How I Developed My First Ecommerce App

Ecommerce has evolved from the simple cart-checkout of the 1990s to a booming ecosystem full of apps and addons that enhance your selling and your buyer’s buying experience.

When Fish Finder Source used to be an online store, it was running on Bigcommerce. I chose Bigcommerce for that particular store because I was going to carry a lot of inventory and needed many levels of categories and subcategories: a feature that is easily doable using Bigcommerce.

The idea

I carried lots of hard-to-find accessories and the like, and since I was drop-shipping, there was always a good chance that some of those products would be out of stock. As a result, there would be many times where I would get an email from a customer asking where the “add-to-cart” button went – this is because it disappears if the product is not available.

So I began to wonder if there was some way to get customers’ email addresses and contact them when the product was back in stock – and most importantly, it should be automated.


So I did some Googling and saw that there was no built-in solution for this functionality, and there were no apps in their app store either.

Now I’m no programmer, but that didn’t stop me. I did some research on how to develop apps(in general) even if you can’t code, and it turns out that there are a LOT of people in the same boat as I was and doing very well for themselves by developing and selling apps.

Visualizing the idea

The folks developing these apps would first write out their idea and sketch it out fully, and then approach developers to see who would make it for them to a level of satisfaction.

So I set out to document the flow of my app – what happens in it, step-by-step, and I also sat and did some rough sketches of what the different screens of the app would look like.

Since this was my first app, I made a few mistakes when it came to conceptualizing the app. In hindsight, I didn’t sketch out the app and document it enough. You see, even if your app is pretty simple(like mine), conveying your idea to someone else to make it for you(especially if yours and their first language isn’t the same) is incredibly difficult.

Even when you sketch out the app, you should sketch out every minute detail down to the “Contact us” link – the lesson to be learned here is take nothing for granted. Assume your programmers are robots, and need to be told every little detail – otherwise, you’ll find that they’ll gloss over many fine points which they don’t realize are important but you would expect that they would be there.

Finding a freelancer

Once I had an overview of the app, I posted some jobs on Freelancer, Odesk, and Elance. Most of the proposals I got from Freelancer and Odesk were junk. It seems to me that a lot of companies/individuals probably write a piece of code to bid on all projects matching certain criteria with a copy/paste pitch.


Most of those guys never followed up with me even after I messaged them, and half of them didn’t really meet the qualifications that I had put forward.

For example, one of the qualifications I had specified was “experience with Bigcommerce development.” Most of these guys(or gals) had never worked with Bigcommerce before, and I ended up wasting a lot of time telling my idea to unqualified individuals.

Another large portion of my time was spent getting unrealistic quotes from companies – one guy from Ukraine quoted me $10,000 and 6 weeks to develop the app.

One thing that some companies do is use technical terms to make you think that their services are worth a lot more than they are. Ever since I started developing the app, I’ve been learning to code, so now I have a better idea of how the mechanics of apps work.

The Ukrainian guy, for example, asked me if I’d like to use Twitter Bootstrap(in no way connected to Bootstrapping Ecommerce) in my app. Now if you don’t know what Bootstrap is, it may seem like an amazing technology that takes hours to implement – but that’s not the case.

Bootstrap is amazing – but it’s basically a set of predefined CSS rules that help you design really slick looking websites. If anything, Bootstrap lessens your workload.

Finally, I found a company based out of DC(though I suspected they were actually in Spain or the Phillipines) on Elance, spoke to them on Skype, haggled a little on the price, and gave them the job.

Our Skype conversations were pretty much what you would expect – I told them my idea, sent them all the materials I had prepared, and they got back to me in a couple of days saying they’d do the job in 4 weeks.

Developing the app

The company I worked with split their timeline up into 3 phases – 2 weeks, 1 week, and 1 week for each milestone. Their quote was for $1500, and the milestones were divided up accordingly.

For the first two milestones, the progress went pretty well. They’d show me their work at each milestone, I’d approve it, and release that portion of the funds.

At this point, the app was functional, but pretty bare in terms of aesthetics and fine-tuning.

I mistakenly assumed that they would add the polish at the end of the third milestone, and so didn’t really push them for anything – I did mention it to them a couple of times, but that’s about it.

At the third milestone, they basically delivered an incomplete app, and said this is it. I got back to them saying “No, this isn’t complete. ” There’s still X, X, and X that you need to implement.

They were quite cooperative during the process, and for every 4 things I would tell them to change, they’d change 3 and forget about the 4th.

Part of the blame does fall on my shoulders for this, because I didn’t specify exactly what I wanted to these guys – and English wasn’t their first language, either.

Finally, to finish the app, it ended up taking them a whole 12 weeks instead of 4, and I had to pay them an extra $200 to keep them going, otherwise there was a point where they weren’t too cooperative anymore.

Once the app was developed, I submitted it to Bigcommerce for approval.

The approval process

The approval process at Bigcommerce is pretty simple. You submit your app through their developers page, along with images, screenshots, and a description of the app, and they get back to you in a couple of days with some paperwork. Once the paperwork is done, they review and test the app, and there is a little back and forth for ironing out bugs and finalizing details, and once they are satisfied with what you’ve given them, they approve the app, and it’s live in their app store!

Tips for hiring people online

Ever since this project, I’ve only used Elance to outsource any work. I used to use Freelancer in the past, but I’ve seen that the proposals on Elance(in my experience) are a bit more solid and genuine.

When you hire someone online, keep in mind that:

  • You can communicate with them! Chances are that you are going to hire a foreign developer, so make sure they understand what you are saying, otherwise you may end up with something strange!
  • If you are hiring on a budget, you may not get a full-service development firm(coding + design) – you may just end up with coders, or you may just end up with designers. Remember that ALL CODERS ARE NOT DESIGNERS and ALL DESIGNERS ARE NOT CODERS!
  • It’s a good idea to ask for a sample upfront – freelancers that are willing to go through the effort of doing a little work before getting hired are usually thorough with what they do – and you can also see how skilled they are(or aren’t).

The app

The app I developed is called InStockAlerts. In Bigcommerce, when a product is out of stock, the add to cart button goes away and nothing takes it’s place – you’re just left with a message saying “This item is unavailable. Check back later.”

Like anyone is going to check back later!

What InStockAlerts does is adds a “Notify me when this product is back” button to those products. When a visitor clicks on it, they can enter their email address in the popup and they’ll receive an email when the item comes back in stock.

In your dashboard, you can see the emails of everyone who has opted in to a notification(to import them to your MailChimp or Aweber account), and you can also see which products are receiving how many requests.

The email can be customized by you however you like it.

screenshot 1 screenshot 2

You can see/install the app from here.


So there you have it – an app from problem, idea, concept, to final product. What do you guys think?



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  1. That’s a very informative post, absolutely fascinating! In particular I’m amazed that you got all that done for $1,700 total, even if it is (relatively) simple in concept.

    Definite food for thought…

    One thing I am curious about – how do you get paid for this, and how do you prevent people from using it without paying? Does BigCommerce take a cut?
    Secondly, how would you manage support, given that the coders are not in your employment?

    I’m very interested in how the post-production business works out.

  2. I think this is a great idea for an app. Nordstrom and I think Zappos does this and I use it whenever it pops up as an option for out of stock merchandise in my size.

  3. Thanks for this insight in what it takes to create these kind of app.

    There are a couple of things I wanted to add to help finding good freelance talent on sites like Elance or Odesk:
    – Instead of only posting a job, als invite freelancers with a top rating, a good history (plenty of hours worked) and relevant experience
    – If you do post a job: add an instruction that only someone reading carefully will see. For example: If you respond to this job posting, make sure to put the first paragraph in red. If you don’t do this, your application won’t be read. This filters out all the auto-replies that don’t care about your project.

    Good luck with the app!

  4. Hello ,
    Nordstrom and I think Zappos does this and I use it whenever it pops up as an option for out of stock merchandise in my size.

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  6. Completely wonderful!
    I find it extremely exciting and useful blog.


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