When asked about the future of Internet commerce, Patrick Collison, the 26-year-old CEO and co-founder of 4-year-old mobile payments startup Stripe, referenced a quote from the man responsible for coining the word “cyberspace,” the author and futurist William Gibson. “The future is here, it’s just not evenly distributed.”
Collison thinks it should be possible for anyone to make a purchase online or develop an Internet business no matter where they are. But in reality, this isn’t always the case, as many people around the world simply aren’t able to pay for services online. “Most users can’t buy from any particular app or service because [they] don’t have a credit card, Collison says.
And on the flip side, he believes the entrepreneurs that are launching these products and services are running into a unique set of challenges when it comes to accepting payments, as the variances in banking systems and currencies can make transactions difficult. "The world’s population is coming online with mobile devices and smartphones but we haven’t put the last brick in the arch yet, in that our economic infrastructure does not support and enable all these people to start businesses.”
Seeing this obstacle affects many entrepreneurs and small-business owners, Collison and his younger brother John, the company’s president and other co-founder, began working to bridge those gaps. Stripe offers conversions for more than 100 currencies, processes billions of dollars annually, and works with companies like Facebook, Twitter, Apple, Kickstarter, Lyft, Instacart, TED, Foursquare and more.
We caught up with Collison to talk about playing the long game when building the ideal team, the benefit of keeping the business in the family and the importance of developing your product with a specific and tangible audience in mind.
Q. Knowing what you know now, what would you have done differently when you were first launching Stripe?
A. I think the biggest thing is focusing more on the structure of the organization. A company isn’t just a set of people that are working together in a particular way. Over time we’ve increasingly realized this and done a better job of figuring out how we can most optimally work together. I think we could have scaled more quickly, if we had paid more attention to it two or three years ago.
I think if I was doing it all again, I would make a list of the 10 or five things that are [helping] us succeed, and what processes could we put in place to make sure that we preserve all of them.
Q. What are some of the upsides of working with family?
A. [John and I] didn’t start to work together because we were brothers. He was just one of the most talented people that I knew, and as a result of that we would discuss ideas together.
I think the big benefit is you have so much experience resolving disputes in that we’ve been resolving disputes through techniques of various levels of sophistication since we were two and four. It’s easy to joke about it, but it means you can have very frank and direct dialogue and things don’t fester between you. If you look at other high growth companies, there’s sometimes an element of co-founder turnover and turmoil in the formative years, and I think that our prior relationship has helped us work together more effectively.
Q. What’s your best advice for aspiring entrepreneurs?
A. It’s helpful to remember that the only thing that matters in the very beginning is building a product or service that some number of people really likes – then most other problems are solvable. If you do not do that, no matter how well you do everything else, you’re probably not going to succeed.
Q. How did your first audience inform how the product and company evolved?
A. In the beginning we had about 20 people in mind and had a clear sense of what would make them happy. We were sort of imagining these people when we were building the product in the first place. We weren’t building for a market segment or for a theoretical need we thought might or might not exist. We were building for particular, tangible people that we could imagine showing it to them and how they would react. Having that specificity is really valuable. If you choose the right initial set of customers, they can be indicative of where the market is headed.
Q. What are you glad that you didn’t know when you were first starting out?
A. I think how long it takes to recruit the best people. There are a bunch of people at Stripe that we spent literally years recruiting. It’s a hard thing to do. If you want to hire the best people, the best people are already doing pretty impressive things. They have their life plans, their picture for what they want to be doing. To figure out a way in which those trajectories align, really takes time. I’m so happy we get to work with these people because Stripe would be a very different company without them.
This interview was edited for clarity and brevity.