When Ottawa-based Shopify went public in May 2015, Fortune magazine pegged its market value at US$1.27 billion.

Not bad for a company started by three guys who wanted to sell snowboarding equipment online.

Frustrated by existing e-commerce technologies designed for big corporate sites, Shopify's founders developed a software platform that made it remarkably easy for mom-and-pop entrepreneurs anywhere to open stores online.

Shopify was launched in June 2006. Almost from the get-go, the response far exceeded expectations. Today, Shopify has 1,200+ employees and 275,000 customers based in 150 countries. Together, those customers generate $17 billion in sales.

Development centres in Ontario's tech corridor

But while many fast-growing companies open regional offices to support their expanding global footprint, Shopify took a very different approach.

Shopify concentrated most of its bricks-and-mortar expansion in Ontario. In addition to adding more software engineers and other staff at the Ottawa location, Shopify opened development centres in Toronto and Kitchener-Waterloo.

The rationale links back to the very beginning of the company.

"It's so authentic to who we are," said Alexandra Clark, Shopify's Director of Policy and Government Affairs, in a recent telephone interview. "We are fiercely Canadian."

Alexandra Clark, Director of Policy and Government Affairs, Shopify

Supportive government. Diverse talent pool.

"Ontario has supported us from the start," she continued. "R&D tax incentives helped us attract great talent and government investment allowed us to expand internationally."

Ottawa, Toronto and Kitchener-Waterloo, taken together, form the largest information technology cluster in Canada and the second largest in North America. Each brings slightly different elements to the Shopify growth culture, says Clark. In particular, she mentioned Waterloo's start-up culture and the diversity of Toronto's talent pool.

"Those three locations work well together and create a really strong hub," Clark said. "Being in the same time zone helps make collaboration seamless."

And, in the rapidly evolving world of online commerce, flexibility, agility and collaboration are absolutely essential.

Forming partnerships with major players: Apple Pay, Facebook, and Pinterest

Over the past decade, e-commerce has morphed from relatively straight-forward point-and-click online sales to a complex environment marked by big data analytics, security scares and the sudden emergence of disruptive technologies such as Pinterest and Snapchat.

Shopify evolved quickly as well, broadening its technology platform and striking partnerships with Apple Pay, Facebook, Pinterest and other major players.

"Our strategy is to stay five steps ahead of where our customers want to go," Clark said. "We're constantly working on making the back-end stronger and the user-experience better."

"The entrepreneurial spirit is still at the core of our business," Clark said, recalling the founder's original frustration with the e-commerce technologies of the day, "We make it easy for anyone to sell anything online, so our customers can focus on doing what they love – growing their business."

August 11, 2016

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