Four years ago in County Clare, John and Kasha Connolly launched what might seem like a crazy venture – a full-service chocolatier in the Burren.
Hazel Mountain Chocolate has become a true success story: Ireland’s only bean-to-bar chocolatier (meaning they import cocoa beans and sugar as opposed to processed chocolate) now sells in their Galway shop and across the globe.
What you might not realise is that under the hood of that Irish enterprise is an e-commerce platform powering 600,000 small businesses around the world.
Shopify may not be as ubiquitous among consumers as other e-commerce giants like Amazon, but the Canadian enterprise is making a big impact in Ireland’s technology and retail communities.
“Shopify is a platform that powers commerce in all its forms, so that’s commerce on the web, on mobile devices, in person in retail,” says Shopify VP of Engineering, Larry Lumsden.
Some merchants on Shopify run their stores as part-time businesses or even as a “side gig.” The company takes that spirit to heart, with some of the highest executives running an online store in addition to their day jobs. The company also offers employees a bonus if they have a side-hustle.
“It’s such a fundamental part of human society: do business and set up a small business to interact with people and sell stuff,” says Lumsden. “To be part of that is actually great journey.”
Within the 3,000 person staff, two Irishmen have a big impact. Lumsden comes originally from Dublin and leads a team in Montreal, Canada. Meanwhile, Cork-native John Riordan runs the Shopify team in Ireland as Director of Support.
“What Canada is to America, Ireland to the U.K. and New Zealand is to Australia,” says Riordan. “We have found a home. It’s not at all surprising we found a home in Canada, Ireland, and New Zealand. Each situation, let’s call it the “underdog,” is very happy to play the underdog. We’re more comfortable and more humble.”
Shopify’s teams in Ireland and New Zealand help merchants whenever issues arise. Most of the shops currently are in English-speaking countries, but Shopify plan to expand coverage, offering support in a handful of other languages like French and German.
Shopify’s CEO Tobi Lütke shocked some venture capitalists when he kept the company in the Canadian capital of Ottawa instead of moving to Silicon Valley. Similarly, Shopify’s Irish team bucks the trend.
Unlike most foreign direct investment corporations, Shopify avoided opening an office in the Irish tech hubs of Dublin and Cork. In fact, they avoided opening an office at all.
Shopify’s nearly 300-strong team of customer service “gurus” all work remotely. While most cluster in the western counties like Limerick, Clare, Galway, Sligo, Donegal, and Mayo, gurus work in all 26 counties in the Republic.
“We’ve actually taken a small community and made it bigger as opposed to making a big city community spread,” says Riordan.
The gurus provide technical support for merchants along with teams in the Philippines, New Zealand, and Canada.
We would like to consider ourselves to be the tech company of the Wild Atlantic Way
“We would like to consider ourselves to be the tech company of the Wild Atlantic Way for the lack of better description,” says Riordan. “There are a ton of people who made lifestyle choices and work/life harmony choices to live in Belmullet, to live in Westport, to live in Sligo.”
Remote Working in Ireland
Riordan even works remotely. His business card is noticeably blank, a sign that he’s always on the go.
He says the remote workers have one of the best opportunities in tech – they can live where they want, they don’t have the dreaded commute, and often their salaries can buy a lot more in smaller towns than in expensive cities.
“We have a lot of people who come to work for us are actually choosing the nicest places in Ireland to live,” says Riordan. “With their laptop under the arm, they can go and actually choose the place to work.
“When you have the opportunity to choose a place in Ireland to work, it’s amazing. I mean you most certainly would not be crammed into a bedsit in Rathmines or Ranelagh.”
Dublin is a great city for startups, but too many people concentrated in one city poses serious challenges for the state: traffic congestion, uneven development, high rents, etc. Riordan says remote working is one solution to that problem.
Creating jobs for people in Donegal, Tipperary, or wherever means fewer drivers on Dublin and Cork roads. It means people shopping in local towns. It means workers can stay closer to their families or even go out for an Atlantic Ocean surf after a hard day’s work.
Riordan says there are several ways the state could help encourage this harmonious style of work, namely the tax credits for home office expenses and the national broadband rollout. Riordan added:
I would love for us as a country to get our shit together in terms of broadband and have a more robust broadband plan.
Still, even for gurus without great broadband at home, Riordan says there are always options. One Shopify guru in Kerry, he says, didn’t have powerful enough internet access at home. So, he rented a small office in town for about €50 a month.
What’s Next in E-Commerce?
There will be a day, according to Lumsden and Riordan when we won’t refer to ‘E-Commerce’ any more. It will just be commerce.
“It’s been a long journey for for e-commerce really,” says Lumsden. “You think about it as a recent phenomenon, but it’s 20 years in the making. It’s taken 20 years to become a two trillion dollar industry, and it’ll probably double again and the next couple of years.”
There has been a lot said about the damage online shopping caused: if people buy everything from Amazon, small brick-and-mortar stores will go out of business. Shopify’s system challenges that assumption, giving businesses the ability to sell both locally and globally.
“We see very close connection between e-commerce and other channels, like in-person selling,” says Lumsden. “We don’t see that e-commerce is necessarily killing off in-person retail, but they’re actually combinations of the two things that are really important.”
Lumsden says one major change in the industry is the shift to mobile. While consumers bought with mobile phones for several years, he’s now seeing merchants manage their stores remotely too.
“Recently over the Christmas holidays, we saw the majority of our merchants actually managing their stores through mobile devices,” says Lumsden. “That actually helps the lifestyle of the merchants. They don’t need to be tethered a desktop device to run their business.”
Lumsden and Riordan clearly takes pride in the work they do. Riordan talked about a time he was buying something online, not realising it was a Shopify merchant’s store. Only when he went to pay did he realise it was the checkout system that Lumsden’s team created.
“Larry’s been here,” says Riordan.
Even as e-commerce grows, don’t expect to necessarily hear a lot about Shopify unless you’re in retail yourself.
“It’s our merchants’ brand that are the most important thing to us,” says Lumsden. “By contrast to other big e-commerce companies, it’s not about us. It’s about the success of our merchants.
“People will be buying from Irish merchants. That brand is what they see: that beautiful experience they get with that merchant. They don’t realise it’s Shopify that’s powering it underneath the hood. But that works for us.”
Still, no matter how quiet this e-commerce giant seems, Shopify is not asleep. Instead, you’ll see their work in Irish businesses like Hazel Mountain Chocolate finding sales from Naas to New Zealand.