You’re a store administrator or a business owner. You know how to use WordPress – you’re most likely considered a power user. You may have tested a few eCommerce platforms (or you’ve just read our reviews 😉 ), and your online business runs smoothly.
But maybe it could run more smoothly. Maybe you need a new design, you’re ready for a customized theme, or you know that a customized plugin will make your workflow far more streamlined. But the problem is that you’re not sure where to turn or what you’re looking for, and you don’t want to dive into this project yourself. I get contact requests like this frequently, as site administrators simply aren’t sure what to look for or what questions to ask. If this is you, I’ve tried to put together this guide to help you narrow down what you’re looking for, as well as give you some recommendations on how to customize your eCommerce site.
Let’s start with some appropriate expectations: WordPress is free. Lots of awesome plugins are free. Sometimes good advice is free (like this advice on finding WordPress help). People’s time is not free. Support typically includes fixes, general questions, and help with basic issues – I don’t know of any plugin or theme that includes individual customizations in the purchase price or as part of support. Sometimes they may help you with tweaks or snippets, but this is usually above typical support. Customizing your site is not going to be free.
Second, the functionality you want probably doesn’t work for most users, even if you think it’s essential. You can request that the developer add it, but there’s a good chance they’ll say no. Carrie Dils wrote a great post on add-ons and customizations and costs associated with them – people assume that since plugins or premium themes are cheap that the work on them is cheap. However, you’re not paying for a general, easily marketable product now – you’re paying for a customized solution and a developer’s time, even if it already builds on a $49 plugin, so it’s going to cost more. Maybe even a lot more. Be aware of this when planning.
This is where having a spec and a budget comes into play. One thing I’ve found is that many people reach out for quotes, but they don’t have a budget because they know nothing about the work involved or how much it should cost.
What I recommend instead is submit a short but explicit list of requirements with a needed turnaround time and ask for an estimate. Five page proposals are not short – one or two pages of requirements is optimal to clarify what you need the plugin or theme to do, and what you’ll expect from a freelancer or agency. Be as clear as possible on all needed functionality. Provide when you’d like this completed, and when the absolute deadline is, then ask for a quote from 2-3 freelancers to get an idea of cost. I’d also ask for testimonials if they don’t have any listed on their site.
If you need more functionality or you forgot something, your estimate is going to be adjusted. This is called “scope creep” and most developers will ask you for this list to ensure they don’t end up doing a lot of work they didn’t include in an estimate. Many developers will also ask for your budget if you don’t indicate it before providing a quote. Be honest and say you’re not sure what the work will cost, and get quotes from a few sources to determine an appropriate cost.
If you do have a budget and a good idea of cost, then tell the developer what you can spend. A good developer will tell you if they can deliver, if your budget is more than needed, or if you’ll have to cut details from the project scope. You’re going to start off on the wrong foot by saying your budget is something like, “As little as possible! Ha ha ha.” You’re ‘check’ on the budget / price will be getting multiple quotes or comparing an agency vs a freelancer.
Agency vs Freelancers
You’ll also need to determine whether to go with an agency / company or a freelancer – there are tradeoffs to each. Agencies will typically be more expensive, but there are benefits to working with one. First, you sometimes have to manage a relationship with a freelancer and check in on work (though good ones should be doing this and keeping in contact – tell them you expect updates weekly, etc). Agencies typically manage customer relationships with more hand-holding.
Another benefit to using an agency is that you’re not depending on one person. What if your freelancer gets the flu for a week, but you needed the work now? Agencies typically have a few people that can complete a project, so you won’t be set back by this.
Freelancers will usually be less expensive and can typically provide the same level of quality that you’d get from an agency. You may also develop a more personal relationship with your freelancer than you would with a company.
I don’t have a preference for freelancers vs agencies, but this a point of consideration based on your needs, preferences, and budget.
So what kind of person or company are you looking for? What’s this frontend / backend developer nonsense? All great questions – some store admins aren’t sure what they need, so they’re not sure what to look for or how to ask for it.
You’re looking for a frontend developer if you’re going this route. Some people offer just design services and will provide you with a PSD of a design. In my experience, this is a pain to deal with, as you then have to find someone to slice that design up and turn it into usable code. Some designers also don’t understand the way websites work, so they don’t always consider what’s possible or easy to do using WordPress when they design a template. You could end up spending a hefty chunk of change to convert a custom design.
Instead, I’d recommend finding a developer that can build your site using a theme or a framework, then designing on top of that framework. This is probably going to be more cost effective, and a good frontend developer will still ensure that your site looks great – more importantly, it will function the way it’s supposed to, which isn’t always a designer’s first consideration.
While you may not understand what’s possible using different themes, your developer can explain to you how frameworks or simple themes (such as the Genesis Framework or the Canvas theme) can be adapted to your design needs. Your child theme can look entirely customized and different from a framework or parent theme – think of them more as the steel beams and concrete to your skyscraper. They provide structure and a starting point.
This is one instance where I’d be very upfront about my budget – you may not know how much a great website will cost, but I guarantee you the ones you love cost more than you think. Chris Lema has some great advice on this here, and I’m a fan of this approach: ask your developer to show you samples of what 50% of your budget can buy, 100% of your budget, and 150% of your budget. This way you can get an idea of what’s possible and a rough idea of what different site components cost.
Don’t have a budget for a custom theme? Get one, or at least have an ideal price point in mind.
If you’re looking for changes or tweaks to an existing theme, you’re probably still wanting a frontend developer. However, design may not be as important here since you’re only changing a theme and not building from the ground up, so most PHP / WordPress developers will be able to get this work done. You’ll also typically save money by using a theme as a starting point.
The quality of your theme is going to influence how easy it is to change, so be aware of this. I’ve seen themes with no filters / hooks built around components that should be easy to tweak, so you may have to buy a new theme. Paying for a developer to review the code behind some of your favorite themes is a worthwhile investment if you know you might be tweaking or changing things.
Here are some authors who make quality themes that are easy to customize:
- Array Themes
- WooThemes – particularly Canvas
- Theme Foundry
- Elegant Themes
- Web Savvy Marketing (Genesis child themes)
That list is by no means comprehensive, but that’s a good place to start.
Themes and eCommerce
Before we talk about plugins, there’s one thing to which you should pay attention. Ask your frontend developer if they’ve worked with your eCommerce platform and if they can show you work samples. Some plugins, such as WooCommerce, can be difficult to theme correctly, and you’ll want to be sure that your site blends in with the rest of your theme. Take these two examples:
The first uses default WooCommerce styling in the theme, and it doesn’t look at all like the rest of the site. When a shop looks different from the site, people notice and the shop looks less legitimate. The second theme hooks into WooCommerce to use its own styles, and creates a unified look throughout the site. We talked about this when we listed good free WooCommerce themes.
This is another case where I’d provide a spec and ask for a few quotes. Be brief but explicit when describing what the plugin should do. Almost any kind of functionality is possible, but costs will change in proportion to how difficult it is to implement. Ask for work samples and see if the developer has other plugins that you can test. Check to see if their plugins are easy to use and bug-free (or if you find bugs, see how fast they’re fixed).
Finding someone to build a custom plugin can be a difficult process, but work samples and other plugins can help you determine what the developer is capable of.
Plugin Tweaks or Changes
Finding an existing plugin to customize can be more cost-effective than building a customized plugin as you’ll have an existing codebase to work from. You should ensure that you get a companion plugin that will be upgrade-safe if possible rather than simply forking and changing a plugin.
Companion plugins typically hook into the parent plugin and modify existing functionality so that the parent plugin can be updated, but the custom plugin will still continue to work. If no hooks or filters exist where you need them, ask the original author to add one.
If you’re not sure where to find freelancers, you can check out a couple of directories and apply the criteria and strategies we’ve discussed. I’ve had success using Elance and oDesk, but I’ve also found some people poor to work with from these talent pools. Envato Studio (formerly Microlancer) has been promising, but I don’t have as much experience with this. Codeable is also a solid choice for WordPress tasks.
I’d treat this the same way as I’d treat hiring – make sure you’re explicit and include directions that the candidates should follow (i.e., send your favorite quote or meme) so you can be sure that you have someone that reads directions and pays attention to detail, and not someone who simply applies to every job.
The folks at WerkPress are jacks of all trades, so you can request customizations or custom themes / plugins from their team for pretty much any theme or platform. We’ve also got a follow-up post on another agency that works with several WordPress plugins and themes.
Note that I may not have worked directly with everyone on the list that follows. However, if I’m including them, it’s because they’ve been recommended to me with positive feedback by several other parties.
Need a Genesis child theme? Check out Bill Erickson’s work. You may also want to check out Carrie Dils’s work and Andrea Whitmer’s portfolio. Clif Griffin (a Sell with WP contributor) also does some Genesis work. Want an agency? Web Savvy Marketing and Bourn Creative build and customize themes.
Looking for WooCommerce support? Arts Digital helped add WooCommerce support to a theme for me recently. Red Giant Design also creates WooCommerce themes (they did a case study on WooThemes’s blog not long ago). WerkPress does theme customizations that include WooCommerce as well.
Here are some recommendations specific to each eCommerce plugin. A few of these developers work with a couple different eCommerce plugins, so it never hurts to ask them about what they’ve done.
WooThemes has a list of Affiliated Woo Workers that you can check out for theme and plugin development.
People I know that do quality work are Daniel Espinoza, Curtis McHale, and Lee Willis (who also works with WP eCommerce and Easy Digital Downloads).
Easy Digital Downloads
EDD also keeps a consultants list for customizations. Check out Chris Christoff’s work (who developed Frontend Submissions and can also work with Jigoshop) and Lee’s work as well.
Shopp also keeps a consultants list. One of our contributors, Clif Griffin, is the go-to guy for Shopp development.
We already mentioned Chris Christoff to help with Jigoshop customizations, but you may want to check out Sebastien Dumont’s work and plugins as well (I believe he also works with WooCommerce).
WP eCommerce Plugin
Customizing WPeC? Go with Lee, Curtis, or Justin Sainton, who is one of the lead developers. Justin has also contributed to several eCommerce plugins and can work with them all (such as EDD and WooCommerce). There’s a list of WPeC consultants you can check out as well.
Did I miss freelancers or agencies that you’ve enjoyed working with? I’d love more recommendations to add to this guide – share ’em below!