Stripe’s co-founder on visionaries vs. implementers

December 16, 2013, 7:12 PM UTC

Patrick Collison, 25-year-old co-founder of global online payment company Stripe, grew up in Ireland. After briefly attending Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he started several companies, including Auctomatic, which he co-founded with his brother John Collison and was later acquired by Live Current Media for $5 million in March 2008.

Patrick and John now reside in San Francisco, where they founded Stripe, a company that has come to be a disruptor in the global financial system. Stripe’s technology allows businesses to circumvent the complexity of currency exchanges with online payments, enabling them to sell products or services to anyone, anywhere, in minutes. Stripe’s 80-member team is growing and has raised more than $40 million in funding from investors like Andreessen Horowitz, Sequoia Capital, and PayPal founders Peter Thiel, Max Levchin, and Elon Musk.

Collision, an avid reader and programmer, spoke to Fortune about what technology entrepreneurs and companies he finds most admirable, his laundry list of recently read books, and how to do important work.

1. What business or technology person do you admire most? Why?

In technology, I sorta see people in two camps — the visionaries like Douglas Engelbart, Ted Nelson, Alan Kay, and J.C.R. Licklider who inspired others to do amazing things, like create the web or the Macintosh or whatever, and the implementers like Linus Torvalds, Dennis Ritchie, Vint Cerf, or John Carmack who’ve pulled off incredible technical accomplishments.

I’m still not sure which group is more important. I guess you need both. There are also a few individual people, like Fabrice Bellard, Jeff Dean, and Dan Bernstein, who are just generally fabulously productive and make me feel guilty about how little I get done. I couldn’t pick one person. In general, I have a bias towards people who think about and have built basic infrastructure. It’s informed a lot of our thinking with Stripe.

2. What other companies do you admire? Why?

I admire companies that use time horizons as a competitive advantage — doing things that pay off over a longer timeline than competitors are willing to wait; companies that still do hard, basic research; companies that manage to pay attention to the details even when they’re big; companies that manage to retain a specific mission that’s broader than their business; and companies that try to figure out how an industry should work from first principles.

3. Is business school necessary for entrepreneurs?

I can’t, offhand, think of a great entrepreneur who went to business school.

4. What is the best advice you ever received?

“If you do not work on an important problem, it’s unlikely you’ll do important work.” That’s from You and Your Research by Richard Hamming, which is a generally good source of life advice.

5. What would you do if you weren’t working at your current job?

Probably trying to build or discover something useful somewhere else. Or in a cabin, reading books.

6. What technology sector excites you most?

Software is still fairly early in the process of both systematically rearranging other industries and enabling fundamentally new things, and I’m excited by the ways in which we can help facilitate that. What’s happening in energy, education, health care, biotechnology, and so on — especially the intersection between those fields and software — is also fascinating.

I don’t think it’s really accurate to look at software as a “sector;” software and the Internet are increasingly the atmosphere in which every other business exists.

7. What was the last book you read?

Creating the Twentieth Century by Vaclav Smil — highly recommended — and just before that, Powering the Future by Robert Laughlin, which was also pretty good. The best two books I’ve read this year are The Art of Doing Science and Engineering by Richard Hamming and The Dream Machine by Mitchell Waldrop.

8. What do you do for fun?

Cycling, running, reading, programming.

9. What is one goal that you would like to accomplish during your lifetime?

Read all the books.

10. What was your first job?

A friend and I tried to start a technology company when we were 13. It didn’t go very far. I blame market conditions.

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