Shopify’s Canadian boss on boosting entrepreneurs to ‘put the power in their hands’


Last year, a start-up founded by a 25-year-old programmer looking for a better way to sell snowboards online overtook Royal Bank as Canada’s most valuable company. In 2020, Shopify Inc. reached a valuation only one other Canadian tech company — Nortel — ever attained. While its stock slumped earlier this year on expectations of slowing growth and the company has been beset by numerous executive departures, Shopify recently regained its position at the top of Canada’s stock charts with a market capitalization of more than $180 billion. The pandemic has also reaffirmed the company’s position as the No. 2 e-commerce platform in North America after Amazon. We asked Ian Black, who runs Shopify’s Canadian operations, how the company plans to maintain that performance.

You joined Shopify two years ago, initially as head of retail. I hope your compensation included shares.

We do have a program for most employees. It’s a beautiful thing when everybody is aligned. At first, I worked on Shopify’s retail offering for brick-and-mortar businesses. We built up our point-of-sale products and put many traditional businesses onto the platform, especially through COVID-19. For the past months I’ve been the managing director for Canada. This is the first time we’ve had a specifically Canadian focus and team.

You came from Uber, another very fast-growing and disruptive company. How do the cultures compare?

Many technology companies have a culture that thrives on change, and both companies are similar from that perspective. But there are many Canadian elements to Shopify’s culture: being very collaborative, supportive, friendly. And (CEO) Tobi (Lutke) is just refreshingly honest, which comes through internally and develops a culture where we value honesty.

How did Shopify change its platform since the pandemic hit?

The pandemic caused us to basically scrap all our previous plans and reorient around the idea that because Shopify exists, more businesses can survive the pandemic. That became a rallying cry. We extended $200 million in loans and cash advances to Shopify merchants and quickly launched curbside pickup, contactless payment and in-store appointment features. We also expanded partnerships with Facebook, Instagram and TikTok to make it easier for businesses using Shopify to sell where consumers naturally spent time during COVID.

In which retail categories did you see the biggest growth?

We saw many categories grow that prior to the pandemic didn’t have much business online, like local breweries or food wholesale businesses going direct to consumer. We saw especially high growth in health, food and beverage, and entertainment products. One notable trend is the growth in first-time entrepreneurs. You can’t go a week without reading an uplifting story of a mom-and-daughter team or someone who lost their job starting an online business. That’s the most important trend over the past year because of what it signals about the resilience of Canadians.

Have your online merchants introduced any interesting innovations to overcome the hurdles the pandemic has imposed?