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

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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

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

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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.