Once you’ve made the decision that Shopify is the CMS of choice for your e-commerce business, next is the decision whether to attempt your store build yourself, or to hire outside help. Should you hire a Shopify Expert? Should you hire an (often cheaper) freelancer? Does location of your digital partner matter? If you decide to go the route of hiring outside help, finding the right digital partner to create your online presence is often a decision that is under-appreciated in terms of importance. The right agency/freelancer will have impeccable communication skills, have processes designed to help you communicate your vision to them, and finish your build on spec and on time.
Difference between Shopify Partners & Shopify Experts
Before jumping into analyzing what sort of outside help you need, an important factor to note is the difference between Shopify’s Partner agencies/freelancers, and Shopify Expert Partner agencies/freelancers. The two titles are often used by agencies and freelancers to market themselves, and for good reason, but what’s the difference?
Shopify Partners are agencies or freelancers who have applied to become a part of the Shopify eco-system, and have access to many of the same tools that Shopify Experts do. They will be able to build your store in a development environment, meaning you will not be paying a monthly subscription until your store is complete and launched. They often have access to apps at no charge during the development period, meaning they can test/integrate/set up multiple plug-ins while your store is being built, and they may or may not have priority access to Shopify support for technical questions during your project. While Shopify Partners are part of the ecosystem, partner agencies/freelancers’ work haven’t been verified/vetted by Shopify, and thus, they have not received the title of “Expert”.
Shopify Experts are agencies or freelancers who have taken the same necessary steps as Shopify Partners, and submitted their work (whether it be marketing case studies, past store builds in the development environment, etc), to Shopify for their review. Once Shopify has reviewed a partners work and deems it to be of a certain quality, partners can receive the title of Shopify Expert. Experts have access to all of the same resources that partners do - the real differentiator is based around Shopify having reviewed their work in the past.
Shopify is not currently accepting new applications for their experts program, and applications have been closed since 2018, so just because a partner does not have the experts ‘certification’ it does not definitively indicate they are not in fact a great agency/freelancer to work with.
Custom build vs theme customization
Now that you’ve learned the difference between partners and experts, the next step is to decide if your needs fit the criteria for a custom theme build & setup, or if you’d prefer to customize & setup an existing theme to fit your businesses’ needs.
Let’s take the example of building a home to examine the difference between the two.
A custom theme build & setup can be compared to building a house from the ground up. You have the land to build on, and the job of your agency/freelancer is to create designs for your new home that you love. From there, they get to work, building brick by brick, nail by nail, until your new home is complete. A custom theme build can range anywhere from a few thousand dollars well into the six figures depending on the service provider you partner with, and the complexity of the theme you need built. Expect a custom theme build project to take 2+ months at minimum, and there to be a decent time period allotted to quality assurance and bug testing before your new site is launch ready.
Customizing an existing theme is more similar to having the structure of the home built, and designing within the boundaries of the existing features/structure. Floors, paint colors, backsplashes, carpeting, light & bathroom fixtures, etc, are all customizable. Now, while your agency/freelancer will be creating within the boundaries of the existing theme, it doesn’t necessarily mean they can’t add additional features to the theme, or extend those boundaries. A good agency/freelancer will be able to add custom sections to themes, new features, and tweak existing code to change the “structure” in certain ways. This is attributable to adding an extension to your new home, such as a deck in the backyard, or removing a wall between your kitchen and dining room to create an open concept ground floor. Customizing an existing theme can range anywhere from sub one thousand dollars up to five figures, depending on the complexity of the theme, number of products, the size of the overall site, and of course, the service provider you choose. The majority of our projects that use existing themes generally range 2-6 weeks to complete, depending on revision requests and amount of design work that goes into making the store perfect.
Many merchants come to us with the impression that using an existing theme will provide a “templated” look that won’t stand out amongst other websites, when in reality if you’re partnered with a quality service provider, they can customize your store build to be truly unique, stand out amongst competition, and most importantly, convert visitors into purchasers. There are hundreds of themes in the Shopify Theme store that cover industries ranging from fashion, jewelry, electronics, home & garden, and more.
Shopify Pro Tip: The majority of merchants don’t need a theme build from the ground up. A good designer can take an existing theme and customize it so it stands out and looks unique. Creating from an existing theme will be significantly cheaper, and will have your business up and running must faster.
Local vs International pro vs cons
Are you budget sensitive and considering overseas service providers? Looking for a partner overseas can have it’s pros and cons when it comes to your new businesses store. While many overseas providers outside North America can offer significantly cheaper pricing than their local counterparts, there are a number of potential pitfalls to searching outside of your country of origin for your new build:
Communication: During your store build, you will be communicating a huge amount with your new digital partner. Different time zones can make this difficult, and quick communication throughout a day can keep projects on track, meaning your new business is launched on time, and within budget.
Local regulations: A great example of this is GDPR & email marketing laws. While the majority of Shopify Experts are well versed in how to appropriately set up your store to be GDPR compliant, an overseas contractor/agency may not be savvy to ensuring your site is compliant. If you are located in Canada, does your contractor in Australia truly understand the complexity of setting up appropriate opt-ins for your newsletter popup? Sticking local can be a bit pricier, but peace of mind knowing your store complies with local regulations & laws may be worth the additional investment.
Freelancer vs Agency
Do you prefer working with one person, or are you looking for a team effort when it comes to creating your store? A qualified freelancer can provide a huge range of expertise across different domains, but agencies often have specific people in house that dedicate their time to different areas (IE: SEO, CRO, Content, Design, etc). Agencies are often a better choice if the sum of their combined knowledge & experience provides more value to your overall design & build.
Optimizing for marketing
What other specialities does your freelancer/agency have in their toolkit? Are they familiar with SEO, and CRO? For the most part, Shopify will be optimized for SEO off the bat, but there are still numerous factors to consider such as appropriate meta titles/descriptions, alt-tags, submission to Google Search Console, and if you are migrating from another platform, redirection of existing URLs. Are they well versed in design that will help your visitors convert as opposed to hinder them? Even a small improvement in your conversion rate of .5% will mean an extra 25 sales per month assuming you can reach 5K visitors in that 30 day period.
Hiring an agency that understands the above can give you a leg-up when migrating to, or building on Shopify, and help you convert more visitors from day one, and ensure you’re in the best position to impress Google’s ranking algorithm.
Have a Shopify store already? What factors did you take into consideration when choosing your service provider? We’d love to know, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll include them in our post.
The Ecomm Guys is a Shopify Experts Marketing agency based in Ottawa, Ontario. We specialize in SEO, Google Ads, Facebook Ads Management, and of course, Shopify.