Shopify’s Satish Kanwar: early-stage entrepreneurs must learn “ruthless prioritization”

Satish Kanwar

Now in its second year, Elevate returns to Toronto September 21, promising to connect the Canadian startup ecosystem and deliver talks from tech leaders like former Alphabet chairman Eric Schmidt.

Ahead of the conference, Elevate has been interviewing its speakers to provide a sneak peek at what attendees can expect. Satish Kanwar, VP of product and general manager of channels at Shopify, is one such speaker sharing his expertise. A serial entrepreneur, Kanwar spoke with Elevate about the state of Canadian tech and scaling Shopify.

Want to see Satish speak at Elevate? Use the promo code ELEVATELOVESBETAKIT to get 20 percent off tickets here.


What’s the biggest myth about tech in Canada?

I think the biggest myth I’ve encountered is that we can’t build companies at a global scale from Canada.

We’ve seen so many amazing examples of companies across the country showing that this myth isn’t true. I think the movement of capital from the USA to Canada is an example of how there are global operations, operating at scale, in Canada. Not to mention that we have talent from every part of the world here in Canada – every form of diversity that goes into globally-impactful products.

How do you ensure diversity, in every sense of the word, on your teams?

It’s important to understand that diversity has many facets: invisible, visible, permanent, and acquired.

It’s just as important to look at diversity that is permanent and visible as it is to understand beliefs, experiences, values, backgrounds, and different skills. Look at invisible and acquired forms of diversity – they have a very tangible impact on a person’s contribution to your team.

“We have to better understand the impact that we have on the real world and environment around us.”

We have to work just as hard in Toronto as any part of the world to create teams that encompass all forms of diversity, even if some of the visible parts of diversity are easier for us as a multicultural city.

To build that fabric into your teams, understand those forms of diversity, talk about them so people can identify with them in your organization, and be able to create an environment with different styles.

It goes into how people communicate, how people manage projects, how you set up physical spaces, and the tools and processes you use. All these things play a role to make sure you’re leveraging diversity as a strength within the organization.

How do you keep a team motivated and connected as Shopify scales?

One of the critical practices that’s really important to me personally is being obsessed with vision and being able to articulate, repeat, and continue to hammer home what the vision, purpose, and goals are for the team around you.

People have tasks to do, projects to work on, goals to hit – but everyone is coming into your company every single day not to check those boxes but to achieve their purpose.

The more you can make that a part of their everyday experience and help them relate every task they do back to that purpose, the more inspired and motivated team you’ll have.

What technology, trait, item, or idea does the next generation need that you feel we are not paying enough attention to?

In-person experiences.

I think in a world of technology, we have to better understand the impact that we have on the real world and environment around us.

In very tangible ways, the most interesting technology deals with augmented reality, virtual reality, and blending of digital and physical environments. But, in many domains, we’re seeing technology-first organizations see the value of “IRL” experiences. We see digitally-native brands opening retail stores; we see software companies becoming hardware companies.

How can early-stage entrepreneurs make an impact when money and time are tight?

Constraints breed creativity. The really important thing is to do ruthless prioritization – to have a strong sense of purpose and focus in the work you’re doing.

When money and time are tight, the natural knee-jerk reaction leads people to dropping quality; that’s a very dangerous situation to be in. I would focus on quality and prioritize the things that have the biggest impact for your customer and your vision.

How can an entrepreneur build better relationships and stronger networks at Elevate?

You gotta be able to step out of your zone.

We’re so accustomed to coming to a large conference like Elevate, and you’ll identify everyone you’ve seen before, met before, or hung out with before, and they become you squad for the rest of the festival.

“There’s a certain confidence that goes into decisions with 80 percent of the information, which you can acquire really quickly.”

You have to put yourself in a position where you’re not using your existing relationships as a crutch. You should take a minute before coming to Elevate to formulate a few smart questions to open up a conversation and relationship with other people. Don’t just ask them what they do or where they work. Ask what problems they are trying to solve, ask what they are working on, or ask what they want to get out of Elevate.

By asking the right questions, you get more meaningful conversations.

I’m excited that Elevate has grown in Canada the way it has. I think it’s remarkable that we have this type of platform right here at home to support and facilitate conversations on entrepreneurship. To have so many thousands of interesting people in the same place is a very special opportunity for people and for the city.

What’s the most underrated advice you’ve ever received?

I think striking when the iron is hot. Being confident taking a risk with 80 percent of the information is an important muscle for entrepreneurs – and creatives at large – to have.

There’s a certain confidence that goes into decisions with 80 percent of the information, which you can acquire really quickly. A lot of the time, you get caught up in trying to get 100 percent of the information, but that final 20 percent often takes ten times more time to gather and doesn’t necessarily lead to a better decision relative to the opportunity cost.

As I’ve found in practice in my career, the last 20 percent isn’t always necessary.

BetaKit is an Elevate media partner. Use the promo code ELEVATELOVESBETAKIT to get 20 percent off tickets here.

Stefan Palios

Stefan Palios

Stefan is a Toronto-based entrepreneur and writer passionate about the people behind tech. He's interviewed over 100 entrepreneurs on topics like management, scaling, diversity and inclusion, and sharing their personal stories. Follow him on Twitter @stefanpalios or send an email to stefan.palios@gmail.com.