Shopify Build a Business

Hack The Shopify Build-a-Business Competition

How to get a leg up on the competition and increase your odds of winning.

Every year Shopify has a competition where the top selling new stores win valuable time with some big name mentors. This year’s contest is the biggest yet: 5 winners will be flown by private jet to Richard Branson’s private retreat, Necker Island, to be mentored by Richard Branson, Seth Godin, Tim Ferriss, Daymond John, and Marie Forleo.

If you are thinking of entering the contest here are some “hacks” to help get a leg up on the competition and increase your odds of winning.

Concentrate your Sales into your Top Two Months

The Shopify Build-a-Business competition takes your top 2 months of sales to determine the winner.  If you can manipulate your sales in such as way to concentrate them into a 2 month window you significantly increase your odds of winning. With the build-a-business contest, it doesn’t matter how many bad months you have as long as you have at least two dynamite months.

You need to be very strategic when picking the two months you want to put your focus on. Pick the two months where you expect your natural organic sales volume to be peaking.


In 2011 Coffee Joulies released an innovative and unique product that sold out almost immediately.  As they were waiting for new stock to arrive they continued to take “pre-orders”. Once their product came back in stock, all those accumulated pre-orders were triggered into a single month giving them a huge single month sales volume, much higher than any other competing store, and sealing their win.

If you have a product that is unique and in demand, you can “fake” an out of stock situation, collect all the unfulfilled demand, and then bring the item back into stock at a strategic time and trigger all those sales in a single month.

Use Promotions

Let’s say that you pick December to be one of your key months. You will want to offer a promotion in November that will encourage customers to delay their purchases to December 1st, and then another promotion at the end of December to encourage customers to make a purchase before the end of the month.

Delay Purchases to the Following Month

Advertise a sale starting on the 1st of the next month — During the last few days of November start advertising that “Starting Dec 1st – All items on sale for 1 day only!”.

Encourage Purchases Before End of Month

An example of a promotion encouraging customers to buy before the end of the month would be something along the lines of a “Free Shipping until the end of the month”.

Target Special Dates

If there are any special dates in your target month such as Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Black Friday, Boxing Day, etc… Make sure to have strong promotions running around those dates to further boost your sales for the month.

Seasonal products

The Build a Business competition usually runs from September to March. If you are selling a summer seasonal product such as Gas Grills or BBQs, then you are probably out of luck. You will be hitting your sales peaks long after the contest is over (and before the next one begins).

On the other hand if you are selling a Winter seasonal product then you are in good shape as your sales will be peaking at the right time. In 2013 won the 3rd annual competition due in big part to the nature of one of their products: The Canada Goose Arctic Parka (known as “The warmest jacket on earth”). While most merchants hit their peak with the Christmas rush, Canadian Icons continued to peak through January and February due to a cold Canadian winter. Those strong January and February months were key in their win.

Sacrifice Profits for  Sales

Know your Profit Margins and Leverage Google AdWords

You can use Google AdWords to “buy” extra sales. if you are willing to spend your entire profit margin to get a sale, then  you should be able to outbid other advertisers and get a majority of the sales. This isn’t a great ongoing option to keep your business viable, but something to consider if you are trying to boost sales in a couple specific months.  In particular, this works well if:

  1. You are selling a brand or product that has a pre-existing high search volume/demand on Google and;
  2. Your product has high margins or high lifetime customer value and;
  3. You have unlimited stock of this item.

Sacrificing your profits for higher sales volume may not be the best strategy if you are trying to run a profitable business. However if you think it’s the difference between making it to Necker Island or not, then it might be worth it!

Optimize your Order Size

Split orders into $1000 chunks

This year’s Build-a-Business competition will only count the first $1000 of any order. If you think your average order size may be above the $1000 mark consider encouraging customers to split purchases into multiple orders. This way their entire purchase counts towards your Build-a-Business “score” instead of just the first $1000.

Google Display Network & Extended Keyword Match


  • Keyword Targeting on the Display network does not behave the same way as on  the Search network. Because of “Extended Keyword Match” your ads WILL display on pages that DO NOT contain your keywords. In particular for low volume keywords. Even when using phrase or exact match.
  • Pausing / Un-Pausing an AdWords Campaign triggers a Reset or Recalibration which may cause the campaign to behave differently than it did before the pause.

Targeting our Brand Name:
Are we Getting what we Paid for?

We recently noticed something strange with one of our AdWords Display campaigns. The Ad Group was exclusively using Keyword targeting on a phrase matched keyword: Our Brand name. Although it was a low volume Ad Group, the goal was to display our ads on any pages with a mention of our Brand.

Is Pausing and Unpausing Campaigns Safe?

Pausing a Campaign or Ad Group feels pretty safe — after all you are not actually changing anything, just taking a little break. This was our attitude when we decided to pause our campaign for a few hours one day. However, when we unpaused a few hours later the campaign volume suddenly shot up 100x (as did our costs). Nothing had changed with how the campaign was setup. The only factor at play was the pausing and then unpausing of the campaign.


Impressions and Ad Spend over the last 2 weeks of September. The large hump started when we paused and then un-paused our campaigns.

Extended Keyword Match?
But we’re “Phrase” Matching!

When we took a closer look at what was going on we quickly realized that our ads were showing on sites that clearly DID NOT have our Brand name mentioned. We first double checked that we had the setting “Let AdWords automatically find new customers” turned off, and it was. We then dug deeper and discovered that almost 100% of our ad impressions were triggered due to “Extended Keyword Match”.

Extended keyword match is when the placement was relevant to the keywords you chose and other factors, including pages a person seeing your ad has recently browsed.

You can see what percentage of your impressions are coming from this “Extended Keyword Match” by going to: Display > Placements > Segment > Targeting Mode


Almost 100% of our impressions were due to “Extended Keyword Match”

We did NOT generate any conversions from these extended keyword matches. The goal of this Campaign was to display an ad on pages that mentioned our Brand. Instead we were having ads displayed due to “other factors including pages a person seeing your ad has recently browsed” — this clearly was not aligned with our goals.

Happily, Google was in agreement and quickly issued a full credit for the extra amount spent (which may hint that this is a bug or unexplored edge case of some sort).  On a side note, the AdWords inbound customer service was wonderful, friendly, and exceptional — one of the best customer service experiences I’ve had in a long time.


  • Be careful when pausing / unpausing campaigns. This causes some sort of “reset” of statistics in the AdWords backend and causes the campaign start re-calibrating itself. Monitor the campaign for a few days after the unpause to ensure if is behaving as expected.
  • Avoid exclusively using keyword match types in display campaigns. In particular for keywords with very low search volume. Having a campaign targeting your Brand name does not appear to be a viable option as of this writing.
  • Monitor what percentage of impressions are coming from Extended Keyword Match. Consider excluding those placements that are delivering a relatively high volume of “Extended Keyword Match” impressions.

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