WP eCommerce: What’s old is new again.

wp-ecommerceWP eCommerce is one of the oldest WordPress plugins you’ll find. That it’s an eCommerce plugin — built on WordPress, well before such a thing seemed sensible — is even more of a testament to just how impressive this plugin is. It’s been under development for eight years, and is nearing 3 million downloads on WordPress.org.

Today, WP eCommerce is working to shed layers of duplicate functionality that can now be replaced by WordPress core. It’s a wicked thing for a product to be ahead of its time. An eCommerce plugin built on WordPress is clearly — we know today — a viable thing. But for years, as WP eCommerce chugged along, many were skeptical that eCommerce and WordPress could — or even should — be harmonious.

That WP eCommerce is so old is its blessing and its curse. The blessing is that it was the only major player for a long time, allowing it to achieve great success, relative to other commercial plugins of the time. Its curse is that it gained a reputation for bugginess and as a product that was trying to be a round peg in a square hole.

It’s safe to say that WP eCommerce has passed the time where anyone should doubt it’s a viable product. But the question remains: can something old be new again?

Dan Milward and Justin Sainton believe so. And they are now 50 / 50 partners to ensure it.

For years, Dan ran WP eCommerce under the umbrella of Instinct Entertainment. While WP eCommerce wasn’t Instinct’s only project, it was its largest for a long time. Dan hired support staff and developers to help maintain the product and manage customers of their premium support tokens.

Justin Sainton has been contributing to WP eCommerce since 2010. He’s written nearly 70,000 lines of code and deleted nearly 30,000 lines of code from the codebase, just since they started tracking activity on Github in 2011. He’s got more commits to the project than any of the other 39 contributors. At times, Justin has been the lifeblood of WP eCommerce development.

Now that the two are partnered, they are ready to move ahead with full steam.

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Born out of need

Dan was building websites with b2, pre-WordPress. He remembers when the repository was on a third party website, with only twenty or so plugins. He had a customer looking to sell plumbing related supplies online. Dan looked at osCommerce and Zen Cart to see if they could do the job. The hosted solutions we know today, and even Magento, didn’t exist yet. Dan had the wild idea to build it in WordPress, and the client let them release it to the public.

The world’s first eCommerce plugin for WordPress was born out of a need to cater to plumbers.

That was in 2006.

Instant growth

The plugin took off very quickly. Dan remembers launching “Gold Cart”, their premium version of WP eCommerce, on a Friday, and was blown away by the transaction history he saw the very next day. The success was unexpected.

They never thought it’d be the kind of plugin “that would end up being used by millions of people around the world.” And if he could go back, he says he probably would’ve done it differently.

Today, WP eCommerce powers sites large and small. They know of sites with upwards of 100,00 products and / or seven figures in revenue. Impressive numbers.

Retro-fitted

One of the hardest parts of development of WP eCommerce has been growing with WordPress and retro-fitting the plugin to utilize functionality and APIs that WordPress offers in core.

The best example of this is for custom post types. Custom post types were not introduced until WordPress 3.0, meaning that it took a significant effort and change of the WP eCommerce codebase to utilize custom post types, and all the benefits that go along with using them.

The Jetpack of WP eCommerce

Gold Cart is what Dan calls the Jetpack of WP eCommerce. In an attempt at longevity, WP eCommerce was an early player in the commercial plugin market. They quickly offered a premium version of WP eCommerce.

They now monetize in two ways. They have support tokens, as well as commercial add-ons. Support for WP eCommerce is managed via Help Scout.

Justin’s entrance to WP eCommerce

Justin also got into eCommerce with WordPress due to client work. He’s been working with WordPress since 2007, but he’s been doing eCommerce since 2005. So he quickly searched for WordPress eCommerce integrations, and therefore found WP eCommerce. By 2008 and 2009 he was using WP eCommerce for client work, and he reach out to Dan to figure out how he could start contributing.

Justin got heavily involved with WP eCommerce when they were making the switch to using custom post types. He helped guide the plugin from using around 40 custom tables to 13 custom tables today.

He’s been the biggest contributor to WP eCommerce ever since. With the release of WP eCommerce 3.9, their new partnership becomes official.

The new structure of Instinct

Instinct is now focused on WP eCommerce, and Dan’s other projects (like Gamefroot, an impressive HTML5-centric gaming entity) have shifted over to a different organization. Justin and Dan are now managing the day to day of WP eCommerce through Instinct.

The team of support providers and paid developers will be managed under the new Instinct.

Long term opportunities

WP eCommerce 3.9 will be a huge release for them. The features in this release include nearly five years of work between Justin, Ryan McCue, Gary Cao, and others.

All of these have been developed as the “features as plugins” concept over the last five years. So that was something that we were a little bit early to market with as a concept.

A few of the new features:

1) A new theme engine.

It’s not as easy as it should be to create themes, so they are fixing that with 3.9. They have a number of commercial theme developers they are working with to help create themes with the new theme engine this year.

2) New payment gateway API

WP eCommerce will have a much simpler and more flexible API for managing payment gateway integrations with 3.9. It will replace an API that’s been in existence since 2009.

3) Marketplace functionality

The most impressive functionality to Justin (and to me too) is the marketplace functionality they’re building into WP eCommerce 3.9. This means that people who install WP eCommerce will be able to view and shop extensions for WP eCommerce through the admin, and purchase straight through that system.

They hope to open up third party development considerably with this feature.

A product to be proud of

One of the most impressive parts of the interview was when Dan talked about the rise and slow fall of WP eCommerce as other platforms “leapfrogged” them.

At one point, they figured that around 250,000 users had migrated to using WordPress with WP eCommerce. But over time, as development stagnated some, he knew that it wasn’t the same type of product as it once was — a product that he was super proud of and ready to go to WordCamps and promote.

However, as they are now entering the final stages of 3.9 and even gear toward 4.0, they are ready to go head-on again marketing and promoting what they think can still be a go-to solution for WordPress eCommerce.

Evolve or die

“Evolve or die.” This is the Darwinian quote Dan used to describe the necessary change that an open market creates for products. WP eCommerce has certainly had to evolve. Yes, they were early to market, but they were probably (in my opinion) too early to market.

Now, they’re evolving, and working hard to once again be the big player in the market. And they’ve got longevity on their side, which is a benefit that is often undervalued.

The WordPress space is a big space, right? … eCommerce can mean so much. … There’s plenty of opportunity to do new things.

They are excited and confident about what the future holds WordPress and WP eCommerce. They believe there are untouched niches and market segments that have a lot of potential.

We don’t want to just compete. We want to be doing new and innovative things — which is what we’ve always done.

I asked where some of that potential is, and Dan said at least a couple areas where he sees potential are in-app purchasing experiences and the user-interface.

Prioritizing goals

Justin has a lot of plans for future development. While he has a list of long term goals, he’s also outlined shorter term plans.

The Product

He wants to zero in on the WP eCommerce product itself. He’s not necessarily interested in WP eCommerce in terms of how it competes feature-for-feature with other WordPress eCommerce options as much as how strongly it stands on its own.

The community

Justin wants to empower the developer community surrounding WP eCommerce to feel welcome and encouraged to contribute.

When I enter a community that I’m new to, and I feel immediately that I don’t have a voice, that’s going to turn me off pretty quick to staying active in that community.

Partnership development

Justin and Dan both see a ton of potential with connecting and integrating with some of the thousands of other platforms, services, and softwares that are part of the overall eCommerce process.

Longevity as a feature

Justin has run his consulting company, Zao, for ten years now. Both Justin and Dan have been involved in the WordPress community for a long time. They intend to be involved in the WordPress ecosystem for a long time to come.

In my mind, their collective experience and expertise are a considerable asset to the future of WP eCommerce. When someone is choosing what eCommerce platform to use, longevity of those providing the software is a huge feature. Nobody wants to invest in building a site on software that will become unsupported during the lifetime of the project.

WP eCommerce has been around longer than any other eCommerce platform, and I think they can combine this history with their more modern features to really strongly market their position in the WordPress eCommerce space and the eCommerce space in general.

Spreading the word

WP eCommerce does still face a number of challenges. One of these is spreading the word. Not only do they need to spread the word that WP eCommerce exists, but also that it’s good again.

Justin used the example of a WordCamp he went to, where he asked the crowd who had heard of WP eCommerce, and about 70% of the room raised their hand. When he asked those that loved it to keep their hand raised, only about 20% of the room kept their hand up. Jokingly, he said, “Okay, I’ve got some work to do. Let’s talk.”

This is the kind of attitude that I think can make WP eCommerce successful, in a big way.

In addition to WordCamps and evangelizing to developers, they are also sponsoring and organizing sponsoring smaller events. Just last week, Justin headed up the organization of BeachPress, a micro event of about 30 developers in a beach house on Oregon’s coast. Events like this and the personal relationships that come from them are what will help them find willing contributors and product advocates.

A new stage for a new plugin

While the WP eCommerce plugin approaches a new stage of life, you wouldn’t really know it by looking at GetShopped.org, the landing page for the plugin. This, along with other internal infrastructure issues, are additional goals for improvement for Justin and Dan.

They are planning to re-analyze business models, restructure documentation, rebuild the website, and much more. Dan notes that getting past the technical challenges of the upcoming versions of the plugin is like ridding themselves of shackles.

Depending on how well the changes are received, Dan and Justin are also prepared to put more and more of their focus on WP eCommerce versus their other projects. WP eCommerce is their priority, and they plan to see it through.

WP eCommerce really does remind me of the saying that, “what’s old is new again.”

I look forward to seeing how the rollout of WP eCommerce 3.9 goes, and how the community responds. I have a feeling that we’re going to see a second life for WP eCommerce, not as a replacement to other options, but to a place back in the front-runner category for viable WordPress eCommerce options.

If you want to keep track of WP eCommerce, you can do so on their main website, and follow Dan Milward and Justin Sainton on Twitter.