From the July 2011 issue of Entrepreneur
Fowl play: Angry Birds' Niklas kari (left) and Ville Heijari.
Photo© Mikko Ryhänen

Those birds may be irate--you would be too if evil green pigs stole your eggs--but Angry Birds creator Rovio Mobile is laughing all the way to the bank. With more than 100 million total downloads and 40 million monthly active users, Angry Birds is the signature hit of the mobile app era, spinning off sequels (Angry Birds Rio, a tie-in with the 20th Century Fox animated family feature Rio) and landing Espoo, Finland-based Rovio a $42 million Series A funding round in March 2011.

The worldwide popularity of Angry Birds and the striking character designs of the game's pleasingly plump, fine-feathered heroes made it inevitable that Rovio would expand its flock to include branded merchandise.

"Our strategy was to make a hit app, build the brand and capitalize on that success," says Niklas Kari, Rovio's head of retail.

In the summer of 2010, Rovio began working with New York City-based manufacturer Commonwealth Toy & Novelty to produce a line of plush toys. But Rovio is a mobile application developer, not a retailer, so the startup teamed with digital commerce solutions provider Shopify to get a virtual storefront up and running to sell the toys. The Ottawa, Ontario, startup targets small and medium-size businesses seeking a simple approach to digital sales: Shopify offers more than 50 free and premium online store themes, inventory management and editing tools, payment acceptance features, analytics data and a dedicated support team.

No less important to Rovio, Shopify works fast: After the two companies finalized their partnership in late October 2010, Shopify and web designer Mark Dunkley turned around a fully operational Rovio storefront in about 72 hours, which let the gaming firm start selling its Angry Birds toy line in time for the lucrative holiday shopping season.

"We looked at a number of different options, but Shopify made the most sense," Kari says. "We had strong recommendations from other partners, and setting up the store was easy."

The Angry Birds shop is one of more than 13,500 Shopify-powered storefronts, joining the ranks of those spotlighting brands that range from technology conglomerate General Electric to hip-hop pioneers Beastie Boys. Premium subscriptions (Shopify's primary revenue source) begin at $29 per month; there's no setup fee, bandwidth is unlimited and retailers can cancel their subscription at any time. Shopify stores generate more than $150 million a year in gross merchandise volume, and the platform is adding more than 1,000 new stores each month.

"We've reduced the barriers to e-commerce," says Harley Finkelstein, Shopify's chief platform officer. "If you have 15 minutes and you know how to use e-mail, you can build a store on our platform."

And you can oversee that store via smartphone: The Shopify Mobile app for iPhone (there's an Android app on the way) offers a complete set of remote management tools, including analytics updates and push notifications for new orders.

"A lot of our users aren't doing this full time--maybe it's a hobby, or they have another full-time business, or they're testing the waters to see if they should quit their existing job," Finkelstein says. "All of those people need to be able to run their Shopify business on the go."

Shopify Mobile also enables storefront access in the event conventional web connectivity is unavailable. "We travel quite a lot," says Rovio "bird whisperer" (i.e., marketing head) Ville Heijari. "Anything we can do without a Wi-Fi connection or a computer makes life much easier."

At last count, Rovio Mobile has sold more than 2 million plush toys since its Shopify storefront went live late last year, and the company promises new Angry Birds merchandise is ready to hatch in the near future. "We're expanding quite heavily," Kari says. "But we want to be sure we have quality stuff. We don't want to associate our brand with anything quick and dirty."

Makes sense. An angry bird is one thing, but an angry customer is something else entirely.