The first Shopify store was our own. Back in 2004, our founder and CEO, Tobi Lütke, along with his co-founders, started Snow Devil, an online store that sold snowboards. When Lütke and the team found that none of the existing ecommerce solutions provided the power and flexibility needed to design the experience they wanted, they decided to create their own.
Our story resembles many of the origin stories found on Shopify, including the innate desire to create something better and the initial leap into the unknown. But there’s an often overlooked figure in every one of these founding stories: the early customer who decided to give these fledgling businesses a chance. Businesses do not exist without their customers—and without entrepreneurs, there is no Shopify.
A decade later, we decided to take a shared walk down memory lane with a few of the first founders who decided to build their businesses with Shopify. The founders, it turns out, are all as distinct and fascinating as the products they sell. To celebrate their journey, and learn more about the major milestones they passed along the way, we’d like to introduce you to Verve Coffee Roasters, Simple Sugars, MakerGear, Shawnimals, Brandini Toffee, Mattt, and Pretty Portal—some of the earliest merchants on the Shopify platform.
1. Verve Coffee Roasters: From neighborhood café to a driver of change
Born out of a love for surfing and coffee, college friends Ryan O’Donovan and Colby Barr opened a roastery near the coast of Santa Cruz to merge their otherwise divergent passions. Starting out as a neighborhood café in 2007, the two co-founders split the responsibilities of running the business while sharing the enjoyment of the nearby sandy beaches and towering redwoods native to the area.
“One of them would roast coffee, the other would oversee the café staff, and there'd be ample time to enjoy Santa Cruz,” recalls Mike Eyre, the current CEO of Verve Coffee Roasters, who joined Ryan and Colby in early 2009. A longtime family friend of Ryan’s, Mike often consulted for the duo on managing the business before officially coming on board. At the time, Mike was working as a CFO in Silicon Valley and would drive over the mountains on Tuesdays to work through business decisions with Ryan and Colby until midnight. Mike says Verve experienced all the common issues that small businesses face in the early days. “Low on cash flow, not enough customers, and trying to find a way to put a bit more money into the business each month to keep it alive,” Mike says.
Now working as a trio, Mike, Ryan, and Colby found they complemented each other’s strengths and weaknesses. Mike, who holds both a CPA and an MBA, applied his experience to managing the financial health of the business, while Ryan and Colby focused on the day-to-day work—sustainably sourcing the coffee, roasting the beans, and servicing customers. “It ended up being a really great balance,” says Mike.
Thinking beyond the walls of their café, Mike set his sights on wholesale. He secured a relationship with Google to use Verve as the company’s coffee supplier, a deal that eventually led to Verve supplying a bevy of influential tech campuses. Mike continued to pursue the wholesale strategy, which resulted in Verve being sold in Whole Foods—locally, at first, and then throughout the Great Bay area in California.
With wholesale off the ground, the Verve team ventured online with their own web store in the autumn of 2009. “Web has been a really important part of the business,” says Mike. “I’m grateful for Shopify because it allowed us to easily get something launched and then, over the years, continue to build on it.” Verve was keen to invest in bricks-and-mortar, too, opening two more cafés in Santa Cruz in 2011 and three more in Los Angeles in 2015. “That was a key moment in our company’s history,” says Mike. “It was us declaring to ourselves that we wanted to be an influential brand, and we wanted to play on a larger stage than just being a beloved local favorite here in Santa Cruz.”
In the last half decade, Verve did just that by opening more cafés in San Francisco, Palo Alto, and Santa Cruz before expanding across the ocean with three locations in Japan. The team also broadened its offerings by launching a subscription program, Nitro Flash Brew, and instant craft coffee. Through it all, Verve put one thing above all its efforts, and that is its Farmlevel initiative, a commitment to sustainable growing practices, preserving heirloom coffee varieties, managing a nursery, paying fair prices, and sourcing directly from farmers. By ensuring that it leaves a positive impact each step from seed to cup, Verve is building a business with the future of coffee in mind.
2. Simple Sugars: The home remedy turned Shark Tank success
Lani Lazzari was just 10 years old when she decided to combat eczema on her own. With help from her mom, Gina, Lani began mixing and testing out various natural ingredients to create products she'd apply to her skin. Eventually, mother and daughter found a home remedy that helped exfoliate, cleanse, and moisturize, providing Lani with hard-won relief. Through continued use of this homegrown formula, Lani found her skin soon became smooth, soft, and eczema free.
During that holiday season in 2005, Lani and Gina made more of their homemade skincare to give out as gifts. Friends and family were ecstatic, and the early positive feedback was just the motivation they needed to try selling their product at local fairs, farmer’s markets, and, eventually, online under the moniker Simple Sugars. “We started a website fairly early because we just thought that would be the easiest way to get our products out there,” Gina says.
Word spread quickly. With customers continuing to sing the praises of the Lazzaris’ homegrown formula, it wasn’t long before local media in Pittsburg picked up their story. That coverage started a snowball of interest, with Lani later securing national coverage via a story in Entrepreneur Magazine.
“We were away on vacation in the mountains of North Carolina with no internet, and we had this first national publicity, and our old website crashed,” recalls Gina. “That’s what originally led us to Shopify.” From there, the mother and daughter team continued to scale the business. Having now clearly outgrown their 400 square feet of office space, they signed a lease for a second 1,200-square-foot office, which they felt was ideal for housing production. It turned out even that upgrade would have a short shelf life—in 2013, a single day after moving into the new location, Lani set foot on the world stage with her first pitch on ABC’s Shark Tank. That was a pivotal moment for their business, and Gina says she couldn’t have been more proud. “Lani is super disciplined and analytical,” she says. “She went on Shark Tank and just nailed it at 18. She’s as cool as a cucumber.”
Securing a deal with investor Mark Cuban, along with the valuable exposure gained from appearing on Shark Tank, meant Simple Sugars needed to prepare for a significant influx in demand. Today, most Simple Sugars sales happen online, a conscious decision made by Lani and Gina. “The data we receive from online sales allows us to finetune marketing and speak directly to our customers’ needs,” says Gina. The team also occasionally operates pop-up shops using Shopify POS, most recently during last year’s holiday season. “Keeping track of our inventory in two places during the busiest time of the year and have a turnkey solution was cool,” says Gina of their POS experience.
During any rapid growth period, it’s often tough to manage day-to-day operations while building for the long term. Gina and Lani have two pieces of advice for those who are scaling: “Be bold. Advocate for what’s best for your business with suppliers and service providers, and always ensure the decisions you’re making are aligned with your mission.” The Lazzaris are staying true to their principles, pouring their efforts into building their women-run business and offering flexible scheduling for their dozen workers to achieve their own version of work-life balance.
3. MakerGear: Meet the three-dimensional maker
Rick Pollack’s interest in 3D printing began before it was commercialized. Out of his garage, Rick created parts and started supplying other enthusiasts who were building their own machines. “At that time, all the 3D printers were really expensive industrial machines, and we helped make 3D printing affordable,” Rick says.
During the day, Rick was making various in-demand parts, and at night, he could be found online, answering questions, interacting on forums, and helping to get people’s homemade 3D printers back up and running again. Armed with a computer science degree and a deep curiosity for what he could create beyond code, Rick soon found a group of 3D printer makers. “They were making things out of plumbing fixtures and plywood. Everything was hacked together, and what got me interested was trying to figure out how to get them to work,” recalls Rick.
With his experience programming for smaller firms and startups and a healthy appetite for risk, Rick decided to jump in full time, launching MakerGear in 2009. Looking back, Rick says, building confidence, like you would build a muscle, played a key role. “There’s definitely a Catch-22 aspect to it. You have to get into the mix of things to make the mistakes and learn how to do it right. But that initial process of getting it wrong can be painful. Once you go through that and develop your confidence, a lot of it just comes down to being able to stick with it and preserve,” Rick says.
Initially, MakerGear sales were slow, selling $7,000 worth of 3D parts within the first year. But as 3D printing became more mainstream, sales grew tenfold in the second year and a factory was built in Ohio as a response to sales again multiplying by 10 during MakerGear’s third year in business.
It was only a matter of time before MakerGear produced 3D printers of its own. To prepare for manufacturing, Rick went to vocational school in 2012 to gain the skills needed for operating a computer numerical control (CNC) machine. With their own CNC purchased, MakerGear began to manufacture its first 3D printer, the M2, which would go on to be ranked the world’s best desktop 3D printer in 2017 by 3D Hubs. A year later, the team launched its first industrial benchtop 3D printer, the Ultra One. On MakerGear’s operations today, Rick says, “3D printing has gone completely mainstream. There’s interest from a lot of education customers, schools with maker spaces, engineering programs, and design programs. That’s a big chunk of our business.” Today, MakerGear machines can be found in all 50 states and in over 70 countries—all because Rick dove deep on interest and persisted through the peaks and valleys of running a business.
4. Shawnimals: A lifelong doodler’s journey of constant creativity
Ever since he was a kid, Shawn Smith loved to draw. “I love art and design—but drawing has been the constant. I find myself somewhere between that of an artist, illustrator, and designer, and I love to keep my brain occupied with a variety of different mediums,” Shawn says.
The journey to launch Shawnimals began an amalgamation of experiences that Shawn says began during his time in university. Those experiences run the gamut, from Shawn’s decision to pause his schooling to work as a video game reviewer to returning and completing his fine arts degree. It was during this time that he discovered his interest in working with fibers to create stuffed animals. “I have been doodling these weird characters and creatures for my whole life. It was really an aha moment for me when I saw plush toys from Japan and Korea and then thinking, what would be my version of that?” Shawn says.
Shawn began to turn his drawings into stuffed animals, keychains, and stickers to sell locally at fairs and events but it was a fateful meeting at an art show in 2008 that prompted Shawn to take his business online. “I met one of the early beta testers for Shopify. I loved their website. It was amazing, and it seemed so easy to navigate and purchase from,” Shawn recalls.
Over the last decade, Shawnimals has added depth to their products by developing storylines for many of the toys under the banner of Ninjatown, the fictional home of their ninja characters. Ninjatown was also published as a comic book and later turned into a videogame for iOS and the Nintendo DS. In response to the growing demand, Shawnimals has revamped its manufacturing process and invested heavily in wholesale. However, Shawn still maintains a studio in Chicago to create premium, limited edition stuffed animals for collectors and superfans.
“Being able to continue making some things by hand was really important to my staff and me. Manufacturing and handmade goods can coexist peacefully together,” Shawn says. Throughout these shifting stages of growth, Shawn says two key lessons he’s learned are to hone in on inventory management, especially during key releases for limited edition items and when offering sales and discounts to the most loyal fans. “At the end of the day, it’s not simply about transactions, it’s a lifelong relationship with collectors and fans of my art,” Shawn says.
5. Brandini Toffee: Family recipes that led to a sweet venture
Brandini Toffee began in 2006 when best friends Brandon Weimer and Leah Post were fundraising for their high school class trip to Italy. Armed with Brandon’s family toffee recipe, the pair began making and selling treats, which led them to surpass their fundraising goal.
Once they returned home from their well-earned Mediterranean excursion, they decided to start Brandini Toffee as a family business, bringing on their parents as business partners.
The overnight success story is a true rarity, but many business owners freely share the moments when Lady Luck seemed to be on their side. For Brandon and Leah, that big break happened in 2008, when they were discovered during a local festival. “Martha Stewart’s chef happened to be in the area at a local festival where we had a booth the toffee,” recalls Justin Post, Leah’s father, who now looks after the brand’s online presence and marketing efforts. “The chef tried it, loved it, and flew both families to New York for a segment on Martha Stewart’s show.” Soon after, a cascade of media attention followed, online sales picked up serious steam, and Brandini Toffee was eventually able to expand its business to four retail locations.
Like fine tuning a recipe, this family business attributes its lasting success to a willingness to constantly tinker with its plans and operations. “It’s taken a lot to figure everything out over time,” says Justin. Major milestones include bootstrapping for their first retail location, finding reliable shipping partners, and learning the intricacies of how to properly mail food items.
On the product development side, they’ve also been toying with a whole new list of ingredients, with a few notable successes along the way. “One big breakout was the toffee popcorn that Brandon had created by experimenting with putting toffee popcorn together with the right mix of cashews and almonds,” Justin says. For the Brandini Toffee Team, that particular item has "been a godsend, because of its shelf-stable nature and no need for refrigeration.”
The team has also been dabbling with data. Right now, they’re focused on better understanding the purchasing behaviors of their customers who buy online and from their bricks-and-mortar locations—perfecting their omnichannel marketing efforts by predicting rebuys to customizing communication, just like how Brandon fine tunes each recipe.
6. Mattt: One craftsman’s commitment to making every detail matter
While in university, Matt Thomson decided to leverage the skills he was gaining in his studies into a new hobby. “I studied mechanical engineering and then industrial design, which led to product design and making bags for myself. And then for friends—and then their friends,” Matt says.
What started as a way for Matt to gain hands-on experience soon blossomed into Mattt, an appropriately named side hustle that dates back to the year 2000, long before the internet popularized the pursuit. Mattt established its reputation with high-quality fabrics and durable hardware components, initially generating sales at small markets before the company’s namesake decided to sell his bags online.
Throughout the last two decades, Matt (and Mattt) has grown significantly. While Matt has set his sights on various opportunities for expansion, he’s also made a conscious effort to not lose focus on what drew him into this journey in the first place. “I had a retail and workshop space for three years, where four people were sewing for production,” Matt says. “That was really fun. But then, at the end of that, I turned into a manager and was not making pieces anymore.” Inspired by his trips to Kyoto, Japan, where small shops are frequently run by craftspeople who spend their whole lives mastering their trade, Matt decided to go back to his roots and be more hands-on by making each piece.
With a renewed focus on handmade craftsmanship, Matt’s also turned his attention toward community, with the goal of building long-term relationships with customers who appreciate first-rate products—and the attention to detail that defines them. Since Mattt products are built to last, Matt includes a serial number for each product, so anyone who comes across a lost bag can search the serial number and be led to the brand’s website, where there are steps to reunite the bag with its owner.
Matt has also tested the waters of radical transparency, listing the full cost of every component used to make each product. Now, shoppers used to fast fashion can get a clear view into why quality products cost what they cost. “Sharing that was a big leap and a big milestone for me, because we’re taught when you have a business to keep it all under wraps and to keep that information private,” Matt says. Now keen to pay it forward, Matt’s also begun mentoring other aspiring makers on how to source raw materials and components, in order to bridge the knowledge gap for those starting ventures of their own.
7. Pretty Portal: The graffiti artist and gallery owner
Klaus Rosskothen is the owner of Pretty Portal, an urban art gallery that started in 2003 in Düsseldorf, Germany. Long before founding his gallery, Klaus was a graffiti artist in the 1980s, working in spray paint forum that would later inspire the urban art movement. “Over the years, the art form developed as artists incorporated political statements, painted collages, and photography,” says Klaus. “Very interesting shifts in this art form in the late ’90s and early 2000s led to the emergence of Banksy, Shepard Fairey, and FAILE.” Often viewed as eccentric and, at times, inscrutable, these artists sought to expand the boundaries of art beyond the confines of museums and art galleries.
Klaus’ gallery and dedication to urban art were sparked by a deep-felt desire to change careers. He originally worked as a 3D animator and ran his own animation agency, but, eventually, he felt compelled to leave behind the days spent indulging corporate clients in favor of making time to connect with artists, culture, and the community. Although he does sell pieces at his retail location in Düsseldorf, Klaus's collection is also on display online.“Ecommerce is super important for urban art because there are people all over the world who are quite interested in it,” says Klaus. “But,” he continues, “not so many in Düsseldorf. Locally, I have only maybe 15% to 20% of the clients who buy the artworks.” Having an online store for Pretty Portal allowed Klaus to reach new clientele, and currently, over 50% of purchases come from outside of Germany.
Today, Klaus turns his attention toward curation, now fortunate to be in the position to showcase work from artists he admires. One such example is the work of ARDIF, a French artist who blends mechanics with living beings. Another, Guy Denning, a British artist who combines the traditional with a contemporary punk-inspired twist of embedded collaged and stenciled text. And Roman Klonek, a Polish artist who is an internationally known representative of contemporary print art. Using his refined taste and a keen eye for potential, Klaus is also committed to another surprising endeavor: making art more accessible. He wants to offer pieces at a wide range of price points, so novice or experienced collectors can freely enter the community, more urban art is showcased around the world, and more collective attention is paid to the many talented artists he admires.
A million journeys, each one unique
Our look back to the past uncovered an inspiring band of founders, all looking toward the future.
As they’ve grown their businesses, and grown as individuals, few things have stayed static. For some, motivations have shifted and old passions have been renewed; for others, the call to pursue the next stage of their entrepreneurial journey has been the one true constant. But underlying each story is a sense of ambition and the initial call to build something of one's own. Speak to a bright-eyed entrepreneur who started their latest venture yesterday and you’ll find many of these same traits and aspirations. Some things never change.
To the businesses featured in this story, thank you for taking a chance on Shopify all those years ago. And to the 1 million+ independent business owners on the Shopify platform, it’s a privilege being part of your journey. Keep building.
Illustration by Leonard Peng