‘The most expensive thing I own today is a bicycle’ says Limerick internet entrepreneur

Patrick Collison and his brother John have turned Stripe into a growing force in the online payments world

Few people head up their own multinational company before they turn 25. Not only can Patrick Collison say that he has achieved that milestone, but the company, Stripe, has got the backing of some of the tech industry's biggest names.

The young Limerick-born chief executive has also been named, along with his younger brother John, on Forbes magazine's "30 under 30" – a list of young disruptors, innovators and entrepreneurs who are changing the world.

Together with John, Patrick has built up a team of talented engineers and developers who have turned Stripe into a growing force in the online payments world.

It’s used by some of the biggest companies in the US, including Walmart, and new customers are signing up every day. From a staff of three, it now employs 62 people, and it is hiring all around the world.

The company’s momentum has picked up pace in recent weeks – it has opened beta trials of Stripe in Belgium, Germany and Australia and accounts for millions of dollars in transactions every week – but Patrick is modest about the company’s success to date and says Stripe has a long way to go.

Challenge ahead
"It's all relative. It's an enormous success relative to our expectations and where we started out. It's now a cliché thanks to Facebook, but this is something we worked on in our dorm rooms at college," he says.

“To now be something that is present in multiple countries and used by all these companies we look up to admire and respect, that’s crazy.

“But if you look at it on an internet scale, yes we’ve had some very nice success to date but we certainly haven’t won, or anything close to that.

“We’re processing millions of dollars a day, which is a nice number and very meaningful, but about a trillion dollars gets spent on the internet every year.

“By far most of the challenge is still ahead of us. It’s like when you’re climbing a mountain. You haven’t gone up all far and you see this great view beneath you, and you think you’ve come up so high, but 90 per cent of the mountain is still above you; I feel something like that about Stripe.”

Stripe was set up with one broad aim in mind: to make it easier for developers to accept payments online. Feedback from initial users was taken on board, and one of Stripe’s first users later became an employee.

The company was set up in 2010 and began providing services in 2011, starting with the US. Almost a year later, it moved beyond the bounds of the US into Canada, before opening officially in the UK last month.

The most recent addition to the company’s markets is Ireland, which got access to the service earlier this week when it came out of its beta testing phase.

The launch meant Patrick returned from San Francisco – where he and John are now based along with the majority of the Stripe team – to Dublin where he got a chance to meet some of Stripe’s Irish customers, as well as catch up with family.

It is also, he says, nice that friends and family can now use the product that he and his team have spent so much time developing over the past couple of years.

Stripe isn't the Collison brothers' first tech start-up. The pair hit the headlines in 2008 when their business Auctomatic was bought for a rumoured $5 million by Canadian company Live Current Media.

It was a quick process, with about 10 months between the company’s incorporation and the acquisition.

While he acknowledges that the deal was a major event for the pair, he says that in the grand scheme of the technology sector, it was a drop in the ocean.

“As tech acquisitions go it was very small,” he says. “Even in the scheme of Irish tech successes, it doesn’t even really rank.

“If you look at a company like PCH or Havok, these companies are changing the world; Auctomatic didn’t.”

He describes it as “the best one-year education in tech start-ups that you could possibly get”.

“It was a great chance for John and myself personally to learn,” he says.

Nor did it turn the pair into fast-spending internet millionaires. The money made from Auctomatic funded their college education.

“The most expensive thing I own today is a bicycle,” Patrick says.

Most importantly, it gave them valuable experience in making that decision that every successful company faces at some point: whether or not to sell up.

“Understandably, it can be very tempting, because it can be very lucrative not just for you personally but also for your employees, people for whom you feel this sense of obligation and fiduciary responsibility, and your investors, and all the people who bet on you,” he says.

“There’s this shimmering opportunity to capture all that and make all the people who bet on you feel good about it.

"Thanks to Auctomatic, John and I went through that and saw it from the other side. You realise that, if you were to do that, you end up on the other side and there's the question of what do you do with your life?

Cautionary tale
"Presumably, what you want to do is work on something meaningful and significant with people you really admire. We're doing that every day with Strip already.

“Speaking now, the most valuable part of the Auctomatic experience was seeing that acquisitions aren’t all that great, sort of a cautionary tale.”

It’s unlikely that history will repeat itself with Stripe. Patrick insists that he is in this one for the long haul. Both he and his team have a plan for Stripe and it doesn’t include selling to early bidders.

Neither does it involve taking down PayPal. Rather than targeting one particular company, Patrick says there is room for more than one payments provider in the market, and his focus and that of his team is to help grow the e-commerce market as a whole.

“What interests us in Stripe is the idea that there could much more commerce happening on the internet,” he says.

“There are businesses that aren’t getting started today or whose scope is somewhat limited, or that can’t sell to as global or as universal a customer base as they potentially could if the right infrastructure was there.

“All those things are fascinating problems. How do you expand internet commerce? How do you enable more people to start businesses?

“We’re nowhere near finishing that. We’re barely out of the starting blocks. It would feel a bit strange to stop so early in the trajectory.”

Stripe was set up in the US primarily because that was where Patrick and his brother were located. After selling Auctomatic, they went to college there – Patrick to MIT and John to Harvard (both are officially on a break from their studies while they work on Stripe). They both recently got their US green cards.

Family bond
Working with family members may not be everyone's idea of harmony, but Patrick says he and John have made it work.

And it wasn’t just the family bond that made them set up in business together; Patrick says that even if they weren’t related, he would have chosen his brother as a co-founder.

“I have a great deal of respect for him and vice versa,” he says. “He’s an extraordinarily intelligent person.”

Of course, the family connection has made it a little easier, the familiarity with each other bringing a new level to the traditional co-founder relationship.

With the intense working environment common in start-ups, strain is inevitable as the nature of roles changes along the way.

“I feel pretty lucky that, in working with John, we had 20 years before Stripe to figure these things out,” he says.

“Yes, we’ve had our co-founder bust-ups, but the difference is that we got them out of the way at age three and five.”

Patrick’s enthusiasm about the venture is infectious. However, he is keen to avoid what he describes as the mythology of the founder.

“In general, I have a lot of issues with the mythology of the founder. Even doing this interview, I’m sort of uncomfortable where there will be this article about me. Why me?” he says.

“I was chronologically the first person at Stripe, but I think that’s about all that’s special. Stripe launched in Ireland today, I didn’t do most of the work. I’m just the publicly visible servant of Stripe.”

He has an acute sense of fairness, and is keen to give credit to the team working on the project, describing them as “amazing group of people” and the most impressive group he has ever worked with.

That team is still growing, with a workforce that Patrick describes as “geography agnostic”. Earlier this year, Stripe opened an office in London, and he doesn’t rule out the possibility of having one in Ireland at some point in the future.

The location of the office was down to the availability of talent, he says, citing the large number of people with the necessary skills available in London that were ideally suited to Stripe’s business and the large number of start-ups.

Given the size of Ireland, he thinks that innovation-wise, we do well, and the presence of world-class companies here is exceptional.

Ireland has managed to attract some of the top tech firms in the world – stalwarts Microsoft, Google, IBM and Intel alongside the newer social media firms Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn.

Established tech firms are attracted to the country, an achievement in which State agencies such as IDA Ireland have played no small part.

However, as always, there is still much to do. “We’re harsh on ourselves in some ways, but not in the right ways,” he says.

Third-level institutions should be aiming to be among the best in the world, to attract the best from around the world and also benefit Irish students.

Part of that would also mean more open immigration policies here, particularly when it comes to getting student visas.

He reasons that the students coming to Ireland are the type of people Ireland should be seeking to attract – bright, energetic people who want to build a better life for themselves and are willing to leave friends and family to do it. The same applies for workers.

Given the concern over the state of the Irish economy, he thinks it would be an easy place to target.

Stripe’s Irish launch may be done and dusted for now, but Patrick will be back within weeks to attend the Web Summit in Dublin, where he has been invited to speak.

With the future for Stripe increasingly bright, expect to hear more from the payments firm and its young executives.

CV Patrick Collison
Name: Patrick Collison
Age: 24
Lives: San Francisco
Hobbies: Cycling, reading
What you might expect: He won the BT Young Scientist of the Year award in 2005 and was a runner up in the European competition. He had been a runner-up in the Irish competition the year before.
What you might not expect: Despite his love of all things digital, Patrick is a fan of traditional books and has a house full of them.

Read More