- Shopify CEO Tobi Lütke sent an email to managers outlining the company’s core beliefs.
- The email came in the wake of intense internal debate about issues of race.
- In the email, Lütke said that “us-vs-them divisiveness” can “break teams.”
- See more stories on Insider’s business page.
Over the last year or so, a debate over the role that companies should play in its employees’ lives has played out in the corporate world.
While some workers have high expectations for how their employers should be engaging when it comes to social issues, companies are sorting through how to best respond while staying focused on their businesses.
This has all been heightened by the Covid-19 pandemic, which for many has blurred the lines between work and life.
In January, a group of more than 400 Google employees announced they had formed a union that would focus on ethical issues and create a structure for worker activism.
In September 2020, Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong wrote a letter that said the company would not engage on societal issues “unrelated to our core mission, because we believe impact only comes with focus.” Coinbase offered severance packages to employees who did not agree, and 60 people took them up on it. The software company Basecamp also instituted a ban on political discussions in April, which led to the departure of at least 18 employees.
In August 2020, Shopify CEO Tobi Lütke sent an email to managers outlining the e-commerce company’s stance on leadership and social issues.
Just a few weeks earlier, internal debate had erupted over the discovery of a noose emoji in the Ottawa-based company’s Slack system, which disturbed some employees. Some employees were also upset about a video that a team at Shopify created called “Ten Slack Commandments,” a riff on The Notorious B.I.G.’s “Ten Crack Commandments.” At the time, protests against the May 25 killing of George Floyd were happening across the globe.
In the wake of the internal debates, Lütke changed the settings on Shopify’s diversity-focused Slack channel, called #belonging, to be read-only, further upsetting some employees who told Insider they felt silenced.
Lütke’s August 2020 email to Shopify managers clarified his stance. In it, he said that “endless Slack trolling, victimhood thinking, us-vs-them divisiveness, and zero sum thinking” are a “threat” that “break teams.” He encouraged managers to stay focused on Shopify’s mission of empowering online commerce and entrepreneurship.
A Shopify spokesperson told Insider that the company was not trying to emulate Basecamp in its handling of political issues and that it welcomes discussion of current events.
“As Shopify is growing quickly with new team members joining every day, our executive team will often send company-wide messages to remind the organization of our vision for equitable entrepreneurship and to reignite our spirit of positive collaboration. This reinforces our need to work together in creating a future that unites, not divides,” they said.
Read Lütke’s full email below:
Leadership is tough. Leadership through times of crisis and ambiguity is doubly tough. Leadership through times of multiple compounding global tidal waves can seem impossible. To refer back to my Summit talk, Shopify is in a new box that we don’t understand yet. The world is in a new box that it barely understands yet. We’ve only mapped out a small corner of this box and have just started exploring the rest of the vast dark patches. It will take some time.
What’s more, our team members need us more than ever. The best thing we can do for them is not add to the ambiguity. Shopify hasn’t historically been great at setting clear expectations across the organization and I think this is starting to cause an enormous amount of managerial debt that’s ballooning out of control.
I can’t tell you how to do that in your various departments. But a good start would be to remind everyone that we are a business. More importantly, we are a hugely ambitious one. We are trying to create a world class product that gives superpowers to the merchants that we are obsessed over. Everything Shopify does is to accomplish this, and everyone at Shopify should be able to describe how their job, through a series of direct or indirect steps, furthers this mission.
To help you make this more clear to your team members, here are some pointers about what Shopify is not:
Shopify, like any other for-profit company, is not a family. The very idea is preposterous. You are born into a family. You never choose it, and they can’t un-family you. It should be massively obvious that Shopify is not a family but I see people, even leaders, casually use terms like “Shopifam” which will cause the members of our teams (especially junior ones that have never worked anywhere else) to get the wrong impression. The dangers of “family thinking” are that it becomes incredibly hard to let poor performers go. Shopify is a team, not a family.
We literally only want the best people in the world. The reason why you joined Shopify is because – I hope – all the other people you met during the interview process were really smart, caring, and committed. This is magic and it creates a virtuous magnetism on talented people because very few people in the world have this in themselves. People who don’t should not be part of this team. This magic and magnetism is a product of tight performance management that I expect all of us to get back to.
Shopify is also not the government. We cannot solve every societal problem here. We are part of an ecosystem, of economies, of culture, and of actual countries. We also can’t take care of all your needs. We will try our best to take care of the ones that ensure you can support our mission. Shopify’s worldview is well documented – we believe in liberal values and equality of opportunity. Sometimes we see opportunities to help nudge these causes forward. We do this because this directly helps our business and our merchants and not because of some moralistic overreach.
We want to build one of the best companies in the world. We obsess about our merchants. We want everyone to have a shot at bettering their lot through entrepreneurship. We want to make and keep Shopify, the product, world class or die trying.
Only way to do this is through having incredible people. Some of them we hire on future potential, and we help them but expect them to grow into their potential. Some of them we bring in further down their careers. But we all have to re-qualify for our jobs every year. The red-queen race of Shopify’s historic 40% or better growth is that everyone has to show up at least 40% better every year to qualify for our current jobs. I expect you to hold yourself and your teams to this standard. Judge this improvement based on having a growth mindset, deepening the craft, taking risks, making better decisions, and doing what it takes to better support our mission and our merchants.
We will always have compassion for team members in truly difficult situations. For example, those who find themselves suddenly becoming primary caregivers or those who are struggling with mental health issues. There are also second chances, especially for those who have been top performers before. Outside of those cases we need to remind everyone that like any other competitive (sports) team, it matters how you show up every day and contribute to the team’s success. Beyond straight performance output, everyone that engages in endless Slack trolling, victimhood thinking, us-vs-them divisiveness, and zero sum thinking must be seen for the threat they are: they break teams. Teams survive and thrive on the actions of the collective, and the cohesiveness of the whole. Poor performance and divisiveness cannot be tolerated.
If this sounds at all surprising, this is because we somehow lost something. Shopify has always been like this. I feel that a lot of these core beliefs have been muddied over recent years. So in my capacity as the one person who has witnessed every minute of Shopify’s existence, I want to reiterate some of these core principles. Shopify is as successful as it is right now precisely because of the downstream effects of those early ideas. Currently we are successful despite the muddying. This will not work for much longer. Let’s get back there.
Despite all the external buzz around Shopify (market cap, biggest company in Canada, …) we are still really early. We are in the big leagues amongst the biggest and baddest companies in the world. When we succeed in our mission, millions of merchants do better. Millions of people find employment. We have the opportunity to make that tens and even hundreds of millions in the future. I’m here for this potential, and I need you to be here for that too.
OK, that’s a lot to take in. You might be tempted to take what’s up there and run it through some kind of lowpass filter and translate it into your own language before discussing it with your peers and your leads. Don’t. Above is what I need everyone to understand. It’s important not to muddy a message that fights against the muddying of principles. You are responsible for reinforcing these lessons and holding your teams accountable to them. The Talent team will follow up with next steps in the coming days. Even better, actively help them with ideas and opportunities to implement those ideas. This is what leadership in action looks like.
If you’re an employee at Shopify and have a story to share, contact this reporter at [email protected] or via the encrypted messaging app Signal at (646) 889-2143 using a non-work phone.