What does it take to make the leap from a steady job into freelancing? How do you go from working for someone else to establishing an agency of your own? And what if societal pressures and family customs stand in the way of you following your passion and living your dream?
Gopi Para is a 25-year-old Shopify Partner from India who found success at the end of many difficult decisions, long nights working two jobs, and an unconventional path he carved out for himself. This is the story of how an India-based Shopify Partner found his way into the professional world of web development and agency ownership. Let’s start from the top.
Gopi grew up playing cricket in the fields surrounding his small Indian village, Pallamalli. While they swung their bats, the youths thought about their future and expressed their desire to become India’s version of rock stars: computer programmers.
“Ask any student what they want to do,” Gopi says. “They will all say, ‘Engineering, engineering, and engineering.’”
The allure of computer programming was irresistible. Many of Gopi’s family members pursued jobs in the field and told wide-eyed youngsters about the potential of these careers, including the ability to travel to “on-site” locations like Europe and the USA. But a global recession, coupled with a loss of jobs in the IT sector, meant it was more of a dream than a possible reality.
Gopi’s family were farmers; his mother a housewife. Although he expressed an interest in learning to work in IT, his family sternly reminded him of the shortage of jobs in the field.
“Try something more conventional,” they told him.
When Gopi was of age, he took his parents’ advice and enrolled into an accounting and finance degree, even though his heart wasn’t in it. He depended on his family for money, each month turning to them for support.
Relying on his family financially didn’t sit well with him, and Gopi began to consider opportunities he could pursue in his free time to generate extra income. He worked at restaurants; he tried data entry jobs. None of them felt right. Through internet searches and online tutorials, he discovered that he could monetize WordPress websites with advertisements. Still, the money trickled in too slowly. With the WordPress development skills he’d earned, Gopi looked for other opportunities,
A self-proclaimed “DIY kind of guy,” Gopi turned to online blogs, tutorials, and courses to improve his development skills. In 2012, he invested in a paid subscription to Treehouse, where he learned more about building on WordPress, and turned to online freelance websites like Upwork to start generating contract work.
The freelance life
Gopi’s first WordPress job came in 2013 from a client named Roberto Suarez in Miami, Florida. The project involved building a content site and helping Roberto maintain it. When Roberto subsequently decided to launch an ecommerce website for a new product, Gopi humbly confessed that he didn’t know the first thing about ecommerce, or about Roberto’s platform of choice: Shopify.
So Roberto hired a local Miami agency that specialized in Shopify work, Pixel Supply. When Roberto told them about the India-based developer he’d been working with, Pixel Supply mentioned they were looking to hire developers—and Gopi sounded like just the person they’d been looking for.
That led to a fruitful eighteen-month partnership where Gopi took on small subcontracts from Pixel Supply part-time, becoming an expert in ecommerce along the way.
During this time, Gopi was still actively pursuing his degree in finance, working a full-time internship at an accounting firm, and frequently clocking 17-hour days. He couldn’t tell a Sunday from a Monday. A typical day involved waking up early for work, coming home around 7PM, and stealing one hour for himself before turning to the freelance work that kept him up until 2 AM. And then he’d wake up the next morning to do it all over again.
“One job is what you are good at,” Gopi said of his accounting internship. “One job is what you have to learn to be good at.”
So he learned as furiously as he could. His freelance work with Pixel Supply led to a desire for his own projects. He decided to satiate that hunger by looking for customers of his own. One of the most successful places he found clients, aside from freelance marketplaces, was Shopify Community (then called the Shopify Forums).
By nature, forums are ripe with people looking for solutions. Gopi would read people’s posts, and if it was a small problem, he’d post an explanation of how to fix it. If it was a larger technical issue, he would offer a hint to help them find a solution—along with a suggestion to hire him to take care of the problem himself.
“There are lots of forum posts under my name, even now,” Gopi says.
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The agency life
Around this time, in 2014, Gopi discovered the Shopify Partner Program. He began his journey by building multiple portfolio websites, and started gaining traction as a Shopify Partner.
“Everything has changed since then,” he says. “I started getting requests for Shopify builds, one after another. There’s a huge demand. It kept me totally occupied.”
I started getting requests for Shopify builds, one after another. There’s a huge demand. It kept me totally occupied.
So occupied, in fact, that Gopi began to consider turning his individual consulting business into a full-blown web design and development agency. But what to call it?
Similar to how his cricket-playing younger self had dreamed of becoming a programming rockstar, the grown-up Gopi had taken on a more detailed fantasy: creating a business that he could call Code Rapper.
“I wanted to have a fun name,” he says. “I’m the Code Rapper. Like a music rapper, and the code is the music. It comes from the ability to play with the code. I can make anything out of code.”
As a consultant, Gopi took on about five Shopify projects per month—two websites built from scratch; two to three customizations on existing websites. There was no way to scale that model though; no more hours he could tack onto his already-long work days. Unless he did two things: finally quit his accounting job that took most of his daytime hours, and hire employees to work alongside him. He started with the former.
During the last week of my accounting job, every day I posted a countdown on Facebook. Seven days to go. Six days to go...
“During the last week of my accounting job, every day I posted a countdown on Facebook,” Gopi recalls. “Seven days to go. Six days to go...”
As the days ticked downward, Gopi focused his time and attention on hiring a team.
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The hiring process
Gopi laughs in a self-deprecating way when asked for advice on how to effectively scale a team when you’re building an agency.
“I won’t be helpful,” he says. “I didn’t get it right.”
His instinct was to hire junior developers who didn’t have experience with the Shopify platform. For Code Rapper specifically, this approach didn’t allow Gopi to scale quickly enough.
“Now, my idea is to hire senior people,” he admits.
Since establishing Code Rapper in July 2016, Gopi has scaled his team from himself to five full-time employees and two full-time freelancers. All of them focus exclusively on Shopify, which Gopi determined as the best platform for his agency to build on.
"I want to see myself as a programmer, but I don’t want myself to struggle too much,” he says. “I don’t want the client to struggle too much making changes, either."
When he began constructing a business plan for Code Rapper, having never been to business school, Gopi relied on educational posts from the Shopify Web Design and Development Blog to teach him how to build his own business.
He must have been doing something right, because from August 2016 to April 2017, he completed 20 different Shopify projects.
What’s next for his business now that he’s up to seven employees? A shift into the enterprise space. Gopi says he sees massive opportunity focusing on about 10 Shopify Plus clients each year, and convincing retail giants to migrate from other platforms onto Shopify.
You might also like: How Shopify Plus Partner Createur Helped Migrate One of Australia’s Top Online Retailers.
When Gopi reflects on all he’s accomplished, the moment he first felt successful wasn’t when he hired his first employee or officially established his agency. It was the day he started freelancing.
“It was a time when most of my friends and colleagues were doing their day jobs and getting bored,” he says. “They weren’t ready to take risks. I’ve overcome all these things. I took risks. And I was rewarded for them.”
I took risks. And I was rewarded for them.
Although his family was initially worried about his pursuit of a profession outside of accounting, Gopi is now able to financially contribute to his family in a significant way, instead of borrowing money from them each month. Gopi estimates that he’s making 10 times what he would have as an accountant.
“It was a scary situation when I was quitting my accountant job,” he recalls. “The kind of society we’re in, it’s different. Everything is so scary when it doesn’t happen in the traditional way. But now, everything has changed. It’s the other side of the coin.”
If Gopi could go back in time and give his younger self some advice, he would have a lot to say. And he was eager to pass those insights along to other entrepreneurial spirits who plan to take a journey similar to his, or an entirely different one.
“Be ambitious. Target big goals. People will say, ‘You can’t do this; you can’t do that,’ but stay focused. Be conscious about how you’re spending your time. If you’re not spending time on something productive, that’s a waste.”
People will say, ‘You can’t do this; you can’t do that,’ but stay focused.
On working too much and setting boundaries
“If I could go back in time one year, what I would do is be more realistic with my working hours. Stick to them. I wouldn’t do any overtime or work on weekends. Now I’m in a situation where I can’t avoid that because all my clients know I’m flexible. ‘He can work overtime; he can work weekends.’ I could have avoided that. I would’ve picked my working hours, and been very productive during that time, but not do anything outside of those hours—especially on weekends.”
On quitting your day job
“Don’t jump. Make sure you’re stable, and that you have a sustainable career. I talk to so many people who want to jump into web design and digital marketing. They want things to happen overnight or in days. That’s not how it’s going to work. It takes patience.”
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The courage to persevere
Gopi’s success did not come overnight. It took years, and small stepping stones, and many opportunities identified and seized quickly. His success also did not come easily, involving many long days, and late nights, and family tensions. His success did come, however, as a result of his courage to persevere. It was the belief in his ability to become a Code Rapping rockstar that allowed him to build the business he daydreamed about as a cricket-playing boy in his small Indian village.