The E-commerce Entrepreneur Who Bested Amazon

Mar 16, 2017

Good morning from frigid New York City, where I survived the blizzard that wasn’t earlier this week and am eager to return to sunny California.

I’m currently working on a story involving online retail, which is why I was eager to read the article in the new issue of Fortune about a company called Shopify, written by Canadian journalist Stephen Baldwin. Worth nearly $6 billion but so under the radar our article is titled “The Invisible Selling Machine,” Shopify (shop) is an e-commerce software success story in Ottawa, Canada’s capital. (Yesterday, I featured a tech/insurance company from Columbus, Ohio. I guess this is what happens when I leave Silicon Valley for a few days.)

This is a gem of an article. It explains how an entrepreneur who used his knowledge of tech to create a product to help his business—in this case the online selling program Shopify CEO Tobi Lutke built to sell snowboards—turned that creation into a much bigger company. Shopify is so successful it likely caused Amazon (amzn) to shut down a similar product. The company became, Baldwin writes, “the rare example of a company not just taking business away from the conquer-everything-at-all-costs Amazon, but likely playing a role in its decision to pack up and go home.”

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There are other nuggets that caught my eye:

* Lutke began his career as a programming apprentice at Siemens, an unusual path to entrepreneurship.

* He helped build the programming framework Ruby on Rails.

* He also visited Silicon Valley and pitched the likes of Benchmark, Sequoia, and Accel. Because the first two wanted Lutke to move Shopify to Silicon Valley, he left town without their money. (He later raised money from Bessemer Ventures.)

* Lutke is a principled man. He lost employees because he wouldn’t ban Breitbart News, which uses Shopify to sell merchandise. “To kick off a merchant is to censor ideas and interfere with the free exchange of products at the core of commerce,” he wrote in a Medium post.

It’s never a bad time to celebrate good ideas—especially when they come from unexpected places.

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