If someone told you to start a business from scratch—right now, today—and grow it to a multi-million dollar company in eight months or less, would you think they were crazy?
Crazy or not, it’s possible, and it’s been proven time and time again by our annual Build a Business Competition.
This year, our winners are headed for the entrepreneurial experience of a lifetime—ringing the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange before taking a helicopter to the Oheka Castle (aka the Great Gatsby Mansion) for a week of luxury and mentorship from industry icons including Tony Robbins, Russell Simmons, Daymond John, Marie Forleo, and Tim Ferriss.
Here are some stats worth sharing from this year’s competition:
Thousands of eligible merchants. Contestants were from 4,533 cities. 45% of contestants indicated that they have never sold a product before. Sales per contestant this year were 145% higher than sales per contestant last year. Orders per contestant this year were 176% higher than orders per contestant last year. Shopify Merchant Survey: 34.5 of our merchants are 25 - 34 years old, and our 45+ audience has been increasing over the last two years from 23% to almost 30%. We know have a 50%/50% of men and women Shopify business owners and a slightly larger number of women using Shopify on a daily basis as staff members.
The Build a Business Competition serves a few purposes—one is to celebrate aspiring entrepreneurs who are making bigs things happen in a small amount of time. Winners are calculated based on their best two months of sales during an eight-month time period.
But part two is to show that you can do it too. Shopify gives you the technology and tools you need to launch a successful business—but a lot of it is up to you. It takes your hustle, your sleepless nights, your eureka moments, and your epic failures.
This year’s Build a Business Competition yielded more successful entrepreneurs than ever before. Four winners rose to the top, and we drilled them about how they used the eight-month competition period to their advantage. What were the unconventional strategies they used that yielded the greatest return? What was their most indispensible tool? What advice do they have for you?
What follows is your Build a Business survival manual. Read closely so that you can implement these strategies when you enter next year’s Build a Business Competition. (Stay tuned…)
Allow us to introduce you to the newest cohort of Build a Business Winners—four entrepreneurial merchants who saw an opportunity, ran like hell with it, and created a successful business that changed their lives forever.
Arts, Jewelry & Crafts: Carbon 6
John Paul Easley has gone through a lot of wedding rings. He’s lost them; damaged them; found they were dangerous in his workshop. He began experimenting with different materials—tungsten, titanium, and other metals that just didn’t cut it. And then he remembered carbon fiber, which he had discovered as a mechanical engineering student.
John quickly realized that carbon fibre had many properties he was looking for. It was strong—stronger than each of its individual components. He liked the symbolism of that. But more practically, it’s incredibly light, and doesn’t act as a conduit for electricity. If his hand got smashed in the workshop, the ring would shatter instead of cutting off his circulation.
He began researching and learned that Lamborghini had developed a new way of forging fiber to make it three-dimensional for their luxury sports cars. John developed his own process for forging the material—a method that involved hundreds of prototypes to get the right pattern and strength. John launched a Kickstarter campaign to validate and fund the idea, generating nearly $409,000 from 3,451 backers. That’s when the business took off, with each ring handmade in their small workshop.
“Once I decided to make the rings, I signed up for classes at a local university that pertained to the materials we were working with. It not only helped to have the information in the classes, but it also gave me access to all the machines in the school’s engineering department to prototype; access to professors who were more willing to help because I was taking classes; and access to databases of journals that allowed me to look up technical information and research that had been done on the materials we were working with.”
Most important tool:
“Instead of bringing in angel investors or getting a loan from a bank, we started off with crowdsourcing, which offers interest-free funding options, gives you a sense of market demand, and allows you to test the quality of your marketing pitch. We got access to the cash resources it took to get the machinery, materials, and employees we needed to meet the demand we had, but it also provided a community of supporters that became advocates for our product, which generated a bunch of grassroots publicity.”
“Benchmark demand and fair pricing by looking on sites like Etsy, Ebay, and Amazon, in addition to what’s sold in more conventional outlets. The internet has liberated startups from the need of brick and mortar stores. Now, the whole world is your audience. If you find something you’re passionate about, you no longer have to be in a location with a concentrated community of people interested in your product. With seven billion people in the world, even if only 0.001% of people are interested in the things you like, that’s a community of seven million people.”
Electronics & Gadgets: Nora
Nora started as a solution to the personal problem of snoring. Ali Hariri, a serial inventor, noticed how he and his wife dealt with each other’s snoring: by slowly moving the snoring person’s pillow. He built the first Nora prototype to mimic this gentle movement, and was impressed at how effectively it reduced snoring.
Ali’s sons, Behrouz and Behzad, decided to help their father turn the prototype into a product. It was a happy coincidence that they had engineering knowhow, product strategy, and marketing expertise under one roof. Together, they created the first smart, non-invasive, portable snoring solution designed to stop snoring before it wakes you or your sleeping partner. You don’t need to wear anything to bed, and it works with any pillow or sleeping position. Nora’s companion app offers insights into sleep patterns, too.
The team received positive results from early users, giving them the momentum they needed to launch a Kickstarter campaign that brought in more than $1 million in pre-orders from more than 40 countries.
“It’s common knowledge that collaborating in multidisciplinary teams significantly increases creativity. With a 34-year age gap between the team members, consensus often emerges as a result of distilling ideas to their very core. We arrive at solutions from vastly different perspectives and weigh our options meticulously. We find that we are more immune to following trends—unless we understand their value for our specific needs and the needs of our users.”
Most important tool:
“Shapeshifting. As a small and fast-moving startup, we constantly have to take on new tasks and roles. Sometimes we know what we are doing, and other times we have to figure it out as we go. We are very aware that building a business is like raising a child—the people and environments you surround yourself with profoundly affect how you think and work. We have gone from open, shared work spaces when we needed the energy and collaboration, to dedicated spaces when we needed to focus and double down on execution.”
“Forget the romantic notion of suddenly quitting your day job and starting a business. Every business starts as a project. Take your ideas seriously, foster them, and be your own toughest critic. Ask yourself if your idea is really worth all the effort it will take to get off the ground. The only way to know is to start with small steps, and let the success of your project convince you. You will know when it’s time.”
Fashion & Apparel: Happy Trunk Apparel
British Columbia, Canada
Emily Wilford and Jon Wedel have always loved to travel, funding their adventures by creating online businesses. The couple decided to take a three-month trip to Thailand and visit a place called Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai. Emily fell in love with the large, endangered creatures, and she and Jon began brainstorming about a small side business so Emily could contribute to the park’s conservation efforts.
They noticed some cool, bohemian elephant pants in Thailand, and thought they’d found their idea: sell the pants and give a portion back to Elephant Nature Park. But when they started to build their website, they discovered they weren’t the only ones with that very same idea. Without getting discouraged, they quickly pivoted and decided to sell elephant-themed jewelry with the same mission.
What was supposed to be a “small side business” blew up—they now reach millions of people every week, have tens of thousands of customers, and own a profitable business that allows them to support a cause close to their hearts.
“One major thing we do differently is our satisfaction guarantee. A lot of companies have them, but they make it such a pain to get back your money. We refund every single customer who asks for their money back. This costs our business a significant amount, but the amount of money we ‘lose’ on refunds is nothing compared to the amount of goodwill we create within our customers and community.”
Most important tool:
“Awareness—be aware of what's going on. Be aware of what's hot. Where are your competitors getting traffic? Pay attention to what the big guys in your niche are doing. What kind of advertisements are they running? What kind of prices are working well? Absorb as much information as possible. Model your approach after others, but don't copy. Trust us when we say we've been ripped off a LOT—it just doesn't work! Be original and find your angle. Nothing is ever as good the second time around.”
“Get ready for a wild ride! The path that takes you to success might be completely different than what you had in mind. Be ready to adapt. The freedom you get from running your own business is worth any amount of struggle it will take to become successful. Keep modifying your approach and measuring your results until you find success. The only way you can lose is if you stop trying.”
Everything Else: iSwegway
Asad Saddique watched with wonder the rising popularity of the swegway (or segway; all names for the self-balancing boards)—celebrities galore have been spotted with them. The public has been obsessed with the idea of a hoverboard ever since Marty McFly scooted on air in Back to the Future Part II. Despite some hoaxes, these swegways are the closest we’ve gotten to commercializing such a product—and Asad saw an opportunity.
When the company's first shipment of product arrived, Asad had never even ridden one. He and his business partner were working out of their houses, but things have grown significantly since then as they took advantage of the holiday season and the product’s trendiness. To mitigate concerns about quality and safety, iSwegway offers a year-long warranty, and a 24-hour support line. This was a significant investment up front, but Asad knew he needed to set his business apart. His small business skyrocketed to success, and iSwegway is now the UK’s largest online swegway retailer.
“When we started, we recruited staff and ran back-to-back 24-hour shifts to get the business off the ground. That unusual level of commitment paid off. Interest in the swegway was massive, with the product at the top of just about every Christmas list—and yet there were so many scary stories floating around the media that people were terrified to use the boards at all. Taking that sort of risk might have seemed crazy, but we moved quickly to catch this rise in popularity, knowing that we could provide a product that was safe, UK-tested and easy to use—just in time for the festive season and the summer months that lay ahead.”
Most important tool:
“My phone was my best friend during those early days. It was how I got the business off the ground without having to be chained to my desk 24/7. It gave me freedom while making sure I kept on top of everything. I was using it as a point of contact, but also for my photography and uploading needs. It was invaluable.”
“To anyone thinking about starting their own business, I would say to absolutely go for it. When starting out with iSwegway, we faced a lot of doubt and discouragement—not only from people we knew, but because of the media’s perception of the board. So go with your gut!”
People's Choice: Best Self Co.
New York, USA
Cathryn Lavery and Allen Bouwer wanted to quit their day jobs. They met on an online entrepreneurship course and they became accountability partners — doing daily check-ins to make sure they were getting shit done. Over two years, through books, interviews, and conferences, they gathered insights on some of the most successful, high-performing people in the world (including Tim Ferriss, Marie Forleo, and Tony Robbins—all mentors in this year’s competition).
Cathryn and Allen found that what differentiated outstanding performers was their ability to plan, effectively execute, and track progress. That’s when the idea for the SELF Journal was born—a notebook broken into various sections (a daily timeline, inspirational quotes, goal outlines...) to be filled in daily. They successfully funded their Kickstarter campaign in less than 28 hours, raising over $322,000 in 34 days. On the last day of their campaign, Shopify’s Build a Business Competition was launched. They knew they wanted to win—and even created a poster for their office to motivate them each day.
Congratulations to the People's Choice Award finalists!
New York, USA
Tushy is an attachment that turns any toilet into a bidet (which uses water instead of wiping after, you know, going number two). Founder Miki Agrawal grew up experiencing all kinds of caboose-cleaning rituals, from the Indian Lota (a small brass container used to carry water for personal hygiene), to the tune-whistling Japanese bidet (seriously—they play music to relax you). Inspired by the “simple joys” of this daily ritual, she created Tushy.
The company aims to “flush” what they call the antiquated habit of using toilet paper in favor of the bidet, which they argue is healthier, reduces waste, and helps people “defecate with dignity.” Here’s a stat to make you think twice about your wiping ways: It takes 15 million trees to make a year’s worth of toilet paper—that’s like cutting down every tree in New York City’s Central Park each day.
Alissa Jacob and Aliza Zelin Neidich have been best friends for nearly 30 years. They met in the lobby of their NYC apartment building just before beginning preschool. Their moms are both named Linda, and their fathers’ names are Gary and Barry—how many more signs do you need?
The now-grown women moved across the country to LA, hoping to embrace the westward shift of art and fashion. In such a sprawling city, they wanted to create a one-stop shopping destination. And so they created Reservoir: a unique marketplace for everything from a great dress, to a ceramic teapot, to a piece of art.
Paul Hedrick is a native Texan and self-proclaimed boot-wearer who was living and working in NYC for an investment firm. He got tired of overpaying for well-made cowboy boots, and couldn’t find exactly what he was looking for: an affordable boot that focused on quality and simple, classic style.
So, he quit his job, moved back to Texas, and started the first direct-to-consumer cowboy boot brand. He named it Tecovas after a creek in his home state. Paul drew up some designs himself, and started working with one of the world’s oldest boot factories in Leon, Mexico that uses a process of more than 120 steps to create each pair of boots. Instead of the industry standard, which charges $400-$600 USD a pair, Tecovas start at $195. Paul has a big, hairy audacious goal: that someday, everyone in the country has a pair of (hopefully Tecovas) cowboy boots in their closet.