Wednesday, May 14, 2014

PrestaShop: An interview with Ben Utterback about their groundbreaking ecommerce platform

In some ways, PrestaShop may be the most fun Bitnami stack you can try. Really. That's because, unlike most applications, PrestaShop has a really colorful first-user experience that demonstrates the power of the application. You don't have to even be interested in ecommerce software to appreciate what PrestaShop is doing.

And if you are looking for an ecommerce solution, try PrestaShop. PrestaShop has been downloaded millions of times by users around the world, features thousands of add-ons and modules to extend the platform, and has matured into one of the most full featured, do-it-yourself ecommerce software out there.

We sat down with Ben to learn things like:
  • What cool stores have been built with PrestaShop?
  • How do you balance the needs of thousands of users and hundreds of community devs?
  • How do they do user testing?
  • What's coming up next for the ecommerce platform?
  • PrestaBox? We'd never heard of it, but we think you should.
  • What's up with that amazing first user experience anyway?
Listen now:

Full transcript

Erica: Hi this is Erica Brescia with Bitnami and I’m here with Ben Utterback talking about PrestaShop.  I guess to kick things off did I actually pronounce our last name correctly?

Ben:  Yes you did, Utterback is correct.

Erica: Oh awesome, okay just making sure, I should have asked that ahead of time.  So first it would be great if you could tell Bitnami listeners a little bit about PrestaShop and maybe what makes it unique because there are a number of ecommerce solutions out there and we’d love to hear what’s special about PrestaShop.

Ben:  Yeah definitely.  Well to give you and the listeners a better idea of why PrestaShop was developed it’s important to talk about the history of who we are and what our goals are.  PrestaShop is a free and open source ecommerce shopping cart solution.  It’s simply a software that allows people and companies to sell goods and services online; you download the software, place it online, add your pictures, prices, payment, shipping and you’re on your way.

About the history:  PrestaShop was first created by our current CEO and Co-founder Bruno Leveque.  As a child he started coding computer games from his father’s garage at age eight and –

Erica: Wow.

Ben:  Yeah.  In the early 2000s he started dedicating some of his free time to helping several small business owners who had brick and mortar stores dive in to the world of ecommerce.  During that time he realized the expensive and complicated ecommerce software on the market -- these small retailers would never be able to compete with the corporate giants who had all the capital and resources to build custom websites from scratch.  I guess that’s kind of an answer that it was for the merchant and for – the merchant is and always will be at the heart of PrestaShop.

Our goal is to give every person in the world the opportunity to create a professional online store by providing them with completely free, powerful, and easy to use ecommerce software.  Our first release was in 2007; within weeks we received 1000 downloads.  It was already translated in three languages and after the first year we had 15,000 downloads.  Now 6 years later we’re at 4 million downloads and over 185,000 online stores for merchants actively using it.

Erica: That is absolutely fantastic.  Given that it is open source do you have other than language contributions other people who are actively involved in the development of PrestaShop?

Ben:  Yeah well the community is really the key to our success.  We were developed because of the merchant, because of the community, and we have a saying here that’s kind of “We grow as you grow.”

If our merchant is successful then we are successful.  We thrive by having multiple methods that our community can engage with us; even from the experience developer to the people who don’t know what a server is there is an outlet always for any user to communicate with us with and interact.  We have meet ups, one to two meet ups a month; we get to interact with merchants/developers.  We’ve been to L.A., San Francisco, Chicago.  Internationally in Munich, Poland, London, Ukraine and so on.  So it’s really amazing to meet all these people and merchants from all over the world who love PrestaShop and actually want to help us.

The translation is one part, as you have mentioned, and also the GitHub because we’re open source we have a GitHub repository, and with 20 – I think over 25,000 commits already from 200 contributors in only 18 months we’ve been active on GitHub so we stay true to our commitment of being open source.  They’re increasingly active each day as more community developers collaborate together and the community it’s – it never ceases to amaze us with their talent and their creativity innovation.  On some days you’ll even see us in the top 25 most active projects on GitHub so that is a way that the developers can get in touch with us and interact with our development team and help improve PrestaShop day by day.

Erica: That is absolutely fantastic.  You know going back to your comment about all the user all over the world when you have these meet ups it must be so rewarding for you and your team to see people that are building businesses and who are leveraging your tool to actually kind of bring in their livelihood to generate revenue from your product.  That has to be so rewarding.

Ben: It is, it really is.  Just knowing that you don’t have to pay them a monthly fee for – it’s a free and open source software; so many people have actually set up their own home service at home and don’t even use a web hosting service and they actually build their own website using our free website and it’s just their ideas.  Our merchants ideas and their drive to really make these sales and make their business become a reality to supplement their income or help, like you said, their livelihood.  So it is very rewarding knowing that we are contributing to people’s hopefully happiness and their way of life and growing as a company and helping merchants grow as well.

Erica: Awesome.  Are there any particular stories or any examples of businesses that you’d feel comfortable sharing with our audience?  People love to hear about real world use cases.

Ben:  Well yeah actually, man, there’s a lot.  There’s one – there’s a store, well I forgot the URL, but basically the idea was bringing diapers and formula to the door of mothers who recently had babies.  This was actually I think three years ago and the person, he had the idea and he used – because he recently had a baby so he had this idea was hey maybe I should make a business delivering these goods that babies need and mother’s need and he built the business and it’s doing very well.  We have a blog post about him, we did a success story, so that’s one of them.

Erica: Very cool.  As a relatively new mother myself I can understand the importance of that.

Ben:  Yeah definitely.  There’s also one in New York called Ode à la Rose and they actually won New York City’s best flower delivery.  Their website is beautiful and it’s really amazing to see the customization you can do with a free and open source solution.  Their flower customization is just on par with everybody else’s; these million dollar websites and were you can customize the vases and then the number of flowers and every time you’d click the picture changes and customize how you want and so you could just imagine how many pictures are going through and how the server is taking all these pictures and showing them to the user – to the customer in real time and how fast it is.

It is really rewarding to see that people can make websites that directly compete with otherwise monopolized industries like flower delivery and really make a difference like in New York City when they did win the best flower delivery there.

Erica: Yeah quite a competitive market too, that’s fantastic. Did they have to do a lot of special customizations to PrestaShop for that or were they using your core technology and then maybe just some plug ins and things like that that are already out there?

Ben:  For the ones – customization is necessary.  People can use modules and pre-packaged kind of add-ons to kind of get by, but the customization is sometimes necessary if you want to have it – if you want your vision to be on your website.  It’s really hard to have a vision and only use plug-ins made from different developers and one plug-in here and one plug-in there so customization is sometimes needed.  Most of the websites that are making money and are successful don’t have any necessarily customization in the code other than the template.

Erica: Makes sense there.  You can’t really have a totally truly one size fits all ecommerce solution because there’re just so many different ways that people sell things and different types of items are sold differently so that makes sense.

Ben:  Yeah we don’t market ourselves like that either.  We don’t try and say that “hey we’re gonna make you a million over night” or it’s gonna be in two clicks and your store’s gonna be up.  It is a business and just like any business you’re going to have to take a lot of time to really understand what you want, what your customers want, business plans, and the website is no different.

Erica: Makes sense.  On that kind of extensibility or customizability front how can people customize PrestaShop?  Do you have a special type of plug in architecture?

Ben:  Well the architecture is purely a model view controls.  It’s a MVC structure; it’s made with PHP and smart etemplating languages.  So it’s customized in that way through PHP, that’s the main language, so yeah that would be the way to customize it.

Erica: Great and PHP’s so widely used it makes it accessible to a lot of different types of users so that’s fantastic.

Ben:  Definitely.

Erica: One thing that we at Bitnami really love about PrestaShop is you have an awesome initial user experience.  When people first launch the application it looks like a real store.  Can you talk about how you arrived at offering that type of experience when a lot of applications you fire them up and kind of don’t know where to start?

Ben:  Yeah well thank you for saying that.  We are unique because of the mission and goal to the merchant.  It really all comes together.  The out of the box experience was not something that we achieved overnight it’s something that really took years to conceive and develop and of course there’s always room to improve but we did hundreds if not maybe thousands user tests, merchant user tests.

We saw how they acted when they first started using the software, we talked to merchants who’ve used it for a day, a month, six months, three years from the first versions.  We saw their mistakes, we asked them about their logic and why they performed a certain action at a certain point.  We really strived to understand the merchant.  We didn’t rush to create anything that didn’t’ solve any issues or create something that didn’t enhance their experience.

The reason why we made it look like a real store is because we wanted to inspire the merchants who first downloaded the software and just take a look at the default template and see how beautiful an online store can be by just using the default template.  It helps the merchants understand what kind of pictures go where, give them examples of promotions and banner ads and the difference of a high quality picture over low resolution.  Even beyond the front office in the back office as well, the administration dashboard shows sample data of what sales could be like or what the graphs and statistics actually mean and what they should mean for them in the future.

We’re both inspiring the merchant to build something great and helping the merchant understand the power of these tools and PrestaShop by using the sample data.  It can all be removed in one click and so you can have a blank canvas but we didn’t want to give you a blank canvas to start with because it’s boring and we want to inspire the merchants, show them the ropes, and excite them, motivate them to create something great.  I think we did that with 1.6.

Erica: I definitely agree with you.  I’m curious about the user testing that you mentioned.  Did you actually bring merchants in to your office or did you do that remotely with special tools?

Ben:  We actually did – we had merchants in the office in Miami and the office in Paris.  We actually, our CEO Bruno and along with the rest of the development team, they actually traveled to other – I think we traveled to Ukraine and then we also, I think London as well – where we actually me with other merchants.  Whether it be a meet-up or some kind of event and we saw it there as well.  Of course we also do the remote testing with different merchants.  It’s really an in person and remote.

Erica: That’s so cool.  I think a lot of people talk about doing that type of user testing but it doesn’t happen maybe as much as it should so it’s clearly worked for you since you have such a fantastic interface.  That’s awesome.

Going back to the company a little bit; obviously you have bills and salaries to pay and you don’t offer your own hosting, at least not as far as I know of, so how does PrestaShop make money around an open source solution?

Ben:  We don’t provide the hosting package with the open source solution.  We partner with some of the best hosting providers that’s optimized their servers for PrestaShop and ecommerce.

We trained their team to understand our merchant, our software, and the questions of the community.  We have industry partnerships with this many users and with the community as big as it is and the number of stores that we have.  It’s really it’s a pleasure to have some really nice partnerships who want to partner with us and give their service out to our community.

We do have a turnkey solution called PrestaBox; it’s currently only available in Europe.  We plan on expanding the service.  Yeah so we – but and we also have the SEO audits for merchants looking to have an edge on the competition.  We provide in person and remote merchant training and developer training, these are extensive trainings these aren’t like six-hour trainings, they’re two days each.  We’ve had great feedback from people who took these trainings and we really make an effort to follow up with the participants instead of just training them and kind of letting them out in the wild.  We do a follow ups and we have a great relationship with everybody whose taken these trainings.

Erica: That’s awesome.  And you mentioned PrestaBox which is currently available in Europe.  Is it available throughout Europe and can you comment on when it would be available in the U.S.?

Ben:  Well we’re looking in to expanding it.  There’s really there’s no news yet about expanding it into different countries or expanding it – you know expanding the service.  But we are definitely seriously thinking about expanding the service.

Erica: Okay and can you talk a little bit about what it is?  Is it – it’s turnkey in the sense that you’re actually hosting and managing it, like it’s a managed platform basically?

Ben: Yeah well we do provide the server hosting and the installation and the support.  Right now I think it’s commission based but we’re really looking into kind of changing the way that we offer PrestaBox.  That’s not really our main priority at the moment, PrestaBox is not, it’s really the trainings, the – and also of course our add on store.  Our own marketplace.  We develop our own modules, different payment modules and different marketing modules so the add-ons is also important to us as well.

Erica: Okay excellent.  Well we have a lot of Bitnami users in Europe so that’s why I was asking about PrestaBox in case that’s of interest to them but it sounds like there’re a lot of other great options for folks in the U. S. as well in terms of expanding PrestaShop.

So I’m curious, you know, what attracted you personally to joining PrestaShop?

Ben:  When I joined PrestaShop I was actually doing some phone technical support and just talking to so many different people from so many different areas of the world it was really – it was kind of intense to see the kind of love that they had for the software and I quickly realized it’s because we offer it for free and it’s very, very powerful, and it’s simple to use, we have a great community.

It really just it really motivated me to kind of want to help these guys out and these men and women who want to create their stores and supplement their lifestyle and even hobbies.  There’s so many people who are just doing it for hobbies and they really enjoy it as well.  So just helping the people out and helping our merchants out, that’s really what drives everybody in this company and not just me.

Erica: Okay great.  We did talk a little bit about the community previously but I’m curious; you do have a thriving and growing, it sounds like, community.  How do you balance their contributions or ideas with your own internal roadmap around how PrestaShop should be developed?

Ben: Oh yeah well I mean as Community Manager I can talk about the community all day, you don’t have to be sorry about that.  Well this can be tricky because we have to be careful to focus on internal priorities while still being reactive with the community led improvements.  We have a few very cool tools that we’re using.  We have the forum, obviously, which is a place where everyone can get together to discuss problems and we have a great group of moderators who really make this forum tick.
I can’t stress how important they are; they’re just totally volunteering and it’s really great to have them kind of interact with us in saying “Hey many people are asking about a certain partial shipping feature that they want.”  So it’s really good to have the moderation team with us talking to us.  They’ve actually become actually quite good friends of mine, a few of them.  We also have a and it’s a crowd sourcing way to get feedback.  Users can submit their improvements and feature requests and have it voted on by the community.

We’re actually currently doing it for our previous version of 1.5.  We’re giving the community a month to submit and vote the most important aspects they want improved in the 1.5.  We’re gonna take the top 20 voted improvements and issues and fix them, improve them, and release the last version of 1.5.  So we didn’t create 1.6 and kind of forget about the user of 1.5; we’re really showing them that we care.

Another one is called The User Club and this is a way where users can sign up and our product team sends them short and quick surveys about their preferences on the product.  We recently had one about the order detail page about:  Which parts of the order page is more important?  What maybe should be more featured or what kind of improvements can we make?  This type of stuff we’d never have known without this kind of feedback.  With the community so in touch with us and their reactiveness and drive to improve the software that they love it really makes our job easier.

Erica: That is a fantastic idea.  I haven’t really heard of people doing that before, I love that, very cool.  Okay changing gears a little bit on thing that people always worry about in particular with ecommerce in security.  What is PrestaShops’ approach to ensuring that transactions are secure and helping your users to make sure that their online store is set up in a secure way?

Ben: That’s very true.  Security is so important and unfortunately it’s never perfect.  You can never be too sure, I think the Heartbleed can attest to that.  Before we release a new version we work with multiple services; they provide various security checks with the software.

We also obviously do community testing and we – a select group of experts, some of them are moderators on the forum, and these are these guys who we trust to test various modules, payment gateways, on different unique server configurations because when you’re talking about security and an open source solution like PrestaShop it’s very much in tune with their own server configuration.  When you’re working on these hundreds of thousands, different server, unique configurations it can be quite tricky so...

Within the software we have automated scanning that goes through a variety of key data points like IP address, location, the number of orders that the customer’s placing, so this is to alert the merchant of any potential threat or fraud transaction.  Like if somebody buys five things at the same time shipping to the same address with five different IP addresses it’s probably gonna be flagged because it’s most likely fraud.

Even for merchants engaging in high risk transactions, ecigarettes and such, adult products, we have partnered up with a great payment processor called Alliance Processing who specializes in these high risk transactions and guarantees these transactions at a low cost.

Erica: Oh that’s fantastic and that’s called Alliance Processing you said.

Ben:  Alliance Processing, yes.  So – and just the fact that we are open source and so active on GitHub is really perfect for security because there can be rapid fixes, transparency in the code, and a constant effort by both us as PrestaShop team and the community in making PrestaShop as secure an ecommerce solution there is.  At the end of it all as we both know fraud can never be 100 percent prevented and every merchant needs to be careful with each order and choose what’s best for them and their business.

Erica: Yes absolutely and it’s particularly challenging when you have a global customer base that’s buying from you.  It’s hard to understand what could be fraud in one country is a totally normal transaction in another company – country excuse me.  At least that’s been what we’ve seen.

Ben:  Yes I totally agree with that.  It’s very difficult preventing 100 percent fraud with – when you’re shipping it internationally and globally like we are.

Erica: Yep and always evolving as well.  So you mentioned Heartbleed which I think is still on everyone’s mind and I don’t mean to beat a dead horse but this was obviously a really crucial thing for all of our users.  What was your approach and how was the Heartbleed issue handled over at PrestaShop?

Ben:  Well once we heard about it I – we all alerted the team, everybody was alerted.  We had a forum post an announcement that went out to every merchant that we have letting them know more about it and letting them know to change the passwords.  The thing about Heartbleed was that it really affected everything as we know it.

It didn’t just affect one just PrestaShop store or anything so just having the ability to reach out to all these people who are using the software and let them know that hey we are PrestaShop but we’re letting you know not only for PrestaShop but for really your life, your security of all your online actions, so that’s how we handled it.  We were pretty reactive.  I think within one hour we sent that e-mail out to everybody and had a announcement on the forum, and a alert there too.

Erica: That’s great yeah I think there were a lot of sleepless nights for everyone for a few days after that came out.

Ben:  Yeah actually I remember getting the e-mail from you guys up at Bitnami actually so you guys were very reactive on that as well.

Erica: We did our best but we had a lot of people who lost a lot of sleep over that.  I mean we have a million deployments a month, we have images on every major cloud platform, and sometimes in some cases tens of thousands of images have been published so there were a lot of things that needed to be updated and a lot of people that needed to be notified.

So that was – it was – I wish nobody had had to go through that but it was certainly a great experience for us to kind of test our internal processes and figure out how we can be even faster next time.  These things happen and all you can do is do your best to be prepared and have the right processes in place to react very quickly to get things fixed.  Because as you mentioned there were always – nothing’s ever gonna be 100 percent secure and they’re always gonna be issues that arise it’s just the nature of software right?

Ben:  Yeah it is.

Erica: So one other hot topic that we haven’t touched on is the cloud.  Do you see a lot of PrestaShop users that are deploying to the cloud or are they mostly using more traditional hosting approaches through some of your partner providers?

Ben:  Well I think that most of our merchants are using the traditional.  I would say a pretty big majority of the merchants are using the traditional hosting providers.  Especially I mean we have so many stores in different countries globally I think that cloud is kind of, is more, is getting bigger globally but I think it really got big in the United States so the cloud is something that’s very interesting to us.  Bitnami having the cloud hosting and the fact that you can first install PrestaShop locally, which is great by the way, to have people just do a few clicks and have this store local installed.  Because I think how difficult it is to sometimes make a WAMP local installation or – it can be very difficult especially if you have Skype running.  So –

Erica: Yeah exactly.

Ben:  So it’s great to have the Bitnami and so you can have the local installation and easily deploy it to the cloud that you guys provide.  It’s definitely something we’re looking in to and it’s very interesting to us.

Erica: Well thanks for the kind words there and we totally agree with you.  A lot of the times people want to deploy something locally, particularly as they experiment with the software or to evaluate a new version or to compare various solutions they like to just have it running locally, it’s easier, it’s faster.  Then sometimes they’ll deploy on top of a traditional host or in a virtual environment, although probably less so with ecommerce, or on a cloud platform.  So you kind of have to support all of them at this point.

Just wrapping up:  What do users have to look forward to in the next version of PrestaShop?

Ben:  Well we want to expand on being even more international.  I think that we are probably the most international ecommerce solution translated in 63 languages, used in over 160 countries.  So we want to make sure that we keep thinking global but acting local.  We’re hiring nine country managers and, in certain key countries, and these people will be employed by PrestaShop but be living in their own respective countries.  They would want to increase our brand awareness, multiply our user base, identify a strategic local partnerships.

To expand on the international aspect we want to improve this translation tool that we have, which is called crowdin, and something that it’s kind of new to us and it’s a website; its c-r-o-w-d-i-n and it’s kind of a translations crowd sourcing tool that people can translate strings or translate phrases and people of that same language can actually vote to see which one is better, which translation’s better.  Which one makes more sense for a certain action?  So we want to improve this to actually have a translation made directly on the website so you don’t have to go to another website.

We want to create a module so if a merchant sees that a phrase is translated wrong make a few clicks right on your website and update the translation, send it to the community to vote on, and have our team to review it.  That’s something that we want to definitely expand on.  But all in all you can expect better speed, optimizations, improvements on analytics, business intelligence tools, because we believe that if the merchant knows the most important KPIs, different forecast trends an specific statistics they make better business decisions and through that lower their overall cost of ownership making them even more successful.  That brings us back to the reason why we were created in the first place; to keeping the success of the merchants at the heart of everything we do.

In the new 1.6 our statistics panel is something that’s really special and something we are really, really proud of because we have real time net profit updates.  So not only do you know your sales but you know actually how much profit you’re getting and these graphs are really beautifully made and front and back office is all bootstrapped and responsive so you could be on the plane connected to Wi-Fi and really be managing your store and thinking of different strategies to increase your sales.  We also have one called the smart forecast and so it can actually predict trends of your business before they actually happen.  It’s really cool to have these kinds of advanced analytics that are unique to ecommerce software.  We want to always improve on that and improve on the business intelligence aspect of running a ecommerce store.

Erica: That is so cool.  It’s really incredible what you can do these days; managing your business from an airplane.  People could never imagine that 20 years ago, it’s amazing.  You mentioned that you’re hiring country managers.  Do you have a careers page URL that you’d like to share before we wrap things up?  I know everyone’s always hiring so we like to put that on there for you.

Ben:  Okay yep so the careers page will just be and /en, for English, /careers.

Erica: Fantastic.  Well thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me today.  I know Bitnami users just love PrestaShop and I’m sure they’ll be grateful as well to learn a little bit more about eh company and the project.  Thank you so much again for your time.

Ben:  Thank you so much, Erica, and the feeling is mutual.  PrestaShop users love Bitnami as well.  I think when we had the bi-weekly contest I think we had more votes than the other 10 people in the contest combined so that was something really special that really showed the love that the PrestaShop community has for Bitnami as well and the great service that you provide.

Erica: Yeah you were incredibly popular in the contest, you’re right, and thanks again.

Try PrestaShop free by installing it on your machine, launching a virtual machine or running PrestaShop in the cloud.