Encouraging API Adoption: Q & A With Blair Beckwith From Shopify

This guest post comes from Tim Cull. Tim runs Pollen.io, a boutique software consulting shop that specializes in extending, integrating, and creating cloud-based applications via their APIs.

In this first of a series of articles about encouraging API adoption, I talked with Blair Beckwith, Developer Advocate and App Store Lead from Shopify. Shopify is an e-commerce Platform for selling just about anything you can think of from 50 Cent's headphone collection to fancy, leather laptop bags. There are two kinds of "developer" on Shopify: 1) those who create templates that dictate the look and feel of a site, and 2) those who create add-ons that are available in the shopkeeper add-on store. In this article, I'm going to concentrate on the second one, the add-on developers.

Shopify first came to my attention via its (now hibernating) developer fund. I wanted to know about their experiences with the fund and why they were making changes.

Q: How Did the Shopify Fund Work Out For You?

A: "It's really been an interesting experience for us, many lessons learned and many takeaways for us. I should specify the fund is not going away, it's just changing directions. Previously what we were doing is we were accepting applications from developers and they were saying they had this kick-ass idea for an app and they can't take time off from work to build it so we give them money to build it and, you know, we're good. But what we found with that is it's extremely difficult to find developers who are capable of doing it with minimal intervention on our end. A lot the fund projects wound up with basically me or a member of my team being almost a full-time project manager on these projects... I would say the man hours that went into managing these projects probably ended up being worth more than the money that we put into them. It was very difficult to screen out the developers that were going to require lots of time on our end."

Q: So, Where Did You See Getting Better Developers?

A: "We were getting higher quality apps organically through existing developers that we had relationships with than some of the fund apps. So we decided to go with that organic growth and use the fund to nurture that organic growth as much as we could rather than onboarding new developers through the app fund."

Q: Where Did That Organic Growth Come From, Originally?

A: "You know unfortunately we don't have a lot of data on that, I wish we did. We have the app review process where we look at the app before it's released and some comes from that. And, unfortunately, that's sometimes the first time I've spoken to the developers. They have either found our Documentation and just jumped right in and they submit their app and that's where the relationship starts. I'd love to get more involved in the relationship before that. And, of course, there's the developers we meet at hackathons and stuff putting out a project. And those relationships obviously start much earlier. Probably 80% of the relationships we have with developers come from organic growth."

Q: So, If You Compare Shopify's Return On, Say, A Sponsored Hackathon Vs. The Fund?

A: "Oh, yeah, hackathons, meet-ups win every time. They're more fun, we get more apps out of them and we get to meet large numbers of people at the same time instead of one-on-one. One-on-one is great, but when you're doing that screening process to see who is worth while developing a more in-depth relationship with, then I'd definitely say hackathons and meetups. We sponsor meetups all the time. We have probably the nicest office space in Ottawa so we have the Ottawa Ruby user group, the Ottawa Linux user group. and yeah, that's the best way we've had to meet people. And not only in Ottawa but also in New York and San Francisco as well."

Q: What Is An Ideal App For Shopify?

A: "From the Shopify point of view, we love to see apps that open us to new verticals like selling event tickets [ed: e.g. PlugMyEvent]. What's ideal from a developer perspective, if you're looking to make lots of money and have lots of users, the single most important thing is to have a well defined value proposition. You need to be able to say this app is going to make the shopkeeper more money, save the shopkeeper time in these ways and be able to quantify that in some way."

Be sure to read the next eCommerce article: Google's Closed Shopping API Opens Opportunity for YC-backed Semantics3