Sep 092014

Interviewing Stripe co-founder John Collison in the company’s crowded, noisy lunch room in San Francisco’s Mission District is a good place to appreciate how quickly the online payment service has grown since it was founded three years ago.

Stripe was founded after twenty-four year old Collison and his brother Patrick encountered problems with online payments in their previous businesses, “we came to Stripe because we had built apps and webservices before and it was phenomenally difficult to take a product you had built and turn it into a business.”

“At the time you had two options; you could turn your business over to PayPal, which was problematic for a whole bunch of reasons, or you’d build something from scratch.”

“It was clear to us that neither of the options were very good so we went about building something better.”

Silicon Valley’s strengths

Since its establishment Stripe has grown from ten employees to 150, something the founder believes shows the strength of California’s Bay Area over areas like Collison’s native Ireland.

“One of the things that I like about Silicon Valley is that people here tend to be relatively risk tolerant. Joining an unknown internet payments company three years ago, most people would say ‘you’re out of your mind’. But the psyche around here is that’s a reasonable thing to do.”

Another aspect that attracts Collison to San Francisco is that most of his employees at Stripe have run their own businesses or startups themselves. Having a workforce of risk tolerant, independent self starters makes it easier to manage a fast growth company.

Pitching for funding

The Bay Area’s appetite for risk is reflected in how investors look at businesses; “in the startup world, people like to maximize the opportunity rather than reduce the risk,” observes Collison.

Collison’s advice for startups seeking funding is to get have users on board that validates the idea, “when we pitched Peter Thiel we had production user for four or five months. What made us think there was something here was that those users were really passionate.”

The other attraction for Thiel and other members of the ‘PayPal mafia’ – Thiel’s fellow PayPal founders Elon Musk and Max Levchin are also investors in Stripe – was their first hand dealings with the problem of online payments.

“With the PayPal guys specifically, they really get this. Early on this was what they were trying to do with PayPal – make it easy for people to move money around the world.”

Entering the era of mobile commerce

The problem today that Collison sees with PayPal is that it is a product based on a desktop view of online commerce in a time where the industry is moving to mobile.

“One of the things that has held online commerce back for so long is the purchasing experience has such a high barrier to it.”

”We’ve replicated the mail order form on the internet. It feels to me that in five to ten years time we will not be in the same world with people like Google and Facebook improving the identity story. That’s exciting because that helps merchants sell more.”

“That whole model comes from a desktop era so if your building a lyft or a mobile site it doesn’t make much sense.”

Beating the 1980s business model

For the credit card and banking industry, the payments sector is even further behind. Collison believes that until recently the payments industry was based upon a 1980s business model where the costs of inefficiency were pushed onto merchants and small business.

“All the banks and companies that offered services at the time were operating in the 1980s,” says Collison. “The business model was based on the old way of your customers being people within a fifteen block radius, on the internet your customer base is the whole world.”

Building new industries

With Stripe Collison sees an opportunity for new industries to develop out of easier ways of collecting payments, particularly given much of the world’s population in areas like Africa and China doesn’t have credit cards.

“If we just building a business to take transactions from PayPal and get them onto Stripe, that’s not that interesting. What is interesting is if we can create new types of transactions that would not have existed otherwise.”

“By providing better infrastructure for anyone to build a global business. That will change the kind of things people will build.”

Jul 282014
Mikkel Svane and Michael Hansen of Zendesk

Two years ago we interviewed Mikkel Svane the founder of cloud service provider Zendesk about modern customer support.

Since we spoke to him Zendesk have had a successful IPO and is now worth over a billion dollars.

In the latest Decoding the New Economy video interview we catch up with Mikkel and discuss the journey from being a three person startup to a billion dollar listed company.

Jul 042014
Customers moving online presents challenges to hotels, cafes and restaurants.

Reservation Hop is a good example of many of the current breed of parasitic startups that want to create a new class of middleman.

The hospitality industry is tough work and something guaranteed to irritate restauranteurs are reservations that don’t show up.

One startup that seems almost certain to attract the ire of the restaurant industry is Reservation Hop – “We make reservations at the hottest restaurants in advance so you don’t have to.”

Reservation Hop makes table reservations at popular restaurants and then sells them through their website.

We book up restaurant reservations in advance. We only book prime-time restaurant reservations at the hottest local establishments, and we mostly list high-demand restaurants that are booked up on other platforms.

This is probably one of the worst examples of the middleman culture that dominates much of the current startup thinking.

Almost certainly there’s a market need for proxy queue jumpers – although one wonders how profitable it is when the transaction fees are under $10 – but this service will deeply irritate restaurant owners and diners who are crowded out by these ‘parasite’ services.

In many ways, Reservation Hop illustrates the problems with this phase of our current startup mania; the rise opportunistic businesses that are more akin to parasites than services that add value.

The Reservation Hop website assures patrons that there’s a 99% chance their booking will be honored by the restaurant on the night, we can expect establishments to start messing with that statistic as they wise up to the business.

Many in the startup sector speak about how new technology improves the world, services like Reservation hop illustrate that not every idea is a step forward.

May 222014

“We face a global capital crisis,” states Julia Hanna, the chair of crowdfunding platform Kiva.

In a story written with Kiva board member and LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman, Hanna discusses how crowdfunding platforms are replacing banks as the source for businesses around the world.

Throughout world  banks have effectively stepped out of the small business market, despite the world being flooded with cash to keep the global economy afloat over the last five years. Hanna writes about the US experience;

big banks currently reject more than 8 out of 10 loan applicants, and small banks reject 5 out of 10. Some estimates suggest that investment in small businesses has dropped as much as 44 percent since the Great Recession in 2008.

While the Great Recession had a lot to do with the collapse in small business lending in the US and Europe, the decline in bank support for main street dates back to the first Basel Accords established in 1988.

Basel judged banks’ risks on the classification on their assets – government bonds were the safest and domestic property was the preferred private sector asset with small business lending being a long way down the risk.

Following the cues from regulators, banks favoured mortgages which they could them securitize and onsell to investors; this gave rise to the sub-prime lending markets, Collateral Debt Obligations and eventually the Great Recession itself.

Six years after the great recession started and despite massive amounts of capital being injected into the banking system, the small business sector is still being capital starved.

As Hanna and Hoffmann state in their article, crowdfunding sites like Kiva and community initiatives are changing the banking system and it could well be that today’s trading banks.

Having neglected their core purpose of funding business and industry, are now as vulnerable to disruption as other industries as small businesses, entrepreneurs and communities look elsewhere for their capital needs.

Mar 072014

“Tell me something I didn’t know about my customer;” is what Clint Oram demands of his software.

“If you think about legacy of Customer Relationship Management tools it’s really been about entering something I already knew about by customer so my manager can keep track of me.”

Oram sees that changing with Sugar CRM, the open source Customer Relationship Management software company he co-founded in 2004 at a time when the software industry was coming out of the post dot com bust depression.

“There was a huge backlash by customers to the enterprise software market,” Oram remembers. “There were a lot of hopes and promises made of all this fantastic software that would change the world. The reality was a lot of it didn’t do anything.”

Foundations for the cloud

In Oram’s view, that disillusionment formed the basis of today’s cloud based software businesses with the market’s demand that software be delivered as a service, reducing up front commitments to any one product, commercial open source that gave customers a stake in development and annual subscription licensing.

That last factor – a radical change to the traditional software model that saw small businesses buy boxed programs and larger enterprises negotiate complex agreements with expensive implementation projects – is the biggest change to the modern software industry.

Oram sees that as challenging those established giants like SAP, Oracle and Microsoft; “in the past it was ‘here’s my software, goodbye and good luck. Maybe we’ll see you next year.”

“If you look at those names, the competitors we see on a day-to-day basis, several of them are very much challenged in making the shift from perpetual software licensing. It’s been a challenge that I don’t think all of them will work their way through, their business models are too entrenched.”

“Software companies really have to stay focused on continuous innovation to their customers.”

Freemium challenges

From his ten years in business, Oram learned the freemium model is a difficult way to run a business, “we learned that the freemium model is challenging and you gotta really focus on differentiation across your software editions and deliver clear value to each customer segment.”

While the Freemium business model remains a challenge, Oram sees mobile and the cloud as driving the CRM industry with the sector focusing on delivering more customer insights as software increasingly goes mobile and gets better at predicting behaviour.

“We’re taking these cloud, mobile based platforms that can be delivered anywhere and anytime,” says Clint “and now work on collecting that data about your customers and telling you what you should do next.”

“How do you help your customer to get the fullest value out of working with you.”

Delivering value to customers is a challenge not just for the software industry; in an era where business is far more competitive, it’s a question facing all industries.

Mar 032014
business customer service is essential in the new economy

When it comes to customer service businesses, Alex Bard calls himself a ‘career entrepreneur’, having founded four startups in the field since the mid 1990s.

In 2011 he sold his most recent business,, to Salesforce and became the company’s Vice President for Service Cloud and the customer service offerings.

Bard tolds Decoding the New Economy last week how social media and Big Data are radically changing how organisations respond to the needs of their clients.

“I’ve been in the industry for twenty years and I’ve never been excited as I am now,” Bard says. “The real transformational things that’s happening now are these revolutions – the social revolution, the mobile revolution, the connected revolution.”

The philosophy of customer service

“What they’re really driving is this idea that customer service is no longer a department, it’s a philosophy.”

“It’s a philosophy that has to permeate throughout the organisation. Everybody in the company has a role in support. It’s not just about a call centre or a contact centre or even an engagement center which is what these things are called today.”

“I really don’t like the word ‘centre’ because I really fundamentally believe that everbody in that company has to interact with customers, has to engage and has to the information – no matter they are – about that customer to provide context.”

Abolishing the service visit

With the Internet of Things, Bard sees GE’s social media connected jet engine as illustrating the future of customer service where smart machines improve customer service.

“They’re going to capture more data in one year than in their entire 96 year history prior,” says Bard. “With that data they’ll be able to analyse and do things on behalf of that product or service that’ll reduce the number of issues.”

“Because the best service of all is one that doesn’t have to happen.”

In this respect, Bard is endorsing the views of his college Peter Coffee who told Decoding the New Economy last year that the internet of machines may well abolish the service visit.

“Connecting devices is an extraordinary thing,” says Coffee. “It takes things that we used to think we understood and turns them inside out.”

“If you are working with connected products you can identify behaviours across the entire population of those products long before they become gross enough to bother the customer.”

For Alex Bard, the customer service evolution has followed his own entrepreneurial career having evolved from being personal computer based in the 1990s to today’s industry that relies on cloud computing, big data and social media technologies.

As these technologies roll out across industry, businesses who adopt the customer service philosophy Bard describes are much more likely to adapt to the disruptions we’re seeing across the economy. Changing corporate cultures is one of the great tasks ahead for modern executives.

Jan 152014
happy guy with lots of money

One of the myths of the current cult of the entrepreneur is that everyone will be a winner as their startup gets bought out by Google for a billion dollars. The reality is life for a startup founder is a grind.

Startup Compass looked at 11,000 startups across the world to discover what founders really earn and the results show the reality of life when you’re starting up a business is that the wages are pretty poor.

In San Francisco, London and New York, the wages are piddling compared to the cost of living in those cities.

Low pay and business success

This is good news for investors though, as there’s a clear correlation between the success of a startup business and the salaries its key staff members draw – successful businesses are built on the back of founders ploughing everything into the venture.

It’s also high risk as a failed business can leave the founder with nothing to show for several years of hard work, something that’s overlooked by the ‘liberate yourself from your cubicle’ gurus advocating everyone starts up their own venture.

Australia’s high cost economy

Notable in the stats is the high rates demanded by Australian founders, more than 25% higher than their Silicon Valley counterparts and a gob-smacking 60% more than London or Canadian equivalents.

Australia’s high cost of doing business was emphasised last year where a comparison by found Sydney was the second to Zurich as a place to base a tech startup. Worryingly, that survey didn’t consider owners’ drawings.

Part of Australia’s high wage requirements are no doubt due to the country’s lousy tax treatment of options and share plans but a bigger problem is property ownership – an Australian who hasn’t bought a home by 35 is destined to be one of the nation’s underclass.

So an Aussie entrepreneur has to earn enough to qualify for or service a mortgage, it also discourages Australians from starting even moderate risk ventures.

The consequence of the need to draw a high salary is that the proportion of investor funds that goes into founders’ wages is almost three times higher in Australia than it is in Silicon Valley. That’s a big disincentive for foreign investors to put money into Aussie startups.

If you wanted an example of how uncompetitive the Australian economy has become, this is a good start.

Regardless of where a startup is based though, the message remains that the road to a billion dollar buyout from Google or Facebook is not paved with gold.