From that challenge came Shopify’s first Build-a-Business contest, offering $100,000 to the retailer that launched a new Shopify site and sold the most product through it over an eight-month period. “Back then, that was a lot of money for us, but we knew the prize had to be really substantial to garner widespread interest,” says Finkelstein.

That first competition generated 1,400 new Shopify customers who signed onto the platform specifically to enter the contest; San Francisco-based DODOcase, maker of iPad cases, took the prize. This year, Shopify is bestowing $50,000 on winners in four retail categories in return for 5% of their companies, based on a $1-million valuation for each winning business. There’s a twist, though: the investment is actually being made by high-powered industry leaders in each of the verticals, who will act as mentors during the months of the competition and become equity partners after it’s over. “So, you get the $50,000, but you also get someone like [Fubu founder and Shark Tank star] Daymond John as an investor, which might be even more valuable,” says Finkelstein. “If you decide you don’t want to give up 5% of your company, you can take the $50,000 in cash and move on.”

Thanks in large part to the calibre of the mentor-investors—which also include Ferriss, Swissmiss founder Tina Roth Eisenberg and Lean Startup leader Eric Ries—this year’s contest has generated media buzz across North America. More important, it has driven more than 6,000 new users to the Shopify product.

THE EXPERTS AND APPS

Lütke’s vision is to turn Shopify into a true all-in-one platform, the sole point of contact a retailer needs to power its entire web presence. To do that, the company has been building a network of thousands of so-called Shopify Experts: third-party web designers, developers and marketing gurus throughout the world who can help Shopify customers with basic setup for a flat fee of $500. They also can customize the look, feel and functionality of digital storefronts for specialized applications.

Not only does the expert program allow retailers to create more sophisticated sites, but it’s turned out to be quite lucrative for Shopify. “These experts end up generating a lot of business because if a customer walks into one of their agencies and says he wants an online store, they’re going to build it using Shopify,” says Finkelstein. To make sure Shopify is the experts’ preferred platform, the company pays them a commission on referrals.

Shopify also encourages third-party developers to build apps and extensions for the core product, some 200 of which are already available through Shopify’s app store. “Let’s say you want something sophisticated to market your business or manage inventory,” says Finkelstein. “You can buy that from the store and integrate it with a click of a button.” Lots of companies use third-party app developers, of course. Few, however, have created a $1-million fund to finance cash advances against future app sales. “That’s for developers who maybe can’t afford to take a couple days off work to develop their app,” says Finkelstein. “We want to mitigate that by offering, say, $5,000 up front.” Shopify keeps all the revenue from app sales until the advance is paid off, after which the developer gets to keep 80% of ongoing sales.

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