Pilgrimage to Shopify Unite - 2019

Pilgrimage to Shopify Unite - 2019

June 28, 2019 11 min read

Shopify Unite Conference 2019

Having now recovered from the three day journey back from Toronto, Canada, I thought it worthwhile to put together some words and pictures to document my journey to the annual Shopify Unite conference.

This is actually the first time ShopCreatify has had a presence at Unite. It was the fourth time Shopify have hosted the event since its inception and based on peer pressure from other folk in the Shopify ecosystem, we decided it was worthwhile to attend.

Important Note: If you're looking for a list of announcements from Unite, I've obliged by creating a digest at the end of this article with links to the respective sources. Also, if you're looking for specific information about what was announced, you can also check out Shopify's comprehensive article on this here and also go and give a listen to Kurt and Paul talk about it in the Unofficial Shopify Podcast.

The Journey Begins

Unfortunately things started off a bit shaky with all BA flights out of Cape Town being delayed (fog I believe) forcing me to have to forfeit my initial departure date since I'd miss all my connecting flights. The original journey was intended to be:

Cape Town > Johannesburg > Heathrow > Gattwick (drive) > Toronto

It turned out to be a blessing in disguise since not only did they reduce my legs down to Cape Town > Heathrow > Toronto, they also bumped me up from economy to business class for the first leg. 

Shopify Unite Journey from Heathrow
A view from the boarding lounge at Heathrow. BA has quite a flock... or is that fleet?

After a short layover and coffee break in Heathrow with my brother -where I had to frantically apply for an Electronic Travel Authorization Visa that my travel agent hadn't mentioned- I departed for the final leg to Toronto.

Shopify Unite 2019 Liberty Village Airbnb
I was pleasantly surprised at the nice quiet, leafy suburban feeling Airbnb location in Liberty Village. Complete with squirrels and maple trees.

To be perfectly honest, I didn't really know what I was in for when it came to my Airbnb. Turns out there was no cause for concern. Just over a mile from the conference venue, clean, and in a quiet road in Liberty Village, I managed to score a great priced and super convenient location. I couldn't have been happier.

Night 1 - Bold Commerce Pre-Event

Jet-lagged or not, I headed out from my airbnb to the pre-event hosted by Bold Commerce and a few others including Rise.ai(formerly GiftWizard) at the Steam Whistle Brewery in central Toronto.

Shopify Unite Bold Commerce Pre Event Panel
The panel at the Bold meetup in the Steamwhistle Brewery in Toronto.

The first familiar faces (actually just the name since we'd never chatted with video on) were Ines and Alejandro from GetMore.mx. I sat through the panel discussion with them which was interesting but brief. I actually appreciated this in my fragile lack-of-sleep condition. After meeting a few other people, some I'd only met via Zoom calls or in our global agency Slack, some just new... I headed out for a breather and promptly decided to jettison myself to the highest point of the CN tower... so I did.

Shopify Unite 2019 Bold Commerce Pre-Event
My view of the Steamwhistle Brewery from the CN Tower and a shot I took of the tower later that same evening.

On my return from the (extended) breather I met up with long time collaborators of ours Peter and Loughlin from Milkbottle who came all the way Dublin. Excellent guys and we ended up having a great chat over dinner and beer. That was it though... I was pretty broken so Ubered (is that a word?) back to my Airbnb for a proper sleep.

Day 1 - Sorta Kinda... actually just registration

After a proper sleep, I headed off to the Beanfield Centre on foot (only ~1.9km from my Airbnb) and subsequently came to realise that I was walking part of the Toronto Indy race circuit. They were actually setting up the grand stand scaffolding but I was saddened to hear that the race is only in late July. Probably good because Unite wouldn't have been possible with an Indy race happening.

Shopify Unite 2019 Arrival and Registration
Me looking decidedly South African in shorts on arrival at the Shopify Unite registration day.

With typical Canadian friendliness (it's true, it really, really is!) I got registered, my badge, some swag and a custom printed shirt from their on-site while-you-wait screen printers.

Having a pre-arranged lunch with my partner contact at Bold, Lauren, I headed off to meet her at The Craft and serendipitously bumped into her on the walk there. We had a great chat following which I set out on the longest walk I've done in recent memory to find a new bag (mine's strap broke on the flight in).

Shopify Unite 2019 Walking Toronto
Some visuals from my many walks around Toronto.

I think I totalled over 10km walking that day already and should probably have called it there... but no... there was a happy hour to attend still! So after getting some food in my face and setting off for another walk, I hit the Drake and soon met up with Canadian local Matt from Voltage and Leighton & Andy from Envision. A thriving event packed with people, but the happy hour came to an end around 8pm and we decided to head out for dinner.

Outside the Drake, we conveniently met up with some long time contacts Karl from RedFoxBanjo, Tom from Burst Commerce and the guys from Electric Eye Chase & Shawn. Others too, but it's such an overload for my brain to remember all the names and companies, so suffice to say it was a networking festival of note.

A bunch of us set off to grab some dinner at the most local looking place we could find. I tried some Poutine - Canada's claimed local cuisine and as Karl put it "it tastes like fries with gravy". I found that to be 100% accurate... but yes, I enjoyed it.

After another seemingly very long day, I walked back to the Airbnb and think I crashed for the best sleep I've had in a long while.

Day 2 - Actually day 1 with the keynotes etc.

For some reason I decided to go down for the main opener really early and I think I was let in before they started to stop people at the door. Unintentionally sneaky of me. Some of my contacts were stuck outside while they prepped the main stage... but I was already in and got some work done in the lounge area.

The keynotes were fun, if not a bit long. Some great announcements were made, which I've listed out at the end of this article, and Shopify's share price spiked shortly I think during and definitely in the hours thereafter.

Shopify Unite 2019 Keynote
Announcement of the new Shopify mobile phone tap & chip case.

The standout announcements for myself were the enhancements to the theming in Shopify as well as the massive announcement about the fulfillment network.

There was also an AMA (ask me anything) with Tobi Lutke, the founder of Shopify. It was pretty revealing and gave a glimpse into the mind of someone that planted a seed and has grown it into what is -according to Shopify- the third largest online retailer in the world when you combine all the merchants using the platform.

Shopify Unite 2019 Tobi Lutke ama
Tobi Lutke being grilled (not really) with questions about Shopify and the future of the platform.

The food was really good in the aptly named Unite Cafe -complete with coffee from Starbucks- and then we migrated to the lounge area where I had worked from earlier in the day. From there it was a smorgasbord of networking where I got to meet the camo jacket wearing posterboy of Shopify partners Kurt Elster and his business partner Paul Reda... and all their documentary filmmaking gadgets, Kelly from Taproom, Sara and R. V. d. from Mote, the guys from Spently... and honestly, just so many others I can't bring myself to try and recollect them all and turn this into a painful paragraph to read. Name dropping isn't my thing.

The day culminated in a great dinner out with Kurts (Elster and Bullock) and a bunch of other cool guys. We were introduced to the Canadian "Caesar" which is definitely something I'd like to try and make my own now that I'm back.

Another Uber, and time to reset for day 3.

Day 3 - Lightning talks, office hours etc.

On this day I broke with my newfound tradition and started a bit later than I'd hoped. It wasn't too serious and my attendance at the conference consisted mostly of networking, attending some of the talks and workshops with Karl.

Shopify Unite 2019 Session
Karl looking decidedly uneasy about the idiot next to him doing a panoramic photo. That or this is his concentration face.

I achieved one of the main things I wanted to with my attendance and that was to meet the founder of Out of the Sandbox Brad Miller. Conveniently we shared the front row in a talk about Shopify theming (surprise surprise) and I got to meet Anne and him directly thereafter. He's taller than I imagined... apparently height is one thing that people are surprised by when they meet people in person for the first time after knowing them for a while online.

We discussed their new theme which I won't name since it hasn't been officially announced at the time of me writing this as far as I'm aware. Needless to say, we're excited to look at putting it into our arsenal of Shopify store production weapons.

Following the day's events, I went for a long walk along the side of the lake (fresh water ocean if you ask me) with Karl and Matt which ended with us parting ways, them going to the official afterparty and me having a sunset call with Quintin, my business partner from the water's edge.

Shopify Unite 2019 - Great Lake Toronto
Not a bad view while chatting to Quintin back in Cape Town.

It felt kinda strange to be on that end of the time zone difference. Odd in a way, but I can also see how beneficial it can be since I woke up every morning with so much to review and do because a lot of my team had already been up and working for more than half the day. An interesting and revealing observation.

An early night for a change and some needed rest for the final day of Unite was on the cards for me. Apparently the afterparty was really good, but the idea of Facetiming my wife and kids back home was more appealing. Call me an old fuddy duddy if you will.

Day 4 - The grand finale & a Blue Jays game

The final day of the conference followed much the same formula as the preceding day and I don't have a lot of new information to add for it.

The closing keynote by Atlee Clark, Director of Partner Platform was quite heartfelt and touching and seemed a suitable closing talk with her speaking about a Shopify store that she herself is in the process of launching. Great to know that even some of the higher-ups in Shopify's own ranks are using their own platform.

I did manage to try the much talked about Canadian famous beaver's tail which turned out to be just a flat donut-like pastry. Tasty.

As much as the final day of Unite was great, I think everyone was all networked out, our elevator pitches permanently tattooed on the inside of our skulls and our business card pile looking rather depleted... not mine though, as I chose to go with a QR code printed on my shirt but found direct Linkedin exchanges to be a lot easier... I was travelling light.

As earlier planned with Peter and Loughlin from Milkbottle, we chose to hit the Toronto Blue Jays vs Los Angeles Angels final game at the Rogers Centre. I'd say this was one major highlight of my trip. The stadium was incredibly impressive with the retractable roof, and the game kept my interest from the first pitch... also my first live baseball game.

Shopify Unite 2019 - Baseball at Rogers Stadium
Inside Rogers Centre on a rainy night watching the Toronto Blue Jays beat the LA Angels.

And that was it. Done and dusted, the Shopify Unite conference for 2019 was officially over and most people headed off home, some driving back to different parts of Canada and the United states and us overseas travellers preparing for the long haul back.

I did manage to have lunch with Ines and Alejandro on my final full day in Toronto at a great vegan spot called Fresh on Spadina. I think they -and I- were a bit tired of burgers and deep fried foods, so it made a welcome change.

The trip back

Getting home was far less eventful than the up-trip with the exception of a long stopover in London. This allowed me to spend most of it with my brother and sister-in-law, grab some toys for the kids from Hamleys and even take the founder of one of our favourite merchant clients, FoldaBox, to a proper British roast lunch at the Smokehouse in Islington.

River Thames
What would a stopover in London be without a shot of the River Thames!

Needless to say, after a near 3 day journey back, I required a couple of days to recover, but now -Friday- I'm putting this all together before the memories fade.

Was it worth it?

One of the biggest, most niggling questions in my mind since I first signed up for Unite was "will it be worth it for us?" and to be quite frank, I don't yet know.

I think it was, and I feel the connections I made, or strengthened by attending may be worth the time and cost of quite a significant journey. We're talking about a relative homebody that -while I'm fine speaking at meetups in front of a crowd- I don't particularly like the networking vibe.

Yes it was a bit of an adventure, it was my first time on that continent and the fact that people drive on the wrong side of the road was odd, but all in all I think going to the biggest partner event that Shopify currently offers, and it was big... like over 1,800 delegates, I hope the effort, time and cost was worth it.

Time will tell. We're already doing very well as it stands with the Shopify platform and an excellent existing client base across the globe, so in short it certainly won't do any harm.


Shopify's Recap of Announcements

According to Shopify's own highlights recap, the following was announced at this year's conference. You can read their full article to get further context.

  • A reimagined design experience for your online store
    • Easier customization at the page and store level. 
    • Portable content that moves with you. 
    • A new workspace to update your store. 
  • Bring your products to life with video and 3D models
    • Manage media through a single location.
    • Deploy through the new Shopify video player.
    • New editor apps.
  • Cutting edge merchandising with custom storefront tools
    • Connect microservices to create personalized experiences.
    • Turn the world into your storefront.
    • Speedy and scalable to have development teams work in parallel.
  • Build lasting customer loyalty with retail shoppers
    • Apply discounts lightning-quick.
    • Important information at your fingertips.
    • Create small moments of delight.
  • Grow globally with seamless cross-border selling
  • Announcing the Shopify Fulfillment Network
    • A single back office.
    • Recommended warehouse locations.
    • Low stock alerts.
    • 99.5% order accuracy.
    • Hands-on warehouse help.

Kurt Elster's Shopify Unite 2019 Notes

I also took the liberty of reaching out to Kurt Elster from the Unofficial Shopify Podcast if I could share some of his notes which he graciously permitted and  which I've posted below. Be sure to check out his podcast though. He has some great content on there and interviews some great players in the ecommerce industry... even me.

Online store:

  • Site-wide sections
  • Apps can add sections
  • Product pages have parent and child templates
  • Content portability: all content lives outside theme, simplifying theme changes
  • Native video & 3-D support on product pages
  • Check-out app extensions for native integrations of things like subscriptions
  • Multi-currency checkout rolling out to all merchants
  • Multi-language API for native localized content

POS:

  • Tap & chip case for mobile orders. Apple store like experience. Printed with a custom logo.
  • Cart extension apps.
  • Entirely redesigned POS interface
  • Native “buy online pick up in store”

Admin:

  • New “shipping profiles” to assign product-specific shipping rules.
  • Order editing!!!

Plus:

  • All new interface: centralized view of multiple stores
  • Multistore dashboard for customers, orders, Flow automation, etc
  • Future: cloning & store sync
  • Multi-store staff managed in one place

Apps:

  • Command line interface tool to make dev easier
  • Shopify App Bridge: one library to rule them all, and create more embedded apps
  • GraphQL improvements mean faster apps
  • More stable apps because of API versioning. (Keeps apps from breaking when the API changes.)

Shopify Fulfillment Network:

  • 2 days to deliver
  • 99.9% order accuracy
  • Multichannel support
  • Custom packaging & branding
  • Returns/exchange support
  • Now: Merchants of every size. (10-10,000 orders/day)
  • Later: Merchants of every size. (3-30,000 orders/day)
  • Beta complete, apply for early access at shopify.com/fulfillment

When: Most updates had a timeline of "Available later this year"


Ross Allchorn
Ross Allchorn

Hi, I'm Ross, an entrepreneur and a specialist in e-commerce. I founded ShopCreatify in 2015 and loving every second of working with our great ecommerce merchant clients.