The secret to making a healthy profit from SaaS

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October 09, 2014
The secret to making a healthy profit from SaaS.

thumbnailOver the last few years a number of SaaS (Software as a Service) products have hit the market and opened up new opportunities for those of us working in the web industry.

Whether you are working on projects after your 9–5, are a freelancer, or perhaps running a small–or even large–agency, products such as WordPress, SquareSpace and Shopify have allowed web designers and front-end developers to use their core skills (HTML, CSS and JavaScript) to produce highly functional and well designed sites in a fraction of the time of traditional web design and build projects.

By taking a small amount of time to understand how these platforms work it's possible for even the smallest of enterprises to offer offer content management, ecommerce and much more.

Show me the money…

Sadly there appears to be a misconception in our industry about the commercial opportunity offered by these emerging "platforms". If you aren't taking the time to build the site from the ground up how can you make money? It's a question I often hear.

One way to make money is to move your pricing model away from a time and motion approach to a value based approach. Value based pricing is the idea that you charge based on the value your expertise offers your client and not by the amount of time it takes to complete the project. In this way you are able to increase your profits without increasing the volume of work you undertake.

By building on established and feature rich platforms it's perfectly possibly to use skills you already possess to produce sites for your clients in shorter time frames whilst still charging a premium for your services.

Become an expert

During my freelance years I utilised WordPress for many of my projects. By really getting to know the system, its quirks, its flexibility and its third party plugin eco–system, I was able to tackle most projects without having to develop too much custom code. Where functionality was required I created bespoke plugins which I could then reuse on future projects. By specialising, I was also able to reduce the overall time spent on each project.

Let's have a look at how it's possible to generate revenue by looking at how Shopify theme designers and developers work. Whilst I'll use Shopify as my example below, I firmly believe the same approaches can be applied to other systems too.


When you started out learning HTML, CSS and JavaScript you probably didn't think that you would earn a living by helping others open up their own online stores. However there are many designers out there who now offer "setup" as a service.

Given the growth of CMS and ecommerce platforms, more and more people, who perhaps would have traditionally shied away from going it alone online, are opening up accounts and "filling in the blanks" to create their online presence.

Shopify found that they were fielding an increasing number of requests from customers who wanted a helping hand with their stores. In other words someone who could help them set up their inventory, advise on photography, help with some basic SEO, recommend a theme and suggest and install third party apps.

"Setup Experts" are now heavily featured in the Shopify Experts directory and a "setup" would typically consist of the following:

  • Opening a Shopify account
  • Organising (and/or importing) product information, pricing and photos
  • Selecting an appropriate theme
  • Setting up the site's structure, homepage and navigation
  • Adding a company logo to the theme
  • Helping with domain mapping and payments configuration
  • Training on how to operate and maintain the store
  • Install Google Analytics tracking code
  • Basic client admin area

Typically this might involve 2–3 hours work depending on the client's individual needs.


Whilst some clients may stop at "setup" it's quite easy to offer a customization package on top of the basics. Theme customization will generally include:

  • Modifications to a premium or free theme including fonts, colour palette, logo
  • Changes to existing templates for specific needs
  • Additional template designs for products, collections and pages
  • Addition of bespoke Liquid code for advanced filtering, currency conversion and more
  • Customization of email notifications including creation of HTML versions
  • Integration of third party services like Twitter, Instagram and MailChimp
  • Facebook store app integration
  • Addition of client area theme settings to allow increased flexibility on the site
  • JavaScript enhancements to functionality – a good example being the implementation of an AJAX add to cart feature
  • Customization of customer account templates

Whilst each client will have specific requirements there will be tasks that will feature in each customization job. It's therefore possible to streamline the process quite easily and minimize the time you take. For example having a code bank of Liquid snippets that can be reused will speed up development time. I keep code examples in a private GitHub repository for this very purpose.

Custom theme design and build

Beyond theme customization, work tends to fall into the more traditional full scale design and build project. These can be viewed in the same way as any full service web site project.

In this situation, the platform has often been recommended by the agency commissioned to undertake the project. In contrast clients wishing to use setup and theme customizations experts have already chosen the platform and are seeking help.

Finding the work

It's one thing being able to do the work but the age old problem of actually finding the work is still a big issue. Thankfully there are a few options available.

One option is to subscribe to the "job boards" that allow those in need of help or expertise the ability to offer "gigs". For example the WordPress community run one which features opportunities categorised as:

  • Design
  • Development
  • General
  • Migration
  • Performance
  • Plugin development
  • Theme customization
  • Writing

Expand your markets

Which ever platform(s) you choose to focus on there's never been a better time to put your existing skill set to a new use. By taking a few hours to learn the basics you will soon be able to offer content management and ecommerce as part of your client services portfolio or even start that blog or open that online store that you have been thinking about!

Featured image/thumbnail, business image via Shutterstock.

Keir Whitaker

Keir Whitaker works at Shopify & co-hosts The Back to Front Show podcast. He regulary writes about, and shares links on, ecommerce, the web industry & podcasting.

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