Shopify's stock climbed to an all time high when partner Walmart launched its new membership. See how the e-commerce company builds tools to help small retailers while working with e-commerce giants

  • Ian Black is the director of retail for Shopify, an e-commerce platform that helps retailers set up online stores.
  • Black's team is dedicated to expanding Shopify's products beyond e-commerce to support brick-and-mortar retailers with products that support all points of sale.
  • When the pandemic hit North America, Shopify paused all of its plans so it could focus on putting out products it knew would help merchants survive. 
  • Shopify aims to create products that enable smaller businesses to compete with retail giants like Walmart and Amazon. But it also partners with Walmart to help merchants reach a broader audience.
  • Because of his work, Business Insider named Black to our annual list of the 10 leaders transforming retail.
  • Visit Business Insider's Transforming Business homepage for more stories.

Ian Black is on a mission to solve all the problems that keep entrepreneurs up at night.

Black is the director of retail for the e-commerce platform Shopify, which is best known for its tools that help retailers set up online stores. That's just one of the reasons an entrepreneur might lose sleep, though. There are other concerns as well: the in-store experience, shipping and fulfillment, email marketing, banking, accounting, insurance, human resources — the list goes on.

"We don't do all of that today," Black told Business Insider in an interview. "But we've tried to build piece by piece and address their largest pain points."

They don't do all of it, but they do a lot of it.

Entrepreneurs are a broad category — on one end of the spectrum, an entrepreneur could be the sole team member, looking to Shopify on the first day of their company's existence; at the other, a seasoned veteran entrepreneur could use Shopify to power its big-name brand (Shopify is used by both Allbirds and Kylie Cosmetics). Shopify aims to build a suite of products that works for the entire spectrum. But in recent months, Shopify has specifically focused on helping keep small brick-and-mortar businesses afloat amid the pandemic and recession.

"We basically paused all of our plans and pulled forward the work that we knew could help merchants the most right away," Black said.

That nimble refocusing of Shopify's roughly 5,000-person team led to the company going on a product-release spree during the early months of the pandemic, a time when many companies were caught on their heels or proceeding with caution. Black said the company oriented their work around the goal of being able to say, "Because Shopify exists, more small businesses will survive this period." And then it went on to launch a dozen products that supported that mission.

In May, the company launched a new point-of-sale system that helps retailers turn their stores, many of which were closed because of state mandates, into fulfillment centers by adding a curbside-pickup feature. This tool gave retailers a way to answer new consumer interest in buying online and picking up in-store.

The company also released a buy-now-pay-later option at a time when payment flexibility was key for consumers facing economic uncertainty, as well as an online chat feature to help retailers stay in touch with their customers, even while closed. The e-commerce giant also launched a business bank account called Shopify Balance that caters to the banking needs of small-business owners.

It worked: Shopify's retail merchants were able to replace 94% of their in-person sales with online sales.

But beyond boosting sales for retailers, Shopify also wanted its tools to connect consumers to their community during a time of difficulty that encompassed the pandemic, the recession, and the growing social unrest over police brutality that took form in the Black Lives Matter movement. Shopify released a consumer-facing app called Shop that allows shoppers to discover small businesses near them, as well as a feature that highlights Black-owned businesses.

"We have a strong belief internally that commerce is made better with more voices," Black said. "We believe there's a lot of room in the future of commerce for independent brands, and for a real sense of emotional connection between the people who are making things and the people who are buying things."

To bring that vision to life, Shopify hopes to serve as a digital stage crew to its merchants — it's never seen and makes the stars of the production shine when used right. This way, merchants can focus on the important task of bringing their unique voices and visions to the marketplace. While many consumers might bemoan the day that everyone works — and shops — at Amazon, Black says he doesn't believe that's the inevitable future of commerce.

"We know there are economic forces that drive consolidation, but we think really well-thought-out products and really well-thought-out business models can work in the opposite direction," Black said. "We really believe the future of commerce isn't one, or two, or three large marketplaces where the personal experience is lost."

Black's team specifically focuses on building products that support brick-and-mortar retailers with often complicated omnichannel sales processes so they can continue to grow and compete with the retail giants. That being said, Shopify partnered with Walmart in June to bring 1,200 small- and medium-sized Shopify merchants onto Walmart's Marketplace. This new partnership will enable Shopify merchants to apply to sell their products directly on Walmart's website, reaching the site's 120 million monthly customers. This will help smaller merchants get more exposure, but it's certainly a benefit to Walmart as well. The partnership recently helped push Shopify stock to an all-time high after Walmart announced Walmart Plus, it's new membership service. 

How can a company remain so optimistic about small businesses during a period in which big-box retailers like Walmart, Target, and Amazon have become more powerful than ever? It looks to the merchants it supports.

"We've seen merchants and entrepreneurs respond to the new world in amazing ways by having the courage to still launch new brands, by totally changing their business models on a dime, and we've seen a lot of success stories come out of that," Black said.

"That's given us hope that this vision of more voices and independent retailers is here to stay and can win out," he said.

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