Stripe co-founder John Collison on why failure needs to be part of company origin stories

John Collision, Patrick Collison, Stripe

Stripe co-founders John (left) and Patrick Collison (right). Source: Supplied

The co-founder of global payment platform Stripe might only be in his mid-20s but he’s already seen plenty of companies try to smooth over the truth of their origins.

“One of my favourite things that happens in Silicon Valley is this polishing of the narrative that goes on in retrospect,” John Collison told the crowd last week at an event to celebrate Stripe’s two year anniversary of Australian operations.

“The selective memory that happens – when you’re raising money, you’ve got to have a good story.”

Collison founded Stripe, then a startup called /dev/payments, in 2010 with his brother Patrick Collison. The payments platform is now estimated to be worth more than $6 billion ($US5 billion), with operations in more than 20 countries and 520 employees.

Collison said selling his first company at the age 17 was a result of “a misspent youth”, and the reality is that success stories like Stripe grow in a much less straightforward way than many entrepreneurs would have you believe.

“Stripe dragged us along, we started getting one customer and then another,” Collison said.

“The start-up and development community are very passionate about tools – programmers are absolutely passionate about the tools that they use. It was really helpful from Stripe’s point of view that people were passionate about tools and finding better tools.”

“We got our first customers on Stripe when we were still in college,” he said, telling the room the number of Stripe customers grew to a point where “basically we had no choice to do it, and now we’re here”.

Collison’s words come as the notion of owning failure in the business world starts to regain traction. Failing well is now an art form, with recruiters and start-up incubators meditating on how employees can develop the right kind of “grit” to persist even when things aren’t going to plan.

Meanwhile, a community of business commentators are on the lookout for successful public figures who have had their share of setbacks – take Dun and Bradstreet Vice Chairman Jeff Stibel, who writes “A Profile in Failure” series on LinkedIn, looking at everyone from basketball player Michael Jordan to Alibaba chairman Jack Ma.

“Failure should not be overlooked in anyone, especially not those we admire. It is through failure that these individuals were able to learn, grow and ultimately succeed,” Stibel writes.

Stripe might have grown quickly, but Collison still has an eye on the long term – and how important it is to find a stable relationship with co-founders. He told the crowd the Stripe management team are still working on problems as they look towards the next 10 years of growth.

“When you look at it, huge numbers of companies have falling outs,” he said.

“You sure hope you’ve met the right person [to work with].”


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