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A Year of Resiliency: Reflecting on 8 Founders Who Thrived in a Most Unusual Year

Each week on the Shopify Masters podcast, we shine a light on individuals who turned ideas into businesses and overcame tremendous hurdles to scale and grow. This year, those hurdles were greater than ever. While no two business journeys are alike, these founders do share a common characteristic: relentless resiliency. So this week, we highlight eight conversations from 2020 that demonstrate that remarkable resilience and growth against the odds.

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1. Pivoting from physical restaurants to mail-order pizza kits 

🎙From episode 285: Pizza in the Post: How Pizza Pilgrims Moved Their Restaurant Online

The food and beverage industry has been one of the most severely impacted by COVID-19. At Pizza Pilgrims, the team brought their restaurants to a whole new medium. Back in 2012, Thom and James Elliot turned the learnings from a fun summer road trip through Italy into Pizza Pilgrims, a fast-casual restaurant chain in the United Kingdom. The duo built the business up from a street market stall into over a dozen restaurants. Before the pandemic hit, they even recorded their busiest week of sales. Thom shares how they quickly pivoted to create at home pizza kits to move the business online and what they plan for the future. 

“We spent eight years building up a business that went from a record week of sales to zero revenue in about 10 days. So that was a bit of an eye-opener. My brother and I grew up in pubs and our parents ran pubs our whole life. There was slight parental pressure to not go into that world. So we both went off and did university and then got "proper jobs" and sat at desks. But I think after a few years of doing that, we both realized that it was not for us.”

—Thom Elliot, cofounder of Pizza Pilgrims

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2. Committing to an imperfect product

🎙From episode 298: Art of Reinventing: How This Bicycle Company Refines Its Products

Founders can attest to the fact that finding the Big Idea is a constant, ever-evolving commitment. For Ryan Zagata of Brooklyn Bicycle Company, it’s all about making improvements to their bicycles and distribution infrastructure. Establishing a Partner Program that’s mutually beneficial with more than 450 stores and an operations center abroad allowed Brooklyn Bicycle Company to handle the influx of sales at the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak. Despite the recent successes, Ryan sees more opportunities for improvements and continually seeks feedback from customers. 

“We wanted to get to market as quickly as possible, and our way of getting to market was going to these bike shops, taking that feedback, and putting it out there. After that, We've made boatloads of improvements based on customer feedback. My advice would be: acknowledge that somewhere along the line, you're going to put a better product out there by marrying yourself to your original product and thinking that's going to be the end of the world. That’s a losing proposition.”

—Ryan Zagata, founder of Brooklyn Bicycle Company

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3. Achieving financial freedom against all odds

🎙From episode 274: Meet the Three-Person Team Behind a Global Giftware Company

Life and business partners Diana Paisis and Al Cuttell left behind corporate comforts to launch their own giftware company, Bitten Design in 2008. Along with their partner Jos Reinders, the trio strikes a balance between creativity and commercial success. In their more than a decade long business journey, Bitten Design grew past networking dinners they couldn’t afford, legal battles, and countless prototypes to be a financially independent design company with retail partnerships in over 45 counties.

“When we started off, we had to make products. But doing that takes money—just the mold costs before you even make one item could be $10,000. We were spending money quite quickly. One of our customers who is still a big customer now in Hong Kong asked us to take them out to dinner. We went to quite an expensive restaurant. They racked up a really massive bill. We, as a company, didn't even have the money to cover it.”

—Al Cuttell, cofounder of Bitten Design

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4. Instilling meticulous research in day-to-day operations 

🎙From episode 294: Using TikTok to Generate 15,000 Sales in One Day

When severe adult acne impacted his life, Enrico Frezza spent over three years researching skincare solutions before launching Peace Out Skincare. This dedication to research is seen throughout the business. From establishing a retail relationship with Sephora to growth hacking Tiktok, Enrico shares his business journey and how each product is developed alongside customer studies and clinical trials. 

“As soon as we have a final formula and a prototype of the product, we start an internal consumer study through a pool of the Peace Out squad family. We send out a three-page questionnaire in order to start to understand the feedback and make sure that this is good from a consumer perspective. Based on that response, we make the final adjustments before we go into production. While we start production, we normally start the clinical trial as well.”

—Enrico Frezza, founder of Peace Out Skincare

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5. Becoming a new mom while saving her business during the pandemic

🎙From episode 302: The Formula for Building a Cult Favourite Skincare Line

Vegan and cruelty free skincare line and holistic skincare clinic Province Apothecary had been operating for over a decade before the pandemic hit, and was on track to double its sales this year. Founder Julie Clarke entered into skincare when she wanted to find a natural solution to treat her eczema and soon turned home remedies into products loved by Vogue Magazine and Gwyneth Paltrow. Julie shares what it was like to rebuild a business that was been derailed by COVID-19—all while being a new mom.

“COVID-19 totally changed the business. We were really excited to scale up the business and we were aiming to double the size of our business for 2020. We were on the projection of doing that until March. It really destroyed the business. We laid everyone off except myself, my partner Natalie, and our social media coordinator. There were only three of us doing the whole business for about a month. Then, we slowly brought more people on as we could afford it as the subsidies came through. It was terrible. It felt like we had gone back to having a brand new business. Thankfully, we had the structure, we had a website. I was joking that we started a new business that already existed before. We just had to figure out how to make it work again.”

—Julie Clarke, founder of Province Apothecary

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6. Examining failures to build new businesses 

🎙From episode 277: Launching a Niche Business With $500

Jason Wong loves to create new businesses and examine what can be done better with ideas that didn’t take off. The serial entrepreneur is behind Doe Lashes, a popular brand of false lashes amongst beauty influencers. Jason shares how he challenges himself to launch businesses with a limited budget of just $500 and how he evaluates ideas to determine which ones are worth pursuing. 

“Oftentimes what I found is that we're really not the first person to think of a business idea, we're sometimes the fifth or sixth. The first thing I do is see if there's any history of that product. If someone has tried to create something and if so, why did they fail? Why did they not get to market? Is it because of product defects, is it because the market wasn't ready for it? Or was it because the vendor just wasn't able to supply what we envisioned? I like to see if other people have tried the idea first. Even though someone has taken the idea already, doesn't mean that you cannot do it. It just means that maybe the market is validated and it is a sign for you to actually put more effort into it.”

—Jason Wong, founder of Doe Lashes

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7. Building a solution to save local retail stores 

🎙From episode 266: Pivoting During COVID-19: How One Entrepreneur Is Supporting Fellow Business Owners

When the COVID-19 outbreak impacted businesses to close, Kelly Bergeron wanted to find a way for individuals to support the businesses they loved. As a resident of Cornwall, Ontario, Kelly engaged her mayor, Bernadette Clement, along with the Chamber of Commerce to create an online store where residents can purchase gift cards from more than 100 local stores. Kelly shares how she built a solution within six hours and why it was more important to get something built than building something perfect. 

“I work online and understood that many of our restaurants and local establishments would have to shutter within days. So, essentially, I put together a minimum viable product, an MVP, in six hours, and I uploaded a very small list of businesses that I knew would need the support and started messaging people at our Chamber of Commerce. We wanted to spring into action because for restaurants, their margin is so small they would be at risk of closing down more quickly than other businesses with more cash flow. So, it wasn’t about getting to the nitty-gritty details, it was just about getting something out there, showing them what was possible. And the response has been phenomenal.”

—Kelly Bergeron, creator of Cornwall Gift Certificates Programs 

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8. Building a resilient future, one cup at a time

🎙From episode 296: How a Beverage Brand Fills the Cups of Many

When customers of BLK & Bold beverage company fill their cups with coffee or tea, they are also filling the cups of many. This socially-responsible business founded by childhood friends, Pernell Cezar and Rod Johnson, pledges 5% of all profits to support youth programs that provide workforce development and homelessness reduction services. Rod shares how their childhood in the Rust Belt of America with high levels of unemployment inspired the duo to create a business that can help break cycles of poverty. 

“We're very intentional about selecting that vulnerable demographic because of our own upbringing. Pernell and I were both raised in Gary, Indiana in ill-resourced households. And we're fortunate to have a support system around us that allowed us to overcome the obstacles that we were initially faced with. We recognize, however, that not everyone is fortunate or in similar positions. We build our business as a pathway, as a means for resources and visibility to a better life for that very vulnerable demographic, it's something that we're very gratified by.”

—Rod Johnson, co-founder of BLK & Bold

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What would you like to hear on Shopify Masters? 

It’s truly inspiring to hear from business owners each week as they are working through new challenges. The Shopify Masters podcast is our way to offer a sense of community and companionship while you are building your business by highlighting founders and their lessons learned along the way. 

As we look forward to a new beginning, we would love to hear from you. Who would you like to hear from? What are the topics you want to dive into? What’s your ideal length for these episodes? Let us know your thoughts in this short two minute survey: https://www.shopify.com/survey.

Thank you so much for listening and we look forward to sharing more stories with you in 2021. 

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