20 Nov E-Commerce Startups: WordPress/WooCommerce vs. Magento
A couple years ago, I started an e-commerce company. Soon into the planning phase of the project, we encountered an important decision to make: do we build our website using Magento or WooCommerce running off WordPress?
For the non-technical members of the group reviewing the options, going with an open-source Content Management System (CMS), like WordPress, for an e-commerce website sounded counter-intuitive. I was regarded as eccentric, and my technical credibility was even being questioned. At the time, even most experts in the field that my partners consulted with recommended Magento too (though I knew their advice was biased, as they were either trying to sell us Magento or unaware of WooCommerce’s capabilities).
The main arguments I heard for going with Magento were (back in mid 2013):
- Magento is an e-commerce platform: “it’s made for this”. WordPress is just for blogs and basic websites.
- Magento is made to handle millions of visitors and “e-commerce transactions”. WordPress is just for blog viewing.
- Magento is safe, WordPress is prone to hacking.
- Magento is currently the industry-standard for e-commerce. WordPress is not.
After some constructive debate and undoubtedly showing how the above claims were untrue, we went with WooCommerce. Below is a response to these 4 points:
- WordPress is a Content Management System (CMS) that is evolving into a pretty comprehensible generic platform – it is capable of handling (creating, searching, etc.) any type of content, and products, orders, product pages, product images, etc. is content. WooCommerce is a plugin that sits on top of WordPress that creates and manage all e-commerce type of content.
- WordPress runs on 25% of the top 1 million websites on the internet, handling various database transactions all day (user logins, comments, etc.) – it has already proven itself to be capable of handling high-traffic volume sites.
- An old installation of either WordPress or Magento is a dangerous thing – it doesn’t matter what platform you’re on. Bugs and hacks are found every day on every platform, it is up to the business to keep their software up to date. The main difference is that WordPress will automatically update itself with the latest updates/security fixes pretty smoothly if put together properly – I’ve had dozen of client sites do this over the last year without a single hitch. On the other hand, Magento’s updating process is a manual one that can cause your website to go down – you are then at the mercy of expensive Magento-expertise to diagnose and fix the issues. This leads to Magento users to adopt a “if it ain’t broken, don’t fix it” attitude which, in other words, means that many businesses choose not to update their Magento installation in fear of breaking their site and incurring high costs of repair and lost revenue. In this real world situation, Magento installations are hardly updated and become easier targets for hacks.
- Magento is only the industry-standard for expensive, limited and slow e-commerce development. At the time, Magento was just another e-commerce platform marketing itself in a space flooded by open-source and do-it-yourself solutions. As the stats in the section below later proved this to be correct, Magento has been in a constant usage decline since December 2015 while WooCommerce surpassed all other platforms with a steady growth since it’s inception.
With WooCommerce, we were able to put up a very functional website in a matter of only a few weeks. What is the right decision? 100%. I intend to spend the rest of this post explaining why.
Developing for WooCommerce
The development phase of the project using WooCommerce took a matter of about 6 weeks with a single developer (your’s truly!). This included:
- Customizing products with custom fields and various parent-child relationships
- A completely custom checkout process
- Implementing PayPal Payments Pro
- Integrating fully with a 3rd party ERP system (NetSuite)
- Implementing 360-degree product views
- Online Virtual Try-On using the user’s webcam and augmented reality
- Home Try-On type of orders
- Implementing various 3rd party plugins
- Importing hundreds of products, each with dozens of images, a description, multiple-categories
- A speedy product search that allowed selecting from many filters and smoothly seeing the results on the fly (no page reload)
- Allowing users to anonymously favorite and share products via social networks
- Creation of coupons, affiliate programs, etc.
- And much, much more.
To put it simply, we held nothing back on what we wanted on the site – any good idea was immediately implemented. I have a good feeling that if we hired a WordPress web firm, they’d be able to do the same in comparable timelines (assuming they had the resources available), and it would have cost much less than a Magento-certified web design firm.
For the website’s design, we originally hired a company to put something nice together for us but after a few weeks of back and forth, we were ultimately disappointed with the results and abandoned implementing their work. So in a matter of another 2-3 weeks, I put together a beautiful, clean, responsive design that perfectly reflected our brand and style instead. Tweaking the design was quick and easy, again – we held nothing back on what we wanted.
Finally, we hammered away at testing the website. Although dozens of little aesthetic and functional bugs were found due to the amount of custom code, each one was easy to identify and fix. It is worthy to note that I did not encounter any platform limitations in resolving the issues. At the end of another week or two, we launched our world-class e-commerce website. I do not recall receiving a single negative comment on the site, and we were continuously applauded for launching such a highly-functional and user-friendly website.
I then spent some time optimizing the website and implementing a number of safety measures. I also took advantage of server-side caching, Content Distribution Networks (CDN), compression, and other methods to improve the performance of the site. At the end, nearly all pages of our website loaded in under half a second.
What If We Went with Magento?
It’s hard to play the What-If Game, but here are some points that seem obvious to me:
- Delayed launch further or settled for less: The development phase would have taken much, much longer (6 months?). I cannot think of a single web development company capable of putting together all of our features in a couple months-time, much less only 6 weeks. Given our startup timeline, we would have abandoned most of the features to get our website up and running as quickly as possible – settling for a basic e-commerce website, if we still had money left.
- Significantly more expensive upfront/afterwards: It would have cost us a lot more money. Between Magento software licenses and Magento-certified web firms building the site and doing updates, our startup costs would have skyrocketed.
- Unattractive website or more delays/money: The designers we hired were actually Magento experts, so if we had contracted them for the whole job — we would have been disappointed with the design. We would have either accepted an unattractive layout to make timelines, or delay our launch further while spending more money on hiring the right resources. All assuming that the design and coding teams would be able to work together and not step on each other’s toes.
- More delays: Given the features we had implemented, the testing and fixing phase would have taken considerable more time (2 months?), for all and the same reasons. This would have likely forced us to remove features to respect our timelines. Additional delays would be inevitable if the developers and designers were from different companies.
- Slow to respond to bugs: Bug fixing and maintenance would be slow and expensive because Magento requires specialized trained experts.
- Slow to improve website after launch: After launch, all minor and major optimizations/updates to the website’s overall user-experience would have had to be carefully evaluated and prioritized. This would have caused a slow optimization cycle with our customers, costing sales every day.
Overall, I can’t imagine that we would have had the same website fully up and running in anything less than 6-8 months and without spending another $40,000 – $80,000, and we’d still be unhappy with the design and would have had to compromise on many of our features. That is without calculating additional costs in time and money to maintain, update and host the website after launch.
Comparing Some Magento vs Woocommerce Stats
As a quick interjection, let’s look at what people are using anyway – which is a good measure of how well a platform is doing.
By looking at BuiltWith.com (as of September 2016), in regards to the top 1 million sites on the Internet:
- Usage was growing from October 2014 to December 2015 (+230%)
- Usage has since been in a steady decline (-10%).
- Currently acquiring about 47,000 new sites per quarter year.
- Currently running on 1.5% of top 1M sites on the internet.
- Usage has been steadily growing (+344%) since October 2014.
- It has never declined in usage since it’s inception.
- Currently acquiring about 1,500,000 new sites per quarter year.
- Currently running on 2.3% of top 1M sites on the internet.
- Usage has also been steadily growing (+150%) since October 2014
- It has never declined in usage since it’s inception.
- Currently running on 25% of the top 1M sites on the internet.
Yeah, looking at the past 4 months, WooCommerce’s growth rate is 32x bigger than Magento.
From these stats, it seems that Magento has been losing the e-commerce platform battle since early 2016. I suspect that their eBay acquisition and subsequent marketing gained them many followers at first, but in real world of e-commerce, they failed at acquiring small-to-medium-sized businesses that want something easy, fast and affordable. 2015 and 2016 has also been a time of growth for many do-it-yourself platforms that provide basic e-commerce functionality, and with WooCommerce already being free (and inexpensive to implement), Magento simply proved to be a heavy, expensive, piece of… software, in comparison. While Magento has a free “Community Edition”, it’s implementation/maintenance costs remain very high.
The stats empirically show, without any doubt, that WooCommerce is winning the battle and being the most successful self-hosted e-commerce platform yet.
Conclusion and Lessons Learnt
Time is money
At the end of the day, when you are building a startup – timing is everything. Every day that you are not online, you are losing potential revenue and reducing your chances of overall success. Even after going with WooCommerce/WordPress, we made the mistake of wasting a lot of time implementing things that we did not need at launch in anticipation of breaking the internet (such as our ERP software). That was the first lesson learned, one that applies to whichever e-commerce platform you go with.
Start small and focus on the product
Related to that, in my experience, the most common mistake made when building-up a startup – overestimating your needs & over-scaling. It is much better to deal with the problem of having too many orders/customers, and (happily) suffering the temporary consequence, than the problem of losing potential revenue from delaying your launch. I am not the first expert in the industry to say: focus on the product and user experience, worry about the technical issues later (besides, WordPress handles high-traffic quite well anyway). Therefore, if your primary reason for going with Magento is preparing for that surge of traffic and orders that might one day happen – don’t… Chances are, there will be plenty of time between your launch and that climactic day for you to prepare for that.
Reduce your time-to-launch
Having said that, regardless of the functional capabilities of WordPress vs. Magento, we already know that WooCommerce/WordPress will be a faster, cheaper and easier solution to get you there — and that is the most important thing at the planning stage. The base platform (free), development, design, testing and maintenance on WordPress is significantly cheaper and quicker because any experienced WordPress developer can essentially do the job – and there are many more quick and affordable ones out there than Magento-certified developers (especially if your e-commerce sites takes off and you decide to hire your own in-house team of developers/designers).
It’s the same anyway
Another lesson learned is that; if you’re website is almost entirely cached and the only real resource-intensive transactions taking place is when placing orders, the platform doesn’t really matter. To the end-user, the website can look identical whether it’s running off WordPress or Magento — the only big difference is the extra amount of work/money needed to get there on Magento.
If you are thinking of launching an e-commerce business and would like me to provide you with consulting, website design/development, marketing/startup strategy, or anything else related – – feel free to reach out to me!