11 min read

Shopify 2016 Build a Business Experience

Explore the pivotal role Shopify played in my entrepreneurial growth, leading to winning the Build a Business contest. Key lessons shared.
Shopify 2016 Build a Business Experience

Shopify has played a huge role in my journey from a 9-5’er to now. In 2012 I used the e-commerce platform to launch Calm The Ham not realizing at the time that I was diving into the world of entrepreneurship. Not too long after I launched the store in 2012 I learned about the Build a Business competition and entered as a contestant.  

2012 Shopify Build a Business contest updates

Back then it would have been the 2nd year of the contest and suffice to say I didn’t even come close to winning. However, as a bystander, I loved seeing the contest unfold, between the mentorship videos and the competition it was amazing even back then.  

That store was eventually my vehicle to freedom and allowed me to leave my full-time job in 2014.  

“There are moments when life offers you an opportunity. Those moments are rare, and you’re often unprepared for them. But they are the times that offer the chance to grow, fail, change, and thrive. This is one of those moments.” – Shopify

The next time the Build a Business contest came into my consciousness was in 2015 when they announced the prize of spending five days on Necker Island with Richard Branson, Daymond John, Tim Ferriss, and Marie Forleo. It looked incredible and I had friends that launched businesses just to enter the contest, but alas I had too much going on at the time to join them.  

Fast forward to a year later, Allen and I had just completed our Kickstarter campaign on Sept 22nd, 2015. Then on Sept 23rd, 2015, I saw an email from Shopify in my inbox announcing the 2016 contest… and it looked EPIC.  

I knew this was the right time.  

Here was my thinking:  

Best case scenario: We win and build an awesome business.

Worst case scenario: We compete and build an awesome business but don’t win.  

Allen and I were so focused on competing in the contest that I even made a small poster for each of us to put on our walls by our desks so we would keep it top of mind.  

Shopify Build a Business Contest

The Backstory of the Competition

The contest was launched as a growth strategy for Shopify to serve as a catalyst for all those people who keep thinking about starting a store but then never do. This competition is for anyone to open a Shopify store, come up with a product or service – and start selling.  

During dinner at the Gatsby mansion, I learned the story of how the whole contest started.  

One evening in San Francisco Tobi Lütke (Shopify Founder & CEO) and Tim Ferris (an early Shopify investor) were discussing the idea of running a contest to entice new customers to join the platform. Originally they had planned on a cash prize before Tim had the idea for creating a once-in-a-lifetime experience.  


If you already have a successful store then money isn’t really a motivating factor. However, an experience that money can’t buy is such as ringing the New York Stock Exchange bell or getting to meet and spend time with people like Richard Branson, Tony Robbins, and Russell Simmons definitely is.  

It took us 3 months between seeing this video to actually launching our store. Why? We were waiting to get the product in hand from the manufacturer, we had Kickstarter backers to fulfill before anyone else and most importantly we wanted to take some time and build a custom store that was in keeping with the BestSelf branding and experience we wanted to provide.  

We used the framework of the SELF Journal to get the store launched by setting a goal and breaking it down to everything we would need to do to get there. Some of the things we had on there:

  • Store designed and developed
  • Packaging designed and manufactured
  • A traffic and marketing plan created
  • Worldwide fulfillment centers set up

We launched our store on January, 1st 2016.  

Unlike my first Shopify store, we were very deliberate and metrics-driven in everything we did to ensure the success of the store on a day-to-day basis. This started with creating a daily dashboard that we would review every morning to check our stats on:

  • Sales revenue
  • Products sold
  • Conversion rate (our goal was to stay above 3.25%)
  • Cost per acquired customer
  • Total ad spend

158 days later…

On June 7th, we got a call from Harley Finkelstein, COO of Shopify announcing that we had been chosen to compete in the People’s Choice award. This award was a new category and is for the businesses which had just missed the top sales revenue compared with other winners but would compete with the other people in the same category in a vote-off.  

Since we were up against some pretty hefty competition, Allen and I spent the next 5 days trying to get as many votes as possible. Since the voting was blind we had no idea how we were doing so we just kept hustling.  

It worked — we won.

Shopify Build a Business Contest Peoples Choice

The Entrepreneurial Experience of a Lifetime

(They weren’t kidding about that)  

The itinerary:  

2016 Shopify Build a Business Contest
2016 Shopify Build a Business Contest itinerary

Personal Highlights:

The entire week of events was one huge adrenaline rush, Shopify kept surprising us with more and more incredible events. By the end of the week I felt that the whole contest was some sort of elaborate recruitment scheme as I was thinking “Wow I’d love to work for Shopify”… true story.  

Despite the entire week of amazingness here are some personal moments (in no particular order) that stood out to me and why:

1. Ringing the NYSE Bell:

I think of anything I’ve done both online and offline with entrepreneurship, this was the first thing I could tell my parents about, and didn’t need to explain the significance to them. It was pretty cool, I think they even watched the live stream.  

Ringing nyse bell
2016 Shopify Build a Business Contest Winners

2. Our logo on the New York Stock Exchange

I used to walk by this building a lot when I worked in the financial district at my architecture job. I would have never dreamed at the time that I’d be seeing something like this happen.  

2016 Shopify Build a Business Winners in NYSE

3. Playing Monopoly with Daymond John

Monopoly is a game I used to play every summer with my brothers and our friends, sometimes games would last DAYS. I’m pretty competitive but I learned where Daymond got his ‘Shark’ name from while playing this game. The game lasted over 6 hours, it came down to me vs him but unfortunately at 2 AM, I landed on his Boardwalk property and my empire crumbled.  

In the picture below please note this is Daymond’s personal $3,000 Monopoly board, it’s leather and weighs an absolute ton. His bodyguard Grimm was our banker and he was the best.  

Playing monopoly with Daymond John
Photo credit: Brian Ach

4. Meeting Tony Robbins

Having gone through several seminars of Tony Robbins over the past year, actually getting to meet and speak with him in person was an honor.  

As an added bonus, all the winners were invited as guests to Business Mastery with Tony Robbins in January 2017. Despite having already gone last year (I wrote about my experience here) I am super excited to go again so I can review everything I learned and re-apply it all, as well as hang out with the awesome other winners.  

Meeting Tony Robbins and Russel Simmons

Russell Simmons was incredible also, very calm and chilled out. This was one of the best things he said (paraphrased):

“You only get one seat in life. No matter how much money you have you can only ever sit in one seat at a time. Get comfortable and happy with yours” – Russell Simmons
Russel Simmons
Photo credit: Brian Ach

5. Brain picking w/ Tim Ferris & Marie Forleo

Tim Ferris was in the depths of writing his new book Tools of Titans when we were at the mansion so his talk with us was taking many of the learnings from the podcast and his own experiences and sharing them with us.  

Tim Ferris

We did a 1:1 session with him as well as a group Q&A.  

My question:

If you could create an X prize to solve one of the world's great problems, what problem would you choose to solve?  

It turns out he is already involved in an X Prize with Tony Robbins to solve illiteracy throughout the world. Pretty incredible and I had no idea he was involved. You can learn more about X Prize here.  


Marie Forleo hung out at the castle for several days and is one of the most genuine and sweet people you’ll ever meet. On Day 1 we had an intimate dinner with her where she had not only done the research into each company to learn more about us but already came to us with great ideas to consider.  

Marie Forleo

We’re releasing a new edition to the SELF Journal next month and it was directly because of our discussions with Marie over dinner.

6. Meeting the other winners

If I’m honest, prior to the trip I had not given much thought to hanging out with the other winners, mainly because the big draw was the mentors and celebrities. However, meeting the other winners and becoming friends was one of my favorite aspects of the entire event. We all went through the adrenaline rush together, we were all at similar points with our businesses and we all bonded over the week.  

There were no walls or false pretenses, everyone was open to sharing. In fact, there was a 2 am mastermind happening after last night's party where everyone was sharing all the details with ad spend, Google AdWords, and email funnels. What worked and what didn’t?  

2016 Shopify Build a Business Winners

Happy Trunk Apparel

Happy Trunk, a bohemian jewelry store for a good cause run by couple Emily Wilford and Jon Wed. It turns out Jon is an absolute wizard with Facebook ads after leaving school and learning the craft. He was running 6 Shopify stores (!!) of similar revenue scales but the one that happened to win the contest was the store with the story.  

After travelling in Thailand for 3 months and spending time with elephants which Emily loves they set up the store and donated a portion of their revenue to the Nature Park in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Emily and Jon
(Brian Ach/AP Images for Shopify)

Carbon 6

Carbon 6 Rings, was comprised of a husband and wife duo, Claire and John who are one of the sweetest couples I’ve ever met, as well as perfectly matched business-wise. John is a total product person and maker, you can tell his passion for the product from a mile away. We would be sitting at breakfast and he would describe every part of the process and how he’s honed it over time.  

Claire ran the business side of things and was completely switched on, especially during Q & A’s. In fact, during Tony Robbins' talk about business and knowing what business you’re in he was asking us to describe our customer.  

Paul: Our customer is…

Claire: That’s our current customer, not our ideal customer. Our ideal customer is…

Tony: Yes, she’s got it!  

If you know anyone getting married I would highly recommend you check out these rings.

2016 Shopify Build a Business winners in NYSE
(Brian Ach/AP Images for Shopify)


Nora was launched on Kickstarter in 2015 and raised a whopping $832,523 for their smart snoring solution. The technology was invented by their father, Ali and the sons Behrouz and Behzad worked with him to bring it to life. Behrouz and Behzad came to the castle with us and were very fun guys,  

If you know anyone who has issues with snoring their device is pretty incredible after having seen it in person.  

2016 Shopify Build a Business


Remember the stories in the news about the hoverboards that blow up? They’re still not allowed on planes and were even removed from the shelves before Christmas last year. Most of us probably heard but didn’t think much of it besides crossing it off our Christmas list. Asad, an aspiring British entrepreneur saw the same story and decided to find a way to create safe hoverboards that don’t blow up.

After working with a manufacturer, poring over safety specs and details he figured it out. iSwegway launched a day or two before Black Friday, solely on Google Adwords, and on Black Friday did over $800K in sales… insanity. Asad came with his wife Faiza who described how she barely saw him for months as he worked on the business and she would be running the customer service for the company while also working a full-time job.  

2016 Shopify Build a Business winners in NYSE

Winner Takeaways

Some commonalities I learned from the winners:

  • 3 out of the 5 Shopify winners launched from crowdfunding campaigns. We validated that people actually wanted the product before creating it. (You can read my step-by-step guide to launching a successful Kickstarter campaign here)
  • Winning products solve problems. Whether it’s snoring with the Nora or creating a hoverboard that doesn’t explode. The more painful the problem you can solve with your product or service the more successful you will be.
  • Start before you’re ready Before iSwegway started it was a 1 man in his living room who had an idea. Despite never having sold hoverboards before, he launched it and worked like hell to turn it into a success.
  • Figure out what works for you and double-down For Happy Trunk it was Facebook ads, for iSwegway he crushed it on Google Adwords and didn’t use Facebook. Figure out what works for your market and the customer you’re targeting and double down. On one channel before moving to the next.
  • Pick a partner with complimentary skills If you’re a marketer then find a product person. If you’re a product person, find someone who can run the business side of things like Claire and John did.

They have opened the waitlist for next year if you are interested, go here.  

Big props to the Shopify team: Courtney Symons, Roberto Faria, Lauren Brown, Harley Finkelstein, Craig Miller, and Tobi Lütke for making this experience so incredible.  

2016 Shopify Build a Business winners

I hope you enjoyed this review of the experience, it was fun reminiscing on it again. Drop a comment below and let me know if I missed anything or if you have any questions 🙂

Subscribe to my newsletter.

I save my best stuff for my emails. No spam ever.