Orion: 2018 IN REVIEW

This is the time of the year when most people do a review of how they spent the year, on a personal and professional level. I’m sure you do it too. It’s an exercise that is important because it helps you know whether you are moving forward or backwards, or even staying on one spot.

This year, I decided to share with you my experiences, failures and successes of 2018, within Orion. But before we do that, lets do a throwback of how Orion started and the challenges we overcame to be here today.

I am the lead of Orion Origin, a tech company based in West Africa, in Benin. We create  WordPress plugins that make selling easier for WooCommerce stores. Established in a Francophone country that is not yet advanced in technology, Orion has been able to break the barrier of impossibilities and today has more than 10,000 customers all over the world (France, America, Spain, India, China, Pakistan, Russia, Finland etc..)

I started with 3 employees, working on slow laptops, battling with power outages that can last for 24 hours, and looking out for qualified human resources to join the team. Today I have a team of 19 young and dynamic men and women (some are extremely productive interns that I am hoping would definitely join the team) working towards the growth of Orion.

These have been the challenges I’ve been facing since 2012. Today I am proud to say that things are getting better. I had high and low moments, memories of sadness, happiness and stress, but above all the challenges we faced, we’ve always been able to find a solution despite the inadequate environment in which we are.

Let’s get back to 2018. I started 2018 with multiple goals to achieve for the year and with the help of my team, we managed to reach more than half of them. There have been a lot of improvement in the company, but I will highlight some of the most important ones below.

 

Our accomplishments

One of my goals for 2018 was to be able to sell our products directly from our website and gradually move them away from Codecanyon. I decided to leave Codecanyon because of two main reasons:

 

    1. One of the reasons is that Codecanyon does not give us access to our customers’ database. There was no way to know our customers’ profiles, so no way to perfect our marketing strategy, neither to upsell or cross sell other products, nor to target new customers based on existing data. In a nutshell they limited our growth and that was quite frustrating.
    2. Secondly there were a lot of changes implemented by the marketplace (Codecanyon). Some of the rules they implemented negatively affected some authors. For example, they allowed authors to define their prices, for that matter many authors saw their earning decrease because of the authors driven pricing. That move created a lot of frustration because some authors were selling products as low as $10 just to be able to attract more customers even if their products were really bad. It created a new kind of competition that was simply bad business for everyone who had a great product and a great support team (with a higher price).
    3. Finally, they couldn’t allow us to sell subscriptions to our customers via their platform. All these issues triggered my decision to gradually move out.

 

In so doing, my team and I needed to find an alternative solution. If we removed our plugins from Codecanyon, how do we sell directly from our website?

Living and working in Cotonou, I am in the part of Africa that is not yet highly developed in ecommerce. We don’t have an adequate payment system that can help us receive direct payments from our international customers. The existing payment gateways like Paypal and others don’t support Benin because of the limitations of our banking systems.

The only payment gateway I found that was able to handle our needs is Stripe Atlas by Stripe because they allow any business anywhere in the world to register a company in the USA and receive direct payments on their website. In addition to that they offer a knowledgeable community of experts and entrepreneurs with which you can exchange, get advice and support.

Now that was not the end!

My team and I had to prepare the withdrawal process, and inform our old customers of the mechanism that will facilitate the conversion of their Code Canyon licence to ours, to avoid conflicts and service interruption.

The process was successful! We can now receive payments directly on our website thanks to Stripe Atlas!

This has been a relief, because one of my goals was to make the company gradually independent from marketplaces!

We made some mistakes during the process (of course), but we got valuable insights and experience from it. We were then able to improve our marketing strategies, our documentation, tutorials and product materials because we were now able to talk to our customers and use their feedback to make our plugins user-friendly.

We then proceeded to remove our plugin called Woocommerce All Discounts from Code Canyon. It is now exclusively sold on it’s own on our  website. And we are also preparing the removal of the Woocommerce Product Configurator plugin from Code Canyon, and sell it based on a subscription model. We decided to launch it in 2019, to minimize the risk of service interruptions that could happen during Christmas and New Year’s Eve. The process would be completed by January 2019.

Another major achievement this year, was the development of a new plugin called  Lettering and Signs Designer. It is a plugin that can be used to create any type of lettering, sign or decal online prior to order. The idea behind the creation of the LSD plugin came from the fact that some of our clients, after seeing the Woocommerce Product Designer plugin asked if we didn’t have a plugin that can be used only for lettering and signs. Then we decided to satisfy their needs by creating one. That we did! It wasn’t really a blast, but it was useful for those who really needed it, and out of that we learnt something new. We discovered the Minimum Viable (MVP) test.

A minimum viable product (MVP) is a concept defined by Eric Ries as that version of a new product which allows a startup to collect the maximum amount of validated information from it’s customers. In simple words, a minimum viable product is a way for a startup to make sure an idea will be a success at a low cost if no cost at all.

A key premise behind the idea of MVP is that you produce an actual product (which may be no more than a landing page, or a service with an appearance of automation, but which is fully manual behind the scenes) that you can offer to customers and observe their actual behavior with the product or service. Seeing what people actually do with respect to a product is much more reliable than asking people what they would do. This process can save you a lot of time and money.

From then on we integrated the MVP test to all our future projects to avoid wasting time on projects people will not be interested in. That is what we call smart work!

Another difficulty we had was testing. We built and executed test cases on all our plugins’ features manually. This became tiring, and the consequence was that the developers in Testing department just set up test cases that worked, and moved on to other tasks.

This resulted in a whole new set of problems, like having avoidable bugs cropping up every time we provided plugin updates or launched a new plugin. Of course we got angry customers with complaints.

Since we started using an automatic test case module, things got better. We tried various modules like Codeception ( a system that simplifies test for PHP) and Cypress (a fast and reliable testing system for anything that runs in a browser). We finally adopted Cypress because of its ease of use and test case conception.

From then on and for all our future plugins and new feature updates, automatic test cases will systematically be applied to them in our workflow and according to the scenarios defined. This will avoid the problems linked to bugs in the implementation of new features.

We also had failures in 2018, everything didn’t always  go as expected, but we always learnt something new from our setbacks. Let’s talk about some of them.

DOWNSIDES

My team and I had some difficulties in managing the support system. Giving out support and coding new features at the same time is a bit tough. Some customers complained of slow response from our side.

One of the major reason is due to the “time zone”. When it is daytime in Benin it can be night time in Europe or America which is where most of our customers are. Knowing that, we made sure that our response time is not more than 6 hours.

Our future challenge is to be able to have a night and day support team. And also not slack in the development of new features and plugins.

My team and I had the brilliant idea of developing a plugin that could merge data from two different sites. We started coding the plugin till halfway before learning about the MVP process!

What if the plugin wasn’t really demanded by the public? Would people really pay to get a plugin that solves data merging problems? So many questions we needed to answer before putting that plugin on the market. We were taking a risk, the risk of wasting time and resources to develop a product that may not sell.

Halfway through the process, the feedback from the various platforms and audiences we tested weren’t all that positive and encouraging to release the WP data merge plugin.

So we decided to put a break on it. Of course if after reading this you’re interested in that plugin, feel free to leave your email on the site. If we get a lot of interested parties, we’ll complete it.

Later on I realized that we needed to restructure our internal working system, and distribute responsibilities to be more effective. Let’s see how this was carried out, below.

INTERNAL ORGANISATION EXPERIENCE

It is equally important to note that there is a limit to what the human brain can do simultaneously when it goes beyond 8 hours. Initially, I was the only one managing all the products individually and assigning tasks to everyone., But as time went by and the team started to grow, workload became heavier and my ability to work effectively on all the projects naturally reduced.

This affected the quality and the final result of each project. The solution to that problem was putting in place a system that will put some flexibility in the workflow. I assigned chief project managers to coordinate the tasks around our three bestselling products.

  • Madinath Adjibade, a big and round woman, affectionately called “the mother of Orion”. She is the mother of a beautiful girl and she loves cooking during her spare time. She became the product manager of the Woocommerce Product Configurator plugin.

 

  • Donald Faly, a calm and reserved guy. A football and music fanatic. He loves Eden Hazard, Chelsea, and the french rapper Booba. He became the product manager of the Woocommerce All Discounts plugin. 

 

  • Bellarmin Zinsou, the thinker. He loves coding and doing business. Always on the lookout for business opportunities. He coordinates every task related to the Woocommerce Product Designer plugin.

They now manage their team members to accomplish the tasks related to each product.

The distribution of responsibility has helped in the fluidity of tasks, reduced the stress level and has made the working structure clearer. It was also an opportunity for the assigned chief project managers to learn on how to manage a team and acquire news skills.

Yes, we worked, we planned, we coded, but we did other things more fun. We travelled as a team this year. Let’s dig deeper!

Team activities

How did we land in Nigeria in 2018?

I had the opportunity to participate tato a WordCamp in Nashville in december last year. That visit gave me a feel of how the WordPress community in the USA functions.

It is true that the realities in America and Africa are different, and that experience pushed me to find out if there was a similar WordCamp in Africa which I could attend. Before leaving Nashville, I went online and applied to be a speaker at the Lagos Wordcamp 2018.

Then I decided to take along my whole working crew so that each member could discover more on how the tech world in Nigeria looks like. We were a group of 17 devs and techies from 3 companies that embarked on the journey.

We had a tour guide, a Nigerian lady based in Benin that traveled with us to Nigeria and helped us find our way. We rented an apartment in an estate and it was quite interesting because in Benin that kind of housing concept doesn’t really exist.

Orion Team at WCLagos

That is how the team participated for it’s first time at a WordCamp in March 2018 in Lagos, Nigeria. It was a period of fun and discovering ourselves outside the work environment. Meeting other young men and women in the tech world and seeing how they function in their environment broadened our perspective. We discovered Paystack, a solution for businesses to accept secure payments from multiple local and global payment channels anywhere in the world.

Being one of the speakers at the WordCamp, I shared with the audience my experiences on “ How to be a wordpress developer in a developing country ”. It was an interactive exchange that was really appreciated by the audience.

Speaking at WCLAGOS

SOME FACES BEHIND ORION

Yes, our team grew and I’m sure you are curious to know more about some of the individuals that are doing a wonderful job behind the scenes to satisfy you.

In 2018, eight new team members came on board and several moved from part time contractors to full time.

  • Klados Akodjenou, a tall and fair guy that wears black glasses and is always ready to blast you with Russian anecdotes. He joined us after several years in Russia and became one of our graphic and interface designer. Klados has been doing a wonderful job ever since.

 

  • Israel Dossou, tall and slim, he is the type of guy that is always playing video games if he is not coding. He moved from an internship to a full time contract to help out as our backend developer.

 

  • Sessou Geraud, a friendly and calm guy, that loves dancing and video games. He  also moved from an internship to a full time contract to help out as a backend developer.

 

  • Quenum Olympe, he loves to watch anime series and loves listening to music. He  joined us as an intern for academic reasons and gradually moved to a full time contract as a backend developer.

 

  • Emmanuel Adepklovi, aka “the blacker the berry”, is very respectful and always willing to help others. He also joined us for a professional internship.

 

  • Seraphine Eriyomi is the most calm person in the team, you rarely hear her voice but she is always taking tea and coding. She joined us as a backend developer and has been a great support.

 

  • Barnor Oderic is a mysterious kind of guy that loves music and braiding his hair. He joined us as a backend developer and has been doing well so far.

 

  • Adedayo Adeniyi is a plump and jovial lady, who always gives you a beautiful smile. She joined our team after our visit to Nigeria. We met her through Mary Job, one of the organizers of the WordCamp Lagos 2018. Then she joined us to help out as our “Customer success manager”. She is based in Nigeria and manages our support system remotely. She has been doing a good job!

 

  • Yannick Zohou is a very buoyant and energetic developer that always makes it his business to make others laugh. He was a backend developer, he decided to continue his studies in France and unfortunately we had to say goodbye to him.

You would be asking yourself by now how we were able to get all these people on board. ESGIS (School of Management, of Informatics and of Sciences, called in french Ecole Supérieure de Gestion, d’Informatique et des Sciences (ESGIS)) is a school that gives training in accounting and financial management, in sales management, in informatics, and in advanced technology sectors such as telecommunications and electronics. I am a living product of ESGIS. I completed my postgraduate course there, so it was natural to go there first for help.

To solve our hiring problem, ESGIS provided us with a constant flux of interns. Systematically the best interns were asked to join the team on a full time contract. Namely Cadet, Orderic, Donald, Israel, Seraphine, and Géraud are all alumnis of ESGIS.

In short this year I wanted more human resources to help out and we got more than enough. It has been an incredible journey working with them. My team members are the heartbeat of the company, and for all the work they have done we are grateful to them.

PROGRESS

Every business needs to have a vision for the future. Every business needs to find ways to grow in terms of human, material and financial resources, if not that business will die.

I had to conquer a lot of obstacles to get to where I am today. One of my goals for the near future is to be able to train the next generation of youth to be able to attain self-employment and remote working, to get jobs, in order to develop the IT sector in the country, while reducing hunger as much as possible.

One way to do this is to create a place for innovation and knowledge-sharing (Orion headquarters). That was one of the issues I discussed with my team during the retreat we had.

During the retreat we visited two farms, we also visited the land that has been dedicated to be the future headquarters of Orion and our training facilities. The headquarters of Orion is located in Pahou, on the outskirts of Cotonou. A city surrounded by green life, lakes and fresh air all crowned with a serene atmosphere.

We discussed about the future of the company in front of a buffet composed of african local delicacies.

Another progress noted this year is related to “health”. Health is precious and can sometimes make us spend a lot money. You can never predict sickness, you can also never predict the amount of money you can spend on a sickness. That is why a health insurance is necessary.

Sadly, health insurance is neither automatic nor mandatory in Benin. Only a few young companies offer a health insurance to their employees. The health insurance companies here have a very complicated procedure that does not benefit my company.

I finally found a health insurance system solution that could benefit both the company and my employees. That is; we support 80% of their health bill and they support the remaining 20%.

The final progress action that took place in 2018 is related to “Energy”.

Energy is very crucial to our tech world. Light, internet, they all depend on energy, and living in an environment where there is power outage can be quite frustrating.

First of all, the kind of energy the electrical company gives us is very unstable, because we end up having power fluctuations and our appliances such as our chargers, laptops, routers, and inverters always get a shock whenever there is a light off.

We always had to suffer from headaches and heat when the light goes off and when the generator comes on. All this could not help us progress so we found an alternative solution. Solar Energy!

So we took a giant leap by migrating from the classic energy system to the solar energy system. The cost of the solar energy system is a 4 years investment. We would only start benefiting from it after four years and from then on we will enjoy free energy and for life! Isn’t that smart too?

We can now work with our own energy and save up a lot of money!

When we talk about money, we talk about revenue!

REVENUE

2018 treated us well, maybe because of the decisions we took earlier in the year. Globally we saw a 43.46% increase in earnings during 2018 (without mentioning the custom jobs and sales on our website).

We also made progress based on the sales of our product licences. We have our main products and different add-ons that complete some of the plugins as follows:

Woocommerce Products Designer – Online Product Customizer for Shirts, Cards, Lettering & Decals –  3339 Sales

Woocommerce Visual Products Configurator – Customize and Configure any Product Visually – 2892 Sales

Woocommerce All Discounts – 1000+ Sales

Woocommerce Visual Attributes & Options Swatches – 827 sales

Visual Product Configurator Custom Text Add On – 195 sales

Lom Nava skin for Visual Product Configurator – 136 Sales

And many more that you can see here

Three things we can boast of at Orion is:

  1. We have never missed nor skimped on payroll due to financial inflexibility
  2. We are 100% self-funded and have never taken on loans nor any other kind of financing out of necessity
  3. Every year our earnings are increasing and never the other way round

PLANS FOR THE FUTURE

My team and I are looking at a new model of subscription for our plugins. A model that would be able to sustain our business and enable us to collaborate directly with our customers without a third party, enable us to better satisfy our customers and produce quality support.

One of our 2019 project is to release a woocommerce t-shirt designer and phone case designer plugin. This is a way for us to simplify the Woocommerce Product Designer (WPD) plugin and to make it more effective. WPD was initially created to serve every printable product like bags, mugs, cards, stickers etc. As time went by each customer requested for specific features which were not included in the plugin.

We added those features to the plugin to satisfy our customers. Along the line the plugin became very loaded with features, and some of these features added were not necessarily useful for every customer that purchased the plugin. Because each customer had a specific product and needed only the features that will enable him to sell.

 That is how we decided to simplify the plugin and make it product specific depending on what the customers want.

The  Woocommerce t-shirt designer and phone case designer plugin offers you an optional service, one of the options is that it can be fully handled by our team from scratch, from the reservation of your domain name to the creation of your custom products, and also the maintenance and all custom requests of your website.

Long but interesting! That is how we spent our year. It has been very interesting and amazing.

In the meantime we are ready for what 2019 has in store for us.

 

                                                                             HAPPY NEW YEAR !