How Did Stripe Earn So Much Nerd Cred Doing Payments?

With an enviable fanbase of engineers and blog readers, Stripe has mastered the relationship between person and API--even without a sexy end-user product. Here's how they did it.

Stripe has an enviable reputation among all sorts of product people and engineers--exactly what any platform could wish for. But getting people to use your dev tools--never mind adore them--is anything but formulaic. I sat down with Stripe's cofounders, the Collison brothers, and their CTO to find out how they do it.

Lure Them In With Usability

Devs love the payments-processing app’s simple API, for one. But it’s more than that. Stripe’s entire focus is developer-driven: from its API to its appetite for recruiting talented devs, regardless of location--40% of its employees are from outside the U.S. The brothers had no background in payments back when they founded Stripe in 2010, either. But they did have a knack for software. And they noticed that collecting online payment was an enormous problem.

“It was like stepping back in the 1970s,” says Patrick, describing the online payments scheme from a few years ago. “The online equivalent of the card imprinter, but that’s about it. We wanted a service where you sign up, and you’d be accepting live payments in five minutes,” he says.

The brothers say that even though they don’t have a background in finance, it didn't matter. Their background in software--and their understanding of how a developer’s brain works--is what makes the service successful. For example: "We publish snippets of code that allow you to literally copy and paste--like you would in an email or word document--the code into the terminal to make it charge a credit card, or otherwise test out our product," says Kelly Sims, head of Stripe communications.

Other cool usability bits that devs dig are numerous. "Users can 'freeze' to a particular version of our service, meaning they never have to worry about us changing something that breaks their working integration," says Sims. Another: "We publish 'smart libraries' in each programming language, which will automatically figure out how to support many new features we release," Sims says. "This means you'll rarely have to upgrade the library we give you. That’s not something anyone would think of unless they themselves were a developer,” adds Patrick.

Another reason why the dev community admires Stripe: They take the BS out of small interactions by using plain English error messages, as one example. Instead of just, “Error: Could not process request," you get a message more like, “Error: You’re using this in test mode.” It’s about giving as clear feedback to the user as possible, which makes the experience easier and more user-friendly.

It Starts With Recruiting

CTO Greg Brockman joined as a dev early on because he felt a kinship to the Collisons. When they first met, “I was talking to Patrick about storing passwords--he stores them in GPG-encrypted files in his computer,” Greg says. “So do I. So we had similar approaches to things.”

But geeking out over similar password storage methods was just the beginning. Over the years, Stripe has created a seemingly “for developers, by developers” approach when recruiting. An example is Stripe’s “Capture the Flag” competition. The competition is a game that allows players to exploit simulated security vulnerabilities in a sandbox environment. One of the Stripe engineers started the contest because they thought it’d be cool. The company has recruited about a dozen employees from among the winners of this competition--and they’re people who are excited and already engaged with the product.

“This isn’t their first time interacting with Stripe,” Brockman says, who also works closely in Stripe’s recruiting efforts. “They’re like, ‘I’ve been watching Stripe for a long time. Now I’m ready to join.’ It’s about making this long-term investment [with employees]. Not just having a one-off thing.”

“We believe that enabling transactions on the web is a problem rooted in code, not finance,” states the Capture the Flag page. “We want to help put more websites in business.”

A Global Culture

Hanging in the Stripe offices are over a dozen countries’ worth of national flags. Each of these flags represents each country in which Stripe is up and running. It’s a list that includes Australia, Luxembourg, and the U.K. The embassy-esque collection of banners also reflects the decidedly multicultural staff at Stripe. Over 40% of the 100-person Stripe team is from outside of the U.S. Stripe execs think focusing solely on the U.S. market is a serious mistake.

“It’s a shortsighted view of the world,” says Patrick Collison. “Increasingly, there won’t be a Kenyan or a Chinese Internet. This was the motivation for Stripe."

The founders focus on the fact that they want commerce to “happen frictionlessly across the Internet.” It’s the idea is that a Kenyan in Nairobi can seamlessly complete a transaction with a consumer in say, San Jose, California. In terms of Internet-based finances, he points to Kenya has an example of an emerging market that needs to be taken seriously by Silicon Valley. One investment banking service there--M-Pesa--has nearly 20 million subscribers, nearly all of the nation’s adults.

But a service like M-Pesa likely wouldn’t work in the U.S. now, because America already has so much financial infrastructure in place, says Patrick. Thinking of the Internet as fragmented, discrete markets that are wildly varied country by country is a huge obstacle, and faulty thinking for any Internet-based company.

“American companies trying to go international--from America alone--and failing at that because they’re lacking global knowledge and nuance,” John says. “We view Stripe more as a global product than a U.S. one.”

Greg Brockman, who’s also been very active in recruiting, says that this international perspective is key to Stripe’s identity. “It’s a lot more than just localizing our website,” Brockman says. “It’s about making sure we’re building a product the right way for all these markets--that we have a global mindset."

[Image: Flickr user Georgie Pauwels]

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