Rural Manitoba isn’t really well known for its booming tech companies, but four friends took a bold step towards creating just that in Ile des Chenes. In only three years, they have grown their hugely successful e-commerce app development company called Bold Innovation Group, now employing 62 staff and with no signs of slowing down. Bold develops unique apps for the Canadian based company, Shopify, which is an e-commerce platform where people can set up an online store within 15 minutes.
So who are these clever tech gurus, how did they get such a vibrant company started and what can they teach other Manitoban entrepreneurs? Watch the story below and get a sneak peek into the company’s headquarters. Then scroll onwards to learn more from the four co-founders: brothers Eric and Yvan Boisjoli along with friends Stefan Maynard and Jason Myers.
How did you all come together to get Bold off the ground?
Jason: Before we even thought about starting a company, it was more of an experiment. Our idea was to build an e-commerce app. I had been running online stores for 10 years and there was some functionality I wanted in one of my stores. We thought other people could use this too, and maybe pay us a little side money.
Eric: Jay (Jason) is notorious for being in the e-commerce space. He really loved the user experience on Shopify, but saw that there were some missing pieces. That’s the beauty of Shopify though, because you get what you need and if you want more then you can add apps or plug-ins. That’s when we got together to build that functionality.
Jason: Very quickly after launching our first app, the conversation went to “How do we build this into a company now? Who’s going to quit their job first? How do we take this to the next level?”
Yvan: I was working on another project with my brother (Eric), and Stef (Stefan) called me up to present another idea to work on. At that point I was looking for new projects on the side and didn’t really know where it would lead.
Stefan: We started our very first app in April 2012, but we weren’t actually a company then. We incorporated in August of that year, so we’re now just three years old and the company has grown in every area.
Eric: We thought it would be a little bit of side money…beer money. Honestly, everything has surprised me now. (Laughs) Even my role can change from day-to-day, and it’s kind of exciting.
What are the excitements and challenges of being a rapidly growing company?
Eric: One of the main things was finding space to actually put people. We started in my basement, moved to Stef’s basement, then Jay’s basement. Then we got a garage across the street, outgrew it and got this space, which we’ve just developed into a third area. Trying to keep track of everyone and having enough space has been a big challenge.
Jason: In the early days, for every single install I would get an email saying “you have a new install.” It was a new experience for us to go out for lunch as people were installing our apps, which meant they were going to start paying us. We were thinking, “Wow, this is pretty cool!”
It was a whirlwind. During the first six months we were all working from home before and after our regular jobs just to put this together. In the next six months we had all quit our regular jobs, and then grew to 15 employees by the end of the first year.
Stefan: Now we have a whole division that just focuses on custom jobs for customers. Every department is growing really well.
Yvan: What we did here kind of blew me away because we weren’t looking at building anything huge. We build e-commerce plug-ins for Shopify, and it’s morphed into a lot more than that. It’s a place where we innovate and stretch the boundaries of what Shopify allows us to do in order to put out cool apps.
What’s it like working with your friends and four co-founders?
Eric: We each have our specialty and areas of expertise. Yvan and I are developers, Jay is a marketer and Stef is a designer, so we each bring a little bit more to the table. If I built apps on my own they would work great, but nobody would be using them. If Jay was building apps he would have a user base, but nothing to use. When you put us all together we’re able to pick up on spots where the other person doesn’t have the expertise and the product becomes more robust.
Jason: It’s interesting in a lot of ways. I really like it and I think it works really well for us. We balance each other out, have really thick skin and listen to each other to come up with the best thing for the company. Partnerships are tougher because it’s one versus one, and there’s no other vote so I like the aspect of having a group because it becomes more of a discussion.
Yvan: It’s a lot of fun. It’s like working with your friends and I think that’s very important. Plus we had a good foundation before we started.
Why did you choose the small town of Ile des Chenes for your office? What makes this location work for Bold?
Eric: We’re in Ile des Chenes because it’s central to the four owners and we all grew up with a small town mentality. Manitoba is a great place, salaries are affordable and it’s a win-win.
Some people think it’s a little bizarre to be in Ile des Chenes, but we have all the necessities we need for this company here, so there’s no need to be in a place like San Francisco. Sometimes you’ll see 20 people from Bold at Wrangler’s [bar] at any given time. (Laughs)
Jason: At some point we thought that we’d move into the city. But as we grew we had a vote and it was unanimous that everyone wanted to stay in Ile des Chenes. You look outside and there are farm fields so it’s not the most glamorous area, but we kind of have a campus mentality here where we’re out here to work. It’s different than working downtown in the city, and it’s worked really well for us.
Yvan: Ile des Chenes is pretty awesome. You get the same reaction from everyone – “Why are you there?” Honestly, the cheap rent is probably why we started here. But as people start working here it changes the minds of what people think of Ile des Chenes. The travel time is quick and not having to deal with construction is a bonus – rain, snow, whatever – it doesn’t really affect travel times.
What’s it like operating a business in Manitoba?
Stefan: I’m an outdoors person. I love the open space and I love the people. Manitobans are your ‘work hard, get stuff done kind of people.’
It’s a good place to do business as far as the ecosystem of government and all of the support structure around businesses in Manitoba. They really rally behind start-ups and they want to see you succeed. There’s kind of a grassroots mentality, which we didn’t know when we started up this company.
And there’s a huge network of resources out there. Once we started tapping into it, we’d talk to partners in the States about the grants, funding and tax credits available and they would be very surprised. That doesn’t exist down there where you only get angel investors or VC funding. You can get away without doing that up here, without giving up a portion of your company, and that’s a big advantage. Plus the work ethic of people here is really good.
Contrast this to Silicon Valley where some of your competitors operate.
Jason: We are the Google of Ile des Chenes. (Laughs) But honestly, I don’t think we’d be where we are if we were in Silicon Valley where building rent and salaries are very different. We’re paying $10 per square foot versus $40 per square foot somewhere else.
It’s also very tough for a start-up to compete unless you’re giving away stock options, and it would be very tough for us to do what we’re doing there, so it’s been a huge advantage. A lot of our competition in Silicon Valley asks us how we do it, so being here has allowed us to be competitive.
What has made you so successful?
Eric: In the Shopify App Store marketplace a lot of developers were building apps, but the fact that we had a team including developers, a designer and a marketer really helped us elevate our brand above the competition at the time. Plus our emphasis on customer support made an impact. Now a lot of Shopify App Partners actually base their business on how they perceive us, so even our app description write-up style is being used by our competitors. We’ve actually been a bit of a trendsetter and making the app store what it is.
One of the biggest learning moments was on Black Friday a couple years ago. We had done prep work to handle sales for the day, but all of the planning hadn’t gotten us ready for the traffic we received. Unfortunately (the server) went down and we all had to work through the weekend. It was a horrible time, but we salvaged a lot of our customers and it made us a tighter team. Even though it was a bad experience, there were positive outcomes from it like having processes in place to notify customers of issues and now having a server admin.
What are you trying to achieve as far as company culture?
Eric: Culture at Bold is the most important thing. Some companies have a strong office feel, but Bold is a lot more open and accessible. There are no doors so you can look out and talk to the person beside you.
We have beer on tap, free lunches and video games in the boardroom. And we have a work hard/play hard mentality. We can offer these things because of our success, but we are successful because of how hard everyone has worked.
Yvan: Due to the lack of exposure to Winnipeg, we had to do something different here. We always wanted to build a company that we would want to work at. In the past I worked at enterprise offices with cubicle walls and a lot of red tape. These were settings where people laughing or talking was frowned upon. Contrast that to here where we try to push the boundaries, we promote innovation, we want people to try things and do something cool. We want an atmosphere where we all get along and have fun together.
Tell us about your innovative “Labs Department.”
Stefan: The Labs Department has been a really important part of our company, where we take 20% of our business resources and time to work on experimental projects. These are projects that aren’t making any money right now, but that might one day. Right now we have five projects on the go. If we were responsible to outside investors, we probably would not have that Labs Department or be able to experiment. That’s a big benefit of having complete control of our company.
The projects are completely different than our main e-commerce apps. These are ideas that could be big swings and hit it out of the park; we’re not looking for just a first-base hit. That’s how Google started Gmail.
Yvan: Innovation to me is all about trying new things and putting out something that is different than anything out there right now. I’m always trying to look for the next big idea; something that nobody has seen.
Bold Labs is an extension of what we used to do and who we are. Having partners allows us to do this with a couple people concentrating on where we’re going in the future. Everybody has new ideas and this extension allows us to explore those ideas.
What do you think makes you an entrepreneur?
Jason: I love building things. Some people say that when you create a company you don’t really have a company, you just own your own job. But to me it’s the aspect of wanting to build something better than it was. I love waking up in the morning and it makes it easy to go to work. On the way in I’m thinking about things we want to do and there’s not a day where I think “I have to do this and that.” Instead I think, “Oh wow, I actually get to do this!”
Yvan: I’ve always liked to do my own thing and tried to get something off the ground. I own my own company as a consultant as well, and my father owned his own company so it’s been a part of who we are as a family.
What are Bold’s keys to success?
Stefan: We’ve chosen to be really focused and have a saying that goes, “We don’t mow people’s grass.” This means that we are trying to do projects that are very strategic to our core so that we can grow the business. We could go out there and do the odd jobs that come along, but it’s really easy to get side-tracked.
Now we have this big foundation because we’ve been very focused and in a small niche. We don’t just build apps; we build apps related to e-commerce. That’s been a huge key to our success.
Yvan: It all boils down to hard work. When we first started it was 18 hour days and when we went full-time with Bold it turned into 19 to 20 hour days. It’s been a lot of hard work, and now it’s all the employees pitching in and contributing.
What is some advice you can give to someone thinking of starting a business? What have you learned that can help others?
Stefan: Make sure there’s some sort of potential revenue model. There are a lot of people trying to build something that they hope they might sell someday or that is fun to do – and we’ve done that, too. But if that first product that we built didn’t make money then our company may not exist today. Be very strategic about the first thing you do, support it and treat it like your baby.
Eric: I would suggest you focus on customer service and make sure they are happy. It’s all about customer service and a good reputation; that’s all that matters.
Yvan: You have to love what you do. This, to me, is what I’ve always wanted to do.
What does the Bold future look like?
Yvan: The sky’s the limit. I’m impressed with where we got to already and there’s always something out there that we can build. This company was an idea and concept that we worked hard on building, and it wasn’t going to stop there. We feel we’ve built a nice core for the Shopify platform and we build great apps, but now the Bold Labs department is like an extension of what we’ve always done at the beginning of this company and what we’ll continue to do going forward.
It’s expanding, trying new things, innovating and putting out cool stuff.
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