Interviewing Edward: Thoughts on Small Business and Ecommerce

Interviewing Edward: Thoughts on Small Business and Ecommerce

Hi there! This is Edward, the Developer Advocate who runs the App Store. I’m in charge of cool-hunting awesome tech then mashing up API’s and business plans into Shopify apps that make merchants money and add further functionality to merchants online stores.
I recently spoke at a panel on ecommerce at Ottawa’s main public library and wanted to share some notes I took while answering questions from the audience and from the kind librarians who set up the event.
(A huge thanks goes out to librarians Jill Hawken and Amy Hoffmann for putting everything together. MARC records 4 ever!)

“If I already have a website, how do I use Shopify?”

This has got to be the question I’m asked the most often.
You can keep your existing website and copy the look over to your store. Shopify was designed to have a super flexible front-end that lets you make it look like anything. This is a good option for someone like GE Healthcare, who has a ton of infrastructure sitting at and can’t have the shop sit there. Instead, they created a subdomain with their registrar, copied over the look, and made
However, many stores opt to move their entire web presence to Shopify’s hosting – it comes with a blog (there’s a free app for importing existing Wordpress accounts), a content management system, the cart (duh), and free content distribution network support – one of the coolest features in my opinion.
What’s a content distribution network? It’s a thing that saves versions of your site's images and files on servers all around the world, close to wherever your customers are. It means that your shoppers get served *super* quickly instead of leaving your site because it took too long to load. Did I mention that these things usually costs zillions of dollars to operate and Shopify provides it for free to its customers? Seriously – you want one of these when trying to sell things online.

“What has been the biggest challenge you’ve faced in running an online business?”

Without a doubt, it’s marketing. What kind of product should you create? How do you price it? How do you place it in the market? How are you going to promote it?
Polar bear warnings on hotel beds 
(This is actually great promotional material for a particular kind of crazy people like myself.)
Here’s a story about promotion: Marketing is typically really expensive and a mushy thing that’s hard to measure and predict. Having a business on the internet means it’s easier to track sales conversion funnels and effectiveness of Google Adword spends, but sometimes you’ve got to go back to traditional approaches and update them for the web.
As a business, Shopify’s strategy is to increase signups and retain customers. The first really successful promotion we made to further this goal was the Build a Business Contest in 2010. We weren’t sure about how effective it was going to be, but we were sure that it was going to cost us a whole bunch ($120k in prizes alone!) to run.
To make sure it was successful we really leaned on Twitter by being super responsive to questions (Hootsuite and other similar social media management platforms really helped) and made it super interesting for potential Shopify customers.
It also happened to be the exact sort of thing media wanted to tell people about in an economic downturn where more folks are looking to start their own business and need just a tiny kick in the pants to do it.
That tiny kick in the pants happened to be delivered by none other than Tim Ferriss who wrote the book on doing just that.
This is the second year we’ve done it and we’re giving away $500k in prizes along with personal advising from Tim Ferriss, Gary Vaynerchuk, and Seth Godin. To put it lightly, this promotion has been pretty successful at increasing signups and holding on to customers.
The lesson learned here is to know what your goal is and come up with a great set of tactics (like this promotion) to make that happen.
For a quick guide to marketing, definitely check out Unbounce’s Noob Guide to Online Marketing infographic. Don’t let the name get to you – it’s a really great resource for those new to the game.

“What do you love most about your job?”

The trust in execution. Shopify’s management practices are to give or build you all the resources and tools you need to do your job and then get out of your way.
That and the other folks who work here – every person at Shopify is the kind of person you would be ok with being stuck in a car/train/ferry/tundra buggy with for 3 weeks with and not be bored. This actually just happened to me as I travelled to Churchill with Willem in the Data Team.
Screen Shot 2011-10-24 at 3.37.29 PM

“What has been the biggest surprise in running your business?”

The cool stuff customers send us! We have all these eBoy posters and pillows, Tattly tattoos, The Oatmeal everythings, and all the other beautiful, random interesting things around the office our customers have sent us as thanks for having a really kickass platform. I really didn’t expect that coming in, but they’ve all been really welcome surprises.

“What was the most useful piece of advice you were given when starting up your businesses?”

Do one thing really, really well. Say no to things that are not that one thing. I’ve watched Tobi, Cody, and Daniel do that since Shopify was just a tiny little company and it’s certainly worked out.
For more advice like this, you should really crib some notes from Fab’s 21 things they’ve learned as a business; it’s a great list.
Screen Shot 2011-10-24 at 3.40.40 PM
(Spending time looking at the small stuff in front of you means you miss the real things just outside.)

“Which social media platforms do you recommend using for marketing?”

The big names are FaceBook, Twitter, YouTube/Vimeo, and LinkedIn (InShares are surprisingly huge for industry nerds).
Use a social media management tool. Even if it’s just Tweetdeck running on a monitor on the side while you do your thing, it’s a great way to get a pulse on how your customers are doing. A personalized message that looks like it was written just for one person goes a long way.
What you might not expect:
Tumblr! Check out and ask Of A Kind! Two brilliant ladies in NYC turned a fashion blog into a booming business dealing in small-run boutique items. Not only are they sharp content writers and producers, but they’re also riding the wave of Tumblr follows and reshares which happen to be right up the alley of many of their customers.
Last thing about social stuff: don’t forget about email - start collecting emails for your list as soon as possible. Launchrock, Mailchimp, etc. are easy ways to start doing this and the sooner you can tell customers about great reasons (discounts! new cool stuff!) to come back and visit your shop, the better.

“Do I have to set up as an exporting business when I am selling goods online to customers in other countries?”

Mike Freeman of both Shopify and Dempsey Press fame had to set up a wholesale account for his business but it wasn’t a lot of paperwork and mostly just required a call to the CRA to have them give him a wholesale business number.
Again, when it comes to matters like these, ask your accountant for their professional advice – it might end up saving you money and time.

“Do you recommend PayPal? If not, what system would you recommend for payment?”

PayPal is a great option for those just starting out or for businesses who don’t want to wait for the weeks it’ll take your bank to set up a merchant account for you so you can use other payment gateways like or Braintree.
Either way, be sure to use tools like to help you do your homework and make comparisons. Check out the Shopify FAQ for a list of the major gateways. Definitely worth spending time researching on especially if you do any amount of volume.

“I have a website design business. How do I market to customers in other countries?”

Check out Shopify Experts! It’s the new go-to place for Shopify merchants to seek professional designers, developers, and other professionals to help them build their business.
In the meantime, build out your network for work by checking out local events like Winnipeg’s Secret Handshake or Ottawa’s Blackhole Sessions – the best and easiest way to build out your contract business is usually right in town. Be sure to trawl through for your own city and don’t be afraid to ask around.

“What do I do when I can’t find royalty free images for my blog?”

Go somewhere awesome for your vacation and pray that the reader can’t tell you’re just posting pictures from your trip. Here’s a picture of the sun rising over the Canadian plains taken from a moving train:
Manitoban Sunrise