The end result was 238 rebounds from vastly different perspectives. Our entrants played around with type, icons and illustrations. Some graphics were self-explanatory. Some required a detailed explanation. All showed the passion designers have for what they do.
It was a difficult task, but our judges evaluated each entry based on multiple factors: how well it answered our prompt; creativity and originality; demonstration of technical skill; and popular vote. Our judging panel included Dribbble’s co-founder Dan Cederholm, Shopify’s Director of Design Verne Ho, and Shopify’s Director of Product Design Greg Beldam.
Without further ado, let’s announce the grand prize winner, followed by our two runner-ups and 10 honourable mentions.
A self-described "jack of all trades," Jen Mussari is a lettering artist, illustrator, fine artist, designer, and sign painter. She has worked on design projects for Airbnb, Kickstarter, Patagonia, the Art Director's Club, Target, Penguin Books, and Adobe. Earlier we reached out to Jen to ask her for her help creating a fresh and fun design for our camping mugs. Here are the ins and outs of her creative process.
Bonus: Find out how you can win one of our mugs featuring Jen's original design!
Just because you’ve long since graduated/dropped out/never even thought about getting a degree doesn’t mean you can’t head back to school. Continuous learning is essential for high-achieving individuals, and the reality is that the world we live in moves so fast that you need to constantly work hard to keep up to speed.
In today's article, we're sharing:
20 suggested courses across five different online learning platforms.
Recommended courses for freelancers, agencies, app developers, and affiliate marketers.
Social proof indicators to help you select a quality learning experience.
So you want to build a business to work with ecommerce clients?
Introducing Grow Vol. I: A beginner’s guide to growing your design or development business. This book contains 10 chapters from 10 authors, each an industry expert with years of experience working with clients. They share insights, templates, and advice that you’ll need to effectively grow your own business. Find out how to get your free copy!
What does it take to make the leap from a steady job into freelancing? This is the story of how an India-based Shopify Partner found his way into the professional world of web development and agency ownership.
In this article you'll learn:
How the founder of Code Rapper started generating contract work as a freelancer.
How he transitioned from freelancer to agency.
Tips for web designers and developers who are thinking of starting up their own business.
“I believe that the money is in making the tools. They say during the gold rush, the people that made the most money were the ones selling the shovels.”
Jay Myers, co-founder of Winnipeg-based app development company Bold Commerce, told me this in February 2014. He had just hired their 15th employee — not bad for a company that started with four guys working nights in a basement, building an app for a platform they took a gamble on.
Today, they’ve hired more than 80 employees, and have diversified their service offerings to include custom apps, store builds, a webmaster service, among a few other things. But how did they get there? What mistakes did they learn from along the way? And what can we learn from them about how to launch a freelance business, quit your day job, and scale a company from one to many?
Jay shared his thoughts in an in-depth interview for a three-part blog series about Bold’s beginnings, growth, and the future. This is how they did it.
Bonus: Read to the end for six tips from Jay about how to launch and grow a freelance web design or development business of your own. In a rush? Skip ahead to Jay's tips.
Let's start at the very beginning
Jay has been selling online since 1999, back in the days when everyone was scrambling to eBay. The business? Heartland Archery, his family’s company in Winnipeg that sold archery products.
On eBay’s online marketplace, Jay realized that while he was getting sales, he wasn’t really building a brand. He was "renting customers."
“No one knew who we were,” he said. “They were just buying the item with the lowest price.” In the end, there was no value to the business he was creating. Essentially, it was only worth as much as the last product he listed.
To fix that, he decided to build an online store in 2005.
While seeing some level of success, and iterating on the design multiple times, he finally closed down shop in 2010. Margins were too low, and dropshipping wasn’t a thing in the archery world back then, so he was paying to ship products to Canada and then back to the states (where most of his customers lived). The next step was joining a software company as an SEO specialist.
“In those days, SEO was not something you took in university. You just figured it out,” he said. He taught himself organically from his years running the family’s online store. And although he shelved the archery business, he never gave up the idea of running an online store.
A month after he was hired at the software firm, he was at it again, launching another online store (www.supremearchery.com — he doesn’t own it anymore). Jay got an email from his email marketing tool announcing their new Shopify app. That was the first time he heard of Shopify. He liked the idea of a web-based ecommerce tool with its own App Store, and he went to visit. Jay searched for a product comparison app — one that would compare products based on features like size, colour, and weight — but couldn’t find one. He thought, “Maybe I could build one.” Of course, without a background in app development, he couldn’t find a way to get going, and gave up on the idea for the time being.
A month later, Jay found himself in a pub with one of his best friends, Stefan Maynard.
“I’ve got a really good idea,” Jay told Stef. It was a Friday night, and they were a few beers in, but after sharing the concept of building a Shopify app, Stef instantly got excited. The two men brainstormed until 2 AM. By the time they left for home, they had a list of about 10 apps they wanted to build.
“Stef had two friends who were brothers and also developers,” Jay recalled. “We thought, ‘Let’s give this a try. It’ll be beer money on the side.’”
They brought Eric and Yvan Boisjoli on board, who would complete the founders’ foursome that would later become Bold Apps.
So what app would they start with? Traditionally, those in the Shopify App Store were geared toward storeowners — back-end tools like shipping integrations that made things easier for the merchant. But what about a tool that would be used on the front-end of a store?
“I came at it 100% thinking like a store owner,” Jay said. “What would make people more likely to buy, and therefore make me more money as a merchant?”
Their first product idea was a simple product upsell app. They called it… Product Upsell. The owner of the app store, Blair Beckwith, told them he’d never seen an app like it for Shopify; that it was the best kind of "hack" on Shopify’s API he'd seen.
Each of the four co-founders were still working their 9-5 jobs when the app first went live. Within the first week, Jay says he knew it would turn into a full-time job for them all someday — even when their very first customer left a negative review.
“I remember the exact store, and the guy’s name,” Jay said. “We launched on April 18, 2012. He installed the app, and within five minutes, he left us our first negative review.”
It was hard not to be disheartened, but it turned out to be an easy fix. They’d forgotten to upload one of the app’s instruction pages, so the merchant had no idea how to use the app. Oops.
“Their review turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to us,” Jay said. “It woke us up. These were real stores, owned by real people, making real sales. If our app doesn’t work, they’re screwed.”
This lesson served as the solidification of their motto to always provide excellent customer service and products that would help merchants succeed.
“For me, it’s in my blood,” he said. “At Thanksgiving dinners, we often reflect about how every single person around the table owns a business. My wife owns a dance studio; my sister owns a fitness company; my uncle owns a furniture business; my father owns a retail store; my mother has music studio.”
But quitting a stable job for an experimental venture was a risk, especially since the co-founders were starting families. The wives of the four men behind Bold had very specific requirements in order for their husbands to quit their jobs: You can do it, as long as you don’t take a pay cut.
The co-founders went from Eric's basement, to Stef's, and finally ended up working from the unfinished basement of Jay’s newly purchased house, trying not to wake his five-month pregnant wife who slept upstairs.
With the early success of the Product Upsell app, it was time to choose their next project — a product discount app. What did they name it? Product Discount, of course.
Eric was the first to quit his job. As one of the developers, it made sense to have him on full-time. He had a newborn at home, and had previously been working from 11 PM to 3 or 4 AM, but in October of 2012 he quit his job to focus full-time on Bold Apps. Stef became full-time soon after in November. Yvan joined the team as of January 2013, and Jay followed suit in March of that year. But they didn’t stop there — by May, they’d hired two additional employees.
Within 10 months of moving into Jay’s basement, they relocated into their very first, true, office space (which they outgrew in three months, but that’s a story for later).
Building a gazelle
“As soon as we could afford to hire someone, we hired someone,” Jay said. “Our mindset has always been to put 100% back into the company.”
There are two ways to run a business, according to Jay. You can build a lifestyle business — the four co-founders could have continued running the ship, hiring the fewest people possible, and finding a way to maximize profits.
Or you can build a gazelle company, the technical definition of which is, “a high-growth company that is increasing its revenues by at least 20% annually for four years or more,” according to Investopedia.
Bold Apps decided to become a gazelle.
“You have to pick one — lifestyle or gazelle,” Jay said. “Otherwise you’re going to wonder whether to hire every time, and stumble over other decisions. If you decide early on what kind of business you want to be, it frames the decision. The answer, for us, is always yes.”
This business decision laid the groundwork for Bold’s rapid growth. But how did they decide who to hire, and from where, and when? How did they scale their company sustainably to hold on to their roots and culture? That’s up next, in part two of this series.
Before you go, here are some pieces of advice Jay has if you’re thinking of launching or growing a design and/or development business from the ground up.
Jay's advice for launching a design or dev business
Pick a niche and focus on it. “We said no to so many people who asked, ‘Can you build my restaurant website?’ It wasn’t ecommerce, so we said no — we’re going to be the ecommerce development shop. That was our original niche. We've found that customers like to to go the ‘expert’ in a field. So we picked ecommerce as our field.”
Define your ideal customer. “A lot of people think, ‘What services do we want to offer?’ instead of, ‘What services does my ideal customer need?’ If you’re targeting a small business owner working out of their home, make your pricing clear and offer prepackaged hours of work. Even down to the language you use — if you’re going after the smaller players, in your welcome email say something like, ‘Don’t worry, there’s no big contract for you to sign. Just give me the go ahead and I’ll start on your site tonight.’ This is the way they like to be talked to. For big enterprise clients, they definitely want to sign something first.”
Take on projects you’ll be proud of. “I would encourage people to take on projects that you can blog and brag about, not just the ones you can make money on — especially in the early days. Your first few projects will end up in your portfolio, and those projects will define the next projects you get, and the next. Take the projects that look cool and that people will talk about, not just the ones that make the most money.”
Do projects that are fun. “I know it sounds silly, but when you’re having fun, you end up making a better product. We have a queue of apps to build, but we choose the ones that make us say, ‘Oh, that would be fun.’ Whenever that word comes up, we know it’ll be a good project.”
Avoid any decisions that could make you say, “I wish I would have…” I like to weigh the pros and cons by thinking to myself, ‘Okay, in 20 years, would I look back and say, “I wish I would have done it”?’ If I stayed at my job as an SEO specialist, I definitely would have said that in the future. To me, this makes it crystal clear what I have to do. That’s my barometer for making decisions.”
Don’t be afraid to say no to clients. “Some people will just say yes to everything, because they think it will open doors and lead to amazing opportunities. That may be true, but you only have so many resources. Make sure your yeses are focused and strategic based on your business goals. We have a fun saying we use: We don't mow grass for money. By that I mean, we could all go out and mow grass for money, but it doesn't grow the value of our company. Our measure is always: Does it grow the business? Not just make us money, but will it help us grow? If the answer is yes, then that’s our answer too.”
In Part II, Jay will walk us through the growing pains of going from a small freelance business to a thriving multiple-employee company that is always looking to hire. What are the pros and cons to developing a gazelle business, and what takeaways does he have for businesses of any size? Stay tuned...
In this final edition, Jay will give us a snapshot of where the company is at right now, and what they’re excited about for the future. Whether you’re just starting up your own business or are well on your way to building a big company, these tips will help you pave the way to your ideal setup.
Bonus: Read to the end for nine apps and tools that the Bold Apps team thinks you should use to increase productivity and improve your workflow.
It would be easy to assume that attracting world-class talent and building a sustainable business would be best done within tried and true markets like San Francisco and New York City. I’ll bet Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada didn’t pop into mind when thinking of the ideal spot for a tech company. But has their northern location hindered their success? Not so, according to Jay.
He was visiting San Francisco recently, and speaking with a fellow Shopify Partner.
The friend asked, “How have you been able to grow so fast?”
Jay replied, “What do developers in San Francisco make? We can hire four for that price. How much do you pay for rent? We pay a quarter of that.”
Although Bold isn’t offshore, they’re able to compete with companies in more expensive markets — and they’ve even been able to recruit a handful of employees willing to relocate to the Great White North for the opportunity.
“Yes, it’s been a little tougher finding talent in Winnipeg,” Jay said, “but it’s been an absolute blessing to be where we are.”
A video highlighting Bold as an example of a successful Manitoba-based business.
Creating office culture
Everyone who shows up in Bold’s office takes off their shoes. There are couches; free lunches; video games. Espresso machines and an arcade. These perks are often described when talking about the culture at Bold — but Jay insists there’s more to it than that.
“We’ve struggled to define the culture here,” he said. “All the perks are cool, but that’s surface-level culture.”
What really matters, what is truly at the core of the company’s culture, is the level at which employees feel as though they can add value to the business, and to grow professionally.
“That’s culture,” Jay says. “The no shoes and food, that’s just cool stuff that makes it a nice work environment — but culture is what makes our employees thrive and grow. Playing games isn’t culture.”
This philosophy is best exemplified with the company’s Pitch Days, where employees can pitch a crazy business idea. If it gets chosen, they get paid to work on it, and are given $1,000 or 1% of whatever the business idea makes. Some of these crazy ideas have actually panned out — and have made up an entirely new and experimental division of the company. It’s called Bold Labs.
Back in part one of this series, Jay mentioned that he will often choose projects based on whether or not they are “fun.” Sounds silly, but everyone will work extra hard on a project they’re enjoying.
One such “fun” decision is Bold Labs. The company takes 20% of their resources, and devotes them to experimental research and development projects.
“The only rule we have about them is that they have nothing to do with ecommerce,” Jay says.
The idea came because the founders and most early employees were all tinkerers. They started their work on Shopify as a hobby in the evenings, and they vowed never to lose their desire to work on exciting projects on the side.
Bold Labs is the home to fun projects including a wireless beacon solution for hospitals and restaurants, so that you can log onto WiFi and see the menu. There’s a project called Inviid, taggable video software that allows you to click on a product and be taken to a shopping cart to purchase it.
A recently launched one that Jay is very excited about is called KickBooster — the first affiliate program available for the crowdfunding website Kickstarter. Previously, Kickstarter didn’t allow affiliates, as you couldn’t add a script to track referrals. Jay’s team figured out a way to "hack" Google Analytics to allow people to share a link to a Kickstarter project, and earn a referral payment when people back it as a result. It's even been picked up by TechCrunch already!
“These projects are all experiments,” Jay says. “We have a lot of failure on these, but that’s the nature of the department. Most will fail — but one might take off.”
Some Bold Labs ventures never get off the ground, but those aren’t true failures. They’re learning opportunities; investments into an entrepreneurial education.
But what is the biggest failure Bold has faced since the start? It’s tough to talk about, but it’s important.
On the company’s first Black Friday, their servers went down, leaving many merchants with apps that weren’t working.
“That was our darkest day ever,” Jay said. “It was an oversight; we simply didn't expect the increase in traffic that we received. .”
The only thing to be done was to make sure it never happened again. The company invested in an incredibly powerful server setup; they spared no expense. Their setup is similar, or even better, to what Fortune 500 companies rely on.
“Now when our clients go on Shark Tank and ask if our servers will go down from the traffic, we laugh a bit on the inside,” Jay said. “We're so confident in our setup now. Our clients run SuperBowl commercials and it doesn't even tickle them.”
With their growth has come a number of copycats — those trying to duplicate their apps at a lower price. But one of the things Jay has learned is that he can’t bother being distracted by these wannabes — he needs to remain focused on the loyal customers that know better than to go with a cheaper knockoff.
“It’s been so tempting to try to compete with them, but we have to know what we’re worth and charge what we’re worth,” Jay says. “You have to hold the value. You never win when it’s a price war.”
Although Bold is one of the largest app developers on Shopify, they’ve never looked at total number of users as a very important marker. They actually consider it a vanity metric. What they do consider essential metrics of success are how long their users keep apps installed (churn), how happy they are with them, the percentage of users that have more than one app, and how many take advantage of additional services Bold offers.
Focusing on these types of metrics has been key to helping Bold grow exponentially month after month. Because of this focus, they now get as many new users in a month as they used to get in an entire year.
Bold’s employee headcount has been skyrocketing alongside their app sales and revenues. Today, the team consists of 76 employees — a far cry from the original four founders working out of a basement and interviewing candidates in the local Starbucks. They doubled their company in the first six months of this year. They've signed four leases for new buildings in the past two years, one as recently as May 2015, and are already outgrowing them all.. In fact, I found out that between the time of doing this interview and publishing it, they've acquired a new 26,000 square foot building that they'll be moving into February 1st. This building will handle up to 230-240 employees. Hopefully that will hold them for a bit.
Every department is ramping up, and Jay’s conservative estimate is that they will reach 230 employees within the next 24-36 months.
The long-term goal is to open a technology park in Winnipeg, and open up office space to other startups in the city.
“There was so much stuff we didn’t know when we started, and we had to figure it out on our own,” Jay says. “Bold Technology Park would allow us to help other startups get through that phase. We would share a cafeteria, share a board room, and collaborate on gained knowledge such as server infrastructure for example.”
It’s a way to give back to the tech community, and to come full circle from their scrappy beginnings.
Jay has said that he knew the money was in making the tools, and that’s why they focused their business on building apps for Shopify’s platform. But it appears as though the money is also in the people — those who are willing to seize opportunities in uncharted waters; those willing to make the leap into the unknown; and those willing to stick along for the wild ride that ensues. Check out this timeline of the company’s milestones and growth.
A recap of how it all began.
To avoid getting too mushy, let’s go over some tools Jay’s team uses on a daily basis and would recommend to improve your productivity and workflow.
Slack: For internal communication. Initially, they used Google Hangouts, but Jay said it became too distracting having multiple text boxes popping up at the bottom of their inbox screens.
Intercom: For event-triggered customer communication. For example, instead of sending off a mass email to different time zones, the email is triggered upon login so the user receives it when they’re active.
New Relic: To measure many different areas of app performance.
JIRA Software: For agile development any time they have a feature to add to an app, or a bug to fix.
Trello: Used as an idea board. If it’s a good idea, it becomes a JIRA task.
What tips do you have for others attempting a freelance career? What was it like when you finally quit your day job? And is there such a thing as too much growth? Share your thoughts in the comments below — we’d love to learn from you.
Your next big idea could be the one that makes your business take off. It could be a feature that changes the way your clients do business, or a service that makes their lives easier.
Getting to that big idea, however, can be a struggle. That’s why it’s so important to borrow from the collective genius of your team via brainstorming — and it’s essential to develop an effective creative brainstorming process to get you there.
In this article, you’ll learn:
How to prepare for a brainstorming session.
Effective brainstorm facilitation techniques.
Follow-up strategies to continually improve your brainstorming process.