Stripe is trying to rewire the internet’s attention economy

Focus group.
Focus group.
Image: Stripe
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Forget unicorns—Stripe is the fintech world’s $35 billion gorilla.

Nine years after it was founded, Stripe’s software has become the payment plumbing for e-commerce giants like Amazon, as well as tiny startups in more than 120 countries. The San Francisco-based company straightens out the byzantine payment and financial networks around the globe, giving developers and entrepreneurs a system they can swiftly plug into to start accepting and sending money, said Matt Henderson, Stripe’s Dublin-based lead for Europe, the Middle East, and Africa.

Henderson, an Amazon alum, came to company earlier this year from Google, which he joined after selling his predictive analytics company Rangespan to the search giant in 2014. Quartz spoke with the 42-year-old New Zealand native about European tech startups, the splinternet, and how more efficient payments could rewire the internet’s ad-based attention economy. The conversation was edited and condensed for clarity.

Quartz: How has European tech changed over the years?  

Henderson: It’s becoming much bigger, it’s becoming braver. There are more startups. Doing a startup is more celebrated, which I think is fantastic. As recently as the start of 2011 when I became an entrepreneur, my friends and colleagues, almost without question, thought it was crazy to leave a senior role to do a startup.

Were those friends and colleagues in Europe?

They were in Europe, in London. And now, not only would someone going through the same thing, eight years later, experience a different attitude, but even those same friends and colleagues of mine would have a different reaction. It is partly that a much wider set of people realize the opportunity and I think there’s been more celebration of the startups in the tech sector in the media as well, which I would hope serves as inspiration.

What you also see in technology in Europe is that the other aspects of the industry have evolved and got bigger as well. There’s more venture capital funding that’s happening, there’s more larger companies that are based here. And we see some amazing stories of companies that have been founded in Europe that are becoming global.

Does the sheer amount of money looking for investment right now give you any pause? Is there a fear of missing out?

I am less concerned with the state of the industry overall, in terms of valuation, because it’s a very different situation to what I saw in the 1990s.

There were examples in 1998, 1999 where companies that had extremely short histories, and the onus on financial data was just less when you would go for big valuations. It’s a different set of circumstances now.

Matt Henderson.
Matt Henderson.
Image: Stripe

Having worked with Google and Amazon, how does it feel to be in the finance sector?

I would absolutely describe Stripe as a tech company working in the finance space. What has often been the case with technology is there’s different sectors in which technology is applied and brings about change and brings about great opportunities.

Most of my career I was in e-commerce and worked a lot on marketplaces, and that meant I was in close proximity to the world of payments and financial technology. It meant I had some empathy for one of our biggest user groups at Stripe, and it also helped me recognize how valuable it was, the sorts of problems that Stripe was solving. That helped me to be a strong believer in the opportunity, which was a big part of the reason I left Google.

My sense is that the mobile wallets like Google Pay and Apple Pay haven’t been that successful in the West. Why do you think that is?

I don’t think it’s true they haven’t caught on. If you step back, especially over a longer time period, and look, has the variety of payment methods increased? And has there been increasing fragmentation, with payment methods that are particularly well suited for particular use cases? I think absolutely that’s happened.

Has it evolved in different ways in different parts of the world? That’s absolutely true as well. That’s one of the reasons why working across a variety of payment methods has been a particularly important part of Stripe’s evolution.

Is your business—working out all the regulations and payment idiosyncrasies around the world—capital intensive or time intensive or both?

It’s human intensive. Stripe is building out its organization in a globally distributed way for precisely that reason.

To solve this global money management infrastructure problem, we feel we need to have people close to the financial partnerships and the government partnerships, and also engineers that are close to the customers in the region. Stripe now has 14 offices around the world. We’ve substantially grown the one in Dublin where I’m based.

We envision the headcount expanding a lot in the EMEA region.

Stripe co-founder Patrick Collison has talked about the “splinternet”—this idea that different versions of the internet are forming around the world because of regulation. What’s your take on it?

The businesses that are the most global have a free, ad-supported business model, and that has characterized this first big wave of economics of the internet. And that has happened really because of fragmentation in the financial world.

As we deliver on the vision of a more payments-centered economics infrastructure, that actually is going to enable a wave of businesses to go global, fully global, in the ways that some of these ad-supported business models have done in the past. And that’s going to enable a different kind of internet. It’s going to enable a lot of businesses to be global and therefore bring economic opportunity.

We’re already seeing that people and governments are uneasy about this tacit model of an exchange of attention and data in exchange for something for free on the internet. A lot of companies would love to experiment with more easy, effective subscription models, micro-payments, all sorts of things.

X years in the future, it will be so normal as to be a non-story that a one-person startup in a country in West Africa has customers evenly distributed around the world. And I think the world will be a better place when that’s the situation.