with sterling smith of sandbox commerce
Sterling Smith, founder of Sandbox Commerce joins co-hosts Kelly Vaughn and Rhian Beutler to discuss mobile apps for Shopify- and why you need one.
Sterling Smith is a software engineer turned entrepreneur, currently serving as the founder at Sandbox Commerce.
Over the last 10 years, Sterling has worked for Walmart in Bentonville, Arkansas, Lockheed Martin in Doha, Qatar, Booz Allen Hamilton in Washington, DC and currently resides in Austin, Texas. He is also an advisor & mentor to several technology startups in the retail tech and #nocode sectors and is a semi-pro NBA2K player. You can find him on Twitter at @SterlingSmith!
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[00:44] The Hate U Give
[00:56] Black Lives Matter
[03:09] About Sterling and Sandbox Commerce
[04:08] Why Shopify merchants should have a mobile app
[09:31] What makes the mobile app experience successful
[11:18] When does it make sense for merchants to consider adding an app
[15:02] The Sandbox Commerce onboarding experience
[19:53] Good examples of apps powered by Sandbox Commerce
[25:20] Beauty Bakerie
Before we begin, we want to state that we firmly believe that Black Lives Matter. We will be donating the proceeds from this episode to Campaign Zero and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. We want to acknowledge the systemic racism that impacts black folks domestically and internationally. We further want to acknowledge the racial disparity that exists not only in tech, but in commerce. From unequal access to VC funding, lack of black voices in all levels of leadership and the erasure of black folks' success, the list goes on. Enough. As Angie Thomas, author of The Hate U Give wrote, what's the point of having a voice if you're going to be silent in those moments you shouldn't be. We will not stand on a silent platform. Black Lives Matter.
This week, we're joined by Sterling Smith, Founder and CEO Sandbox Commerce who is providing the tools merchants need to easily create a mobile app for their store. You can think of a mobile app as an additional sales channel, a way to increase lifetime value for your existing customers. Sterling discusses the benefits of mobile apps for merchants, what makes the mobile app experience successful and just how easy it is to get started by using his app. Let's dig in.
Welcome to Commerce Tea, a podcast to help you succeed on Shopify. I'm Rhian.
And I'm Kelly. Grab a mug and join us as we talk about all things commerce.
Hey Kelly, have you ever been working on a Shopify store and then bam, something happens and you lose what you're working on?
I'd love to say no, but the reality is accidents do happen, especially when you have multiple people working on a store. Apps that automatically add code to your theme may cause an issue or a team member may delete product images by mistake.
Doesn't Shopify back your store up automatically?
It's a common misconception, but no. That's where the Shopify app Rewind comes in.
Rewind is like having your very own magic undo button. It helps you recover from human error or misbehaving apps. It's trusted by over 25,000 businesses from side hustles to some of the biggest online retailers like Gymshark or MVMT watches.
That sounds awesome. Where can I learn more?
Head to rewind.io/commercetea to learn more about Rewind backups. You'll get your first month free when signing up on that page. Again, that's rewind.io/commercetea. Today we have Sterling Smith, Founder and CEO of Sandbox Commerce joining us to discuss the benefits of Shopify merchants having a mobile app for their store. Sterling, thank you so much for joining us.
Yeah. Thank you for having me.
We're really excited. I'm personally really excited to talk about this because I think having a mobile app for your store is a really great opportunity and honestly, something I don't really know much about because mobile app development is a complete mystery to me.
Totally. Totally out of my wheelhouse too.
I want to just kick things off. Tell us about yourself and about Sandbox Commerce.
Yeah. My name is Sterling Smith, based in Austin, Texas. I'm the Founder of Sandbox Commerce, founded in 2017. High level overview, Sandbox Commerce is a no-code platform that helps growing retailers build fully native mobile apps and they can typically do it in as little time as it takes to brew a cup of coffee. High level again [crosstalk 00:03:41] ... There you go, coffee. I'll tell you the advantage is ... Well, we can talk about the advantages. I'll sure we'll probably get into that, but frankly we built a platform using React Native at its core and have really worked diligently to ensure that the apps we build are performant and solve problems specifically that our customers have shared with us along the way.
Awesome. If you were speaking directly to Shopify merchants because that's who's listening to our podcast, why should they have a mobile app?
What is the benefit of it on a channel, that kind of ... You know what I mean?
Yeah. That's a great question and I'll tell you why they shouldn't first. Well, not why they shouldn't, but a misconception or a question that we often get is "How is a mobile app going to help me grow my audience?" The short answer is, is that's not really what it's for. What we found it's really used to help increase the lifetime value of your existing customers. Those customers that are already subscribed to your newsletter, that are following you on Instagram are kind of waiting for that new release of the next product that you're launching or building or really care about your mission. Those are the people that are going to install your mobile application. If you're looking for a first party citizen so to speak to represent your brand in the best way possible on mobile devices then a mobile app is for you. There's never been a better time to build on because, again, using our technology you can sign up for free, no commitment and we start at $99 per month after your free trial.
Quick question. You said earlier no code, because I don't write code, so someone like me can ... Sorry everybody if you thought I wrote code, I don't. Someone like me can pick this up and WYSIWYG, kind of drag and draw the features into the app?
100%. We have what we call blocks or widgets that you literally just drag and drop into a mobile canvas and you can see in real time what your app looks like in as little as 10 minutes and manipulate the user experience to ensure that it's on brand. Again, a lot of the risks that were associated with having to build a mobile app like a lot of the larger companies do, what we learned earlier on before we even started building out a platform, is that retailers were afraid to build a mobile app because it was risky. It costs too much money. You either had to hire internal engineers or outsource to a shop or a freelancer and $100,000 and six months later you don't even know they're going to grow revenue for you.
Guess what? Sandbox Commerce solves all three of those problems for you because it costs little to nothing. You can do it really quickly and you can quickly begin to experiment ... uses a channel to experiment and determine how it's ... see how it can help you grow revenue or increase engagement, whatever problem you can solve. There are a couple use cases that work really well for retailers.
Awesome. Kind of jumping off of that, talking about the costs involved and the fact that there is no code so you don't necessarily have to know how to code to maintain the app, so if I have a development team can they go in and make changes to the app and how easy is it to maintain the app? Can I test things and basically do A/B tests on the app?
Yeah. That's a great question. We do expose endpoints to integration partners today and we will be eventually releasing SDK that allows internal development teams to really customize.
Yeah. But today, really and truly, we kind of ... Our target audience was the nontechnical marketing director frankly. The person who is responsible for making sure that this works for the business and that they see the growth and creating tools internally that allow them to measure success. We have an engagement dashboard that lets you see everything, almost like a Google Analytics that's tailored for your store, but for your retail mobile store. I would say that customization is limitless. Right now, we work alongside a lot of our larger retailers that want to really truly customize their mobile experience, incorporate augmented reality or localization services that are more custom. For the most part, it's so easy that a nontechnical marketing director could leverage the technology. We also have a robust partner network that we can talk more about offline that really-
Yeah. I will.
That really helps agencies that are engaging with dozens of retailers be the subject matter experts. We believe the future of work specifically in this space will be Sandbox Commerce experts who can come in and like building out an awesome Shopify web store for us who can build an awesome Sandbox powered mobile app for our brand that takes advantage of all the latest technologies, et cetera.
What makes this app experience successful? I guess, overall, what makes a mobile app experience successful in terms of end users and what our merchants should be looking for in delivering to their end users so that they convert and sell?
Yeah. Keeping in mind going back to my initial statement that I was alluding to that it's the 20% of your customers that generate the 80% of your revenue who this app is for. It's really for those customers that once we hone in on that we find out where the honey is for those customers, then giving them more money and just creating a space in the mobile experience where they actually derive value. Just to answer your question a little bit more indirectly before I go in is if you look at the early 2000s banks had responsive websites and they began to build apps for their responsive ... accompany their responsive websites. It wasn't until they added functionality like the ability to take a picture of a check that it took off and everyone was like, "Oh, now I need this, it's a tool for us," right? That's what Sandbox is laser focused on for every vertical we work with.
For each vertical we're like, "Hey, how can we incorporate an onboarding component to this consumer electronics company we're working with?" Or how can we provide a more bespoke shopping experience to include scheduling for either curbside pickup, curbside commerce or measurements et cetera for a boutique retail company. How can we make this a tool for both the consumer and the retailer to communicate and engage? We're not successful with any of our customers until we do that.
Love that. Actually, kind of bouncing that off of that because you mentioned boutiques, for example, are there specific verticals that you see have more success with an app and also is there a certain price point for the merchants, in terms of like their annual revenue where making an app starts to make more financial sense for them?
Yeah. I reject the notion for specific verticals. I think just like Shopify ... Obviously, politely reject the notion. Because just like back in the day people thought websites were only for complex, multimillion dollar companies and then WordPress came around to democratize-
... these things, that's the future of mobile app for retailers. There was a question that people were trying to find an answer to related to hey, are mobile apps going to ... Are people getting app fatigue, et cetera? No, you find that niche. Niches get riches. I'm sure you've heard that before. You find that niche customer who's not the window shopper and you actually find that brand loyalist to engage with you and you feed them what they want. Typically, we find that as little as half a million dollars in annual recurring revenue you have that repeat customer who's really checking for what you're offering. They're picking up what you're putting down so to speak. I'd say that's usually the baseline. Obviously, any retailer on Shopify is capable of building an app using our platform and it's affordable almost across the board at $99 per month.
The vertical, to answer the question, I reject the notion that it's vertical specific because if you think about it even like one-time purchases. I recently bought a Big Green Egg. Actually, I got it for Christmas last year. It's like this big green, kind of ceramic smoker where you can smoke meat. It's amazing. If you ever come to Austin-
I want one so badly.
[crosstalk 00:13:23] me, I'll hook you up. If you come to Austin, I'll hook you up with some really good [crosstalk 00:13:26]. But, what I'll say is that even they, they don't have an app yet, but they need an app and I'll tell you why. Companies that have just one-time purchase like that, which you'd be like, "Why do they need an app," is because whenever they send it to me they send it to me in this like 300-pound box. I got an XL. I have to open the box and I have to pull it out. I'm a software developer. I'm not a hardware developer. I'm not engineer [inaudible 00:13:53]. That really means that I get my fiancee and I'm like, "Hey [Kaitlyn 00:13:56], can you hook me up because you're the hands-on person in this relationship." Frankly, it takes three hours later and what happened with me is I installed it improperly. Because Kaitlyn's like ... She got tied up. I was like, "I got to do this right now, I got it, I got to do it right now."
I installed it improperly and they ended up having to send me a whole new Big Green Egg and these are $1,600 contraptions. They basically have a lifetime warranty. Thank you for the customer support. But within a week and a half, they sent me another one. That could've been avoided if they had a mobile app that helped with the onboarding that I could have with me instead of this three feet long sheet of paper that I unfolded and I just went cross eyed with. I think that there's a place for retailers and brands who have those one-time purchase products to leverage Sandbox Commerce just as well as you'd have for consumer electronics and apparel companies to leverage mobile technology through Sandbox Commerce. That was a long-winded answer, but I wanted to make sure I-
Oh, it's a great answer. The best answers are normally long winded, otherwise how do you get all the good stuff in there, right? What is the onboarding experience like for your app?
Yeah. Certainly. In something that frankly we ... This has probably been what we spend the most time focusing on. What it looks like is you visit our website. You go to www.sandboxcommerce.com. You click on try a seven-day free trial, wherever it leads me. Once you click on that you select Shopify and we authenticate through Shopify. We basically send you over to Shopify. You say I'd like to add Sandbox as a sales channel and you agree to the seven-day free trial terms and then we send you back the app builder and you begin by entering branding information. You upload your logo. You break out the color wheel and find out what the HEX codes are for ... or you can just click the closest one to you, but you probably want to make sure it's on brand. We use APIs to pull in all your live inventory. You just drag and drop a marquee. If you have special COVID instructions you can create a marquee that says, "This is how you engage with our brand. This is how you pick up curbside using our new curbside commerce #curbsidecommerce functionality we're innovating with.
Also, for the non-developers listening, a marquee is text that slides across the page or the app or whatever you're looking at.
Yeah. It's effectively like the marquee that you see on most of those websites. You choose featured items and you choose ... You don't have to show all the collections that you have in your Shopify store. We allow you to select which ones you want to display in app. If you have certain collections that you want to offer to your app users that you don't want to offer to your website users you can provide-
That's a great idea.
... a more exclusive experience. You can say, "Hey, I'm going to create a mobile collection where I'm highlighting these things for my kind of black card holders," so to speak. You can do all that. You can curate the experience. From there, you hit publish and once you hit publish our engineering team effectively receives a notification and we actually send it through a QA process. It takes about a day and a half to two days where we just make sure that everything is working the way that we'd expect it and you would expect it to work and then we submit to the app stores. Usually that can all happen inside of a week. The demand has been higher frankly post COVID, but we're here for it, so that's a high level of what the onboarding experience is like.
That's awesome. It's a very seamless process and clearly you have put a lot of thought into that.
I think a poor onboarding experience can really break the customer relationship.
I'll also say you can find our app in the Shopify app store if you just type in Sandbox Commerce as well.
Okay. In terms of making updates, we went through this onboarding process and let's say I want to ... It was pre-COVID that I downloaded this and now I want to update that banner. I changed the text and I hit update. How long does it take for that update to actually reflect in the app.
Yeah. That's a softball. It's instant.
Boom, it's there. There are a few updates that require a new build. By the way, if you partner with Sandbox, we take very seriously the performance, the uptime, the functionality, all that of your mobile application and we actually push out hot fixes on a weekly basis. If we see it on one of our apps, it's reflected across all of our apps. What I'll say is that anything that's cosmetic or content based or inventory based is automatically reflected in your mobile app. If you want to, for example, change your splash screen or change your logo in the header of the app, a few other things, or your app store description that requires a new build from our end and what our application and platform does is that it monitors certain fields in the app building experience and when you change one of those fields our DevOps team gets a notice that we need to first test QA and then push out a new build of your app to the app stores.
Cool. Do you have any examples of maybe current customers who are using Sandbox Commerce? If I wanted to download some of their apps just to see how they work do you have some good examples that you can share?
Yeah. We can talk about this offline, but I'm really helping to promote a company in town called League of Rebels. They're a company that's using bleeding edge tech developed by Sandbox that's incorporating our curbside commerce configuration. They're a traditional brick-and-mortar retailer who is offering their customers an opportunity to pick up ... or still engage with them and support their business locally using Sandbox technology. It's effectively like Best Buy's and Nordstrom's curbside commerce but powered by Sandbox Commerce. I would highly recommend that you check those guys out. Also, Vintage Founder is another one that we've worked with for a while. There's a company based in LA called Vegin' Out, which is vegan food delivery.
We've also recently launched a new type of customer mobile app, which is grocery delivery. We power grocery delivery mobile app for people. We've got one on the East Coast that I'm excited to announce Go360 ... Actually, it's SuperFast NYC, is in New York City. We also have one in Northern California called Go360. Those are our two grocery delivery mobile apps. I'll just take a side to really shout-out those guys because those are innovators using nonconventional ways to ... They've effectively short circuited what Instacart has done and what they've spent tens of millions of dollars to do and they've built that using Sandbox Commerce technology. We're working with them to help scale that for them, but we're excited to offer that as an opportunity for innovators and makers to do the same thing in their communities as well.
That's so cool. There's so much potential here when it comes to adding a mobile app and based on our conversation today it's pretty clear that it's not a difficult process at all for anybody and I think that's the most important message we can take home today is that anybody can create a mobile app for their Shopify store and they absolutely should do it.
The barrier of entry is accessible. [crosstalk 00:22:18]. It's not just this thing that ... Yeah, I've always kind of thought of it as this thing, it's this giant process and really it's not. I thank you for being able to share that message to our merchants because this is something that I feel like many Shopify merchants will benefit from.
No, thanks. Our job is to abstract the complexity really. If it's difficult at any point, then we want the feedback and we want to make it better and make it more accessible. It's been a long time coming that growing retailers ... for growing retailers to be able to leverage technology to complete. It's a very competitive place with Amazon being a competitor, marketplaces in general being a competitor. Something else that's really important, something I think is critical for everyone listening to know is that if you're really interesting in knowing ... Let's say that you do a lot of selling as well as through Shopify but let's say you use Amazon, in many cases you don't really know who your customer is because you give up attribution to the third-party platform. We've learned, since day two almost that you can learn more about your customer, who they are, if you have a mobile app than any other medium. Through our engagement dashboard we integrate with Klaviyo and we integrate with Urban Airship allowing for push notifications, Twilio text messaging, directly from our dashboard.
If you really want to capture your audience and know who they are and create look alike campaigns to really find more motivated customers, there's no better way to profile that customer than by having a native mobile application.
This has been so informative and I really thank you for coming on our show and teaching us something that we were generally unfamiliar with. We wrap up every one of our episodes by talking about stores that we're really excited about for the week. I know you've already kind of called one out, but if you want to go first.
Yeah. I have the one, but I have the three. The grocery delivery app. I just can't ... I'm so excited about the potential revelation that people can create Instacarts by connecting APIs from Whole Foods and Wegmans and other grocery stores to a Shopify backend and launch an Instacart. To me, that just blows my mind of the technology-
It's so cool.
... is empowering people to do awesome things like that. Go360, SuperFast NYC are two that I want to shout-out and then obviously League of Rebels who's using our pilot program curbside commerce solution. If any retailers are interested in learning more about that shoot me an email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Awesome. Rhian, what is your store?
Mine is Beauty Bakery. It is a wonderfully designed cosmetic store and there is a foundation finder on it so you can find the color that you need to match your skin tone, which I love. It's paraben free, cruelty free and just from a customer perspective the assets on it are beautiful. It's easy to navigate. UX is beautiful. I'm really stoked on this store right now.
Yeah. I'll check out. Yeah, I'll check it out. My fiancee.
What about you Kelly?
... this week is called Jungalow. They sell home décor, apparel, planners, art, wallpaper. The whole vibe of this store is incredible. I want to take this store and make it my home and just redo my entire house with everything that they're selling. I love it. Also, just the experience of the store, the buying experience. Their branding and everything it's really great. That's Jungalow like bungalow, but with a J.
Perfect. Well, Sterling, just one more time. Where can we find you on the internet?
Yes. You can find me personally at @SterlingSmith on Twitter and @Sterling.OOO, not zero, but OOO, on Instagram. And then Sandbox Commerce is @SandboxCommerce everywhere.
Love that matching brand.
Thank you. Ladies, I just want to say thanks for having me. I know things are very busy for you guys and this is one of my favorite podcasts. Keep doing what you're doing and I look forward to reconnecting hopefully to give you guys a progress update over time.
Yeah. We'd love to have you back, absolutely. Have a great day.
Thank you. You too.
You all take care.
Thank you so much.
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