Diego Zanella is the Owner of Aelia, an ISV (independent software vendor) that specializes in web development, consultancy, and WooCommerce products. He has been working in this industry since 1998 and developed some of the best products for online payments for WooCommerce stores. Let’s read this interview to know more about him!
Mansoor: Hi Diego, it’s a pleasure to have you for this interview with us. Could you please tell us about yourself? Please also give our readers a quick overview of your career highlights.
Diego: Hi Mansoor! My name is Diego Zanella, I started my career in IT back in 1998, In Italy, right out of High School. I never got the chance to go to college, so I learned many important skills directly on the job. Before working on the web, I used to work in automation, from chemical plants to steel factories, to wineries.
My career has been a bit of an adventure. In the 25 years, I wore many different hats. I founded my first company around 2000, moved to Ireland to work for Microsoft in 2007, then worked for a global betting company until 2010. In 2011, I co-founded my second company, which, unfortunately, didn’t take off. In 2013, I met WordPress and almost by chance, it became my main profession. That’s when my current business, Aelia, was born.
Mansoor: Since you started your career as an IT professional in 1998, what major changes do you really like that have shaped modern web development?
Diego: As King Elrond said, “I was there, 3000 years ago”, when the Internet was born. My focus was on client/server applications and web development was in its infancy. Compared to the comparatively mature status of application development, the web was a mess. Anyone who worked with me could testify how much I disliked it. Then I saw it evolving, taking shape, and I saw the introduction of dozens of new tools, browsers, and standards that tried to make sense of the “everything goes” chaos.
I think that the situation started getting somewhat “normalized” only in the past 6 or 7 years. Over time, many tools became obsolete or got merged with others. The process to develop a web application became more structured, and the plethora of “latest trend” libraries got reduced to a more manageable, albeit still quite large, set. In my opinion, the availability of robust tools, with good documentation and a clear purpose, is what makes modern web development far more effective than it used to be.
If I were to pick some favorites, among the major changes, especially for what concerns WordPress, I would say the introduction of PHP 7.4 to 8.0 and TypeScript. Starting from version 7.0, PHP became a far more “serious” language than the previous versions, which features that improve code quality and robustness.
Mansoor: It’s not easy to run a business especially when you have competitors. What were the key challenges that you faced in the beginning and how did you overcome them?
Diego: Interestingly, I had a stroke of luck as well as the timing to grasp an opportunity. My main challenge was not to overcome my competitors because there were none. The challenge was to have a product to put on the market.
Aelia was born out of a solution I developed for my own personal use. In 2013, I needed to have a true multi-currency solution for my WooCommerce store. WooCommerce was at version 1.6 and there weren’t many plugins available. I wasn’t a WordPress developer, so I tried to hire someone to implement that feature for me, but nobody was interested. The spark came when a WooCommerce core developer told me to “forget about it” because it would have been impossible to implement that feature. Based on my experience, in coding nothing is impossible.
Since I wanted to have that feature and I’m stubborn, I put my experience to good use and I started writing my first WordPress plugin. That became the Aelia Currency Switcher, which is my flagship product. For about two years, nobody tried to compete with it because they either thought of it as a fluke or considered the challenge too hard. This gave me a good opportunity to gather experience, and improve my offer.
When the first competitors entered the market, I wasn’t too concerned. The WooCommerce market is big enough, there’s space for everybody. It’s important to be able to distinguish yourself in it.
My strategy is simply based on the experience I accrued over the years: a product is only as good as the people behind it. Due to that, I focus on offering a top-class support service to all my clients, with fast, hand-crafted replies, which contain detailed answers. To give some numbers, currently, the average first response time is around 34 minutes and the average resolution time is about 55 minutes.
Mansoor: That’s really great! Could you please tell us about the products and services you offer? What are your goals and objectives?
Diego: My main focus, at Aelia, is the development of plugins for WooCommerce that helps customers expand their market. As mentioned, the Aelia Currency Switcher is the flagship product, which allows customers to accept orders in multiple currencies. When I released it, it was the first of its kind. Soon, I expanded my offer with other plugins. A few highlights:
- Prices by Country: which allows setting custom prices for different countries
- Tax Display by Country: which shows visitors prices inclusive or exclusive of tax, depending on their country. The geolocation logic in this plugin was, again, a pioneering feature, as WooCommerce didn’t include it back then.
- EU VAT Assistant (soon to be replaced by the Aelia VAT Assistant): which helped over 7000 merchants, worldwide, comply with the tricky regulations introduced by the EU VAT MOSS regime in January 2015. In short, it helps with taxes. 😄
Mansoor: Have you got any products in the works as an ISV (independent software vendor) whose focus is on WordPress and WooCommerce?
Diego: Almost all my products focus on WooCommerce, I can say that it’s my main profession. Right now, I’m working on a couple of new projects. I can’t disclose the exact details, but I can say I’m planning to release a solution that will help other WooCommerce developers who want to enter the business of premium WordPress plugins, as well as another that will allow shop owners to greatly improve the performance of their sites, without spending a fortune in additional services.
Mansoor: You have served more than 6000 customers (still counting) during your career. What key factors do you consider before meeting your customer’s needs?
Diego: Having been in a customer-facing role from the first day of my career, I learned that the most important skill in the job is the ability to effectively communicate with people. To me, there are few key steps to offer an effective solution to the client:
- Listen carefully to what they say. They will tell you what they think they need.
- Take your time to understand what the customer is trying to say. They might not actually need what they asked for and there could be another, often easier solution.
- Prepare a hand-crafted reply, where you explain your understanding of the requirements, what you think should be changed (i.e. what you think they don’t actually need), and the proposed solution.
- Before sending any answer, review your message at least twice. We are all too busy nowadays, which is why we must take our time to do a proper job. Rushing will only result in a sloppy response and extra work to correct the mistakes.
Mansoor: What would you recommend to those people who are going to start their online business, especially when the world is suffering from COVID-19?
Diego: My recommendation to anyone who wants to start an online business is to keep in mind that such a business involves recurring costs that can easily add up. The pandemic brought great opportunities for remote sales, especially when, in many countries, brick and mortar shops had to stay closed for months. However, launching an ecommerce store is just the first step and that’s when the investment starts.
One of the most common complaints I hear from users, in forums, groups, and communities, is that they were somehow led to think that running an online business is a cheap, quick way to success.
In the WordPress environment, some individuals offer blatantly wrong advice, pointing out that, with WordPress, “everything is free, or very cheap”. That’s not necessarily true. There are costs in terms of time: you own your WooCommerce store, which means that you must maintain it. There are also costs in terms of money: if you don’t have the necessary technical skills, you must have someone to help you, and skilled experts are not cheap. Also, critical features could depend on commercial plugins. Their low price makes them accessible, but if one needs many of them, the costs can add up.
Mansoor: A hosting provider can play an important role when it comes to your online visibility. Could you please share your thoughts about it?
Diego: I chose Cloudways after testing it during the free trial period. I needed a hosting provider that could offer a simple user interface to manage my ecommerce store. That was a key requirement, not because of the lack of technical skills, but because I find that, as a developer, my time is better spent on other activities than typing commands in a console shell. Of course, I was also looking for good performance and scalability to cover the business growth.
Another key aspect, specific to my site, was flexibility in terms of configuration. Many hosting providers place restrictions on what can run on a server, or on how services like caching can be configured. I needed to be able to configure a caching solution myself, implement a custom caching logic, and be able to make changes myself when needed. Cloudways allowed me to do all that at a very reasonable price.
Mansoor: It’s really important to balance between personal and professional life. How do you spend your time when you’re not working?
Diego: I’ve been working from home daily for the past 8 years, therefore, personal and professional life became somewhat “blended”. What worked for me was to establish a routine and stick to it as much as possible. My recommendation is to set a couple of hours aside, at specific times, for physical exercise, outdoor activities (whatever the weather), and rest. When it’s time for these activities, one must forget about work, and vice-versa.
I also found out that a good way to improve your mood is to compliment yourself and recognize your achievements, in your personal and professional life. Some could see it as a silly thing, “talking to yourself”, but I find that we are our own worst critics, so we should also be our own best supporters.
Mansoor: Thank you once again for this interview, Diego! It would be great if you can share an image of your workstation with our readers.
Diego: My workstation is simple. It’s a small office without 40″ screens or thousand Euros chairs. I always liked to keep things simple and this proves that one doesn’t necessarily need to spend a fortune to run a business. It can be done with a fairly simple setup.
– Workstation of Diego Zanella
Passionate about technology, entrepreneurship, and marketing, Mansoor Ahmed Khan is in computing since he knows how to type on a keyboard. His daily life is rocked by his family, projects, and his screen. Probably in this order, he likes to be convinced at least. You can reach out to him at [email protected].