This article was originally published on Work With Shop as part of the "Humans of the Shopify Ecosystem" interview series. Work With Shop was a project I started in 2022 and closed in August 2023. However, I wanted to keep the interviews online and have therefore repurposed them here.
In this interview I chat with Kieran Masterton — a UK-based Shopify app developer, technical consultant, retro-tech aficionado and fellow Shopify alum.
I find this very hard and have done since leaving Shopify. What I often say changes based on who I'm talking to and how much Shopify ecosystem context they have.
I normally say something pretty incoherent like, "Um … I'm a consultant and app developer", or "I own a Shopify app and consult for other app developers and agencies."
Q: Is there such a thing as a typical day for you?
Not at all. Some days I work only a couple of hours, and others, I work late into the evening. Those hours will often be solely focused on Smart Notifications, but sometimes I'll block out time for a client-related problem or work on a new app. It depends on client demands, support requests for the app and whether I'm building a new feature for Smart Notifications.
I also like to maintain a good balance between work and my other non-commercial interests. I'll normally work for the morning and spend the afternoon tinkering with old computers or painting.
Q: How did you get started in the Shopify ecosystem?
Back in 2013, I was working with high-traffic WordPress sites, helping them with scale-related issues, when a couple of friends asked me to help them finish a Shopify theme they were developing. They'd provide the HTML & CSS, and I added the Liquid.
This wasn't the first time I'd heard of the platform, but it was my first time working with Liquid, and I liked it. Over the following couple of years, I observed the ecosystem grow from the periphery, through my friendship with Keir, who worked at Shopify and by attending events like A Day with Shopify in Bristol, which is still the most inspirational Shopify event I've ever attended.
In 2015 I became a shareholder in Colonna, a coffee roastery with a focus on curating exceptional coffees with incredible flavour profiles. My role at Colonna was, with the help of a talented outsourced team, to build and launch our Shopify store.
During this time, we built a custom theme and bespoke integrations, and I got a front-row seat for the launch and running of a direct-to-consumer ecomm retailer from product development and manufacturing to shipping and after-sales.
In 2017 I joined Shopify as the first Launch Engineering Consultant in Europe and continued in a purely advisory capacity with Colonna.
Q: How did you get started in app development?
I've been building web applications of some kind since the late 90s when Perl and PHP were my weapons of choice. I started with building customer portals for Internet Service Providers and publishers.
In terms of Shopify apps, I first worked with the Shopify APIs while launching Colonna in 2016 and continued to tinker with apps that helped me do my job while at Shopify.
Eventually, I joined the API Go-to-Market team at Shopify and had the pleasure of building apps to experiment with and test the APIs for a living.
Q: What made you choose to build Smart Order Notifications?
I didn't build the original incarnation of Smart Order Notifications. I bought the app from Gavin Ballard at Disco Labs in 2020, during the early days of the Covid pandemic.
Gavin and I have been friends since I was at Shopify, and I was working with Disco a lot as a consultant since leaving. He mentioned he was selling a couple of his apps, and I'm grateful he thought I'd be a safe pair of hands for Smart Notifications.
My motivation for buying the app was to diversify my income. I had established a consultancy business primarily focused on Shopify agencies and app developers, and I wanted to add monthly recurring revenue to the project work and retainers.
Q: Where did the idea for your app come from?
I can't speak for Gavin's original motivation, but I can discuss, from my perspective, why I invested in the app. I had the pleasure of launching over 75 Plus merchants during my time in the Plus team at Shopify, and many of them faced email notification-related challenges with the platform.
This could be product-specific customer notifications or staff and supplier notifications that only need to be sent in certain circumstances. This experience convinced me that there was a market for the app and informed some of the feature additions I've made. In fact, back in 2017, Gavin helped me with the launch of a merchant by implementing custom notification triggers in Smart Notifications.
Q: How do you attract new customers to use your app?
New installs tend to come via the Shopify App Store by way of the app's marketing site. Very few installs come from searches or category browsing on the store. Over the last couple of years, I've established that merchants and partners typically Google the notifications problem they're having and find the Smart Order Notifications site. This directs them to the app store to install.
I am currently working on a content-focused marketing site that will see the site updated from a one-pager to a multi-page site with articles related to all things Shopify notification related.
I've also experimented with Ad spend with limited success. The cost of acquisition with App Store ads is way too high for a small app like Smart Notifications, but I've had a little more success on LinkedIn.
Q: What's the biggest challenge you face building for the Shopify platform?
Compliance. The shifting landscape of Shopify's partner, API and App Store terms means that it's quite a challenge to ensure you're compliant.
Whether it's customer data handling or the deprecation of unpublished public apps, it's tough to make sure you're doing the right thing. This, combined with sometimes ambiguous communication from Shopify related to these changes, is the biggest challenge I face on a regular basis.
Q: What's the most outrageous customer support request/rant you've received, and how did you respond?
I'm lucky that most of the merchants I work with are very professional and polite. That said, I think the worst interaction I've ever had was with a merchant that left a 1-star review for the app and then emailed me saying they'd only remove it if I addressed their problem. The most frustrating piece of this issue was that the problem existed with their own domain's DNS records and not the app itself. My response was very polite, and I talked them through how to resolve their issue step-by-step.
Thankfully, this resolved the issue, and they removed the 1-star review a couple of days later but did not apologise for their questionable tactics or mistake. Having spoken to other app developers, this behaviour is sadly way more common than you'd think.
Smart Notifications is getting SMS notifications and a new embedded facelift. I'm also working on a new email content editor and would also like to launch a new product in 2023.
Q: What led you to become a Shopify-focused consultant?
When I left Shopify in 2019, I'd been lucky enough to work in both merchant and partner-facing roles, as well as working closely with internal product teams on the launch of platform features and APIs. I'd developed a good network of Shopify partners, some of which were already good friends at this point.
It became clear to me during Unite 2019 in Toronto that partners could benefit from my technical experience of solving big hairy problems on the platform and my intimate knowledge of the APIs. This led me to establish my consultancy, where I primarily augment technical teams by providing Shopify-specific expertise and occasionally assist product teams with decision-making.
Q: Who do you help, and what do you do for your clients?
Most of my clients are Shopify partners, specifically app developers and agencies. Very occasionally, I work directly with merchants, but it's not typically how I like to work.
I think I offer more value when I assist a partner rather than engaging directly with the merchant. My engagements are extremely varied, all tend to start with a technical focus and sometimes move to a broader advisory role after 12-18 months. I help app developers bring new apps to the platform, solve scale-related problems, implement best practices and make decisions about product development.
I also have long-term clients where I take a mentoring/advisory role, helping them expand their development teams, solve merchant-specific problems, implement new development processes, design custom apps and establish best practices within the technical side of their business.
Q: What's the biggest challenge your clients face?
Onboarding into the Shopify developer experience. In recent years the technical barrier to entry on Shopify has increased significantly, and developers need help to get up and running as quickly as possible.
This change began, I believe, with the move to GraphQL and has increased with recent updates to App Bridge, the introduction of app extensions, as well as Hydrogen and Oxygen and the general increase in the complexity of the platform and its APIs.
Along with the technical side, compliance and understanding, Shopify's expanding and shifting policies make getting up to speed on app development an even greater challenge.
Q: How do you go about finding new clients?
In all honesty, I'm not very good at this. Former or existing clients tend to introduce new clients, or I receive enquiries via my website. Very occasionally, I have a conversation with or help someone on Shopify Partner Slack, and they ask about my services, but this is unusual. This is an area I feel I should improve.
Q: Being a solo consultant can get a bit lonely — what does your support network look like?
I'm very lucky to have a group of friends made up primarily of former colleagues and people I've met at conferences. I chat with them one-to-one almost daily via WhatsApp, SMS, Slack etc., and we also schedule infrequent but very enjoyable face-to-face meetups. I respect the opinion of all these friends and often run decisions and questions past them based on their specific expertise and experience.
Lessons & Learnings
Q: What's the biggest challenge you face in your business/work today?
Direction. As a lone app developer/consultant, the hardest part of running my business is deciding where to take the business next. Where should I be spending time?
Should I expand my consultancy hours to meet demand, focus on adding new features to the existing app, build a new Shopify app or do something completely different?
Recently the app has been my focus, with consultancy only accounting for about 20% of my time. However, I would like to diversify revenue even further, so my attention has been split between what I currently do and ideas for new apps.
Most recently, I've been working on a new app that, sadly, I've chosen to abandon due to an unforeseen, major change to Shopify's platform. With large periods of 2022 devoted to building an app that will never see the light of day, it's easy to question your decision-making when it comes to business direction. Likewise, it highlights the very real platform risk in the Shopify ecosystem. That said, I think the rewards still massively outweigh the risk.
Q: How do you get "stuff" done? Are you a proponent of a particular productivity method, or do you prefer a "Post It" note on your monitor?
My system, if you can call it that, is very simple. At the end of each day, I write three things in my notebook that I want to get done the next day. It's rare that I complete these three things. Anything that I don't complete, I add as an item on my list for the next day.
Q: What's the one bit of advice you would give someone starting out in the Shopify ecosystem today?
Shopify is an opinionated company and an even more opinionated platform. Don't make assumptions about its behaviour, features or limitations. I often help partners who have made assumptions during the scoping phase of a project, and this assumption leads to problems during implementation. Test everything.
Q: How do you approach getting better at your craft, development, leadership etc.?
Experimentation. I don't tend to read lots of business or technical books these days, though I used to. I speak to a few close friends inside and outside the Shopify ecosystem on a daily basis. I ask for their advice, feedback and experience; I try new things; some break, some don't; I try again.
Q: Please share any influential books, blogs, authors etc., that have helped you in your work life.
It's undoubtedly a cliche, but Tim Ferriss' Four Hour Work Week had a big impact on my attitude towards work and whilst I absolutely work more than four hours a week, it played a part in shaping my approach to work-life balance.
Q: What's the one missing Shopify feature you wish existed?
Merchants should be able to enable and disable their Shopify notifications without having to invest in the Plus plan and needing to email Support to do so.
Q: How do you keep up to date on what's new, what's outdated, or those pesky deprecated API calls that just might break your app?