Growing against the grain has its bumps, but for Ben Moore of Pixel Union, it’s also had its (major) triumphs.
His Victoria-based business defies the industry’s prevailing wisdom — that agencies and freelancers should pick their one strength, build a team around that strength, and focus on doing it really, really well. It’s better than offering many services that you only do okay, they say.
But Ben doesn’t agree. In fact, his agency — which started building themes, then evolved to include web design/development services, and most recently started making apps — offers stellar products, services, and is in every respect a success, demonstrating that what works for most isn’t always right for everyone.
Maybe he’s the exception to the rule, or perhaps he’s simply navigated business opportunities intelligently over the past eight years (we think it’s the latter). Either way, Ben is thoughtful about why Pixel Union has managed to succeed while taking the road less travelled.
“I guess part of it is that we recognize that each channel has its own unique way of working,” he said. “We didn’t try to do everything at once — we evolved into the different channels, and it’s allowed us to recognize those differences and find unique ways of working around them.”
Pixel Union recently launched their first app, Pixelpop, making the Plus Expert a 360° Partner (a partner that takes advantage of every possible opportunity to work with Shopify).
We sat down with Ben, Pixel Union’s CEO, and talked about how he grew his business to offer three major services, the growing pains he faced along the way, and the perks of serving merchants from all angles.
Bonus: Read to the end for Ben’s five pieces of advice to business owners looking to grow and diversify. In a rush? Skip ahead to Ben’s tips.
Pixel Union over the years
Pixel Union started building themes for Tumblr in 2008, but after seeing the way ecommerce was growing as an industry, they decided it was time to make their move and introduced their first theme into the Shopify marketplace in 2011.
For three years, Pixel Union focused on building Shopify themes, but by 2014 Ben picked up on a pattern he could no longer ignore.
“We were getting so many requests for minor customizations from our theme customers, and we were just turning that business away,” he explained. “The opportunity was getting bigger with each passing month, and it seemed crazy not to take advantage of it. That’s when we got into the services side.”
Eventually, Pixel Union secured their Shopify Expert status, and more recently, their place as a Plus Expert. After that, Ben says it was only a matter of time before they began to look at the apps space for another opportunity.
“We realized that everything we were learning about merchants, while providing client services as a Plus Expert and supporting our themes, was like gathering intel that we could apply to our next projects,” Ben said.
That intel helped Pixel Union with their theme work, but getting into apps meant they were leveraging that insight and experience for every bit of value.
“If you’d asked us five years ago if we were going to be a 360° partner, we probably would have said ‘no, let’s just stay focused on themes.’ But the way it happened — organically, in response to the opportunities we were finding, and the capabilities we were developing as a team — made it seem inevitable.”
Growing pains along the way
To date, Pixel Union has eight themes in the Shopify Theme Store (with more on the way), provided custom services to hundreds of Shopify merchants, employs 35 staff members, and has already accumulated over 2,000 app downloads since launching Pixelpop just two months ago.
But while their success and growth have come about organically, it wasn’t without challenges along the way. Here are a few of the lessons Ben has learned from growing and managing a 360° business.
1. Focus on the right opportunities
“With a business like ours, there’s always the risk of over-diversification or losing focus,” Ben explained. “It’s the whole ‘jack of all trades, master of none’ issue.”
Picking up the nuances of each service offered was a big part of Pixel Union’s success.
“The way you run a Shopify Plus project is very different from how you would run a theme project, and it’s very different from the way you’d run an app project. You need clearly defined processes in place and excellent project managers to make sure those processes are followed.”
Ben adds that from a business perspective, it’s also about making sure you’re not scaling all services at once, and at the same rate. Timing is everything.
“We’re not just randomly building out parts of our business for the sake of doing it. We scaled selectively, based on where the opportunities were.”
Knowing when to scale can be tough, and can still be a challenge for Ben — he feels he waited too long to get started developing apps, for example. But, as the CEO explains, what makes it easier is developing a deep understanding of your market, your business’ strengths and weaknesses, and making sure you’re making the move into something new because you’re truly ready.
2. Working with clients
While Pixel Union was transitioning into offering web design/development services, it was a challenge learning how to work with clients the “right way.”
“A theme or app team generally doesn’t have to engage with merchants in the same way a services team does,” Ben said. “With services, you need someone who’s comfortable reaching out proactively, teasing valuable input and feedback, managing priorities, and putting out the fires that inevitably spring up. ”
At first, Pixel Union didn’t have anyone who could play that role; someone who knew how to make the client feel like they were in control, while also being able to exert expert knowledge within the relationship, and steer the project to a successful outcome.
“It was challenging, because that part of the business should always be a top priority, in that your relationship with your customers and clients is what allows you to produce great work. And it’s also what makes or breaks you as you continue to scale — their word of mouth is the basis for your reputation as a brand, and that’s so important.”
When Pixel Union acquired a small interface design agency in early 2015, it allowed them to quickly and efficiently fill that and other business needs. It brought in a strong team who fully understood the nuances of working with clients and knew the processes and approaches to client work; how to work with a brand, how to define the story, and how to manage the scale and scope of different client types.
It also allowed Pixel Union to refine its approach to project management. Gone were the days when Ben had to manage all clients alone. According to him, two roles in particular truly helped him scale: project managers and a client services director.
“The project managers we have are super proactive when it comes to handling our clients. They communicate where we’re at in terms of scope and timeline, what we need from clients in terms of input, what they can expect, when the next meeting is...everything.”
By contrast, a client services director has little to do with day-to-day operations, but gives clients the VIP treatment, while making sure everything is going smoothly. Most importantly, this position is a path of escalation for clients when things go wrong on a project.
“Figuring out that these positions were vital was painful early on,” Ben admitted. “As soon as you can, hire these people, but do so carefully. It’s such a sensitive role, and one that requires a lot of really nuanced skills when it comes to communication, organization, and understanding. They will effectively represent you and your business, so they have to be a perfect fit.”
3. Communication is key
But beyond specific roles and responsibilities, there’s another aspect Ben’s worked hard to improve in Pixel Union: communication. Whether it’s internally or with clients, valuing this has only helped his company grow.
“So much of the mess that you can get yourself into in a project comes down to communication, or miscommunication,” he said.
Projects inevitably come up against problems; it’s a fact of working with clients, partners, changing tastes, and technologies. But if you’re proactive about communicating changes and showing that you’re genuinely invested in your team or your client’s success, they can all be overcome.
“Most clients are rational and understand that projects hit speed bumps,” he said. “If you’re open, honest, and proactive about the challenges you’re facing, people will recognize that. They’re business owners, after all—chances are they’ve been there before.”
Internally, the same applies. Especially with three different divisions, it’s become critical for Pixel Union’s teams to communicate with one another clearly and consistently. It’s the reason they’ve been able to gather vital merchant intel, and even pinpoint critical business opportunities as they arise.
“By communicating openly as a team, we make sure the best ideas surface, that problems are quickly addressed, and that the business as a whole is working efficiently. ”
Perks of being a 360° Partner
While Pixel Union experienced growing pains, the benefits of having an agency with a variety of products and service offerings have outweighed any challenges. The biggest benefit, Ben says, is the knowledge sharing.
“When we built our first theme, we were just guessing at what a merchant might want. We weren’t asking, ‘what’s the unique problem we’re solving here?’” he explained. “These days, we put a huge amount of work into really digging deep on a particular merchant segment or customer problem. We work smarter than we’ve ever done as a result.”
The diversity of the business also means there’s less risk and far more opportunity, since their growth isn’t dependent on a single channel. While themes are a core part of Pixel Union’s business, there’s a limit to how much the marketplace will accept, or how often a customer wants to purchase a new product. By adding services and now apps, Pixel Union can continue to scale without any limitations, all within the Shopify ecosystem.
“When I look at where we are today, I can’t imagine a Pixel Union without themes, apps, and client projects as part of our offering. There’s a compounding effect to having all three active within the business that’s like rocket fuel for a shop like ours.”
With so much experience under his belt, we asked Ben to list his top five actionable pieces of advice for others in the midst of growing their business. Here’s what he had to say:
Communication is king: Whether you’re working with clients, partners, or the team, clear and open communication is the single most valuable tool you have as a business. Good communication will solve just about any problem; poor communication will only perpetuate them.
Invest in your team: Don’t assume that great products and ideas are just a matter of time and energy; that anyone with a copy of Sketch can make a theme, app, or custom storefront. Invest in the right people and treat them well, then invest further in helping them develop their skills.
Set your own standards: Many clients don’t have the sophistication or context to know mediocre work from great work, which makes it tempting to stop at making them happy, rather than pushing further and making something that’s truly exceptional. But that’s the short game: if you want to build a brand, you need to set your own standards and uphold them with everything you do, even when it means extra cost or effort.
Learn from yourself: Every project you work on, whether it’s your own product or something for a client, will offer something valuable you can learn from. Don’t miss the opportunity to improve by rushing into the next thing without pausing for a moment to ask yourself, “what did we learn from this?”
- Timing is everything: Don’t dive into a new venture just because you think you should. Understand what the market is doing right now, where it’s going, and weigh that against your current capabilities and appetite for growth. When the time is right, you’ll know it.