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Konval Matin

Director of Culture at Shopify

Konval Matin is the Director of Culture at Shopify in Ottawa, leading the culture team that spans across the company's multiple offices. I first learned of Konval and her role at a Slack event in Toronto where she was speaking on a panel about how Shopify used Slack in creative ways to keep everyone in the company engaged and informed. She talks about what culture means at Shopify, how her and her team work to help scale that culture as they grow and what some of the challenges are in such a unique role.

Special thanks to Igloo and InVision for sponsoring Ways We Work for the month of September and making these interviews possible!

Tell me a little bit about your role as Director of Culture and what that encompasses.

I work with the leadership team across the company to figure out where we need to be as a team and the mentality we need to have. I also spend a lot of time with my team of culture specialists, mobility specialists, designers, and internal communications to help execute ideas from the leadership. In essence, the culture team helps bridge the gap between the executive team and the rest of the company, making sure everyone is aligned.

My day-to-day is comprised of 1-on-1s with the culture team, and working with other departments to give them the culture lens on what they’re shipping out to our team. I spend a lot of time thinking about what we’re doing well and what elements of our culture we want to keep around as we continue to grow. Over the years I’ve learned that regardless of scale, there are certain things that are super crucial to our culture. For example, the fact that we default to open, and that we have weekly Town Halls. Those are things that we never want to lose, but finding a way to keep them around as we grow, is really difficult. So my team and I are obsessed about not losing our culture but balancing that with the fact that it does need to evolve and change in some ways. At the core, it’s about maintaining whatever culture we’re trying to embody, because if it goes in a direction that we don’t want it to, it’s a lot harder to reign in. We’re thoughtful and critical about every decision we make, often right down to the tools we implement, and the messaging we send.

Can you tell me more about culture and what it means at Shopify?

We define culture as the sum of every single individual at Shopify. Every person plays a part in creating it, and when someone leaves or joins, they have a direct impact on the culture. It took me some time to figure this out, but I think about what we do as creating holistic employee experiences and we partner with all different teams across the company to do that.

My team, for example, takes care of internal communications, so we have a good idea of the messages employees hear before they join Shopify up until they’re fully onboarded and integrated into the team. We know what the messages are and where to place them. We partner with other teams to give them more context on how to deliver their initiatives in the most impactful way so that it resonates and sticks with our employees.

As for the culture team specifically, it’s comprised of four teams at the moment. The graphic designers take care of all the visuals you see throughout the offices including the office design itself. They are great at making sure our culture comes to life in a visual way. The internal communications team—which is a small team of two—focuses on any message that we need to put through to the company, whether it’s a small change to our professional development perks or a larger change management communication piece. They have a good sense of how employees feel, what they need to know and how to deliver it in a way that makes sense. And the culture specialists have a very mixed and, I think, exciting role. They’re the eyes and ears on the ground. They’re really close to people and there’s a lot of relationship building. They onboard new hires every two weeks, and set up the Town Halls. They work with coaches and leads to find out what we’re doing well and where we could improve. They are kind of the voice of the people and we have one in almost every office.

“We define culture as the sum of every single individual at Shopify. Every person plays a part in creating it, and when someone leaves or joins, they have a direct impact on the culture.”

I’d love to know how you ended up in such a unique role. What was your path to Shopify and then also your current role specifically?

When I was in university I had a few friends that worked at Shopify and I’d see their Facebook posts and it seemed like a sweet place to work. So it was on my radar and I decided to go to a career fair one day where I knew Doug—one of Shopify’s head recruiters at the time—would be. Back then I was working as a freelance designer, and I had all these business cards designed because my friends and I were going to start a design company. On my card I put that I was a “visual linguist”, I wanted it to be a conversation starter [laughs].

So I started talking with Doug about a support role they were hiring for, and at the very end, he asked me if I had a business card. I handed it to him and he immediately asked what a visual linguist was, so I explained that I did a bit of graphic design. He mentioned that he had a design/culture intern position and asked if I would be interested. It was total chance that I had this card—the job he was hiring for wasn’t even posted anywhere.

I went in for an interview and met one of the co-founders, Daniel Weinand. I got the job and started working closely with him—at the time he was both the Chief Culture Officer and Chief Design Officer. In retrospect, I was his assistant, but he never made me feel that I was. He has such a great sense of culture and a deep understanding of it, so I got to work on really cool projects. I shadowed him and saw the way he thought through problems and made decisions. He taught me a lot of what I know. It was a crazy opportunity to learn that from such an early stage and it’s really defined the way that we approach culture at Shopify.

After that four-month internship, I jokingly asked if they were going to keep me around or if I should start looking for a new job. They kept me on, and I let Daniel know that I wasn’t as interested in the design side of things. He asked if I wanted to try recruiting, so I did that for a bit and it was really interesting, but eventually we got large enough that it made sense to have me focus on culture full-time. I began working closely with Brittany who is now our VP of HR, and I partnered with her on things like Hack Days, Town Halls and team retreats. In the beginning, we had a very surface level definition of culture as all the things you could see. We had just moved into a new office, so we needed artwork, and we needed some of the shinier things set up. Then over time when we started doing mergers and acquisitions we realized how crucial onboarding was. We gained a deeper sense of what culture actually was, and it was so much more than we thought in the beginning.

“Default to open is a concept where you start at a point of what not to share, instead of what to share, which is what most companies do. But for us we only close off anything that we’re legally not allowed to share—everything else is up for grabs.”

Early on, how did you define your role, and what were some of the challenges you encountered during that process?

I don't think we ever really defined it. I came in and there was a laundry list of stuff to do and we just made it happen. One of the biggest compliments I ever got from Daniel was, “the great thing is when I ask you to take care of something, I don't have to think twice about it. I know that it's taken care of.” We were so small that I had my hands in everything. I was helping the front desk, I was helping HR with onboarding. Over time, we became a bit more strategic in what the role actually should be. For example, I was doing some research online and came across the concept of default to open and absolutely loved it. So I shared it with Daniel and Brittany and we started to look at how we could reformat our communications. Default to open is a concept where you start at a point of what not to share, instead of what to share, which is what most companies do. But for us we only close off anything that we’re legally not allowed to share—everything else is up for grabs. So we restructured our Town Halls, which we do every Friday with the whole company. We experimented with doing AMAs with Tobi, our CEO. We thought about how we could get more mid-level leadership, and how we could get other people in the company to contribute and share knowledge in whatever capacity they wanted. So much of that formatting has stuck around today because it was well thought out and had a strong purpose behind it. It’s been interesting to see what things have changed and what things, despite our growth, have stuck.

What are some of the main challenges you face currently?

The biggest challenge for me is not losing that personal touch. Early on, I built so many relationships with people across the company and I understood where they were coming from. You might have heard of Dunbar’s number, where you can really only maintain meaningful relationships with 150 people. We are really cognizant of not being the type of company that starts being impersonal, or treating people like numbers. So how do we scale that personal element? The formula of having a culture specialist for every 150 people doesn’t really work, so how can we scale those relationships? There’s a lot of tools we use that help, like Slack, and I have some tips and tricks now for staying looped in with everyone in the company.

There’s also a lot of things we need to constantly evaluate as we continue to grow so quickly. For example, we’ve always hosted volleyball day, and I don’t want to stop doing that just because we’re too big, but if we do decide to stop it would have to be for the right reasons. Maybe it’s because we’ve found a more meaningful way to bring others together and build relationships across the company. The scale and the shifting of our projects is okay, as long as the impact is still there.

“We’re always thinking things through and staying purposeful with the decisions we make, down to the wording we choose to communicate our values. We critique the life out of it because we have a diverse workforce and people interpret things differently.”

What are some of the major aspects of your role that you think people would be surprised at?

I think the main thing is that both internally and externally most people just see the shiny parts of what the team does. People will look at our Shopify Instagram and say, “Oh wow, you’re the person who designed that great office!” When actually it was our Director of Facilities who did that, we worked closely together and talked about the impact of design on our employees but a lot of what I end up doing is very much behind the scenes. I’ll go to one of the executives and say, “Hey, there is a lack of context around this topic, can you shed more light on it. Or, can you talk about this at the next Town Hall, or send out an email?”

Sometimes it’s things like going to our VP of Product and saying, “I want people to be thinking about our merchants more, can you tie product demos back to the difference it makes in our merchants lives?” It’s more strategic, and behind the scenes. People need to know the role they play in the big picture, and how their work impacts the business. I think most people don’t realize how much of that goes on. When it occurs, it feels organic, and that’s always the goal. A while back, I had a conversation about having more ‘chaos bots’ around the office, essentially. So that’s currently on my mind. How do I encourage more teams to do random experiments? For example, the internal operations team ran an experiment where they only used their cellphones for a full week, just to see what that’s like because some of our merchants might not have laptops—so how do we get more perspective on that end? It’s really about switching our behaviours and habits to gain insight.

We’re always thinking things through and staying purposeful with the decisions we make, down to the wording we choose to communicate our values. We critique the life out of it because we have a diverse workforce and people interpret things differently. I think the thought and the purpose is what makes the biggest difference for us.

What are some of the tools that make up your current workflow?

Spreadsheets - I rely on Google Apps and spreadsheets heavily. I feel like I can only think in spreadsheets, it’s even carried over to my personal life.

Slack - We use Slack a lot of course.

Google Hangouts - To connect to the rest of the team in other offices.

Day One - It’s kind of a journalling app but I use it for notes. It syncs with my phone so it’s great for that.

Spotify - Helps me zone out and focus on the most important tasks.

Trello - We use this on the culture team to track projects.

“It’s incredibly meaningful to be able to just execute on an idea. It makes me feel like I have ownership of my domain, I can be the expert and test out new ideas.”

Do you ever have moments where you feel disconnected, either from your work or what you love about your work? How do you re-energize yourself and get back to a good headspace?

I’m very fortunate in that I never feel disconnected from my work, I do however sometimes lose focus, and that can frustrate me a lot. I’ll set out to work on something important and high impact, but then I get sidetracked by a small thing that ends up taking a lot more of my time. That’s something I’m trying to be mindful of. I’m looking at how to be more purposeful with my time and focusing on initiatives that I feel are important. I’m also learning how to pass those high impact goals on to the team.

What has helped with staying focused is taking time for myself. I did a couple of hiking trips this summer and I found that every time I came back I knew exactly what I needed to do and what needed my focus. It must have something to do with hiking, where you’re not doing anything but walking, setting up camp and eating. It’s so basic and minimal and gave me a lot clarity. I think the big thing that I’m trying to figure out is how I can get that clarity without having to take a week off.

What is it that you love the most about what you do and that you find the most meaningful about working in culture?

It’s two things, and the first one is that it’s incredibly rewarding because we get to see the impact of the things we do right away. We see employee’s reactions, the way that it impacts them. We’re really lucky that we get that kind of feedback directly.

The second part is that I’ve gained quite a bit of trust with the leadership team and I feel like I have a lot of autonomy. If I have an idea, I have free reign to try it out. I think if I were at a different company where I didn’t have that trust or had a lot of red tape to go through—it would drive me up the wall. I can very easily walk into any executive’s office and tell them about an idea I have. We test it out and if it’s a bad idea, we learn from it and we cut it out. If it’s a good idea, then we get support and we push for it. It’s incredibly meaningful to be able to just execute on an idea. It makes me feel like I have ownership of my domain, I can be the expert and test out new ideas.

Who would you like to see interviewed on Ways We Work?

I would love to hear from someone that has helped grow a company from 500 to 5,000, I’d love to pick their brain.

Anna Lambert is also someone you might want to chat with. She’s the Director of Talent Acquisition and has had to hire a lot of people at Shopify very quickly. It’s hard to find so many qualified people that we think are a good fit. She has scaled her team to be able to do that and it’s really impressive.