom Development
The benefit is obvious: a completely custom solution will do exactly what we need it to do, in the way that we want it to. The downside is equally obvious: that would cost a lot more than the $500 we’ve budgeted and it would require a multi-week (or month) timeline.

Plus, it would involve a lot of this, something we don’t really want to deal with:

No thank you.

How do they stack up?

For our purposes, all these options are pretty similar, but it’s worth noting that WooCommerce and Custom development would require us to find our own host ($20/month for a good one) and to buy an SSL certificate ($49–300). Custom development also carries a $5,000+ up-front cost.

Nate Shivar offers a pretty good rundown of each of these options on his personal blog, if you’re interested in takes that aren’t specific to small shops like Tiny Cables: Shopify, WooCommerce, Squarespace, BigCommerce. He also took a look at some that I didn’t, like Wix.


To be perfectly candid, there just isn’t a huge difference between the available options. It seems clear Shopify is the most-complete option, especially in terms of scalability, but we already know Squarespace. The learning curve with Shopify seemed a bit steep for our effort, especially with our cables ~ten days away from American soil. We leaned in the direction of Squarespace for that simple reason, and we put up the first version of this post with that decision. Ryan was unhappy.

After we pushed this out to our e-mail list, a few things happened:

  • We saw what Squarespace’s order export looks like and found the experience a bit clunky. Shopify allows us to customize to fit our needs.
  • We realized that we wouldn’t be able to execute one of our offerings on Squarespace. We’ll cover this in greater detail soon, but we want to experiment with the ability to order a custom cable. We need some Shopify apps to pull that off.
  • We saw that Squarespace wasn’t super-great at handling international orders.

So we’re going with Shopify.

Time to put this site together.