When Bay Street financier Michael Tait met the 37-year-old Mr. Green last year, “he said, ‘We are a bunch of money away from [being]a billion-dollar company,’ ” Mr. Tait said. “You don’t hear a lot of Canadian entrepreneurs say that.” Mr. Tait invested and is helping to raise more funds for the firm.
But the risks are considerable. Shop.ca has yet to book any revenue, and like any startup, faces long odds. To succeed, it must not only attract masses of customers, but keep them coming back. That’s an audacious goal going up against Amazon, a growing player in Canada with a track record for crushing competitors. Canadian retailers are not competitive online now, but that could change. And what if Canadians don’t actually care for a better online shopping experience?
Whether or not Shop.ca can successfully lead the revolution it is courting, there’s no doubt the opportunity is real. Customers are getting savvier, and using the Web to price-compare and ensure they’re getting a good deal. And the competition to win over Canadian shoppers online is heating up.“It’s a risk and an opportunity for Canadian retail businesses because the direction of travel is clearly toward e-commerce,” said Paul Zwillenberg, a partner with Boston Consulting Group. “If Canadian retailers aren’t thinking about how to service information-hungry customers, they will find it challenging.”
The origins of a big idea
It’s 8:37 a.m. on an overcast Tuesday in Toronto in early May, just weeks before Shop.ca opens for business. Four senior leaders of Shop.ca are crowded into the office of chief technology officer Gary Black for their daily briefing, with two more linked in on his computer screen. Everyone is on their feet.
Mr. Black has good news: The day before, he got the data storage system up and running at Bell Canada’s host site. “That’s a big rock crushed,” he says. “On-boarding” is a key topic: Six employees have joined in the past week (bringing the total to 22). The meeting moves rapidly, but there’s time for laughs. On screen, business development head Rick Belanger, brandishing a giant Nerf gun, states his top priority is “to take no prisoners.”
With his easy-going manner and 100-watt grin, Mr. Green comes off as an unlikely assault leader. Sporting an untrimmed beard, swept back hair, circles under his eyes and dressed in a light jacket, untucked shirt with two buttons undone, sneakers and jeans, the paunchy 6 foot, three-inch CEO looks the host of a wild party, the morning after. He works hard, sleeps little (he’s 37 but looks older) has two young boys and a solid résumé, having served as a top sales executive with major e-commerce firms, including DoubleClick Inc. (where he worked with Mr. Black). His likes to say: “Life is a journey and not a destination” and “Turn every day into two.” His staff look tired and busy.
By the late 2000s, Mr. Green, who organized parties as a teenage entrepreneur in Scarborough and ran a personal training business during university, knew he wanted to return to his enterprising roots. He asked friends in the U.S. and Canada where they shopped online. South of the border, seven out of 10 said Amazon or eBay. In Canada “if you asked, you got 10 different answers,” he said. “That was a good qualitative data point – there is no market leader in Canada.”
Mr. Green hit upon his big idea: to create an online marketplace similar to Amazon, aimed at Canadians, bringing shoppers and retailers together. Shop.ca would handle the transactions, dispatch orders and take a cut of every sale; the retailers and suppliers would pack and ship items, adhering to strict standards to uphold Shop.ca’s service promise. All product had to be sent from Canada and priced to include shipping. Shop.ca would also have a loyalty program – a Canadian staple – where buyers would earn virtual dollars with every purchase and by recommending the site via social media.
Mr. Green bought the Shop.ca domain name (he won’t say for how much) and partnered with lifelong friend Trevor Newell, a senior operations and systems application specialist who had worked at GE Power and Oracle but also wanted to do his own thing. While Mr. Green focused on vision and selling people on the concept, Mr. Newell worked on the details to get the venture going.