In 2010, two young Irish brothers pitched to Peter Thiel, an early Facebook backer and one of Silicon Valley’s most prominent venture capitalists, on why their online payments system was better than PayPal. Their start-up, now called Stripe, would vastly simplify online payments and thus “increase the GDP of the internet”, they claimed, somewhat grandiosely.
The first problem was that Stripe barely existed: Patrick and John Collison, then just 21 and 19, had hacked together a prototype while on holiday and had no experience of merchant gateways or other financial arcana.
The second problem was that Thiel had founded the very company they wanted to usurp. “I remember being very critical of PayPal,” Patrick recalled two years later. “Halfway through the meeting I was like ‘hmmm, maybe that’s not the best strategy’.”
Yet Thiel was so impressed by their vision that he quickly agreed to invest. So did PayPal co-founder Elon Musk and Sequoia Capital’s Michael Moritz, a renowned tech investor and early Google backer. “It was obvious they were unusual,” says Moritz of the brothers, who grew-up in the small village of Dromineer, 30 miles outside Limerick. “It was a first on all counts.”
A decade later, backing the Collison brothers has proved to be one of the tech industry’s smartest bets. Stripe is now valued at $95bn, after raising $600m this week. That makes it the most valuable start-up in the US, surpassing Musk’s rocket company SpaceX, and has left the Collison brothers, now aged 32 and 30, with personal fortunes of more than $10bn each, according to a person close to the company.
“I often wonder if it’s desirable to grow up somewhere boring because you’re forced to find your own interests,” John told the FT in 2014.
Still, even if it was boring growing up in a village best known for its half-ruined 13th-century castle, that is only half the story. Because scientific smarts, personal drive and a talent for business also run in the brothers’ blood.
Their father trained as an electrical engineer, working for PC maker Dell’s Irish operations, before buying a lakeside hotel. Their mother Lily, who trained as a microbiologist, founded a corporate training company three weeks after giving birth to Patrick.
“I have always felt that the greatest gift you can give any child is the gift of self-confidence,” Lily wrote in a book published last year about spastic diplegia after her youngest son Tommy was diagnosed with bilateral cerebral palsy. “With effort, so much is possible.”
So it has proved. At Castletroy College in Limerick, the two elder brothers were self-confessed “nerds”. Patrick won Ireland’s Young Scientist of the Year award at 16 for creating a new programming language. Younger John broke his brother’s record for top grades in Ireland’s school leaving exams.
“They’re extremely intelligent,” says Mark Carney, the former Bank of England governor who joined Stripe’s board in February. “Very level, very inquisitive about this huge range of subjects . . . and very funny, as well.”
Patrick and John left Ireland after school to go to university in the US — but only after selling their first start-up, which made software for eBay sellers, for $5m in 2008. They soon dropped out of their courses at MIT and Harvard to focus on Stripe (so leaving their younger brother Tommy, who now works at a start-up that teaches coding online, with the accolade of being the only Collison brother to graduate from university).
Yet Stripe was only one of several projects Patrick and John were then developing, including an offline version of Wikipedia, the web-based encyclopedia. “They’re definitely hyperlink guys,” adds Carney. “If you get into a subject with them, it rises to a level of detail and sophistication fairly quickly.”
Now living in the San Francisco Bay Area, Patrick and John appear to have few of the usual tech billionaire hobbies, even living together until a couple of years ago, when Patrick announced on Twitter that he and his fiancée had “hit our engagement metrics”, a groan-worthy geek joke. “They are careful, disciplined and judicious and aren’t inclined towards frivolous expenditures,” says Moritz. While some billionaires buy islands, the Collisons are “more likely to go to a remote spot with a tent and read”.
This low-key style is true of the company too, which has achieved rapid growth even as it operates in a highly regulated payments sector. Working within the rules rather than breaking them, Stripe keeps behind the scenes, despite processing billions of dollars of payments every year for the likes of Zoom, Deliveroo, Lyft and Instagram.
And although Stripe suspended the fundraising system behind Donald Trump’s campaign in January after the US Capitol riot, the Collisons have so far kept the company away from much of the regulatory drama and popular backlash that has engulfed other upper echelon tech groups, such as Uber and Facebook.
The result is an extraordinarily successful company, and two brothers who enjoy a pleasingly down-to-earth reputation. As Waterford Whispers News, an Onion-style Irish satire site, headlined in an item about them this week: “Hard To Begrudge The Collison Brothers’ Success, But We’ll Give It A Go”.
The one exception to being such apparently nice and well-adjusted human beings appears to be a family obsession with flying light aircraft. In 2017, John tweeted that he had flown a Diamond DA42 across the Atlantic, ticking off one item from his “bucket list”.
“Didn’t even get wet,” he joked.