Five years ago, John Collison co-founded his first company, Shuppa, an auction management system for online sellers, with his brother Patrick. The company rebranded as Auctomatic, went through Y Combinator, and was sold for $5 million a year later. Collison was 17. Today, Collison is president and co-founder of Stripe, a San Francisco start-up that makes it easier for small businesses to accept payments online. With 38 employees, Stripe is backed by $38 million from investors including PayPal co-founders Peter Thiel, Elon Musk, and Max Levchin. Collison spoke with Inc.'s Matthew Wong about his progression as a young immigrant entrepreneur.
My brother and I were born in an Irish county called Tipperary. We were both very math and science inclined in high school. My dad trained as an electrical engineer, and my mom is in microbiology. Patrick received a computer as a present one year when he was young and helped me learn to code. We lived in a very small and rural area, but one advantage to learning something like programming is that there are enough websites online and people in chat rooms for people not in the "in" place to pick up the skill.
We had worked on some more abstract programming projects and said, "OK, let's see if we can make this work in the real world." When I was 16 and Patrick was 18, we noticed that Craigslist didn't have very large penetration in Ireland and eBay was somewhat inefficient. We started building a marketplace system that very heavily leveraged the local aspect.
Auctomatic was a compressed start-up experience, going from start to launch to acquisition in under a year. We spent a long time building the product before getting our first customer, whereas with Stripe we made sure we had paying customers from the very start.
Both Patrick and I left Ireland to go to college on the East Coast of the U.S. (I went to Harvard and Patrick to MIT.) During the fall term, Patrick and I started working on Stripe. In the beginning, it was a fairly lightweight commitment. We spent odd evenings or nights coding in empty study rooms. As the year progressed, we got more drawn in. We spent the entire month of January working on it, and took a few trips out to San Francisco as class schedules allowed. By the end of the summer, we had decided to go full time on it.
Stripe was very much the product of our past experiences. One was Auctomatic. We had built the product, but the hard part was always obtaining our users' money. We felt this was a really inefficient part of running a small business. We were putting off accepting payments and spending a huge amount of resources on it. The other experience was that we had sold iPhone applications through Apple's App Store, and that was phenomenally easy. We thought it was amazing that two college kids could be selling applications to people all around the world. And so we thought one of the things holding the Web back was the lack of a really solid economic infrastructure. It's easy to talk to people over the Web, but it's not very easy to trigger transactions. That's the thing we set out to fix with Stripe.
I'm on a visa, and Patrick is on a green card, and the process for putting together a visa petition took a number of months. For hiring, it kills me every time when we meet people who are very talented that we know would make a huge contribution to Stripe and we can't hire them because of visas getting in the way. There are many challenges that come with being an entrepreneur, but that seems to me like the single, most easily fixable one.
We hired extremely slowly at the beginning. It took us a year to get to four people. It's hard to hire as a very small company, and we wanted to make sure we found people who cared a lot about what Stripe was doing. We also had higher--not lower--pricing for Stripe while it was in private beta. We wanted to force ourselves to build a sufficiently good product that people weren't just using because it was cheap.
When we raised venture capital this summer, the predominant feeling afterward was: Great. Thank God that's over; now it's back to work. Fundraising is a long and distracting process, and by the end of it, all you want to do is go back to building the product that you're working on. We're looking to attack a fairly broad market right away. We just launched in Canada a few weeks ago, and we're working on more countries now.