The untold story of Shopify’s magic

June 21, 2013

Like any web start-up, Shopify is what you would expect to see in a movie: a dichotomy of efficiency and hard work, with a hint of casual atmosphere among the employees and executives.

Among computers and intense conversations, we see glimpses of a much lighter tone. Many sections of the walls are painted with blackboard paint and have chalk in close proximity. A box of “random” balls, like those found in a child’s play pen, sits in a small corner. Rooms with themes can be found all over the office, including the “Comic Book Room” with a wall full of comic book characters.

Even the large staff room ― which used to be Capital City Music Hall ― is adorned with graffiti. And yes, pinball machines and video games are included.

Launched in 2006, Shopify has grown to be an e-commerce website that distributes almost $700 million worth of products through 55,000 online stores in more than 100 countries (roughly 10,000 are fashion designers selling clothes and accessories); this year’s goal is $1.5 billion through 80,000 stores.

Daniel Weinand, Shopify’s co-founder and chief design & culture officer, sits across from me as we settle into our conversation. In a slight German accent, Weinand tells me how Shopify came to be, shares his background as a photographer and talks about what it was like growing up in Europe. He also explains what this company is doing to help other young entrepreneurs in the Nation’s Capital and internationally.

Daniel Weinand.

KATHERINE ELLIS: How did Shopify become what it is today?

DANIEL WEINAND: We wanted to sell snowboarding equipment and we started to look for an online store solution that we could use to sell online immediately. We found that no solution at that time was suitable or easy to use. [So], what we did was write our own. That seemed easier than we thought.

We used a revolutionary product at the time, called Ruby on Rails. Once we developed that and had our own online store, we thought there is way more value in the store software that we created than in the stock portion. So we thought: why don’t we make the technology we just created accessible to everyone who needs it?

Why did you begin your start-up in Ottawa?  

It is mostly circumstances. Tobi’s [Tobias Lütke] wife is from Ottawa — she is Canadian and he’s German. I’m from Germany and my fiancée is Canadian. I moved to Canada for two reasons: a) I wanted to start Shopify with Tobi and b) my fiancée had to go back to Canada from Germany and I followed her. We both moved to Ottawa. There wasn’t a point in time when we said that Ottawa has to be the city where you start a start-up, we just happened to be here.

Weinand moved to Ottawa for personal reasons – shortly afterwards, Shopify became a major digital media business.

Have there been any challenges or advantages to starting a business in Ottawa?

I think [we’ve experienced] both. Ottawa is a really interesting city — at the time, there weren’t many start-ups that were thinking [outside] the box. For a young start-up like us that tried to reinvent things, and tackle them from a new point of view, it was really cool because we could attract a lot of talent in the city that didn’t have many other [avenues]. We felt that for building a really strong team and recruiting, Ottawa was brilliant because there was very little competition if you compare it to, let’s say, San Francisco or New York.

On the other side, you were kind of missing the atmosphere that you get from San Francisco and New York, and some other cities, [where] there is a strong start-up scene and like-minded people you can bounce ideas off of. Ottawa always felt a little bit isolated, you always had to travel to do business meetings. But I think, all things considered, Ottawa has been a fantastic location for us.

Weinand says that online boutiques can help designers in many ways – they are cost-effective and easy to set up.

How can Shopify help designers, emerging or established, in today’s digital world?

In many ways. Traditionally, if you think about a fashion designer [starting] a business, you have to have a retail location. A retail location is very expensive. You have to have staff that sells for you while you’re not in the store, and all of these things add up to a lot of money. The other thing is, if you are a fashion designer, you most likely have a blog and a following.

Traditionally, say five years ago, it was very expensive to set up an online store. If you went to an agency and got it contracted out, you [would] pay tens of thousands of dollars for the build, and then you would pay a hefty sum every month for maintenance to keep your service running. Shopify makes it very easy to set up an online store. You don’t need to be a technical wizard anymore to do it. You can have it running within the afternoon, and it is much, much more affordable.

Is this the wave of the future? No more stores?

It is still feasible to have brick-and-mortar stores, and I would still encourage people to have them for sure. [However], you can’t have everything in stock at the location, so online stores make a lot of sense. Plus, you get the benefits that suddenly everyone in the world can buy the things that you just made, not just [the people in your] city.

What is your educational background?

My education background is very mixed. I always wanted to become a musician. I grew up in Germany, and I was very into music — I wanted to become a composer, but my parents convinced me to do something more useful with which I could earn money, so I ended up studying computer science and music. I dropped out of that to move to Canada, and then I started Shopify here. I was working for a few years as a photographer as well — it mainly started because I needed another creative outlet, and that soon turned into working with fashion agencies.

Your work has appeared in some magazines, and you have shot commercially. What type of photography do you like to do?

Portraiture and beauty shots. I liked shooting campaigns and editorials. I was very excited to always meet new make-up artists and try to come up with new concepts for beauty shots or hair shots.

I recently did a shoot for a friend who participated in the Contessa Hairstyling Awards, which is probably the world’s largest hairstyling competition. This is an annual event, and you submit three photos of three different styles of cuts and colouring. Those are the things that are really up my alley — when it involves people, and art. I see hairstyling and make-up as an art.

I still do photography, but I am not represented by an agency. I put a hiatus on my commercial career, so I don’t accept any commercial clients at the moment and I just follow some personal projects.

Apart from Shopify, one of Weinand’s passions is photography.

How would you describe your personal style?

I would describe it as minimalistic, yet sophisticated and authentic. I like things that last and I admire trends and respect them. At the same time, what I don’t like is looking back at photos of myself wearing something that I find embarrassing [laughs]. With a clean and sophisticated style, I feel I can express my character better, because people pay more attention to what I do, what I say and how I say it, than to what pattern I am currently wearing.

Three years ago, Shopify began a start-up competition, Build a Business. How did this come about?

A lot of people say they have an idea, they want to build a business, but they never act on it. I wanted to give people a kick or an incentive to get [them] going. And that was our original idea. So we say: “Hey, here is some prize money and we’ll give you some business advice.” We got a very interesting panel of mentors involved in Build a Business.

Many people have aspirations but never follow through because they think they are not capable. In the past two years, people have done it: some have started out at zero and now make a million dollars.

I think the competition is a nice supplement to someone starting out — to know that there are thousands of other people doing the same thing at the same time, to know that it is not impossible!

Read more about Shopify and check out some of these Shopify plugins.

By Katherine Ellis
Photography by James Park

One Comment »

  • Shopify | cmuq 67-474 said:

    […] story of Shopify is kind of similar to the story of AirBnB i.e two guys trying to sell something online and finding […]

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