Shopify is an industry-leading cloud-based, multichannel commerce platform designed for use by small and medium-sized merchants. Headquartered in Ottawa, Shopify has expanded operations to include employees in multiple Canadian locations as well as in Europe.

In May, Shopify went public on both the New York and Toronto Stock Exchanges, with its IPO raising more than $131 million. More recently they were named Innovator of the Year for 2015 by the Canadian Innovation Exchange.

With Shopify establishing a strong presence in New Brunswick, Opportunities NB (ONB) decided to speak with Roy Sunstrum, VP – Customer Support, to learn more.

ONB: Let’s begin with an overview of Shopify.

Sunstrum: Shopify launched in 2006 as a world-class enabler of online selling. Initially, it pulled together the ability to set up things like a web store, checkouts, and search engine optimization (SEO); all things required to sell online. It’s since evolved into a platform that helps merchants sell anything anywhere. You can sell online via a website, in brick and mortar stores or—and this has been big for us in 2015—via social media. We’re now a platform for merchants to sell products anywhere.

ONB: You hire remote customer service “gurus”, including many in New Brunswick. Many companies are still hesitant to recruit remotely despite companies like Shopify embracing the idea. Why do you think that is?

Sunstrum: Plenty of people are still hesitant to use a remote model, yes. It’s logical in a sense as success is not automatic. It takes deliberate strategies around communication and a solid team structure. Even in our earliest days, there were things that weren’t fully optimized, but we’ve improved and improved again. Initially, we had some differing employee relationships, in that remote workers had a different experience versus those at home in Ottawa. We feel we’ve dissolved those differences now; our people working remotely have the same relationship with Shopify that everyone else does. There were early growing pains, but they’ve been overcome and improved upon, and we now look at the operation as a real success.

ONB: How does a VP like yourself go about team meetings when you have members located across the country? Is that a challenge? 

Sunstrum: It can certainly be challenging to keep communications and that team essence together. We’ve dealt with that by ensuring that teams with remote members are dominantly remote. When you have a team that is dominantly internal with a rare remote member, that’s when someone can get overlooked. Once you have teams that are heavily remote, even if they’re distributed across multiple countries, everyone is on a more level playing field.

The other key is we’re now structured into small teams. We believe that teams of 10 or less can bring significantly more power to the table than individuals. These small teams or “squads” all work on the same days and the same hours. This gives them an opportunity–even if physically separated–to come together.

ONB: The company has been in New Brunswick for a couple of years now, what do you see as advantages of doing business here?

Sunstrum: One of the biggest is that there’s already an established customer support culture in New Brunswick. Most companies need a support team, so that shouldn’t be downplayed. We were able to hire a great amount of talented, experienced people with exceptional customer support skills. Our support is a little different in that we have a rather broad set of topics that gurus must be able to deal with. Having an ample amount of people with experience in that world has been a huge plus.

ONB: What makes a successful customer support team?

Sunstrum: A good support team is centered on two things, and this has been a real growing conversation for us in the last few months.

First, you need to take away customer challenges; take away their effort. What we call “effort reduction” for our merchants is a real priority. That reduction can happen through better self-help tools, and by improving the product so there’s less support required. That way when they do need to engage the human side of support, we just need to focus on making sure they can get to us quickly, and that gurus are well-resourced to give quick, accurate answers.

The other piece is even more important; value generation. The more we take the day-to-day issues away through that effort reduction strategy, the more rich conversations we can have with merchants. The people we’re talking to are launching businesses across multiple channels; we get to have conversations about how and what to sell, how to better market their stores, how to optimize their exposure, etc. These are the kinds of conversations we can get to more frequently if we can get those simple password resets out of the way.

ONB: Your application involves interesting asks such as creating an online shop, writing a blog post, linking social media, and more. Tell us a bit about the thinking behind this process. 

Sunstrum: The key ingredients for us are a bit hard to find in a standard resume. That’s why the application process now involves those things you mention. We look to recruit people who are technically strong. That doesn’t mean they’re good at code, but they have to be comfortable with using mobile apps, and with things like setting up Wi-Fi. We want people comfortable with the current state of technology.

Secondly, they need to be good with people and be able to have a conversation. Being a good conversationalist starts with being a great listener. We look for people that can listen carefully to hone in on what a merchant is being challenged by and get to the heart of the problem.

Finally, we look for an entrepreneurial spirit. We like someone who can get out and do things, someone really active and creative in how they live. It’s hard to see if all of that is there by looking at a resume; hence our application process.

ONB: You’re involved in leadership coaching. What do you see as the biggest challenges facing leadership?

Sunstrum: Continued growth is something you’ve always got to be thinking about. Every time you move from a few people to a hundred to several hundred to thousands, new challenges present themselves. Shopify currently employs in excess of 780 people and we’re still growing. Each chapter in a company’s growth brings new and exciting things.

The other thing is the ever-evolving market. If we rewound even 24 months, the idea of selling via social media may not have been a big conversation, but it’s been the hottest conversation we’ve had this year. Just the fact that the landscape keeps changing at such a quick pace is something leadership needs to keep tabs on. Leaders need to be thinking about how to keep up with both of those rapidly and ever-changing aspects of your business.

ONB: What advice would you give other customer support leaders looking to adopt a remote worker model?

Sunstrum: Go all in. Dabbling in it is going to be more challenging than establishing it as a serious way to work. Don’t underestimate the value of having a solid team structure, and your ability to leverage the many technologies available for communicating with remote employees. If you put the right plan in place, it can truly work. You’ll be surprised at the top-notch people that are out there beyond your home base.

ONB: What has ONB’s role been with Shopify?

Sunstrum: ONB was instrumental in getting us to set up in New Brunswick. It’s huge for us to have organizations like ONB to help get us rolling. Once we get momentum, referrals actually become a huge part of how we hire.

That doesn’t mean your role goes away, but you’re most important as catalysts to get us established. That’s an ideal function for economic development groups like ONB. We’re established now and are thrilled to be able to continue our company’s growth in New Brunswick.

Cover image via Shopify