Shopify

How To Launch A Self-Serve Shopify App: 5 Things You Should Know Before Starting

how-to-launch-a-self-serve-shopify-app:-5-things-you-should-know-before-starting

With over 1 million merchants using Shopify and more than 5,000 apps in the Shopify App Store to support merchants’ needs, it’s clear that app development is on an upward trajectory with no signs of slowing down. 

But launching a self-serve app that meets Shopify’s success guidelines, has standout customer support, and genuinely helps merchants solve a problem or achieve a goal can feel like a lot to deliver. 

I would know. The company I co-founded, Heyday, launched an app for Shopify Ping in June 2020 and subsequently on the Shopify App Store in October 2020. Our app has been downloaded by over 1,000 merchants at the time of writing and was listed as a Staff Pick and one of the top apps to boost sales during Black Friday Cyber Monday.

Our focus was on creating a self-serve app, which leverages the power of artificial intelligence (AI) to complete tasks that traditionally required the help or input of a human. Our product and technology teams learned some valuable lessons along the way. And that’s why we put together a list of the things we wish we knew (or things we knew and that in hindsight are really happy we focused on) before we started:

  1. Know who you’re building for
  2. Establish a differentiated value proposition
  3. Adopt a customer-first mindset
  4. Invest early in scalable, self-driven onboarding
  5. Commit your content teams to continued learning

Let’s dive in.

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1. Know who you’re building for 

Before you even start building an app, you need to know who you’re building it for, what problem you want to solve and how you’re different from other apps in that category. 

For us, we had the advantage of already having a product outside of the Shopify App Store ecosystem that Shopify merchants were already using. The challenge was transitioning our product from a custom-built AI platform that was unique to each customer, to a self-serve app that could work for anyone. 

“Our goal was clear: Give Fortune 500 capabilities to the Fortune 500,000.”

Our goal was clear: “Give Fortune 500 capabilities to the Fortune 500,000.” It’s with that promise in mind, that we approached the Shopify Ping leadership team to partner up with them and bring our conversational AI superpowers to the masses. 

But first, we needed to be mindful that merchants looking for an app may have fewer internal resources than mid-market or enterprise retailers, and that they may not have an IT department or resident tech expert. They might be a one-person show. 

That was our hypothesis, but before investing time into development, we interviewed Shopify merchants to make sure we were on the right track. 

Our interviews ended up confirming our initial hypothesis, with the subjects mentioning that an app’s user interface (UI) needed to be simple and intuitive, and that its features had to be easy to understand and install in a few clicks. With that, our product team had its north star: transform something complicated into something easy for anyone to use—from tech-savvy direct-to-consumer (DTC) merchants to beginners who just launched their website and are looking to make their first sale

Takeaways: How to learn what experience your ideal customer wants

  • Have a clear idea of the people you’re building an app for
  • Establish a hypothesis for what they look for in an app
  • Interview or survey merchants that match your ideal customer profile (ICP)
  • Assure your customers’ expectations are being fulfilled during development

You might also like: 10 App Development Trends to Track in 2021.

2. Establish a differentiated value proposition

There are a lot of great apps on Shopify’s App Store, each competing with another in relatively streamlined categories. Heyday, for instance, is listed under a few categories. In Customer Support, we’re competing with 528 apps and under Sales and Conversion Optimization, there are a whopping 1,570 apps, at the time of writing. 

Without a unique value proposition out of the gate, you run the risk of blending into the marketplace and lowering the number of merchants that choose to download your app. 

“Without a unique value proposition out of the gate, you run the risk of blending into the marketplace and lowering the number of merchants that choose to download your app.”

Invest time into researching what apps are similar to yours, what features they have and how they benefit merchants. How will your app stack up to theirs if a merchant is comparing them side-by-side?

For example, when our teams were conducting market research, we saw that most chat apps and virtual assistants were either tailored for sales and conversions or customer support—but never both. Our AI model was robust enough to handle both, and help merchants increase sales and lower support queues with FAQ automation. That gave us a clear understanding of what made our solution unique, how we would position it, and which features we would build to match customer expectations when they downloaded the app. 

Takeaways: How to pinpoint what features to build

  • Pinpoint your niche. Which categories will your app fall under?
  • Identify merchant pain points. What problems are they looking to solve? 
  • Understand your competition. Know what’s available on the market and what makes your app different. 
  • Start with a MVP, launch and iterate with customer feedback.

You might also like: Developing Your First Shopify App: 4 Mistakes to Avoid.

3. Adopt a customer-first mindset

By now you should know what types of merchants will benefit from your app, who your competitors are, and what features you want to build to support their needs. But you need to make your customers’ thoughts, needs, and opinions a key factor when making decisions throughout app development.

At Heyday, we made sure our product was in line with our future customers’ needs by starting a “customer panel.” Our product teams would routinely interview customers and merchants in the Shopify ecosystem to keep a pulse on whether or not what we were developing aligned with what they needed. 

“Our product teams would routinely interview customers and merchants in the Shopify ecosystem to keep a pulse on whether or not what we were developing aligned with what they needed.”

Those conversations created a pillar in our product roadmap, and we are committed to giving the merchants we serve a pivotal role in determining what features, functionalities or improvements we make to our app in the future. 

If you want to build a self-serve app that merchants love using and are anticipating product-led growth (PLG) within the Shopify ecosystem, guide your product and development teams to connect directly with customers and learn from them first-hand, rather than by exclusively assessing proxies like data and reports. It’s mission-critical to give your customers a voice and proactive influence..

Create good habits and get your team comfortable with customer feedback. As you plan, build, launch, and improve your app, you’ll be happy you did. The single condition to a successful business is a paying customer. If you want to thrive in any marketplace, especially a competitive one like Shopify, you need to be customer-obsessed from day one and work backwards from their needs.

“If you want to thrive in any marketplace, especially a competitive one like Shopify, you need to be customer-obsessed from day one and work backwards from their needs.”

For us, that means understanding our customers’ most important pains: managing the ever-increasing volume of customer service requests (i.e. scale their customer service team with AI automation to deliver a 5-star experience), and offer an always-on presence on-site to capture leads (i.e. never let a single sale slip through the cracks).

Takeaways: How to make customers and integral part of your product roadmap

  • Talk to customers or merchants who match your ideal customer profile, early and often.
  • Encourage honest, open dialog to assure you’re building a truly customer-centric app.
  • Use a mix of qualitative (customer feedback) and quantitative (analysis and reports) data to inform what you do.

4. Invest early in scalable, self-driven onboarding

One of the things the most successful self-serve apps do well is make it easy for merchants to understand the product, its UI, the features they can use, and how the app will benefit them. 

It’s already been well documented that, for Software as a Service (SaaS) companies, the best way to reduce churn (customers who download your app and uninstall, or do not renew their subscription) is to shorten the downtime between them downloading the app and experiencing their first “success” using it.

Self-serve app: Screenshot of a chart that shows the upward trend of customer engagement over time, indicating Acquisition and First Success as early milestones.
Two major milestones in the customer lifecycle are when they sign up for your product, and when they experience their first “success” with your product. The time between acquisition and their first success impacts your retention rate. Image source: Neil Patel

Every app’s definition of success is different. But whether your goal is to help merchants make sales, support customers, ship their first order, or anything in between, there are a few ways you can help customers have their first success quickly. 

While some of you might have a customer success or support team sit one-on-one with a new customer to onboard them, that’s simply not scalable. Not if you’re planning on scaling downloads without simultaneously growing your support team (and fixed labor costs) at the same time. 

That’s why self-driven learning (think in-app queues, Help Center documentation, or email sequences) is an essential part of a self-serve app’s onboarding process. And the sooner you start thinking about how you’ll empower customers to help themselves, the better off you’ll be. 

“The sooner you start thinking about how you’ll empower customers to help themselves, the better off you’ll be.”

At Heyday, we beefed up our Help Center resources. We also sent a series of emails to merchants who recently downloaded our app that would help them hit certain milestones, like setting up FAQ automation, or integrating their Shopify product catalog with our app so they can enable AI-powered product recommendations. 

That’s because we know that the sooner a merchant automates FAQs, the quicker they’ll see the amount of time and effort they’re saving by not answering those repetitive and time-consuming questions manually. 

The sooner they set up AI product recommendations, the sooner they start closing more sales through enhanced personalization. For us, that’s how we define “success” for the merchants we serve: shortening support queues and making sales via chat. 

Ask yourself: “What is the main benefit a merchant gets by using our app?” and work backwards. What actions do they need to take to get there? That should be the genesis of your onboarding roadmap. 

Takeaways: How to add value to customers faster through onboarding

  • Build a relationship early. Use lifecycle emails to send welcome emails, show them where the Help Center is, and gradually introduce them to your app’s features and how to use them. 
  • Set up in-app triggers. This will enable you to send emails to congratulate them when they complete a certain action in the app (like making their first sale).
  • Walk users through each step. Use popups, tool tips, guided tutorials, and lifecycle emails to guide your customers through the steps they need to take to achieve whatever they consider success.

5. Commit your content teams to continued learning

While it may be tempting to focus all your efforts into getting more app downloads, it’s a trap. Embedding a continued learning plan into your customer experience is a great way to show them that your product is evolving, and that you’re committed to their ongoing success—must-haves for improving customer satisfaction and retention. 

Company newsletters are an accessible way to do this, but I’d also recommend working more educational, product-driven content into your blog and social media posts as well. Not sure what customers want to learn about? Create a survey using a tool like Typeform and ask them! 

With self-serve apps that run on a subscription model, showing ongoing value is critical for improving customer satisfaction and loyalty.

“With self-serve apps that run on a subscription model, showing ongoing value is critical for improving customer satisfaction and loyalty.”

Takeaways: How to reduce churn with continued learning

  • Identify topics or triggers that typically signal a customer that will churn.
  • Survey customers and ask what they want to learn to do using your app.
  • Build content that proactively teaches merchants how to accomplish specific things using your app.
  • Distribute your content effectively using customer newsletters, a blog, and social media.

You might also like: Profitable Pivots: How Octane AI Shipped Innovative Products in Uncertain Times.

Building a self-serve app: launching is just the beginning 

When you set out to build a self-serve app, it’s easy to set your sights on launch day. That’s your team’s singular goal. But what happens after you launch? How will you onboard customers and support them as you scale? Have you given thought into how you’ll market your app? Post-launch strategy and activities will be your next step as you scale installs and grow your business.

It can feel like a lot to take in, but the reality is that launching a successful self-serve app isn’t a journey with a set start and endpoint. It’s a continuous and iterative process anchored on transparent and frequent customer feedback, testing and communication.

“Launching a successful self-serve app isn’t a journey with a set start and endpoint.”

Launch day is just Day 1. That’s where the fun starts.

Hopefully, our tips and experiences launching Heyday will help you build an app that genuinely adds value to merchants’ lives and thrives as a result. Good luck! 

Build apps for Shopify merchants

Whether you want to build apps for the Shopify App Store, offer custom app development services, or are looking for ways to grow your user base, the Shopify Partner Program will set you up for success. Join for free and access educational resources, developer preview environments, and recurring revenue share opportunities.

Sign up

Special thanks to our friends at the Shopify Partner Blog for their insights on this topic.

About the author

Steve Hutt

Steve has entrepreneurship in his DNA, starting in the early days of online commerce when he achieved Power Seller status through his eBay store. This propelled him to become a co-founder of VisionPros.com, a contact lens and eyewear retailer. With a successful exit from his startup, he embarked on his next journey into agency work in e-commerce and digital strategy.

Currently, Steve is a Senior Merchant Success Manager at Shopify Plus, where he helps identify, navigate, and accelerate growth in the complex world of commerce.

To maintain his competitive edge, Steve also hosts the eCommerce Fastlane Podcast and Shopify Founder Stories, a top-rated twice-weekly podcast where he interviews Shopify Partners and subject matter experts who share the latest marketing strategy, tactics, platforms, and must-have apps, to help Shopify brands improve efficiencies, grow revenue, profit, and lifetime customer loyalty.

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