Starting today, would I develop for Shopify or WordPress?

I’ve been thinking a lot about the entire WordPress ecosystem a lot recently. Obviously growth is high, market share is increasing, and WordPress just feels healthy. There’s plenty to complain about, of course, but overall WordPress seems like a great place to be a website developer. Sure, full site editing feels like an attempt to create a ‘no-code’ WordPress experience, but on the whole, WordPress is still a standard place to build robust websites that require a developer’s touch.

One of my rules for my web development career has always been: to make money building websites, you need to build websites that make money. It sounds simple, stupid almost, but it’s been a framing for my career that’s always proven true. Customers who want a website might pay well for it. Customers who need a website have to pay well for it.

The customers who are willing to invest the most in their website are businesses who would actually lose money if their website went down. I’m not talking about the QR-code menu at a local restaurant, I’m talking about platforms, integrated portals, affiliate marketers, content creators raking in ad revenue, and of course e-commerce websites. If your entire business IS your website, you’re wiling to pay more, because you’re going to require a lot more expertise.

That lead me to think about expanding my skills to include Shopify development. I’ve dabbled in Shopify in the past, but it’s a completely different beast than WordPress. Shopify has a few benefits, however, just by showing up later on the scene and existing as a private company rather than an open source project.

They’re a private company, so they can iterate faster than an open source project. I’m not sure if this is good or bad, it’s definitely a mix of both. Because they control everything, Shopify has a better ability to roll out new features at their own pace, and ditch technical debt as they steam ahead. WordPress core development can often feel like nothing important is happening. On the other hand, there is some decent comfort knowing that WordPress sites I built a decade ago are still trucking along.

They have some decent development tools, like SASS compiling, built into their platform. Shopify feels more modern than WordPress. The staging and development environment is built in, meaning you can rely on a decent server set-up, instead of trying to convince every new client to stay away from some budget shared hosting company.

Customers who use Shopify can quantify their websites value. This is perhaps the biggest deal. With an e-commerce store, it’s actually quite easy to quantify improvements to your website, because conversion is highly trackable. This means that it’s much easier as a developer to say “I can put in 10 hours fixing your broken shopping cart and expect an immediate impact on your bottom line”. That sort of work pays the bills.

Shopify is much cheaper than WooCommerce. I want to like WooCommerce, I really do. But the plugin and add-on fees are just ridiculous. We have clients that have to use Shopify because WooCommerce would end up costing them upwards of $400 a year in license fees just to get some basic e-commerce features. Sure the basic WooCommerce plugin is free, but almost every necessary feature carries an exaggerated annual cost.

However, that’s just a focus on developing client sites on Shopify. There’s a completely different opportunity: building apps for Shopify. Apps are the equivalent of plugins in WordPress- enhancements for the core Shopify experience that other users/developers might pay you for. Even WordPress stalwarts like Yoast are offering tools for Shopify. There’s definitely a market opportunity there.

This comes with significant risk, though. Because Shopify is a for-profit company, they’re always on the lookout for absorbing any revenue streams created by their platform. Ryan Breslow had a great twitter thread explaining Shopify’s desire to own- and monetize- every potential feature:

Breslow’s thread is frightening not just because of what happened to him, but what could eventually happen to any app developer running on Shopify. At some point, Shopify will want to bring all of these features (and their corresponding revenue) in house. It would be hard to stake a business on it, whereas I’m pretty confident WordPress core will never ship with a default contact form or MailChimp integration.

At the end of the day, what makes WordPress sing for me is the openness of the community. Shopify is a walled garden, meaning that every client I send to Shopify inevitably lines Shopify’s pockets. That’s not terrible- they’re offering a decent service- but I like that WordPress really diversifies the profits with more of a free-market approach. I like that any licenses fees I do rack up end up going to mom-and-pop development agencies (at least the ones that weren’t bought by Liquid Web or GoDaddy).

Sure WordPress features like full-site-editing might end up eating some plugins’ lunch, but I don’t really think so. There’s so much room for enhancing the core WordPress experience, or using it as a platform to create something completely unique. For now, my eggs are staying in the WordPress basket.