In Search of the American Dream
Shopify Partner Program: Kurt Smiling
The Shopify Partner Program helps freelancers and agencies start and scale their businesses. Read on to see how Ethercycle scaled their business as a Shopify Partner.
On a morning like most others, Kurt Elster sat down on his couch to lace up his sneakers before work. But unlike most days, something stopped him from getting back up.
“I just broke down in tears.”
It came out of nowhere. The happy-go-lucky Chicago native was working what he thought was his dream job at a local dropshipper that sold performance auto parts. A car aficionado, Kurt was supposed to love his work, but in reality, the nine-to-five gig was eating away at his soul.
Finally, something inside him just broke.
- Store setup, web design, strategy, marketing
- Shopify Partner
- Since 2011
I knew immediately that I had to quit my job and that I was not meant to have a boss — that I needed to be an entrepreneur.
On that very same day, Kurt marched into his office and gave his notice. He had no plan of action, no specific business in mind — just a genuine will to be true to himself.
“As a kid, I watched my dad get laid off from his job, and then not be able to find work again,” Kurt explains. “He used to tell me, ‘If you work for yourself, you can’t lose your job. You are your own boss.’”
The concept stuck. Not long after quitting his job, Kurt hatched a business plan to start Ethercycle, an ecommerce consultancy that has since grown into a mega-successful Shopify Plus Partner.
But when Kurt was starting the business in 2009, his path to success wasn’t all that clear. Originally, Ethercycle was an ecommerce platform specifically for bike shops, a nod to Kurt’s passion for cycling. After a year of slogging away at the business and living on a meagre $15,000 annual salary, he realized he’d started the wrong business.
"Every entrepreneur's fear is that the business fails. But if you pivot, that's not failure,” Kurt says.
With no cash left in the reservoir, Ethercycle started developing brochure websites for local businesses. From famine to feast, business quickly picked up. People needed help with their websites, Kurt discovered.
To manage the new workload, he brought on partner and developer Paul Reda. The pair quickly became generalists, doing almost all types of website work and touching nearly every ecommerce platform, including Shopify. The duo instantly developed a love for working on Shopify projects.
Back then, we loved working on Shopify because it wasn’t open source. I didn’t want to be in the IT business. I wanted to do web design. I wanted to do strategy. Shopify let us do the work we loved.
Ethercycle joined the Shopify Partner Program in August 2011. To Kurt’s surprise, the decision started bringing in quality leads. Suddenly, the types of clients he wanted to work with were knocking on his virtual door.
Before this moment, Kurt admits that he struggled with the decision of whether or not to niche down, and focus solely on Shopify projects. To some, casting a wider net might have seemed like the safe bet — but in the end, Kurt discovered the opposite to be true.
“The single most important event in growing my business was saying no to all non-Shopify work. That was our phenomenal turning point,” he says.
Kurt leaned into Shopify. What his team got back was not only quality leads, but an unexpected sense of community, too.
Other Shopify Partners that Kurt and Paul met at meetups and online started becoming friends and confidants. They shared similar interests and were happy to answer questions, open up about struggles, and collaborate.
“We’re all working shoulder-to-shoulder to better merchants. And that, ultimately, is a rising tide that lifts all boats.”
Eventually, that rising tide meant an overflow of work for Ethercycle, and Kurt turned to the community for its talent. Today, Ethercycle regularly hires other agencies and freelancers from the Shopify Partner Ecosystem for projects, niche needs, or work overflow.
The collaborative nature of the community has helped Kurt keep his team lean and overhead costs low, while simultaneously letting him cherry pick the projects he wants to work on. In essence, he continues to build exactly the kind of business he’s wanted from the very beginning.
Without the Shopify Partner Program, Ethercycle wouldn't be here today.
Able to provide a comfortable life for his family, the self-proclaimed car fanatic has even managed to buy his dream car — a 2016 Jaguar F-Type S (complete with Shopify license plate). Today, Kurt lives what he calls “the quintessential American entrepreneurial dream.”
“Shopify’s given me freedom, it's given me wealth, it's given me security. Most importantly, it's given me impact. I've been able to help thousands of people achieve the same thing that I always wanted for myself.”
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