Being Successful without working long hours - A Perspective

December 27, 2019    ideas startup work-life-balance

Tobi Lutke, Founder and CEO at Shopify, provided a unique perspective on the ongoing debate on “working long hours to be successful”.



I realize everyone’s twitter feed looks different. But I’ll go ahead and subtweet two conversations that I see going by right now:

a) How the heck did Shopify get so big this decade and

b) You have to work 80 hours a week to be successful.


  • Shopify grew up very far from the primary places where people build companies. For its founders, this company was our first real Job. If the startup ecosystem is a Darwinian struggle for survival, Ottawa is the Galapagos islands.

  • This meant that by ignorance, and later increasingly deliberate we were able to build Shopify entirely differently to the way contemporary tech companies were build. Lets look at some examples

  • I’ve never worked through a night. The only times I worked more than 40 hours in a week was when I had the burning desire to do so. I need 8ish hours of sleep a night. Same with everybody else, whether we admit it or not.

  • For creative work, you can’t cheat. My believe is that there are 5 creative hours in everyone’s day. All I ask of people at Shopify is that 4 of those are channeled into the company.

  • Now true - some people, myself included, need a few hours to wind up and wind down for those to occur. Right now I’m procrastinating on twitter instead of writing my summit talk for instance. Reddit and HN are my siren calls.

  • That’s fine. We are not moist robots. We are people and people are awesome. What’s even better than people are teams. Friends, that go on journeys doing difficult things.

  • When I hire someone at Shopify we can make the assumption that we work together for a decade. There are a lot of things that changes. And most of Shopify’s advantage comes from there. For example:

  • The value equation changes entirely. In some places average tenure is only 18 months. Yes, you might want to work everyone 80 hours to make that work. On-boarding is expensive so you skip it. You need value day 1. The relationship is exploitative.

  • We don’t need that. We can hire on future potential and help people get there quickly. Junior employees are put together with seasoned vets and sometimes coaches to help them get there. We are all on the same side of the table and want the same.

  • If we can help a young engineer or designer to get 10 years of career advancement in a single wall clock year, then we do it. If the student is ready, the teachers will appear. We get to share in that additional skill for the rest of that decade.

  • Besides hiring (and sometimes sadly firing), It’s my believe that companies can only become better by the individuals in the company getting better. The skill of the company is the sum of the individuals skills and context. “Company” is purely a collective term.

  • Context is the most important. The type of projects that high context teams can do are vastly different from low context teams. That’s where all the innovation comes from. And that’s also why some areas mostly produce fairly shallow apps now.

  • None of that is even about product, or market fit, or timing. Its all about people. Treating everyone with dignity and not falling into the fallacies and trappings of some orthodoxy. Don’t do things the way people with agenda tell you to. Do what makes sense.

  • Shopify build a profitable lifestyle company before it took investment. I think that was a key ingredient of our success. I learned from @dhh that VC by default is not a good strategy.

  • But I also think that you have to always re-validate your decisions. Not taking VC for 6 years eventually got invalidated for Shopify because it got clear that it was a venture. After that we took VC and that was the right thing in our case.

  • We took VC investment in 2010 but we didn’t change the company. We got better in many respects but changed no opinion on how to work together, hire, or form teams.

  • Because those were our own bets based on what kind of company we, the founders, wanted to work for. @danielweinand always said: lets not build a company that we wouldn’t want to work for in 10 years time.

  • Future regret minimization is a powerful force for good judgement.

  • While we did work hard (whatever that means in tech) in the early days, we also always took time to play. We had a FIFA tournament going. looser had to drive this weeks load of Ebay’d second hand server to our data center in Toronto.

  • Going public was yet another funding event. We threw a party (themed: we qualified for the big leagues. Because its the beginning not a destination). And again didn’t change that much. No one bought a lambo. We just kept working on the problem we fell in love with.

  • I’m home at 5:30pm every evening. I don’t travel on the weekend. I play video games alone, with my friends, and increasingly with my kids. My job is incredible, but its also just a job. Family and personal health rank higher in my priority list.

  • I’m deeply in love with the problem that Shopify solves. Every few seconds a new entrepreneur has their first sale: a life changing event. I get to work with some of the smartest people in the world to cause more of that. The stories that I hear from our customers blow my mind.

  • We don’t burn out people. We give people space. We love real teams with real friendship forming. We understand the power of individual potential and proximity. Even our floor plan is designed to give small teams a pod all to themselves.

  • And that’s why people show up to work as their authentic selves. With all their quirks and skills and ideas. They tell us what they see and how it relates to the mission. They work on those ideas. Shopify enables them, but they drive the company forward.

  • This worked great for us, but feels dissonant with the black/white and zero-sum conversations that I’m reading about. Gray thinking is important and not everything is an absolute.

  • Take your own path, judge the tools people offer you wisely. Then pick and choose what fits.