Life after Shopify giving Ottawa entrepreneur Jean-Michel Lemieux a ‘second wind’

Jean-Michel Lemieux
Eighteen months after leaving Shopify, Ottawa native Jean-Michel Lemieux is tackling new entrepreneurial challenges. Photo courtesy Jean-Michel Lemieux

In the spring of 2021, Jean-Michel Lemieux was riding high as one of the top executives at Canada’s undisputed tech darling.

But the Ottawa native, who built Shopify’s engineering department from a few dozen developers into a global workforce of thousands, knew his days at the e-commerce powerhouse were numbered.

“From day one, I hinted to (co-founder and CEO) Tobi (Lütke) that when my kids were in university that it would be time for me to do something else,” says Lemieux, 50, who spent six and a half years at Shopify as the firm’s senior vice-president of engineering and then chief technology officer.

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So, when son Gabriel and daughter Alizé were getting set to begin post-secondary education, Lemieux made good on his word. He departed Shopify in June 2021, just as the company’s fortunes were soaring amid a surge in online shopping during the pandemic, fuelling such demand for its software that the Ottawa firm was challenging RBC for the title of Canada’s most valuable publicly traded company.

Eighteen months later, Shopify has fallen back to Earth as the e-commerce tsunami subsided. As for Lemieux, he is relishing his latest challenge as adviser and chief evangelist for Denver-based startup DreamTeam. 

The new firm is piloting software designed to aggregate data from applications like Excel spreadsheets and platforms like Slack, Teams and GitHub, analyze it and crunch it into easy-to-read graphs and reports so companies know who’s doing what and what stage various projects are at – all displayed on a central dashboard that’s updated in real time.

As companies grow, information that drives decision-making is often “hidden” in spreadsheets, Slack threads and elsewhere, Lemieux says. The new software “brings that all into one place so that everyone on your team can see how progress is being made and what decisions have to be made.”

Dubbed Kata after the Japanese word for “form,” the product has its roots in a platform Lemieux originally developed for Shopify nearly a decade ago when the rising software star had fewer than 500 employees. 

“When I joined (Shopify), I realized that we were going to slow down if we weren’t proactive about being very explicit about how we’re going to work together,” he says.

The platform quickly became an “essential tool” to ensure everyone in the company was moving in the same direction. After a demonstration video Lemieux released on Vimeo a few years ago garnered more than 10,000 views and drew rave reviews, he knew he was on to something.

“As people left Shopify, they kept saying, ‘Hey, why can’t we use this when we’re not at Shopify?’” he says. 

Lemieux joined DreamTeam after founder and CEO Brent Barkman, who’d worked with Lemieux at IBM’s Ottawa office a decade before, saw his demo and asked if he’d be interested in further developing the platform and commercializing it for a wider market. 

A seasoned entrepreneur whose resume includes stints at various startups, Lemieux wasn’t sure he wanted to steer the ship at another early stage venture. But Barkman’s pitch quickly won him over.

“I’ve had my share over the last 30 years of building companies,” says the tech veteran, who graduated from the University of Ottawa in 1995 with a computer science degree and launched his career in software development at HP. “But (Barkman) said, ‘I want to be the CEO. I want you to be chair, adviser, investor and hands-on in product direction.’ For me, that was like the perfect mix.”

DreamTeam is still in the embryonic stage, with about 15 employees based mostly in Denver and Seattle. But Lemieux is bullish on its potential, noting Kata is generating plenty of buzz among clients looking to gain early access to the platform.

“I think we’re defining almost a new category of tool,” he says. “We’re really excited about it. I’ve seen the impact it had at Shopify.”

While Kata is clearly Lemieux’s passion project, it’s far from the only thing occupying his time. He and his wife, Nadine Martel, are co-owners of Arlo, a restaurant housed in a historic building on Somerset Street they purchased four years ago.

“We love food, wine and great company,” Lemieux says. “We really thought that we wanted to invest back in Ottawa and make sure that Ottawa had some great (food) offerings for folks.”

Meanwhile, he’s also a sought-after adviser who serves on the boards of half a dozen companies. In addition, Lemieux is penning his second business book, which he’s publishing chapter-by-chapter online. 

A chapter focusing on problems similar to the ones that Kata is trying to solve – how companies can “stay fast as they scale” – has attracted more than 1.2 million views. Its popularity has only added more fuel to Lemieux’s entrepreneurial fire.

“It’s been a huge motivator for me to invest even more into Kata,” he says.

With a recession seemingly just over the horizon, Lemieux is asked what advice he’d give to founders to help them weather the storm. His response is succinct.

“You have no control over what valuation the market is going to give your company,” he explains. “But you do have 100 per cent control over whether or not people are going to use your product and have a better life as a result of that. Make sure you’re building something that matters, and the rest will usually take care of itself.”

With Kata now poised to hit the market, Lemieux is doing his best to follow his own advice.

“Leaving Shopify was scary,” he concedes. “I think I’ve found my second wind. It’s been phenomenal. I’m having so much fun.”

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