Fireside chat with Shopify CEO

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The Sedra Student Design Centre in Engineering 5 was full of students eager to listen to Shopify CEO Tobias L&uuml;tke Sept. 30.&nbsp;</p>

The fireside talk was facilitated by Michael Litt, co-founder and CEO of Vidyard. The talk coincided with an announcement that Shopify would be expanding their Waterloo offices from about 30 employees currently located in the Tannery to up to 300 people. The new office will be located at the old Seagram distillery, which is beside the Balsille School of International Governance and owned by the Centre for International Governance Innovation. 

The talk started with Litt asking questions to Lütke before opening it up to the audience. 

Early on, the question of why Shopify chose to set up in Waterloo came up. “If you really [analyze] how the greatest companies in history have been made, it’s usually that there is a geographic role to everything,” said  Lütke. “There’s all these amazing people in this area all doing their own thing and then someone aggravates them somehow.” 

The talk then moved on to discuss leadership, with Lütke addressing the need to create space that allows for innovation. “This is how it is, this is how you run a really great company. You go — your company has this big problem, this big thing, seen from the top. As the CEO, or any head of a company, you create space.”

During the discussion on space, Litt noted that their new office at the Seagram distillery had played a part during the prohibition era in producing alcohol that was smuggled into the United States and that “having Shopify allow anyone to sell anything is actually pretty funny.”

The challenge of maintaining a company’s culture as it opens new offices and grows was also brought up by Litt. “Culture, I don’t think defines us nearly as much as people might think. The thing that we really, really make sure is, specifically for hiring is that everyone we work with, everyone at Shopify really cares. Not just about what we’re doing, but in general,” said Lütke. “When I walk around I want to see people that are into it. Afterwards, hire interesting people. The culture is the sum total of all the great people who make it up, who are in the building that day, because people move around a lot.”

Lütke noted that their various offices have different cultures. “Our Toronto office has a very different culture than Ottawa. Ottawa is a super long-term office, heavy base engineering, never do something quick, always do it right. Let’s factor whatever is going to put us in the best situation for five years to come…. Toronto is marketing oriented. Let’s do it now. Let’s build ads, all the APIs to make new products and come up with things.” 

The audience questions brought discussion on his personal experience and what he looks for when hiring. Lütke, who moved to Canada when his girlfriend went to study in Calgary, talked about his education. 

“In Waterloo, it looks like there’s a heavy focus on co-op terms. In Germany, you can apprenticeship,” said Lütke. “Actually, I quit school after 10th grade and then joined Ko-Blenzer BOG as an apprentice.” 

In terms of what he is looking for when hiring Waterloo grads, “it might be universal across Waterloo, which I find is incredible, which I find is really, really rare in the general population, is that unbelievable hunger for learning,” said Lütke. “I identify as a technologist but I’m really all about learning things quickly — I think programming kind of necessitates you to look at things quickly because it changes as a discipline so quickly.” 

Looking towards the future, Lütke talked about how, just as people view Facebook as the epitome of social media, he wants Shopify to be the epitome of online shopping.

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