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Grow Your Business Sales & Marketing

BigCommerce: Building a Big Business from the Ground Up

mitchell-harper-01 BigCommerce Co-Founder Mitchell Harper. / Credit: Photo Courtesy of BigCommerce

Mitchell Harper is the co-founder and voice of BigCommerce, an ecommerce platform used by more than 45,000 customers, including Fortune 500 companies and small and medium-sized businesses, to help sell their goods and services through online stores. Without any outside funding or debt, BigCommerce has grown into a multinational corporation with eight-figure revenues.

Harper, 27 is a native of Sydney, Australia, and like other 20-somethings, he grew up with computers. He has an inventor's fascination with the way things work, but instead of taking computers apart, he took up programming. Harper's first computer was an Apple IIc. He took an HTML programming class at age 13.

"In high school I was the typical hacker," he says. "The librarian would come in and tell me to stop."

But it was the 2001 indie documentary “Startup.com” that was the catalyst for Harper. After seeing the film about a pair of 15-year-olds whose dream it was to get rich by developing their own dot-com company, he asked himself, "Why couldn't I go out and start a big company?"

Starting from scratch

BigCommerce began as a software company in 2008 and later shifted to an online service.

"I had a bit of an epiphany about getting the product into the hands of more business owners," Harper told BusinessNewsDaily. "I built everything from scratch ― the web site, branding, marketing."

BigCommerce has grown more than 5,000 percent since its reintroduction as a "software as a service" (SaaS) company in August 2009.

Harper and his partner, Eddie Machaalani, chose tech mecca Austin, Texas, for their North American base of operations. Being located in Texas – and therefore in Central Standard Time – allows sales and customer service staff to work both the east and west coasts. Harper adds that the temperature and culture are very similar to Sydney.

But there's another practical reason for the location. If you're known by the company you keep, Harper enjoys the association with fellow Austin-area residents Google, Microsoft and Cisco. He recruited a third of his staff from Dell.

Open communication

Harper attributes much of the company's success to communication with its customers . He not only uses social networking sites including YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, but develops proprietary applications tailored for his customers. He believes it's essential to get customers involved in product improvements, and encourages them to vote on new features before their possible release. Harper said he expects a new version of BigCommerce to be released at the end of this month.

BigCommerce was one of the first businesses to provide a way for Facebook users to purchase goods.

Earlier this year, he released SocialShop, a Facebook app that lets BigCommerce merchants sell their items from their Facebook pages without leaving the popular social networking site. To date, about 60 percent of Facebook merchants use its free app.

"Online merchants understand that a robust Facebook presence is a powerful way to increase awareness, manage customer relationships and attract new customers," said Harper. "No matter what you're selling, there's a huge opportunity to leverage the growth of social media to build your own business and keep customers in the loop."

Harper has found Twitter to be useful for both customer service and new business development.  Currently BigCommerce gets 20 to 30 questions a day from prospects on its Twitter page. The company has assigned staff to quickly respond to questions. Harper revealed he is working on a secret feature for Twitter, which he hopes to release later this year.

Retail applications

In addition to providing customer service through social media channels BigCommerce is making its service easy for customers to use. In the past, small business owners who wanted to take their business online faced the challenge of having to know some computer programming, and that left many stuck in brick-and-mortar mode.

To fill that need, Harper invented Design mode, an intuitive web site builder interface with one-click functions and plenty of support, and added it to BigCommerce last year.

"If you know how to use email and Word, that's all you need to know. Everything is point and click, so there's absolutely no need for HTML code," he said.

Much of retail is of course migrating online, but Harper doesn't see brick-and-morter dying out. Harper said that devices like the iPhone and iPad are making it easier to shop online . To keep abreast of changes, he carries a MacBook Pro, iPhone and one of his four iPads. The newest version of BigCommerce has an iPad app built in for shopping.

Earlier this month, BigCommerce released an application that allows for eBay and Facebook integration into its ecommerce platform, bringing enterprise level services to small and medium businesses. The new version of BigCommerce is in response to some of online marketing's biggest trends: the growth of mobile, the social media explosion and the need to integrate multiple channels into a unified sales strategy.

"I see synergy between offline retail and online retail. I think every retailer will have both," he said. "And I also see social, ecommerce and the devices all coming together ― lots of acquisitions will be taking place."

Harper has some advice that sounds more like words of wisdom from Grandpa than from a young entrepreneur.

"I actually have a 14-year-old brother who wants to follow in my footsteps.  I have advised him to get a job at McDonalds," Harper said. "There's no better place to learn what you can do as part of a team. Learn programming and all that stuff later."

Leslie Meredith is Senior Writer for TechNewsDaily, a sister site to BusinessNewsDaily