Last month, Jean-Michel Lemieux, the chief technology officer of Shopify, and the company's chief talent officer, Brittany Forsyth, both announced 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 next 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 an enterprise 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 vast wealth that Shopify has helped create, and its focus on sustainability — among other things it invests $5 million per year in startups that fight climate change and publishes annual sustainability reports — its former employees look to have an impact on the Canadian entrepreneurial ecosystem like no company before it.
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, 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 his time 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” so “most of my value comes in talking” with teams about how to scale up their startups given there are “so few people who know how to drive huge growth in a company, have seen a company [grow] from $100 million to $100 billion plus, [and] that know how to think about scaling a product to millions of users.”
There aren't a lot of people on the planet who've lived through that kind of hyper growth, he notes, but that's “especially so in Canada, where there are basically no role models.”
He's a product of his environment, he suggests, offering that Shopify actively educated its employees, albeit informally. “One of the things that I loved most was how open we were,” Miller says. “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 called Maple that helps organize busy families; 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 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, leaving much to employees to figure out.
Sharma admits there are practical limits to how much the experience 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.
Yet as with Miller, Sharma credits Shopify with many lessons, including “how culture and commerce intersect so deeply.”
She also observes 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, Adam 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 co-founding 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 — whose share price, and profits, surged throughout the pandemic — 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 deals came together just this year.