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2 Guys. 6 Months. 7 Apps.

2 Guys. 6 Months. 7 Apps.

2 Guys. 6 Months. 7 Apps: 2016

It took them 1,800 cups of coffee and an easy 600 bottles of beer, but the powerhouse team of two behind Hextom managed to pull off a nearly Herculean task:

Develop seven apps in six months (with an eighth currently in development).

Based out of Toronto, Hextom builds apps for ecommerce merchants and launched their first app in July 2015. Today, they boast close to 15,000 aggregate users – 10,000 of which were accumulated in their first four months.

And their most popular app, Free Shipping Bar, is already featured in the Shopify App Store.

2 Guys. 6 Months. 7 Apps:: Shopify App Store

A breakdown of Free Shipping Bar's user growth. 

While Hextom’s list of accomplishments is downright impressive, just as noteworthy is the fact that during the same period of time, they managed to fulfill 68 new feature requests from users on their already existing apps.

For co-founders, Warner Liu and Aaron Lin, it’s not just about quantity, but quality, too; a quality the pair found in their client-base.

“Customer service is as important as software,” Liu explained. “Shop owners are not only looking for solid apps but also customer support around apps.”

Customer service is as important as software.

And it’s not just a one-way street; Hextom provides rave-worthy customer service to their users (just check out their reviews), but they also encourage merchants to give feedback every chance they get. In turn, they use that intel to develop, refine, and reimagine their apps.

It’s a model that Hextom’s team sees as a key pillar to their seemingly overnight success.

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Origin story

2 Guys. 6 Months. 7 Apps: Origin StoryWarner Liu (left) and Aaron Lin (right) working at one of their favorite coffee shops in downtown Toronto (right around the corner from Shopify’s Toronto offices, no less).

When Liu and Lin decided to try their hand at the startup world, they say they were ready for it... sort of.

“We knew that you’re never really ready,” Liu said with a chuckle.

Lin had already quit his job at BlackBerry to work at another startup company when Liu decided to leave his gig at Amazon. The pair were longtime friends and former colleagues, and had been wanting to start something together for many years. Marrying their varied experience at large companies and small startups seemed like a golden opportunity, which finally took form once they lived in the same city.

When they first started, the guys just met at coffee shops or worked at one of their apartments. To this day, that working model hasn’t changed, with their two-person customer service team working remotely.

In fact, Liu credits their high productivity, in part, to their small-startup mentality around working.

“That’s the beautiful part of a small team, there’s much less operational overhead compared to larger groups,” he explained. “We could concentrate all of our resources on the product.”

Not worrying about renting out a space, buying office supplies, or branding a welcome mat helped Hextom stay focused on what they came together to do; build awesome apps.

When it came to deciding what kind of apps they wanted to build, Liu says it was a very clear decision to focus on developing ecommerce apps.

“We knew ecommerce was the trend; traditional retailers were moving their stores online, so our general direction was to get into the ecommerce field,” Liu explained.

But that seemingly straightforward decision became their first challenge: the developers knew very little about their end users.

“We had to push ourselves and talk to users to get the experience from their side.”

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The f-word

Whether it’s deciding on what features to include, what app to develop next, or even the price point of each app, the guys behind Hextom feel passionately about keeping the channels of communication open with their end users.

That’s why they rely heavily on feedback (what other f-word were you thinking?).

A few months after launching their first app, Hextom hired two part-time staff members to primarily handle customer service and support.

The team of four now constantly solicits the opinions of its customers using different methods. First, an automatic welcome email is sent every time an app is installed, which encourages customers to contact Hextom with questions or suggestions.

“We found that the Shopify user-community is a very active and engaging crowd. They don’t hesitate to ask us when they get confused,” Liu explained.

2 Guys. 6 Months. 7 Apps: Free Shipping BarThe first email a merchant receives after downloading one of Hextom’s apps is in large part focused on feedback.

After answering a client's queries, the Hextom team will often follow-up with a set of questions on their app’s design and instructional wording. Liu adds one of the big challenges in actively engaging customers for feedback, has been choosing the right language when communicating.

“Sometimes it’s necessary to de-engineer ourselves and write in the language our users are comfortable reading,” Liu said. “We keep the channel open with our existing customers to learn about their pain, struggles, and challenges.”

Hextom also analyzes support emails and calls, applying their research to refining FAQs sections.

A screen shot from the first page Hextom users see when they launch the Free Shipping Bar app.

Feedback has become such an important part of Hextom’s business that it’s actually defined as part of their ‘development process.’

“We define developing as a longer phase, not only the first iteration — all the iterations we do are developing,” Liu said.

Using feedback, the team analyzes which part of their apps cause confusion for users, and apply different methods to address and solve problems.

Over time, Hextom has even curated a small group of its most active users by cultivating close relationships. They ask the group for thoughts on what’s missing from the App Store or what features are missing from Hextom's existing apps.

“We prioritize their ideas into our roadmap, giving them screen-shots during our early development [stages], asking their opinions, and how much they think we should charge," Liu said. "They are our ‘Force of Innovation.’”

Keeping it simple

Overall, what Hextom has learned from months of engaging its users is that simplicity is key. At first, they were developing apps that included every feature under the sun, but they quickly learned, through user feedback, that it wasn’t necessary – in fact, merchants wanted the opposite; clean interface with only vital features.

"Essentially, we build apps to help shop owners solve problems, but if the app is too complicated to use, it’s like solving one problem by creating another one,” Liu explained. “So we try our best to keep our apps simple. That’s what we’ve learned from our customers."

Essentially, we build apps to help shop owners solve problems, but if the app is too complicated to use, it’s like solving one problem by creating another one.

In practice, that simplicity means keeping users on one page when using the Free Shipping Bar app, for example. The app displays a free shipping offer in a slide out bar when customers put more items in their shopping cart and can target certain visitors.

Merchants don’t need to navigate elsewhere to create, edit, or even check the FAQ section when using the app. They can confirm selections, change color combinations, and view the list of bars they’ve already created by scrolling down the Free Shipping Bar’s main page. It may seem like a simple concept, but it’s one that users love.

2 Guys. 6 Months. 7 Apps: Contact UsHextom’s Free Shipping Bar – all users have to do is scroll down.

"Easy to use is one of the top three things mentioned in the reviews of all our apps,” Liu said.

And simplicity doesn’t mean lack of features; Liu explains it just means being selective about what is included in order to reflect the concrete needs of merchants.

Like how merchants need to test their online advertising and gage engagement rates from different social media sources. That was one comment the Hextom team received from clients, which is how they ended up with their current iteration of the Countdown Timer Bar app.

Social-media-specific urgency

The Countdown Timer Bar creates urgency by displaying a banner that appears at various times and offers different deals or promotions dependent on where your customer is coming from.

Lin and Liu got the idea for the original Countdown Timer Bar app after reading a blog post on Shopify’s Ecommerce and Marketing Blog that mentioned conversion rates can be increased online when you add a sense of urgency. The first version of the app was a basic countdown timer with a start and end date, i.e “Thanksgiving Day Sale will end in 3 days, 2 hours, and 49 minutes.”

“Because we implemented the timer in a stylish way, it attracted some users who came to us because of the bar’s appearance,” Liu explained.

That initial attraction meant users started sending feedback that addressed common merchant needs. Some said they needed a daily countdown timer that ended at 5p.m., so the guys added it. Others, wanted a countdown every second day instead, or a deal that only appeared every Tuesday; again the developers obliged.

“Each time we added a feature, we learned more about how online marketing is executed and optimized,” Liu explained. “We became more experienced in how to make tools that better help our future Shopify-users increase their sales.”

Later, a group of “marketing savvy” users asked Hextom for a specific feature the duo found downright inspiring. They wanted a countdown timer that specifically targeted only customers from Facebook. Once landed on a merchant’s website, the social-media-specific visitor would see a special timer with a “29 minutes left” message.

“It makes each visitor feel they are just in time to catch a dwindling sale period… it reduces the ‘I will think about it later’ effect,” Liu explained. “This is an even higher urgency, created to have better conversion rates for the expensive traffic [merchants] paid for.”

According to Liu, a common complaint from merchants is that while their Facebook ads do help increase traffic to their ecommerce sites, it doesn’t necessarily mean customers will buy anything.

That’s the gap Hextom’s latest app iteration targets.

Countdown Timer Bar supports any social media channel a merchant might advertise on, like Facebook, Twitter, or Pinterest. The app can automatically detect where a visitor is coming from and display the appropriate bar. Merchants who have paid ads on Facebook, for example, can create a bar with a curated timer, and wording specifically from their social media ad.

“They see a countdown timer bar that is in tune with the ads that attracted them. This smooth and packaged experience, on top of the sense of urgency, converts more visitors to paid customers,” Liu said.

Merchants not only get visitors from their paid ads, but the feature also helps generate more revenue, and sees a higher return on investment for social network advertising.

The moral of this #appdev fairy tale?

While the Hextom team wasn't expecting feedback to become such a large part of their business, Liu is quick to suggest it to other app developers, adding that it's worth the investment of time and effort. 

"Software is the necessary component, but product service is vital for web-based customers."

The power team of two are currently working hard to get their 8th app complete, and can still be found working out of Toronto-area coffee shops.

Have some of your own feedback on this article? Drop a note in the comments section below.

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How a Partner Team of Two Introduced an Old-World Antique Shop to New-World POS

How a Partner Team of Two Introduced an Old-World Antique Shop to New-World POS

Alexander Hunt, French Metro Antiques and Shopify

When French Metro’s website crashed, Alexander Hunt saw it as a “fortuitous” turn of events.

Strange? Perhaps for a website builder. But Hunt saw it as chance to breathe new life into the antique shop he loved so much.

He’d been trying to convince his parents, the owners of French Metro Antiques, to replace their outdated website, which hadn’t seen the light of an update for a few years.

But the couple was dragging their feet. They had already discussed revamping the site a few time over, but were waiting for the right time.

“Nobody likes to dig into that type of project,” Hunt explained. “So, when the site crashed, it was like, ‘Okay guys, now you have to build a new website.’”

Despite living thousands of miles away in India, Hunt jumped at the opportunity and brought on his partner and digital brander Udhara De Silva; the two hatched a plan to professionally pitch his parents.

“We went through the same process any other digital agency would go through,” De Silva explained. “Because French Metro had certain customizations necessary for the kinds of transactions they do, the way they quote, and the way they do shipping quotes, we had to do a lot of background research to figure out exactly what they needed before we could settle on Shopify.”

While the pair were treated like any other team vying for a client’s business, their competitive edge was Hunt’s intimate knowledge of the business. They won the contract and worked remotely to reimagine French Metro, capturing the elegance and tradition of the bricks and mortar store, but also helping the business further capitalize on its unique and growing online presence.

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Fluent in French antiques

Alexander Hunt, French Metro Antiques and Shopify: French Metro Antiques StorefrontLocated in Fayetteville, Arkansas, French Metro imports one-of-a-kind French antiques that range from the 17th century to the 1930s art deco period. It’s a family business, run primarily by Hunt’s mother, who speaks fluent French, and father, who is well-versed in art history and a talented woodworker.

Opened in 1999, the business largely revolves around annual pilgrimages to France; the goal is to find the finest in French antiques and over the years, the business has grown in clients, products, and quality.

“It’s unique among other antique stores because French Metro hand selects each and every piece,” Hunt explained.

Over the past decade, French Metro has acquired national and international clients who increasingly buy antiques through their online store. Roughly, 40 per cent of sales are made online, and the owners wanted to ramp up that side of the business even further; their new goal is to hit 50 per cent digital sales.

With such a unique stock of products sold both online and offline, and owners who are out of the country roughly three months of the year, finding one system to streamline their online and offline sales was the biggest challenge for Hunt and De Silva.

POS to the rescue

Despite French Metro’s organic growth in digital customers, the antique shop was a bit stuck in old school ways; the owners were still doing transactions by hand.

“We always just used paper,” Hunt said with a chuckle. “Because the average sales price is quite high, you might only have one or two sales a day, so it made sense to use paper.”

Enter Shopify POS.

Able to accept any type of payment with no training necessary, the solution was perfect for the store owners, who could easily keep an eye on inventory from anywhere.

“My parents are in France on a buying trip right now, their employees are in the shop making sales, and they’re able to keep a pulse of what’s going on in the business using their iPhones, which is incredible.”

Alexander Hunt, French Metro Antiques and Shopify: Alexander Hunt's ParentsHunt and De Silva added a retail package to their POS subscription, which integrated French Metro’s online and in-store sales, automatically updating their inventory in real time. This was especially important for French Metro, which only sells one of everything. Often when the owners return from a buying trip, they have customers waiting at the door — some would even fly in for the event, and many would wait with bated breath online.

If somebody bought something in the store, employees couldn’t get to the website fast enough to show that it was sold.

Alexander Hunt

“If somebody bought something in the store, employees couldn’t get to the website fast enough to show that it was sold,” Hunt explained.

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One of a kind antiques need one of a kind solutions

The uniqueness of the store and its products meant challenges and solutions continued to be one of a kind for the two-man team.

Because French Metro often returns to Arkansas with hundreds of new items after a buying trip, none of which are a duplicate, uploading products has been a nightmare in the past. The guys added a bulk uploading option, which became a huge time saver for their clients.

“We could upload the entire inventory from a spreadsheet and it would just automatically create the item on the website,” De Silva explained.

Hunt and De Silva also completely customized the online store’s navigation structure to reflect more searchable terms that also helped optimize French Metro’s SEO. They reduced the number of navigation terms, and instead relied heavily on tags and search functionality. Whenever French Metro’s owners uploaded a new item, certain words in the description would automatically be selected, adding the item to various collections.Alexander Hunt, French Metro Antiques and Shopify: French Metro Antiques Product SearchLooking for something from the 19th century? Perhaps you want to search all pieces made of oak? By simplifying the range of terms and the number of collections, De Silva and Hunt made the search function more user-friendly for both their clients and French Metro’s customers.

Finally, Hunt and De Silva created custom buy buttons in the event a product was sold out; a sentence would appear saying, ‘I’m interested in finding a piece like this,’ and an email would be sent to the owners. French Metro does offer personal shopping for certain upscale clients, but with a list in hand of what’s hot with digital shoppers, the couple can now keep an eye out while buying in France.

“Usually for high value objects, it’s a very relationship-based sale,” De Silva explained. “But what we’re doing is opening up a whole new market to people, who would otherwise just search for antiques on Pinterest.”

Alexander Hunt, French Metro Antiques and Shopify: PinterestEven if a potential customer was searching for antiques on Pinterest, they can now find French Metro, thanks to Hunt and De Silva; the store has already seen one major sale through the social media site, after a client in New York pinned an antique wine barrel for a wine cellar redesign.

“French Metro really sees the value in selling online,” Hunt added. And, because of the unique and high-end – at times museum-quality – products, buyers are increasingly international.

Signature shipping

That’s why Hunt and De Silva saw high value in improving the shipping aspect of French Metro. Currently, the shop ships their antiques all over the United States, and finding ways to easily get clients past the guesswork of how to ship was paramount for the team.

“French Metro sometimes ships pieces that are 9-feet tall, so it’s not like they can just use Fedex,” Hunt said.

Alexander Hunt, French Metro Antiques and Shopify: Request a QuoteOriginally, the company gathered quotes manually from several sources. “We managed to figure out a way with Shopify to use the shipping option but with custom shipping quotes, where clients could request a quote for shipping.”

The customization not only reduces how much energy French Metro’s staff puts into shipping, but also helps better guide customers through the shipping process.

How to train a parent

Alexander Hunt, French Metro Antiques and Shopify: French Metro Antiques TeamDespite finding solutions in shipping, POS, and search functions, De Silva and Hunt did face one unexpected challenge: training Hunt’s two parents to use their new ecommerce site and all its new functions.

“It was more like addressing their anxiety rather than an actual gap in knowledge. We were kind of psychologists in that way,” Hunt said with a laugh.

Despite being new to the platform, the owners of French Metro caught on quickly with the help of two tutorials, one covering the online side of the business, and the other going over in-store and POS specifically. Hunt and De Silva even did the one-hour sessions via Skype, and Hunt’s parents were Shopify whizzes by the end.

“Because the system is quite intuitive, they feel comfortable playing around with the system,” De Silva added. “We hear stories all the time about how they’ve used Shopify in a new and exciting way.”

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7 Secrets for Balancing Freelance Projects With Your 9 to 5

7 Secrets for Balancing Freelance Projects With Your 9 to 5

7 Secrets for Balancing Freelance Projects With Your 9 to 5

Six a.m. — wake up, squeeze in an hour of work on client number one’s website.

Eight a.m. — commute to full-time job (it pays the bills and the people are nice).

Lunch — squeeze in 20-minute phone conversation in order to convince client number two that “no, the type does not need to be bigger.”

Five p.m. — drive home and make dinner for self/significant other/child/cat-child.

Seven p.m. — squeeze in as many hours as possible on client number three’s project.

11p.m. – bedtime...if you’re lucky.

Wake up. Repeat.

It’s a lifestyle familiar to most freelancers still working some form of nine-to-five job – a carefully crafted patchwork that seamlessly weaves together life, work, and freelancing.

    Whether you’ve been dreaming of making design your full-time job, or you work for a big agency and want to try your hand at your own personal brand, starting a freelance business can be daunting.

    Knowing where to start, how to manage your time, and when to use some business savvy can save you from common pitfalls many first-time freelancers encounter. To help you get started, here are a few tips to transform you into your best freelancing-self (I call that becoming a freelancing ninja), even while still working a full-time job.

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    1. Keep yourself organized

    It sounds easy, but staying organized can be an insanely difficult task. This is especially true when you’re already working a nine-to-five job that takes your focus away from the freelance projects you’re just itching to work on.

    A great way to stay organized is to plan the days you want to work on your side project in advance . Tools like Evernote and Google Keep can help you schedule your days by organizing your notes, tracking to do lists, and filing reminders for various projects.

    If you’re particularly prone to procrastination, pre-determine how much time you’ll allot to each task. Designers often groan about the difficulty of accurately estimating how much time a project will take them. If that sounds familiar, check out this detailed list of strategies that can help you gauge how much time you’ll need for design projects.

    2. Find mentors

    Not sure what to charge as an hourly rate? Need help with polishing your sales pitch? Want to develop your personal brand? There’s no better way to figure out how to actually become a successful freelancer than seeking out some mentorship from someone who’s been there. Find someone with years of experience who can impart some wisdom to help not only with day-to-day operations, but to encourage you to see the big picture.

    But finding the right mentor can be a bit of a challenge. Try reaching out to former professors, colleagues, or even a boss with whom you’ve maintained a positive relationship. If no one comes to mind right off the bat, seek out your local professional association. Some provide mentoring services and can hook you up with monthly meetings or casual gatherings where freelancers get together, brainstorm, and discuss challenges they’ve come up against.

    If you’re still stuck, check out some of the amazing literature that already exists online; professional organizations like the UK Web Design Association or America’s association for design offers freelancers all kinds of professional development resources. Or, download Shopify’s Grow book, aimed at helping designers and developers advance their business.

    3. Learn when to say no

    There are many designers who will tell you to take as many jobs as possible when you’re first starting out, and there is a serious element of truth to this idea. In the beginning, no job is below you. But, if you’re suddenly swamped by job requests, you need to think critically about what you take on.  

    Similar to the way your clients hire you, you need to consider what kind of clients you want to work for. Clients who are searching for your special, niche talents are valuable because their projects serve some of your needs, too. If you’re mutually excited about the project, the process and end product will turn out way better than you could have imagined.

    4. Maintain relationships

    Word of mouth is a great way to continue that steady stream of freelancing gigs. Maintaining  positive relationships with past and present clients is key to making sure your reputation continues to be stellar. Simple tricks like sending thank you notes at the end of a job, regularly checking in with larger clients who might need more work in the future, or creating room for open dialogue and positive communication during a job can make all the difference.

    You might also like: How Building Customer Relationships Will Help You Create a Million Dollar Business

    5. Know your limits

    Balancing freelancing gigs with a full-time job means burnout is always around the corner. Don’t make the rookie mistake of completely running yourself into the ground. Realize you also need to make time for yourself and that trying to balance too many things can actually lower your productivity. That amazing client you’ve been dying to work with could be just around the corner, and you never want to be too tired, sick, or busy to take them on.

    Sticking to an exercise routine, eating healthy, or even practicing mindfulness will not only help you manage burnout, but build towards success.

    6. Communicate

    When balancing work and freelance, communication is key.

    Some clients might believe that because you’re a freelancer, they can have access to you 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Nip that in the bud right away by explaining your work situation and setting some ground rules in advance of starting a new project.

    Explain to potential clients when they can expect to hear from you, when you’re able to read and reply to emails, and when you’ll be offline. During projects, make sure you communicate clearly about expectations and when you believe something will be done, and offer plenty of updates. The more you leave the door open for communication, the better overall experience your client will have.

    7. Taxes, taxes, taxes

    Just because you’ve got that cushy nine-to-five doesn’t mean you can’t get nailed for improperly filing taxes for your side gig. This can get tricky depending on where you live, but the overarching idea is that you need to be well-organized. Keep any receipts or invoices, track how much you’re being paid per project, and know any business expenses you can deduct.

    Also, it’s helpful if you put aside a chunk of change from each paycheque for tax purposes so that you’re not steamrolled come tax season. Full-time freelancers, or those heading in that direction, should further contribute to an RRSP or 401(k) (saving for your future, even if it’s a virtual one, is important).

    TurboTax has lots of advice for freelancing Canucks, while Crunch focuses specifically on helping freelancing Brits with their accounting and finances. Americans shouldn’t wait until spring to realize how taxing figuring out deductions can be.

    These are just a few ideas to help you get started on your road to becoming a freelancing ninja. Good luck!

    You might also like: Starting Your Own Web Design Company: How to Freelance, Find Clients, and Grow Your Business

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