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Protocol | Fintech

Shopify’s payments push is about ‘arming the rebels’ against Amazon

The goal isn't just to make it easier to sell on Shopify — it's about making it easier to sell anywhere, says Shopify VP Carl Rivera.

Shopify's Carl Rivera

Shopify's Carl Rivera says the goal is making ecommerce better.

Photo: Shopify

Shopify, which began as a software company that helps merchants set up online stores, has been going through a serious transformation.

The Canadian tech company has steadily expanded to other products and services, including lending to merchants and offering shoppers "buy now, pay later" deals.

On Tuesday, Shopify announced another major shift. The ecommerce company said it would give merchants on Facebook and Google access to Shop Pay, its payments and checkout tool — including those that don't use Shopify.

It's a big move that underscores Shopify's transformation, IDC analyst Jordan Jewell said.

"They're mostly a payments company in terms of revenue," Jewell said. "They're bringing in two-thirds of their revenue or more from merchant solutions. That part of the business is growing much faster than the subscription revenue."

This trend has become more pronounced during the pandemic. Last year, Shopify's core subscription software business posted revenue of $279 million in Q4 of 2020, up more than 50% year-over-year. But its merchant solutions business, which includes Shop Pay, grew even faster and became an even bigger part of the company's total business, recording revenue of $698 million that quarter, more than double the previous year.

Shopify's momentum and its aggressive expansion to new areas are turning the spotlight on its rivalry with the giant of ecommerce, Amazon. "Amazon actually views them somewhat as a threat," Jewell said.

That competition has been brewing for years. Jewell cited Shopify CEO Tobi Lutke's famous quote in 2019 when he said, "Amazon is trying to build an empire, and Shopify is trying to arm the rebels."

It's a view that Carl Rivera, Shopify's vice president of product who is spearheading the Google and Facebook payments deal, reaffirmed in an interview with Protocol. He also explained why the company is reaching out to non-Shopify merchants.

This interview was edited for brevity and clarity.

Why give non-Shopify merchants access to your checkout and payments tool?

It's pretty straightforward. Shopify's mission since forever is to make commerce better for everyone. After some time, we realized that the best way for us to make commerce better for everyone is to not just think about the merchants, but also to think about their customers and how we can accelerate them through the checkout. Now, we're not just going to think about Shopify merchants. We're also going to think about all the merchants and all customers.

What were the hurdles? What were the things that you and other team members were worried about?

A general truth for product development is that the simpler something feels, the harder it is to build. You think about bringing what is the easiest way to check out from an online store to millions of merchants — obviously there were a ton of technical considerations that we had to take into account to make this experience a reality.

Can you give an example?

A large part for us is: How do we work with authentication and identity? How can we ensure that this is super fast and super secure at the same time, and figure out how [those] transition and handshake moments should happen? That was something we spent a lot of time talking about and discussing.

It's tougher because you're dealing with merchants who are not in your world, so to speak.

When you're building on your own platform, you have full control of every aspect and angle. And when you're building together with a partner, it requires a super close collaboration and a really high level of trust where you can really open up and say, "Here's where we're at with that product. Where are you at in terms of receiving the right API calls," and so forth. This wouldn't have been possible if it wasn't for the very high level of trust that exists between us and these partners. I've been super encouraged to see the news coming out from both of those companies over the past. You can tell that they're increasingly taking commerce more and more seriously.

Shopify clearly grew during the pandemic. Your merchant solutions business, which includes payments, is accelerating much faster than the core business.

Shopify is in the business of making merchants successful. When we think about payment volume, we think of it mostly as a proxy for merchants' success. We will do whatever it takes to make our merchants successful or any merchants that use Shopify services. We know that Shop Pay is one of the things that makes merchants more successful. This is fully why we're pursuing this opportunity.

There's just an abundance of players in the payment space. I continue to be surprised just how little innovation there's been in this space. And so we don't compare ourselves to any payment provider or any wallet in particular. But we find that we stand out quite a bit just by thinking about this space a little bit differently.

What I got from that response is that there's more to come when it comes to payments.

It's certainly fair to say that Shop Pay is in the beginning of its journey. We think very highly of this product. We already see what kind of results it brings. It's certainly no secret that we have even higher ambitions for this product, and look forward to seeing it continue to grow.

There is also the view that you're increasingly becoming a competitor with Amazon.

I think Amazon is an incredible company that has had a lot of success over the years. They're taking an approach to ecommerce that is working really well for them. We're taking a very different approach that seems to be working superbly for Shopify. We're bullish about the path that we're taking. This is the first product that we're launching to non-Shopify merchants and we're going to see how this transpires and see what use they get out of it.

Can you talk about how Shopify went through the past year when the pandemic was raging?

It was a crazy time. We were gearing up for the launch of Shop, which is something that we've been working on for a long period of time. Then the pandemic happened. All of a sudden, all bets are off. Tobi [Lutke] sent out an important letter to the entire company and said this is probably one of the most important times in the history of this company where we need to show up for our merchants. We cut timelines for all of the projects that we were pursuing. We asked ourselves the really hard questions, like "Is this the thing that's going to drive the most merchant impact today? Can we get it out yesterday?" I think Tobi said this best about ecommerce: COVID didn't change anything. It just accelerated all of the things that were already happening. That's really what's happening. It's not that we changed trajectory or changed the path. We just accelerated all of the paths that we were already on.

Tobi also famously said that Shopify's goal is to "arm the rebels" — the merchants — against Amazon. You're laughing. How do you reflect on that statement as you're pursuing these new initiatives?

I think that the rally cry of arming the rebels is a great one. We truly try to as much as possible democratize ecommerce. We believe that the future of commerce benefits from more voices, not fewer. What Shopify is doing is really leveling the playing field where these first-time sellers get a really sophisticated, super-advanced platform that allows them to compete.

So giving non-Shopify merchants access to your technology is a way of arming even more rebels.

Yeah, I totally agree with that sentiment. I think that's absolutely right. Again, our mission is not to make commerce better for Shopify merchants. It is: Let's make commerce better for everyone. The future of commerce will benefit from more voices, not fewer.

Protocol | Workplace

The Activision Blizzard lawsuit has opened the floodgates

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Activision Blizzard is being sued for widespread sexism, harassment and discrimination.

Photo: Bloomberg/Getty Images

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The company's stock price has tumbled nearly 10% this week, and CEO Bobby Kotick acknowledged in a message to employees Tuesday that Activision Blizzard's initial response was "tone deaf." Meanwhile, there has been a continuous stream of new reports unearthing horrendous misconduct as more and more former and current employees speak out about the working conditions and alleged rampant misogyny at one of the video game industry's largest and most powerful employers.

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Protocol | Workplace

Founder sues the company that acquired her startup

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Kendall Hope Tucker, founder of Knoq, is suing Ad Practitioners, which acquired her company last year.

Photo: Kendall Hope Tucker

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Protocol | Fintech

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Photo: Electronic Transactions Association

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Benjamin Pimentel ( @benpimentel) covers fintech from San Francisco. He has reported on many of the biggest tech stories over the past 20 years for the San Francisco Chronicle, Dow Jones MarketWatch and Business Insider, from the dot-com crash, the rise of cloud computing, social networking and AI to the impact of the Great Recession and the COVID crisis on Silicon Valley and beyond. He can be reached at bpimentel@protocol.com or via Signal at (510)731-8429.

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