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Home / Business / Cover Feature – The Collison Brothers

Cover Feature – The Collison Brothers

If you weren’t already familiar with the Limerick success story of Patrick and John Collison, you certainly should be. The brothers joined the Forbes World Billionaire’s list in April 2017. Both Patrick and John are now worth at least $1.1bn each, with John being the world’s youngest self-made billionaire. Their financial tech company, Stripe, is currently valued at around $9bn. We take a look at the rise of the pioneering alumni of Castletroy College who went on to become one of the standout successes in Silicon Valley.

Limerick beginnings
From their early childhood, it was clear both Patrick and John Collison were prodigies. Patrick took his first computer course at University of Limerick when he was 8 years old, and started learning computer programming at age 10. He won the Young Scientist of the Year Award in 2005 for his creation CROMA, a LISP (LISt-processor) -type programming language. He had previously come in as runner up in the 2004 competition with an AI-project called Isaac (named after Isaac Newton). Patrick then went on to study at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) but dropped out. During that time he and John launched their first foray into business back in Limerick, when John was just 16 and Patrick 18 years old. That company was Shuppa, a play on the Irish word for shop. After failing to get funding from Enterprise Ireland they took to the company to Silicon Valley after renowned start up accelerator Y Combinator showed keen interest. Shuppa then merged with a company called Auctomatic, an auction and marketplace management system also funded by Y Combinator. The brothers sold Auctomatic only a year later for around $5million.

Patrick had studied at MIT after leaving school a year early, while at Harvard University, though he dropped out when the two founded Stripe. John is also a qualified pilot and a pianist.
In 2010 they put the money they had earned with Auctomatic into founding Stripe, a developer-friendly payment platform that has now helped thousands of businesses set up and expand online. The platform was inspired by the difficulties the brothers had come across when trying to set up payments on the several side projects he was working on at that time.

With Stripe they believed they were on to something huge, but in typically modest fashion they felt they didn’t look ‘good on paper’ to potential investors. They grew the company at first by a word of mouth approach, received their first round of funding from Y Combinator, before enlisting support from some of Silicon Valley’s biggest and boldest names – the likes of Elon Musk, Peter Thiel, Micheal Moritz and Andreesen Horowitz.

Brothers, not bros
As newly crowned billionaires, they join the ranks of several young tech talents who have built multi-million dollar enterprises in Silicon Valley, a ‘tech elite’ featuring some colourful and sometimes controversial characters and a culture that has garnered some attention for its dominantly ‘white bro’ culture.

However, Patrick and John have very much carved out their own paths in California. It has been a methodical and somewhat stealthy rise to the top for the Limerick pair. Stripe is not marketed, at least not in the obvious sense, continuing with a word of mouth approach.

Much of the fascination with the two as personalities comes from the fact they seem so far from the complicated and often controversial figures we are used to seeing dominate the pages of the likes Forbes, Inc. and Fast Company, though Thiel, Musk and co are heavily credited by Patrick and John for their influence in the success of Stripe. Listening to the brothers themselves in interviews and viewing their interactions on Twitter, they both maintain characteristic self-depreciating humour of natural introverts thrust into a world that often requires extroversion. They are laid-back, private and modest, and by their own admission their romantic life is uneventful. While they may not have much to say about their own lives, they are willing to speak critically and in strong terms about political and social issues, as well as the future of digital and the tech industry. When US President Donald Trump first attempted to introduce a travel ban to the US back in January, the brothers condemned the move as both morally wrong and economically damaging. John Collison had previously made a donation to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) not long after Trump was elected, stating, according to Patrick, that “they’re going to matter”.

Patrick himself then pledged $50,000 in response to the ban, and with other tech leaders they helped to raise a total of $220,000 for the ACLU. Their reasoning and approach to social issues and politics is again, very grounded and practical – they cannot be accused of virtue signalling or preaching like so many in the public eye end up being; they speak passionately and realistically about what they believe makes a fair society and ensures security, respect and opportunities for success for all people.

Closer to home, Patrick and John have been outspoken about what Ireland needs to allow more digital success, identifying the need for more risk taking investing in tech ventures. Patrick had moved to California when they failed to get funding from Enterprise Ireland for Auctomatic. Speaking at Dublin Science Week in 2008 Patrick said: “I think the investment community in Ireland tends to be quite risk-averse. It does not value failure in the same way that investors in the US do. Collectively in Ireland, this is something we really need to fix. The ‘outliers’, the really risky propositions, are where the great returns come from, and we don’t value this enough in Ireland.” That said, however, Patrick still believes there is no reason that Ireland can’t be the Silicon Valley of Europe. The Collisons are committed to the developed of digital business across the globe and they hope to develop Stripe even further to become a key resource for all internet entrepreneurs.

Future of Stripe
John and Patrick they have their sights on even bigger things, but again, there is little sign of egoism or Zuckerberg-like world domination. The ethos is much more about giving the means to succeed to other like-minded people in every corner of the world.

In a far reaching recent interview with Recode Decode tech podcast, Patrick talks about the potential of the platform and the scope of the internet that is yet to be fully explored. He hints that the company is shifting away from just being a payment provider to becoming and all round resource tool for online entrepreneurs.

The focus is growth, not just of Stripe but of all internet companies of all sizes. Stripe began in order to help internet entrepreneurs do business, and they want to push that even further. John echoed this in a recent FT Podcast, discussing what is yet to be conquered in financial technology.

He talked in more detail about their motivation behind Stripe – seeing the need to overhaul what should be a simple task that had become a real hurdle for online business. John identifies the problem around the approach to online payments as a lack of adaptation, the service that was previously being provided being an online translation of offline procedures, with little or no option for subscription services, limited adaptation to business models changing, and insufficient protection against online fraud and cybercrime.

“[Providing a solution to that] is the core set of things we do”, said John, “but the money we’ve seen invested recently has allowed us to address the general question of how to encourage more business to get started and how to help existing internet businesses grow. Is the number fixed, could there be more if more resources or capital available?” The brothers obviously want to increase that number, not just for their own business prospects but for what they believe will create more opportunities for everyone with an idea. John explains that Atlas, their newly-launched program for entrepreneurs is the next step in that direction.

Atlas automates the usually complicated financial and legal process for people setting up a company, allowing entrepreneurs to use a web form while Atlas does the rest behind the scenes, and sets them up with a Stripe payment account. It has so far been used in the US but John and Patrick are keen to serve countries further afield, such as Pakistan, South Africa, and other emerging markets.

When listening to both brothers speak we really get the sense of passion for discovery and innovation that has driven them all this way. Their vision is bigger than themselves, bigger than Silicon Valley, bigger than technology and business – they want to open up the world and work alongside others with similar aims. John himself doesn’t talk about competitors when the interviewer mentions the likes of Apple Pay, saying that from their point of view the nature of their work is ‘participation’, and indeed Stripe partner closely with their natural competitors rather than compete against them. The nature of what Patrick and John have built is cooperative and open; they actively want to see innovation from others, not just within their own circles. This collaborative, dreamy-yet-practical resolve to make anything possible is what makes the Collison brothers one of the most remarkable stories of their generation.

Article by: Kayleigh Ziolo
Photography by: Pamela Littky

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