Winnipeg: Best Location For An eCommerce Startup

Bold-Office-sm.jpgHow Bold built a successful eCommerce Company

You'll be surprised how important location really is

Bold Commerce is a relatively new enterprise - a branch of Bold Innovation Group - that has quickly established itself as the go-to company in Winnipeg and Manitoba for online retail services - eCommerce. The evolution of our company has really been sort of a top-down endeavour. The chicken before the egg so to speak, the horse before the cart. What we did is not uncommon in the software industry. We built a great product - in our case, some amazing eCommerce applications - and then decided to build a company around it, once they became popular.

A quick background

Bold Innovation Group has 4 distinct divisions mostly related to eCommerce software development:

We have several other products, projects, and big ideas, but we won’t get into that here.

BoldApps builds applications for eCommerce websites, Customer Relationship Management Software, and other miscellaneous platforms. If there’s a good idea, we’ll build an app for it.

BoldExperts provides custom software development and web design for existing eCommerce stores.

BoldStores owns and operates our own online retails stores and will take-over an eCommerce enterprise as a 3rd party management partnership.

BoldCommerce supplies eCommerce solutions for businesses who need help to get started putting together their online retail store from the ground up.

Bold Commerce provides everything customers need from custom software development and design, website and store setup, merchant account integration, project management, and training on how to manage your own eCommerce website.  We also have packages that include search engine optimization, email marketing, and creative services such as videography, product photography, and copywriting. We offer turn-key services for your online retail store. And we know how to do it well because we are store owners ourselves, and develop software specifically designed to make more sales. We also have a very cool way to integrate your online store and your bricks and mortar shop with an innovative POS system.

As I mentioned, this was a walk-before-you-crawl business model. Once we were well established as a competent, professional, and specialized eCommerce software company with Bold Apps, we decided to expand beyond our niche and create a full service eCommerce website development business. It’s strange to say, but it has taken us building a world wide brand to make the decision to start looking for work in our own backyard as Bold Commerce.

So, here’s our resumé

We do eCommerce, and we know our stuff. As you may have seen on our website, we aren’t too proud to boast that we’ve helped more than 14,000 customers worldwide. We’ve built custom software for Microsoft (you may have heard of them), Time-Life, Cirque du Soleil, and thousands of others who are either using our apps, have come to us for custom design work, have commissioned us to create innovative software solutions for their eCommerce websites, or have had us build their online store from the ground up.

You may also have noticed that we have more than 85 years of combined experience in our office. When you think about how little time eCommerce has really been prolific, that’s a pretty big number.  Our core team - the guys who built this company - are developers, designers, and internet entrepreneurs who have been working in (if not pioneering) eCommerce web solutions professionally for many years themselves. They came up with an idea, then they went out, got some office space and hired the absolute best group of support personnel to turn what started as an opportunity into an endeavour and then into a business. But it wasn’t as simple as it sounds. Each decision was made with careful forethought about what to prioritize, and what could not be compromised. I have been lucky enough to witness this evolution from a unique perspective, first as a friend and then as an employee. I’ve been close enough to gather some great insight, but even when I was officially brought in, I could still distance myself enough to watch it unfold.

Here’s how it happened: Ambition, drive, and other motivational words

One of our founders, Jason Myers, had an idea. That’s what he does. He’s a real entrepreneur at heart; an early adopter of new technology and new ideas. Nobody talks about the second item that ever sold on eBay, but chances are it could have been Jay who sold it. You’ll have to ask him. I believe he mentions it in our podcast.

Download the first episode (right click and save)

Jay had some online retail shops (and still does) that he built on the Shopify platform. But Jay wished they could do a little more for him. After all, Shopify is a brilliant, efficient, and easy to use platform for selling your goods, but Jay wanted to do more. Big surprise. He wanted to market directly to his shoppers while they were on his website and make more sales.  Lucky for Jay, Shopify allows developers to create plugins, add-ons, and applications and put them in their App store for all to use. But Jay also found that most third party developers were creating apps for managing the back end of your store and nothing really existed to help market products on the front end, help customers buy more, and help retailers sell more. So Jay called up a couple friends of his who were very well versed in eCommerce software design and pitched them the idea of building some apps for his store that they could then also put in the Shopify App Store and provide to other store owners. These gentlemen were Stefan Maynard, Yvan Boisjoli, and Eric Boisjoli. Together, the four of them round out the ownership team of the Bold Innovation Group. Our fearless leaders.

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Stef leads the way on our web design. He goes for form over function (which is why we have developers). He considers the user experience above all else, and he makes our work look good. We can’t deny that our branding has been a real key to our continued success. People know when they’re using an app from BoldApps. This is because Stef also has a business and marketing background and knows the importance of a great company image. It helps to have a great company to start with. Stef was uncompromising on having a lounge in the office with a games centre and a foosball table (no one really put up a fight). It was also hugely beneficial that Stef had been working for years as a designer and project manager on massive eCommerce projects with a previous company. If he hadn’t been a founding partner of the company, we probably would have hired him.

Eric and Yvan are the developers - the guys who make it work. They have shirts that say so. They each have their specialty. Previous to Bold, Eric worked with Stef on eCommerce software and was quietly running his own custom software operation and building a social networking website. He prefers to do things on a very big scale. He is the guy who plans out how an app will be developed. He has the long view of how it will work, how customers will use it, and what problems might come up down the road. Yvan finds the problems and then works out creative ways to fix them. Yvan also put together his own consulting company and took on major projects for IBM, Investors Group, and the Government of Canada.

In actuality, they work very well together. They say two heads are better than one. But when those heads share DNA that specializes in software development, the benefits are exponential.  It’s fascinating to watch them crowd behind a glowing monitor that looks like something out of the Matrix, and speak a language that sounds like a combination of Klingon and R2D2. OK, a bit of an exaggeration. I know enough to get by, but these guys are good. I tell my friends that I work with the people who make the internet happen.

It also helps to have a little sibling rivalry in the company. They like to find ways to make each other’s work just a little better. It’s good for productivity although not always necessary. Eric specifically likes to challenge himself. In one particular poutine-induced hangover (we assume it was the poutine), Eric said he could build an app before they left a 3 day conference in Ottawa. He had to uninstall Candy Crush from his phone to get it done, but he made it happen.

Each one of these guys is incredible ambitious and driven. They could have stuck with the original plan to build a couple apps, and earn a few bucks on the side, but they saw an opportunity to turn it into a business and the steps they’d have to take to make that happen.

There are 3 main staples to building a business.

  1. A good idea.

  2. The ability to accomplish that idea. And

  3. Continuing to support your products or services.

Well, for Bold, numbers 1 and 2 were the easy part. The real hurdle was how to convert these ideas and products into a profitable enterprise. As it turns out, Winnipeg Manitoba is the perfect place to build an eCommerce company.

Here’s why: Location, Location, Location

The real key to our success is behind door number 3: Our customer service. We like to think we have great ideas. And we’re pretty sure that we have incredible talent. But we know  for sure that above all else if you can’t support your customers, if you can’t stand behind your product, your business will never succeed.

Many of you may not know this, but in Manitoba, the tag line on the license plate of every registered vehicle is “Friendly Manitoba.”  How perfect to build a service and support based business in a land that is inherently friendly and willing to help. This is what sets us apart from many other software developers. We are here to answer every single question from every single customer who uses our products. And even those who don’t.

Certainly there are busy times. And we’ve had challenges when the backlog of emails seems overwhelming and it takes us a day or two to get back to our customers. And we apologize for that. But we do always respond. Our solution for these tough times: hire more support staff.

Admittedly these have been difficult decisions for our ownership. It’s not always discussed, but everyone in the office can sense when we would have preferred to hire a new developer to build some new apps, or for custom development projects, but we delayed that hire and went with more support staff instead. As I mentioned, there are some things you just don’t compromise. And for us, being able to support our products is just that.

So after Product Upsell, our first app started to become quite popular, a debate was had and a decision was made. The first support staff were hired. More apps were built and released and we were building up a following online. But bouncing around from one basement office to another wasn’t working very well anymore. Time to find some office space.

Office space

The first natural choice would be to look in Winnipeg’s downtown Exchange district. This is a very cool neighbourhood where most of the big media production companies, advertising agencies, and software startups are located. There are also a ton of great restaurants for which Winnipeg is known, and it’s walking distance to all the main attractions like the MTS Centre, the Forks, and Osborne Village.  But like any urban core, office space is at a premium, there isn’t much parking, and then there’s traffic.

Like most North American cities, Winnipeg is one where a car is a necessity. And with a daily commute comes the daily frustrations of gridlock, pot-holes, snow banks, snow ploughs, ice ruts, sloppy spring thaws, and bitterly cold winter walks between chilly wind funnelling buildings from the parkade to the office. Summer is nice, but we like to spend it at the lake (with our laptops and a good wi-fi connection of course).

For those unfamiliar, Winnipeg is really a sprawling city with suburbs now extending into the vast golden plains that make up the Manitoba prairies.  Winnipeg has nothing but room to grow out, so why would we try to cram ourselves into a saturated downtown?

Rural ties

Another notable and unique trait of many of Bold’s first employees is that we are country kids. Lots of us grew up in the small rural Manitoba towns that surround Winnipeg.  In Manitoba, when we say ‘small town’ it’s a little different than most of the world (except Saskatchewan perhaps). Our small country towns are often less than 1,000 people.  If there’s a traffic light and a chain restaurant, it’s a big deal and you get mocked by the next town over. Really, it’s just envy. I, myself grew up in a town with a traffic light and a Subway restaurant. It was awesome.

Both Eric and Yvan grew up and now live with their families in towns outside of Winnipeg. Jay and Stef are in those sprawling suburbs just a stone’s throw from the city limits but also have close rural ties. Same with Ron, our support hero. If you’ve ever come to us for technical support, you probably know Ron. And he’s the reason why you left us one of our thousands of positive reviews. I could probably go through our entire list of employees and find a rural connection. That’s just how Winnipeg is.

So we decided to take office space in Ile des Chenes, less than a 10 minute drive south of Winnipeg, but still a distinctly rural community (without a traffic light). The best part is on those really bad winter snow days, many of us can drive our snowmobiles to the office. (A snowmobile is like a Sea Doo for the snow).

The boys rented some warehouse space in a self storage compound, got to work and turned it into an office with a kitchen, lounge area, and a small quiet room for when we need to escape the sometimes raucous nature of an office filled with energetic young software professionals, energy drinks, and foosball tables. I won’t get into the colour of the paint, because I know there are some delicate issues there.  We brought in a few rows of tables and a few stacks of laptops and got to work filling the office with employees and revenue.  Even with the most well thought out business plan, we couldn’t have predicted just how quickly we would fill it (I guess that’s obvious, or we would have got a bigger space to begin with). 

The Bold team took a quick walk over to the new office before construction begins.

Less than a year after Bold was just two full time employees bouncing between Stef and Jay’s basements (we were actually known as Shappify Inc. then), we are now at capacity in our current office and have signed a lease on a new space - across the road in Ile des Chenes - that will allow us to grow up to 50 employees before we need to knock down some walls to expand.All of this grew from a few guys developing a few apps to help their own online stores.

Bold Commerce was born out of an enterprise providing eCommerce applications to customers around the world. Our real challenge has been to establish ourselves in the local market as Winnipeg Manitoba’s darling company for eCommerce software. Stepping outside the circle, it’s fun to tell this story and continue to watch. After all, that really is my job here. I market our services using every forum, platform, media and social media outlet that I can to build our brand. And what that really means is, I tell our story, because our product is us, ourselves. It’s who we are. It’s the location of our office. It’s the fact that we all crowd around the TV to cheer together for our country and our teams (Go Jets Go!). It’s the colour of our paint, and the different kinds of vehicles we take to get to work. It’s the stickers on our laptops. It’s the fact that when we go home at night, we log on, and see many of our co workers with a little green dot beside their names indicating that they are available to chat because they’re doing a little extra work on their own time. They might be working on the next big idea or they might be answering the smallest of questions from one of our customers. To all of us, both of those are the most important thing in the world. And that’s why we’ve been able to grow and succeed. Because Ron is always the first one in in the morning and he makes a good pot of coffee (he has to, there isn’t a Tim Horton’s or Starbucks for miles).

Stay tuned to find out what’s coming next from bold...

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Scott Riddell

Written by Scott Riddell

Scott is a chin-scratching gentleman who has a wealth of eCommerce experience. He works as a product manager at Bold, envisioning and shaping new apps that empower entrepreneurs to sell more.

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