What is Larry Thinking? # 71 => On Joining Stripe

July 29, 2013
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About This Newsletter

It’s a beautiful, gorgeous, beautiful fall day here in central Pennsylvania (which is odd, because it’s late July), and it’s time for another newsletter. This is a special newsletter for me, as the topic surrounds a big change in my life. As of August 1, I’ll be working for Stripe. I officially accepted the position, and announced it, about a month ago, so you may have already known this, but I thought I’d spend a little time discussing Stripe, my personal decision, and how this might impact you. For the sake of breaking the newsletter into more readable chunks, I’ll present some content as if I’m answering a question I’ve been asked (although I actually haven’t been). Apologies for the artifice.

In another newsletter, I’ll write about my thoughts and experiences in working for myself, creating my own business, and “building up my brand”. Not that those parts of my working life are entirely switched off from here on out, but this is going to be an existential change, and there are aspects of having worked for myself for 14 years that went into the decision to join Stripe.

As always, questions, comments, and all feedback are much appreciated. And thanks for your interest in what I have to say and do!

What Are You Thinking? => On Stripe, and Joining Stripe

I’m curious if you have any first impressions on either Stripe as a company or product, or on my joining Stripe. Or, if you have any second impressions after reading this newsletter. Whatever the case, if you have some thoughts you’d like to share with me, please do!

On the Web => Stripe

In case you’re not familiar with the company, “Stripe makes it easy to start accepting credit cards on the web today” (from Stripe’s web site). That’s really it, but it’s quite an accomplishment. As is always the case, it’s quite challenging to do something simple right.

If you’ve done e-commerce before, you know how hard it can be to integrate the payment processing. For example, to accept credit cards, you have to find a payment gateway and setup a merchant account. And if the card data is going through your server, you’ve got to do your due diligence to maintain PCI compliance. PCI compliance can be taxing, time consuming, and expensive.

You can drop (or simplify) the PCI compliance demand if you send your customers to another site for processing. But that’s not an ideal user experience, and introduces issues you’ll need to contend with (e.g., what if the customer doesn’t complete the payment?, what if they do but don’t return to your site?, etc.).

That’s if you want to accept credit cards. Don’t get me started on how difficult it is to integrate PayPal…

Stripe came up with a brilliantly simple solution to all this. When you choose Stripe, you can be up and running in an hour (literally). All you need is an SSL certificate and a bank account. That’s it. No merchant accounts. No PCI compliance audits. Stripe will automatically deposit your funds to your bank account, and without any extraneous fees. Stripe charges just 2.9% + $0.30 per successful charge. Stripe has no setup fees, no monthly fees, no validation fees, no refund fees, and no card storage fees. There’s also no charge for failed payments.

Customers can use their credit cards to pay you, and they don’t need Stripe accounts or to register somewhere or anything like that. A valid credit card and you get paid.

Stripe is currently available in the US and Canada, and is undergoing a private beta in the UK, Ireland, and France. If you’re doing e-commerce, you really should check Stripe out. Stripe will make your life as a web developer so much easier. For more on using Stripe, you can see my blog series, which I wrote last year.

Q&A => How does Stripe compare to X?

The two most common competitors to Stripe (in terms of the approach that Stripe takes, not competitors as in other payment options such as PayPal) are:

So how does Stripe compare? Well, I can’t really say. I’ve not used these other services and I’m clearly biased. I’m sorry I can’t be more helpful in that regard, although searches online will turn up compare and contrast postings that others have done.

Q&A => How did you get the job?

In the winter and spring of 2012, I used Stripe on an e-commerce project for a client (at the client’s request; I had not previously been familiar with Stripe). In working through an issue, I ended up communicating with Patrick, one of Stripe’s cofounders, over Twitter. I was already planning on being out in San Francisco a short while later, and so we arranged to meet up. So in June of 2012, I met the Stripe cofounders at their single-story headquarters in the financial district of San Francisco. At the time, there were maybe 20 employees. I enjoyed meeting them, getting to see Stripe’s setup, and learning about their approach. I’ve not been part of a startup like this before, let alone one in San Francisco, so it was educational for me.

In the months after that meeting, I wrote my my blog series on using Stripe, during which time I had several conversations with Michael, from the Stripe support team. Then, in April of 2013, Michael sent out a tweet saying that Stripe was always looking for good people to join the support team, and to let him know if you knew of anyone. I, half-jokingly, replied “Me!”. Soon thereafter, I received a “Let’s talk.” email from Michael.

I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into and was worried that I had made a mistake in pretending to put myself forth as a candidate. You see: I’m thoroughly ensconced in central Pennsylvania (my wife’s, somewhat unique, job is here; my kids are in school; we’ve got a good life) and can’t move to San Francisco. Further, considering my other commitments—my family, my books, readers, and a publisher, I can’t take on a true full time job either. Apparently, these concerns are not problems for Stripe.

I had a few conversations with Michael, and sent some emails back and forth. The more I learned and saw, the more interested I became. Then I flew out to San Francisco, and spent a day actually doing the job and meeting the team. At that point (a couple months ago), Stripe was now in its own building, with about 50 employees.

I answered support questions that day, had a couple of informal interviews, and even did a live coding challenge while someone watched. That was intimidating! The day went well, and, again, I became more enamored with Stripe and what they’re doing (more on this later in the newsletter).

As I now know, Stripe does not hire casually, and so the next step was to do a three-week trial. That was three weeks of me doing the job. (Had you sent in a support question during that time, it was possible that you would have received a reply from larry@stripe.com!) After the trial, I was offered a position. Which I happily accepted.

Q&A => What will you be doing at Stripe?

My role at Stripe is as a “Support Engineer”, although Stripe isn’t too beholden to titles. From Stripe’s job description:

Stripe’s support engineers work with its users to answer questions and solve problems. They work with the rest of the team to ensure that those problems don’t arise again. Support engineers rapidly get to know both new people and new code. Interacting primarily through email and real-time chat, Stripe’s support engineers guide developers along the process of creating paid products. Stripe’s support team informs the direction of the Stripe product by painting a detailed picture of how Stripe is used.

In short, I’ll be helping people use Stripe, in both technical and non-technical ways. I could be answering questions about using the Stripe API with nearly any language, or I could address some simple confusion about how payments are transferred. Stripe takes support very seriously, and a ton of thought goes into doing it right. I’ll also work on developing internal Stripe tools.

As you can tell, the job fits in nicely with what I’ve been doing for the past decade.

What is Larry Thinking? => On Joining Stripe

I’ve been working for myself for 14 years now. Until recently, I’ve not considered going to work for someone else in any serious way. I make a good enough living as it is, and more importantly, I have supreme flexibility in terms of the hours and days I work. Those are the logistical benefits to working for myself. The intellectual benefit is that I can learn and do whatever I want. Truly, I’ve been quite spoiled and fortunate. And I’ve often worried that working for a company can end up pigeon-holing you into a role, thereby limiting the kids of things you can learn and do.

Good fortune aside, I’ve also hit somewhat of a wall in my career. Well, three walls. I’ll write about those more in a separate newsletter, but a key point is that my current work situation presents some limits as to what I can do and learn, largely due to the opportunities available to me. I’m thrilled with where I’m at in most ways, but I really want to challenge myself, to learn more and more, to work on something great, and to work with fantastic people. This is where Stripe comes in.

I have, I confess, dreamed about joining companies before: Apple, ESPN, etc. I never took any steps to pursue those possibilities, though. And the truth is that I’ve positioned myself in a way that makes me harder to employ. Because of my obligations to my family, to readers of my books, and to my publisher, I can’t realistically work 40+ hours anywhere. For Stripe, these logistics aren’t a problem. To Stripe, hours, days, and locations are immaterial if you’re someone they want to work with and you can do the job. Those seem to be the two most important criteria when it comes to hiring.

Moving over any logistical hurdles, obviously I’m a fan of what Stripe has accomplished. I think it’s really quite something, both valuable and impressive. When I spent a full day with the Stripe team in May, I came away even more impressed, for two primary reasons.

The first reason has to do with Woody Allen and his classic film Manhattan. For many of us movie buffs, Manhattan is a great, beautiful film (I agree, although some say it’s Allen’s best, whereas I prefer Annie Hall). For Allen, he was always somewhat disappointed in Manhattan because he knew what he wanted to do, and the end result wasn’t quite that. To us, it’s a great movie. To Allen, it’s not quite what it should have been.

When I would meet people at Stripe, I would comment on how impressed I was with what they had accomplished and how proud I imagine they must be. To a person, the response was along the lines of “This is good, but what we really want is what Stripe is going to be.” That’s very enticing, and made me want to be a part of that team even more so. To me, from the outside, Stripe has created something great, that I’m not sure I could have ever envisioned, let alone implemented, and that’s just the start of it to them. My intellectual curiosity is salivating.

The second reason I am thrilled to join Stripe are the people employed there. I am in awe of the brilliance and accomplishments of these people. And not just the founders, but everyone in every position. Take a look at their profiles and you’ll see what I mean. I am in awe.

And they’re all very nice. And welcoming. Yeesh…

I like to think of myself as a pretty good writer and rather knowledgeable about technology, but I am truly humbled to be joining this group of people. I imagine it will be a while before I stop writing things like “Stripe employees an amazing array of talented, accomplished, and wonderful people (as well as myself)”.

I have no idea what the future will bring, but I am thrilled to be joining Stripe.

Q&A => How will joining Stripe impact your other work?

Because of my existing obligations–to my family, to readers of my books, and to my publisher–I have accepted the position in a part-time role (approximately 30 hours/week). But Stripe will be my primary work responsibility, and I want to honor my commitment to them. Towards that end, I am making some adjustments.

First, I will no longer be doing consulting for any clients save one (one of my very first clients, with whom I’ve worked for 12 years, a non-profit that only requires a couple of hours a month). I’ve already spoken with my existing clients to let them know, and to place them with new developers should they have that need.

Second, I’m not going to be writing as much. I still have “The Yii Book” to complete (for Yii 1 and Yii 2 and a print run). And I’ve just started writing the second edition of my “Effortless E-commerce with PHP and MySQL” book. From there on out, I won’t be writing as many books, particularly not as many new titles. Emphasis will be placed on updating and supporting my existing books, with the occasional article or two here or there. It’s not that I won’t be writing new books at all, but any possible new title will really have to be worth cutting into time with my family to make it happen.

I’ll also still continue to support my books through my forums.

In short:

If you bought a book of mine and need help, I’m still there for you.

I’m probably also going to cut back on my blog’s activity some, and won’t do more than one newsletter per month (which is a schedule I historically fall into, but never plan).

Third, I won’t be traveling as much (well, I’ll be traveling more to San Francisco where Stripe is headquartered, but not as much elsewhere). This means I won’t be doing any more on-site training, and I won’t be doing as many conferences. The latter has been a more recent (2012-2013) focus anyway. I’ll still be at Northeast PHP in August, of course.

I don’t think my joining Stripe is going to affect most people outside of my family (it’s truly an existential change for me and for them). Although one could argue that my joining Stripe will have a great benefit to you readers out there: As I already mentioned, one of the reasons I’m joining Stripe is an opportunity to learn so much. I’ll be able to pass on much of that to you.

Larry Ullman’s Book News => “The Yii Book” and “Effortless E-commerce with PHP and MySQL (2nd ed)”

Last month (I think), I posted another update on “The Yii Book“. This is version 0.7, brining the total to 16 chapters and around 405 pages as a PDF. I’ve completed the rough draft of Chapter 17, “Improving Performance,” and after I send out this newsletter, I begin Chapter 18, “Advanced Database Issues”. After that, I’ll post another update. Not sure when, exactly, that will be, but I’m hoping within the next two weeks. I definitely feel like I’m in the home stretch here.

The current plan is still to complete the first edition for the book using version 1 of the Yii framework. Then I’ll see where Yii 2 is at before making a decision about translations and print copies (i.e.,  doing those for Yii 1 or waiting for Yii 2).

I’ve also begun writing the second edition of my “Effortless E-commerce with PHP and MySQL” book. I’ve already submitted the first two chapters, but they had only minor updates. The first edition was written in the fall of 2010, and has been very well received (out of 22 reviews at Amazon, 18 are 5-star). There was more I wanted to do in the first edition, and a few things have changed since the book was written, so my publisher and I felt it was time for a revision. The book has a release date in October or November.

For the second edition, here are the main changes and updates that I have planned:

  • A third payment processing example, using a system and approach that’s only been invented in the past couple years: Stripe!
  • Updated PayPal section to reflect changes in PayPal’s options and methodologies since the first edition.
  • A chapter on marketing-related functionality: supporting reviews, providing recommendations, and adding analytics.
  • A chapter on adding functionality using JavaScript and Ajax.
  • A chapter on implementing e-commerce functionality using OOP.

And, of course, all of the existing material is also being updated for clarity, fixing errors, and so forth.

Those are the key points. Right now, it looks like I’ll have 200 more pages for this edition (from approximately 350 pages to 550), so there should be a lot of room to expand ideas and introduce new ones.

If you have any thoughts on what you’d like to see in the new edition, please let me know!

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