We’re Joining Shopify 💚🚀
We’re really excited to make the biggest announcement we’ve ever made — Tiny Hearts has been acquired by Shopify! Our product team is joining Shopify and will be working from the Shopify Toronto office, which is just down the street from our current office. The acquisition also includes our apps and Busy Building Things, our online store and brand for creators.
It’s been almost 7 years since we opened our humble little studio. Over that time we’ve built and launched a number of award winning products for both ourselves, and for some awesome clients.
I’m really proud of the work my team and I have done over the past few years. We’ve designed and developed apps like Pocket Zoo, Wake Alarm, Quick Fit, and Next Keyboard. We’ve also built games like InstaMatch, Emoji Party and Save The Camp.
Our apps have been downloaded by over 6 million people, hit #2 on the top charts, and #1 in the Education and Utilities categories. We’ve been repeatedly featured on the App Store, we’ve made App of the Week, and Quick Fit even appeared in an Apple commercial. We’ve won a few awards along the way and have been featured in The Verge, the New York Times, and WIRED Magazine.
We also had the chance to collaborate on products with some awesome companies — such as Shopify, Wealthsimple, Philips, and many more. These projects allowed us to grow our team, take on new challenges, and build on our reputation as one of the top mobile studios.
This is a huge milestone for our little company. Shopify is a company we have immense respect for and we’re super excited to be joining them to help build the future of commerce.
We want to thank everyone who’s been a part of our journey to date. Without your help, support, and friendship there’s no way we would have made it this far.
You’ve read about my studio’s joys and successes, which all started when I quit my job to build my first app, Pocket Zoo. I started an app studio in 2009 called Tiny Hearts shortly after to continue building products.
In 2011, Pocket Zoo’s revenue took an unexpected dip that almost killed the company. Fortunately, I had set up a store on Shopify, which I called Busy Building Things. Busy Building Things is a brand and side-project I created to inspire makers and entrepreneurs. In a stroke of good fortune, that store performed unexpectedly well, and I made over $6,000 in a week. Busy Building Things was a lifesaver. I found it incredibly easy to setup a Shopify store, and the company itself bought over $700 worth of merchandise for their Ottawa office. BBT prints can now be found in the offices of companies like Facebook, Google, Mailchimp and Apple.
I saw both apps and commerce as incredibly exciting opportunities.
Through Busy Building Things, we worked with Shopify a couple of years later to organize and participate in one of their first experiments with pop up shops, entitled Popify.
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Our team at Tiny Hearts launched a few more mobile apps — Instamatch, Wake Alarm and Quick Fit. Through our revenue dip with Pocket Zoo, we recognized that apps had unpredictable revenue cycles, so we started doing some client services work.
We met and became friends with Satish Kanwar, who had co-founded the design studio Jet Cooper, through #LeanCoffeeTO a tech meetup here in Toronto. Satish asked if we wanted to use our expertise with games to work with them on a project with one of their clients, Career Cruising. It was a big, consistent project, and we liked Satish and his team, so it was a no brainer. We said yes.
The revenue from Career Cruising afforded us the opportunity to really grow the team aggressively. Career Cruising was one of the best clients we’ve ever had. We were incredibly happy building educational products with them because we loved it as much as we loved building our own products.
And as we worked with Satish and Jet Cooper on Career Cruising, Jet Cooper got acquired by Shopify to build out their Toronto office, back in 2013. We took over the rest of their work for Career Cruising, and went our separate ways. They went deeper into products at Shopify, and we continued to grow our services business and ship more apps.
I’ve always said product work on its own, as an independent studio, is really risky especially when you don’t have external funding. Our great experience with Career Cruising helped us decide to do more services work — in order to build a steadier stream of cash flow, but also because we realized we could build meaningful products for other people that we loved as much as our own.
Late last year, we decided to double down on services, and use that as a way to get money to invest in our own products. Jules from Ustwo would go on to write their State of the Digital Nation 2016 report a few months after we decided on that path, which really cemented our strategy to build a digital product studio that performed services, built internal self-funded products that could eventually be spun out into their own ventures.
As we executed on our plan, we realized that “doubling down” on services really meant going all-in on services and focusing less on our products.
Unfortunately, just as we were starting to take on much more services work, we realized we didn’t want to go all-in on it. It was never our plan to purely build products for other people — that was just a way of funding our own products.
To successfully be able to acquire that level of capital, we would have to grin and bear services work for at least a couple of years. Ustwo and Metalab have successfully been able to build services and product arms because they focused purely on services and consultancy for a few years. Their services divisions became the cash cow, and it takes years to build that.
Some services work was with really great clients we loved, and other ones we took because of our change in strategy — to be sustainable through services. These other projects were really difficult. We went through the motions, but we didn’t always get a chance to build the great products we would be proud of. It’s not that the companies weren’t great, or that the products didn’t have potential, but this type of working relationship just often wasn’t a fit for our creative side. You could say our heart wasn’t completely in it.
We did some great work here. We worked with Wealthsimple, Blue Ant Media, Shopify, and a few other companies we really loved. But these bright points couldn’t outshine the rest of the services work. This might sound dramatic, but I want to be real with you: it felt like we sold our souls.
As any services entrepreneur will tell you, getting pickier with clients isn’t always an option. It’s not that easy when you have bills to pay and payroll to meet. It takes time to get there. Once you build your services business into a cash cow, you can be picky. But in the beginning, you will have to do some stuff you don’t like.
We kept executing for a few months, hoping the feeling would pass. But it became very clear that my team and I couldn’t do services for another year. We simply didn’t have it in us.
We didn’t want to build a client services focused company. We experimented with it, we got our feet wet with it, and we realized we didn’t want to jump into the deep end. But at the same time we still didn’t have that one product that would give us enough cash to just be a pure product studio.
Building products are risky and experimental by nature. I’ve written about how Next Keyboard went from $20,000 per day in revenue to $2. Next Keyboard wasn’t a financial success, but it certainly wasn’t a death blow. Even if we could ride out the years, there was no guarantee our next product would save us from services work.
The reason I started Tiny Hearts in the first place, and the reason my team members joined, was because we wanted to build great products with friends. I believed — and still believe — that finding fulfilling work is simple:
- You find something you want to do, and get good at it
- Design your life in a way where you’re spending more time and energy doing stuff you like to do with people you respect
I didn’t want to take my team and I through x number of years of soul crushing services work in order to build products we loved, when there were ways we could do it now. We set about figuring out how.
We started talking to VC firms about investing in our products.
We were also approached by some companies — and some clients — about them acquiring us.
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When we started doing some services work with Satish and Shopify in early 2016 (we helped build the first version of Shopkey), he brought up the idea of us joining Shopify. We took this as a huge compliment and decided to not rush into anything, as we were interested in experimenting with our services work. We were still very bullish on that strategy.
We wanted to continue working with Shopify to see if there was a good fit before exploring what an acquisition might look like. This past summer we started working with their Garage team on the Frenzy app and realized that our teams and goals were really well aligned.
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During this time, we wrapped our heads around that nasty realization. It would take much more time than we’d cared to build good services revenue before we’d be able to fund our own products.
My team and I wanted to optimize for product work we cared about, and as we were looking for investors to fund our product ambitions, we realized we could join Shopify. Even from the early years of Tiny Hearts, we respected Shopify immensely. We were already working with them directly, and even flew out to Ottawa to meet and work with their team.
Exits typically don’t just happen, but there was an opportunity with Shopify right in front of us. We’ve had other acquisition and investment offers come in while we were doing business, which we politely said no to. Some companies are forced into acquisitions, but that wasn’t our story. We still had plenty of cash reserves from the earlier services work, and we could have found investors for products.
I’d been a fan and one of their customers since I started Busy Building Things in 2011.
We had great respect and admiration for each other’s work.
Getting acquired by Shopify would mean being able to work with one of the most talented teams in Toronto, and joining one of the most respected companies in the country.
It also meant getting back to working directly on product, which we really loved.
The timing felt perfect. So, the story has a happy ending:
We’re joining Shopify, and they’re acquiring our apps and Busy Building Things.
Tiny Hearts’s name and corporation may no longer exist, but making people’s lives better in meaningful ways through product is a lifelong mission. By joining Shopify, we’re free to keep the DNA of Tiny Hearts — the same spirit that brought Pocket Zoo to life — alive and well.
Most importantly, my team and I are now all continuing this mission with Shopify, whose product we love as much as we loved our own. We can get back to doing the product work we love. And we’re incredibly excited to see what’s next, and how our mission will intertwine with Shopify’s — to make commerce better for everyone — in the next chapter of our journey.
Thank you from the bottom of our hearts
A huge thanks to our current and past Tiny Hearts core team members: Rob Chia, Corey Pollock, Michael Cameron, Mustafa Al-Hayali, Andrew Apperley, Abdul Matin Khandwala, Herbert Lui, Humayun Khan, Genia Mikhalchenko, Ken Huang, Quadri Oshibotu, Gabe Rozenberg, Minsoo Lee, Ahmed El-Helw, Connie Choi, Hayden Maynard, Sarah Ollerhead, Curtis Cabral, Mathew Nelson, Mike Cameron, Kevin Ng, Dylan Yau, Dami Dina, Wayne Spiegel, Ahmed Saad, Nermin Moufti, Jord Farrell, and Michelle Junkin.
Also a huge thanks to clients, friends, and family that have made an impact on both our professional and personal lives: Satish Kanwar, Jesse Dallal, Sergey Gavrilyuk, Ian Hartlen, Ryan Porter, Akela Peoples, Matt McQuillen, Andrew Peek, Behrouz Hariri, Jordan Saxe, Peter Huang, Luke Nairn, Ricardo Vazquez, David Hariri, Mike Murchison, Mahmoud Hashim, Vladimir Druts, Phil Jacobson, Garrett Gottlieb, Rob Platek, Libby Brewer-Dulac, our friends at TWG, Jason Krogh, Pete Forde, and Huda Idrees. (this list will get longer :) )
An even bigger thanks goes out to my mom, Nusaybah, my wife, and my little girls who’ve been my biggest supporters ❤️ — Love, Robleh