John Collison is the 26-year-old president and co-founder of Stripe, an online-payment service that he set up with his brother Patrick in 2010. More than 100,000 companies are powered by Stripe, which operates in ten offices across 25 countries.
Since launching publicly in 2011, it has received more than $450 million (£347m) funding from investors including CapitalG, General Catalyst, Visa, American Express, Peter Thiel and Elon Musk.
Today, it is worth more than $9.2 billion. We asked Collison to share his entrepreneurial learnings.
You don’t have to know how to code, but it helps
“One of the myths you see in entrepreneurship is that people have this dream one night, wake up the next morning and start building it. It’s actually much more of an iterative process,” he says.
“The advantage coders have is a really short feedback loop. The accelorator Y Combinator has a motto that, during the programme, the only things you should be doing are writing code and talking to customers. If you’re able to code, then it can be the same person.”
Be mindful of the past
“People tend to pay too little attention to history – the history of Silicon Valley and American business – and think they’re the first people to come across a problem. For Stripe, being inventive is just about applying the right solutions from other areas.”
Niche developer problems can be big commercial opportunities
“Our initial idea with Stripe was that for people like us – those building apps and websites – it was incredibly difficult to take payments. So with an open mind, and maybe a useful lack of knowledge about the industry, we started building a payment product,” Collison says.
“What we didn’t realise was that the problem was actually much broader. One, the problem was applicable all around the world. Two, it was relevant not just to new companies starting out, but also to the Salesforces, the Walmarts and the Twitters.”
Be willing to wait years to hire the right person
“If you’re building a team to solve a problem that might take a decade, it would be really bad short-term optimisation to hire the person who doesn’t seem quite right. It means you can’t scale as quickly, but we’re perfectly fine with that.”
Corporate culture can be set
“A lot of companies talk about ‘culture’ like the force in Star Wars – it’s this mysterious thing that floats around. But for us it’s very operational. We try to be deliberate about it, write it down, talk to new hires about it on the first day and hold people accountable for it. It will come up in performance reviews. It could be a reason we promote someone.”
- Born in Limerick, Ireland, the second eldest of three children
- Started secondary school at Castletroy College, Limerick
- Co-founded online auction-management system Shuppa
- Rebranded Shuppa as Auctomatic
- Sold Auctomatic to Live Current Media for $5 million
- Began studies at Harvard University
- Received Y Combinator funding for Stripe
- Publicly launched Stripe with his brother, Patrick
- Stripe secured $150 million of series D investment
- Forbes names Collison the youngest self-made billionaire
Go global fast
“We probably waited too long before we started scaling our international operations in a big way. That wasn’t a huge mistake in the scheme of things, but our ten global offices have helped us build up our business in Europe, Singapore and Australia. In retrospect, I would have done that sooner.”
Stripe is making it easier for British businesses to sell to Chinese customers
Business opportunities aren’t static
“One principle that people often miss is that you need two sides of the scale coin. A business idea needs to be approachable so you can get a product people will pay for off the ground fairly quickly, and yet there needs to be growth [potential],” he says.
“Microsoft couldn’t have started in the enterprise-contracts market, because it didn’t have the expertise or credibility. Yet, it couldn’t have stayed with just operating systems because it just wasn’t a big enough market.”
Everything that will be invented has not yet been invented
“It’s easy for people to think the best opportunities are taken. I absolutely don’t think that is true at all. My advice to my younger self would be not to be too OK with the ways the world is broken, and instead see them as opportunities. For instance, I don’t think anyone’s particularly happy with their mobile-phone provider. If a better provider were to come around, I don’t think anyone would be particularly surprised.”
Investors don’t help in the way you might imagine
“Their domain expertise is not ‘the industry’ – their domain expertise is building a company. As you grow a business, there are all sorts of things you find yourself figuring out for the first time, things that aren’t second nature, such as how to grow a sales team or have a productive engineering organisation. Several investors at Stripe have scaled companies in the past and have been really useful because they’ve seen those dynamics before.”