In Conversation: Stripe CEO Patrick Collison On The Limitless Potential Of Payments

Headshot - Patrick Collison

Stripe CEO and cofounder Patrick Collison

From my Forbes blog:

When Patrick Collison and his younger brother John were developing ideas in 2010 for new apps to create, they kept running into a seemingly basic problem: Even as it was getting easier to tap cloud services to create startups faster and cheaper than ever, one thing was still a pain in the app: accepting payments online from customers.

So the pair, already entrepreneurs from Ireland who sold their first company in their teens for $5 million, decided to turn that problem into a business. They set up a system that allowed developers to add a few lines of code to their app and start taking payments from anyone anywhere, for a small fee per transaction.

Today, their company, Stripe, processes billions of dollars a year for tens of thousands of companies, from other startups to the likes of Facebook, Salesforce, and Lyft. With a recent funding from Visa and other partners such as Apple and China’s Alibaba, Stripe is now valued at $5 billion. But CEO Patrick Collison and the company’s investors alike think that’s only the start. Hemant Taneja of investor General Catalyst says that when Stripe reached its first $1 million in transactions processed, the elder Collison said, “Only five orders of magnitude left.”

Taneja thinks Stripe indeed could be valued at $100 billion in the next few years if it plays its cards right. Just as Google turned search into an advertising empire and Amazon’s Web Services enabled the creation of many thousands of online businesses, he says, “There’s an opportunity for someone to create a platform that’s all about payments and commerce.”

It’s a heady possibility for someone who still hasn’t turned 27 years old, and who faces competitors from PayPal and Google to big banks. In an interview I conducted with Patrick Collison for a story in MIT Technology Review’s annual list of Innovators Under 35, the Stripe CEO had a sore throat, so he spoke softly, in a distinct if muted accent befitting his upbringing in Ireland’s Shannon region.

But his ambition–and a firm belief that Stripe and the sometimes controversial startups it enables are good for society–were apparent as we talked on a balmy late June afternoon at Stripe headquarters, a 106-year-old trunk factory in San Francisco’s Mission District. Following is an edited version of our conversation:

Q: What spurred your interest in technology early on?
A: I grew up in very rural Ireland. The Internet was kind of a connection to the greater world. It had a lot of significance. Maybe if I grew up in New York, I’d have already felt it. It was very clear if you grew up in the middle of Ireland just how potent a force the Internet was and could be. I was always seduced by the potency of computers and the possibilities for which they could be leveraged.

Q: When did you and John realize you needed what Stripe now provides, and when did you realize it could be a business?
A: We started working on it as a side project, while I was at MIT, and just being baffled at how convoluted and awkward this appeared to be. It seemed like a prevailing ecosystem designed to reduce the number of Internet businesses. …

Read the rest of the interview.

Innovator Patrick Collison Aims To Make Money Flow Easily Online

collison-tr

My story in MIT Technology Review:

“I grew up in very rural Ireland. The Internet was a connection to the greater world. It was very clear just how potent a force the Internet was and could be. While my brother John and I were tinkering with some new apps in Ireland and then in Boston and Silicon Valley, we experienced firsthand the difficulty of accepting online payments. We were just baffled at how convoluted and awkward the process appeared to be. The ecosystem seemed designed to reduce the number of Internet businesses.

“The same way Google exists as a foundational component of the Internet around information retrieval, it felt like there should be a developer-focused, instant-setup payment platform. Many people in financial services told us it couldn’t work.

“Stripe now processes billions of dollars a year for thousands of businesses, from startups to publicly traded companies. There’s a ton of database and distributed-system work that has to be done to make that experience possible. We have a 10-person machine-learning team that works on compliance, risk, fraud, identity verification, all of those things behind the scenes.

“Making it so easy to participate in the online economy has a far larger effect than one might imagine. We’re enabling new business models, like crowdfunding. And mobile marketplaces, like Lyft, Postmates, and Instacart. That enables more people in society to take advantage of these services. My youngest brother is disabled, and for him it’s not just a convenience. He can now do grocery shopping in a way that he could not before.”

—as told to Robert D. Hof

With Android Pay, Google Closes Gap With Apple In Mobile Payments

From my Forbes.com blog:

Apple vaulted ahead of Google in mobile payments last September when it announced Apple Pay, its long-awaited entry into mobile payments. By comparison, the three-year-old Google Wallet looked tired and limited.

Now, Apple’s head start has nearly vanished. Today at its I/O conference in San Francisco for software developers, Google introduced Android Pay, a successor to Google Wallet that, when it launches this summer, will come close to matching Apple Pay for making payments via smartphones easy in stores and inside apps.

They won’t quite be identical. Apple Pay’s security system is somewhat different, and Android phones won’t have fingerprint identification like Apple’s until the new version of Android comes out this summer, and even then only on phones that have fingerprint I.D. capability. But they’ll be close enough that consumers should be comfortable using either one in largely the same way–and at the very same 700,000 store locations that have the right checkout terminals.

That’s a big step forward for Google’s mobile payment ambitions. A competitive mobile wallet is key for the search giant because the ability to pay with a couple taps on a smartphone will grease the e-commerce skids for app developers and marketers alike.

If you’re tuning into the mobile payments business recently, you might wonder if Google is simply copying Apple. Actually, it’s more the other way around. …

Read the entire post.

This Man’s Betting On The Technology Behind Apple Pay – And Even He Says It’s Years Away From Wide Adoption

Osama Bedier, founder and CEO of Poynt

Osama Bedier, founder and CEO of Poynt

From my Forbes blog:

When Apple CEO Tim Cook unveiled Apple Pay in September, he predicted that it would “forever change the way all of us buy things.” As I wrote in a recent post, while he ultimately might be proven right, Apple’s mobile wallet is likely to take years to catch on widely.

Although that assessment is nearly universally accepted among people who actually know how payments work, I got a lot of pushback on that from Apple fanatics as well as at least one Forbes contributor.

So I decided to ask someone who has bet at least partly on Apple Pay’s eventual success: Osama Bedier, a former vice president at both PayPal and Google, where he headed the search giant’s mobile wallet effort. Bedier is now founder and CEO of Poynt, which just announced plans to build a slick-looking smart point-of-sale terminal that can take most existing forms of payment–including those facilitated by Near Field Communication, the method used in both Apple Pay and Google Wallet to send data from a smartphone to the register. Suffice to say, when it comes to payments, Bedier not only knows what he’s talking about, he’s pretty agnostic about the many competing mobile payment methods.

His take? To start with the positive, he says Apple’s timing looks good–not a surprising take, since Bedier’s making the same bet that the timing is right. “Apple is good at jumping on bandwagons they think could take off,” he says. That’s in contrast, he notes, to Google, which “gets infatuated with technology”–though he also says that Google Wallet helped kickstart a move by tens of thousands of retail outlets to install NFC-capable readers.

Still, Bedier says, Apple Pay “isn’t going to happen next year. It’s going to take four years before it happens everywhere.” What’s more, Apple Pay works only on iPhones (and eventually Apple Watches), and that’s unlikely to change soon, so Apple Pay won’t be a standard except for iPhones. …

Read the rest of the story.

Apple Pay Has Finally Arrived! Great – But Here Are 7 Reasons It Won’t Be A Slam-Dunk Success

applepay

From my Forbes blog:

Judging from most of the coverage of  Apple Pay, the mobile wallet that launches Monday, you’d think Apple has already revolutionized the $4 trillion U.S. payments market before anyone has even used it in the wild.

It does look pretty slick, at least based on Apple’s own demonstration at the Sept. 9 event where it also debuted two iPhone 6 models and the Apple Watch. All that’s required to buy a burger and fries at McDonald’s or a tank of gas at Chevron, Apple CEO Tim Cook promised, is to hold an iPhone near a wireless reader at the checkout counter and press a thumb on the home button to activate Apple’s Touch ID fingerprint sensor. In under 10 seconds, you’re out the door.

That would be a stark contrast to today, when using a mobile wallet from Google, PayPal, and others requires unlocking a phone, typing in a number, checking into a store, and various other steps–including waiting to see if it even works and trying another time or two when it doesn’t. Many merchants don’t even have checkout people who can tell you how it works. In several attempts in the past week or so, I went two for four: Google Wallet worked at Peet’s and Walgreen’s, though only after a couple of attempts, PayPal didn’t work at a local cafe where it was supposed to, and CVS didn’t work with either one. Even the clerk there didn’t know how the reader at the checkout counter worked.

But based on research into rival wallets and interviews with merchants, payment tech firms, and payments experts, it’s apparent that Apple Pay is far from a guaranteed success–at least if you judge success on what Apple CEO Tim Cook promised last month: “Apple Pay will forever change the way all of us buy things.” Here’s why there’s good reason to view Apple Pay with skepticism:

* You can’t use Apple Pay unless you buy an iPhone 6 or 6 Plus. Apple uses a method to send data from a phone to a checkout reader called Near Field Communication, which is used in some 220,000 retail locations already for other wallets and new credit cards that use a chip to store information. Previous iPhone models didn’t have NFC, so you can’t use them (except for iPhone 5 models along with an Apple Watch, but not until next year). So not only is Apple Pay limited to iPhone users, it’s limited only to iPhone 6 buyers, who number at least 10 million so far and perhaps double that by the end of December.

That may well be enough to jumpstart Apple Pay usage and finally make the long-awaited mobile wallet a reality–for iPhone users. But no store will want to turn away users of Android or other phones who see the iPhone owner in front of them in line whisk through with a tap. “Merchants won’t want the PR hit of discriminating against Android users,” says Richard Crone, CEO of payments advisory firm Crone Consulting, who notes that there have been 50 million downloads of branded merchant apps and 90 million active banking app installs. “This will cause them to get religion quick around their own mobile wallet.”

* Cash and credit cards just aren’t that hard to use. Everyone takes cash, and most places of any size accept credit cards. Credit cards also survive getting wet or hot or sat on much better than phones. As payments expert Bill Maurer, dean of the School of Social Sciences at the University of California at Irvine, said in my Apple Pay story, “All of these mobile wallets are looking for a problem to solve.” …

Read on for more challenges facing Apple Pay.

Why Do Programmers Hate Internet Advertising So Much?

Facebook ad question (Photo credit: renaissancechambara)

From my Forbes.com blog The New Persuaders:

Another week, another pontificating programmer slamming online advertising. What is it with these guys?

The latest example is a steaming heap of linkbait from software developer and entrepreneur Patrick Dobson entitled Facebook Should Fire Sheryl Sandberg. That would be the chief operating officer of Facebook, whose purported crime is that she steered Facebook toward being an ad-supported company.

In Dobson’s telling, while Facebook cofounder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg was off at an ashram in India, onetime Google ad exec Sandberg mandated that Facebook would henceforth be an advertising company. Proof of her folly? Facebook’s now worth half of what it was at its IPO three months ago as it “continues to flounder in advertising hell.”

This, despite the fact that Facebook will gross about $5 billion in ad revenues this year, despite the fact that its current market cap is still more than $40 billion less than eight years after the company’s founding in a Harvard dorm.

Thousands of Web developers would love to flounder this badly.

Dobson’s preferred alternative is that Facebook should gradually phase out advertising in favor of–and I have to get technical here, because the bigger picture he provides is fuzzy–selling access to its application programming interface. That way, developers can build businesses like Zynga did on top of the social network in the way personal computer software developers built applications atop Microsoft’s Windows. From his post:

… There is massive value in the social graph and the ability to build applications on top of it. I believe the value is greater than all of the advertising revenue generated on the web to date. … What is the best way to monetize the social graph? To sell access to the social graph! … Developers can then figure out if advertising, or micro transactions, or payed access is the best way to monetize the social graph.

I’m not really sure what “selling access to the social graph” would be, though it sounds like the result could make Facebook’s many privacy gaffes to date look tame.

But the bigger problem is the persistent implication by tech folks like Dobson that advertising is beneath them, and beneath any intelligent human being. Now, I’m no huge fan of most advertising, and all too often it is indeed lame. But there’s no doubt it can be useful at the right place and time, and even when it misses the mark, advertising is a small, remarkably frictionless price to pay for a whole lot of free Web services.

The notion that advertising is evil, to use a favorite term of Google critics, or at least useless is a longstanding meme in Silicon Valley. It goes at least as far back as Google’s founding, before it became–right–the biggest online ad company on the planet. Cofounders Larry Page and Sergey Brin famously wrote in their Stanford doctoral thesis describing Google that advertising could pollute search results.

Why this antipathy to advertising? A lot of tech folks seem to believe they’re immune to the influence of advertising. More than that, they assume that no one else is much influenced by it either (despite ample evidence over many decades that ads do influence people’s attitudes and behavior). Therefore, the reasoning goes, ads are nothing more than an annoyance, an inefficient allocation of capital. Dobson accuses Sandberg of a “rampant lack of business creativity” that has “no place in centers of innovation,” later saying she should start an ad agency in Miami. …

Read the complete post at The New Persuaders.