From Indie Makers to SaaS Business Owners — Shopify App Development (2021)


Many professional software developers are curious about experimenting with app development. The prospect of true financial freedom from running their own SaaS business is an exciting possibility. But is it possible to build and support a sustainable Shopify app development business while working a full-time job? 

When Indian software developers Mukul Chaware and Tarang Agarwal formed SidePanda in 2020, they asked themselves this exact question. 

Over the course of six months, the team discovered that not only was it possible, but they were able to scale their business to the point where they could focus on app development full-time. 

It takes time and focus to build a successful app on Shopify. But it’s now easier than ever to learn how to build a Shopify app as a side project, by adopting developer tools and connecting with a collaborative partner community.

As SidePanda found, this leap into the unknown would empower them to turn a side project into a full-time business. We sat down with Chaware and Agarwal to learn exactly how they did it.

Indie makers by night: Comfortable, but ready for more

The inspiration to start an app development business came from Chaware and Agarwal’s drive to create a future for themselves outside of their day-to-day jobs. 

“As professional developers, we were very happy with our jobs, but we had something in us which made it still uncomfortable,” Chaware says. “We were software developers by day and indie makers by night.” 

We were software developers by day and indie makers by night.

Mukul Chaware, co-founder of SidePanda

From the beginning, Chaware and Agarwal had a clear goal: build an app that would generate enough revenue so they could enjoy financial freedom.

“It was not meant to be a hobby project,” Chaware adds. “This was something we wanted to grow into a potential profit-generating business.” 

SidePanda: Side by side informal headshot photos of co-founders Mukul Chaware and Tarang Agarwal.
Mukul Chaware and Tarang Agarwal of SidePanda

The duo started developing apps for GitHub and Slack since they were already familiar with these tools. This was a great opportunity to learn how to build solutions that assist with workflow management. But it wasn’t the right space to build if they wanted to reach their goal of financial freedom.

The team soon discovered that they were missing the power of distribution. That’s when they decided to build a public app on the Shopify App Store. But Chaware and Agarwal still had lingering questions that needed answers.

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When self-doubt slows success

Chaware and Agarwal say getting access to an app marketplace where more than 1.7 million merchants regularly visit was easily one of the main reasons why they were attracted to Shopify’s partner ecosystem.

As developers starting their own business without an online presence or an existing global customer network, the SidePanda team felt they could rely on the Shopify App Store as a robust channel for distribution. Instead of worrying about finding customers, they were able to focus on the actual research and development of their app.

Even though they had resolved their distribution challenge, they still hesitated to build on Shopify.

“One question we had before getting started on Shopify was, is it too late?’ Have we lost that chance to build a profitable business on Shopify?” Chaware says.

The duo delayed building an app because they weren’t sure if their app would be able to stand out. While there are now more than 6,000 apps in the Shopify App Store, each stage of the merchant journey is a billion dollar industry—from sales and conversion to orders and shipping.

“Looking back, if we had removed this line of thought we could have started building three or four months earlier,” Chaware adds. 

As Chaware and Agarwal researched Shopify, they found a huge range of opportunities existed for the growing merchant base. So they decided to develop apps focusing on niche areas that weren’t supported by native Shopify functionality. 

Now that they were convinced a great opportunity existed, they still had one more question to answer: How exactly does Shopify work?

Chaware and Agarwal had never used Shopify before. And since they didn’t fully understand merchants’ problems, they weren’t sure if it was the right platform to build on after all.

“Will a merchant pay for a solution made by people who are not experienced in the Shopify ecosystem? This was the kind of self-doubt we had starting off,” Chaware explains. 

SidePanda realized that even if they weren’t well-versed in the Shopify merchant experience, they could learn about it. The duo got to work, reading blog posts and speaking to other developers to help guide them. 

Our knowledge grew to the point where we could contribute and help merchants. So it wasn’t like turning on a switch, it was a gradual learning process.

Tarang Agarwal, co-founder of SidePanda

“The first month was about understanding the whole ecosystem as much as we could,” Agarwal says. “And over time our knowledge grew to the point where we could contribute and help merchants. So it wasn’t like turning on a switch, it was a gradual learning process.” 

Once they were confident they understood the needs of merchants and how their app ideas fit into the Shopify App Store, they got to work building.

The first app they launched was Appointo, a public app that taps into the emerging market of services and bookings. Two months later, they launched Depo, an app that enables merchants to manage security deposits and complex payments.

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Short, consistent bursts: How to build without burning out

Balancing their day jobs alongside app development on Shopify meant that Chaware and Agarwal had to take a smart approach to how they would manage their workload. The team found that working in short bursts consistently allowed them to build without burning out.

“It’s a marathon, not a sprint,” Chaware explains. “On weekdays we tried to squeeze in two to three hours of work every day and on weekends we would do all the heavy lifting.” 

It’s a marathon, not a sprint. On weekdays we tried to squeeze in two to three hours of work every day and on weekends we would do all the heavy lifting.

Mukul Chaware, co-founder of SidePanda

Once they decided what apps they were going to build, SidePanda got to work, fitting time around their day jobs, but also taking breaks after every four-week sprint to reflect and recover.

“Our mindset is we want to enjoy life, work, and earn money. So we try to put in consistent efforts instead of doing a 15-hour day of coding. It allows us to balance a healthy lifestyle. Consistent effort is everything—that’s our motto at SidePanda,” Chaware says.

Maintaining a healthy work-life balance was a driving motivator for focusing on Shopify app development full-time. 

“Alongside our full-time jobs, the side requests were increasing. So instead of hampering our work-life balance we decided to go full-time developing apps and have a healthier work-life balance overall,” Agarwal says.

The compound interest of development over time

Starting small and building up gradually allowed SidePanda to scale and learn the technical skills needed for building on Shopify. 

“The development compounds very well with time,” Chaware says. “Initially it might feel a little slow, like you’re only seeing small improvements. But if you’re investing two to three hours every day, it compounds. Within a week, within a month, you’ll start to see results.” 

Initially it might feel a little slow, like you’re only seeing small improvements. But if you’re investing two to three hours every day, it compounds. Within a week, within a month, you’ll start to see results.

Mukul Chaware, co-founder of SidePanda

In addition to working consistently, what other advice would SidePanda give to developers in a similar space, looking to build on Shopify? 

“Just try to build it,” Chaware suggests. “Instead of going into analysis paralysis, or waiting for that ‘right idea’ to come, you have to go to that idea, the idea will not come to you! And the only way to do that is by building things.” 

“Even if you listen to all the success stories and all their experiences—these are experiences that cannot be transferred. So the only way to learn those experiences is to go through that journey. And the goal should not be to make zero mistakes, the goal should be to make many mistakes along the way.” 

Agarwal also points to the value of creating that first product and reaching early milestones with users. 

“Before working on SidePanda I was trying to build a SaaS business and it was taking a long time. Eventually that initial motivation started to decrease. But when we moved to Shopify, and we could build our apps quickly and start to see feedback and adoption quickly, it increased our motivation. So my recommendation is to start with something and get it in front of users as quickly as possible.” 

Speeding up development with tooling

SidePanda was able to graduate from working on app development as side projects to being dedicated full-time in the space of six months, due in large part to the availability of intuitive developer tools. 

“Because of Shopify, the problem we have to solve is what to build, not how to build,” Chaware says. “The lego pieces are already there, we just need to put those lego pieces together, in terms of the app UI and backend.”

Shopify’s Polaris design system allowed the team to move quickly during development and keep in sync with Shopify’s style guidelines. This enabled SidePanda to go from the ideation phase to submitting an MVP of their first app to the Shopify App Review team in the space of 10 days. 

The reason we could move so quickly was because all the elements we needed were provided by Shopify.

Tarang Agarwal, co-founder of SidePanda

“The reason we could move so quickly was because all the elements we needed were provided by Shopify,” Agarwal says.

“What surprised us with Polaris was the amount of UI components that were already present,” Agarwal says. “Honestly, having worked with a lot of frameworks that are open-source, and not directed towards a marketplace or a specific company, we were pretty happy, actually astonished, by the number of UI elements that are present there.”

Overcoming payment problems with the Billing API

Payments and billing were also a big challenge that SidePanda anticipated, but working with the Billing API reduced the level of effort required to process charges for merchants using the app. 

“When we were building on GitHub and Slack the major problem was we had to create our own payment processing system,” Agarwal says. “That’s a big plus point with Shopify, especially when there are cancellations and refunds, which are pain points with handling payments.” 

There was also an international aspect to payments with Shopify apps that helped SidePanda launch their apps. 

“One more reason we chose Shopify, with respect to the payment part is, it has enabled us to take payments from all over the world,” Chaware says. “For example, if we want to integrate Stripe on an independent platform, it’s currently difficult in India as we’d have to set up a business customer entity. So there’s a major hurdle there to charging online..” 

“All in all, building our first Shopify app was pretty simple” Agarwal confirms. “It was easy to work with the Polaris components, implement the Billing API, and understand the documentation. All this made our lives a lot easier. 

“Our goal was to release an app in two or three weeks, but with all the help we were able to submit an app for review in just 10 days,” Agarwal adds. “It basically boils down to Shopify wanting us to focus on the merchant problem. All the other aspects of app-building, they can support us with.”

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A personal touch: Improving onboarding and support

When SidePanda launched Appointo in October, it was quickly selected as a Staff Pick, and they started to see a sharp rise in installs. However, they found that their onboarding flow wasn’t working as expected: merchants weren’t creating appointments and weren’t watching the instructional video in the app’s dashboard. 

So in just two days, the duo built a new onboarding flow that guides a merchant quickly through the app when they install it for the first time. 

“The new onboarding flow tells merchants what the app does and guides them through setting up appointments on a product,” Agarwal says. 

Once a merchant has completed the onboarding, their whole setup will be complete for one product, and when they navigate to the online store they will be able to book an appointment. 

“Our whole thought process was that the onboarding should be as easy as possible so they’ll understand what the app can do,” Agarwal adds. 

SidePanda: Screenshot of the Appointo onboarding flow that guides the merchant in setting up the app.
Appointo’s onboarding flow guides the merchant in setting up the app, as well as providing an option for a personal session with the team

The number of support tickets also rose when SidePanda added this new onboarding flow. When merchants initially landed on the empty dashboard, they wouldn’t watch the video or access the live chat option. However, when merchants could see an example of what the app does, they would use the live chat to learn how they could apply it to their own specific use case. 

“We realized that the onboarding and the support were two critical areas for us for retaining our users,” Chaware says. “We want merchants to be able to understand the product fast and we want our merchants to be able to get in touch with us easily. We want to understand merchants’ problems better and give them attention. So we try our best to respond as fast as we can.” 

We realized that the onboarding and the support were two critical areas for us for retaining our users.

Mukul Chaware, co-founder of SidePanda

Connecting with merchants through support has been hugely valuable in understanding how best to iterate and improve their app. Even if a merchant’s requirement is not on SidePanda’s roadmap, they’ve tried to make it possible. 

To keep the close connection with their users open, the pair have added a feature within the app UI to book a call with the team. 

“We’ll get on a call with merchants so we can fully understand their problem and help them set up the whole flow,” Chaware says. “We’ve found that merchants want to stay with us because our response rate is very high.” 

Agarwal echoes this sentiment. “Every merchant has a unique story and can have unique requirements. We think it’s important that merchants feel they can contact us easily which is why we integrated a live chat, and the book-a-call option into the app. Everyone needs a human touch. Merchants feel more confident using our app knowing there’s someone they can get in touch with easly who can help them.”

Everyone needs a human touch. Merchants feel more confident using our app knowing there’s someone they can get in touch with easly who can help them.

Tarang Agarwal, co-founder of SidePanda

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Growing into the future

From researching potential markets and evaluating platforms, to building out an MVP app that solves specific merchant problems and enhancing their services, SidePanda has followed the path of many other successful Shopify app developers, by starting small and working smart. 

In less than a year, SidePanda’s journey has taken them from professional software developers working on side projects in their spare time, to quitting their jobs and dedicating their focus to Shopify app development full time. So what does the future hold for them? 

We’re already looking into developing two or three new apps, but before that, we want to iterate on our existing apps, and provide the best experience to our merchants.

Mukul Chaware, co-founder of SidePanda

“We still feel like newcomers in the Shopify ecosystem, so we’re currently exploring and slowly planning out the future steps for our business,” Chaware explains. “We’re already looking into developing two or three new apps, but before that, we want to iterate on our existing apps, and provide the best experience to our merchants.” 

Connecting with merchants, improving their products, and building consistently has allowed SidePanda to nurture a customer base that sustains their business. By making the most of these opportunities and developing impactful solutions, their future in the Shopify ecosystem is looking bright.



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