It all started a little over a year ago as a crazy idea at Shopify, an Ottawa-based e-commerce software startup: Build a Twitter-inspired
platform where employees can share information on the cool stuff they’re
doing. They gave it a funny name, UNICORN, and turned it loose. Now, just over a year later,
the folks at Shopify are using that crazy idea to redefine the way they communicate, collaborate, and even compensate their employees.
Shopify CEO, was spending his weekends working on projects and
prototypes. And like clockwork, every Monday he found himself wanting to
tell other people about them. It was during those informal chats that
he discovered two things 1) there were a lot of cases where his fellow
employees were working on something similar and 2) they weren’t sharing
their successes with others. That’s when the idea for the UNICORN was
Tobi and his team decided to create a custom-built social
media platform. In keeping with the “unicorn” theme, they came up with
their own lingo: managers are referred to as wizards, direct reports as
apprentices, and projects as quests. As cool as that might sound (to fantasy geeks, anyway), reaction to UNICORN was mixed. So they went back to the drawing board to look for ways to
increase employee engagement.
“What if we bribed them?” Shopify decided to take a portion of its profits and put them into a pot.
Management then divided the money up equally amongst all employees. When
they found something they liked, they could give that person a cash
bonus. And like magic, the postings increased.
The potential to
receive a cash incentive was just enough of a carrot to get everyone on
board. Then the system took on a life of its own. “When we hit 20,000
followers on Twitter,
someone noticed and posted a message on UNICORN thanking our social
media manager. Right away, there were high fives in the hallways and the
person responsible was walking around with a huge smile on her face”
Collaboration also improved. Employees started using
the system to break down internal silos. In one case, they were creating
a recruitment video and needed help editing their content. Within two
hours of posting a message on UNICORN, they were able to identify two
people on the team with the exact experience they were looking
for–skills that wouldn’t have been otherwise obvious given their current
roles at the company.
Accomplishments were then tied to performance reviews. The
UNICORN system is now capable of tracking every aspect of a typical
performance review. Managers (or wizards) can communicate with their
direct reports (apprentices) prior to the meeting, fill in goals (or
quests) and incorporate other information that will be used in a more
formal review. When employees finish tasks, they’re given “experience points,” which they’ll soon be able to use to buy cool stuff
for their avatars (such as a mustache), stealing a page from game theory
to appeal to employees’ competitive zeal.
All this resulted in a group of genuinely happy, incredibly loyal employees. Shopify
has been around for just about seven years and they have almost no
turnover. And although a lot of that has to do with their existing culture, employee reaction to UNICORN has been incredibly positive.
of the biggest upsides of the system is the idea that accomplishments
can be shared with everyone throughout the company, not just your direct
supervisor. So that means, if you have a lame duck boss, you don’t have to leave it up to him or her to sing your praises–UNICORN will do it for you.
its launch, Shopify has expanded the system to include part-time
employees and interns–something you definitely won’t find at a lot of
While a lot of businesses are sinking heavy investments into external customer-facing social media solutions,
the folks at Shopfiy are going against the grain and investing equally in internal tools. “We’ve put some of
our best developers on UNICORN and other internal projects. This is an
area where big companies often suffer,” said Tobi.
internal investments pay off? If reaction to the UNICORN is any
indication, it sounds like they’re going to reap some huge dividends.