Kurt Elster is one of the foremost influencers in the Shopify entrepreneur ecosystem. He’s the CEO and co-founder of Ethercycle, a Shopify agency, and host of the Unofficial Shopify Podcast, which boasts over 1,000,000 downloads.
I interviewed Kurt to learn about the early days of Shopify site development, the ups and downs running a Shopify agency, his biggest tips for Shopify merchants, as well as his most frustrating pet peeves. Kurt's insights are surprisingly fresh, counterintuitive, and altogether practical.
Born and raised in the suburbs of 'Chicagoland,' a term describing the greater Chicago area, Kurt Elster remembers the day his dad lost his job.
"When I was a kid I saw my dad lose his job and never work again," says Kurt. "I still don't know why that was. I never figured it out, but he didn't work again. But from then on, he kept grooming me to be an entrepreneur. And he said, 'If you're your own boss, you can never get fired.' That had a really big impact on me."
After attending business school, Kurt took work as a Channel Manager for a company that dropshipped automotive parts on eBay. Despite Kurt's love of cars, he only lasted a year before he felt stifled.
"One day I got up to tie my shoes and go to work, and I just broke down crying," Kurt recalls. "I knew I was betraying myself by not being my own boss."
Naturally, Kurt quit his job with no plan.
"And the next day in the shower I said, 'I'm going to start my own ecommerce platform and it will be for bike shops,'" Kurt laughs. "I don't know why I thought any of this was a good idea."
Kurt teamed up with a friend to launch the ecommerce platform. But once again, a year into the project, it wasn’t working out.
To keep the lights on, the team got into web development for local businesses, which saw early success.
"We were good at it," Kurt says. "We climbed the ladder. And like a year after that, we were doing stuff for Verizon, the NFL, and Hilton Hotels. At the same time, we were doing it for larger agencies. But in the end, we kind of hated it."
Working with the large agencies was a huge pain in the ass.
"There were so many layers of management and nobody really cared about us. We were just a pair of hands," Kurt tells me. "There was one project that really pushed me over the edge. It was the last Wordpress project we did and it was worth $50K. Big project. Basically, midway through our project manager sends me a message on Linkedin. He goes, 'Hey, just wanna let you know I got fired on Friday.' When you work with creative agencies, this stuff happens all the time. But then they didn't assign a new manager to us and they went dark."
Eventually the agency hired a technical manager to take over the project, but all was not well. "He asked me all these questions that make the hair stand up on the back of my neck. And then he says, 'Oh, uh, your work is not good and not going to continue working with you. Just bill us for the remainder and we're done.' I said, 'okay, fine. See ya!'
Three months later, a different project manager emailed Kurt acting as if nothing untoward had happened. To make a long story short, after trying to gaslight Kurt into believing he had never been fired in the first place, the agency threatened to take Ethercycle into arbitration if they didn't complete the project in the next few days.
"It was one of the most bizarre tactics I've seen someone take," Kurt recalls. "So we basically had to like rage finish the project over a weekend and we got paid for it. But yeah, that was when I was like, 'all right, I'm done with agencies and Wordpress. That's the last one.'"
It was time for another pivot that would become the Ethercycle we know and love today.
"The first time I did a Shopify site, I had a friend who owned a local bike shop," says Kurt. "He said, 'man, I hate my website. I want something easy. What do you think?' I told him I'd heard about this thing called Shopify and that we should try that."
If you haven't sensed the theme yet, it's that Kurt and crew are always trying things they know nothing about. As such, for their first-ever Shopify website, the team decided to develop a custom theme from scratch.
"We did, and it wasn't that hard," Kurt muses. "That got us invited into the Shopify experts program, which was very early-stage back then. And that led to another project, a big one for Bandon Dunes golf course. It's a very famous golf course in Oregon. Then we just kept going from there. So pretty quickly I said, 'wait, why are we doing anything other than Shopify? And then at that same time, I think that's when I started the podcast. That was 2014, maybe 2013."
Today, the Unofficial Shopify Podcast has more than a million downloads and listeners in countries all over the world.
With Kurt being the people-person that he is, what qualifies as an accomplishment primarily comes down to the quality of people he gets to work with. Add to that Kurt's obsession with cars and the reasoning behind his two favorite accomplishments make a lot of sense.
“For me being a car guy, it was probably, when we got hired to conversion-rate optimize Jay Leno's website," Kurt tells me. "And that eventually led to redesigning Jay Leno's website. I went to Jay's garage. I toured the garage. I met Jay. I talked to him. I mean, that was, uh, well, it's like a bucket list thing. If you're a car guy, it's like, 'Oh, you got to tour the Vatican and meet the Pope.' I mean, it was just utterly wild!"
“When I was starting out, there was this car and lifestyle brand called Hoonigan that was like a race team,” Kurt says. “They had this viral video called Gymkhana. And I'm like, 'Man, I'd love to work with that brand!' And then one day I got up last September, I check my email, which I don't do anymore, and I had an email from the CEO of Hoonigan, and he's like, 'Hey, we need help. We want to talk.' I got on the phone with the guy that day, and we've been working together ever since. So it was like, if you're a designer, you have dream clients. That was one of mine. And then five years later they just emailed me out of the blue. So that was a lot of validation."
It might sound fundamental to the average Shopify veteran, but according to Kurt, it's astounding how many folks start ecommerce brands without validating their business models.
“If you have never made a sale, you have not validated your business,” Kurt says. “You should not be trying to scale or hire, flat out. I have hard-earned experience on that one. It's like, 'No, no, no. You first need to sell a hundred of these. Then go out and hire.'"
"If you have never made a sale, you have not validated your business." – Kurt Elster
Often, people don’t validate their business models because they don't want to go out and sell; they don’t want people to tell them no. That makes sense. Being told 'no' is a vulnerable experience.
But as the person behind the brand, you must make those initial sales on your own. If you can't, it’s a sign that your product-market fit may be way off, in which case you need to pivot immediately.
"As I said already, when I started, I was going to build an ecommerce platform, and that totally didn't work," says Kurt. "And at the time it felt awful. It felt like it was a failure that I was pivoting. But it wasn't at all. If it's not working, stop doing it. You're in charge, you can do whatever you want. Validate your business and be willing to pivot."
"You're in charge, you can do whatever you want. Validate your business and be willing to pivot." –Kurt Elster
Another thing that ruffles Kurt’s feathers is the obsession with SEO (search engine optimization). This is one specific area where Kurt and I agree wholeheartedly.
“Don't obsess over SEO,” Kurt advises, “especially in the first two years because there are so many other things that are more likely to move the needle on your business. I'm not saying that SEO is unimportant or that fast-loading websites are unimportant. They just shouldn't be an all-consuming thing, eating up your day and causing you anxiety. I literally have not thought about SEO for my own businesses in probably three years."
That's because Kurt focuses on content. Quality, relevant, consistent content.
"Guess what," Kurt continued. "My podcast still has a million downloads. So I focus on it like this: my business is successful, this is my audience, this is the content that resonates with my audience. Guess what? Great SEO will be a side benefit of that. Pick a medium that you're good at. Maybe it's video, maybe it's a podcast, maybe it's blogging. Publish something one to two times a week for six months. Suddenly you'll find, 'oh my gosh, we're getting a ton of free traffic from Google!'"
"Pick a medium that you're good at. Maybe it's video, maybe it's a podcast, maybe it's blogging. Publish something one to two times a week for six months. Suddenly you'll find, 'oh my gosh, we're getting a ton of free traffic from Google!'" –Kurt Elster
Kurt’s right, of course. So many people spend all their time worrying about their SEO that they end up fiddling with their sites all day long and/or publishing mediocre content.
According to Kurt, nuanced SEO techniques are just icing on the cake. The real win is content first, SEO second.
Shopify has a lot of competition these days. Every web development platform out there is adding some sort of ecommerce capability faster than you can blink. What’s more, some of these platforms are getting incredibly good.
One critical example is Webflow, possibly the most accessible and most robust web design platform I've ever used (this blog is on Webflow). And now that Webflow offers an ecommerce component, I wanted to know how Kurt thought about the competition and if he saw any threats on the horizon for the Shopify ecosystem.
“For Shopify, I have no fear of technological threats,” Kurt tells me. “If someone's like, 'so and so has this feature,' it doesn't matter. Does it help you sell? Can Shopify just build that feature themselves? Can they just buy out the competitor? Anything that's a question of feature parity between platforms doesn’t concern me.”
Kurt's point seems to be that Shopify is so big, yet still quite agile, that it can, therefore, respond to such threats. Add to that the extensive capabilities added to Shopify from app store developers (like Judge.me), and Shopify's position could almost be seen as unassailable.
But there is one place where the threat is genuine: the jungle. That means Amazon, people.
"The real threat is to merchant's facing Amazon," Kurt tells me. "Amazon is the 800-pound gorilla. And it's simple. If you are currently purely transactional, then an Amazon is a threat to you. So if your business is functionally a vending machine, well Amazon is very good at building vending machines. In fact, I'm going to go to the mall later and pick up my delivery from an Amazon locker, which is basically a vending machine for my packages."
"If you are currently purely transactional, then an Amazon is a threat to you." –Kurt Elster
The way out of this predicament is to build a brand; to add things into the customer experience that Amazon simply can’t or won’t replicate.
"Add a community to your product," Kurt says, "or a great human story. For example, I have a really compelling about page and content and a welcome series. If you do that, suddenly you have a huge leg up on them. Amazon can't be human, so you can easily beat them at that."
"Amazon can't be human, so you can easily beat them at that." –Kurt Elster
Kurt and I talked about so much more, but we couldn't fit it all here. Clearly, that's a limitation with articles, which is why we're working on plans to release podcast versions of these interviews soon.
As a stop-gap I thought I'd run through a few exciting things Kurt and I spoke about, that couldn't make it into the article. They are the following:
How to solve almost any problem.
“My therapist once told this. Ask yourself: what would someone smarter than you do? Holy Shit. It's amazing. 90% of the time you know the answer, but you need to reframe it to get out of your own head.”
Impose constraints to Get Shit Done
“When I wanted to start a podcast, I knew I could easily go crazy with production. So I limited myself. I said, 'I can only spend up to $50 on gear. So I had like one crappy microphone. Now I'm using like this insane $2,000 setup. But to start for the initial podcast, it was a $30 USB mic, and we edited it and free software and used $12 hosting service. It was nothing. And it worked. So I like when you're trying to learn a craft, put a whole bunch of artificial constraints on yourself and often that will keep you on task."
Kurt Avoids Working With Middlemen “When their organization has internal power struggles, you're the one that gets completely thrown under the bus. You will be the first to go. That's in our project application form for new clients. It says, 'are you the one who will be paying for this work? Are you the one who will be making contact with talking to us a day to day?' If you answered no to both of those questions, I don't care what the project is. The answer you'll get is: sorry, we're too busy."
Kurt’s Favorite Niches "My favorite niche, of course, is automotive stuff just because I'm a car guy. But we have also had a lot of success with a premium goods; luxury goods. We have a client that we've done some of our best work with. They sell brick pizza ovens for four figures and working together we have been tremendously successful. And one of my very first successful Shopify clients sold $300 replacement watch bands for Rolex watches. So consistently, the categories we've succeeded are premium consumer goods and luxury consumer goods."
In 2019, Kurt is placing his biggest bets on scaling content production. "I'm really proud of the podcast," he says. "I always feel like I was just figuring it out as we went. But just before January we got broadcast level hardware for the first time. We also switched up the format. We finally remade the episode art after four years. I think we really nailed it this time around for 2019. So I'm proud of that. Now I want to double down more on video content. So for Shopify Unite, we'll do video interviews as opposed to regular interviews. And that way people who prefer video have access to that same content. So suddenly, my main focuses are on content and audience growth."
That’s all for this interview. Be sure to sign up for Kurt’s newsletter at kurtelster.com. Kurt says that if you reply to the newsletter with any thoughtful questions, he will definitely reply with an equally thoughtful answer.