How Shopify CEO Tobias Lütke, a High School Drop Out, Turned His Snowboarding Company into a $10 Billion E-Commerce Leader

Snowboarding and programming enthusiast Tobi Lütke created the initial version of tech behemoth that is now in 2006, when he started an e-commerce platform that sold winter sports equipment. When him and his co-founder Scott Lake built the software which is now the backbone of Shopify, they had no idea what they were in for. While it didn’t take long for them to realize that their snowboarding equipment company wasn’t taking off, they saw an opportunity in the booming number of subscriptions for its e-commerce platform.

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Since the company’s IPO in May 2015, Shopify has far outrun the S&P 500, skyrocketing near 500% from its IPO price of $17. The platform's headline success, along with its acclaimed culture have helped it attract some of the tech industry’s brightest talent as it continues to build out its service offerings. While Shopify has achieved stellar returns for its investors over the years, the company still has a great deal of room to run, catering to business customers that want to sell their own products online in a world where is seen as the king.

Much of Shopify’s success comes from the unique leadership style of its CEO. Lütke, who received his first computer at age six and wrote code for his own computer games by age 12, dropped out of high school as a 16-year-old. He recalls his decision based on the fact that “computers were so much more interesting.”

The high school dropout quickly landed a computer programming apprenticeship at Siemens in his hometown in Germany. At the industrial manufacturing giant, Tobias met one of his most influential mentors, an unconventional boss named Jürgen.

“It was probably the most important thing that happened to me in my professional life. Jürgen was a master teacher. He created an environment in which it was not only possible but easy to move through 10 years of career development every year. It is a method and an environment which I am fiercely trying to replicate at Shopify,” Lütke wrote about the apprenticeship in a blog post.

After seven years at Siemens, Lütke moved to Ottawa, Canada, where he lived at his girlfriend’s parent’s house. By 2008, Shopify had a team of ten and was making $60,000 in revenue per month. At this time, Shopify’s co-founder and then-CEO, Lake, decided to leave the startup. Lütke, who was always focused on the product side of the business, was then forced into the leadership role.

“When I took over as CEO, I had to essentially get an MBA in a couple of weeks,” explains the software developer. Soon after assuming the CEO position, Lütke went to Silicon Valley in search of venture capital funding and a new leader for the software company. He remembers having trouble understanding the terms used in meetings, reading everything he could get his hands on and researching to get answers to his questions at night so that he was more prepared for the next day.

Silicon Valley didn’t provide a CEO for Shopify, and John Phillips, an early angel investor, convinced Lütke to stay on at the helm.

Lütke’s experience learning as he went and developing into a more capable leader through being thrown into uncomfortable situations has had a profound impact on Shopify’s culture. In 2017, Glassdoor named Shopify the #1 Best Place to Work in Canada.

“We’re growing quickly, so there are plenty of opportunities to learn and grow,” reads Shopify’s career page. In just over a decade, Shopify has transformed from a team of five working out of a local coffee shop, to a team of over 2,000 across five offices around North America. The Canadian e-commerce disruptor currently services more than 500,000 stores and has facilitated $46 billion in sales.

“Over the coming years, the way purchasing works will change at a fundamental level. Customers will expect options of where and how to buy: in-store or online, delivered or for pick-up. It’s an incredibly exciting time for this industry, and we’re going to be right at the center of it,” reads Shopify’s website.