Do the Common Things Uncommonly Well


For most entrepreneurs, and indeed most people, the start of the new year is a time to recommit to achieving their biggest goals.

You have to be careful, however, to not let this rekindled ambition turn into distraction. Humans have always struggled with the fact that our time, energy, and attention are not as readily available as our aspirations.

Prioritization is hard. When your enthusiasm runneth over, you can start to (mistakenly) believe every new idea for your store can be implemented, and worse, that every idea should be implemented because it might, maybe, possibly grow your business.

But there’s no need to worry. The siren call of “shiny new things” to potentially try in the new year doesn’t have to stop you from hitting your targets or making substantial progress on your business. The key is to direct your energy toward work that will produce lasting results—the hands-dirty, sleeves-rolled work everyone knows they should be doing.

Our time, energy, and attention are not as readily available as our aspirations.

It’s outside the scope of any humble blog post to provide a game plan for the entire year. However, working at Shopify has provided us with a useful vantage point: we continually get feedback from our readers and merchants, store owners just like you, on their most persistent challenges and exciting opportunities.

You start to notice the patterns, or “common things,” that seem to really make a difference in ecommerce. In the spirit of bolstering our community’s collective commitment to doing high-impact work, we’ll briefly cover the three pillars of growing an online store that aren’t likely to change.

1. Master the unglamorous

In nearly every industry, you’re certain to hear about how the competitive advantages of the past have become “table stakes.” The status quo is forever a moving target. As companies adopt (and copy) what works, novelties and differentiators turn into basic customer expectations.

But that doesn’t make these functions any less important. For example, analysts shout from the rooftops that great customer service is the new standard, but that doesn’t make it any easier to provide.

These critical path activities may not be quite enough to differentiate your business, but they require excellent execution all the same, because they’re the foundation for everything else. Performing these functions well is one part managing problems and one part figuring out how to avoid problems in the first place. A few examples:

  • Shipping and fulfillment. Like delivering on a promise made, shipping is something people don’t think about until there’s a problem.
  • Cash flow management. While it may not make your business, making forecasting mistakes is a surefire way to break your business.
  • Customer service. While there’s real value in delivering the right kind of delight, most customers (in most cases) would rather avoid contacting you at all.

2. Compete on the immeasurable

A business should place its biggest bets on traits that are hard to commodify and copy. Brand and the customer experience are a good place to begin.

I’ve always been struck by this passage from Shoe Dog, written by Nike’s co-founder and former CEO Phil Knight: “Like books, sports give people a sense of having lived other lives, of taking part in other people’s victories. And defeats. When sports are at their best, the spirit of the fan merges with the spirit of the athlete.” Say what you will, but never say Nike doesn’t understand the larger context within which their products operate.

So many products don’t just need to fit in our home, our cars, or our bags, they need to fit in our lives. This is the reason why “soft” measures can play such a determinant role, sometimes even more than raw product quality.

3. Grow intentionally

Despite the occasionally puzzling nature of running a business, some aspects are “solved problems.” They’re the operational equivalent of the wheel, in that there’s no need to invent a set of square tires. Instead, it’s better to use an off-the-rack solution that somebody else already developed.

That said, the strongest advantages for any business are tailor-made. Successful stores deeply understand their customers and match their marketing to their market, versus scooping up a randomly assorted collection of tactics. When we say “grow intentionally,” we mean forgoing the flavor of the week and instead committing to a strategy that fits the business. Exaggerating the point in order to make it, I’m unsure how many lug nuts you’d sell on Pinterest, no matter how many people are now using the platform.

Successful stores deeply understand their customers and match their marketing to their market.

And although smart ecommerce entrepreneurs start with a plan, they also know it’s usually a losing battle to fight against the tide: Being in a growing market is better than being in a shrinking one, and it’s easier to find products people want to buy than to find ways to make people want to buy them.

The way forward

Investor Charlie Munger is famous for having said, among other things, that “the reason our ideas have not spread faster is they're too simple.” He was talking about the financial world’s reluctance to adopt the value investing approach pioneered by Benjamin Graham and used by Munger and Warren Buffett at Berkshire Hathaway.

Through this comment he reveals an interesting quirk in human behavior: sometimes we subconsciously want things to be complicated. With complication comes a reason, or an excuse, to be distracted. And when things are “complicated,” we can quietly give ourselves permission to fall short.

I wouldn’t dare say building a business from scratch is easy; far from it. But identifying the type of work that matters is often less mystifying than we’d like to admit. Provide products people want and a brand people want to associate with; achieve consistent operational excellence in the unglamorous stuff; grow with an intentional strategy that fits the market and your business model. It’s that simple, and that hard.

This year, we’re making a pledge to help you tackle the challenging, but worthwhile work that can change the trajectory of your business. We’ll be digging deep into what's covered above and more, with plenty of help from our community of merchants, colleagues, and partners.

We hope you’ll join us. There’s no better time than now to get started.