One of the co-founders of the online payment company Stripe, Declan Knittel talks to John Collison about his education, his life and work in Silicon Valley, and his aspirations for the future of his company.
John Collison is a twenty-one-year-old entrepreneur from Limerick, who, along with his brother Patrick, became a teenage millionaire when they sold their first company Auctomatic. Their current venture is Stripe, a company aiming to change the way payments are processed online. They have received massive attention online and are considered a potential threat to the massive corporation PayPal.
Auctomatic was a software company that built tools for the eBay platform, making it easier for power sellers on eBay to sell their goods. The brothers travelled to America, where they obtained an initial investment from the well known Y Combinator start-up investment firm. The company was sold for five million dollars in 2008, before John even finished the Leaving Certificate. He later went on to receive ten As in his exams.
Collison continued his studies in Harvard, and when asked about his experiences there he was keen to outline how it would have differed from if he were to study in Ireland. “One of the things I really liked about Harvard is that you’re not picking a course starting off with. I really didn’t know what I wanted to do, and one thing that really attracted me about going to whatís called a Liberal Arts institution in the US, is that you’re able to decide very late what it is you want to major in. My first year I took Maths, Physics, Chinese, Writing, Statistics and Astrophysics and so you have this completely broad curriculum which is not required to fit together in any way. It’s not like you’re on this track and you’ve got these two electives, it’s completely á la carte, which I really liked.” Despite having found an ideal course, it was not long before he and his brother started planning their next business venture; Stripe.
“How I came to take time off was during the spring of my first year, Patrick and I started working on Stripe. At first we were just messing around a bit and then it got more serious and we got a few customers. We decided to move out to Palo Alto for the summer to work on it full-time. We had no plans as to what we’d do at the end of the summer – we hadn’t thought it through, but by this time the team was bigger and we had raised some money, so we decided that weíd take some time off just to see where it went and weíre still just taking time off to see where it goes.”
Palo Alto is one of the many regions encompassed in Silicon Valley, the infamous part of California where an exceptionally high concentration of technology companies are based, from giants like Apple Inc and Google, to smaller start-up level companies like Stripe. Collison outlined how it is an ideal place for a technology company to operate from. “For people working on start-ups it’s definitely the centre of the world. The thing that people always talk about and attribute the Valley’s success to – and it’s totally true – is the people here. There’s a huge base of technical talent and if you’re looking to raise investment, this is where all the investors are too. In our case, we’re doing an online business that very much caters to other businesses, and so if you’re looking to get customers, they’re here too – everything a business needs, whether it’s customers, employees, or investors, is here and in a huge concentration.”
Despite only being founded in mid-2010, the company has been valued at one hundred million dollars. When asked about future plans, John outlined the company’s highly ambitious hopes for the future; “What we want with Stripe is to make a really high quality payment infrastructure for the web, where it’s much faster, light-weight and more secure than it is now. We think payments on the internet are immature in the sense that they work just like they did ten years ago, and there’s been no real advance since. Five years from now we’d like to see Stripe as the way in which most people pay online.” His own personal interests outside of Stripe are just as grand; “I find aerospace stuff quite interesting, exploring the possibilities of making faster planes or air ships for transportation, making cheap space craft and stuff like that.”