Imagine running a company with over 1,000 employees who range between 18 and 62 years old, and who come from 20 different countries. Now imagine being responsible for ensuring that company has a strong and thriving culture — on top of heading up design. That’s just a glimmer of what Daniel Weinand does, one of the co-founders of Shopify.

We recently had a chance to interview Weinand and explored topics like creating a workplace that’s comfortable for both introverts and extraverts, Shopify’s executive coaching program, the challenges of scaling their culture, and how his German upbringing has influenced his work philosophies.

Culture Q&A With Daniel Weinand

You made the switch from Chief Design Officer to Chief Culture Officer in 2012. What prompted the switch?

I didn’t make the switch completely; I’ve been covering both roles since 2012. I have been the Chief Design Officer since 2008 and took on the role of Chief Culture Officer in 2012 when we were at about 70 employees.

What prompted the switch was that I am very passionate about the culture of Shopify and want to ensure that our core values are represented in everything we do. From talent acquisition, to how our offices are designed, to our perks and benefits, to how Shopify affects our employees’ lives, I find all of that incredibly valuable, and that’s what motivated me to take on that leadership role.

What does a day in the life of your role look like?

There are no “typical” days here at Shopify. Sure, there are recurring events that happen because there are so many moving pieces within the company, but I am always looking at where I provide the most impact, so that influences my schedule and what I work on.

Brittany Forsyth, SVP of HR
Brittany Forsyth, SVP of HR

How does your role cross over with Brittany Forsyth’s, your SVP of HR?

We collaborate very closely on many initiatives within Shopify. We work together to ensure that we’re messaging our core values properly both internally and externally as our employees are our strongest ambassadors.

How have Shopify’s Talent Acceleration group and coaching programs influenced the culture?

I met my coach at a time when I didn’t think I needed coaching at all. My team was doing well and I was regarded as a good manager. Little did I know that working with a coach can catapult your capacities to new levels, ones you didn’t know existed before. After this experience I was convinced that we needed to bring coaches in-house to aid the team with their development.

Self-directed growth is not easy, and it’s not something that is presented to everyone for consumption. Our coaches facilitate the hard work that is required to allow our employees to grow beyond what they think they’re capable of.

The implementation of this program has helped create a culture at Shopify that allows people to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. It encourages collaboration and fosters development and learning within the company.

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What is the most significant people challenge you’ve faced as you’ve scaled, and how did you solve it?

One of the biggest people challenges that we’ve experienced as we scaled is ensuring that our culture grows alongside it. For example, we have four separate offices, Ottawa, Toronto, Montreal, and Waterloo. We learned very early on that each office has their own culture and individual quirks, and we wanted to appreciate that, rather than enforcing Ottawa’s (our headquarters) personality and way of doing things.

We have to acknowledge that the culture is always changing when people join or leave the company. We also have to acknowledge that culture cannot be mandated or changed at will.

When a company is scaling at such a fast pace, where the culture is constantly evolving, you have to figure out how to constantly nudge it gently in the best direction: encourage the right behaviours, make the undesired behaviours difficult. The tools you’re using are different for a company of 50 people than they are for a company of 1,500.

Your employees range from 18 to 62 years old, and come from 20 different countries. How do you engage such a diverse group?

Don’t tailor the company to one specific group! You can segment by many different factors when looking at your employees. You’re not just looking at age, gender, or where they are from, but also at other things like whether someone is an introvert or extrovert. For instance, with the office layouts, I wanted to make sure that we created a productive environment for both extroverts and introverts. I designed a unique pod layout that fosters teamwork, and at the same time creates plenty of space where people can retreat and work in solitude whenever they need.

Shopify Office, Montreal
Shopify Office, Montreal

We thrive in diversity because everyone is open-minded and we are very transparent internally. People have plenty of ways to voice concerns directly or anonymously, and those are all answered publicly in our town halls.

Is there a science to hiring for culture-fit, or is it more intuitive?

The first step to being hired at Shopify is the life story. A candidate comes in to speak with someone from our Talent Acquisition team and is asked to talk about their life story. We want to find out what a candidate has been up to and why.

This is not to match someone with a predefined template. There is no Shopify-ness that we score candidates on. We respect everyone as an individual and aspire to fill the place with people from diverse backgrounds and tastes.

We will point out red flags if there is a suspicion that someone would not enjoy living by our code of conduct. For instance, we ban any office politics and thus try to avoid adding people, who in their previous jobs, worked towards their own personal gain rather than their team’s or company’s.

We also try to find out how close someone is to our internal values in order to gauge how likely they are to be successful at Shopify. If someone isn’t curious and shows no signs of always wanting to learn, then that would make it very difficult for this person to thrive at Shopify.

And maybe one more point: we don’t use platitudes when describing our culture. There are a lot of buzzwords that companies claim to have as their pillars of defining culture. But the problem is, when you ask someone, “Are you a team player?” or “Do you have integrity?” no one will answer “no”. We choose ways to describe our culture so that a candidate feels comfortable responding honestly. There is no right or wrong answer and we get to hear a more genuine response.

You and Tobias are both from Germany. Do you think your German upbringing, or German philosophies, influence how you approach the culture at Shopify?

Of course. As leaders we play a huge part in shaping the culture, and our backgrounds shaped us, so it would be foolish to deny where we come from and how we grew up. Most notably, Tobi and I are always looking at ways that we can improve, whether that is personal growth or a product we’re working on.

We value people who take criticism well and strive to make something better, or become better all the time, as opposed to reacting defensively.

I am not a fan of the popular “shit sandwich” and feel strongly about being radically candid. So that’s the no bullshit culture I want to help foster: we care [about you, about the product, about the company], ergo we need to be able to openly talk about issues.

What’s something about Shopify’s culture most people don’t know about?

We encourage people to be critical of their habits and thinking. This means questioning why we do the things we do, and how we can improve them. One of our values is to ‘thrive on change’. We recognize that we can’t insulate our company by creating internal stability. Instead, we embrace change. We thrive on anti-fragility.

Many companies avoid change at all costs. We do the opposite—sometimes by injecting a bit of chaos into the mix. A few years ago, we experimented with closing down the Ottawa office for a month and having everyone work from home. It made us question how we communicate with one another, and we discovered tools that we can use to improve communication with remote employees.

What other companies do you look to for culture inspiration?

I spent a good year or so trying to understand what company culture means. It is such a simple question, but there are so many answers trying to solve it. After classifying what parts of the organization belong to culture, and what parts don’t, it became very apparent that the most tangible things that companies are known for when you talk about office culture (namely perks, benefits, values, office design, etc.) are by no means indicators for the company’s actual culture, nor its health.

Borrowing from another company for culture can be very dangerous, and I draw a reference to cargo cults as to what effect this can have.

I did talk to many of our peer companies and tried to find out what they are doing and some of those conversations were enlightening, but I needed to fully understand why they are doing what they do, or better yet, why we would do something similar in order to introduce a new process into the company.

Eventually, I ended up reading this definition of culture that resonated with me the most: “Culture is the beliefs and willing behaviours of a group of people.” It is how people react to a situation when the boss isn’t in the room, when there are no rules or processes written for said situation. What do people actually do then? And now you can see that it is impossible to mandate, but instead has to be cultivated over longer periods of time, with the right intents when it comes to recruiting, reviewing processes, and committing to things that we know are right for the long-term, even if that means sacrifices in the short-term.

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