Alex Dicketts isn’t the first Shopify Founder I’ve talked to (not by a long shot!), but his story is pretty unique. By being purposeful in his research and early development, he successfully designed a product that worked not just for the customer, but his own needs as a solo Founder — something I think every bootstrapper should pay more attention to!
While working as a developer, he came across a thread about side projects that introduced him to the Shopify ecosystem. He’d developed a few mobile apps before, but knew he wanted to take on something new with a different revenue model — and that’s exactly what he did. Starting from scratch, he grew both his technical skills and customer knowledge in Shopify, and before too long, Simple Purchase Orders was born.
I got to chat with him recently about his bootstrapping story all the way up to his decision to sell and what’s up next.
An interview with Simple Purchase Orders Founder, Alex Dicketts
Could you tell us a little bit about your background and the story of launching Simple Purchase Orders? I know it was your first experience in the Shopify app ecosystem, how did you get started there?
I started to build Simple Purchase Orders just over four years ago.
My previous experience was writing mobile apps, where people would pay you something like 99 cents and then complain if you didn’t reply to support messages at 2 am. So, I knew I didn’t want to do another one of those.
I came to Shopify through Hacker News, where a lot of software developers like myself tend to congregate. There was a post on there that just asked, “if you’re making over $500 a month on a side project, what do you do?”
And that was interesting to me, I’m always looking for a side project. One of the people posted, “I’ve got two or three Shopify apps, and I’m making $5,000 or $10,000 a month.” I saw that, and said, okay, never heard of Shopify, but that seems pretty good.
So I checked out the Shopify app store and discovered that people were willing to pay for a monthly plan, and an actual reasonable amount of money for an app. So I thought, okay, maybe I can do something here. I still had no real knowledge of Shopify or, you know, how people run online stores.
So then how did you figure that out, what made you decide to build an app around purchase orders?
I actually went to the Shopify forums. I was browsing around and seeing what people were complaining about, what they didn’t have within Shopify, and discovered threads of people saying that they wanted some sort of purchase order functionality. And when I looked into it, it seemed that Shopify was very good at taking orders and doing the bit between the customer and the merchant, but if the merchant needed or wanted to talk to a supplier, that was lacking.
So it was a bit random, but I thought I’d try and write a purchase order app for Shopify as a technical challenge, see if anybody wanted it, and if I could go anywhere with it.
When did you realize you might have something here?
So when I did the first sort of iteration of the app, which wasn’t very good, people installed it. And some uninstalled it. But some stuck around and just said, “hey, if it did this, that would be really good.” And so as more and more people installed it and gave feedback, I knew I was onto something because they weren’t just uninstalling. Then there was a bit of work to do to get it up to a standard where I could start charging more. By the start of 2018, I was getting some users, and I moved to a point where I was adding more than I was losing to churn, which was good.
So at the very first release of the app, was it all a free plan while you were figuring out what worked for people?
No, it wasn’t actually, I started charging from the start, because I think, for me, if people were installing it for free, that would be a bit of a false signal. And being the only person working on it, I couldn’t really afford to do that. It started off at $9.99. And then I watched a video by a guy who also hung around on Hacker News, it was basically called “charge more.” And it said, whatever you’re charging isn’t enough.
And I was worried — what if I raise prices and all of my customers uninstall, or nobody installs when they see the new pricing? But I did raise them, and then I put in three plans. And a couple of people complained, but the majority were like, yep, you’re adding more than $60 a month worth of value or saving me that in time.
So it started to grow. And from there, I guess 2018, 2019 was just about the peak. The app grew as the Shopify platform grew as well. And new APIs came out and more support for developers.
When did you start to think about selling? How did that process go?
I think I always knew I wanted to sell, then it just came down to a matter of timing. Once the revenue got to around $5,000 MRR, I thought, okay. I’ve definitely got something here. And I definitely don’t want to just let it run down.
I didn’t want to be looking back, and have people asking like, oh, what was that purchase order app thing that you had? So another reason for selling it was it almost got too big to fail for me in terms of the time and effort I’d put into it. I didn’t want it to stop because I didn’t have enough time to spend on it.
I spoke to your team and he said, “you’ve got something here, but you’re not quite at the size that we would be interested in yet.” I also looked at working with a broker, but had a sort of a sharp intake of breath when I saw the fee they take.
Ha! I have to go ahead and highlight that right now, “a sharp intake of breath.” We’re always happy to work with brokers, but you’re right — it can be expensive for the Founder.
Last year (2020), I was made redundant from my previous job. And I had a sort of five minute panic, then I realized, actually, my app was making more than my salary. So I thought, okay, that’s good. But I think I’ve probably taken the app as far as I want to.
I got another job. And then I took a month to really work on the app and make sure it was good to sell and hand over. We had another couple of lockdowns, which meant I could spend more time on it and work on it.
This spring, I saw the sort of things that were going on with the app stores at Apple and Google, that they were cutting their fees. I thought Shopify might follow them, but I thought they would just go down to 10% or something like that. And so when they announced it was going down to 0%, I thought, okay, you’ve been given this gift, it’s now time to make the most of it, and sell.
So I approached you guys again. I also listed on MicroAcquire, and I got a serious offer there. Then you offered as well, which was great because I really wanted two offers to compare.
People would ask me how much I thought I’d get for it, and I would say, it’s worth what somebody will pay me for it. It’s just a second job until somebody else tells me that this has value. So it was really good to get two offers and the process was fairly painless for both.
I ultimately decided to go with SureSwift because you’ve done this before. With the other buyer, it would have been their first purchase, and I just didn’t want to be the person to teach them how to do it.
So I signed with you. And then it was like, right, here’s a bunch of questionnaires and documents and everything’s ready to go. And we can do this all within a month. Suddenly, this thing that I’ve been working on for the past four years is going to become someone else’s. But it was a really good, simple process.
So you were kind of bouncing between the app as a side project when you had a day job, and then going through bursts of working on it full-time. I always think that’s so interesting because you really have to optimize the business to work for you when you have a day job. What did that mean for you?
I guess it meant just really optimizing and concentrating on it when I had the time to do it. It would normally be just support during the week and then bugs and/or features on the weekends because they take longer.
And thankfully, there were no real catastrophic failures of anything that meant I had to spend a weekend rebuilding a database or anything like that. It was all fairly stable. Any sort of bugs and stuff were my own doing, introducing them in a code portion and having to fix them. So that taught me the value of testing everything as I go.
So how much time during the week were you spending on support?
I guess maybe half an hour to an hour. I found that the support came at the start with onboarding people. And generally after that, people would only contact me if something broke, or if they wanted to request a feature. I mean, the app was a painkiller rather than a vitamin. So they got it to do a specific job. And as long as it did that job, they weren’t really interested in interacting with me, which was great from my perspective.
Were there ever times where it was hard to balance everything? Or did it feel like you had set it up to work that way from the beginning?
I always enjoyed it. I’d always wanted to run my own business, and I always wanted to do an app. Learning the software side of it and then also the support and everything else fed back into my day job, and then things I was doing in my job fed into the app. At times, it was a lot of work and I had a few late nights and things like that. But overall, it was interesting to me so I didn’t mind so much.
How is your life different now, post-sale? Would you think about starting another project? Or do you kind of like having one day job?
So when I got this job, I knew that I’d want to concentrate on it more. But I definitely want to stay in the Shopify app ecosystem, maybe just do smaller utility apps, because I’ve got all this knowledge now and I don’t want to let it waste away. And of course I enjoy the extra revenue. I don’t think there’s been a better time to get involved. But it was just the right time. And it was the right time to sell, I’d done everything that I felt I needed to with the app. And I wanted to prove that I hadn’t just created another job, that I’d created something that somebody else thought was valuable as well.
Do you have any advice for Founders thinking about selling, now that you’ve been through the process?
I guess in terms of exiting, the thing that I realized is the person buying it has different reasons for buying it than you do for selling it. I also realized the chances of you selling to a developer that knows exactly the same programming languages you do, so you can just hand it over to them with zero work are slim to none.
So my advice would be to keep in mind that the buyers will need different things from you than you’re probably expecting, especially if there are things that just live in your head. For me that was things around how the app is actually supported — since it was just me working on it, I had never really written that all down. But your team’s been really patient with getting that out of my head.
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