Thinking outside the retail box

Craig Miller, BEng’05, launched his own business as a McGill engineering student – earning six figures, no less – to put himself through school. His think-outside-the-box business smarts have served him well. Today he’s chief product officer at Shopify Inc., Canada’s e-commerce software star.

Story by Mark Witten

November 2018

Craig Miller’s knack for e-commerce and his think-outside-the-box business smarts were already apparent during his days as a McGill engineering student.

“I created a business where I was helping other people to promote their products online. It was an easy way to make money. I put myself through school and was making six figures as a student in electrical engineering, one of the most difficult programs,” says Miller, BEng’05, chief product officer at Shopify Inc., Canada’s e-commerce software star.

He started that audacious, online marketing venture out of necessity and because it was in his blood. “Starting my own thing is who I am. It’s a form of actualization and self-expression. I started the business because I needed to pay for university.”

Miller was self-driven, but also inspired by the example of his father, a McGill grad who had started a software company, co-owned by the University, based on software he built for entering marks and scheduling. “He sold the software to hundred of universities. I grew up with McGill and computers in my blood, and had my first McGill email address at 8,” he says.

Miller’s gift for helping other entrepreneurs sell their products online has been applied in spectacular fashion on a national and global scale at Shopify, where retailers pay monthly subscription fees to use its e-commerce software. He’s helped engineer eye-popping growth from 15,000 to more than 600,000 customers since joining the company as chief marketing officer in 2011.

How did he move the needle to achieve a 40-fold increase in merchant subscribers?

“Our team wasn’t composed of traditional marketing people. We hired engineers, designers, and former real estate agents, who brought interesting ideas and different perspectives on how to grow the business. Everyone said this should be doable and fun. Our mantra became double it, double it and find ways to keep doubling it,” he says.

Going against the grain is in his DNA. “If you go with conventional wisdom, you’ll get conventional results,” says Miller, whose unconventional pitch persuaded the Ottawa-based company’s skeptical leaders that he could successfully direct marketing from his home base in Toronto.

Shopify interviewed Miller because he’d grown Kijiji Canada from three employees in 2006 into the most popular classified ads site in the country five years later. Miller thought the job looked perfect, except for its location. “They wanted the (chief marketing officer) to be based in Ottawa, but I’d just bought a home in Toronto and that’s where most of my family and friends live,” he says.

In an e-mail turning down the role, Miller wrote a P.S. offering some ideas to help Shopify grow. “I still wanted the company to be successful and wrote a road map to help them with their marketing. A week later Shopify called me up and asked how we could make living in Toronto work,” he says.

Miller made it work by rebranding his new marketing team in Toronto the “growth” team. “When you call it a growth team, everyone knows exactly what the goal is,” he says.

He began as CMO, working from a spare bedroom in his house, as if it were a start-up. Today, Shopify has about 700 people in Toronto, mostly in marketing and product development, drawing on the city’s abundance of IT talent. “We’re in our seventh office here and can’t keep up with the demand for space.”

Early in 2019, the company will move into a new 178,000-square-foot space on King St., and then further expand its footprint by moving into offices in The Well project, a major mixed-use development on Front St. near Spadina Ave., in 2022. “We’ll be the flagship tenant and lack of space won’t be a constraint on our growth,” he says.

How does Miller see the future of retail evolving?

“Retail is going through a huge change. Physical retail will exist for decades to come, but the experience of shopping in a store will be better. E-commerce is still relatively small. Only 10 per cent of all retail spending is through e-commerce and a lot of the time it feels clunky to buy online.”

He believes Shopify and the merchants it helps to do e-commerce better can capture a much larger share of the 90 per cent consumers now spend in brick-and-mortar locations. “We’re early in our journey. There is so much opportunity, so much yet to do,” he says.

Miller is working on ways to help merchants make online shopping more enjoyable for consumers. “If you think about most shopping online today, it’s very functional and often about how efficient it will be. One problem with e-commerce is it’s removing the whole experience of shopping in a physical store.”

“I recently went out to buy a paddleboard and spent half an hour in the store trying different boards. I had a blast and that experience hasn’t been captured online. The shopping experience should be personal. It should be fun online or in a store,” he says.

Shopify opened its first physical location for the public in downtown Los Angeles in October. Budding entrepreneurs and established merchants can attend and experience workshops and talks and meet with retail consultants to support them in growing their companies.

“It’s our first retail store and we’ll be helping thousands of LA entrepreneurs to set up or expand their e-commerce businesses. I love working at a company that helps entrepreneurs fulfill their dreams,” says Miller.

Back to top