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Warning: Do Not Migrate to Magento Until You Read This Blog Post

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The move to Magento was one of the worst periods of my life, but it lead to enormous success. Here’s what you need to know about Magento migration.

For years I ran my own ecommerce retailer on Magento. The platform allowed our company to experience incredible growth, scalability, and ultimately a successful exit.

The downside? The move to Magento was one of the worst periods of my life. In migrating over our growing, profitable, SEO-optimized business, we nearly lost the whole enchilada.

When I say “lost,” I mean LOST—as in “going out of business.” As in millions of dollars in revenue dropping to zero. It was a year of total pwnage.

If that last sentence scares the bejesus out of you, if you happen to be considering a shopping cart replatforming or migration, read on.

The Early Days: Fun with a DIY Shopping Cart

magento migration

We built our retailer from the ground up in 2003, coding the site and shopping cart ourselves.

This gave us a few big advantages. It kept costs down and let us be flexible—we were able to quickly deploy features in response to customer requests. For a bootstrapped retail brand focused on service, it was perfect.

By 2008 however, we were becoming increasingly frustrated with our homemade platform. Our retailer was generating several million dollars in revenue and drop-shipping products from hundreds of vendors. We wanted to spend less time in the coding weeds, and at the same time roll out cool front-end features like multi-store functionality (pioneered by competitors CSN/Wayfair and Hayneedle).

It would take us months to build stuff like that ourselves.

Magento offered a promising solution. Because it’s an open-source, PHP-based system we knew there was an army of third-party developers out there who could help us improve the site. And the defining feature of Magento (in the early days) was its multi-store capability.

So after testing the beta version and drooling at all the built-in features, we decided to take the plunge.

Our Magento Migration: AKA the Valley of Death

is magento worth it

Confident hackers, we decided we could replatform our site to Magento ourselves. We spent a few months preparing—we wrote queries that would move all our product, customer, and order data from our original MySQL database over to Magento’s database in a matter of minutes.

We developed some command-line scripts to pull over all our product images to a new host. And we developed the new, slick Magento front-end theme, complete with all the free extensions we could get our hands on.

On the evening of November 14th, 2009, we migrated the site. I put up a maintenance page, updated the DNS, and began executing queries to move all our data. I couldn’t wait until the next morning when our customers would experience a new, better, faster, more functional DesignPublic.com.

“Just how much would conversion rates increase?” I thought. 20%? 30%? Where would I put all that additional cash?

The next morning came, and the site was still down. I don’t know how long it remained down — it’s hard for me to remember now because I blocked out that time as a PTSD coping mechanism.

migration to magento

I do know that over the next few weeks, I pulled about 10 all-nighters working on our server. My social life and relationships ground to a halt. The site remained unreliable for weeks, if not months.

With the site frequently down, revenue went to zero. Even worse, our top-ranking pages all plummeted because of the site’s skyrocketing bounce rate. Every day I would check our Google rankings to find we’d dropped another few positions for our key terms and brands.

Months later when we ultimately did get the site humming, our rankings — and revenue — lagged. It was almost a year until our revenue run-rate recovered.

What Went Wrong? Four Things…

So what went wrong, and more importantly, how can you avoid the same nightmare?

1. We raced head-first into new, beta software

moving website to magento

My co-founder and I are early adopters. If there’s a new iPhone, we want it. A new piece of software? We start drooling. When Magento launched, we ignored the “beta” label and only saw that it would solve all our development nightmares while adding a slew of shiny new features to help us grow our business.

In retrospect, we should have waited a revision or two. Early versions of Magento were extremely buggy. Things didn’t work well out of the box: front-end crashes would happen daily, and random system caches would gradually fill up and torpedo the server.

All this would have made it complicated to run a simple five-product store. For us, with a complex catalog of more than 20,000 products with heaps of traffic and specific drop-shipping demands on the back-end, the bugginess was crippling.

I remember looking at Magento’s public bug-tracking system and thinking: “Wow, we have contributed over half of these things.”

It was pretty optimistic of us to expect the migration to come off without a hitch. Today Varien has stripped this “beta” label off the product, and the software has undergone no fewer than ten major revisions. As a result, it is battle-tested and migrations should avoid many of our early troubles.

2. We vastly underestimated the server requirements

magento guide

Upon migration, DesignPublic.com immediately became unresponsive due to some combination of the complexity of our catalog, the volume traffic to our site, and the limitations of our existing hosting package. We had to change hosting providers three times over the next two months before obtaining a functional site — with each move we’d increase the server size or processing power.

When the site slowed to a crawl, our bounce rates would skyrocket. This sparked a vicious cycle: first, our conversion rates would fall. Revenue would plummet. Then, because Google took site bounce rates into account as a ranking factor, our top-ranked pages began to drop from the search index. Revenue plummeted again.

Simply put, we had no idea of the server requirements for a fast-running Magento installation. Now we do. My recommendation? Go with a proven Magento host who offers a strong VPS, and expect to pay up for monthly server costs.

3. We migrated ourselves

moving to magento

My co-founder and I are pretty tech-savvy guys. We code, we can reboot servers, we embrace the challenge of learning everything we can about the tech side of our business.

That said, we had no business migrating our own site to Magento. I’ve had a lot more experience with Magento since then, and have mastered the migration process — but even if I had all of that  knowledge back in 2008, I shouldn’t have been migrating our site.

Why? Because as anyone who has read Michael Gerber’s E-myth can attest, owners should work on the business not in the business.

how to migrate to magento

As the business owner, I should have been thinking of maximizing the value of my business — launching marketing programs, adding more merchandise, pursuing partnerships and new channels. Instead, for months after and before our migration I was only thinking about database queries, servers, and code.

None of that drove sales.

We viewed the migration as a fun puzzle that we were eager to solve, but we didn’t realize that that approach had serious business repercussions. Our eyes were not on the ball, and the top line suffered.

4. We changed too much of the site when we migrated

magento review

Magento comes out-of-the-box with exciting new layouts of category and product pages. We decided to implement these new layouts, believing they were better than our existing site layouts.

We removed the left navigation that was on all category pages.

We changed up the colors.

We added more features, like wishlists.

These changes had two effects. First, the added features and design elements added complexity to the migration, and the complexity added time to what could have been a quicker migration. Second, and more importantly, the new site confused our dedicated customers.

The result? Bounce rates on key pages stayed high even after we overcame our aforementioned performance issues. We saw our “checkout completion” rate plummet due to Magento’s cumbersome five-step checkout process.

We began several rounds of A/B testing to improve layouts and reduce bounce rates, typically with one new iteration per month. The original layout won out on all A/B test, and we moved (back) to a site theme that approximated our legacy theme in April 2010 — five months post-migration.

My takeaway? Don’t add features when you migrate—strip them out. Make things simple, get them working, then add features back into the mix.

The Aftermath

magento

Eventually the migration dust settled. Flowers bloomed, we could shower again, and New York was beautiful.

The happy ending was that we were eventually able to reap the benefits promised by the migration. We began to outsource more development work (freeing us up to work on the business), we added more features faster, and more and more of our chosen SAAS apps began to play nice with Magento.

In short, running and growing the business became a lot easier.

Best of all, two years after the migration, we were able to sell our company. Potential buyers liked the fact that it was operating on Magento, because it meant they didn’t have to deal with our custom code.

So the last thing I want to do is to discourage anyone from migrating to Magento, or replatforming in general. Just know what you’re getting into first—and do it more wisely than we did. If you have any questions about our experience — or want to share your own — please share your thoughts in the comments.

  • Hi Drew,

    Great and oh so true story.

    Even for me, as a full-time Magento developer, I get cold chills whenever someone calls me out of the blue to upgrade their Magento store to the most recent version.
    Or worse, migrate ‘Ecommerce Solution X’ to Magento.
    Oh, and please give me a fixed price quote for the job…

    I’ll use your case study as a cautionary tale for prospective clients.

    If you need any help for an article on best pratices for migrations to Magento, please let me know.

    Regards, Tom

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  • Nice reading of a fairly common horror story, but with happy ending 🙂

    Back in 2008 I also co-founded a niche store business and used Magento, just out of beta, it worked very well for us! We managed to be so efficient, keep cost down and make the business profitable with a nice steady growth. We were lucky that we did not have to go through any migration.

    I’ve also been involved with major migrations (Magento -> Magento). Yes it can be a pain and it does require careful consideration.

    I was CTO and cofounder at Venda, pioneer and market leader SaaS e-commerce back in 2001, and we wrote a platform from scratch. I know what it takes to do it in house. Back in early 2000 it was common to write your own application, because there was very little choice. But today writing your own e-commerce platform would make no sense!

    Today people have choice, either use SaaS (e.g. shopify, BigCommerce, MagentoGo, Venda, Demandware, Hybris etc…) or do it the DIY way, in-house or with the help of a 3rd party. DYI involves looking after so many things though and can be a real headache and distraction for the business, if not an impediment!

    In fact as CTO of Online Retailers I found it so frustrating that I had to do everything in-house and have a team of Sys Admin and Devops! It made no sense to me! So much so that I ended up creating a cloud based PaaS for Magento to help retailers work ON their business as you rightly said. They deserve better!

    PaaS is the best of both SaaS and DIY; that is it gives the freedom of DYI, owning the platform and customise it the way you want, and the hassle-free benefit of SaaS, let the experts to fully manage the most complex part of the e-commerce platform (performance, scalability etc…). For Online Retailers it is all about doing work where matters and making sure to have a solid foundation that gives peace of mind for growth.

  • How’s it working out for you?

  • BorateBomber

    They don’t call early adoption “bleeding edge” for the laughs. It’s a warning. Being one step behind allows others to suffer PTSD and in the long run, not having to play so much catch-up.

  • Drew Sanocki

    Couldn’t agree more. This was my (very) expensive lesson.

  • Niros Tamos

    If you were thru all this by yourselves and even so managed to get out in the other end of the tunnel you should be proud! My company, back in 2009-2010, hired IBM and it’s “fantastic, feature-rich and highly tested” platform, WCS, which at that time was on it’s 7th release, having long left the beta stage. A few million dollars later and 24 months overschedule, we decided to give IBM “farewell, see you on court”, and put our own team which was set up to sustain the product to manage it and come into live production.
    Only then, after being freed from IBM-isms, we could put the product to run. Unfortunatelly, our company decided to drop this project, along with the team A that managed to put that s*t to propper work and returned to the old, homebrewed one. Now it decided to give Magento a try, and since I left the company, as far as I now they are fighting again, this time in a new cruzade…
    My point is that there’s not a single simple project for big companies. The best companies I know prefer homebrewed systems, and there’s a reson for that. This kind of system has been being constructed along with the company itself, has a lot of the company’s culture impregnated on it.

  • Niros Tamos

    To deny this kind of software is to deny a part of your corporate self. And this brings up a lot of resistance…
    I also saw many users demanding for useless features or, even worse, features they tell they can’t live without but which will never use.
    You can grow or update your own software if you understand it as a valuable part of your corporate assets, something that provides you with a competitive advantage, if you do plan this upgrade and pursue it on its own time.
    Nonetheless, if you are a newcommer or an entrant than you probably will choose well by choosing a tested technology, since your history is just starting up…
    Best regards!

  • Morten

    I don’t understand why you would migrate everything overnight, untested? Why not set up a test server and have a running copy of your site – in Magento? When the site prooves reliable, and the data migration can be done reliably – then change DNS to the new server?

    In no way, does it makes sense, to move your entire business to an untested site overnight.

  • Morten — Why have unprotected sex? Why get into a land war in Asia? Why appease Hitler? Why did I just tell my wife I had to go to another bachelor party in Vegas and could she watch the kids while I was gone?

    Because humans do a lot of dumb stuff. But next major decision I’ll be sure to check in with you to get the green light (except maybe on the Vegas thing, I’m still going!)

    (You know we did have a testing server and Mage was running fine there. Things went nuts when we went live.)

  • +1 for your reply and the examples you have used to explain why humans do dumb stuff. I don’t think you have done any dumb stuff, instead you have moved with the flow. Sometimes you correct things only after few burns and that’s perfectly human.

  • I +1 that +1, Ashish.

  • Shaun Mirchant

    Fascinating story, Drew!

    You, sir, did a great job, though insane a little bit! Being you, I’d use some sort of automated migration service, like сart2cart. However, I guess it was just setting off back then, as well as Magento.

    Glad everything worked out eventually 🙂

  • great job

  • Magento_oCodewire

    Thanks for sharing Drew, but have one issue with this blog is that, I have to make conform about the Magneto migration. Nowadays everyone prefer to move their platform to Magento but I also use magento but it provide best service. From the last many years, I satisfied mine client’s with the help of Magento.

  • Lorne

    Hi, I know this is alittle late, but did you migrate onto Magneto Community or right to Enterprise?

    I was told you only need Community until you start making over $9 million, is that true?

    I have been with a company working on woocommerce website but we strongly feel we should be on Magento, would recommend us starting on the community with a nice template from themeforest??

  • nickmanderfield

    You probably should be on Magento, WooCommerce is great but only for small niche sites, I can’t even recommend it for people with over 50 SKU, even if they are all in the same category, or for companies doing more than 10-20 orders a day of a variety of these products. And this is coming from someone who has set up and personally ran dozens of woocommerce sites.

    Ever get your questions answered though?

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