Writing More

When I was growing up, I always knew I would be a writer. I shouldn’t say always – it got solidified when I was eight.

I had just moved back to Ottawa, my home town. My family had moved to Pittsburgh for my dad’s work three years prior, but we ended up coming back. It was a new city, a new school, a new grade. I was a fairly nerdy kid, although not the type with no friends – just a bit of a dork, but not so much of a dork as to spend most of my time ass up in a garbage can. The type of dork that probably could have been cool, if he didn’t have a speech impediment that made him super nervous in social situations.

I wrote a story in English class that year that blew my teacher away. I remember her getting in touch with my parents to encourage them to get me to keep writing. My parents took this to heart – I remember being excited to go meet a favourite local author at the library, and I bought her adult book on writing that year. I was all-in.

Of course, I never really wrote again after that. My writing career had peaked when I was eight years old. That’s how many things in my life have gone – undoubtedly, the lives of many eight year olds. Bursts of passion and activity, followed by complete abandonment.

I ended up, eventually, in business and software. That’s okay – I love what I do, but I’ve always felt like I should have been a writer. I don’t know what type of writer I would have been. I’m not sure I have the artistry for creative writing, not the organization for non-fiction. Journalism could have been interesting, but I didn’t have the grades to support that nor foresight to realize that maybe I didn’t need to go to college for that to make it work.

I’ve started a dozen blogs over the past 10 years that I’ve been in love with startups and business, and I don’t think I’ve ever posted more than once or twice. I know it’s played out to start writing with a post announcing your intention to start writing, but that’s what I’m doing, with an asterisk. I don’t care if nobody reads this – honestly, I don’t even really want them to. I’m not focusing on distribution, I’m not sharing with my social following. I just want to write because I want to see if I get better at writing by writing more. It seems inevitable, but I want to prove it to myself. My writing will almost certainly be super shitty to start, and that’s okay. There’s no goal here other than improvement.

Taking care of the merchants, the apps, and the reviews

In his book The Hard Thing About Hard Things, Ben Horowitz recounts a quote from his old boss, Jim Barksdale: “We take care of the people, the products, and the profits… In that order.”

Working on the App Store at Shopify, we operate under a similar philosophy: we take care of the merchants, the developers, and the App Store… In that order. Merchant’s experiences with the apps they install is paramount. If we don’t earn — and maintain — the trust of merchants, it doesn’t matter how developer’s feel and it certainly doesn’t matter if the App Store exists. Without merchant trust, developers don’t get installations of their app. Without app installs, the App Store has no purpose.

Merchants put a huge amount of faith in other merchant’s app reviews. Reviews also influence our ranking algorithm, which determines the long term success of an app, making reviews all the more important. Developers know this, and this knowledge has resulted in the pursuit of positive reviews at any cost. So much so, that occasionally, you’ll see reviews like these:

because it’s making me do this before I even try the app (3/5)

Jury still out … (1/5)

What we’re looking at in this example is an app that requires merchants to leave a review part way through a tutorial in order to advance. This is insanity — I truly have no idea how a developer thinks this is a good idea. Nevertheless, this is rampant, and it’s something that we’re taking very seriously. How can merchants trust anything — the reviews, the apps, the App Store — if this is what it’s turned into?

This week we took a fairly large step in maintaining merchant trust. We implemented a minimum character count for all reviews going forward (30 characters), and removed all reviews that don’t meet that standard. What does this look like? It’s removing about 18% of the almost 100,000 reviews across the App Store. It’s removing 0% of some app’s reviews, and 70% of others. There is a significant percentage of the removed reviews that are simply “great app” — that’s it. This isn’t helpful to other merchants, and it’s obvious that in almost every case, this review was obtained in a way that isn’t good for anyone.

It’s easy, when given a role like “Developer Advocate” or “Developer Relations”, to think that serving developers is what’s most important. It is my job to make sure developers are happy with our platform. I believe, fundamentally, that the best way to do this is to make merchants happy first.

Some developers aren’t happy about review removal — it’s interesting, because the ones I’m hearing complain are the ones who are having the most reviews removed. Maybe if they had focused on the people (the merchants), the product (the app), and the profits (the reviews), in that order… Things may have been different for them. I’m excited to continue rewarding the developers that build with a merchant-first attitude.

Thank you to Josh Gosse and Liz Couto for their editing help.

This post was also published on Medium.