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Shopify This! An Entrepreneur who Embraces Lifelong Learning

November 30, 2014
Tobias-Lütke-shopify Tobias Lütke didn’t like high school very much. A keen snowboarder, the young German quit high school at age 16. While on a vacation to Whistler, British Columbia, Lütke met a young woman whom he would later marry. When he emigrated to Canada in 2002 he kept his programming job with Siemans, working virtually. However, not long after he decided the arrangement wasn’t working out for both sides; he decided to leave the company.

Lütke re-focused on his passion–snowboarding, deciding he would try setting up an online store to sell gear. But he ran into a problem when he discovered there was no satisfactory online portal through which to sell his products. He turned to his programmer skills and thus was born Shopify, which the company describes as “…a complete ecommerce solution that allows you to set up an online store to sell your goods.”

Shopify was born out of necessity, not out of an entrepreneurial vision formed by Lütke, who also had zero business education or experience. As he’s said in interviews, had an effective online portal been present he would have used it to sell snowboarding gear.

Shopify, located in downtown Ottawa, has experienced astounding growth in a matter of just a few years. From a gross merchandise volume (GMV) of $59 million and 6,656 online stores in 2009, the company more than doubled every subsequent year to a GMV of $3 billion and 120,000-plus online stores in 2014. In the fall of 2014, with 400-plus employees Shopify moved to bigger accommodations in the downtown core.

Shopify2 In 2014, Shopify closed a venture capital deal worth $100 million–not too shabby for a snowboarding-loving entrepreneur who had to Google financial terminology in his hotel room after meeting with venture capital investors in Silicon Valley when he was in the early stages of building Shopify.

Sure there are plenty of smart business entrepreneurs out there, whether in Canada, the United States, Europe or East Asia. Some have big-name MBA school degrees, some have business experience or a combination of both. But what sets some entrepreneurs apart from the rest is a combination of high intellect, strong people skills, passion and a compelling vision that keeps them laser-focused.

Tobias Lütke possesses these four traits as an entrepreneurial leader. However, he also has a fifth, or bonus, trait: he’s what one could call a learning sponge. He soaks in everything he encounters and learns from it. He tries out new things such as teaching himself how to play the guitar at age 32. Learning is a way of being for serious business leaders and entrepreneurs.

Shopify1 Lütke exemplifies what it means to be a lifelong learner while remaining steadfastly focused on his vision. He’s shown that he’s completely open to change and to adapting to new opportunities. As Peter Senge author of the acclaimed book The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization has said on vision: “The most effective people are those who can ‘hold’ their vision while remaining committed to seeing current reality clearly.” For more information on Peter Senge’s incredible work, see my post The Five Learning Disciplies: How They Help Us Become Better Leaders.

Shopify is a Canadian entrepreneurial success story. But there are many other such stories, perhaps not with quite the meteorite growth in such a short span of time. However, perhaps it’s important to note that as much as medium-size and large companies employ a lot of people in Canada and the US, it is small business that creates the bulk of employment growth. In Canada, small businesses make up 98% of all firms and create 77% of private sector jobs (source: Industry Canada). In the US, two thirds of the net new jobs created are in small businesses (source: Forbes).

But that hasn’t looked at what drives innovation. Steve Jobs, for example, a cantankerous visionary who continuously pushed the envelope on consumer technology products, wasn’t an “employee.” His elastic vision was always focused, fueled by a huge amount of passion and energy. You can’t clone that. You have it or you don’t.

Fortunately, Tobias Lütke lives in Canada and in my city, Ottawa. His story about entrepreneurship is fascinating and motivating. There’s lots more to come from the Shopify story.

Be open to outcome, not attached to it.

Angeles Arrien

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