Stripe’s Bold Bid to Make Money as Easy to Send as Email

John and Patrick Collison are startup prodigies. The brothers are good coders, for sure. But succeeding in today’s saturated startup market takes more. From concept to product to sales pitch, the Collisons have in five short years put Stripe at the center of Silicon Valley’s most vigorous crosscurrents.

With a few lines of code, Stripe lets app makers send and receive money of all kinds to and from all kinds of places. Instead of dealing with the creaky infrastructure and bureaucracy of the global financial system, Stripe offers developers who want to access that system a simple tool that shields them from all that complexity.

Stripe’s software now powers commerce for some of the biggest tech companies and most promising startups, from Facebook and Twitter to Instacart and Lyft. Along with regular credit cards, Stripe works with Bitcoin, Apple Pay, and Alipay—China’s massive online payments provider. In the eyes of Stripe’s founders, they’re creating a way to move money that should have been built into the web in the first place. Says Patrick: “It’s part of the promise of what the Internet should enable.”

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But Stripe’s promise is about more than building a better Amazon-style shopping cart. The company came along just as smartphones started to become an important new vector for spending. Traditional desktop-style e-shopping was one thing—click on something you want to buy, then enter your credit card to pay for it. But an app like Lyft, for example, doesn’t work like that: It takes your money after you’re dropped off, then it needs to funnel that money to the driver after Lyft takes its cut. “It’s no longer just about products that exist on the Internet. It’s getting involved in the real world,” Patrick says.

Paying others quickly and easily is the motivation behind Stripe Connect, the startup’s latest set of services. Connect is designed to let businesses, particularly app makers, that provide on-demand services—rides, deliveries, housecleaning—sign up workers all over the world. As such companies expand rapidly into international markets, they need to pay their workers. Instead of having to navigate the dense financial infrastructures of each country, Stripe promises its own code can black-box that complexity.

Stripe doesn't seem to suffer from the typical Silicon Valley credibility gap.

To date, investors have poured nearly $190 million into Stripe at a reported valuation of $3.5 billion. In San Francisco these days, the distance between a startup’s supposed value and its real worth can look like a chasm filled with zeros. But Stripe doesn’t feel like a company that suffers from the same credibility gap that can sometimes make Silicon Valley feel so infuriatingly frivolous.

Technologies that much of the world takes for granted today—email, the web, texting—transcend boundaries, virtual and physical. Barring censors that insert themselves in between, clicking Send can pass a message instantly from one person to another regardless of where they are. Money, too, has also become digital, but it doesn’t flow with the same speed, freedom, and ease. The Collisons believe it should and can. Which is a good place to be as more and more people become more and more connected. One thing they’ll want to do is send money to each other—it’s a basic human activity. And if it doesn’t move as quickly as an email, they’ll wonder why it can’t.

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