Stripe isn’t a platform. It’s a mouse.
Many years ago, I went to a dinner party hosted by a super-successful real estate developer. The developer and I were good friends, so he didn’t care too much as I listened in while he discussed his latest project with his mega-developer friends.
“I’m like a mouse! I just slowly nibble away at all of the properties surrounding the project, without anyone noticing. Just nibble, nibble, nibble...”
The group laughed as my friend went around in a circle, pretending to be a mouse, nibbling away at things. I laughed, but I was also concerned for my friend. It wasn’t exactly true that nobody in the sleepy town in which he was assembling his empire (now worth billions) noticed what he was doing — a lot of people were noticing. The danger of this became clear a few years later, when pretty much everyone in town, with the assistance of my friend’s business partners — including some of the people laughing at that party — went to war with him.
Years later, while living with my lawyer and his family at their townhouse in New York City, a curious situation emerged: lights that used to work would stop working, bits of food would go missing, and so on. After I reported hearing a scurrying sound in the walls, the verdict became clear: we had a mouse problem!
Everyone in the house became thoroughly invested in the mouse-eradication operation — me, my lawyer, his wife, and his four young kids. Strategies were formed. Glue traps were laid. Bait was provisioned. And then, surely enough, the mouse was caught.
Having caught the mouse, the question became what to do about it. Due to the host of frustrations and problems that the mouse had caused for the inhabitants of the house, everyone agreed on a solution: let the cat handle it. And so, for what seemed like an eternity, the cat went to work on the mouse, slowly torturing it limb-by-limb. This went on for at least a day, probably longer. There wasn’t a mouse problem for a while after that.
I have a lot of experience with platforms — their design, their creation, their operation. When you’re running a platform, you’ve made a social contract with your stakeholders. People are actively depending on you to stay true to your word, and to avoid taking advantage of your position as a trusted intermediary to dip into their businesses. Startups are formed, investments are made, and life paths are chosen, based on the ability to build on top of someone’s infrastructure.
I take this stuff very, very seriously; if you can’t prioritize the needs and aspirations of your platform participants over everything else — including your own profit — you don’t belong in the platform business. The violation of the social contract between a platform and its users creates irreparable harm. The financial consequences of this are often hard to measure, as you can never determine the value of “what could have been” if people didn’t hesitate to go all-in, or what the value of innovative new platform-specific innovations would have been.
My favorite example is the Facebook Plarform. When Chamath took over and started kicking developers off — I was the first, which is ironic considering that I was the one who gave Dave Morin the idea for a social platform, and convinced him to leave Apple to build the thing — Chamath set into motion a chain-reaction of distrust that led to massive value destruction, to the point where startups “built on the Facebook Platform” are pretty much nonexistent today. We can’t quantify the extent of the damage — we can only feel its effects.
The same is true in the record industry, where we will never know how many smart, creative minds avoid creating content after learning what a predatory and exploitative world it is. People often ask me about my experiences in meeting with one very famous head of a very famous major record label; they’re often surprised when I tell them, “I always think of the security.” Security in the lobby, security in the elevator, security in the office — and, when you called the guy’s phone, security that picks up the call and asks, “what can I do for you?”
Record labels convince young artists that they’re getting access to a platform on top of which to pursue their dreams. You think you’re getting a full suite — sound engineers, marketers, data scientists, the works — on which you can safely build to maximize your influence and earnings. When artists discover they’ve cut a deal with a mouse, whose true intention is to nibble away at every dollar they’ll ever make, their reactions are… well… creative.
Bad platforms turn into mice. And when faced with a mouse, there’s three options: kick it out, run away in terror, or catch and torture it. People tried to kick my developer friend out of town. People ran away from the Facebook Platform. People tried (and continue to try!) to catch the record exec and torture him. The fun of being the mouse and getting away with slowly nibbling away at other people’s things only lasts as long as you don’t get caught. From that point onward, you better have protection.
And so, we arrive at Stripe. A company that started as a true platform, built on the message that developers could focus on their higher-level code while Stripe took care of the low-level payments stack. You could even build your own payments SaaS on top of Stripe — don’t bother with the merchant account mess, let Stripe handle that so you can specialize!
A lot of people believed Stripe’s pitch, and I wanted to believe it as well, but one look at the investors on the cap table told me that this was a platform that would turn into a mouse. And so, slowly but surely, that’s exactly what’s happening — they’re slowly nibbling away at their customers’ invoice profits, nibbling away at their business partners’ shopping cart businesses, and nibbling away at businesses in which their access to data gives them an unfair advantage over others that might have built a similar solution using their API.
Maybe Stripe, like my real estate developer friend, thinks nobody notices they’re nibbling away at these things. But one thing I’ve found is that the only person who doesn’t know there’s a mouse in the building, who thinks the mouse is getting away with it without notice, is the mouse.
Stripe is a mouse. It’s a mouse with a lot of protection — like Facebook, there’s tremendous behind-the-scenes regulatory favor, combined with a large base of customers who either don’t know or don’t care about anything I’ve talked about — but its days of pretending to be a neutral platform on which to build your dreams is over.
There’s a mouse in the house; plan accordingly.
Note: A lot of people have commented about the mouse in the house, with the glue traps and the cat-torture. I completely agree that it was cruel and unnecessary treatment. In fact, I’ll note that this was one of the events that, after some contemplation, led me to realize that my lawyer — regardless of his position as the head of the corporate department at one of the largest and most powerful law firms in the world — wasn’t a particularly great person. We no longer work together.
In what will eventually reveal itself to be a particularly rich form of irony, I believe he now represents Peter Thiel.