Startup as a State of Mind: How Shopify Cultivates Culture at Scale

If you had to look at a technology company who has mastered the art and science of company culture at scale, you’d be wise turn your eyes to Ottawa’s Shopify. The company’s storied path saw it retain a startup-like culture even as it reached the public market. Any entrepreneur will attest: that’s impressive.

Speaking to Canadian Business, founder Tobias Lütke said he believes startup “is a state of mind”—suggesting that a company of any size can retain the working culture that fueled it as a lean, agile fledgling.

“If you fail to keep it up for a long time, then it’s gone,” he warns. “It’s something that can get lost along the way.”

Echoing this is Shopify’s Harley Finkelstein, who notes that “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’s watching.” People, of course, are at the heart of any office culture.

So in terms of hiring, Finkelstein says, “I don’t want the guy who played on the tennis team; I want the guy who created the tennis team.”

Lütke adds that people need to feel their contributions make a tangible impact on the company, regardless of its size, which he affirms is possible.

“When we start new interns in our R&D team, we make sure that within their first week they actually make a change to Shopify that impacts our customers. Minutes after they send the code over, it’s going to be in front of a hundred million shoppers. And it just blows people’s minds, because that’s the kind of personal impact they want to have in the company,” he explains.

Shopify went from two to 20 people in the first six year. Now it’s a billion-dollar public business with hundreds of workers.

“It’s hard to talk about what I would do differently, because I would very much not want to do anything differently; it was all important to where we are now,” Lütke says.