A teenager in Sri Lanka, a single mom from Cyprus, and a San Francisco man with a big dream.
Just a few years ago, these three strangers were struggling to make ends meet, and to find their purpose. Little did they know, they would all, in their respective corners of the world, soon meet face to face with their aha moments. And, they would be unexpectedly connected.
Thousands of miles apart, they would become a microcosm of a thriving ecosystem of people with a common goal: mobilizing entrepreneurship and helping themselves by helping others.
There is a pervasive myth that says that entrepreneurship is an island. A lonely place where only the bravest of souls will dare to go. A solo life raft on endless choppy seas. But while the decision to leave shore is a personal one—say, to quit a job, give up a steady pay check, or pursue a passion—the journey itself is propelled forward by many oars, operated by many more hands.
Thousands of miles apart, they would become a microcosm of a thriving ecosystem of people with a common goal.
This week, we celebrate the joining of those hands that build the Shopify that we know today. A network of 1200 partners, app developers, and Shopify experts will converge at our second annual Unite conference in San Francisco. Together they will drive forward the future of commerce.
To truly understand how we’re all connected, let’s look at one small business and the small businesses that support it. In fact, it’s a symbiotic relationship, entrepreneurship enabling entrepreneurship.
We travelled across the world to hear their stories. Our three protagonists—a maker, a developer, an app builder—are three very different people who faced unique challenges on their paths to success. One thing unites their stories, however: they were not alone.
Meet the Entrepreneurs
At the center of our story is Kia Ermogenous. Two traumatic moments in her life would mark the valley in her character arc, the low point that would build momentum for the inevitable climb to success. Kia found herself first a single mother of three, and then, due to Cyprus’ banking collapse, unemployed.
You have to shake off that feeling of heaviness. You just really have to carry on. You've got three other mouths to feed.
Meanwhile, in Sri Lanka, Mohammadu Mifras was working up to 48 hours, with no breaks, in his father’s shop, letting school work lapse out of loyalty to his family. Still, their electricity access would be shuttered, and his father would fall into deeper debt.
I don't even really want to think of those days. It was damn hard.
Michael Perry watched his father work his fingers to the bone, his uncle never taking a day off. His resilience and never-give-up disposition was learned from his entrepreneurial family. And he would need it. His own struggle would be punctuated by dozens of rejections before he ever heard one “yes”.
My family had, not nothing, but we were a humble family. My dad would drive me past houses and be like, you're gonna have these things some day.
Today, Kia owns Word Signs Decor, an ecommerce store selling her own creations: hand-painted signs and paper goods that celebrate the art of calligraphy. The business appeals to Kia’s love of words, typography, and architecture.
She’s found her happy place in a business that lets her explore her creative side and make her own hours. But it wasn’t her first stab at entrepreneurship, and it wasn’t a life move that she expected she’d ever make.
As a child, she wasn’t encouraged to follow her passion. Her parents pushed her to chase practical pursuits, those careers that they deemed safe and reliable.
“You weren't allowed to do anything that was relative to the word passion. You just worked. You earned a living. If you didn't like your job, you stuck it out. Greek parents like accountancy, law, anything medical is really good.”
Ironically, her own father turned to entrepreneurship as a plan B when he befell financial hardship in Cyprus. In his 20s, he moved to London to get into the dry cleaning business after work in the building trade dried up.
You weren't allowed to do anything that was relative to the word passion.
While he struggled at first, he managed to build himself a life, and the business bought him a house for his family. Kia remembers working in the dry cleaner as a child. She and her sisters would spend weekends in the family’s shop, pressing shirts and picking up small business skills by osmosis.
“That's just what you did back then. You helped in the family business, whether you liked it or not. My friends, on the weekend, they'd go shopping, or they'd go down the high streets, they'd go to the cinema, but I had to work at the cleaners.”
Years later, when Kia lost her job, three kids in tow, she tapped into the entrepreneur in her blood as a way to help her family survive. Initially, she launched a store selling dog toys.
She knew nothing about ecommerce. She felt isolated and overwhelmed. The business failed.
“I didn't know how to market them, I didn't know how to get them out in Cyprus. The website was a bit of a failure—it wasn't how I wanted it to be, so I was a bit disappointed. It just didn't work.”
She then experimented with hand-painted signs, finding that they sold really quickly, and realized that quitting altogether wasn’t the solution—she simply needed to pivot. The first business was a trial run, and the failure informed her decisions going forward.
Kia poured herself into the new endeavour, learning everything she could about lettering and paints and wax finishes, teaching herself new techniques. She unleashed a passion.
When she was ready to launch the site for her new business, she found that she was spread too thin already. She didn’t want to make the same mistake twice. Her handmade products demanded much of her time and energy, leaving very little for the technical aspects of the business.
“At that moment, I realized that I really did need help and support and somebody that I could go to if there were issues, or if I wanted to add things into the website that maybe needed coding. I didn't even want to look at that side of things.”
Three times zones apart, the two worked together to build Word Signs Decor on Shopify, and Kia says, they still touch base from time to time when she needs help.
“Even though there's somebody from Sri Lanka helping me out, I don't feel as if he's in Sri Lanka, and it's miles away. It feels like he's closer.”
Now, Kia’s “team” is an army of entrepreneurs—her suppliers, developers, and fellow merchants she’s met through Facebook groups. Behind the scenes, the Shopify support team and a network of app developers are part of an even bigger circle, with her shop at its nucleus.
Mohammadu spent much of his time in his school’s office, the place they send students with lapsed school fees. His father, the owner of a shop in the village where they lived, couldn’t always cover his sons’ education costs, let alone electricity in their home.
Working long hours in the shop, Mohammadu was pulled between a devotion to helping his family and a dream of something bigger.
“I would take money from the customers. I would cleanup the tables. I would serve the people who is coming in. I didn't really like it, to be honest. I had to do it. I had to do it to help my father.”
Mohammadu discovered he had a knack for computers, and managed to buy one. He loved playing games, but he loved even more researching ways to crack certain levels, and spent a lot of time on YouTube teaching himself new tricks.
His schooling and work in the shop left no time for playing, and he would often set his computer by the cash, hoping to sneak in a few minutes between customers.
I didn't really like it, to be honest. I had to do it. I had to do it to help my father.
He gambled that he might be able to find a future in a technical field, and told his father he’d be quitting the family business. His parents, and seemingly everyone around him, didn’t understand how his computer could help him make a living.
“At the time, my mom was laughing at me, like, ‘What will this computer give you to, you know, eat?’ My father used to say, "Just do something that will benefit your future," but I was always at the computer.”
Mohammadu started helping friends and people locally with small technical projects, teaching himself through YouTube and by Googling the problems. It was work that didn’t pay but earned him valuable experience.
Then, he signed up for Fiverr.
“I didn't know that I could make money from the computer. When I got my first project, I was lying down in my living room. It was early morning, like 5 AM. I saw the notification and I was really shocked. I was telling my parents, ‘See, see, see! Just look at this, I'm earning money.’ They didn't believe it.”
Fiverr opened the door to more projects, and he expanded to new platforms finding that he was making a meager salary, better than most in his village. A new client asked him to help with a Shopify store, a moment, he says, that changed his life.
I was telling my parents, ‘See, see, see! Just look at this, I'm earning money.’ They didn't believe it.
Mohammadu said yes, and learned everything he could about ecommerce and the Shopify platform. He slowly accepted more complex projects, progressively raising his rates from that first $5 order. Today a project might fetch him up to $4000 USD.
His business has allowed him to buy a car, pay off his father’s bank debts, and give his family the life he says they deserve.
“My family is like everything for me because even if I had bad times, they were with me. They have done more than enough for me so I should take care of them. I think I'm doing it now, right? I will do it in future.”
The connection between his business and all of the other entrepreneurs in the Shopify community is not lost on Mohammadu. He knows that their successes are also his successes.
“They come to me to make their dreams happen. They pay me money for the work that I do but where the money comes from, they also earn it really hard. Then they spend it on me to make their dreams happen. Whatever I can, I will do with them.”
Kia is one such merchant.
Mohammadu is now a vetted Shopify Expert, and has built his own network, a community of likeminded people encouraging each other and solving problems as a team.
“The Shopify community, it helps me a lot. They taught me what to do and they're guiding me, they're just walking with me to be honest. They're walking with me to fulfill my dreams.”
Today, Mohammadu will meet much of that network in person, as he travels to Unite in Michael Perry’s hometown.
In San Francisco, Michael is surrounded by a team of people who believe in his mission. At Kit HQ, 25 people work tirelessly, fuelled by Michael’s enthusiasm, to build upon his brainchild: a virtual assistant app that gives time back to busy entrepreneurs.
In the not-so-distant past, he was just one man, an idea, and no money.
Long before his success with Kit, Michael already believed in the power of community. He understood that he owed everything to the people who stuck by him—his wife, his family, his earliest partners who worked on IOUs—while he refused to quit. Even when he had trouble keeping the lights on.
“I don't believe in self-made. There's no self-made, there's team made. I'm only successful because of the team, not because of me, so I am a product of them.”
As a child, Michael watched his hardworking father spend almost every day, including weekends, in his car dealership. At 18, Michael started his career at the family business so that he could spend time with his dad.
“My dad is the greatest salesman I've ever met in my life, I've never met anyone like him. He took me under his wing and he taught me how to sell cars. I became a top Audi salesman in the country. It was crazy, most people when they're 18 years old, they're going to university. I was making like 150 grand a year.”
Eventually, despite his success in the car business, he wanted to create something of his own. He wanted to help entrepreneurs, people like his father, his uncle, people willing to invest everything in a dream.
His first business, Giving, aimed to help small business owners give back to their customers. He borrowed money from family and maxed out his credit cards. Though the business failed financially, he chalks it up as a success because of the learning opportunity it gave him.
He gave three years of his life to making it work, and at 27, he asked himself, “Now what?”
“My life is meant to be something, I'm too young to quit now. So I just took a shower, put on my blue shirt, put on my jeans, and I started working on Kit.”
Kit was a winning idea—he knew it—but Michael didn’t fit the profile of an entrepreneur, and investors were reluctant to take a chance on a kid without a formal education and a car salesman resume. “I was a blue collar boy trying to make it in Silicon Valley,” he says.
My life is meant to be something, I'm too young to quit now.
More than 50 investors would turn him down in the end, and he wrote down the name of every single one of them, in permanent marker, on the wall of his apartment. During that time, his wife took a second job to help the couple keep their apartment.
“My wife basically just said, this is clearly what you want to do with your life. You should just quit your job and you should just go for it.”
Eventually Michael’s persistence paid off, and four years after he set out to build Kit alone, he’s surrounded by his team who works on his app used by Shopify merchants around the world every day.
“There is no such thing as doing it alone. Even our merchants who are trying to sell things on their platform, they have 1900+ people working very hard for them so they can make that sale happen. They may not see all 2000 people, but there's somebody there.”
We are all Connected
Mohammadu grew his partner business by helping Kia start hers, and Michael’s app (and many others like it) enable businesses like Kia’s to grow. She in turn drives more sales for her suppliers, entrepreneurs in their own rights. Business helping business helping business.
Entrepreneurship is a big scary thing, but there’s comfort in knowing that it’s not as lonely as it seems from the outside. The people who build upon Shopify, people like Michael and Mohammadu, have walked in the same shoes of the merchants on the platform.
“That's what I wanted my legacy to be connected to. Not just the technology I built, but the tens of thousands of people who I helped survive, who I helped make their businesses grow. That is what I hope at the end of the day, that is what my connection to this world will be, that I helped small business owners become successful.”
That's what I wanted my legacy to be connected to. Not just the technology I built, but the tens of thousands of people who I helped survive.
It truly does take a village.