5 Stories to Inspire Your Big Leap

Behind every business is a story of overcoming obstacles and forging ahead into the unknown. These stories demonstrate perseverance and grit and provide inspiration for the next set of entrepreneurs and founders still waiting for a sign to take the leap.

Ahead is a roundup of some of the most inspirational interviews with Shopify business owners in 2023. Revisit some of the best founder stories of the year and get inspired to chase your own big idea.

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Pursuing a lifelong passion: Jono Pandolfi Designs

Turning your passion into a business is a dream for many people—but ceramicist and founder Jono Pandolfi made that dream come true. He studied pottery in high school, where he would visit local pottery studios on field trips. “Seeing the medium used in a way that I hadn’t been exposed to in the classroom and seeing production on a little bit of a bigger scale was really interesting to me,” Jono says.

After teaching ceramics and exploring other art mediums, Jono eventually came back to the craft. He had the idea to design pottery and run a manufacturing company that would make large-scale orders. The first was for the NOMAD Hotel in New York. “I knew that this order was an amazing chance to establish my name in the field of dinnerware,” Jono says.

The challenge was scaling production fast enough to be able to fulfill the order. “My mentality was do whatever it takes to make this happen,” Jono says. He would wake up at 3:00 a.m. to drive to the out-of-state manufacturing space, staying up late to track kilns.

Jono Pandolfi examines a piece in his studio in New Jersey. Jono Pandolfi Designs

It all paid off—Jono and his team were able to complete the order. “It was everything I wanted it to be, because it truly did lead to so many new chefs reaching out,” Jono says. His company has now made dinnerware for some of the hottest restaurants in the world.

Paying tribute to a parent: Briogeo

When she was growing up, Nancy Twine would make homemade hair formulas with her mother. Years later, that practice would become Briogeo, a clean hair care brand sold at Sephora.

Nancy was inspired to create Briogeo when she couldn’t find products for her hair type. Briogeo

After college, Nancy pursued a finance career on Wall Street during the 2008 financial crisis, when the industry was tackling new challenges. That experience prepared her for being an entrepreneur: because the industry could no longer rely on old systems or previous knowledge, it forced her to be scrappy.

“I feel like that level of discipline and relentless pursuit, despite the obstacle, definitely created a strong foundation for my entrepreneurial journey,” Nancy says.

Nancy decided to explore entrepreneurship while she was still working full time. “I had lost my mom, and pouring myself into this passion project really became like a form of therapy for me,” Nancy says. After more than a year of working a day job and building Briogeo on the side, Nancy devoted herself fully to the new company just before it launched in Sephora in 2014.

Finding solutions: Therabody

Dr. Jason Wersland, the founder of Therabody, had no intention of starting a massage gun business. He was already a chiropractor with an active practice. But as he was recovering from a motorcycle accident, he turned to the invention to heal. So when a patient of his came into his practice with chronic ailments similar to his own, Jason recommended the massage gun.

Man using a theragun on his chest
The Theragun brand became so popular that Jason started hearing people use it as a verb, or even a blanket term for any type of massage gun. Therabody

When the patient came back a few weeks later, he said the device had saved his life. “That’s when I realized, ‘Okay, this is the journey.’ I really felt something like the universe gave me a little punch in the chest and said, ‘Here you go,’” Jason says.

Proving investors wrong: ThirdLove

“If you’re on the cutting edge, a lot of people won’t believe in your idea. And that’s totally normal,” says ThirdLove founder Heidi Zak. She started her business so early in the direct-to-consumer market that it wasn’t even a term yet.

Heidi knew from personal experience that the bra shopping experience needed an upgrade—specifically, the ability to be able to buy better-fitting bras online. But it was still a tough sell to investors and manufacturers.

Five women wearing ThirdLove bras and underwear
Heidi says the virtual fitting room was key to building a better online shopping experience for bras. ThirdLove

After spending a month in China begging manufacturers to work with her, Heidi finally secured a production partner. The validation she sought, however, came from the market of customers she hoped to serve. When ThirdLove put out a call online, hundreds of women showed up at the company’s office in San Francisco to try on the product.

“I really believe—and this is inherently our goal—that if you have a great-fitting bra on, you should never think about it,” Heidi says.

Keeping creativity at the center: Cirque du Soleil

Daniel Le Mar, executive vice chairman of Cirque du Soleil, says creativity is important for any business—not just the ones in entertainment.

Acrobats performing in a Cirque du Soleil show
Cirque du Soleil is always developing new shows and bringing performances to new cities. In total, the company has toured in more than 400 cities around the world. Cirque du Soleil

He fosters creativity by making his staff—all of them—feel included. “I want everybody to feel that they’re part of the creation process. It doesn’t matter if you work in HR or finance or legal,” Daniel says. That means breaking down silos, inviting employees from different departments to watch practices, and eating together in the cafeteria.

At the end of rehearsals for a new show, the performers will put on a show specifically for staff before the performance goes on tour. “It’s another way for us to remind our employees, even from the administrative staff, that they are part of something very, very special,” says Daniel.

To get more inspiration from these founders and executives, listen to the full recap episode on Shopify Masters.

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