Which, of course, is the point. Lütke and Finkelstein are keenly aware that technology companies are engaged in a ferocious global war for talent, and that Shopify has to be at least as attractive as the Googles and the Apples if it’s going to compete. The housekeeping program is particularly costly—both in dollars and administrative hassle—but as with most of Shopify’s initiatives, it’s thoughtfully conceived. “It’s really hard to justify as a line item,” admits Lütke, “but one of the biggest parts of employee buy-in we were missing were the spouses.” The reality, he says, is that Shopify has to be “incrementally better” than the companies in Silicon Valley, because Ottawa winters are so much worse. “That’s why I directed Daniel [Weinand], literally one of my biggest guns, to take the role of chief culture officer. The only thing he’s working on is making sure people are happy here, that we do interesting events, that everyone feels part of this.

If you want to know who the truly valuable people in your organization are, put a bucket of paint at the front door, have everyone step in it, then, at the end of the day, see whose office most of the tracks lead to.

— TOBI LÜTKE

THE EMPLOYEE ENGAGEMENT

Two initiatives illustrate just how seriously and creatively Shopify tackles employee retention. The first is its unique bonus structure, wherein literally every staffer is eligible for monthly bonuses based not on rank or job title but on how helpful they are to customers, partners and fellow workers. “Someone who taught me programming in Germany once told me that if you want to know who the truly valuable people in your organization are, put a bucket of paint at the front door, have everyone step in it, then, at the end of the day, see whose office most of the tracks lead to,” says Lütke. “We had to figure out a way to approximate that without tracking paint all over the place.”

What Shopify came up with is an internal, Twitter-like communication platform dubbed Unicorn that allows employees to talk to one another about their projects, triumphs and tribulations. Data from Unicorn is tabulated monthly, and bonuses are distributed to those who’ve been the most engaged and helpful. “If you look at who gets most of the bonuses over the course of a year, it’s really amazing,” says Finkelstein. “It’s not top down. It’s peer to peer, it’s up and down, it’s a meritocracy. And that’s very rare. Technology companies that get to the size we are now typically don’t remain meritocracies.”

The second initiative is something called Hacker Days: all staff get two days each quarter to form teams and work on projects entirely unrelated to their day-to-day jobs. Not only do Hacker Days allow employees to get creative, they’ve resulted in some useful spinoff products, such as a digital dashboard that was written in open-source code and has been downloaded by more than 1,500 companies. A more whimsical example is an app that sends text messages when the office beer keg gets low, so the receptionist can re-order before it runs dry. “That’s cool, right?” says Finkelstein. “But it turns out there’s actually nothing like this in the bar and restaurant industry. It’s potentially a business.”

Taken together, all the perks and programs have helped Shopify attract talent from around the world, with virtually zero attrition—just two employees quit in the past two years—compared with 30% average annual turnover for Silicon Valley companies.

THE CONTEST

It so happened that back in 2010, Lütke met one of the Valley’s entrepreneur-celebs, 4-Hour Workweek author Tim Ferriss. Ferriss expressed skepticism about Lütke’s claim that anyone could use Shopify to get a digital storefront up and running quickly. “Ferris essentially said, ‘Prove it’,” recalls Finkelstein.

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