Roads Less Traveled: 7 Founders Who Built a Business on Their Own Terms

Shopify Masters Guests from 2019, Mel Wells of Beefcake Swimwear (left),

To date, Shopify has helped over one million independent business owners turn what they’re into, into a business. Over the years we’ve learned that while every journey is unique, there’s a common thread found in overcoming unexpected challenges, blazing one’s own trail, and driving change that creates a connection between our diverse community of founders. 

Our weekly podcast, Shopify Masters, has been a place for store owners to share untold stories about their journey and the lessons they learned along the way. It’s also home to candid conversations about the less glamorous aspects of building a business, including mistakes and failures.

Each week, we get to know how merchants have pursued starting their business despite limitations and conventions. Here we highlight seven of these conversations from merchants who broke the mold to build their businesses their own way.

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1. Working full time while building and scaling a profitable business

🎙From episode 234: How to Automate Your Business as Fast as Possible

Remi Silva and Alondra Carbajal of Blank Tag Co.

Entrepreneurs have a reputation for being risk-takers who jump headfirst into their business. But Remi Silva of Blank Tag Co. has found enjoyment in having both his day job and stickers company by developing his skills at work and applying them to his side-business. From retargeting to automation, Remi has generated a six-figure revenue stream with Blank Tag co with his life and business partner, Alondra Carbajal. 

Remi on work-life harmony:

“It just comes down to the point where if I can no longer sustain my job and the business, then I would have to really consider the options. But, for now, it's to the point where I can still manage both. I really enjoy both. My day job's actually really interesting. I work with a team of people that are super smart and they motivate me."

“A lot of little things that trouble businesses and take up a lot of time, you can actually automate it or build processes around it. I tracked all the things I do with my business and how much time it takes, and then see how I can automate it. Sometimes we also build processes around it so the customers can actually do it themselves.”

—Remi Silva, Blank Tag Co

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2. The corporate climb that launched a new fashion line

🎙From episode 238: Why an MBA Was Important for This Founder

 Sali Christeson founder and CEO of ARGENT.

As an MBA graduate, Sali Christeson spent a great deal of her career learning the ways companies can optimize their supply chain and operations. Throughout her corporate career, Sali noticed an apparent lack of stylish and vibrant clothing suitable for women’s workplace attire. Without any experience in the fashion industry, Sali decided to launch ARGENT, a clothing line designed to match the attitude and ambition of the women who will wear them. Pieces of ARGENT can be seen on the likes of Hillary Clinton and Glossier founder Emily Weiss.

Sali on why firsthand experience is invaluable:

I think anyone's career path has to be tied to how they tick. The way that I thrive in any environment or any role is by having a holistic understanding of whatever it is that I'm trying to do. When I pursued my MBA, it was about learning business holistically. Getting more hands-on experience, expanding my network, spending more time in different functions, and learning. To me firsthand learning is invaluable and it was such an incredible experience. I actually got to work at Daimler. I went to Germany and lived there for a little shy of a year and got exposure to international business firsthand. And then came back and landed this role at Cisco, which is almost an MBA on top of an MBA. I got to spend six months in planning, six months in product operations, six months in manufacturing operations, six months in supplier management and got to work on a joint venture that we did with China.

That experience is invaluable, from MBA into the real-world experience and then into ARGENT, I developed relationships, I had a sense of command over not only the subject matter but also myself. I think that understanding your own leadership style and having an intimate understanding of your own blind spots is critical to be successful as an entrepreneur. Taking all of that into ARGENT really set me up for success or as much as possible. It's not to say that any path is wrong, that's just my path based on how I operate. 

—Sali Christeson, ARGENT

Listen to the full episode here: 

3. T-minus two years to launch 

🎙From episode 235: Why this founder took two years to launch

Mel Wells of Beefcake Swimwear.
Sometimes taking an idea to market seems like a race against the clock. But for Mel Wells, taking two years to launch was well worth the time. Mel wanted to create inclusive androgynous swimwear inspired by designs from the 1920s—she also wanted to find a local manufacturer to ensure the products were produced sustainably. Prior to launching Beefcake Swimwear on Kickstarter, Mel went from sewing each piece to prototyping with her manufacturer by sending samples to over a dozen individuals to find a fit that suits as many people as possible.

Mel on the importance of taking your time:

For me, it was so slow because I'm really into research and I like to know what I'm jumping into before I actually take a leap. So part of that was just personal style. I wasn't like struggling for two years. It was researching and doing all this in my spare time while I worked at a nonprofit as my day job. So putting time into it when I could was also a part of the reason why it took so long.

For me, I just wanted to make sure that I did it right. I really cared about the people that I would be making these swimsuits for and I wanted to do it sustainably. And to grow slow. It really wasn't about making money, it was about doing this and doing it right.

—Mel Wells, founder of Beefcakes Swimwear 

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4. The artist behind an online tutorial business 

🎙From episode 214: Selling Courses and Membership Programs on Shopify

Danielle Spurge of Merriweather Council.
When Danielle Spurge turned down the opportunity to complete a Masters, she wasn’t planning on starting a business. Without a plan for the future, Danielle didn’t fall into the stereotype of a starving artist but she did enjoy crafting. Danielle became infatuated with embroidery. Something about the fact that a needle, a thread, and her own two hands were all she needed to create something new, drawn her further into the craft. Danielle then turned her embroidery into products like necklaces and home accessories and launched Merriweather Council. As she turned her craft into a career, Danielle also wanted to help other crafters find their own creative freedom by offering courses online. A move that not only made her business a financial success but also allows others to build and create something of their own.

Danielle on starting a business without a plan

When I started my business it was really from a place of no plans. I was in college and I had planned to go to graduate school, and at the very last minute, on the eve of graduation, I decided not to go to graduate school. I didn’t have any plans. I decided to start my business because that’s something I’d always been interested in and had been researching throughout my senior year. I decided to just go for it since I didn’t have anything else to do. I was making all sorts of different products, and just trying to see what would land and do I like doing. I think that is an important step for a lot of people to take—just trying things and see what works and adjust from there.

I was making a lot of sewn products, fabric buntings and different sewn projects, and I just decided that I really wanted to only be embroidering. That was the main thing that I loved to do and it was the thing that I felt the most drawn to. Once I cut the other stuff out, I was able to really focus on those embroidered projects and do more of them, evolve them better, do them differently, do them better than I had been doing them, market them better. It’s about finding that niche and digging into it. 

—Danielle Spurge, Merriweather Council

Listen to the full episode here: 

5. The business born out of pregnancy and motherhood 

🎙From episode 205: Free Digital Products Are the Backbone of This Content Marketing Strategy

Alexandra Eidens of Big Life Journal

Despite having a full-time job and a pile of abandoned side projects, Alexandra Eidens was never deterred from dreaming up new business ideas. But it wasn’t until Alexandra was preparing for the arrival of her son that she first learned about growth mindset, popularized by professor Carol Dweck, and began looking for ways to encourage a similar resiliency in her children. Unfortunately, after researching the market she found that there were very few suitable products available. This discovery, and the journey of motherhood, inspired her to launch Big Life Journal with her husband—it’s quickly become her most successful venture yet. 

Alexandra on resiliency in entrepreneurship:

The idea for Big Life Journal was born in 2016. That’s when I was pregnant with our child. My husband is my co-founder—he and I are doing this together. We were expecting our first child, and we were sitting down and having conversations about how we wanted to raise our children, and what kind of skills, attitude, and mindset we wanted to instill in our son. 

That’s the time when we discovered “growth mindset” and how important it is to start early. We were looking for different tools that would be helpful for parents to help raise kids with this type of mindset, and at that point, there was nothing available. So we decided that we’re gonna create something. 

At that moment, I was working corporate and my husband was too. But, I was doing a lot of things on the side. I was starting lots of different businesses in different industries, and all of them were failing one after another. But for me it was just about the experience, I was gonna try new things, and trying to find what I would be interested in doing. I never took those failures as something personal, they never crushed me. It was more about, “Oh that’s interesting. That didn’t work. Let’s try something else.”

—Alexandra Eidens, Big Life Journal

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6. Building a beauty company as a recent grad 

🎙 From episode 240: How a Beauty Subscription Box Launched Through Facebook Groups 

Bili Balogun of Tribe Beauty Box.

What Bili Balogun lacked in business experience she had in passion and expertise. As an avid fan of beauty and cosmetics products, Bili was a frequent contributor in Facebook groups, discussing the latest in makeup and skincare. As a recent grad in 2017, Bili decided to turn her interest into a business and took the plunge by launching her own beauty subscription box. Under the brand Tribe Beauty Box, Bili curates and showcases the latest products from new, independent beauty companies. Though she admits to still occasionally being intimidated by long-time sellers who have extensive industry experience, Bili is paving her own way. She’s continually invested in establishing a direct dialogue with her subscribers and customers, an approach that has helped her build strong relationships and maintain consistent, healthy growth. 

Bili on how her lack of experience drives her to work harder:

I would say my age, alone, is one of my biggest insecurities. Most of the brands that I work with, and the brands that I know personally, their CEOs are way older, their marketing managers are way older than me, so coming into the space with no prior knowledge or experience in the beauty industry was pretty scary. But that's where I was able to do my research and really use my disadvantages as advantages. I was able to open the floor, create a community where I educate my customers. And they educated me, too. It's an ongoing dialogue, and that's how we've been growing. 

When you're starting a subscription box, you ideally should have prior brand relationships and have prior experience in the industry. Honestly, I had absolutely none. The fact that I didn't know enough gave me that boost to probably do so much research. Not only was I learning the foundations of the industry, but I was also learning the trends and the forecast. I'm always up to date with those things. I was also able to come out and be very honest with my subscribers and saying "Hey, guys, this is who I am. This is what I've done prior to owning Tribe Beauty Box, and this is my vision for the Box." Any questions that I have, I ask my subscribers. 

—Bili Balogun, Tribe Beauty Box

Listen to the full episode here: 

7. Starting a bedding company with no prior industry experience 

🎙 From episode 232: The Simple Business Model Used to Build a $2.4 Million Business

Colin McIntosh of Sheets & Giggles.

Before launching Sheets & Giggles, Colin McIntosh was deeply devoted to his day job at a tech startup, but due to some abrupt changes at the company, Colin was laid off. Amidst the unfortunate turn of events, Colin found a silver lining—he decided it was the time to invest in himself and start a business of his own. Despite not having any experience within the bedding industry, Colin was confident in his expertise in direct-to-consumer models and decided to apply his know-how to an easily manufactured product. By finding a sustainable and more breathable material, Colin focused on bedding made from eucalyptus, and soon found himself scaling Sheets & Giggles to over $2 million in sales.

Colin on starting with a strong vision:

“My initial criteria was a physical product, low complexity supply chain, massive commodities market, a highly fragmented marketplace with no market leader that I can chip away at with no brand differentiation or loyalty across the industry. And something that was largely in traditionally physical retail that I could help bring online with the direct-to-consumer model.

I looked across all of the websites that I owned, and I owned sheetsgiggles.com, because I buy domains whenever I think of a business idea, and I had thought of this may be a year prior, and bedding fit the criteria almost perfectly. But that's not to say it's the only thing that did. It was just the one that had the model almost locked in perfectly and that I had a fantastic brand name for.  I felt like I can build a brand that reflected my own personality. 

—Colin McIntosh, Sheets & Giggles 

Listen to the full episode here: 

Open mic: What would you like to hear on Shopify Masters? 

I have a deep love for podcasts. They’re a uniquely intimate yet strangely unintrusive way to share untold stories and personal experiences. At Shopify, our flagship podcast gives us a way to celebrate the business owners who’ve managed to navigate the sometimes perilous journey of entrepreneurship—all while giving them a platform to share what they’ve learned with future founders.

Each and every year, we look for ways we can add additional depth to the podcast. So we’d like to ask you, our listener: Who would you like to see as a guest? Which industries should we dive into next? What kinds of unheard of conversations should we share on the show? 

Let us know in the comments below. Thank you so much for listening, and we’ll see you in 2020. 

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