“Our big hairy goal is to democratize entrepreneurship,” says Harley Finkelstein, a lawyer and Chief Platform Officer of Shopify, the immensely successful Ottawa-based e-commerce platform that allows businesses to create online stores. “The reason we even believe we can do that is because of technology.”
Crowd-sourcing platforms such as Kickstarter.com and communities like Alibaba.com (international trade site) have lowered barriers as well, Finkelstein notes. Compare this to 20 years ago when becoming a retailer 20 years ago meant buying inventory, a storefront, fixing up that storefront, opening a merchant account and raising or borrowing money. Now, as the high-octane Finkelstein likes to say, “All you need is an email account, 15 minutes and you can build a store.”
Shopify has more than 26,000 stores [on its platform] of which the majority are based in North America and most self-identify as SMB/entrepreneurs. “They have a cool product to sell and are mom-and-pop brick and mortars looking to go brick-and-click,” he says. Its corporate clients include GE, Gatorade, Amnesty International and the Foo Fighters.
TELUS Talks Business spoke to Finkelstein recently about the mistakes businesses make when launching online stores and how Shopify helps them along.
What missteps do businesses make that prevent them from having successful online stores?
- It’s important to know what other people are doing. If you’re going to sell something that people can get cheaper on Amazon that will be problematic. Ignoring the competition can be very dangerous.
- Be specific and laser-focused on your product offering. We have a number of stores that sell one product. A great example is DODOcase out of San Franciso; all they sell is beautiful moleskin-like iPad cases, but those cases are used by entrepreneurs and Barack Obama. We have other stores that carry only one particular brand of shoe that’s not available anywhere else and they’re not trying to compete with Zappos.com, because that would be difficult.
- Authenticity is so important. If you’re going to give your entire 'About Us' page to some PR company, you’ll end up with very corporate-like messaging and you can get a lot further by engaging on a personal level. I want to see pictures of the people running the store. I want to know why they’re selling green shoelaces. Why did they decide to do green? Did something happen in their life that made them so passionate?
- Find out about your customers. When is their birthday and send them notes, like my grandfather did when he had an egg stand in a farmers market – and this is true – he would send them handwritten holiday or birthday cards. Engage with your customer. After they make a purchase, send them an email five days later, and ask them what they think of the product. Was their experience fantastic? Did we take too long? Did we communicate properly?
- Know when to pivot. The book, “The Lean Startup” (by Eric Ries) says pivot or be agile. Don’t just give a finished product and say, “This is it, I’m going to stick with my guns.” Put something out there and get feedback. Refine the experience. Do that over and over again. And iterate and iterate and change and eventually you will have something people will love. And reward them. If you see someone online is buying something from you every Thursday, maybe on Wednesday, you send a coupon that says, “Thank you for being a customer. Here’s 20% off your next purchase.”
How can businesses increase traffic and get eyeballs to their brand-new sites?
Anyone who signs up with Shopify, we give $100 of Google ad word credits. Ad words are, by far, the best way to drive traffic. We also do the same with Amazon. They have a marketplace where third parties can list their products and we give them credits to explore. The third thing – all of our themes are optimized for social media… every Facebook sharing feature is pre-loaded, pre-populated, so, as a consumer, you have the ability to share a product with your friends, even post transaction.
We have more than 150 apps that add additional functionality to your online store and more than a dozen of them relate to social media.
E-commerce is a fairly loner activity. You do it by yourself, on your iPad, sitting in your office or wherever, so by using these social media opportunities, particularly Facebook and Twitter you’re able to engage people in a much more compelling way. It’s also free. It doesn’t cost anything to tell the Twitter universe, “Hey we’re a T-shirt company and we are releasing a brand new line of T-shirts.”
As consumers, we’re bombarded by advertising – what stands out from the fray?
Let’s say there’s a small business owner of Sammy Sausages – that guy should be writing a blog about different types of sausages and he should be doing YouTube videos – maybe there’s been an evolution in the technology of making sausages. People want to learn stuff, so in a vendor-neutral way he should be able to grab people’s attention, have good content, and teach them something and they will be loyal to him.
That’s really the difference between the new school and the old school. It’s content creation rather than advertising.
Amber Nasrulla is an ex-pat Canadian writer based in L.A. who specializes in profiles from business leaders and scientists to Hollywood celebrities. Her work has appeared in numerous publications including the L.A. Times, The Globe and Mail, Los Angeles Magazine, ELLE Canada, Chatelaine and Reader’s Digest Canada.