Twenty-four year old Brennan Loh meets me at 9 a.m. in the reception area of Shopify’s new office space in the heart of the Byward Market. He walks me through the colourful hallways covered with floor-to-ceiling chalkboards, neon green paint, random drawings and a life-size cut-out of Chuck Norris. Shopify employees get an annual allowance to deck out their office space as they see fit, an expression of the company’s very creative and free-spirited corporate culture.
“This place is unbelievably supportive of creativity, experimentation, doing things and telling people,” says Brennan, who is Shopify’s head of business development. Based in Ottawa, Shopify is an e-commerce platform that allows individuals and businesses to create custom online stores. It hosts over 60,000 active online retailers, small to medium sized retailers who have processed over 35 million orders and have generated $2 billion in online sales.
A Telfer alumnus, Brennan first joined the company in 2010 after having launched his own business called Avitu with two uOttawa engineering students. The three worked tirelessly on Avitu out of a hot apartment before being offered the opportunity by another uOttawa alumnus to use part of Shopify’s office space to run their company. That alumnus, Harley Finkelstein, a graduate of the combined law and MBA program, was the chief platform officer at Shopify. “Shopify always wanted to be involved in the community and foster that sense of growth in Ottawa,” says Brennan. “They had this openness and willingness to share, a very Silicon Valley approach.”
The exchange of business practices and strategies was something that Harley knew quite well even before he came to Shopify. A few weeks after he began his studies at uOttawa, he was introduced to a group of Ottawa entrepreneurs who would meet weekly at a local coffee shop to discuss business and share ideas. It was there that he met Tobias Lütke, a young German who was running a snowboard shop and was in the midst of transitioning into a software company — Shopify. Harley was in a similar situation; he hoped to take the licensed t-shirt printing company that he had founded as an undergrad online, making it more manageable for him to run his business while in school. “I became one of Shopify’s first customers,” he says.
But Harley felt that he could be part of something bigger. After completing his degree and joining a law firm in Toronto, he realized he was destined for a more creative career. “I felt that law was all about mitigating risk and frankly, I as an entrepreneur wanted to take risks. I felt like people had this work-life balance thing but to me, I don’t believe in separating my life into work and non-work. I want to spend my waking hours doing something I love and being an entrepreneur allows me to do that,” he says. Harley soon returned to Ottawa and joined Tobias as chief platform officer at Shopify.
As for Brennan, the time he spent working on Avitu — which initially started as a class project — was invaluable. He saw the material he was learning in class put into practice. His collaboration with two engineers was also an eye opener, as it allowed him to “see not only the business rationale but the product reasoning,” while enabling him to have educated conversations with his co-founders. He also took the opportunity of being in a shared space with Shopify to exchange best practices and discuss business strategies with Harley every week. “He was kind of mentoring me and would suggest different ways to look at technology,” says Brennan.
In 2010, Brennan and his partners decided to leave Avitu behind and join Shopify. “When we returned to school, we kept running into the inherent problem that Matt and Dan [Avitu’s co-founders] were in their final two years of engineering. That’s the worst possible year to try to run a full-time company on the side. I was going into my final six months of school and the time crunch was really just killing us. We felt that we had to take the next step but we just couldn’t. So when Shopify offered us a job, it just made sense,” he explains.
Both Harley and Brennan continue to create and to feed their inner entrepreneur. They are driven by their passion and love for what they do, something they believe all 265 Shopify employees share.
“This is a place where we really encourage people to act like owners,” says Harley. “We courage them to fail fast and fail gracefully. Find something you love doing every day. For me, it is running a business. For Brennan, it’s making business development deals. For our designers, it’s creating beautiful things and for our engineers, it’s about building incredible software.”