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Shopify's crazy journey: Seven questions with CEO Tobias Lutke

Shopify Inc. CEO Tobias Lutke with his wife Fiona McKean, and children Fraser, Sam and Tristan (left to right), on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, before the company's IPO, Thursday, May 21, 2015.

Richard Drew/AP

An interview with Shopify CEO Tobias Lutke, speaking from the New York Stock Exchange about two hours after his company's stock began trading.

1) How are you feeling?

It's pretty crazy stuff, I have to say. It's a day for reflections, after taking your company from writing your first line of code to going public. It's an experience not a lot of people get to witness. I am feeling very, very lucky right now.

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2) We figured when trading opened this morning you were worth $100-million more than when you went to bed last night. How surreal is that? You grew up as a middle-class kid in Germany right?

Yes. Literally the only time in the last year where I've thought about this is when I read The Globe and Mail, talking about my net worth. It is not something that motivates me, so I don't particularly care about money. I care about working on interesting problems, and Shopify is this gift that keeps on giving for working on interesting problems with amazing people. That's really what I'm preoccupied with. I know that sounds like something like a PR agency would put together, but … this is the way I think about it in reality.

Given the success rate, if you want to get wealthy, entrepreneurship is a horrible way of doing it. There are significantly easier ways of doing it. So if it works out, it's great, and that's dramatic, and that's because the spoils go to a fraction of a per cent of a fraction of a per cent of a fraction of a per cent to the people who make it all the way. ... In my worldview, time is energy that you can invest in things, and money is energy that you can invest. Time has significantly more leverage than money in terms of how much energy you get out of time … the only thing that changed when I started doing better financially is I had two types of energy to direct at problems, which clearly helps, but it's not a big difference from before.

3) What have you learned from the IPO experience, that maybe surprised you or confirmed suspicions you had?

It's terribly hard in life to get any kind of absolute [sense] of how well you're doing. There's a lot of relativism going on. We've done very well as a company relative to everyone else in Ottawa, and at a certain point relative to other tech companies. Everything is in a frame of reference. The main thing about going public in the frame of reference is the entirety of the business world. So going into this we felt the team was ready, I felt ready, the product was absolutely ready. Everything sort of fell into place as being ready. Hey, we've done this high school of private world, let's go to college now. We felt ready.

This company was never built to win business plan competitions. It was only based on the conviction there was a much better way for business to be created online. That's really what we built, and we went into the process of going into the road show, which was a really interesting experience for me, to saying: 'Hey, we're just telling people what kind of company we built and invite them to invest and we're not selling, we're just explaining.' The amazing thing is, everyone was like: 'That's great.'

If you're just authentic and build something good and explain it, people clearly liked what we were telling them. That was great.

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4) Any anecdotes from the road show?

It definitely isn't something one can make a movie about. It's a lot of 5:30 starts in the day and lots of black Town Cars taking you to various towers in which you take elevators usually to the top of a building, and then you go in a room and then you essentially give the same presentation you've given 40 times before and you do probably 40 times more. You end up having 80 meetings over the course of nine days in all these different cities. It's hard work, I have to say. As an engineer, if I have to do something twice, it's okay. if I have to do something three times, I wonder why it's so tough to automate it. So giving the same presentation 80 times was a little bit trying.

5) Were you surprised by the demand?

Yeah, sure. I know on whatever frame of reference I used previously Shopify was a very good company. But you're going to literally the world stage, and who knows how much anyone hears? It's really, really hard. I had a suspicion obviously that Shopify would be really well received. People just really like the story at the end of the day.

6) The big question is what this means for Canadian tech and other companies thinking of going public. Are there any thoughts you want to leave about what your successful IPO means for the Canadian tech scene?

We have a lot of really great companies in Canada, and I think there's always been this fear that great in Canada doesn't mean great on a world stage. We need more self-confidence. We are building incredibly good businesses with incredibly good people, being loyal, dedicating themselves to solving important problems. Canada just needs to tell people: You know what? The best way to do it is just be in front of people and get out there and do this sort of thing. I really hope this is going to end up being a very positive event.

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The best people in the world at young companies are currently looking at Shopify to figure out what it should be worth. It's going to go up and down and all these things, and whatever the future holds, I don't' know, but the reality of it is, such as it has been built as a private company in Canada, that just had a chip on its shoulder and wanted to create a set of software for a market it cared about, we built a world-class company, and so will others. If that ends up getting through everyone's head, which really seems a little bit difficult to do sometimes, then I think everything will fall into place.

7) How does this change things for you personally and Shopify now that you're public?

I finally get to go back and work on product, so that's great. I can put PowerPoint on the hook for a little while and work on fun things. Hopefully that's the largest change. Ideally, not much changes. I've got the kind of team that can help make that happen.

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About the Author

Sean Silcoff joined The Globe and Mail in January, 2012, following an 18-year-career in journalism and communications. He previously worked as a columnist and Montreal correspondent for the National Post and as a staff writer at Canadian Business Magazine, where he was project co-ordinator of the magazine's inaugural Rich 100 list. More

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