Ross Allchorn, entrepreneur and founder of ShopCreatify shares his early struggles with clients, his reasons why he chose Shopify to build his business on, and his advice to budding Shopify developers out there.

Hey! What’s your background, and what get’s you out of bed every morning?

Hey! My working background started over 20yrs ago where as an enthusiastic 17yr old I was kindly offered an apprenticeship at a graphic design studio that my late mother had worked for.

I remember being given their oldest Apple Mac with a black and white screen on which I was taught the art of vectors with my first “project” being tracing a model’s face. To see my designs in color I had to print them out. Being 1996 they were also still transitioning from paper based commercial art so I got to use the physical airbrush, drawing board, letraset and other interesting tools now largely relegated to history.

Glossing past a number of foot-finding endeavors both entrepreneurial and creative, I enrolled at a college in Cape Town in 1999 to transition into the digital (web) space, and that is where I’ve stayed ever since.

From 2004 I ran my own agency called Allchorn Design where we initially designed and built our own CMS but eventually moved to specializing in custom (read custom designed, then coded… no themes) Wordpress powered sites due to the ubiquity of the platform.

Following my father’s passing and being forced to move 1,000 miles across the country in 2010, I took the position of Production Manager at one of South Africa’s leading ecommerce store building firms. This was the turning point where ecommerce became my first language. From there I moved to a software development company that focused primarily on enterprise level ecommerce (stores with over a million SKUs) where I truly learnt the ins and outs of that level of online business.

Following a brief (~1yr) stint in a startup that didn’t seem to be gaining traction, I took the plunge again and decided to start my own company and at the beginning of 2015, ShopCreatify was born.

To answer the question about what gets me out of bed in the morning… the simplest answer is ‘my kids’… but in a working context, probably because I work for myself, the fact that I can choose what I do each day. I consider myself a maker and if I’m not at my desk I’ll often be in my workshop welding or grinding metal, cutting wood, sanding something or trying to wrap my head around some new method or technique of making… something.

What motivated you to start Shopcreatify?

Although I’ve had some amazing bosses throughout my career (and some not so amazing ones), I find that having to do what is given to you without question is not a way I can live my life. Choosing who I work with (developers, designers and clients) is imperative for my sanity.

Shopify also provided the opportunity to build something on the backbone of their existing ecosystem and that was just too enticing an offer to pass up. My experience in ecommerce design and development was also a driving factor to the decision and when you’re familiar with and passionate about something, it makes sense to pursue it with tenacity.

What did it take to build and launch the initial product?

Since we’re primarily service based as a company (although we do have a couple of products), I guess I do have a story about the early days of ShopCreatify where I truly got ants in my pants and had to ship something new really quickly. It was when I made the choice to dog food the platform we were selling.

“If you want something done, make it happen… nobody else will care about it as much as you do.”

We’d been running on a custom designed and coded website with no CMS for a few months and it was serving it’s purpose fine. Then, I had the bright idea of packaging our merchant client content delivery workflow and offer it to other Shopify experts. We now had a product that needed to be paid for by customers and as simply as possible (I could hardly sell ecommerce services without us operating with the same advice I give out) so we moved to Shopify.

Not including the time to create the toolkit, we literally chose a theme, moved the site to Shopify, loaded the content and product, signed up for a Paypal business account and went live in a single day. If I remember correctly we even made our first sale on that day too.

In a more overall sense… what it took… time. Lots and lots of time in front of a computer coming up with ideas and really just getting stuck in. Things don’t happen if you don’t drive them. If you want something done, make it happen… nobody else will care about it as much as you do.

How have you attracted users and grown the company?

Initially, without a doubt, networking was my primary task on a daily basis. Probably the first 3-4 months of ShopCreatify was just me in calls all day and often well into the night with anyone that was keen to chat. Of course there was a good deal of strategy at play and the people I was speaking to all shared something in common. They were all (at least in some way) part of the Shopify ecosystem.

Some of our partnerships, most notably Out of the Sandbox have been our strongest channels for sales and I’m extremely grateful to how open the whole Shopify community has been. I think I’ve communicated with almost all the big players, loads of the smaller ones and across the board it seems like a great ecosystem that balances extreme professionalism with a comforting lack of pretense found in some other industries.

In terms of growth, our adherence to impeccable and polite customer service (don’t make them wait, don’t make them worry) has stood us in good stead with our clients. Some of whom have been with us from almost the beginning. We have a growing ethos of optimization too and have adopted a strong ability to say no to projects that we’d not be a good fit for. This ensures that the work we do is the best we can do and everyone (us, the merchant and the customer) is better off for it.

Why did you chose to build on Shopify’s platform?

I’ve worked with many ecommerce platforms and other content management systems in my career and quite simply; the SaaS model offered by Shopify was the primary consideration. I ran my own store for about a year before starting ShopCreatify and also set up a few stores for friends so I was quite familiar with the platform already.

Yes, there may be features offered by other software vendors that Shopify lacks, and sometimes the openness of an OSS solution like WooCommerce or a bespoke solution may be needed, but for a vast majority of merchants, Shopify is perfect. With Shopify Plus the platform covers even more of the market. I think we made the right decision with Shopify as our core.

What’s your business model, and how have you grown your revenue?

We initially started out literally taking single billed hours of work (no less) and while it served as a stepping stone and allowed us to build a client base and some portfolio items, we naturally increased our minimum gradually over time.

“Having someone to work with, confide in, bounce things off etc. is invaluable…”

Currently, depending on the client we do either hourly billed work (minimum of two days) or fixed pricing if the scope is clear enough to do so.

We have a number of retainer clients now who on average have two full days of design/development per month and an ever flowing list of fixed price / hourly based projects.

I find that growth at the moment is directly related to effort put into the right areas and with me having taken on a junior partner at the beginning of 2017 things have considerably improved. Having more time to focus on the business and having the day to day operations handled by someone else has been a massive boon to ShopCreatify. Having someone to work with, confide in, bounce things off etc. is invaluable, but also risky if you choose the wrong person. Currently it’s one of the best decisions I’ve made to date.

What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced and obstacles you’ve overcome?

Not having proper agreements in place with clients. Saying yes to everything even when your gut screams otherwise.

We’ve been relatively lucky and only had a couple of bad apples cross our path in the last 2.5yrs. All of them in the earlier days and they were incidents we learnt from and have now put measures or protocols in place to prevent them from ever happening again.

It helps to treat every bad experience as school fees. Almost every situation you may find yourself in… no matter how bad… you will look back on in a year’s time or less and laugh at how inconsequential it actually was.

Good legal documents are expensive, but not as expensive as not having them.

In terms of saying yes too often, I advise you don’t. You don’t always have to say no, but sometimes deferring the answer to a yes/no question to a later date allows you to consider the implications better and allows you to not shoot yourself in the foot.

“Can you do [vague requirement] for $xxx?”. The answer should be something along the lines of “possibly, but without more information it’s not currently possible to say for certain”. Our default position in this area is now to offer a paid technical discovery phase when the requirements are vague so it’s either a case of a suitably explained set of requirements supplied by the client or we will define it for them but bill for it. So far no exceptions and a decision I don’t regret one bit.

What are your goals for the future, and how do you plan to accomplish them?

We have some big plans in place for ShopCreatify and some potential spinoff products that we’re currently establishing viability of or working on. One of them is an app that we want to release into the app store that is actually done and being used by one of our clients but needs to be made generic for the masses.

The biggest goal for us right now is to establish a firm project minimum that is affordable for a serious merchant and allows us to focus entirely on the task at hand without the limitations that tight budgets bring to the playing field. Our best work is done when we don’t need to think about money. Fitting nice UX enhancing ad-hoc features into already tightly budgeted projects is never productive. Getting that topic of money dealt with quickly so it’s off the table and getting on with producing amazing design and technology is what we want to be doing.

What are your biggest advantages over your competition?

I’d say that experience is a major benefit to us. We often land projects because the competing agencies simply did not understand the problems the merchant was experiencing or perhaps didn’t take the time to ask the necessary questions to identify them.

Our team is also extremely well rounded ranging from solid RoR skills through exceptional JavaScript, HTML & CSS, Liquid as well as many many years of specialized (ecommerce) design experience.

What’s your advice for others who are just starting out?

Depending on where you’re at in your career, if you are new to the industry go and pay your dues at an existing agency. You’ll simply never know the ins and outs of how a successful agency operates without immersing yourself in one. With the growing “remote” nature of work in current days, if you’re able to land a gig at something like StoreTasker, that would be an almost equally solid place to gather experience.

Perhaps more importantly… get your agreements in place. Consult a lawyer and get something that protects yourself and your client. Without this you’re exposing yourself to ridiculous amounts of abuse and liability. It’s often ignored or sidelined, but as I said above, it’s expensive, but cheaper than not having them.

Where can we go to learn more?

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