Those in the ecommerce world who know Kelly Vaughn—or are a part of her 108K following on Twitter (@kvlly)—know her as a co-founder and CEO, ecommerce extraordinaire, and coding wiz. She’s also the brains behind Govalo and previously The Taproom Agency.
But before she was re-inventing the digital gift card industry, or serving custom development solutions to Shopify-powered businesses, she’d been a self-taught software developer for more than 20 years.
Yes, you read that correctly.
“I taught myself how to code when I was 11 years old and started freelancing when I was 14 years old. So I've been doing this for over half of my life,” Kelly shared.
And that’s not even the most extraordinary part of her story. Kelly has a bachelor’s degree in psychology and holds a Master’s Degree in Public Health.
She got her start in disease prevention and control, and her first position, fatefully, was looking for a public health professional who also happened to know their way around code. Kelly was the perfect (and only) candidate to fit the bill.
All the while, she continued to moonlight as a freelance software developer. “While I had this fellowship, I was actually making more money freelancing,” she admitted.
As her freelance business started to gain more traction, Kelly saw opportunities to take her work to the next level. Whether it was leaning into software development full-time, hiring subcontractors, or taking the leap to start her own agency, she always asks herself: “How can I push myself? What can I do next?”
An entrepreneur’s journey is certainly not without its challenges, but Kelly said she was determined to prove to others that she was capable—despite the opinions that discounted her.
“I thrive when others don't believe in me. It drives me to believe in myself and actually push myself forward.”
So, how did Kelly become a major player in the ecommerce world? And how did she find her way into that space? She spoke with us to share her story, and the lessons she’s learned along the way as a leader and entrepreneur.
It started with a tweet. A freelancer was looking for support with building websites, and Kelly answered. She was given an assignment to work on a site powered by a then up-and-coming platform: Shopify.
“I fell in love with Shopify immediately.”
Unlike her past projects with informational sites, working in ecommerce came with definitive metrics of success, and Kelly enjoyed the sense of immediate gratification.
Excited by what the Shopify partners program could make possible for ecommerce companies, Kelly decided to become an early expert. She took the risk of asking the freelancer for the necessary site credits in exchange for a reduced project rate. It paid off.
Nearly eight years later, Kelly said she couldn’t imagine working in any other industry. She’s still excited by the challenges that come with the work and deeply appreciates the ecommerce community.
“I came for the fun of the projects, and I stayed for the community,” Kelly said. “I don't know a single community, especially in the software engineering space that compares to the Shopify community. Whether you're a merchant, a partner, an app developer, a theme developer, there's so much to learn from each other.”
In 2015, Kelly was interviewed for a feature on freelance success stories. Immediately after, she started to ask herself: “What’s next?”
“My brain immediately went to ‘I want to be working with larger clients.’ It’s hard to do that when you look like a one-woman-show.”
While she was beginning to collaborate with freelance designers to take on bigger projects, starting her own agency wasn’t on her radar just yet. But by the time the article was published, things looked different.
After spending the better part of that year re-branding her existing business, she officially launched The Taproom in late 2017. Within three years, the company grew to a team of 20. And last year, they surpassed $100M in revenue.
Kelly says keeping a sharp eye out for opportunities, and seizing opportunities as they come, makes room in her life for the necessary pieces to come together.
One of these life-changing opportunities came in the form of a talk she gave at Shopify Pursuit, where she met her co-founder for Govalo, Rhian Beutler. Having never done a public speaking engagement before, Kelly says it was a risky undertaking to address a crowd of over a hundred.
“I was like, ‘I don't know what I'm doing’ and apparently Rhian saw it on my face. She's a professionally trained speaker, so she coached me.”
That conversation led to a friendship, and later a partnership. At first, a podcast. Then the two started having discussions about opportunities around gifting in ecommerce.
“I needed that next challenge and I had never built a public app before. And I was like, this sounds fun.”
For a while, Kelly was committed to running both companies, until ultimately decided to focus on growing Govalo.
What helped ease the transition was the trust she had in the team she built at The Taproom: “What's really cool is now that I'm no longer the CEO of the company, I get to watch those who came on early grow the company even further.”
The vision for Govalo took shape on a road trip. Taking some time away gave her the chance to draw on her experiences working with clients at The Taproom—and to re-imagine how gift cards could look in the world of ecommerce.
“Gifting on Shopify has always been a pain point, and something I’d solve for my clients,” she said.
On the customer’s end, the process of buying a gift card online is convoluted, requiring them to handle the gifting themselves once it hits their inbox. For merchants, there weren’t many solutions available for meaningful gift cards analytics, or for navigating regulatory or legislative hurdles.
There was plenty of opportunities to leverage gifting as a way to increase brand loyalty, retention, and discoverability, but it wasn’t being fully realized, Kelly explained. In 2020, approximately $15B in gift cards went unused.
From writing the first line of code in July to the App Store debut in October of last year, the whole process for launching Govalo moved very quickly. Since then, Govalo has generated $1.8M in revenue.
In addition to offering logistical solutions to gift card stumbling blocks faced by ecommerce merchants, Kelly envisions Govalo as an educational resource for partners as well.
“On our blog, we’re teaching you how to use gift cards, how to sell them on your site, and how to promote them to your customers.”
Being your own boss certainly sounds like a dream come true. However, it takes more than a solid business plan for a great idea. According to Kelly, equipping yourself with the right mindset and approach to persevere when times get tough is crucial.
Wanting to help others who are trying to break out with their own businesses, Kelly shares her advice in a weekly e-newsletter, “Your Friend’s Guide to Entrepreneurship.”
“There are mistakes that I've made along the way, and I would rather other people avoided them,” she shared.
Here are some pieces of friendly advice from Kelly:
Define success in a way that resonates with you, something beyond the conventional
metrics for business. Whatever it is you’re striving for, the drive to achieve it should
feel natural—an innate motivator.
Ask yourself: How much of your time and focus can you afford to put into your
venture? Is this a side-hustle or your full-time job?
As important as it is to identify your goals, you also want to revisit them
regularly and be willing to change them if your circumstances call for it. “I set
aside time, every single quarter to review my personal and professional goals along
with reviewing The Taproom’s and Govalo’s goals as well,” Kelly said.
Whether it’s a shout-out on Twitter or a customer testimonial, “Take a screenshot
and save it, because you're going to have some really bad days.”
As a leader and business owner, there are certain hardships that your friends or
employees may not see or understand. “Finding your person that you can bounce ideas off of that you can vent to is helpful because entrepreneurship is incredibly lonely, but it doesn't have to be lonely,” she said.
Between Kelly’s businesses, newsletter, book deals, and podcast, getting it all done requires a disciplined approach to time management—as well as putting things into perspective.
She said she doesn’t buy into the myth of multitasking; instead, she opts to be intentional with her focus, and regularly checks in with herself to make sure she’s where she needs to be.
“I recognize when I have reached the end of one thing and I want to focus on something else.”
This also means making space for taking care of her personal needs as well, keeping up with healthy habits, and exercising boundaries.
“No is not a bad word. Learning how to say no is extremely important because every time you say yes to something, you're saying no to something else.”
Managing your time effectively means recognizing there will always be that tradeoff, she said. As you find areas where you can delegate or pass up on something, you can take on more opportunities for things you find exciting.
For Kelly, being a Twitter influencer has its pros and cons. She’s grateful there is a platform where women in the ecommerce and developer space can come together to inspire each other, and for the meaningful connections, she’s made.
“My whole start on Shopify was because of Twitter. My podcast co-host, we're now really great friends; we met on Twitter.”
But as her audience grows, Kelly says she can feel like she’s held under a microscope.
“Everyone has an opinion, and people feel like they can say some really nasty stuff to you.”
Despite this, she hopes that her authenticity online will continue to attract like-minded people, which makes it easier to drown out the noise.
“I think the authenticity piece is what helped me grow my audience as much as I did,” adding, “That, and my stupid developer jokes.”
As a software developer, Kelly said the instances of gender-based prejudice she experienced attest to the fact that it can definitely still be an ‘old boys’ club’
“My whole career has been proving people wrong. I met plenty of people who completely discounted me immediately. And I can ‘out-technical’ them any day. I can build Shopify apps in my sleep at this point.”
Even as a business owner, her gender played a role in how she was treated by clients and contacts. When meeting new people over the phone, they would often assume she was a man, because of her gender-neutral name, and she noticed perceivable shifts in tone or attitude when it became clear that wasn’t the case.
“Sometimes, they didn’t think I was a CEO—that I must have been in sales or something.”
Kelly said she has many friends in the agency space who have been open about their experiences running their businesses, and it’s made her aware of how much more she needs to prove herself as a CEO who is a woman.
“I get asked more questions to prove myself than they get asked from their leads. One time, I was meeting with somebody about a potential project, and he said to me: ‘How do I know that you're not just going to take my money and leave to have a baby?’”
Having gone through these experiences herself, we asked Kelly what advice she has for other women navigating these biases.
Undermining questions or offensive comments can certainly get under your skin and even feed into imposter syndrome for women in a male-dominated industry. Kelly said it’s helpful to remember that these comments are not about you, but the person’s own prejudices.
It’s important to recognize your own success and focus on what you know about your ability to deliver great results for your clients. She wants to remind women to be their own best advocate, and not to sell themselves short.
Networking with other people, especially other women in the space, either through social media or industry events can help you recognize these discrepancies in how you’re being treated.
Over the years, Kelly has become a leader in a number of ways: as a CEO, an influencer, and more. For other women with similar inspirations, she says the key is to build trust.
Nurturing a transparent and supportive environment was crucial for Kelly as she handed off the reins to the day-to-day operations at The Taproom. By sharing how she was feeling, and inviting her employees to do the same, she was able to build a strong foundation to effectively mentor and foster honest communication within her company.
“You can get a read on people's confidence levels. Sometimes I will flat out tell someone ‘you are holding yourself back.’”
She said her experience in social work definitely helped her in developing the emotional intelligence she needed for leadership, but it’s also largely intuitive.
“Half of being a leader is giving a shit about other people.” That means giving others the opportunity to learn, and demonstrating that you have their back.
“You have to trust that they can do it, and instill that confidence in them that they can deliver.”
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