Shopify helps customers build online shops, but it’s minting tech founders and investors, too

Last month, Jean-Michel Lemieux, the chief technology officer of Shopify, and chief talent officer Brittany Forsyth announced on Twitter that they are stepping down from their roles. Chief legal officer Joe Frasca is also set to step down, with all three ending their tenures next month.

In their new chapters, all seem keen to advise, invest in, or even launch startups, joining a growing number of former Shopify executives and employees to do the same.

For a company of Shopify’s size — the 15-year-old, 7,000-person, Ottawa-based outfit boasts a $130 billion market cap — that’s not a surprise. Still, because of the wealth that Shopify has helped create, its former employees look to have an impact on the Canadian entrepreneurial ecosystem like no other before it.

Meanwhile, Shopify’s focus in part on the climate and sustainability — among other things it invests $5 million per year in startups that fight climate change, and publishes annual sustainability reports — could also have positive ripple effects.

Is there someone that needs a hand, pep talk, career advice? How can I help?

— Jean-Michel Lemieux (@jmwind) May 13, 2021

Take Craig Miller, for example, formerly the chief product officer, of Shopify, who left the company back in October. He’d already invested in several venture funds that are focused on clean tech and Canada while still working full time; now, he’s investing both his money and time in individual companies that he thinks “have a real shot at making a big social impact.”

Some of these include tools that enable people to run their own businesses, including Housecall Pro; and startups looking to reverse climate change, like the carbon capture startup Planetary Hydrogen.

Miller says the time investment is more compelling to the founders, which include former Shopify colleagues. “Raising money is important, but there’s already more than enough people willing to invest money in them. Most of my value comes in talking” with teams that need insights into how to scale up their startups, Miller says.

“There are so few people that know how to drive huge growth in a company, have seen a company [grow] from $100 million to $100 billion plus, that know how to think about scaling a product to millions of users. This is the case globally but especially so in Canada where there are basically no role models.”

Outsiders might be surprised by the extent to which Shopify actively educated its employees, suggests Miller, who says “one of the things that I loved most was how open we were. All employees knew the roadmap, could look at the code, they could access the data . . . we even shared our board presentation with the entire company. Doing so let people who were interested in how to build an incredible company take notes.”

Seemingly, plenty of people had their pens out. Among those who’ve left Shopify to spin up their own business are Michael Perry, who left Shopify last year to build an app that helps organize busy families called Maple; Helen Tran, who left Shopify in 2017 to start Jupiter, which makes software for beauty and personal care brands; Andrew Peek, who started the investment advisory Delphia; and Effie Anolik, whose startup, Afterword, helps the bereaved to plan both virtual and offline memorial services.

Another founder and proud Shopify alum is former director of product marketing Arati Sharma, who calls Shopify a “special place” that taught a lot of people how to scale a business and to do it in a very Shopify-specific way.

Because Shopify is the first company of its size in Canada,  it didn’t have a “fixed mindset” about “how companies of our size should be run” and it wasn’t “beholden to playbooks of the past,” she says.

Sharma admits there are practical limits to how much the company could teach her about starting her own company, Ghlee, a ghee-based skincare brand based in Toronto that she launched in 2019. “Though I’ve had the opportunity to build from scratch inside of Shopify, being in the founder seat is a whole new ballgame,” she says.

But as with Miller, Sharma credits Shopify with many learnings, including “how culture and commerce intersect so deeply,” and says that “whether you join [Shopify] as a former founder or you catch the entrepreneurial bug while working there, it’s remarkable how many employees run their own businesses.”

Some are actually running them on the side of continuing to work at Shopify.  Atlee Clark, for example, founded a children’s clothing company called Pika Layers, while remaining a full-time director with the company.

Others have launched investment firms. Among these: a former VP of product, Andrew McNamara, today runs Ramen Ventures, an impact angel fund, with another former Shopify colleague, Joshua Tessier.

Very notably, Sharma is herself an active angel investor, even cofounding a collective of 10 investors earlier this year called Backbone Angels to “optimize for speed and to move quickly on a couple of deals that are coming our way.”

All the members of Backbone Angels are women. All are former Shopify employees, including outgoing chief talent officer Brittany Forsyth. All are focused on increasing the number of women and non-binary investors on cap tables, with the belief that doing so will change how boards will look going forward and how companies are built.

Thanks in part to Shopify, there is apparently no shortage of opportunities to fund. Though Sharma began investing earlier on with her husband, she says that of the more than 30 startups she has funded altogether, nine of those investments came together just this year.