A Man with a Plan to Scan (Whenever He Can)

You may have seen the blog entry containing a transcription of my notes from the Geek Girl Ottawa dinner, but have you seen the handwritten originals?

Scan of my handwritten notes from Geek Girl Dinner Ottawa, page 1

One of the items that came in the Bag O’ Stuff that I was given on my first day at Shopify was a Moleskine notebook and a Sacchi ballpoint pen. I have reasonably good penmanship and was once better known as a cartoonist than a programmer or accordion player, so I thought I’d put both to good use.

I know that in the age of laptops, iPads, Flip cameras and tweeting from your phone, taking notes with pen and paper seems a little passe, However, the old way still has a couple of advantages. First, you can be a little more free-form with where and how you write — you don’t have to do things is straight lines, and you can easily switch between writing and drawing and mix test and illustrations with abandon. Second, and possibly more important: paper isn’t as badly affected by crumbs or a spilled sauce or drink as electronic devices are, a consideration one must make when taking notes at a dinner.

Scan of my handwritten notes from Geek Girl Dinner Ottawa, page 2

At the end of 2009, I had a couple of coupons from Dell (thanks to TechDays) that entitled me to 25% off monitors, printers and scanners from their store. I used one coupon for their 24″ Ultrasharp monitor, which I’ve been using regularly at my home office since the start of 2010 — first with the developer machine first assigned to me, then the Dellasaurus, and now with “Vic Romano”, my Shopify-provided 15″ MacBook Pro (my machines are currently named after the hosts of Most Extreme Elimination Challenge).

Scan of my handwritten notes from Geek Girl Dinner Ottawa, page 3

I used the other coupon to get something I’d been meaning to buy for a while: a scanner. Not a cheap one integrated into one of those all-in-one printer/scanner/copier/fax machines chimeras, but an honest-to-goodness, dedicated flatbed scanner. I picked out the Epson Perfection 4490 Photo scanner. Unlike the monitor, the scanner languished unused, with its moving parts still immobilized in its packing material, until a month ago.

My plan was to return to cartooning, something I’d done for just about every student paper during my days in high school and Crazy Go Nuts University. I wasn’t going to go as far as posting webcomics, but perhaps I’d use comics as part of my blog entries. I fancied myself a less surreal, more saucy version of why the lucky stiff.

Scan of my handwritten notes from Geek Girl Dinner Ottawa, page 4

Like much of 2010, that plan didn’t quite work out. All that was prologue for 2011, which has been about throwing away old plans for new ones. Inspired by a brush with death and a couple of strange events in February that I like to call “The Battles in Seattle” (one personal, one professional, both unbloggable but tellable over drinks), I left  a comfortable and lucrative job at home for a startup and relocated, if only temporarily, to a town where I know only a few people and even less about where anything is.

So in that spirit of change, when the time came to pack my stuff for the move, I took the scanner with me, along with some sketchpads that had been lying fallow even longer than the scanner. I removed the last of the packing materials and hooked it up this evening. There was no better candidate item to scan than my Geek Girl Dinner Ottawa notes in my Moleskine.

Scan of my handwritten notes from Geek Girl Dinner Ottawa, page 5

So expect more scans of my handwritten notes, along with hand-drawn illustrations and comics in my blog posts. I hope you find them interesting.

This article also appears in The Adventures of Accordion Guy in the 21st Century.


Notes from Hacks/Hackers Ottawa, May 12, 2011


The term “hack” used to denote an unprincipled, untalented news reporter, but journalists have since reclaimed the word use it it proudly now. It’s still used in the publishing business to refer to a journeyman take-on-any-topic type of writer, as opposed to one who specializes in a given area.

The term “hacker”– at least within tech circles – describes a computer programming enthusiast who loves having a clear and complete understanding of the systems s/he works on and enjoys creating clever programs. The layperson’s use of the word “hacker” is more often than not used to denote people who break into computer systems – the preferred term for this sort of person is “cracker”.

While both fields appear to be quite different, there’s much that binds them together these days. Both now work online and both deal with the interpretation, processing and dissemination of information, each in its own way. We even have people who live in both worlds at the same time:

  • Adrian Holovaty: Journalist and programmer, he created Django while working at the Lawrence Journal-World and one of the first Google Maps mashups, (which became EveryBlock), which plotted Chicago Police data of crime locations on a map.
  • Jacqueline Cox: Programmer/journalist at the New York Times, she develops data-driven apps for the Times, such as the database of family members for the Haiti disaster.
  • Brian Boyer: Self-describe “hacker journalist”, he’s the editor of news applications at the Chicago Tribune


hacks hackers ottawaWith such an overlap, it was high time that hacks and hackers got together to talk about their respective fields, share ideas and start collaborations. That’s how the Hacks/Hackers meetups got started and spread far and wide. Hacks/Hackers Ottawa had its first meetup at the James Street Pub last night, and I was fortunate enough to catch it, thanks to a timely invite from my fellow Shopifolk Edward Ocampo-Gooding, Ottawa’s open data champion.

I took notes during both presentations and present them below. As always, any inaccuracies should be pointed out to me, either via email or in the comments. Feel free to copy the notes and accompanying photos and use them as you see fit!

Glen McGregor, Ottawa Citizen


  • We hacks call it “computer-assisted journalism”, which is a bit of a misnomer
  • It’s more accurate to call it “data-assisted journalism”
  • For us, the really useful old-school sources of data are:
    • Databases
    • Spreadsheets
    • Email
    • Maps
  • The new-school sources of data, which we’re still getting used to, are:
    • Tweets
    • Geotagged images
    • Foursquare
    • Facebook
    • and really, anything online


  • After the Dawson College shooting, I asked the RCMP how many of the type of guns used in that incident were registered in Canada.
  • They couldn’t – or wouldn’t – provide me with that information, so I did made a $5 access to information request for that info in the gun registry (we did spend a billion dollars on it, after all)
  • One of the interesting things I noticed was that after Dawson College, there was a spike in registrations of one of the guns used in the shooting: the Beretta Cx4 Storm
  • My original conclusion was that it was being purchased by “copycats” – people who wanted to repeat the incident elsewhere, or at least found some inspiration in the shooting
  • However, after talking to gun owners and enthusiasts, I found that those Berettas were being bought up for fear that they would be taken off the shelves after the shooting
  • The lesson here is that even though you’ve got the data, you still can’t jump to conclusions
  • Why use data?
  • You no longer have to solely rely on statements made by others, attribute a statement to them and take it as fact
  • When you assemble the data and analyze it, you become the authority and you don’t have to attribute statements to anyone else
  • In getting the data and analyzing it, you’ll find that it uncovers stories that even the stories’ subjects don’t know!
  • An example: we were wondering which Ottawa parking patrol officer issued the most tickets?
    • When we asked the city, they didn’t know – they never bothered to look at the data in that way
    • More on this later
  • Another interesting question that arose from looking at Ottawa parking data: where is the most-ticketed parking meter in the city?
    • It’s on Lisgar Street, one block west of Elgin
    • Why? It’s near City Hall, the Courthouse, a lot of nearby doctor’s and lawyer’s offices, and…oh yes, a “rub ‘n’ tug”


  • Looking at the data:
    • Confirms the obvious
      • For example, most parking tickets in Ottawa are issued in the Market and downtown. That’s what you would expect
    • But it also reveals the unexpected
      • For example, the third most-ticketed street is Linda Lane. Never heard of it? Neither had I
      • It’s across the street from the hospital
      • Finding this out led to a larger story about hospital visitors being targeted for parking tickets
      • Interviewed a woman who got a parking ticket because she went to the hospital for some reaction to food and had parked outside. She fell into a coma for a few days, but recovered. She had little money and was going to celebrate her recovery with a dinner but couldn’t because the money had to go to a parking ticket she’d received while in the hospital.
  • You get interesting results with mash-ups (the combination of two different data sources to get new revelations – in the old days, this would’ve been called “cross-referencing”)
    • One mash-up combined locations of lottery ticket vendors with geographical income data to reveal that poorer neighbourhoods have more people who sell lottery tickets
    • An analysis of school suspension data in Florida’s Emerald Coast area showed that black students were suspended twice as often as whites
      • Often, this sort of discovery is a jumping-off point for a story
  • Although data is very useful, most people can’t connect to it if you simply present it to them
  • People, and thus reporters, want a “face” to the story
    • Example: when researching New York City elevator inspection data, a journalist wanted to find the elevator that failed the most inspections
    • Found that elevator, but used a “face”: told the story of a person who lived in the building where that failing elevator was located; this person was handicapped and effectively trapped at home whenever the elevator was out of order


  • People take more interest if the story has some kind of connection to them
    • In the story Hosed at the Pump, we looked at gasoline station pump inspection data
    • Found that 75% of the inaccuracies were in favour of the retailer
    • This sort of thing is a “water cooler story” – the kind we people people will talk about at the ofice, around the water cooler (or wherever people in offices gather on break)
  • Another water cooler story based on data: “Flushed with Olympic Pride” water usage during the final hockey game at the Olympics
    • Showed spikes between periods and after overtime
    • “I’ve written stories on topics like abortion and gun control, but no story I’ve done has received more negative comments than this one.”
  • Another interesting data-driven story: frequency of tweets on May 1, 2011, the day before the Canadian election
  • One thing I like about data is that it shows that underneath it all, we’re all alike
  • A great example of data-driven journalism: Joshua Benton’s and Holly Hacker’s (yes, that’s her real name) Faking the Grade
    • It was analysis of the scores from a standardized school test called TAKS, the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills
    • She got the test returns for every student in Texas and subjected them to statistical analysis
    • Found cases where the patterns in which students gave answers to this multiple-choice exam were such that they could only be the result of cheating (statistically unlikely results)
    • A Canadian angle: the analysis was done with the help of George Wesolowsky, a math professor from McMaster
  • Yet another example: A Politician Looking for Funds? Here are Two Useful Addresses
    • Article in the New York Times that revealed, with the help of campaign contribution data, which addresses were associated with the most donations to presidential campaigns
    • These addresses are:
  • Crime data is also a good source of stories
    • “We like local stories…and [crime] scares people.”
    • Showed a mash-up of Google Maps and car theft data in and around Ottawa: most car thefts took place around a private golf and country club
      • That’s where the expensive cars are
    • The bike theft hot zones in the Ottawa area are:
      • Carleton
      • Downtown
      • Lincoln Field
      • Fisher / Meadowlands
  • Now about that story of the Ottawa cop who handed out the most parking tickets
  • He’s John Raine (he’s retired now), and in 7 years, he handed out 72,000 parking tickets
  • That’s 50% more than anyone else on the force
  • He didn’t want to be interviewed, but by looking at the data, we could find out when and where he typically worked, so I followed him every lunch hour for a while
  • Every ticket he issued was legit
    • He was just very efficient: he had a system by which he’d walk down a block, identify the violators and then hand out tickets
    • He issued them so quickly – “He’s a parking savant!”
  • To get a picture of him, we had to send out one of our surveillance photographers
  • The City had no idea he was their top guy
  • Looking at a table of data, you’ll find that each column is a story, or at least a potential story
  • Hackers know that there are lots of ways to present data; hacks don’t know that
  • For an example of how to present data well and in a way that’s easy to get, see Politifact and their “Truth-o-Meter”
  • Data sometimes comes in forms that don’t look like data tables
    • Example: The Slate article Not Sarah Palin’s Friends
      • They scraped her Facebook page every five minutes
      • Took note of changes, particularly negative comments that got deleted
    • This could be done for Canadian politicians as well: half the MPs have Twitter accounts
  • Looking for an idea? Try getting your hands on city overpass records
  • When it comes to city data, you’ll find it’s mostly maps
    • Why? Because they’re non-controversial
    • There’s no performance data on a map – most other types data can reveal that someone’s not doing their job, or doing it poorly or doing it wrong
  • Lots of municipal activity ends up creating some kind of electronic record of that activity having happened
    • Any kind of official inspection creates an electronic record
    • Any 311 call creates an electronic record
    • Any official disciplinary report creates an electronic record
    • Any application for a licence or any other kind of official registration creates an electronic record
  • You have to get past the notion that open data is the data that governments give us to use
    • Much of this “open data” is there, but they’re not happy to share it
    • Often, they’ll cite the mosaic effect as an excuse for not making data available: where anonymized data, when combined with other data, can be used to de-anonymize it
  • Keep an eye on the terms of use for open data databases – they seem to change quite often
  • The Canadian federal government maintains a licence on its data – “That is crap”
  • In Canada, privacy is practically a religion
    • In the US, there’s lots of data on sex offenders – who they are, where they live, and so on
    • In Canada, little of that data is available
  • Where to get data:
    • Ask for it
    • Download it
    • Scrape it
    • Build from documents
    • FOI or ATIP
  • Hacks are good at:
    • Discerning news from info
    • Interviewing subjects
    • Providing context
    • Writing
    • Offering a big platform
  • Hackers are good at:
    • Obtaining data
    • Processing it
    • Analyzing it
    • Building better platforms to present it
  • Resources:

Alice Funke,


  • I used to work on Parliament Hill, but then I took my database programming hobby up a notch and retrained
  • A lot of data exists in flat files, and that’s not the way big data is stored
  • A lot of data is used for decision support:
    • Collect the data
    • Ask questions
    • In our case, the decision support is for political strategy
  • Election data is used for all sorts of things that people don’t think about, including:
    • reapportioning seats
    • redrawing ridings
  • There’s a lot of data downloadable from Elections Canada
    • The problem is that it’s not formatted properly
    • No unique ID code for each riding appears in the data tables they make available
    • There exists a five-character fedcode that’s supposed to uniquely identify any given riding
    • Without this fedcode, it’s much harder to make a consistent database, and a lot of additional manual work is required to massage the data
      • Without things like unique IDs – so basic to databases – you’d interpret “Peter Mackay” and “Peter G. Mackay” as two different candidates
    • So the process of working with Elections Canada’s data is to get the data, then massage it, then put it into a proper relational database
  • The data also exists at different levels. For the election, there’s
    • The “Who won the seat?” level
    • The “How many votes did each candidate get?” level
    • The “How many votes did each candidate get for each riding?” level


  • “There’s a special kind of hell for Elections Canada because they use .NET for their site, which gives you this giant ViewState hidden variable”
  • was never made for the media, at least not originally
    • It was for maybe 15 geeky people like me, and it grew from there
  • Interesting fact: Which riding walks or bikes to work the most? It’s not who you’d think:

This article also appears in The Adventures of Accordion Guy in the 21st Century.


Notes from Last Night’s Ottawa Girl Geek Dinner (May 11, 2011)

Geek girl dinner ottawa

The Ottawa chapter of Geek Girl Dinners took place last night at Vittoria Trattoria in ByWard Market. Although I am not a geek girl, I was present as the representative of Shopify, who sponsored the event with some prizes (the winners of the raffle took home a much-coveted Shopify T-shirt and six months’ worth of free online store) and to get in touch with Ottawa’s women techies and designers. There were about 50 people present, filling the Vittoria Trattoria’s upstairs room.

The Geek Girl Dinners are get-togethers of women in business, tech and design over dinner, where they can get to meet their peers, share ideas and hear presentations delivered by women with some particular expertise on a given topic. They usually have a theme, and last night’s was entrepreneurship. Here’s their description of the theme:

Have you ever thought, “Why work for somebody else when I can work for myself?”

Easier said than done, but anything’s possible! From flowers to clothing, to writing and painting, entrepreneurship opens the doors to anyone with a dream and a passion.

On Wednesday May 11th, please join us for an interactive discussion about the entrepreneurial journey of three Ottawa women who have turned their business dreams into realities.

If you’re a woman in the Ottawa area with geeky tendencies and you’re looking to meet others like you, have a nice meal and see some interesting presentations, you should keep an eye on the Geek Girl Dinners Ottawa site, watch for their hashtag on Twitter (#ggdottawa) and come out to one of their events!

My thanks to the organizers, Kelly Rusk, Veronica Giggey, Melany Gallant and Samantha Hartley for putting on a great event!

My Notes

I took notes and photos during last night’s presentations and present them below. If there are any inaccuracies, they’re mine; I was furiously scribbling them into a Moleskine as they were delivered. Free free to copy them and use them however you wish!

Vivian Cheng, Blend Creations

Screenshot of the Blend Creations site

Vivian’s Bio

Vivian Cheng is an industrial designer and one-half of the creative force behind Blend Creations. She and her husband, Eric Jean-Louis (a graphic designer) combine their divergent design approaches to create a contemporary jewelry line that is clean and modern in aesthetic, yet also blends their respective cultures in East meeting West.

Vivian Cheng makes her presentation

Presentation Notes

  • Trained as an industrial designer
  • "Didn’t want a ‘real’ job" after graduation
  • Started company in September 2005 with her husband, Eric
  • It was a bare-bones site, especially by today’s standards, hand-coded with PayPal buttons and a very basic shopping cart
  • She sells her jewellery almost exclusively online
  • Online store tips:
    • Look at other online stores and learn from them
    • Find out who your competition is
    • Take a look at Etsy and find out whether it’s for you, and why (or why not)
    • Etsy started after Blend Creations, and they decided not to go with it because they didn’t want to be a "stall" in a sea of thousands of stores; they wanted to be their own store
  • Their jewellery is a blend of modern and traditional, industrial and organic — steel with mahjong tiles, bamboo or coral
  • The jewellery is handmade, by them
  • They bootstrapped the business with less that $5000
  • The mandate:
    • Eric, then a full-time graphic designer, would continue at his job and pitch in
    • If the business went well, they’d continue on this path
    • If it didn’t, she’s have to get that ‘real’ job
  • If 2006, they were contacted by Real Simple magazine to have their jewellery featured on a full page
  • Had they tried to take out a full page ad in Real Simple, it would’ve cost about $60K
  • Real Simple found out about them via a design blog
  • To be featured on the page, they had to offer a special deal on a necklace to Real Simple readers
  • Real Simple asked "Can you handle 1,000 orders?"; the only answer was "Yes!"
    • (She was 7 months pregnant at the time)
  • The money resulting from the Real Simple deal allowed them to buy better equipment: a CNC router [here’s a link one that routs wood] and a laser cutter
    • "We could cut circles now!"
  • They continued with magazine ads
    • Good, but during a recession, they’re not as effective
    • Magazine ads have a 4-month lead time
    • Problematic in 2008, during the econopocalypse
    • Generated only a handful of sales, what with the belt-tightening
  • During the economic crisis of ’08, the US was hit hard, and 98% of their customers were American
  • They had to refocus and hit more local markets
  • They couldn’t just do print ads
  • Their first foray into social media was Facebook
    • Their first activity on Facebook: a giveaway
    • She tries to say something on Facebook every day
  • They have a monthly give-away on their blog
    • Facebook’s rules make it difficult to do a monthly giveaway on their site
  • She initially didn’t "get" Twitter (they’re @blendcreations)
    • Discovered that Twitter is all about the interactions
    • She even designed jewellery specifically for their Twitter followers (such as one shaped like an @ sign; jewellery with your Twitter handle on it)
    • Her husband, Eric, doesn’t get the appeal of "The Twitters"
  • The thing about any design is that people either love it or hate it
    • The important thing is to get people talking about it, love or hate
    • If you offer a service, make it a service so good that people talk about it
    • If you offer a product, keep innovating with it
  • "With social media, you have to do something, even if it’s small"
    • "Blogs are the new magazines"
    • They’re the source of many customers
  • Their customer breakdown by region:
    • 60% US
    • 40% Canada and the rest of the world (mostly Canada)
  • Why did I go into jewellery?
    • "I’m an industrial designer, we’re trained to make things"
    • Went with jewellery because of higher perceived value
    • That can be a problem in hard times
  • She and her husband’s design backgrounds let them "do it all":
    • Product design
    • Product photos
    • Ads
    • Site design

Vivian Cheng makes her presentation

Hana Abaza, Wedding Republic

Screenshot of Wedding Republic site

Hana’s Bio

Hana Abaza is the co-founder and CEO of Wedding Republic, an Ottawa based start up allowing couples to set up an online, cash, wedding registry in a way that works for them and their guests. With an incredibly diverse background, Hana has pulled together her broad skill set in order to navigate the start up world. When she’s not in front of her laptop with armed with a large cup of coffee, she can usually be found teaching a kickboxing class. Self described as slightly ‘type a’ with a dose of ADD, although some say it’s just an unrelenting curiosity.

Hanna Abaza makes her presentation

Presentation Notes

  • Wedding Republic is a cash gift registry for people getting married
  • A couple getting married may want stuff, but sometimes, they’d much rather have the cash
  • The idea came to her and her business partner in 2008 while they were watching the Superbowl
    • James (her business partner) has a sister who was getting married
    • Always a stressful situation
    • Online registries for gifts were still few and far between
    • There was no way to register online to give a cash gift
    • The original idea was for a big general wedding registry; it got refined over time
  • Questions you need to ask when starting an entrepreneurial project:
    • Who is your target market? Who will use your product?
    • Does your product fulfill a need? Or a want?
    • What are the current alternatives to your product exist? What are the options?
      • What are the pain points for these alternatives and options
  • They talked to all sorts of people: couples, couples getting married, wedding guests to get more info
  • They hired a developer and were able to take advantage of government programs to help fund the project
  • Advice:
    • Surround yourself with the right people; people who are smarter than you are
    • You can’t do it on your own; make sure you have a support system
  • Wedding Republic went beta in February 2010
  • It was a stressful time
    • Once you’ve opened to the public, you get feedback, opinions, suggestions, complaints about issues
    • But opening to the public gives you a customer validation process
  • You have to listen to your customers, but:
    • You have to know what to ignore
    • You have to know what to take to heart
    • Focus on what you’re good at, and don’t get derailed by customer feedback
  • They were contacted by Saatchi and Saatchi
    • Someone at Saatchi and Saatchi saw their site
    • They were intrigued by the idea of Wedding Republic and invited them for a meeting in their Toronto office
    • They offered to do a rebrand
    • On big companies working with small companies:
      • They may be bigger than you, but once you’re working together, you’re on par
      • Meet as equals. Don’t bed over backwards just to please them
  • There’s a lot of back-and-forth between Saatchi and Saatchi and the developers; she "translates" between the two
  • Relaunched in January 2011
  • More advice:
    • Keep yourself in check (having a business partner will help)
    • Execute! Many people don’t think they can do something, so they don’t try.
  • One challenge with this business: few (if any) repeat customers
    • Considering expanding the concept to baby registries
  • How they make money:
    • The couple getting married doesn’t pay anything
    • The guests pay a transaction fee
    • That’s not bad, considering the 7% markup for registries at The Bay
    • People pay for services that save effort: "I’d gladly pay $5 to not leave my couch"
  • Possibility of expanding outside North America:
    • Looking at it, but wedding customs vary all over the world
    • For example, in China, cash gifts come in red envelopes. Can’t do that with a cash registry.

Hanna Abaza makes her presentation

Amy Yee, Eventbots

Screenshot of the Eventbots site

Amy’s Bio

Amy Yee is an entrepreneur and strategy consultant specializing in technology, engagement and collaboration at start-up and high growth companies. Among a wide variety of projects, Amy is currently the CEO at the second company she has co-founded: EventBots – an award-winning technology solution for public engagement. Amy has a Bachelor’s of Electrical Engineering from Carleton University.

Amy Yee makes her presentation

  • Eventbots are devices that can record video or photo messages at events
  • [Showed video of people who recorded messages at the Mesh conference]
  • Think of it as being similar to the "Speakers Corner" at CityTV in Toronto
  • How they got started:
    • They had friends who were getting married
    • Had heard of some Toronto-based service where they set up devices where people could record messages
    • Her husband was an industrial designer: "I could build that"
    • He built the machine, she turned it into a business
  • The current, sleeker version is version 2
  • The first version was bulkier and made of wood
  • The device has to fit into their car, a Mini Cooper
  • They’ve taken the eventbot to events in Ottawa, Toronto and Montreal
    • They can only serve areas within a reasonable drive of Ottawa
  • The sales process is online
  • Even if an eventbot gets only 5 video recordings at an event, there’s still always one that stands out as head and shoulders abover the others
  • Their current eventbot was so slick that a Japanese ambassador insisted that the device was from Japan
  • People call them "iPodzillas"
  • Advice:
    • Don’t fear change; change is a competitive advantage
    • Don’t worry if you have to modify your idea
    • Bet on the team, not the idea
    • Community support is important!

Amy Yee making her presentation

This article also appears in The Adventures of Accordion Guy in the 21st Century.


Win a Gary Vaynerchuk Power Session!

gary vaynerchukIf you’re a Shopify store owner, you’ve got until midnight tonight (12:00 a.m. Eastern on Thursday, May 12th, 2011) to win a 45-minute Skype power session with none other than our homeboy Gary Vaynerchuk, author of Crush It! and The Thank You Economy.

All you have to do is visit this article in the Shopify Blog and post a comment explaining the most important lesson you learned while building your business. It could be a simple concrete tip or general guidance – just share your knowledge and you’ve got a chance at winning a one-on-one conversation with “Gary V.”, one of the most successful online entrepreneurs we know! And hey, he’s a fun guy to listen to.

Here are the prizes:

  • The Grand Prize: A 45 minute Skype call with Gary Vaynerchuk. The call will be recorded and we will post an edited version to the Build-A-Business blog. We’ll edit out any personal or proprietary info so we don’t give away your business plans, but Gary likes salty language so much that bleeping out the cussing is going to damn near impossible.
  • Two Runner-Up Prizes: The two runners up will get a Shopify Bag O’ Stuff (not unlike the Bag O’ Stuff I got on my first day on the job) containing:

You’ve got until midnight, so visit our article and make your comment!


Erika Moen’s Comics and Shopify

We Shopifolks like to travel far and wide. While I was off in Minneapolis for MinneBar, my developer advocate teammate David Underwood was in Toronto attending TCAF, the Toronto Comic Arts Festival. While there, he met Erika Moen, the comic artist behind the autobiographical DAR ("A Super Girly Top Secret Comic Diary")…


and her current comic, Bucko, a delightfully twisted murder mystery:


When David told her that he worked at Shopify (in fact, he and I started on the same day), she told us that she loved us. And not just by saying so, but also with an autographed comic book, which is now sitting in the Shopifort:

Autographed copy of Erika Moen's

Why does Erika love Shopify? Because she has a Shopify store! She sells her comic books, prints, posters and other art on a store she built with Shopify:

Screenshot of Erika Moen's Shopify store

Go check out Erika’s site, read her comics and buy her stuff! And if you’ve got your own comics (or anything else) that you want to sell online, sell them with Shopify!

This article also appears in The Adventures of Accordion Guy in the 21st Century.


Shopify Perquisites

I don’t think the word perquisite gets used enough. You probably know the shortened form of the word: “perk”, as in bonus, privilege, advantage or “extra”. Here are the perquisites that come with a job at Shopify:

Shopify gear 1

Sweet gear! Working at Shopify means a return to the Mac and startup worlds with the following equipment, which is standard issue for all new employees:

  • 15″ MacBook Pro. The current spec for this machine is 2.2 GHz quad-core i7 processor, 4 GB RAM, 1GB VRAM, 750 GB hard drive. And at last, the trackpad knows what a right-click is!
  • 27″ LED Cinema Display. Gorgeous. Just gorgeous.
  • Apple Wireless Keyboard. Compact, connects via Bluetooth.
  • Apple Magic Mouse. The first Apple mouse I’ve liked in a really long time. Feels nice, knows the difference between a left- and right-click, 4-way touch sensitive scrolling that feels much better than Microsoft’s Arc Touch mouse. (I love the Arc Mouse, but don’t like the Arc Touch.)
  • Herman Miller Aeron Chair. Yes, it’s the classic symbol of the dot-com bubble, but it’s a very, very comfortable chair. The only thing that loves your butt more is that guy from Deliverance.
  • The bag o’ stuff. I’ll cover what’s in it below.

Shopify gear 2

What’s in the bag o’ stuff? Extra goodies to make you feel welcome:

  • Shopify hoodie. Light grey with the Shopify logo on the left. Very warm and fuzzy on the inside.
  • T-shirts. One light grey sporting a grey monochrome Shopify logo, one dark grey with the green Shopify logo. Both are American Apparel, which means they’re extra-soft.
  • Moleskine notebook. Because sometimes ink and paper is the best way to take something down.
  • Neat pen.Sacchi ballpoint pen, to be precise.
  • Godiva chocolates. It’s a nice touch.
  • $50 Apple Store gift card. An even nicer touch. The Apple Store in Ottawa is in the Rideau Centre, a short walk away from the office.
  • $100 gift card for Play and Beckta restaurants. Still even nicer. Both are great restaurants — Harley took me out to Play for lunch on my first day. Now to find someone to take out to dinner.
  • The Shopify Handbook (not pictured), which I’ll cover in the next blog entry.

All in all, very, very nice.

This article also appears in The Adventures of Accordion Guy in the 21st Century.


Scenes from MinneBar 2011

Minnebar logo

Note: This is a looong article — you might want to get a beverage!

Last Saturday, North America’s largest BarCamp ever took place in Minneapolis: the 6th editon of MinneBar. MinneBar is organized by Minne*, a group of Minnesota-based techies and designers who’ve come together to hold events and build a community. Their mission is to ensure that Minnesota continues to be a great place to have a tech- and/or design-based business.

And the BarCamp Tour is here to help them.

The 2011 BarCamp Tour

Barcamp tour logo

MinneBar is the second city on the 2011 BarCamp Tour, a North America-spanning tour where five entrepreneur-focused startups — Batchblue, Grasshopper, MailChimp, Shopify and Wufoo — travel far and wide to sponsor BarCamps. As our site says, we aren’t your typical sponsors; we don’t simply just write a cheque and paste our logos on the walls: we dive in and help out. Sure, we provide funding, but in order to make the event even better, we help out in all sorts of ways, from leading panel discussions to actively participating in sessions to helping move boxes and haul stuff around and even providing accordion backup for the band at the pre-party! We’re also there to meet people: developers, designers and business types in various cities’ entrepreneur communities.

Barcamp tour sponsors

As Shopify’s representative on the tour (all of us are in the picture above), I’ve been to BarCamp Boston (see my earlier writeup for that city) and now, MinneBar. Our next cities on the BarCamp Tour are Portland, Oregon (May 20 – 21) and Seattle (June 25 – 26). There are more coming up after that, and the cities we’ll be visiting next will be determined by you! As we say on the BarCamp Tour site:

We can help your city’s BarCamp. We encourage you to apply to be a part of the BarCamp Tour. Sell us on why your entrepreneurial community is bursting at the seams and we’ll get back to you. If selected, we help you as the BarCamp organizer with some of your biggest pain points, like funding and promotion. We want to help you take your BarCamp to the next level. Oh… did we mention we throw really amazing after parties?

Go ahead, apply! We’d love to come to your city and help make your BarCamp awesome.

Minnebar Pre-Party

The pre-party took place on Friday night at Old Arizona and featured free local draft and the Como Avenue Jug Band, who invited me to join them on accordion. I had my hands full either playing or chatting, so these were the only photos I managed to get:

Jug band 1

Jug band 2

Jug band 3

Minnebar Begins

I was stunned when I heard that 1,200 people had registered for Minnebar. Luckily, there’s a venue in the Minneapolis area that’s capable of handling that many people, when gathered en masse or when they break off into different sessions: the corporate headquarters of geeky mega-retailer Best Buy, located in Richfield.

Alas, it’s a place where you can’t pack heat:

Best buy bans gun in these premises

It takes a good while to get over 1,000 people into a place, confirm they’re registered and give them their “Hello, my name is…” sticker, unconference schedule and T-shirt:

00 line

In spite of the large number of people they had to process on the way in, the volunteer staff did so cheerfully, and the intake went rather smoothly.

01 line

It’s not a tech event without a T-shirt, and MinneBar was most certainly a tech event. The “Early 1960s Pop” look of the design might’ve been something that Don Draper would’ve approved, and it’s got a certain hipster appeal:

04 barcamp t shirt design

A quick point of information: there is no BarCamp Tour bus, in spite of what the graphics on our site, stickers and the sign below say:

02 barcamp sign

It’s a symbolic bus; we’re not living together on a bus travelling from BarCamp to BarCamp, MTV reality-show style, amusing as that might be (if it ever becomes the case, I want to be our answer to “The Situation“). Between BarCamps, we’re back in our respective cities working away at our jobs.

Hello, Minnesota!

Pictured below are Rob Stephens, CTO of Best Buy (and creator of Geek Squad), and Luke Francl, one of the three people who organized MinneBar. Rob deserves our thanks for opening up Best Buy’s HQ on a Saturday to over a thousand random nerds.

03 rob stephens and luke francl

With the lion’s share of the attendees registered, it was time to get the conference rolling with a quick set of opening announcements. They were made by the organizers: Luke, Ben Edwards and Adrienne Pierce:

Adrienne ben luke

[Creative Commons photo by Jamie Thingelstad]

Everyone gathered for the opening session at Sandy’s Place, the name of the dining hall at Best Buy HQ. Hanging above the tables are a number of postcards in the “Greetings from” style showing the names of various cities, including Original Accordion City:

05 greetings from toronto sign

Adrienne, Ben and Luke were kind enough to thank all the sponsors, both in their opening remarks as well as on the big screen behind them:

06 barcamp tour on big screen

The Sessions

MinneBar deviated from the standard BarCamp formula: all sessions were determined in advance, with pre-specified speakers and topics. This arrangement is closer in spirit to a more standard conference, but the speakers either left plenty of room in their presentations for dialogue or made their sessions more like workshops or open discussions, allowing for more back-and-forth exchanges. People were also free to claim any unused space and start their own sessions, although I didn’t see any central schedule board where people could find out where and when such sessions were taking place.

Since MinneBar took place in a single day and the process of suggesting, vetting and scheduling sessions in a unconference takes the better part of the morning, the decision to use a more standard conference format probably helped buy more time for sessions. The number of people involved may also have been a factor. Still, it would’ve been nice to have some slots open for more unconference-style ad hoc sessions, and Luke said that he’d like to see that at next year’s event.

I spent my time bouncing between sessions in order to get photos as well as a better feel for what this particular city’s BarCamps were like.

One of the first sessions of the day was Six Reasons to Open an “Offline” Store (Especially if You Sell Online) and How to Do It Right, led by Daniel Kent:

07 offline store session

Here are my notes from that session:

  1. Perceived Risk
    • Landlords are giving lots of money to prospective tenants to open physical stores
    • And there’s no giving up of ownership to raise funds
    • This doesn’t happen online — getting money always means handing over some ownership
  2. Perceived Barrier to Entry
    • The perception is that it’s easy for anyone to set up a site
    • It seems to be tougher to set up a physical store
  3. Competition Management
    • You know who your competition is
  4. Supply Costs
    • The more product you move, the lower your costs and the higher your margin
    • The Nerdery: online, but they have a robust physical location
      • Lets them identify talented people (lower cost and increase results from recruiting)
    • Refactor: Recruiting and B2B opportunities
  5. Different Type of Customer Feedback
    • With a site, you can do analytics (doesn’t capture everything) and surveys (low return rate, doesn’t capture everything)
    • Offline offers a glimpse into customer reactions that you can’t get online
  6. Opportunity for Margin
    • When I want something online, I don’t care about how pretty the site is; I care only about price
    • Offline, it’s not all about price: ambiance, convenient location, condition of goods, harder to leave
  • How do you build a relationship with your customers?
    • If it’s just tube socks, I’ll go to Amazon and go for price
    • If it’s my tea shop, I can do more
  • Steepr doesn’t even have a site up yet, but they’ve got 40 people signed up
    • Thanks to their Mall of America store
    • Potential for using the online store as a way to find locations to own physical stores
  • Their model: the place where people want to go
    • They have DJs on Friday and Saturday nights
    • The 16 – 24 crowd loves to hang out there
  • Brick and mortar vs online
    • Does having an online presence affect your banking deal?
      • Banks see that the site hasn’t made money yet (in progress), cut different deals

The next session I caught was Startup Tools, a review and discussion of software tools that are both free (or relatively cheap) and indispensable to startups, led by Colin Tuggle:

08 free apps session

The third session I caught was a panel discussion featuring some of my fellow BarCamp Tour bus-mates (and remember, it’s a symbolic bus) — Amy Ellis, Stephanie Bullis and Michelle Riggle-Ransom, talking about brands in BrandCamp @ BarCamp: Bootstrapping Your Brand

09 branding session

My notes from this session:

  • Michelle:
    • I wanted to start a family-friendly work/life balance company
    • Brand attributes: authentic, transparent, helpful, engaged
  • Stephanie:
    • There’s no point to stating that trust and reliability are your core values: that should already be built in!
    • These are our core values:
      • Go above and beyond
      • Always be entrepreneurial
      • Radically passionate
      • Your team
  • Amy:
    • In the beginning: our brand was based around our mascot, “Freddy von Chimpenheiser” [I had no idea the MailChimp mascot had a name! — Joey]
    • Challenge with mascot — many “professional” companies don’t like cute mascots
      • Created “Party Pooper Mode”, which turns off the mascot for humour-impaired corporations
  • Stephanie:
    • Original name of the company was Vmail
    • Had to spell it out; everyone thought we were saying “female”
    • The “Got Vmail?” slogan was misheard as “Got female?” — sounded like an escort service
    • Changed to Grasshopper in 2009
    • Sent chocolate-covered Grasshoppers to top 500 influencers, from Chris Brogan to P. Diddy [Joey’s note to Stephanie: He’s called Diddy Dirty Money now.]
  • Michelle:
    • Thinking up a name for the company:
      • BatchBlue comes from batch processing
      • From Rhode Island – nice tech community – blue is the ocean
      • Similar names caused confusion: BatchBook is the product, BatchBlue is the company
      • Rolling out a new product without the word “Batch” in it
  • Amy:
    • Strongly recommend open API; it’s MailChimp’s strength
    • They have no outgoing sales department
    • Instead, they increase customer base by integrating well with other applications
    • Instead of stacking your sales team, build a great API (85% of app functionality is available via their API)!
  • Michelle:
    • Get all the names: not just the URLs, but also misspelled URLs, Twitter handles, etc.
  • Stephanie:
    • Even if your idea is in its infancy, get those names before someone else does
  • Amy:
    • Got malechimp, mailchimpsucks, etc.
  • Stephanie:
    • To track your brand, you should set up Google alerts
    • Not just for your name, but also misspellings!
  • Q: Abstract branding vs. clear naming?
    • Abstract does not commit you to a market
    • “Salesforce? You shouldn’t have to force someone into a sale.”
    • Me: “Apple is not about fruit, Microsoft is not about erectile dysfunction”
    • Guy: GISrangers: Not many people know what GIS is, and they end up asking “What’s a jizz-ranger?”
  • Amy:
    • You need a good product to back up your brand
    • A brand is more of a feeling…and a hug
  • Q: Core Values
    • Are you going to have to start worrying about who your customers are? Say, the Klan?
    • Amy: Another reason we don’t have a sales team
      • Email between members of the KKK — okay, that’s free speech
      • Spamming or propagation of hate speech — out
  • Q: Casual Brands
    • Amy: Our brand worked for the sort of customers we were seeking when we we starting out
      • Our tech was better for small companies, not suited for large ones
      • That’s changed
      • If our company culture doesn’t match what you want, it happens — we’re not the best solution for everyone
      • Founders: consultant — hated being reliant on an 80% client and having to compromise their values
  • Q: Iterating – easy with tech, harder with a brand
    • Stephanie: Sleeker logo – not different
      • Based on what they believe their customers will respond to
      • Once you get a core base, you can play with the look and feel
    • Michelle
      • When you make a change, everybody freaks out, then they forget about it
      • Don’t be afraid to evolve your brand
      • Amy: It’s an opportunity
      • Getting customer buy-in helps — let them have sneak peeks
      • Have brand evangelists!
      • Happy customers are our best sales force
      • Putting in a customer rewards program
      • Handwritten thank-yous, gifts [thank you economy]
      • Make them feel that their input is valuable
  • Q: Tactic to make yourself snowball?
    • Michelle: Buy coffee for your local chamber of commerce
      • Donate time or free product
      • Take advantage of the smaller networking opportunities
    • Stephanie: Traditional marketing was about reaching out to many to reach one; now you reach out to one to reach many
      • Take them out for coffee
      • Go out on Twitter: “There’s people out there, and they want to give their opinion”
      • You never know where that one conversation will lead
    • Amy: Like building the biggest BarCamp, it’s a slow and steady process
      • It takes time and legwork, don’t get discouraged
      • Ben would buy customers coffee
      • Provide value! To customers, to the community
      • You can’t hop on Twitter and get thousands of followers
      • Work on your product
  • Q: Biggest mistakes?
    • Michelle: The name thing
      • Reined in fights with competitors on Twitter
    • Stephanie: Chargify – pricing fiasco with freemium model change: got bad press
      • Founder replied with “We messed up”
      • Very human about it, explained decision: “No way to be profitable using our current model”
      • Got better customers in the end; ditched the free riders
      • Lesson learned: don’t do what we did
    • Amy: Launched SocialPro last year
      • Did not forsee WSJ article on Facebook exposing data (also visible via SocialPro)
      • Be human – don’t be defensive, don’t put up a wall
      • People like it when you fess up to a mistake
  • Q: Employees who project brand?
    • Me: Shopify spiel
    • Stephanie: 
      • Hire for fit, train for skill
      • Happy people are productive people
    • Audience: Company culture at Disney
    • Amy:
  • Q: Company brand vs Product brand?
    • Michelle: You have more than one product
    • Stephanie: Product brand: tangible
      • Company brand: More about empowering entrepreneurship
  • Q: Transition to bigger clients – internal changes? It terrifies us
    • Amy: We’re not going from DIY to enterprise
      • We do have large companies interested in using us
      • Have to tell customers we don’t have account reps, phone support, etc
      • Finding larger companies who are willing to do those things themselves
  • Q: What was the biggest success with your branding?
    • Michelle: Selling to small business web
      • Having Google call us and sponsor a panel at SxSW
    • Amy: Open, robust, well-documented API
    • Stephanie: Support for entrepreneurs
      • Got Obama to support National Entrepreneur’s Day

10 branding session

When one of the audience members asked about creating a culture that supports the brand, I stepped in and brought up a couple of points:

  • Follow Zappos’ example. At the end of Microsoft’s MIX Conference in March, the Windows Phone 7 “Champs” team (of which I was a member) went to Zappos headquarters for their legendary tour as well as a culture consultation. We started with the tour, which was run by the very enthusiastic members of their culture team, where we saw the day-to-day operations and dynamic. They’re very clearly a group of people who enjoy what they do and care about customer service. Afterwards, we were gathered into a boardroom for a presentation and discussion of starting a great company culture. I told the group that they should pick up Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh’s book Delivering Happiness, and if possible, go to Zappos HQ and get the tour and culture consultation.
  • Provide guides. I pointed to the US Air Force’s rules of engagement for social media and Shopify’s employee handbook (pictured here); both are great examples of documents that help shape an organization’s culture. (I’m going to write about the Shopify book in an upcoming post.)

11 branding session

Some of the sessions were in meeting rooms designed for a dozen or so people; others took place in larger amphitheatre-style rooms:

15 theatre

In my last job as a developer evangelist for Microsoft Canada, I did a lot of work promoting Windows Phone 7 to developers, so it’s a topic that’s near and dear to my heart. Besides, I have the only Windows Phone 7-branded accordion in existence! So I made it a point to catch Scott K. Davis’ sesson, Windows Phone 7 – What You Should Know.

17 wp7 session

Bonus: we had a Microsoftie in the audience — she works on the testing team for Expression.

16 wp7 session

I’ve been in the blogging game for nearly ten years (the 10th anniversary of The Adventures of Accordion Guy in the 21st Century is in November), so I couldn’t resist Joseph Reuter’s session, Why Don’t You Blog More?

18 blogging session

My notes from this session:

  • See Clay Shirky’s talk on cognitive surplus — blogging is one such outlet for that surplus
  • Publishing has been democratized
    • It’s amazing: tons of huge success stories
    • Publishing combines content and distribution
      • Content: idea and creation (draft, edit, approve)
      • Distribution: print and non-print
    • In the publishing world, there are editors
    • Editors provide, through their vetting, a sense of confidence
  • What is blogging for?
    • Shooting from the hip – catharisis? “No one’s going to read it, anyway”
    • Professional aims
    • News releases
    • Brand building
    • Journaling
    • Fun
  • No one seems to have been taught how to write
  • Content strategy vs. Confidence strategy
    • What are you looking to get from blogging?
      • Without an aim, it’s likely that you will succumb to your perception of what other people want from you.
      • Therefore, successful blogs have a content strategy, or put another way, a confidence strategy
      • That strategy may or may not be explicit
  • In blogging, sequence does not denote importance
  • Bloggers have an edge
    • They have access to:
      • Information
      • Perspective
  • Q: People who try blogging and get turned off because it’s just writing?
    • Example of Gary Vaynerchuk and video
  • Improve the system?
    • Problems with distribution:
      • Audience size limited by blog visits
      • Audience size limited by number of interested visitors who also understand RSS and reading behaviour
    • Problems with motivation satisfaction:
      • Need others to see what you’re doing
      • Dan Ariely: Books, stories and recognition
    • Problems with rhythm
      • We watch a lot of TV and read news but as an aggregate population, we don’t write
      • Hence we don’t have rhythm or tricks or confidence to write
    • Problem with time
      • Our perception: if we have something to say, it takes too much time to make a blog post bullerproof or ready for public consumption
  • Solutions
    • Twitter:
      • Problem: Blog posts are too long and hard to write
        • Solution: Posts are 140 characters, max
      • Problem: Jumping around to blofa is hard for readers
        • Solution: Twitter has a built-in reader and follower counts
    • Posterous:
      • Problem: The process of making a post is too hard
        • Solution: Posterous championed mailing it in
  • Few people willing write for no readers
  • Ways forward:
    • We read and have opinions – find ways to share them
    • We care what other people think – Have a content/confidence strategy
    • We care that our work is recognized – find a way to get others to share what they’re thinking when they read your content. Find good analytics software.
    • Structure ways to how they are engaging with your content in a way that is meaningful to you. Get those metrics automatically delivered
  • Hawthorne effect and blogging
  • The single best way to engage with Facebook:
    • Comment on other’s people stuff
    • Creators need to be commenters, commenters need to be creators

19 blogging session

Joseph ended his session with the slide in the photo above: “Who is this guy? What’s his story? Unless he writes it down, we’ll never know.”

The final session I caught was Jeff Lin’s The Missing Web Curriculum: What Every Web Professional Should Have Learned, in which he talked about addressing the disconnect between higher education and real-world web development:

22 curriculum session

A couple of Jeff’s observations that stuck out for me were:

  • “Instead of spending 80 bucks on an outdated textbook, I had the students spend 10 bucks registering a domain name.”
  • A poke at Dreamweaver and similar web design tools: “WYSIWYG is short for ‘WhY don’t you juSt learn to write code and stop Wasting Your enerGy on learning bad tools?'”


At the end of the day, we reconvened in Sandy’s Place for closing remarks and copious quantities of Surly Beer. I also worked the room, talking to people about their work, and telling them about having recently joined Shopify.

The organizers decided to get together with some of their friends at Bryant-Lake Bowl and invited me along. That place is many things: hipster diner, bowling alley, fringe theatre and all-round fun place:

24 bryant lane bowl

We had dinner (that’s a Walleye Po’ Boy pictured below):

Po boy

Of course, we went bowling:

26 group

Sharp! Perhaps I should get a pair of these, just for walkin’ around:

25 bowling shoes

Here I am, on my way to a killer spare:

27 9 pins

After bowling, I joined Casey Allen and some of his local entrepreneur friends for tasty beverages:


There’s something about whiskey and entrepreneurship — they go together like peanut butter and chocolate, or bacon and everything.

Other Takes on MinneBar

When it comes to tech and design, Minnesota punches well above its weight class, and thus I wasn’t the only one chronicling Minnebar.

A number of sessions were recorded — you’ll find these recordings at The Uptake.

Here are the blog entries and articles on Minnebar that I could find. If you know of one that isn’t in the list below, let me know in the comments and I’ll update it!