A Chat with Justin Sainton about WordPress and eCommerce
WP eCommerce Show

00:00 / 21:29

With the growing presence of eCommerce in the WordPress space, I thought it was time to bring on veteran Justin Sainton, founder of Zao, a software agency and the force behind the WP eCommerce plugin. Justin has seen a lot transpire over the years as eCommerce developed and I wanted to get some feel for what it was like when he first started, what has happened since and what he sees for the future of eCommerce and WordPress.

We chatted about:

  • His plugin’s rep as the original eCommerce plugin and why he started it
  • How and if WordPress was even considered an eCommerce solution when he first got into it
  • His largest pain point as a plugin developer when first venturing into the space
  • How page builders play into the WordPress online store
  • The largest strides made in eCommerce and WordPress two years following his plugin release
  • What he considers to be the biggest struggle for online store owners
  • Some thoughts on the future of WordPress and eCommerce


Bob Dunn: Hey, Justin, welcome to the show.

Justin Sainton: Yeah, thanks for having me.

Bob: It’s kind of funny because you and I have a backstory. When I started this podcast, I named it WP eCommerce Show. I changed it to BobWP, and I remember a tweet from you. “Wow! Hey, I had to do a double take. Is there a podcast about my plugin?” So, for anyone that doesn’t know who Justin is, give us a little bit of your background and what you do.

Meet Justin Sainton, Founder of Zao

Justin: Sure. Yeah, so my background is I dropped out of high school at 17 to start the company I’m running today, Zao. We’re a software agency, and we focus on WordPress and eCommerce, and the convergence of those two spaces. We’ve been doing that for about 13 years now. I got into the WordPress space around 2007. I had started my company in 2005, and it’s been a solid 10 years of digging into the deep end of WordPress, and the complicated world of eCommerce, trying to marry those two. (With some success, thankfully.)

Bob: That’s interesting because 2007 was when started diving into WordPress too, so we’ve both been in the space, trucking along here for about a decade. So very cool. Now, I have seen where you’ve actually labeled your plugin as the original eCommerce plugin for WordPress. Can you tell us what drove you to start it up? At that time, did you think WordPress was even an eCommerce solution?

What drove you to create your eCommerce plugin?

Justin: Great question. A little backstory. It was started before I even got involved in WordPress. It was started by a guy in New Zealand called Dan Milward. A lot of people who’ve been around WordPress forever will know him, though he’s been less involved over the last few years. He pivoted his time to building a game-building platform on top of WordPress, which is really cool. So he spends a lot of time at universities, but he started it back in 2006 to solve a pretty simple problem: he wanted to help some friends of his had a band, and they wanted to sell their CDs and MP3s and stuff on their website. This was back in 2006, and WordPress was just a baby. Nobody thought of WordPress as anything but a blogging platform, right? This was before custom post types, before the MU merge, before a lot of stuff where today we say, “Yeah, WordPress is for more than just blogging.” Nobody was saying that back then.

So the WP eCommerce plugin was born in 2006. But I became aware of it closer to 2008, 2009. I had some client sites (I wasn’t doing much eCommerce with WordPress at that point), but I was trying to figure out how to make that work since we did a lot of open-source eCommerce projects on things like OS Max, OS Commerce, Zen Cart, for people in that space. Really not super-fun platforms to work on. We’d been working with WordPress for a long time, so we wanted to figure out how to marry the two. Then in 2009 or so, we came upon WP eCommerce.

I checked out the forums, but to this day, the WordPress plug-in forums are kind of hit of miss, right? They can be really terrible or really amazing. So I came upon the WordPress eCommerce plug-in forum, and I found people on one end saying, “Oh my gosh! This is amazing! I can sell stuff online with WordPress.” And then I found other people who were like, “This is garbage. This is the worst thing ever! Nothing works right.” 

So I found myself right in the middle. I used it on a few projects, and I thought, man, this does do amazing things, but it needs a lot of help, too. I didn’t want to be the type to jump on the bandwagon of “this is terrible.” I wanted to get involved to make it better since, it was part of my livelihood at that point, in terms of the tools I used.

And so instead of jumping on that negativity bandwagon, which is so easy to do, especially with open-source software, I wanted to be a part of contributing. And so between 2009 and now, I went from a user, to a contributor to a core contributor, to a lead developer, to a co-owner of the company.

Bob: Cool. Now, for all our listeners who might be plugin developers, let’s put on your plugin developer hat. And I’m sure there were plenty of pain points, but what was the largest one you found when you started getting into the eCommerce/WordPress plugin arena?

What was your biggest pain point when you started getting into the eCommerce-WordPress plugin arena?

Justin: Honestly, at that time, everything was a pain point because it was such uncharted territory. Today we have things like WooCommerce and in the WooCommerce ecosystem, there are people solving a lot of really big problems. As a result, the amount of uncharted territory has decreased so much. Then it was just a vast realm of unknowns. Today, the big developer conversation around WooCommerce is, “Man, we have our orders in custom-post types, and we really need them out of it for performance.

An example: Back in 2010, 2011, when custom-post types were new and shiny, we had these conversations as part of the WP eCommerce team. We had 40 custom tables holding all of our orders and stuff, and the WordPress community was like, “Hey, you have to use custom-post types.” So we had these hard conversations. Should we migrate orders to custom-post types because that’s what everybody else is doing? Thankfully we didn’t, but it wasn’t because we were smart. It was just because what we were doing was working. In hindsight, it was smart not to do it.

But, yeah. I would say the pain point at that point was everything because there were so many unknowns.

Bob: Now, let’s go back to when you really got involved with this plugin. Fast forward two years. During those first two years that you were involved, what do you think the biggest strides were made, and during that time, was there a turning point in WordPress and eCommerce, or was it further down the road?

Where were the biggest strides made in those first two years?

Justin: Wow, that’s a great question. So for us, we had a great 2010-2012,   a great community of developers in the WP eCommerce space. I think WooCommerce had just come out near the end of 2011 or something like that, so we’re in this time span where even WooCommerce was an unknown. We were still kind of the big dog, and we had really great developers, and we had some great people on staff who were core contributors—super smart developers— so I would say the biggest strides that we made internally were having the right people in the right places to be able to take 120,000 lines of legacy code that was 4, 5, 6 years old, and begin to refactor and reshape a lot of it.

The code that was rebuilt at that point is still rock-solid stuff today. And so it was having the right people, especially people who really understood WordPress core. For developers who’ve been around forever, there’s a guy on Track called Gary C40. He was one of our lead developers back then and he was super involved in WordPress. And John James Jacoby was pretty involved with us for a while. And so we had just really good people laying good foundations, and then, to expand that circle, the strides that were made then, obvious that 2010 to 2012, that’s the time span in which WooThemes was trying to get WooCommerce out the door.

They had a few false starts. This is all public, documented history, so I’m not naming and shaming anybody, but there were a few false starts.They struggled to get it out the door, and then finally, through Mike Jolly and James Coster, and Jigoshop and all that, they got it out the door, and that changed the whole eCommerce game. Forget about WordPress, right? That was the beginning of an interesting time that we’re still in today with WordPress and eCommerce.

Bob: Let’s step back now We talked about your experience as a plugin developer, and the experience of actually working with the plugin and eCommerce. What do you feel is still one of the biggest struggles for store owners? Specifically the ones who are trying to start an online store using WordPress. Maybe it’s one big thing, or maybe it’s two or three things. Is there a solution to it, or is it just a matter of time?

What is one of the biggest struggles for online store owners using WordPress?

Justin: You will probably see this even better than I do, but as a developer, it’s so easy to build things that we think are cool, and that solve problems. Then you stick them in front of the people who will actually use them and the problems they have are not even remotely close to the problems we thought we were solving.

And so to me, the main issue that people come against is that disconnect. We think, man, we’ve made so many strides in our UX and in our features, and functionality, and then you get it in front of a person who is trying to solve something, and then you say, “Hey, just install the plugin, and make a product and you’re good to go.” And they hit activate, and then they have no idea what to do, right? And so that’s sort of like a deer-in-the-headlights onboarding process. Things like that to me right now, especially for us at WP eCommerce, WooCommerce, had made really great strides on the onboarding process in the last year or two. But I would say just that getting started element is a much bigger hurdle for users than developers usually understand.

Bob: Now I’m going to throw a question in here, and I’m going to put you a little bit on the spot. I didn’t warn you about this question. I just thought of it. You can take it of leave it, but I have talked a little bit about page builders, as far as eCommerce stores, and I’ve heard the pros and cons. I’ve even talked to Robbie at Beaver Builder, and he had some great insights. Can you, before we move on to the last question, give me some thoughts on page builders in the eCommerce space?

What are your thoughts on using page builders in the eCommerce space?

Justin: I can talk all day about page builders. Page builders are a funny thing, right? And so we have compatibility code for different frameworks and WP eCommerce going way back to even before page builders, to even frameworks like Genesis and Thesis. Remember Thesis.

Bob: Yeah, and there was Headway too. That was another one way back then. I remember that.

Justin: eFrameworks, which are really not a predecessor, but in the same ballpark as page builders. As long as they make lives easier for users, I think they’re wonderful. I think they’re guilty of the same thing that a lot of eCommerce plugins are in that they think they’re solving a problem, and then you put it in front of a user, and it’s like, this is insane. You mentioned Robbie, and Justin, and the guys as Beaver Builder. I think there are two or three page builders that are doing a commendable job at what they do. I think there’s probably 100 or more that are terrible. Like beyond terrible that I would never recommend anybody use. Beaver Builder is one of the good ones. There’s another one called Tailor that we’ve used for a couple of client sites that has a lot of promise.

And so when it comes to eCommerce, and page builders, I think there’s a lot of room for that in-between client, the client who has some technical know-how, some sense of how to put things together, but they’re not a developer. I think that’s the sweet spot. I do see that the brand-new users who have no sense of design, no sense of anything, if you have them start with a page builder, and with an eCommerce plug-in, and with WordPress, these are three different layers of learning they have to get through—and that can be a lot. But I think once you get past a certain level, that’s probably the sweet spot for page builders in eCommerce.

Bob: That’s interesting. And one of the things that Robbie brought up, he said the real advantage of a page builder is the AB testing  because you’re able to move things around, and move the button, change the color of the button. You’re able to actually say, “Okay. I’m going to build two landing pages for this product.” And test them as far as the layout and what actually works better, which is kind of a unique thing. I think if the online store owners, instead of saying they want all the bells and whistles, if they actually thought of it in the sense of, well this would be a great way to do some testing. I’d never thought of that,

Justin: I love that, and I think that’s the sign of a mature business strategy, is that they’re not thinking of, hey, let’s add this new feature, but they’re thinking of, hey, there’s this prob that we can solve. And I think that’s the mark of any successful business, is to take something that was previously inaccessible to the masses and make it accessible to the masses. Right? Before if you wanted to AB test your WooCommerce site, you would have to install Optimizely, or this Google thing, or whatever, and you’d have to be a developer to do all this. And they’re saying, “Now, you just flip a switch. Test this change, and you’re good to go.”

To me, it adds that sense of magic to users, which could be special, so that’s pretty neat.

Bob: Right. You’ve been in the space for a while. Do you have any thoughts or insights of what we might be seeing in the future of WordPress and eCommerce? Some deep thoughts from Justin here?

Any thoughts or insights on the future of WordPress and eCommerce?

Justin: I’m swimming in the kiddie pool, I promise. We’re not in too deep. I think, like I said, WooCommerce has been a total game changer for WordPress and for eCommerce in general. I think, given the amount of resources, the amount of community, the amount of excitement behind it, I think it’s that sense of a rising tide lifting all boats, right? And so it’s a very exciting time to be involved in WordPress and eCommerce on any platform because that of sense of open source, and that sort of spirit behind it. You’re not going to get that with Shopify or big commerce, or even in all other open platforms. Something like Magenta, which is technically open source, but very corporately driven. You’re not going to get that sense of openness, and that philosophy of driving things forward.

I know you were at WooConf. That was like the whole theme of what’s open eCommerce, and to me that’s the most exciting part of where we’re at— now and in the future— is that open source is driving eCommerce and WordPress forward to places that I don’t think would have been possible without open-source philosophies driving it. I think it’s more exciting than anything else that’s happening in eCommerce anywhere. It’s more exciting than all the enterprise stuff, Demandware and everything else. It’s more exciting than the hosted platforms. Shopify is amazing, don’t get me wrong, but there’s something about the open-source aspect and community that is not reproducible anywhere else. So to me, that’s the future. More openness. More shared platforms. More shared libraries. People getting moving faster, innovating quicker because things are more open.

We’re all kind of looking at new and shiny things like hey, let’s build React WooCommerce themes, and all these kind of tech things, which are cool. But I think we can get really distracted with the new and the shiny without remembering that we can do all of these cool new shiny things because it’s all open-source. That’s a huge thing that we do at Zao. Part of our client contracts say whatever we do for you, we’ll create some kind of open- source project around it, and whatever you have that’s proprietary and special, we’ll keep it private. But we can do what we do because everything is open-source. So anytime we can give back in an open-source way, or create open-source projects, that’s such a huge part of our philosophy. That’s that’s what’s exciting to me about the future of eCommerce.

Bob: That’s a great point. So now, I told you that was the last question, but now I’m thinking, okay. Justin has been in the eCommerce space for so long, I have to ask you this. I’ve asked a few guests this. You’ve lived and breathed eCommerce for a while. Is there anything that just, there’s no way you’ll buy it online, even if it’s available?

What would you never buy online?

Justin: I think didn’t somebody respond to you and say, “A wife”?

Bob: Yeah, somebody did. I forgot to ask them is, what about the return policy? How would that work?

Justin: Yeah, what’s the chargeback reason? Not as advertised? Gosh, we live and breathe online, right? I mean, I have my Amazon Alexis set up, and we subscribe and save on Amazon. Everything we buy is online. I guess I wouldn’t buy a house online. I wouldn’t buy a house through an eCommerce platform.

Bob: Well, this has been a blast, Justin. I really appreciate it. It was about time for you to get on the show here, and I’m sure I’ll be having you back. So I just want to thank you, but before we go, where can people find you on the web?

Where can people find Justin on the web?

Justin: Yeah, our agency site is Zao. Z as in zebra, A-O dot I-S. And you can find me on Twitter at JS_Zao. You can find me on Facebook and everywhere else. It’s pretty much Justin Sainton everywhere. But, yeah, I’d love to hear from people, and I love the work you do, Bob. I think it’s great that you’re getting these conversations happening, and getting people in the loop on eCommerce. So thanks for having me.

Bob: You bet, and have a very, good day. Thank you.

Justin: Yeah, likewise.

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