WTF #10

Orders Up, Part 1

❓ WTF No Code

SOMETHING WORTH YOUR TIME

In this WTF NO CODE two-parter, we'll explore one of my recent freelance projects involving my client’s wildlife photography and gallery business, his clear-minded objective to bring his print production in-house, and the need to have a cohesive platform to power his business’ operations.

The cool part?

This project was wholly unique as it involved lots of in-person collaboration and travel; something I thought I left behind when I leaned into working for myself and from home.

Let’s get into it.

Part One

One crucial aspect that remains at the forefront of my mind as I operate my freelance service business is that it is imperative I understand my clients and their unique requirements.

To build the perfect collection of no code workflows isn’t enough. I couldn’t just rely on a shallow understanding of what powered my client’s business and as Ken Hoehn and I got to know each other over a series of emails, the insistence that I travel from Vancouver to Calgary and Canmore to discuss details in-person started to make sense.

I truly never anticipated having the opportunity to travel for work again. Sure, I’d love to travel anywhere with access to the internet and work, but travelling for work seemed like a thing of the past. After years of working from home, it wasn’t only a habit, it was a full-on lifestyle choice to work from a tiny home office and benefit from as many of the flexibilities that come with that sort of arrangement.

Despite that strong preference to use Loom videos and Google Docs to keep effective async communication going, I was intrigued by the idea of heading to Alberta for a few days to wrap my head around how things were run at the Ken Hoehn Gallery. After some negotiating (read: forthright conversation – something I’d recommend you establish with your clients early), I committed to diving head-first into the world of Ken’s business. Even before I boarded a plane, I started thinking about how I could align myself with all the important parts of the business processes.

Fundamental business processes like…

  • how customers go about choosing their favourite prints to purchase,

  • what materials would be needed to produce their print,

  • how customers figured out what print size was most ideal for their space, and

  • what important details the print facility team needed for every customer order so they knew how to progress prints through the different stages of a print’s production.

These were just a few ideas that I knew were integral to understanding how things were run IRL and “offline”. Once discovery kicked off with a tour of the print facility in Calgary, I had even more rapid-fire thoughts about how things were run and what we could do to improve them.

So, I began to wrap my head around the art of everything at hand. I was working with really smart people who were experts in what they did. Showing interest in what went into cutting the raw materials to size and shape meant I learned how the facility team worked to anticipate orders coming down the pipe. I was also able to observe the printing & pressing process which came with a better understanding of the different finishes available to customers.

8am at the print facility, Day 1

Along with the the different framing options that can be affixed to each print, I began to piece together that each ordered print would be put through a series of different checkpoints or stations. Those stations were typically hit in sequential order, but sometimes a print wouldn’t need framing, for instance. Knowing that volumes would only grow, it was important that we prevent bottlenecking wherever possible – we simply didn’t want to hold up the print production process if one print didn’t have what was needed for it to be packaged and ready for delivery.

Next stop was the Canmore gallery so I could be a fly on the wall, observing sales associates in their natural habitat much like Ken sought to capture photographic concepts as he observed animals in the backcountry of the natural world.

The Ken Hoehn Gallery in Canmore, Alberta

What quickly became clear to me was that the key to the entire business was the binder.

This binder had been in the picture for a while and the very analogue source of truth for all sales orders placed at the gallery. Regularly, my client would transpose the information captured in the one-page form into a spreadsheet. That spreadsheet was then emailed to the appropriate print facility and from there someone manually determined the priority given to the order, what dimensions the aluminium sheets needed to be cut down to, what sort of printing finish was needed to properly produce the print and fulfill the order. Then it was sort of lost in the ether until everything was packaged and either ready for pick-up or delivery. Only then would a phone call or an email confirm that the customer would soon have their vibrant new addition courtesy of Ken Hoehn.

The front desk at the Ken Hoehn Gallery

I’m sure you can see how risky things could get with this binder if you wanted to increase order volumes and scale the business. When it dawned on me that every sale had been bound by this binder process, my jaw hit the floor. But, despite the riskiness of that binder, I knew it was going to be the basis of a workflow that I’d soon bring online for my client and his team.

At this point in the discovery phase, I felt it important to recollect the many thoughts and ideas I had formed about our project’s goals.

The fundamentals of the platform: Customers place orders, orders have line items.

My mission: to understand all the possible combinations of prints that could be ordered by customers at the Ken Hoehn Gallery and codify that optionality in an app and system that let the gallery sales team rely on their innate abilities to catch, sift through, and synthesize the deluge of information from potential art aficionados – all while ensuring each order made a graceful leap from gallery to production queue. No two orders were alike but there had to be a lowest common denominator and/or a high water mark to rely on. Once I wrapped my head around every possible workflow’s beginning and end, the no code vision began to crystallize in my mind, and a system’s architecture started to take shape.

Thankfully our trusty binder was filled with examples I could use to discern the relationship between the prints being ordered, how they’d appear on a given order, and who that order belonged to.

In other words, I’d have a static relationship between the customer, their order(s), and the line items that made up that order.

What lied beyond simply understanding the most optimal structure for all orders put through our potential platform?

How an order moved from the gallery to the end customer.

The order workflow

This factored in things like whether the final destination was the customer address or the gallery where the customer would pick up their order. It also account for some of the other details like internal orders meant to replenish the gallery’s on-hand inventory – something typical for Ken’s most popular prints.

On of Ken’s most popular prints: Bridge Creek School (circa 1961)

It goes without saying that Ken’s art is far more incredible than my flow chart art, but sense of everything coming together was just as exciting and as vivid.

For the next 36 hours, I had access to the entire business’ operations and used that to my advantage to quickly prototype an Airtable base that instilled some of the fundamentals of the ordering system and solidified the foundation of a new way to operate.

What came next, and a few build details, will be shared in part two.

GO DEEPER

Make sure you spend some time browsing Ken’s work on his website. He’s built a fascinating business around a true passion and has a wealth of experience that I was able to scratch the surface of.

This is also a great example of what projects might be out there. A number of longstanding businesses run the risk of becoming “legacy” and the best way to avoid that is to modernize the core operations of the business. Depending on what the business is all about, that can be a quick switch or a massive overhaul but if you take away one thing I hope it’s this: genuine and thoughtful explorations along with some invigorated curiosity can make one hell of a difference when you’re looking to make an impression with your clients.

🆗 SIMPLE $%!#

My latest project update or feature release. That's it. That's the $%!#.

THE NEED

One thing that took a bit of a backseat during this ordering platform project was that there would be a few different channels through which orders could be placed. The print facility would also handle orders for custom prints placed through a Shopify store so that meant the platform would need to capture and ingest Shopify’s Order payment webhooks.

The small problem here is that Shopify seems to be very generous when sending its webhooks which means I need to account for similar payloads in quick succession while upserting the relevant pieces of data.

THE STACK

THE RESULT

Since every webhook notification’s payload comes with an Order ID it was simple to merge the nearly duplicate data that came through to Airtable. Those webhook notifications would also include data about the order’s line items along with the custom image that’d be uploaded by the user.

All of that data ends up formatted in a way familiar to the team at the print facility; making for a fully unified workflow.

THE EXTENDED VERSION

The extended version of this is something to marvel at, at least as far as I’m concerned. I’ll have more to share about this project in the coming weeks in part two of this project showcase!

✌️

🌶 Spicy Takes

This gets your attention today but won't mean much in a few months.

There was a time when Stripe was considered the gold standard for nearly everything it did.

API Docs?

Gold.

UX & UI?

Gold.

Supporting small businesses and finding new and incredible ways to make the lives of entrepreneurs easier?

Gold.

Nowadays?

Stripe seems to have fallen from grace.

Look, I’m all about creating new automations and incredible efficiency, especially when it comes to transactional emails being delivered in high volumes, but you can’t put something in place without the right safeguards and alerting, especially if you’re valued at over $50B.

The one thing that has to remain intact is the consideration for the human being – on both sides of the coin. This is especially the case with AI-driven shortcuts coming at us from all angles and companies being sold on solutions for problems that are of their own making.

I guess I’m advocating for everyone to slow the F#@! down. We’re all getting back so much time anyway.

Or, I guess we can all just put XYZ EXPERIENCE on our resumes and hustle even harder.

🚽 
(out of 5 🌶)

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