Spying On Shopify Based E-Commerce Stores

I don’t know about you, but spying and reverse engineering are the top two most popular things that we’ve done for years in our company.

In fact, without spying the space, we couldn’t have done much of what we’ve done so far. Two brains are better than one right? A hundred thousand brains are even better. So by all means, always spy in the space you’re trying to create a dent in.

One of the things that we’ve constantly done in the e-commerce space is watching and tracking all the stores hosted on Shopify. Since all the Shopify stores are hosted by Shopify themselves, they actually exist in a very small IP-range. Reverse look-up of the IP range will actually output all the stores hosted on Shopify ever.

If you’re smart and want value out of this data, you could always track their rankings, watch out for sudden movement in stats, identify new entrants that are growing fast i-e trending stores etc. If you’re smarter, you could then dive down even deeper on the stores of your interest and then do the same thing with the products of the stores. You know where this is going, and what all the possibilities are.

It’s really all out there on the internet. Isn’t it?

Do We Choose Grey Hat, Or The Grey Hat Chooses Us

I met this guy in 2009. That’s 11 years ago. He always wore a hat. He loves them.

He taught me how the systems are gamed. I loved it. We were on the Digg’s front-page everyday. We worked for the top guys. I will probably not name them today. May be they don’t want to acknowledge they gamed the system too.

The system was nothing but a recommendation engine. One of the first I had seen. When Twitter and Facebook ranked posts chronologically, Kevin Rose had the recommendation engine figured out. We just knew how to make the best use of it. Reverse engineering it, I would say.

One of our clients in the sports niche got acquired for $150 million dollars. Almost all of our clients are a multi million dollar properties today.

We even made some of our own tiny sites that we drove from Digg.

Over time, struggling between gaming the system for growth, solving an actual problem or doing both at a time, 2020 came.

Today, I’m wondering, how do you build a global business from Pakistan that could one day grow large enough?

How do you hire white people or black people or asian people or anyone to cast them in your ads? Can you? Are there any in this country? If yes, are they actors? They probably aren’t and you probably can’t.

You could outsource though. For tens of thousands of dollars perhaps? Or millions of Pakistani Rupees that you can most likely save in 5 years working in a day job.

If you’re bootstrapped, which you most likely will be because there aren’t any VCs here, what would you do? Would you get that ad made? Or would you pick a hundred ads from the internet, break them apart, and stitch them enough times that they qualify for “fair use” and become DMCA-free. This would probably cost you $50.

Forget about the ads. Not all businesses advertise and advertising could be just one of the many things about building a business. You will most likely require certain kind of digital infrastructure for sure. PayPal? Ability to accept cards i-e payment gateways? But there are none that support this region. What do you do?

You could fly to US or another supported region, setup a company, and use that to setup the rest of the digital infrastructure. But most likely you’ll never get a visa and you probably also can’t afford this travel easily. If you think I’m exaggerating, I know at least 5 tech entrepreneurs from Pakistan who have built multi million dollar businesses but were declined US visit visa.

May be you could fly to one of 31 visa free countries? But they are just as good as your own country as far as the digital infrastructure and access to business tools is concerned.

You could reach out to friends or relatives in US and form a company in partnership with them. You could use that company to setup PayPal, payment gateway and other business tools that you need to begin your business.

But there’s more. You will most likely be banned at some point once you access these business tools physically from within Pakistan.

What do you do then? You could rent a server physically in US. Remote Desktop Protocol. You could access that server remotely and run your business on that. Sounds sketchy, doesn’t it?

But you could get banned for that too. Because it’s not that big of a deal for these multi billion and trillion dollar companies to understand the difference between a data-center’s IP and that of a home in US.

So may be you could buy a Raspberry Pi that you could physically place in someone’s house in US. I’m confident none of my friends or relatives would agree to this. It would seem strange to them that why would someone want to do it? They would think that there could be something malicious going on that could land them in trouble.

You could also buy a laptop and physically place that in their houses and run your businesses with remote access. I know my cousins aren’t going to like that idea. May be yours do.

By the time you would come this far, you would have exhausted 83% of your energies in setting up the the foundation to start your business.

Thousands of entrepreneurs from Pakistan actually have to go through all of this (and more) to actually start their businesses. May be you see a scammer, but I see a victim that turned around his fate and became a hero.

So what happened there? Did we choose that grey hat, or did that grey hat choose us?

Sneak Attack Your Competition: How To Find Out Every Single Thing About Their Website

I’ve previously spoken about reverse engineering which I think is a really powerful approach that we’ve used all our lives to build businesses and solve problems.

I’ve mentioned of wayback machine as a method to see all-time archive of the websites and the iterations that they’ve done. You can see design iterations and identify what didn’t work for them and not make the same mistakes yourself. You could see how their pricing structure iterated over-time etc. It would be fair to say it’s a “change log” of every website.

Another tool that we’ve largely used is Ghostery. It’s built for something else, but we’ve used it for all kind of fuckery (pardon my language for lack of better word).

It’s a tool that is designed to block any and all kind of trackers including ads, analytics, pixels, cookies and more. It is designed so you can have faster, cleaner browsing experience but there are other things you can use it for.

The good thing about Ghostery is that it is very transparent in providing details of every single tracker that is detected on any site. Which means, we can know exactly about most apps, plugins, modules and tools that a website uses. We can even learn about what ad networks they work with, how they fill their inventory and some even more advanced use cases.

For our influencer driven content sites, our entire advertising waterfall was built by sneaking on other publishers with large amount of premium inventory, identifying their trackers, and reaching out to the advertising suppliers of detected trackers.

You’ve to be really great at copying, before you can begin to think how to innovate.

Reverse Engineering Is Awesome

I am not joking when I say that I’ve learnt more from reverse engineering than spending 4 years getting my software engineering degree. Please note, I don’t bash degrees but personally it added very little value in my life. Perhaps, it adds value in the lives of people who seek employment.

Reverse engineering is the simple science of looking at a product and deconstructing it to find the process and the individual units that were brought together to make it.

I think it’s a great process because you can pick up successful products, apps, websites, or anything else, tear them apart and learn the science of how they were built.

You can identify the tools that are used by studying the product and the public source code, and by using other 3rd party reverse engineering tools. You can also study each iteration using the wayback machine to see how it improved over-time. You can learn what was kept in every iteration and what was skipped eventually and why. You can sign up and use the app to study work-flow of each feature. You can study their marketing campaign by checking Facebook Ad Library now that Facebook has made all ads by each page public to be more transparent. And by the end of this entire experiment, you’ll have a pretty fair idea of how this product made it big.

This puts you in a great position to copy and re-construct a similar product and business model. I think more often than not, it’s foolish to try to be super innovative or experimental. Picasso said, and Steve Jobs quoted.

Good artists copy, Great artists steal

Pablo Picasso

So go ahead and learn from people and products that came before you, and then innovate on top of their ideas to the point that it becomes your own.