Tobias Lütke (C.E.O. of Shopify) in “The Corner Office”

Adam Bryant conducts interviews of senior-level executives that appear in his “Corner Office” column each week in the SundayBusiness section of The New York Times. Here are a few insights provided during an interview of Tobias Lütke, an e-commerce software company. To read the complete interview, check out other articles, and obtain subscription information, please click here.

Photo credit: Earl Wilson/The New York Times

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Tell me about your early years.

I grew up in Koblenz, a small town in Germany. I got my first computer when I was 6, and I was part of that early generation of children who grew up with computers always being around. I fell in love with them early on.

I never cared a lot for school. I categorized school as a history lesson because it was so obvious that computers were different. My parents didn’t understand them, my teachers didn’t. You can imagine the authority problems that stem from a situation where the people you know don’t know anything about the things you care about.

This is probably why I had to start a company at some point, because I don’t think I could have worked for anyone else. So I taught myself programming, and picked up an apprenticeship when I was 16 as a programmer at Siemens. I never went to university.

I also have a weird obsession with optimizing things. Even when I was walking to elementary school, I counted the number of steps on different routes so I could figure out which one was shortest.

I’m always trying to think of ways to make something more efficient. If I have to do something once, that’s fine. If I have to do it twice, I’m kind of annoyed. And if I have to do it three times, I’m going to try to automate it.

Was becoming a C.E.O. a natural transition for you?

My co-founder actually was the first C.E.O. I was going to focus on the technology. But he decided to leave when we had about eight employees. I started looking for a C.E.O. for the company. Then one of our early investors took me aside and said: “Tobi, you will never find anyone who’s going to care as much about Shopify as you do. And that’s what you’re looking for, so you need to stop looking.” Sometimes the stars align and you hear the right sentences at the right time.

What were some early leadership lessons for you?

The hardest thing for me was to rewrite my own value system to be compatible with my new role. I felt really good about being a computer programmer. It took me years to realize that a day where I met with investors and spoke at a conference was actually not a wasted day. Intellectually I knew this, but internally it just didn’t feel like it.

I had to systematically rebuild how I measured my own contribution. Once I did that, I started realizing that it’s the team that matters, and that the best way for me to spend any given day is to essentially figure out how to make my team a tiny bit better.

Because there’s really only two kinds of days — ones when your team gets better and ones when your team gets worse. And if you just spend time getting better, then over a prolonged period of time you become essentially unbeatable.

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Adam Bryant, deputy national editor of The New York Times, oversees coverage of education issues, military affairs, law, and works with reporters in many of the Times’ domestic bureaus. He also conducts interviews with CEOs and other leaders for Corner Office, a weekly feature in the SundayBusiness section and on that he started in March 2009. In his book, The Corner Office: Indispensable and Unexpected Lessons from CEOs on How to Lead and Succeed, (Times Books), he analyzes the broader lessons that emerge from his interviews of hundreds of business leaders. To read an excerpt, please click here. To contact him, please click here.

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