Shopify’s Toby Shannan on the Joy and Sorrows of Integration

by Mark Thompson, March 29, 2017
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“Mama always told me not to look into the eyes of the sun, but Mama that’s where the fun is.”

This line, from Bruce Springsteen – perhaps made famous by Manfred Mann – could well have been said by Toby Shannan, Shopify’s SVP of Support Operations.

You see, Shopify made its way from startup to a $5.2B valuation in 9 years by solving problems in the interstitial spaces between small business and e-commerce solutions, and between companies that don’t solve customer problems in “a hands on” way and those that do. The market has rewarded Shopify with hyper-growth for solving small business e-commerce headaches. That is the joy of integration – at least for Shopify.

The sorrow? All of Toby’s tech support issues are at the interface between different vendor solutions.  This is the burden of integration.

At Dialog’s recent network design symposium with Santa Fe Institute, Toby opened his seminar by quoting SFI’s Will Tracy as saying, “The edges are where the action is in a network.” By ‘edges’ he meant the links of a network. (That is one reason why networks are best thought of in terms of “flow” or the connections between. As It turns out that in all fields, connectivity is the main source of innovation. According to the recombinant DNA theory of innovation, the only way you can create something new is to bring together two previously uncombined elements.

In an open plug-and-play ecosystem, you can create virtually anything when compared to a closed ecosystem. However, this places a greater need on the role of integrator, whether that is the end user or a professional intermediary. In a closed ecosystem, the ecosystem sponsor takes on more of the task and decisions of integration. (Think Apple vs. Microsoft or Android).

All ecosystems, especially open ecosystems, require Integrators. Bridge builders. Translators. Renaissance men and women. That’s what we need more of as we race forward, ever-faster, pulled by our technology and self-reinforcing momentum, into deeper and more sprawling amounts of knowledge.

Specialization and exchange has created our world, but it will take renaissance men and women to keep it whole.

We need a unified worldview, right now. We can no longer afford brokenness. We can no longer afford to look at or manage problems in silos.

All silos are constructs. Organizational insiders can always tell you the informal network by which work really gets done. What is really there is a network, a series of nested ecosystems both formal and informal.

Toby manages his support and sales operations as one seamless function. In doing so, he avoids the usual escalated customer service issues that arise in the cracks between sales, customer service and tech support. People usually think of “product integration,” but “service integration” may be the secret of Shopify’s success.

In solving interstitial problems, Shopify’s team has found the same joy that Tim Cook found coming to Apple and working at the interstices of hardware, software and communications. In Tim Cook’s words, that’s where the magic is, at the boundaries.

There’s increasing business opportunity in connecting the network to itself.  With that in mind, the next time you see an integration problem, you just might see it as an opportunity.

And if you are lucky, like Shopify, it could offer you a 10 figure valuation.

Stay tuned for more insights, and join us in conversation online using the hashtag #NetworksInAction

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