On Thursday, December 9, Shopify’s Soho headquarters was transformed into a winter wonderland to celebrate local NYC entrepreneurs with a fireside chat between iconic businesswoman Martha Stewart and Shopify president Harley Finkelstein. Gifts from Stewart’s 2021 Holiday Collection were on display, and party-goers enjoyed refreshments (think truffle-parmesan popcorn and milk-and-cookie shots) while Stewart and Finkelstein discussed Stewart’s illustrious, decades-long career; the role technology plays in today’s business world; and how to harness the power of brand- and team-building for maximum success.
Before the public conversation, Entrepreneur sat down with Stewart and Finkelstein backstage to talk about passion and curiosity, the pandemic’s impact on the ways we work and consume, and, naturally, what it takes to launch a truly successful business.
“I try to see as much as I can in a day”
Stewart has built a business empire by following her passion for all aspects of everyday living: cooking, gardening, entertaining, decorating, collecting, crafting — name an activity related to the home, and, more than likely, Stewart not only has experience doing it, but has also divined the most effective way to get it done. Stewart attributes her wide-ranging expertise to her natural curiosity.
“Curiosity is certainly a character trait that I think is very important if you’re trying to understand, ‘Where is the world going? What the hell are we doing here? What are we going to do?’ So I’ve always been happy to be curious,” Stewart says. “I read a lot. I travel a lot. And one of the things I try very hard to do is never drive down the same street twice if there’s an alternative, so that I might see something that I’ve never seen before. And when I travel, I try to do the same thing. I try to see as much as I can in a day.”
Lately, Stewart’s curiosity has led her to an area that continues to puzzle many people: NFTs. “[Finkelstein] and I were just talking about NFTs, non-fungible tokens. What are they? How do you buy them? How can you promote them? How can you encourage people to think about them? We came up with a nice solution. We’re offering not only big NFTs with larger price tags with minimums, but we’re also offering lovely content from our work. Say, photographs taken by some of our very best photographers. We give them a cut. We promote them; we promote ourselves. Then we beautify people’s homes with beautiful imagery they can keep in their crypto wallet.”
Related: What Is an NFT? Inside the Next Billion-Dollar Crypto Sensation.
“That’s one of the more important things about what I like to do — I like to learn by doing”
Stewart says people have already begun to trade her NFTs, and that the process has made for an invaluable learning experience. “That’s one of the more important things about what I like to do — I like to learn by doing. So if I want to learn how to make sushi, I go and work with Nobu. Nobu and I have been lifelong friends. I’ve traveled to Japan with him. We went to the Tsukiji fish market at four o’clock in the morning, I bought the knife he told me to buy, and I earned a sushi coat that says ‘Nobu’ on it and ‘Martha.’”
Finkelstein says that just moments before our discussion began, Stewart’s expansive curiosity was on display. “Before you walked in, we talked about two things. We talked about what this delicious pastry is,” he says, gesturing to an item that could be the cousin of a cronut, “and then shifted very quickly to crypto and NFTs. And I think that pretty much summarizes an incredible dynamic, and also the curiosity Martha has, which is unbelievable.”
Courtesy of Shopify
“There have been more business registrations in the last 12 months than any other year since 2004”
Although curiosity has always had the potential to inspire incredibly lucrative pursuits, that fact rings especially true today, as innovative technologies continue to reshape the world we live in, and as events seemingly beyond our control — like the Covid-19 pandemic — put pressure on the status quo. Shopify, a multinational ecommerce company headquartered in Ottawa, Ontario, has had a front-row seat to the world’s shifting patterns of work and consumption.
One such transformation is what’s become known as the Great Resignation, the ongoing trend of employees voluntarily leaving their jobs. Finkelstein believes the workforce exodus is largely misunderstood; he cites Google’s recent 2021 search-trend report, which revealed that more people searched for “how to start a business” than for “how to get a job” this year. It’s not that people don’t want to work — it’s that they’re ready to go into business for themselves.
“That tells you what I just learned at lunch,” Stewart says. “At Bank of America, there’s a shortage of workers, because everybody’s trying to start their own shop. And it’s a good thing. It’s hard on established businesses, I mean really hard, but really good for the future of entrepreneurial behavior.”
Related: Quality Leadership in the ‘Great Resignation’ Era
“There have been more business registrations in the last 12 months than any other year since 2004,” Finkelstein says. “That is dramatic. And if it doesn’t work, you don’t have to lose your house; you don’t go bankrupt. The risk, the cost of failure, is as low as it’s ever been. The second thing is the way consumers are voting with their wallets to support independent retail. Black Friday and Cyber Monday were about a week ago, and Adobe came out with numbers that basically said the big box stores were flat relative to last year. We saw a 23% increase since last year, and Shopify is very much a proxy for independent retail.”
Finkelstein says consumers want to buy from brands whose missions and values reflect their own, and they’re also prioritizing connection. “They want to connect with people like Martha,” Finkelstein says. “So the NFT, for example. It’s not just her products or her books — now they can connect with her in a completely different way by buying her NFT, and the NFT may give them access to special things now that bring them closer.”
Additionally, Finkelstein points out the phenomenon of influencers becoming brands. He brings up the example of NBA player Jimmy Butler, whose Bigface coffee brand launched on Shopify. Butler began selling $20 cups of coffee in the 2020 NBA Covid bubble in Orlando, Florida, and the brand has emerged as a successful coffee company.
“Our mission is to create more entrepreneurs in the world”
Shopify strives to help all hard-working entrepreneurs turn their dreams into a reality. “Entrepreneurs need help,” Finkelstein says. “They need money, they need resources. We’ve given them more than $2 billion in cash advances. We have a fulfillment network now that pretty much makes two-day shipping available to any small business in a similar way to what the big box stores do. We’re trying to democratize it so they can build bigger companies and not lose out to the big box retailers. Our mission is to create more entrepreneurs in the world and make it easier.”
Related: Entrepreneurs With This Mindset Are Most Likely to Succeed
For those entrepreneurs who are ready to follow their passions into business, Stewart and Finkelstein offer some essential words of wisdom. “Make sure your idea is a good, strong idea,” Stewart says, “and it has a certain amount of originality, or it’s better than anything else out there — and go with it.”
“Along the same lines,” Finkelstein says, “know who your customer is, who you’re selling to, have a deep empathy for what they want, and don’t make assumptions. Now you can connect with your consumer in a way you could never before. Ask them what they like and don’t like about your product. That wasn’t available to businesses that were built 10 years ago the way it is today.”