Company Culture

Shopify's Brittany Forsyth on Scaling Company Culture

George Dickson
April 13, 2015
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Brittany Forsyth

Shopify grew from 5 people working together in a coffee shop to a commerce juggernaut, totaling $7 billion in annual sales in only a few years. Scaling at that rate is challenging by anyone’s standards, and scaling culture under those conditions can be even harder.

We met with Brittany Forsyth, Shopify's VP of Human Relations, for a Q&A session to learn some of the keys to successfully scaling company culture.

Q: How was Shopify able to maintain its company culture through rapid growth?

A: When companies are going through a rapid growth period, it’s easy to forget about the importance of culture when you’re so focused on recruiting more people and building the right tools and processes to scale the organization.

For Shopify, even when it seems like the top priority is to meet hiring demands and to quickly build the tools and structure needed to scale, our primary focus is always on our culture. We are always focused on hiring the right people to the team — the people that will enhance our culture and not take away from it.

The other key part of maintaining a great culture is the constant focus on the behaviors and values that best define it. We understand what our culture is and we live true to it. A great example of this is our philosophy around design.

Shopify Montreal Office

We put a high value around great design and a great user experience. When we moved to our current office we had new microwaves installed on all of the floors. Unfortunately, they were confusing, ugly, and hard to use. So what did we do? We decided to remove them all because we realized that they didn’t live true to our values. It’s not always the big things that make the difference, it can be the small things that add up to make a larger impact!

The tl;dr of this is as follows: Determine what behaviors and beliefs you value as a company, and have everyone live true to them. These behaviors and beliefs should be so essential to your core, that you don’t even think of it as culture.

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Q: What was the greatest cultural challenge exponential growth posed (how do you work to solve it)?

A: Realizing that things evolve, change and need to scale. Nothing is ever fully complete and there’s always room for more iterations and development! More importantly, understanding that great ideas have an expiry date. We have a saying at Shopify: ‘strong opinions, loosely held.' We talk about this often because a lot of great ideas might be right for 100 employees, but completely wrong for 500.

This was pretty hard to swallow at times, but once we came to terms with this, we were better off for it. We were able to adapt and evolve certain tools, processes, and behaviors to be more in line with the current culture, instead of the original ‘50 people culture.’

Q: A great quote from one of Shopify’s employees: “The problems we have to solve can be tough. But we all work together.” Teamwork is crucial, particularly in a multi-location company that is growing exponentially. What are some tools the team at Shopify use to stay cohesive?

A: We live on collaboration tools like Slack, Google Hangout, and Sococo. Without these tools, we wouldn’t be able to communicate and work together like we currently do. We encourage ad-hoc brainstorming sessions and in-person meetings. We also encourage people to travel to different offices and meet new teams and challenge new problems. We’ve built our offices and culture to facilitate this type of teamwork.

Q: “Shopify's culture is defined by the great people who work here.” How has Shopify’s culture changed with the addition of so many new hires; how has it remained the same?

A: Shopify’s culture is a manifestation of the amazing people on the team. With every new hire, the culture changes slightly. This is something to be acknowledged and celebrated. We openly accept and look forward to the constant evolution. However, with this evolution, there are still certain aspects of the culture that are fundamental, and these are defined by our values and the leadership team. Some of these things include: a high trust battery, getting things done, and building for the long term.

Q: At Shopify, employees are encouraged to “experiment, take risks, and push the envelope.” Why is it so important to maintain an environment that encourages creativity within a safe, supportive environment?

A: Shopify is only as successful as our people and the products we create. To ensure we continue to build the best product out there, we fundamentally believe that we need to always experiment with new ideas, take risks and iterate on past ideas. We believe the only way to do this successfully, is to do this in a safe environment where people know that it’s okay to take risks and at times fail. It’s about failing gracefully and being transparent about these failures — that we value.

Q: Autonomy at work is a priceless motivator, and Shopify’s Hack Days are an extraordinary way of supporting that. What is your favorite project that shipped as part of Shopify’s Hack Days?

A: There are so many awesome projects, it’s hard to pick! Some of my favorite projects include Expensely, our internal expensing tool, Shopify Stories and Lunchify. My favorite probably being Lunchify.

The team built an app (Lunchify) which automatically pairs two employees up for lunch every week or month (depending on their setting). The idea was simple — we have so many amazing people at Shopify and we wanted a tool to connect them. This was especially valuable during all of our growth. The app sends you an email with a link to the person you’ll be having lunch with. You can check out their profile in our internal portal, Vault, to get an idea of their background, role and interest and then you find them in the lunch line and the rest is history. I’ve had some pretty great lunches as a result of this app!

Q: An increasing number of studies show the importance of employee development. Shopify’s career page states, “We expect you to learn and grow, and we'll provide you with the resources to make that happen.” What are some of the ways Shopify helps employees develop their skills, and how has that improved operations at the company?

A: We are a performance-based company that understands the importance of constant development, both personally and professionally. Without this development, someone wouldn’t survive Shopify’s growth and constant change. To ensure we support the team in this, we provide a lot of resources including:

A team of coaches that support everyone on their development. They do specific initiatives like: 1:1 coaching, Coaches Corner, Managify Workshops, Lean Coffees and breaking people talks.

We provide a professional development budget that the team can put towards conference travel, classes and workshops. Whatever they want to develop both personally and professionally.

Lightning Talks — This is a chance for anyone in the company to get up and talk about something that might be of interest to others in 4 minutes or less. It can be Shopify related, but generally, it's outside of that.

We do Lunch & Learns on a range of topics including finances, wellness, and new skills.

Ongoing demos and knowledge sharing with the team.

Q: We came across Shopify’s ‘Draw the Owl’ video and sent it around our entire office. Did you ever have to draw the owl, or is it really just “a metaphor for resourcefulness?”

A: Haha I haven’t, but many people have. I was around pre-draw-the-owl… or else I may have had to. It began as a metaphor for resourcefulness, but over time it has become a part of our everyday sayings. We’ve had a lot of people send in drawings and really creative owl-inspired applications since the video. It’s always fun seeing a candidate’s take on it.

Q: Tell us a little about Shopify's UNICORN peer bonus system. What worked best about it, what didn’t, and what drove the ultimate decision to discontinue the program?

Over time it become clear that Unicorn wasn’t working like we originally planned. It was a hard decision, but we ultimately realized that the original Unicorn worked great for a 100-300 person company, but it just didn’t scale with the needs of a 500+ company. We believe this is because we’ve referred to Unicorn as a peer-based bonus tool, but realize now that it functions more accurately as a peer-based recognition tool.

So technically we haven’t discontinued Unicorn, we’ve just decided to change it from a peer-based bonus tool to a recognition and communication tool. It’s a place to thank and recognize the amazing things that people do at Shopify. Like many other things here at Shopify, it’s definitely still a work in progress that will continue to evolve.

Q: What is the best thing about working with your colleagues at Shopify?

A: You’re constantly learning from them. We hire some of the coolest, smartest and most authentic people I know. I’m always upping my game to keep up with the rest of them. Not to mention, it’s a hell of a lot of fun!

Although scaling company culture is never simple, it is possible — and important — to get it right. Not every company will see the kind of exponential growth Shopify experienced over the past few years, but these insights are applicable for companies of any size or trajectory.

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