Shopify’s Founder Tobias Lütke on Creativity and Constraints

Image: Cats and Canvas by Kobayashi Kiyochika/Artvee

I recently dug up an archive of Shopify founder and CEO Tobias Lütke’s old blog, which linked to this interview with Signal v. Noise. Given Shopify’s impact, if you’re an entrepreneur, founder, or programmer, the whole thing is worth the read, particularly how well Shopify—at 28 people in Ottawa—adapted to constraints

For example, Shopify was based in Ottawa, where there weren’t as many senior business development veterans on the job market. Instead, Shopify aligned its incentives with design companies for referrals and sales:

Our financial pressure and lack of experience in traditional BizDev also required us to come up with cheap and scalable ways to grow channels for our business. For example, the most successful initiative that we have done is create a partner system with design companies. If you are a design company you usually get a certain amount of money per design job and that’s it. Every design company on the planet wants to be more like the software guys and transition into monthly re-occurring revenue. So we created our Partner system in such a way that design companies (or anyone else) who bring us a customer will receive a 20% for-life profit share of that account.

There are now several design companies that get cheques from us, which in turn allows them to pay full time employees to do even more ecommerce work and therefore generate more monthly revenue. It’s a great system and everyone wins.

That has since turned into Shopify’s massive partner program. This spirit ladders up well to his points on creativity and constraints:

Our hiring is based on the assumption that there are fundamentally two groups of people in the tech industry: there are left brained science type programmers who can write amazing amounts of complicated code with ease; and then there are the right brained creative types. While left brained programmers may be 2-3x as fast when writing code, the right brained programmers can use their creativity to come up with elegant solutions that only require 1/5th of the work. Based on this understanding, we hire the creative types.

There is a good deal of junk science in this, but It’s a convenient way to filter job applications. The creative types are easy to recognize as they tend to play music, do photography, or similar things. One of the most important questions that we ask during an interview is “What do you do for fun?” In short, we look for independent, creative, fun-loving and resourceful people. If we come across one then we go ahead and make them an offer.

I think it’s a good idea to just pick up great people and let them find their own niche. If you are a rock band and you are looking for a pianist but this amazing ukulele guy comes along, you just bring him on and adjust. I bet you that your next ukulele song will blow everything else you have done out of the water. Run with it.

If there was a cynic or practical-minded person who wasn’t interested in creativity, this would be it—as a positive signal for their future job. It’s why self-initiated projects outside of work matter, and still matter at Shopify. If you want to learn more about creativity, the creative process, and how to be more creative, I wrote a book on the topic

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