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Meet The Chief Platform Officer

“Chief platform officer” doesn’t have the same title recognition as a CEO or CFO–so what do these guys do, anyway? Shopify’s CPO breaks down his role and lays out some guidelines if you’re thinking of adding one to your executive team.

Meet The Chief Platform Officer

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When I first came to Shopify, I understood that my role at the company would be some blend of business development, legal counsel, and taking the lead on certain growth initiatives. However, Tobi Lütke, who is our CEO and founder, and whose leadership & vision were the reasons I wanted to join Shopify in the first place, was clear that he wanted me to create and develop my own unique position at the company. Tobi provided me with all the support and assistance I needed, but he was adamant that he wanted me to be the architect of my own hybrid role, based on where I felt I could provide the greatest added value, coupled with what I felt I would enjoy doing most.

About 10 months after joining Shopify, and a number of candid conversations with Tobi and our advisors, I was both humbled and honored when I was told that I was being given what we all deemed to be an appropriate title, that of ‘Chief Platform Officer’ (“CPO”). And yes, there were some who initially called me “C3PO,” but it was all in good fun. 

Since being given that title, I have been asked a number of times what in fact the role of a CPO entails. Although I have a few canned replies ready at a moment’s notice, I felt it was time to break down the role and elaborate on what being a CPO really means.

I believe the crux of the role revolves around ‘deal making’ and the creation and development of relationships with value-adding partners. I use the term ‘partner’ quite liberally here, as a partner can range from developers who build apps for us, designers who build themes and refer us business, and non-traditional sales channels such as contests and promotions and rev share deals. More generally, I believe that the position of a CPO combines tenets of business development, ‘dynamic’ (as opposed to ‘static’ or one-time) deal-making, the planning and execution of strategic initiatives (like our Build-a-Business contest), and often the role of company evangelist.

One of the other inquiries that I receive quite often relates to what type of organization should even consider including the role of a CPO on its executive team. In my view, any business that allows third parties and partners to build on top of their core offering would benefit from having an executive in this role. Moreover, any business that relies heavily (or should) on both traditional and non-traditional business development deals and bulk-sales channels should also consider such a role. On the technology front, I strongly believe that companies that have an API (application programming interface) should consider including a CPO position, particularly if their core product offering is considerably enhanced by third party applications and developers.

In one of his recent books, Seth Godin describes a position within a company where an individual (or team) is not quite marketing and not quite sales, but rather responsible for new deals, partnerships, and transformative ideas– “in charge of starting things” and “poking the box.” While Godin goes on to categorize this role as effectively “bizdev,” the traits and terms he uses to describe that role encompasses many of the same responsibilities that I have as CPO.

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In terms of the nomenclature behind the term “platform,” consider an oil platform that is built to support oil production and to facilitate its movement to those who wish to consume it. Additionally, the analogy carries with a railway platform, which is an area at a train station that allows passengers (or consumers) of the service to effectively embark on the entity’s core offering–which in the case of a train is of course transportation. In these examples, each platform seeks to provide the most lucrative and efficient method to allow for the consumption of the product or service. 

Similarly, I believe that at Shopify, my main objective as CPO is to maximize the asset, which in our case is software, that the Shopify development and design teams have built.

While the role of a CPO is fairly unique and may not be appropriate for every company, I feel very fortunate to be able to operate in an environment where my work defines my title, rather than my title defining the type of work I am supposed to do.

Questions or comments on the topic of CPOs? Contact author Harley Finkelstein at harley@shopify.com

[Image: Flickr user Charles & Clint]

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About the author

Harley is an entrepreneur, lawyer, and the Chief Platform Officer (CPO) at Shopify. He has a background in startups and eCommerce, and started his first company at age 17 while a student at McGill. Harley completed his law degree as well as his MBA at the University of Ottawa, where he co-founded the JD/MBA Student Society and the Canadian MBA Oath

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