The Early Years, an eCommerce Plugin and Transitioning to WooCommerce with Justin Sainton

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What paths do you take from the early days of eCommerce in the WordPress space? Justin Sainton shares his experience from working on an eCommerce plugin to using WooCommerce as his choice of plugins.

In episode 40 of our podcast, Brad Williams and I chat with Justin Sainton from Zao about:

  • The early days of WordPress and eCommerce
  • Working on one of the first eCommerce plugins for WordPress
  • The transition to WooCommerce as an agency
  • Handling a large scale WooCommerce site for a client
  • Experiences in online stores selling CBD

Thanks to Our Sponsors

From Early on in the WordPress eCommerce Space to WooCommerce

Justin started his agency in 2005 and had previously explored WordPress. He talks about his early days in the eCommerce space and how he picked up on the WP eCommerce plugin and his experience with it.

In 2013, he started looking at WooCommerce more seriously and as shifts happened in the industry, moved Woo to the top of his list for creating online stores for their clients.

His stories of his first eCommerce site and the one WooCommerce store that sticks in his mind the most gave us not only a sense of the vast experience Justin has, but insights into the last decade of eCommerce and WordPress.

Woo News

WooCommerce 3.9.2 came out and then the conversation moved into the partnership between Square and WooCommerce and the ability to sell CBD products online with Woo.

Justin again shares his experience working with WooCommerce and CBD stores, as well as with some thoughts on the pros and cons. He sums up the industry, well, as the Wild West.

Brad also brings up the ongoing challenges with both CBD products and WooCommerce and attempts to dispel the confusion around the subject. You can see Woo’s guidelines here.

Where to find Justin


The Conversation

Brad: Hey, welcome back to another exciting episode of Do the Woo, episode number 40. Bob, we are getting up there?

Bob: Yeah, we are. I remember when I turned 40, that was a little while ago.

Brad: So tell me all about it. Because I turn 40 in a few months.

Bob: It was a real enlightening moment. No, actually every year just goes by and I don't feel any different. Well, maybe a bit different.

Brad: Well, words of encouragement from Bob there to kick us off today. And we're pretty excited. We have a special guest, but before we bring him on, let's thank our sponsors. So I'm sure you saw the big announcement, but WooCommerce is now our community sponsor of the show. We definitely thank WooCommerce for allowing us to Do the Woo each and every week. We also have our podcast sponsor, FooEvents, over at FooEvents.com. A powerful event and ticket functionality for WooCommerce. Go to FooEvents.com and check them out. We'll be talking a little bit more about them later in the show, but let's get right into it. So this week we have a really special guest, a guy I've known for years. We've been on several podcasts together on a number of different shows and I still can't pronounce his last name correctly, until today. Justin Sainton.

Justin: Man, you nailed it. Good job.

Brad: I'm really glad I asked because I was definitely going to introduce you as Satan.

Justin: Yup. Wouldn't be the first time.

Brad: You would think I would know this by now. But Justin, I'm excited to have you on the show. Like I said, we've been on a number of podcasts together. We've hung out many, many times. You even had dinner out here not long ago. He came out to Philly and visited, which was great. So welcome to Do the Woo.

Justin: Yeah, man. Glad to be here. This is amazing. So happy to be here.

Brad: Why don't you tell everybody what you do and how you Woo.

Meet Justin

Justin: Yeah. So like Brad said, my name is Justin Sainton not pronounced Satan. But every time I go to Safeway, that's what I'm told. I started our company Zao about 15 years ago in 2005, even before working with WordPress on eCommerce and complex eCommerce integrations. So that's what we've been doing for the last 15 years. We built a small team, an agency of about seven of us, who build all kinds of eCommerce sites these days, mostly on WooCommerce. We're WordPress core contributors, WooCommerce core contributors. We do a lot of really fun technical integrations on WooCommerce and a lot of other WordPress stuff too.

Brad: That's awesome. I guess I didn't realize you had been around since 2005, which in the WordPress world, you are ancient. That's a long time ago and with WordPress, that's right around when it started.

Justin: Yeah, 2001, 2002 or 2003, I think is when we started WordPress.

Brad: So, rewinding back to '05, did you start doing WordPress exclusively back then or was that something you grew into, once it got more popular?

Getting into WordPress

Justin: So back then WordPress was at version 1.2, maybe. What I mean is it wasn't a CMS by any real regard, right? We still have a marketing problem with people thinking WordPress is a blogging platform and it's not really the truth anymore. But back then it was very much the case.

And so in 2005, I don't even know that I was fully aware of WordPress. I started Zao, our company, because I had to eat basically. I filed with the secretary of state our articles of incorporation, and then went knocking door-to-door with business owners asking, Hey, can I make you a website? And back then most of them were like, what's a website and why do I need one? I got really good at saying, here's why you need a website. And being 18 years old, most of us remember back to that time in our lives, we were dumb. And I was no different. I'm trying to sell what a website is and why they need one. Essentially that was how I got my start with one of the very first websites I built.

It was an owner of a winery who said, Hey, we could use a website for our winery and we'd like to sell wine on our website. Knowing what I know now, I was an idiot. Right? But wine, in terms of online and interstate sales for alcohol, is one of the most complex eCommerce problems to solve. Let alone for an 18 year old kid who'd never done it before. And so naturally my response is like, absolutely, I can build you an eCommerce website to sell your wine. Of course, I can do that. So that was one of the first projects I ever did.

And to add some measure of success and obviously lots of learning, that started my itch of eCommerce and open source. I think at the time we used OScommerce or something like that. It started scratching that itch inside of me of like, man, open source is a thing. This is really cool. eCommerce and complex technical integrations are a thing. Hard problems are a thing that I really liked to do. So those first couple of years, like 2005, 2006, 2007, it was really when I started to get involved in open source communities.

Then around 2007 we had a similar situation. Somebody said, Hey, we've heard of this thing called a content management system. Do you know anything about those? And again, we had worked a little bit with some really old school ones. I think Drupal at the time, TYPO3, if you've ever used that, God help you, it's terrible. But we had worked with WordPress a little bit and I told these guys, Hey, you know, I haven't used it yet as a content management system, but I think it would be really good. It's this new thing called WordPress. Are you guys open to using that? So we built a couple of projects in 2007 with WordPress as a CMS, and that started that itch for me. Like, man, WordPress is amazing and it's better than anything else I've used in this open source space. For those three years between like 2007 and 2010, I was all about WordPress.

Then around 2009 or 2010, I'm like, man, eCommerce and WordPress together, it would be really cool. That's when I started to find out about the old WP eCommerce plugin and things like that. Ever since then, for the last 10 years or so, that's where we've lived. At that convergence between eCommerce and WordPress.

The WP eCommerce Plugin

Bob: You've already touched on it a bit, but the first plugin you did, the WP eCommerce plugin. How did that take off at that particular moment in time. And how did it endure in this space?

Justin: Spoiler alert, it languishes. But that's okay. Every natural thing has a lifecycle and sometimes part of a lifecycle is death. It's a good story though. In 2009 or so, naturally as you would assume, a truffle hunter called me. That's how every good story goes.

So there's this guy named Jack who's local here in Oregon and he's known as a world famous truffle hunter. He's a truffle specialist, Jack Czarnecki. Again, I'm a few years into my business at this point. I'm still young and dumb, 22 or 23 and trying to figure stuff out. He calls me up and he's like, Hey, we want to use WordPress. We've heard that you do WordPress and we want to do eCommerce on WordPress. Do you know anything about that? And this is 2009. I'm like, let me investigate and see what we can find out.

So I find this plugin called WP eCommerce from these cool developers down in New Zealand. A guy called Dan Miller who has been involved with WordPress forever. They had started this eCommerce plugin that's like a platform for selling digital downloads for bands. And they started that in 2006. So at this point, they had been building this plugin and it actually did a lot of really cool things on WordPress at the time nobody else was doing it. That's how I reached out to them. I said, Hey, I want to use a plugin for this site. What am I going to run into? Where is it terrible? I quickly found where it was terrible, which was in a lot of places.

That started my journey with that plugin and at the time I didn't know a ton about WordPress plugin development. Getting to know how they built that as a plugin was my introduction to complex plugin development and WordPress, which was really cool. That one truffle site is how I got started with WP eCommerce. It's how I got started with plugin development. For me that's where it all started, a truffle oil guy.

Brad: And if you go to WPeCommerce.org, hire an expert is right there at the top of the list. Mr Justin.

Justin: That's me. Yeah. Yeah. I was involved with that plugin and the development of it and that was a journey of user to contributor to core contributor to lead developer. A journey of five or six years, 2009 or 2010 to 2015 or 2016.

Brad: Yeah, I mean that was it back then. WP eCommerce was the only one that I was aware of that had any traction in the early days. There were a lot of issues with it. Like you said, it was a product that started small and built to work specific ways, but not having a larger team to build it in a way that would be more flexible and extensible, which is understandable when you don't have a big investment behind it.

Justin: Yeah; I think some of the issue with it is that it was so early in the WordPress API as it started before custom post types. It was pioneering a lot of things in that way. I think by virtue of starting that early, you don't really have a roadmap. You haven't really learned from anybody else's mistakes. So you have to make them yourself. I remember at the time it wasn't even Slack. It was a group in a Skype conversation. We looked at this new WooCommerce thing in 2001 and we're asking ourselves, do you think this is going to go anywhere? And even looking back in those conversations, oh no, this is garbage.

Brad: Yeah, why do we need another eCommerce platform?

Justin: Yes, spoiler alert.

Brad: It's the same thing when Gravity Forms popped up. I'm like, why do we need that? There's plenty of good contact form plugins. Now, there's like 3 or 4 of them that are all making millions of dollars each.I guess we did need it.

Justin: Yeah, and I think that's a key takeaway. Just because you're first to the market doesn't mean that you're going to be the best in the market forever.

Brad: It's hard to keep that position, especially with technology. Just the idea of building something as complex as an eCommerce plugin or a system on top of WordPress without using custom post types. That puts it in a clear shot of why it was a challenge.

I had a couple of plugins prior to custom post types. Nothing on that size or scale or complexity, but a few plugins that could use a custom post type but they didn't exist. So you build them a certain way, do these custom tables, then custom post type comes out and you're stuck with this dilemma of, do I keep charging ahead the way I'm going or do I refactor the majority of my plugin and start over? Which is a very tough decision to make on something you've invested a lot of time in. And a lot of people made the decision to rebuild, just seeing the future of it. That helps put it in perspective a little bit.

Justin: I think it was a good learning process for everybody involved and for Dan who was the end guy to be that innovative pioneering guy who thinks ahead. For those of us who are involved in lead development, just learning what you learn when you have to refactor 120,000 lines of code into something that's modernized and figure out where he made really good calls. Right?

A lot of the transition we've seen with WooCommerce over the past couple of years is away from the custom post types back into custom tables and custom data structures and things like that. You can look at those learning moments and say, man, we learned a lot. We did some things poorly, we did some things right. But a lot of us have cut our teeth on that, even though today it sort of sits in a smaller spot in the market. The amount that we learned from that process is invaluable. I don't regret it at all. I think it was amazing in its day.

Transitioning to WooCommerce

Bob: Looking back on all this, you started eCommerce early. Then you got involved with WP eCommerce pluginS and then you saw WooCommerce come out. You said, Oh great, just another one of those plugins. Where was the pivot where you started focusing more on WooCommerce? What was that transition like?

Justin: There was a period of time that was maybe around 2013 or so, because I think WooCommerce came out around 2011. It was probably about two years into it when we saw the market shift dramatically. I think I had some automated tools routing to a dashboard showing our market share and WooCommerce's market share, and using some built with stats and Wordpress.org plugin stats. I was seeing this shift of us go from like 250,000 stores to like 100,000 and WooCommerce go from 5,000 stores to 50,000. I started to see these dramatic shifts just in the market.

At that point, I wore a couple hats. As an open source guy, I was the lead developer for that project, but as somebody who had to make money which oftentimes is not found in open source maintainership, I was running an agency. So I had to keep my finger on the pulse of the market. As soon as I saw that shift with WooCommerce, when they got to 100,000 or 200,000 active stores and WP eCommerce went from 200,000 to a 100,000 to 50,000 to 20,000, it was probably 2016 or 2017. At that point, WooCommerce, I would guess, had probably half a million or more stores and WP eCommerce had gone down from a quarter million to maybe 80,000. It wasn't so much like, Hey, I"ll cut my losses. But more like this is going into major maintenance mode and not innovation mode and our agency focus is going to be on WooCommerce because that's where the market is.

Brad: I think that's a fair point as we're talking about WP eCommerce and the transition to Woo. It's definitely bringing back a lot of memories of that timeframe for me, too. And being in the agency and in the WordPress space, I feel like Woo clearly became the front runner pretty quickly, even prior to Automattic acquiring it. It was, you know, definitely the front runner.

The point that you made earlier, Justin, being I don't think WooCommerce would exist and not have been as successful had WP eCommerce and some of the other earlier eCommerce platforms existed. Because they did help pave the way. They helped show what worked well and what didn't work well. They helped validate that WordPress is about more than just blogging. You got to remember back in 2008, 2010, hell, even today, it's still seen as a blogging platform by a lot of people.

So having these more complex plugins and services that integrate well with WordPress helped raise that bar. Like we're over here running WooCommerce, doing $1 million a month in sales and everything's humming along great and we can build on it and it's extendable. It just helps to validate that and open the market up for people like WooCommerce which, you know, came from Jigoshop, which again probably exists because of WP eCommerce.

I think a lot of us had a similar path, maybe not as involved as maintaining the platform and other things as you do Justin in your company Zao and in terms of the tools we use and transitioning beyond WP eCommerce into WooCommerce at least over the past few years. I think it's a familiar story that a lot of our listeners will probably relate to.

Justin: Yeah.

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Tell us about an interesting project

Bob: Now before, you were talking about all the interesting projects you've been able to do with WooCommerce. We will be talking about one specific area a little bit later, but is there a certain project you want to share with us that was very intriguing, fascinating, or challenging. One that stands out in your memory?

Justin: Yeah, we have probably done every industry imaginable in terms of eCommerce, but one that sticks out, and just because of the sheer scale of it, I think was an alternative cancer research company. I don't know that I can legally say the name, but people who are in that world will know. I think it's the biggest name in that world.

They were on WooCommerce for a long, long time and came to us because of scaling issues. They would do these launches on Facebook where they would spend in the course of a month, like $10 to $15 million on Facebook ads. It would drive $40 to $50 million in sales through WooCommerce and WooCommerce subscriptions over that month. So you would look at their MySQL database and you would get thousands of orders per minute just during these launch times.

There are scale issues that you have at that level. To me, that was a really fun problem to solve because you're dealing with really good code from people like Brent Shepherd and subscriptions, Mike Jolley. And WooCommerce, it's really good. Their infrastructure was AWS super hypertension. So we asked, where in the world could this be falling apart? And you're trying to find these. You've got your eye on new Relic and you've got your eye on the payment processor and on the email servers. But where's the issue?

So whatever people think about alternative cancer research, that doesn't really matter so much. It's the technical problem of how do you manage that scale of sales, orders per minute and just the complexity of it all. To me that probably stuck out the most. You spend so much of your time, and Brad, I know you're in a very similar space. Just solving really complex issues that sometimes you can't just find the answer for in a stack overflow or whatever. You just have to figure it out. To me that's always super rewarding. It was probably one of those times where it's like, man, I hope we're going to be able to figure this out, but let's just dive in and go for it.

Brad: I mean that's half the technology, right? Nobody has the answers to everything, right out of the gate. Our job, and people may joke about it, but it's true. Googling it. Looking things up and finding things that can help you take steps in the right direction.

It's cool to hear stories like that just because of the sheer size of it. A platform, WooCommerce running on WordPress, doing tens of millions in sales, hundreds, maybe thousands of transactions a minute. It is amazing and those stories help everybody in the industry and the whole platform because it validates that WordPress can scale, WooCommerce can scale. That's always the question we get around WordPress. Can it scale? Is it secure? These questions we've been hearing for over a decade.

And you get the same questions with WooCommerce. Is it secure? Will it scale? Having examples that you can directly speak to and say, yeah, we did this one site, 40 million a month. Great problem to have. It definitely scales, you know? But it does present some unique challenges that you have to work through. Just like anything would at that size.

Justin: Absolutely. Yeah.

WooCommerce, Square and CBD

Bob: This is a perfect segue into one of the news articles that I wanted to talk about because I think you have some stuff you could add to that. So we'll make that part of the discussion. And that's about WooCommerce partnering with Square for CBD products. This came out last week sometime.

I just did an interview on our other podcast about this with someone who runs a business with CBD. I learned a lot, especially around the payment gateways where that's one of the biggest challenges. One of the interesting things I discovered was not only was she not able to use PayPal, but because her business account was selling CBD products, they closed her personal PayPal account as well.

So they had some very strict rules. And I know that Woo has had some changes in their own policy as far as CBD products. People can check it out. I'll put the link in there. Justin, you talked about having actually worked with clients selling CBD. I'd just like to hear a little bit about some of the challenges in your own experiences with that.

Justin: Yeah, the whole CBD industry is one that has obviously exploded in the last couple of years. With it, you get a lot of issues and hurdles that you don't necessarily get with other industries. We talked about wine as an example, which has its share of regulation issues, but you don't necessarily get people talking to you about philosophical and moral and ethical questions in a wine project as you wold doing a CBD project. Such as, should we be selling this, let alone can we sell this? So you get some really funny conversations going.

This is not withstanding the actual technical aspects of regulation and compliance. It's a complete wild west right now. With Square and WooCommerce partnering together, Square really is assuming a lot of risk there betting that the regulators in Washington DC aren't gonna come down on them.

Even in the last year, we did two or three projects in the CBD space and one of them started out and had no sales. It was local. It was collecting on delivery, like doing deals on the corner. I don't actually know how that works, but the the other project that we did started out with this payment processor that I had never heard of. Which for me was not a common occurrence. We've worked with dozens of them, it was one called Zodaka. Have you ever heard of it?

Brad: No.

Bob: No.

Justin: I hadn't either. They were a company with a whole spiel on how they specialize in high risk industries. PayPal or Stripe or Authorize.net, you're paying 2.9, 2.7, 2.5%, or whatever. With them, you're paying 7.5 or 10% on a transaction. It's high risk. It's high margins on everybody. But they were the only ones who would touch that industry last year for a long time until Square started looking at it and saying, Hey, we'll do this.

So we integrated with Zodaka for their website and it was clunky as you'd expect, but it worked. Then just recently in this last quarter they moved over to Square and now use a Square for WooCommerce on the website. Obviously it's way, way better. So it's really fascinating how even in the span of a few months, this sort of industry and the regulations behind it and the partnerships that are cropping up around it are shifting constantly. It's a moving target. We like solving technical problems, but it includes political complexities. I think it can be more frustrating than rewarding. It's a funny space to be in.

Bob: I'm waiting for Brad to tell us his story about their CBD site.

Brad: Yeah, it's a weird industry. It's like the weed industry, but a couple of years ahead of it. There's a lot of regulations. Right now it's a state by state thing. There's certain states you can't do it in, but then there's others with laws that relax it. It's very confusing to be honest. For all the things you said and more.

But with WordPress and WooCommerce, I don't know if they're making it much easier because they put out that announcement saying look, you can't use WooCommerce to sell CBD products if you use any of the Automattic-related services like Jetpack. Or what are some of the other ones? So with Jetpack WooCommerce shipping and WooCommerce tax, my understanding is, that shipping and tax hit the Automattic server.

So it's more of a service than it is an actual standalone plugin. My understanding is, correct me if wrong, initially they put out statements saying if you can sell it using WooCommerce, it's open source. But if you tap into our services using those plugins I just mentioned, then you cannot sell CBD products. Now they're saying they made a deal with Square that says if you use Square as your payment processor then you can use our services. Am I understanding that right?

Justin: Yeah, no, this is exactly what they said. This is the quote. They say Square has a vetting process for stores selling CBD and other hemp-derived products. So: "We currently require Square, the payment provider, if you'd like to connect your store to Jetpack, WooCommerce tax and WooCommerce shipping. We may approve additional payment providers in the future."

Brad: Yeah, I 100% understand why and I think they tweeted some of this back when it first came out. I understand why Automattic is doing this, right? They're protecting themselves and have to follow US laws. It's not a hundred percent legal everywhere federally. So they have to protect themselves.

I think what resonates a little bit wrong with me, is I feel like there's confusion around it. To the sense where the overall message to me comes off saying, don't use WooCommerce for CBD. When in reality you can use WooCommerce to sell whatever you want, legal or otherwise. Right? It's open source. I'm not saying you should sell something illegal, but you can. It's open source, right?

I struggle when Automattic gets in and confuses the message because we already have enough problems between WordPress.org and WordPress.com. Now they're teetering on this line of, well, you wouldn't want to use WooCommerce without our products, so you might as well not use it at all unless you follow our rules and use these products that you probably don't even necessarily need. It's a confusing thing and I would consider myself a power user of all of these platforms. So I can't even imagine the average person looking at it and, Oh, I want to use WooCommerce. Then they come across this stuff and ask, what? I can't use it? I thought it was open source. It just seems confusing.

Justin: Yeah, I remember when the announcement first came out last year in the summer. I feel like maybe it was In the Post Status Slack room where people were in an uproar about it. In fact, Paul who's one of the higher ups over at Automattic had to come in and clarify what was happening and then posted the clarification to the terms of use they had. And it was this big kerfuffle, if we can call it that.

Brad: Yeah and it's clear they're competing with … is it SquareSpace or Wix? One of them is pushing hard in the CBD space with ads and landing pages on their site and will help you set it all up. You probably will be legal, blah, blah, blah. I feel like this is a direct response to that because not only are they the same, but there's a whole landing page on WooCommerce.com all about selling CBD products with a link out to that other doc, the confusing one.

Obviously once the laws become lax, which I'm sure they will, ultimately it will be legal everywhere because it really should be. Then this won't really be an issue. But right now I feel like it's confusing, especially around the open source side of it.

Bob: I think it's like Justin said, it's the wild west in the whole industry. What I understood in the podcast with Shayda Torbabi, who had started started selling it online and then opened a brick-and-mortar shop, which is very unusual because people usually don't go that direction. And it was in Austin where there are certain laws, but then there were some state laws she could get around.

So it's total confusion. It seems like no matter where you turn in that industry, whether it's WooCommerce, the laws or whatever, you're constantly hearing one thing, but then you find a work-around or there's another way to do it. It's interesting stuff and we'll see how it goes.

Brad: And marijuana is a separate topic because that's really locked down even harder. But you can use WooCommerce for whatever you want. It's just when you tap into a third party service, that's where you are now bound by their terms of use and they're staying legal to protect themselves.

So just keep that in mind. It's no different than when you sign up for a merchant account like Square or Stripe or whatever. You're bound by their rules because they have to protect themselves. It doesn't mean you could use WooCommerce for anything. Just make sure that the services you tap into understand the industry you're working in and understand the laws and the rules so you don't put yourself in a bad spot.

Justin: Yeah, exactly.

WooCommerce 3.9.2 and podcast transcripts

Bob: I have a couple of announcements I just want to make before we wrap up and have Justin share where you can connect with him. WooCommerce 3.9.2 security release came out and I just want to let everyone know that we've started adding transcripts to the podcast. So if you're listening to this on some pod app and you're not on our site, we do have full transcripts. I spend some time making them nice and readable. They are not one long sentence or one long paragraph. So I'm hoping people will enjoy those. Other than that, yeah, I think we are ready to to call it a day here. So Justin, where can people connect with you?

Where to connect with Justin

Justin: Yeah, I'm JS Zao almost everywhere. You can hit me up on Twitter at JS_Zao or on Instagram, or our company website. if you ever want to reach out there its Zao.is and people can connect with us there. But yeah, love to connect with people anywhere they are.

Bob: Excellent. And we'd like to thank our sponsors again, WooCommerce.com, our community sponsor, and do check them out. Also FooEvents.com. They have a great deal for our listeners. You can get a free one-year license of their premium plugin by going to FooEvents.com/dothewoo. So check that out and take advantage of it if you're looking for a great ticketing plugin. Lastly, you can subscribe to the podcast on any pod app. You can sign up for my Woo News or become a Friend of Do the Woo. Again, thank you very much Justin for joining us.

Justin: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.

Bob: Thank you everyone. We'll see you next week on Do the Woo.

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