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Photo Courtesy: Andrew Evershed

Shopify? You Mean Spotify? (2/2)

A strong “company culture” has become synonymous with the opulent perks offered at startup and tech companies. Fully stocked kitchens, in-house top chefs, unlimited beer on tap, on-site massage therapists, unlimited Apple products, free house cleaning, laundry services, unlimited vacations, baby cash, state-of-the-arts office designs… the list goes on. This isn’t getting unnoticed as tourists are lining up to view the spectacular offices of Silicon Valley and the war on top talent have become a competition of who has the best perks.

While it would make me an absolute hypocrite to say that these perks are unnecessary (because I would probably go through withdrawal if I was no longer spoiled with the amazing amenities and perks at Shopify), I do argue that perks do not make a great company culture and it would be ignorant to think so.

“Most people assume a great culture is having a cool office or really great perks [but] what really defines whether somebody is a fit for your company is how they act when nobody is watching.” — Harley Finkelstein, COO of Shopify

In my last blog post, I mentioned that Shopify’s extensive, unconventional, and difficult interview process is meant to ensure that we’re hiring people with the right culture fit. I described the key qualities that I’ve identified in my co-workers as having:

  1. Drive
  2. Passion
  3. An entrepreneurial nature
  4. Creativity
  5. Open-mindedness
  6. A collaborative nature
  7. The ability to draw the f***ing owl (Resourcefulness)

I also acknowledged that these qualities are in fact quite cliché, especially for a tech company, but finding the people who actually exudes them is difficult. The rewards for creating an environment filled with people like this are the wonderful and interesting ways it plays out. Here are some examples.

What having real trust means for a company.

“Most people have a bad idea of what trust is, they think it’s binary — you either trust someone or you don’t. In reality, it’s more of a gradient.” — Tobias Lütke, CEO of Shopify

When I first joined, people kept on talking about this idea of the ‘trust battery’. Essentially, when someone joins the company, their ‘trust battery’ is at 50%. As they prove themselves to be more or less trustworthy, their battery percentage goes up or down. It just sounded like some nebulous culture team concept, but more and more I am astounded by what trust enables at Shopify.

What having 50% trust meant for me was the ability to lead a substantial project three weeks into my role despite being a new grad. My manager shared with me the problem we were trying to address, brainstormed a couple of ideas, and simply gave me the ownership to run with it. He didn’t tell me exactly what to do, he didn’t dictate the process I was to follow, and he challenged me to define goals and metrics. He trusted that I would do a good job on this project simply because he also has no reason to think otherwise. My battery was at 50% — perfectly neutral on the trust scale.

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The people you see here are the Head of Product Growth (my manager), the CDO, a Lead Developer, the CEO, CMO and the CMO’s expansion pack.

When I got started on this project, I further realized what having 50% trust meant. My manager invited me to the slack channel where all the internal stakeholders of the project were, it was the most intimidating slack channel a new hire could be in.

As this project progressed, the intimidation factor wore off but I never fail to be amazed by how much ownership I have over the work I do here, the type of people I get to interact with on a regular basis, and how much my opinions are valued and heard. Early in process, my conversations with my manager Chris, would often go like this:

Me: “Oh my god, I just realized that the person I’ve been arguing with (on slack) is the Director of Engineering!”

Chris: “So? Do you think what he’s saying is valid?”

Me: “No.”

Chris: “So hold your ground, it doesn’t matter who you’re talking to.”

Another way that Shopify’s actions stay true to their word on trust is the fact that we ‘default to open’ for everything within the company. By everything, I mean that I can view essentially any document, any piece of data, and have access to any software or tool that the company uses. There is no fighting for permission to access a certain database or being blocked from viewing a document. There is no precedent of this by other publicly traded companies, and could not be accomplished without enormous amounts of legal work.

It just goes to show how much trust Shopify has in its employees, how much they value everyone one of them no matter what role, and the deep understanding that the company’s’ goals could not be achieved without a team effort.

Still moving fast and breaking things.

“I kind of like to just start running down the hill and worry about falling and tumbling later.” — Chris Long, Head of Product Growth at Shopify

It’s common for fast-growing tech companies to lose its ‘startup culture’ once it hits a certain size, I thought that would certainly be the case for Shopify since it now has more than 1500 employees and $20 billion in sales. I was certainly proven wrong.

When I first got started on my project, right away my manager asked: “you think you can get a prototype up by end of this week?” I was taken aback by how fast he expected this project to move, and it was incredibly refreshing to hear. He didn’t want me to spend time perfecting the product without getting quick user feedback first.

Since the week we got the prototype up, the quick pace we worked at only picked up more momentum. There’s little need here to get approvals, follow protocol, or be cautious about not stepping on people’s toes. When you have a goal in mind that will help move the company forward, you just gotta go for it!

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We also love to get hacky. Shopify holds a hackathon once every quarter to give employees a chance to work on projects that they would ordinarily not be able to do in their regular roles. I got a chance to participate in my first Hack Day at Shopify in my second week at Shopify. The level of creativity, passion, and collaboration was incredible to be a part of.

The incredible thing that happens when your employees are also your customers.

“I don’t want the guy who played on the tennis team; I want the guy who created the tennis team.” — Harley Finkelstein, COO of Shopify

Being ‘entrepreneurial’ is a quality that Shopify looks for in any of the roles that they hire for and it makes complete sense. Shopify creates technology to empower entrepreneurs, and there’s no better way to do that than having employees who understand and empathize with their customers.

Except Shopify takes it up another notch, as a good fraction of Shopify employees are literally Shopify merchants. Here are a few examples:

We even launched a video series called The Stockroom where Jane Lee takes us through her journey of starting a Shopify store, selling products for entrepreneurs. Before she started this video series, she had a successful online store of her own called Silly B.

As customers and as employees, we become hyper aware of the barriers to success for merchants selling on Shopify. As a result, we constantly work towards making improvements to the platform that will help move the needle for our merchants.

On just being a little bit (or a lot) quirky.

“Most people believe there are a finite number of opportunities in which you have to compete for, and if you don’t get then, you have failed. I believe in the complete opposite.” — Tobias Lütke, CEO of Shopify

Shopify has a reputation for being a hipster paradise. I can’t deny that it’s hip, but I would classify Shopify as being more ‘quirky’ than ‘hipster’. The people here just tend to think and act a little differently. The quirkiness plays out in diverse ways.

For starters, we have a dog-friendly office. There is no shortage of happiness that these furry little things bring to your life.

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We also have a Go Kart room in our Ottawa office, I’m not kidding.

There’s also no shortage of Cat wallpaper and Drake stickers in the Toronto office.

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Our Waterloo office looks like a scene straight from Donkey Kong.

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Our internal terminology is also…well, interesting.

  • “Get Shit Done” refers to our company version of the scrum process
  • “The Waffle Board” is where all our main projects are displayed
  • “Unicorn” is our employee portal

The list continues, but you get the point.

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Sometimes, our Front of House Coordinator, Spencer, doubles up as the ice cream truck man because why not?

We have a thing called ‘Lightning Talks’. They happen once a week during our townhall and people get the chance to educate the company about random topics. In my short time here, I have already witnessed my share of amusing Lightning Talks.

For example, one of our product managers, Dan Meeking, has beekeeping as a serious hobby. One time, a huge beehive appeared near the front entrance of our Ottawa office, and an alternative entrance needed to be used to prevent people from getting stung.

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But why hire a beekeeper when you have Dan? Not only did Dan get rid of the bees and saved the whole building from getting stung, he also got more than 12,000 bees for free to add to his bee collection! We had a fantastic time hearing about his heroic story. (Don’t ask about the monkey hat)

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On a more serious note, while all the things I described sound like fun and games (and probably reinforces your belief that no one ever does any work here), it’s meant to be an insight on how people think here, why creativity is important, and the type of environment we like to create at the workplace.

To Tobi’s quote, there aren’t just a finite number of options out there that will lead you to success. Wearing a nice suit to work, creating all the right relationships at work, and ‘hustling hard’ might get you to that promotion you want, but that doesn’t mean it’s the only way. Spencer’s makeshift ice cream truck gave the office just as much joy (if not more) as a real ice cream truck. Dan’s beekeeping hobby ended up resolving a significant issue at the office. They both apply the same creativity and problem-solving skills to other aspects of work and life.

Shopify is not for everyone, but it certainly is for me.

For a new grad I think I have a dream job, but I wouldn’t be surprised if you think otherwise. When my actuary friend saw my office, she liked it, but couldn’t imagine how work would ever got done in this place that resembled more with an Ikea showroom than an office space. My consulting and banking friends have trouble understanding the level of ownership and the minimal direction I get on a day-to-day basis. “How do you know what you’re supposed to do??” they would ask, and I usually just shrug and reply “I don’t know, I just figure it out.”

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I’ve only touched the surface of the culture at Shopify, but I hope this makes it easier to understand that we are not just looking for competency and achievement in our employees, but that there’s a huge set of other nuanced qualities that makes Shopify succeed as a whole.

Oh yeah, we’re hiring!

Written by

building new products @facebook, previously creating novel ways to buy stuff @shopify, 🇨🇦 export, struggles daily to pick out an outfit.

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