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Our Marketplace Tech Plan

Screenshot of slide show / pitch deck title page in the Artisans Cooperative brand colors: Marketplace Technology Research and Proposal

To actually develop and build the handmade marketplace we envision on the internet, we needed to pick a technology stack that would achieve the needs of the co-op and its members: artisans and shoppers. After several months of research, many conversations with advisors, poll results, philosophical study on platform cooperativism, and an organizers meeting vote, we have settled on Shopify for our marketplace development plan.

This post explains the details of what we’ve looked at, how we’ve looked at it, what Shopify is and how it would work, and our plan is going forward. 

(Don’t like wordy articles? See the summary in more visual format as a slideshow instead.) 

TLDR; This is a very detailed topic, so this is a very long post, with our apologies! You can skip ahead to:
Jump to Our Research >>>
Jump to the Shopify Marketplace Plan >>>

Marketplace Goals

Many tech experts came forward early-on to suggest we build a solution for artisans around a particular tech stack or vision for a specific website design. However, from the beginning our focus was simple: first, we need to know what the users want and need. Then we’d pick the technology that best fits their needs. 

The needs of the co-op are simple:

  • Low budget: Our ideal funding is not guaranteed. Too much investment upfront could hamper the co-op down the road. So ideally, to launch it could be built and/or managed by volunteers without coding skills or expensive separate services. 
  • A less than one-year timeframe (launch October 2023). Why?
    • October maximizes the amount of time we have this year to get ready, and is perfectly timed to take advantage of the holiday shopping imperative in November and December. Artisans are too busy with their holiday shopping rush in Nov-Dec. If the timeline were delayed to early 2024, then we would be launching in a season when many customers refrain from making purchases.  
    • Parkinson’s Law”: the theory that the amount of work will expand or contract based on the timeline given. 
    • Advisor: “Due to the competitive market, I think you have a year to get your concept to market.”
    • Advisor: “I encourage you to think about how you can solve the artisan’s problems as fast and cheap as you can to get lift-off.”
  • Early revenue streams for the co-op
    • Advisor: “It’s important for you to get to revenue (cash flow) ASAP. Can you think of any ways to make revenue before you launch the marketplace?” 

The needs of the co-op may be simple, but the needs of artisans and shoppers are complex: 

  • In the words of the great Ella Baker, “In organizing a community, you start with people where they are.” To the greatest extent possible, to us that meant literally finding a solution that works with artisans’ existing technologies, apps, and workflows, and that offers a shopping and checkout experience that will feel comfortable and easy for shoppers. The easier our marketplace will be use to adopt and use, the more likely our artisans will experience successful sales. 
  • Respect the dignity and autonomy of artisans through the principles of “platform cooperativism” (Read: “A Bill for Rights” for Artisans Selling Online)
  • Include as many of the “Top 10” priority features as possible, as identified by artisans and shoppers in the Marketplace Priorities Poll Results (more on that in our analysis section).

Marketplace Technology Research

A marketplace is more than a website. It has a customer-forward interface plus an artisan-facing backend. On the customer-facing side, each artisan should have their own shop page. 

The need for an artisan backend, and a multi-vendor infrastructure, makes the marketplace tech needs different than the typical website building options, like SquareSpace or Wix. 

Marketplace Technology Options

In our early research, we identified 3 categories of technology that would create a shopping marketplace: 

  • Hosted eCommerce
    • Examples: Shopify, Magento, BigCommerce
    • No-coding-required content management system (CMS) means volunteers can build and manage it without technical expertise. 
    • Already includes a lot of e-commerce features identified as priorities, such as sales taxes and shipping calculators.
    • Not cheap but costs less than hiring a technical team.
    • Built specifically for online shopping (ecommerce) with the most advanced shopping cart workflows and the most payment processing options
    • All-in-one solution integrates most fluidly into artisans’ existing businesses: ready connections to their existing platforms and apps, such as shipping programs
    • Natively hosted for faster speeds and less risk of technology failures such as high-traffic crashes
    • Secured, patched, and updated behind-the-scenes to ensure data security and privacy
    • 24/7 technical support included
    • Flexible: huge library of apps and specialists for hire for added functionality
    • Add-on “multi-vendor” app for marketplace functionality
  • Open Source (code our own)
    • Examples: WordPress, Harmony Navigator, Convene
    • Open source = co-op spirit
    • Flexible, with lots of apps for e-commerce and marketplace functionality + more features 
    • Requires dedicated technical team to code, set up hosting and provide regular maintenance 
    • Challenging to keep secure
    • Most time-intensive and volunteer-intensive (or expensive)
  • “Instant Marketplace”
    • Examples: ShareTribe, CS Cart
    • Basic offering is cheap, super fast and easy
    • Not flexible: no library of apps or specialists
    • Prepackaged marketplace solution does not meet all our priority feature needs
    • Additional features (eg a shopping cart vs buy-now button, or native hosting), have to hire technical team
    • The costs are equivalent or more than Hosted eCommerce

Analysis of Technologies and Needs

We conducted a Marketplace Priorities Poll Nov 2022-Jan 2023 to ask the people who would be using the marketplace what was most important to them. 

After the poll was completed and analyzed, we listed the top priority features identified by artisans and shoppers as rows in a spreadsheet. In addition, we listed the top 3 priorities of the co-op itself, listed above under Marketplace Goals (low budget, fast timeframe, opportunities for early revenue). 

Each row was then interpreted as to whether it was actually a technology feature or whether it was a business model feature. For example, a “critical mass of shoppers” is not something that can be supplied by a technology stack: it is the result of marketing, time, and hard work. However, a “fast and easy checkout process with lots of payment options” is very much dependent on the technology options available. 

Research was done on the most compelling and well-known option for each technology stack category for each feature/row: 

  • Hosted eCommerce: Shopify
    • The most well-known among the organizers
    • The most feature-rich among its competitors with similar pricing 
    • Has apps for marketplace functionality and good examples of the apps working
    • A popular choice with lots of apps and specialists
    • Fastest / best checkout
  • Open Source: WordPress
    • The most well-known among the organizers
    • A popular choice with lots of apps and specialists 
  • Instant Marketplace: ShareTribe
    • Suggested by our advisor
    • Has a solidarity discount for co-ops like us
    • Offers a generous and informative Marketplace Academy for learning

Each feature / row was subjected to a brief search and scored with: 

  • Yes: standard feature or possible with off-the-shelf purchased apps
  • Possible: most likely could be done with more intensive app research or online tutorials
  • No: not a readily available option (only possible by hiring a professional coder) 
  • ?: no conclusive results from a brief search

The table is available for viewing here: 

Based on this analysis, we determined that Hosted eCommerce – Shopify – was the best solution for the co-op’s October launch. 

Reality Check

During and after conducting this research, we did a reality check on the research and results. We sought advice and input with a couple dozen different advisors, who were all generous with their time: 

  • Representatives of Shopify
  • Members of the Tech team on Discord
  • Members of the organizing team
  • Fellow artisans
  • Professional co-op developers
  • Platform cooperative thought leaders and essayists

The advice was nearly unanimous: hosted e-commerce is the way to get this marketplace launched by October, and we should go with whatever off-the-shelf technology gets us to revenue as fast as possible. 

Nearly, but not totally unanimous. Those critical of the conclusion were focused on the capitalist nature of the Shopify company, which is traded on Wall Street. Some said making a co-op using a Wall Street company’s technology was just another form of Etsy and its inherent Wall Street problems. Some were accepting of the idea that Shopify may be temporarily necessary but that the co-op should move to open source technology as soon as possible. 

Avoiding “dead end” marketplaces is a major goal for hardworking artisans, one that might not be addressed with an open source or instant marketplace solution. Technology and co-op theorists would greatly prefer we use open-source technology but we consider it more important to support artisans and meet them, technologically-speaking, where they are. One of the top 10 priorities for artisans in the marketplace poll was the ability to “push” or publish their products to other sites. The opposite of this is a “dead end”: an artisan wasting their labor uploading their products to a marketplace that doesn’t integrate or interact with any other apps or programs or selling channels. This was described from a more personal standpoint in our Skill Share guest post series, Our Experience Trying Etsy Alternatives.

When taking into account the needs of the co-op, artisans, and supporters, the solution is clear.

The Shopify solution was presented at the January 11, 2023 organizers meeting and unanimously voted as our marketplace plan going forward. 

Shopify Marketplace Plan

Introduction to Shopify for Artisans

Shopify is an all-in-one commerce platform that makes it easy to sell products online. Based in Ottawa, Canada, it is a publicly-traded company on the New York Stock Exchange (SHOP), as is Etsy (ETSY). 1.75 million businesses use Shopify worldwide (approximately double the number of registered – but not necessarily active – sellers on Etsy). Shopify’s business members service over 500 million customers worldwide and some of the biggest companies in the world trust Shopify to handle their e-commerce business, such as Nike, Whole Foods, Penguin Books, Louis Vuitton, and Tesla.

→ Learn More: What is Shopify and How Does It Work? 

Small Business Roots

In an interview with The Verge, CEO Harley Finkelstein said, “when I say we are on a different side of the table than a lot of other technology companies or marketplaces, [it’s] because we only do well when these merchants do well independently.”

From Shopify Testing Universal Search App by Value Added Resource

Shopify is big now, but it got its start as a website builder for small businesses. It already has many of the features our community wants, including tax estimation and collection, on-site shipping labels, reviews, and a best-in-show payment processor called ShopPay that is widely agreed to be the fastest and most efficient checkout in the industry and offers many payment providers, including niche international options. (Amateur demonstration video)

One of the founders of Artisans Cooperative, Valerie Franklin and her husband Geoff operate Walnut Studiolo, a small leathercrafting business that was launched on Etsy in its early days in 2009. In 2012, Walnut Studiolo created its own website using Shopify to diversify its sales off Etsy. 

For the past 10 years and with no technical know-how whatsoever, Valerie alone has developed and implemented their successful website, to the point that it now accounts for 75% of Walnut Studiolo’s business. The website, has grown its presence such that it is now higher-ranked than many of the existing Etsy competitors on SimilarWeb (with a global rank of 1,431,614 it is in the “maybe” category of critical mass as defined in the Artisans Cooperative blog post, The Best Etsy Alternatives You Can Try Right Now).

If a niche leathercrafter operating their own webstore can achieve this kind of success with Shopify, and some of the biggest e-commerce companies in the world rely on Shopify as their base, this option has a lot of potential and room for growth.

Importantly for Walnut, Shopify has grown right alongside it. Shopify is constantly evolving its supportive ecosystem for app developers and acquiring the most popular apps as in-house features included with their base plan. Their Winter 2023 update included over 100 new features!

As a small artisan business on Shopify, Walnut Studiolo has benefitted from every one of these changes, making the website more robust and dynamic without lifting a finger, and keeping up-to-date with the latest software and trends – not to mention important compliance issues. For example, when GDPR and the similar California law was published, Shopify prompted, reminded, and made a one-click option for Walnut to easily stay compliant with cookie notifications. 

E-Commerce Channels Beyond Websites

Although Shopify is known for its robust website builder, and often compared to SquareSpace or Wix, it is actually much more than that. Shopify specializes in “all-in-one” e-commerce, not just websites. 

This allows artisans to run their business from a single place on many channels – website optional. 

Once products are listed in Shopify, they can be “pushed”, or published, to other places, such as selling directly on other major marketplaces, such as Google Shopping, eBay, and even Walmart. Its integration with Google is particularly noteworthy for search engine visibility. 

Social Media like Meta Shopping / Instagram / Facebook and Pinterest are also channels that integrate directly with Shopify. For example, new products can be simply published to the artisan’s Instagram Shop and purchased on-site in Instagram. 

Channels don’t just have to websites. One of the channels is a Point-of-Sale app for in-person retail. This is ideal for artisans who go to craft fairs or have brick and mortar locations. 

Another channel is Buy Buttons, which allow an artisan to embed shoppable products on any website or blog where they can input custom HTML, including on SquareSpace or WordPress. 

Shopify is also beginning its own searchable quasi-marketplace, called ShopApp, for even more product discovery options. 

From an artisan’s point of view, their entire business (orders, shipping, product inventory, descriptions, and prices) can be managed in one place and automatically updated on all those channels at once. It is a powerful way to grow an audience, a tremendous time-saver and reach-enabler for a micro-enterprise.

→ Learn More: Expand Your Reach with Selling Channels 

Screenshot from an artisan's Shopify dashboard, showing how many channels their products are published to.
Screenshot from an artisan’s Shopify dashboard, showing how many channels their products are published to.

Marketplace Functionality

Shopify is used by a lot of small businesses for dropshipping, so having multiple vendors is common enough. There are several multi-vendor apps that turn a simple webstore into a marketplace.

The co-op would create its own Shopify-based webstore, and add-on a readily-available app to provide the artisan backend experience without special coding. 

The Multi Vendor Marketplace (MVM) app is our most likely solution. This app has its own, additional add-on modules, including a direct integration with Etsy. 

→ Check out an example of a similar marketplace using the same tech stack: Shopify + MVM. Gocoop is India’s first national-award-winning online marketplace for weavers and artisans: 

With the MVM app, artisans would likely have at least three and possibly more options for uploading their products and onboarding their stores: 

  • Shopify Sync. With a direct sync, artisans who have Shopify stores should only need to “push” their products to the co-op and manage their orders and products from one place. 
  • Etsy Integration. If the co-op can afford to add-on the Etsy integration, there will be an option for Etsy shops to import their products directly from Etsy. 
  • Other Marketplace Integrations. MVM offers integrations with some other marketplaces, like Magento, but each has a separate add-on cost. If there is enough demand, the co-op can look into additional integrations.  
  • CSV Spreadsheets. Artisans using other marketplaces will always be able to export, re-format and import CSV spreadsheets. 
  • Fill Out Product Forms. The MVM app also includes a standard web-based interface for uploading products one at a time, just like any other marketplace. 

Possible Co-op Set-up Service 

One of the early recommendations from our co-op advisors was that the co-op come up with a way to look for opportunities to earn cash flow as soon as possible to support lift-off. 

That opportunity was unexpectedly provided right away with the Shopify Partner Program. This is a program for 1) businesses that develop products in the Shopify ecosystem like apps and themes, and 2) consultants who help merchants solve problems and build or migrate stores. In addition, they have a more traditional Shopify Affiliate Program for content creators whose links lead to new sign-ups.

The co-op could participate by helping artisans who wish to build a presence on Shopify get set up and started. The co-op could build the basic website for the artisan as a service for a reasonable fee, set up their products for them, then transfer it to the artisan to control. Once it transfers to the artisan and they sign up for a monthly plan with Shopfy, the co-op would earn a commission on the Shopify plan fee. 

In other words, not only could Shopify be the basis of the Artisan Cooperative’s website, it could be an enabler that lifts up artisan businesses by allowing them to manage their inventory in one place and push it to other selling channels (including social media stores, other marketplaces like eBay, in-person and B2B, and their own Shopify storefront), while also becoming a source of revenue for the co-op itself as we support more artisans. 

The delightful thing about this, is that by helping some artisans grow their businesses on Shopify (for those that choose to), we can divert money from Shopify back into the co-op that will help all artisans grow their businesses, and any surplus revenue would get redistributed as patronage dividends. 

What Comes Next

First, we want to hear what you think about this idea! Share your thoughts via email, on our Discord, or in the comments below. 

Second, assuming we proceed, there is a lot of work to do. 

  • Who Will Build It. With Shopify, it’s possible this could be done entirely in-house by non-tech volunteers. If there were a budget, however, it would be far preferably to engage at least the advice, if not services of, an expert to build it for us. Ideally, we’d find a co-op tech development group that is already a Shopify Partner, the best of both worlds. Most co-op technology firms we’ve researched have not been willing to work with proprietary, non-open-source Shopify tech. So failing that, a Shopify Expert can help us implement it and may also be willing to work with us as an on-call tech support going forward. 
  • Find Solutions for Unresolved Features. Although we have done a lot of research and clearly seen that Shopify has the most features we need when compared to others, they don’t have all the features we need ready-made. We know we need more research on these important features:
    • Customizations / monograms
    • Secure on-site messaging
    • Carrier-calculated shipping rates vs new “back-up” rates
    • Handmade validation, verification, and enforcement
    • Order dispute and resolution process
    • Education on fair pricing for fair wages
  • Marketplace Compliance Issues. Consult with an attorney on marketplace compliance issues.
  • Test Pain Points. We need to examine exactly how the “pain points” of the marketplace would flow by simply starting to build a basic website, purchasing MVM, and exploring how it actually works with early adopters and willing guinea pigs. Common pain points include:
    • Payment gateways / distribution / flow
    • Shipping cost flow
    • Shipping tracking / confirmation flow
    • Customer support

What do you think about these ideas? Would you like to help make them a reality? Let us know what you think by email in the comments below. 

About Artisans Cooperative

We are growing an online handmade marketplace for an inclusive network of creatives: a co-op alternative to Etsy.
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