shopify office

How Shopify Scales Their Team to Hire for Culture Add

There’s a somewhat cynical, commonly held view that a startup is bound to ruin its culture once it gets to a certain size. Shopify’s not a 50-person company anymore, but our growth remains fast and steady. As a company that puts big emphasis on culture, getting it right is key.

Why is culture so important to us?

A simple way to put it is: the more purposeful the culture, the better our product. When our culture is deliberate, we can trust everyone to make the best decisions. People can be independent and autonomous. They can be entrepreneurial. They can embrace a learner’s mindset. They can thrive on change and get comfortable with ambiguity. All those things mean that we have a more innovative Shopify – one that adapts and thinks two steps ahead for our merchants and customers.

One of our goals at Shopify is to be a ‘100 year old company’ – it’s an aspirational ethos that we’ve taken on internally to drive home our commitment to building for the long-term. We’ve grown from two employees to a global team of over 2000 people. In 2016 alone, we doubled our headcount, hiring around more than 1000 people from tens of thousands of applicants. And while this team continues to grow, it’s essential that the talent we hire continues to be the right culture fit.

The F-word

The concept of fit has a bad rep – often rightly so. If not done right, hiring for fit can turn your company into an assembly of ideological ‘sames’. Some describe it as a shield for discrimination, where ‘hiring for fit’ means recruiting like-minded talent that’s dressed as whimsically as the offices they walk within. In our very early days (we’re talking under 50 employees), we thought of fit along a similar, shallow note. When hiring, we asked ourselves questions like “would I want to spend a long flight seated next to this candidate?” It wasn’t too long before we realized our approach needed some tweaking. And so we tweaked.

Getting rid of ‘fit’

Our recruitment strategy evolved as we began to define our values and what success looked like. We looked at the top 10 per cent of our people and found four common traits that made them successful. These predictors of success became our de facto way of checking for culture fit, and so we got rid of the word “fit” altogether. This helped us to better avoid making bad hires.

Today, we use the first interview a candidate will have (what we call a ‘life story’) to measure against these predictors of success. The life story is also an opportunity for a candidate to tell us how they’ve come to be where they are and what decisions and milestones led them there. This is where we look at them as a whole – family, interests, successes, and failures – not just work experience. We leave the highly technical, skills-based assessments for subsequent interviews.

Our predictors of success*

Establishing our predictors of success allowed us to recruit for people who are:

  • Authentic in interactions. Candidates who are themselves and not putting up a persona or a facade. We also know candidates may come in with nerves and learned behaviour around how one should act in an interview. This is why we put onus on our recruiters to make our candidates comfortable so they can be their most authentic selves.
  • Fully engaged. Engagement shows up differently for different types of people. We’ve come to equate engagement with high-care. The most successful employees at Shopify have a high degree of care for what they do – both at work and outside of it – and that’s consistent across different backgrounds and personality types. Our interviewers are taught to dig deep to get a gauge of one’s level of care… regardless of their personality type. Engagement is not just an extrovert trait, after all.
  • Impact driven. People who are needle-movers. These are the type who don’t just take their role for what it is, but create something larger than what it was when they started. We also know that impact is described differently by different people, so we ask the right, objective questions to get a sense of one’s impact and how it’ll translate into their work at Shopify.
  • Self-aware. Candidates who have a good sense of reality and an ability to remove their self-interest from everyday interactions. At Shopify, these are employees who are curious, open to feedback, have a strong desire to learn, and are the first to admit when they’ve made a mistake.

*We’ve had good amount of back-and-forth around these predictors, and even continue to do so as we write this. Your predictors of success will likely be open to interpretation at first – and that’s okay. We’re constantly working on better defining ours until they reach a level of crystal clarity that works for us.

Defining your predictors of success

Our predictors of success and culture values are unique to Shopify. Yours, too, should factor in what’s important to your organization and its goals. We did not have a blueprint to build out the ideal culture add at Shopify; it was a product of deliberate learning and introspection. Looking back at our process, here are a few things to consider when establishing your company’s predictors of success.

Fall in love with the problem. Building teams is not about finding a new best friend or sitting on a long plane ride with a fellow coworker. It’s about attracting diversity of thought, skills and experience to solve the right problems. The most important thing to note about the predictors of success is that they transcend inherent dimensions of diversity like age, ethnicity, or gender expression. We know that magic happens when we have diverse perspectives at the table, and we’ve decided that some people (those who are inauthentic, non-impact-driven, and lack engagement and self-awareness), don’t find success here. And that’s okay.

It’s no easy feat gauging for predictors of success. It requires training, self-awareness, and the capacity to give one’s own bias a back seat. One way to enable this is to implement unconscious bias and inclusion training within your organization. At Shopify, we make this mandatory for our Talent Acquisition team and have provided it to others who may be involved in the recruiting process.

Take a closer look at your high calibre teams. What traits do your most successful employees have? What trends in workplace behaviour and everyday interactions do they manifest? Make note of these – they’re likely key ingredients to your secret sauce.

Go beyond the technical. It’s easier to fill a role when you hone in on things like the number of years of coding experience for an engineering candidate. But building your team for the long-term happens when you recruit for experience and potential. Experience can be attained and skills can be learned, but traits like authenticity and attitude are harder to impart.

We found that authentic, engaged, impactful, and self-aware additions to the team made for “fully formed adults” who naturally cared about Shopify’s mission. Building our teams this way, we found, removed HR’s burden to babysit and create prescriptive red-tape policies. It left us with room to focus on other areas like developing our people once they’re here.

Let your predictors of success reflect your culture. It’s important for your predictors of success to complement the culture you define internally. This is not about a ‘chicken or the egg’ dilemma, rather a simultaneous symbiotic evolution of both. At Shopify, our ‘impact’ predictor of success is an extension of our first culture value, “get shit done.” And the ‘act like an owner’ value we hold so close is a reflection of the ‘engagement’ predictor of success we recruit for.

Build for the long-term. If Shopify is around 100 years from now, surely we might not be powering stores through websites and mobile phones (who knows if those will even exist by then). Your culture – and it’s ability to evolve – is what will empower your people to better your products and adapt them to changing markets and consumer demands.

Start viewing “culture fit” as “culture addition” – a subtle but important distinction. Instead of trying to guard your culture, embrace the fact that it will constantly evolve and get better with every new perspective you add to the team. This is how a company makes it to 100 years. Ultimately, your predictors of success should select for those who are able to thrive on change and your culture should go the extra step to enable an environment where change is embraced, rather than avoided.

Don’t stop at the hiring stage. Building your team is the first step. Leveling it up is the (continuous) second. At Shopify, when we say we build for the long term, we mean it. And that starts with giving our people access to the right coaching and team development resources so they can take their career to the next level right here at Shopify.