Entrepreneurial lessons: Shopify CEO Tobi Lütke on his first sale


Shopify co-founder and CEO Tobi Lütke didn’t set out at first to build an e-commerce giant. A decade and a half ago, he was new to Canada and simply wanted to sell snowboards online to make a bit of extra cash. The software behind Mr. Lütke’s original store would later become the foundation of Shopify’s online retail platform.

In September, Mr. Lütke took the stage at the finale of Shop Class, a touring event by Shopify that aimed to share retail tips and help attendees launch their own businesses. The CEO told the crowd of aspiring merchants the story of his first sale with Snow Devils, and how the desire to share that experience convinced him to launch Shopify.

What follows is an edited transcript of Tobi Lütke’s fireside chat late last month at the Andaz Hotel in Ottawa:

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“I’m originally from Germany. I moved to Ottawa in 2002. My background is computer programming. I was living here because my girlfriend, now wife, was starting a new job.

I realized, okay, I have to make some money somehow. Why don’t I just use my technical skills and my snowboarding knowledge and combine those two things and make an online snowboard store?

The funny thing is, I imagined setting up a website would be something I could do in an afternoon … I found out all the software was absolutely horrendous. I decided to fall back on my programming skills and build my own software.

I launched Snow Devils in November of that year (2004). It was just me; I didn’t have an office. I actually did all my work out of the Bridgehead on Elgin Street. They had free Wi-Fi. Or, actually, I think I fixed their router so, therefore, I had free Wi-Fi.

There was one day where I came in, I got my coffee, I sat down and I was scanning through my emails. While I was doing that, another email came in. It said, ‘new order.’

It was an insane moment.

First of all, it was no mystery at all. I wrote the software that did that. I literally wrote that email at some point. So I got an email that I wrote myself after I got this order for this product.

It still was probably one of the most important moments of my life.

“I realized, in that moment, that I had gone from someone who did something kind of interesting to actually being an entrepreneur.”

Because I realized, in that moment, that I had gone from someone who did something kind of interesting to actually being an entrepreneur.

I remember it, I remember exactly where I was sitting, what I was eating that day.

It was something that I just fell in love with, and I wanted to share that.

From that point on, Snow Devils took off and became really, really successful. Come summer, people stopped buying snowboards, and it became a discussion: “Should we start selling skateboards in the summer?”

But it was at this point already clear that the really, really, really interesting experience was this first sale.

I realized the only reason why I was able to get through this was because when all else failed, I could fall back on my own technical skills and somehow overcome these incredible hurdles.

There’s two choices that I had. One of them leads to more people having the experience that I had. I’ll always choose that one.”

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