This is a true story…
Many, many years ago a dear friend, mentor and local community leader asked if I would be interested in meeting someone he liked and knew for years. This young man was recently out of college with a law degree, and was looking to grow his t-shirt business online. It was called Smoofer. I rolled my eyes. Why would anyone think that they could be successful selling t-shirts online, when so many of the major retailers were doing their best to compete with Amazon and outliers like Threadless were dominating the more alternative marketplace. There was nothing unique about the business model, it felt like a “me too” product that would have to compete (aggressively) for Google clicks and repeat business. My first thought was to decline the meeting because I didn’t want to break this individual’s heart and and stomp on their dreams.
That’s not what happened.
Going further back in time, I was still in my teens and I wanted to publish my own music magazine. The market already had leaders (think Rolling Stone, Spin, Circus, etc…). There were also plenty of alternative press opportunities and, while the Internet was not around back then, there was still a burgeoning fanzine and mail-order business happening. I remember those times – and how desperate I was for someone with experience to help me out. I wanted help so bad, that I went to a local magazine store and scoured the mastheads of magazines for hours just looking for someone’s name and phone number. After countless attempts, a publisher at a magazine that focused on cottage living spent some time breaking the business down for me. My head was spinning. Still, this person was an angel… in the truest sense of the word. Had someone trampled my dreams, where would I have been?
Giving back is core.
I met with this young man. His name was Harley. Harley was living in Ottawa, but was born/raised in Montreal. He was much younger than me. He was full of fire and excitement. His energy was intoxicating. I remember going back to check out his website after our meeting, and still shaking my head. How could someone that smart and energized think that they can make a dent selling t-shirst online? Our friendship grew. Emails and calls… a couple of times a year. Soon after that, Harley told me that he’s no longer selling t-shirts online, but that he has joined the company that developed the e-commerce platform for his site. He seemed very eager to help make this product better, and get more people/brands to use it for selling their wares online.
Again, I didn’t get it.
The company was called Shopify and they would provide small businesses with a cheap-priced but robust platform to sell their wares. The fewer products and services that a company had to sell, the better. Again, I was stumped. From Yahoo Shopping Cart to Digital River to Demandware, there were so many players in the e-commerce platform business. What could Shopify possibly do to disrupt these growing giants? On top of this, Shopify was not in a fully-matured space. These competitive e-commerce platforms were still growing at a rapid pace. This was not the typical startup story that we read about, where a couple of university dropouts in a garage disrupt a one hundred year old business. Shopify was betting on being able to develop better and faster than those that were in the midst of already disrupting the retail business.
How well could Shopify truly do?
Today, Shopify is a public company with a $5.1 billion marketcap (as of this writing). Over 325,000 stores have been developed on the Shopify platform. These stores have had more than $24 billion in sales on the platform. They are seen as leaders in the commerce business, and are the platform that powers many of the world’s brands (small, medium and large businesses). They’re more than just a company that sells a software. They built a subscription, cloud-based model, developed a massive marketplace and have truly revolutionized how people shop online… and offline. Today, there are many businesses that are thriving on developing new apps, designs and tools for those using Shopify. It is a true ecosystem. Many brands claim to have an ecosystem. Shopify does… and a growing one at that.
What I didn’t see.
There are countless business lessons here. The biggest, for me was: blinders. It’s a simple as that. Their idea was not, necessarily, original to me. I had my blinders on. I could not imagine why any of their major competitors (and, this includes Amazon) would not be able to squish them with little effort. I didn’t see the community and network. I didn’t see the subscription model. I didn’t see the ease-of-use of their tools. I didn’t see their initial focus on the small business and solopreneur market (who were being completely ignored). There was much more. In short, I was prejudice against the idea, because the incumbants seemed so dominant.
Harley Finkelstein, my friend.
Harley Finkelstein and I rarely discuss the details of business. Harley is now the Chief Operating Office of Shopify. He will say that I am a mentor of his. Maybe for the first week of our relationship. Candidly, I’ve learned more from him than he will ever admit. Yesterday, I sent him a random/private text that I will share here (I hope he doesn’t mind): “Is it possible for one human being (me) to prouder of another human being (you)? I don’t think so.” Harley, Tobi and the entire leadership of Shopify impress me with each and every passing day. In one sense, I could not be prouder of their growth and progress. In another sense, their success is an excellent reminder to me to not look at things with blinders on. It’s an excellent reminder that often those who are looking for a mentor can often provide so much more in return. It’s an excellent reminder that business relationships can often lead to real-life friendships. It’s an excellent reminder that when you’re looking at business models, you have to dig deep and look for those who are really focused on their 1000 True Fans. It’s an excellent reminder that you don’t have to be in Silicon Valley to build a multi-billion dollar business. I can’t thank Barry Pascal enough for that introduction to Harley so many years ago.
Ultimately, it’s an excellent reminder to always let your friends know how you feel about them.