Welcome to Ask Shopify, a series where ecommerce experts tackle real questions from store owners who are trying to launch, build, and scale their stores. We’re here to help with every aspect of your store, from marketing to HR to accounting.
Who’s we? We’re the ecommerce experts both inside and outside of Shopify. Between our team, who spend all day immersed in the world of ecommerce (and who sometimes run stores themselves!) our squad of Shopify Experts, and our amazing customers, we have access to world-class expertise—and now you do too. So let’s dig in and get to your questions, because they’re good ones.
Is it better to start from scratch and design your own store, or hand it over to the experts? Every time I’ve consulted with a web developer they never quite seem to grasp the concept, yet when I try myself I know what I am going for, just not how to go about doing it. What would be the best thing to do in this situation?
When you’re new to building an online store, it’s easy to think that hiring a pro is the best option to bring your vision to life. However, communicating what’s in your head to another person, and working with them to make it a reality, isn’t always a perfectly smooth process—especially if you’re not familiar with how websites are built, or the terminology in the industry.
While there’s no one right way to start your store, and we know of many successful stores that have started by working with seasoned web professionals right off the bat, it sounds like what might be holding you back from a DIY-first approach is a lack of confidence in your ability to bring your vision to life on your own.
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That’s why to help answer your question, we spoke with two people who brought their stores to life without hiring someone. Spoiler alert: they highly recommend it.
Kiersten Hanly, co-founder of Scrub Inspired, which sells all-natural face and body scrubs
Both of them are Shopify merchants, and work at Shopify by day—but importantly, neither of them are designers or developers. They were just as new to building an online store as you are.
Here’s a bit more about how that process worked for them, what they learned, and what they’d recommend to someone at the start of their journey.
Yes, you can DIY
Even if you’ve never built a website before, much less an online store, both women were clear that you can build a version of your store yourself.
“My business partner has a business and marketing background. I have a theater degree,” says Kiersten, of Scrub Inspired. “We are the perfect example of people who have no idea what they're doing when it comes to technology, but with the resources that were made available to us, we could do pretty much anything.”
Those resources included everything they could get their hands on, from Google searches, to forums, to help docs and more. After trying to tackle problems themselves, Kiersten mentioned that chatting in to Shopify’s support team was also a great way to find answers and help when they needed it.
And yes, building a website yourself might involve some learning, whether it’s from Google or your friendly neighbourhood Shopify Guru, but Victory Omotayo of Her Crown Collection saw big benefits from learning the basics of how her store works.
“I always say you should do it yourself to start with,” says Victory. “Hiring a pro can feel reassuring, because you know they know what they’re doing. But you’ll still do some work, since you’ll spend time with them so they understand what you want, and afterwards you’ll need to rely on them for any changes. If you don't know how to change products in your store, for example, you’ll have to call your developer every time you need a tweak.”
Getting clear on the basics of how your store works is a good time investment for a small business, whether you DIY forever, or bring in pros later on in the process.
Choose the right theme
DIY-ing an online store these days doesn’t mean you need to head over to Codecademy and dive into a few key coding languages. Instead, the first step to building your own store often starts with a theme—which can do most of the heavy code-lifting for you.
When Victory was building Her Crown Collection, “I just kept looking at different themes, both paid and free, and then one day I just bit the bullet and bought a theme. It was really nice, so I just started playing around with it. Every day I would tweak something, change a color here, and that’s how I got to where I am today.”
You’re also not married to your first theme. Scrub Inspired has had three website versions so far, and Kiersten shared that it was their second theme that really hit the mark.
“When we were choosing a second theme, we went with the simplest, most basic long-term theme that Shopify had, which is 'Minimal.' We chose it because one, it’s a Shopify theme, so when updates happen to Shopify, they'll update their own themes. Also, we knew we could make it look like anything.”
If flexibility is important to you, as it was to Kiersten and Scrub Inspired, steal a page from their book and see how real businesses are using the theme you’re considering before you commit.
“We did some research into other sites that had 'Minimal.' Some of them, you could tell that that was the theme, but most of them, you could adjust it enough that it just didn't look like a template. The goal for us was finding something simple that we could stamp our brand onto.”
If you want to dig in to find examples of how other stores are using a theme, many theme pages will feature examples of the theme in action, like these examples of Minimal out in the world.
Kiersten also suggested reading through the comments left by other users on the theme’s page, since the reviews will sometimes include a link back to their store, like this one from Americat Company.
Understand what makes a store great
With all of this talk of choosing themes, and hiring pros, you’d be forgiven for thinking that those two things are the real make-or-break parts of your store. However, when it comes to ecommerce, there’s nothing that can elevate (or sink) your store quite like your photography.
Whether it’s your product photography, or the photography on your home page, it’ll have a bigger impact than almost anything.
“I feel like the mistake most people make is they think ‘Well, I just need to build a great website and that's it, and a developer can help me do that,’” says Victory. “What they forget is that photos are really important. Even if you hire a developer, if your photos aren’t nice, they can't make your website beautiful, right? It's all about the pictures.”
If you have any doubts, just do what Victory did and take a look at websites you really love, especially ones that are in your niche.
“When I first started Her Crown Collection, I looked at Luxy Hair, and I noticed that like their website just looks so beautiful because of the photos and the way it's arranged. When I saw that, I decided that ‘You know, I'm going to invest and actually go into a studio and get my photos done’ to work with the theme I had in mind.”
Know when to hire out
Just because you’ve chosen to DIY your website doesn’t mean you’re out on a limb by yourself forever. Actually, it’s exactly the opposite: since you haven’t committed a huge chunk of your business budget, you have more flexibility to hire experts for specific sections of your store or your project.
That’s how Victory was able to pay for professional photos for her site, and it’s how Scrub Inspired was able to work with a designer when they wanted to rebrand.
“When the business was growing, the next step for us was a rebrand. We wanted to figure out what our product looks like, and who we're selling this to, and use that information to inform all of our visuals,” says Kiersten.
“That's the first time that we discussed with a designer, who worked with us on our brand. Building out our entire branding guide meant that when we were going to build a website, we knew what colors that we should be focusing on. We knew who our target market was. We knew what paths our buyers needed to be going down on the site.”
That’s a big benefit of starting slowly, especially if you’re not sure how to communicate what you want to a pro just yet. Your DIY experience will help prepare you to work with a professional web designer or developer when the time is right.
Your DIY experience will help prepare you to work with a professional web designer or developer when the time is right.
You’ll have real data about how your store has been performing, you’ll have time to refine your thoughts on your brand and your target audience, and you’ll be better able to show them what you do like, and what you wish you could change. In turn, the pros you hire will be able to see what you’ve done so far, and will be able to scale up or down the project based on their expertise.
Done is better than perfect
It’s natural to want your store to be a picture-perfect reflection of your brand, your products, and your vision. It’s your business, after all, and for many ecommerce entrepreneurs, it’s the only storefront you have.
That said, the perfect store you have in your head can’t accept orders until it’s actually live in the world. You can’t get feedback and make improvements to something that doesn’t exist.
You can’t get feedback and make improvements to something that doesn’t exist.
“I know that a lot of people approach designing their stores thinking 'Do it right, or don't do it at all,'” says Kiersten. “Our approach was completely the opposite. It was 'Get it done.' It was '80% is better than nothing.'"
“It ended up working out for us because we did put together this website. It had this gaudy grandma's-furniture background to it. I’m glad we launched it, though, because that website actually got us recognition and got us our first big break, our first order of 300 products.”
So as you’re working to bring your site to life, and launch it, keep in mind that you can always make changes once your store is out there—including major ones, like rebranding or working with professionals on a redesign when you have the budget for it.
And as someone who’s lived through some major store changes, Kiersten has some final words of wisdom.
"The one reminder I would just love to give everybody is that you can do it."
“The one reminder I would just love to give everybody is that you can do it. Sometimes it's okay to shut it and take a minute, and walk away. It's okay to ask a friend. It's okay to reach out to support. Those are really the big things. It's always going to be possible. You just have to give yourself the space to do it. Sometimes there can be so much pressure because it's your business, it's your livelihood. But you can do it.”
Want to Ask Shopify your ecommerce question? Send us a note at firstname.lastname@example.org and your question could be answered in an upcoming column!