Over the past year it has doubled in size to 380 employees and snatched investments that value it at $5 billion, up from $3.5 billion a year earlier. (Recently public Square is worth $4 billion.) Once a U.S.-only service that had to beg for an audience with a bank, Stripe has expanded to 23 countries and is routinely striking partnerships with the likes of Visa, Apple Pay and Alibaba. Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest have chosen Stripe to power their e-commerce efforts, and traditional retailers like Best Buy and Saks Fifth Avenue picked Stripe for their forays into mobile. Slack recently turned over its payments to Stripe after ditching a rival product. ... Industry sources put Stripe’s payment volume at about $20 billion a year. For every transaction it processes, Stripe in the U.S. gets a swipe fee of 2.9% plus 30 cents, roughly the same as other payment firms such as Square, though large customers get volume discounts. That would peg Stripe’s revenue at more than $450 million. The company says that 27% of Americans will have bought something through Stripe in the past year, a big bump from just 3.8% two years ago. ... Stripe’s success at making digital payments easy to process is only a step toward its larger ambition: becoming the edifice upon which new forms of commerce are created. Think Amazon Web Services (which supports all kinds of Internet businesses) but focused on financial transactions. ... The company faces formidable rivals. Braintree, which is owned by PayPal , has said it will process some $50 billion in 2015
There is a common story about what money is, which is based on a common story about how money came to be. In the beginning, people lived in small communities of blood relatives and fended for themselves. They hunted and gathered for their subsistence, and learned how to weed out undesirable plants so that they would have easy access to plants that produce food. As people became more adept at cultivation, populations grew. And people found that they could not always grow or procure from nature the things they needed in order to survive. Trade was born. ... People in different communities had surpluses of different goods. They traded these goods with one another. They established value and conducted their trade by bartering a certain quantity of one good for a quantity of a different good. ... lugging around his own goods in sufficient quantities to trade became burdensome and impractical. Furthermore, stockpiling his surplus might have worked up to a point, but once the mice and the weather got at it, it quickly became worthless. ... In some accounts, people decided to use a thing of value to them, and intrinsically recognisable as valuable to others, for money. It would initially serve as a means of exchange, and would gradually take on other classic functions of money as people expanded their use of it to include the payment of fines, tribute or fees (as in ancient administrative states, tribute-based empires or the tax collectors of the Old Testament). Certain kinds of shells were good: they were pretty, of uniform size and shape, easily transportable, and durable. Precious metals were even better: they were universally valued; they did not rot, rust or degrade; and they were easy to store and to transport. ... Other accounts consider implausible the idea that certain things are of intrinsic value. ... an important problem in the history of money: is it a commodity in itself, or a token of an existing agreement, an agreement in turn resting on a prior social relationship? ... are new forms of money really more efficient? They often come at a price, after all. What does efficiency mean? Efficient for what purposes, and when?
Nothing is more ordinary than a Monday morning at a Swedish bank. ... People go about their business quietly, with Scandinavian efficiency. The weather outside is, more likely than not, cold and gray. But on April 22, 2013, the scene at Stockholm’s Östermalmstorg branch of Skandinaviska Enskilda Banken got a jolt of color. At 10:30 am, a man in a black cap burst into the building. “This is a robbery!” he announced, using one arm to point a gun at the bankers and the other to hold out a cloth bag. “I want cash!” ... If the staff was alarmed, no one much showed it. Instead, the employees calmly informed the stranger that his demands could not be met. The bank, they explained, had no cash on the premises. None in the vaults, none at the tellers’ windows, none at all. When the robber looked confused, he was directed to a poster on the wall that proclaimed this a “cash-free” location. “It’s true,” the manager told him. “Sorry.” Crestfallen, the would-be thief lowered his gun and prepared to leave. Just before he stepped out, he turned to one of the tellers. “Where else can I go?” he asked. ... His options, in fact, were fairly limited. What this man had somehow failed to notice was that his country is at the forefront of a global economic shift.
Since banks charge transaction fees and bake in markups to exchange rates, the duo’s frequent currency transfers were costing them a small fortune. One year Käärmann thought HSBC had lost some of his Christmas bonus because 500 euros less than expected arrived in his account. ... The Estonian software engineers devised a simple solution: Hinrikus would transfer euros from his Estonian bank account into Käärmann’s Estonian account, while Käärmann would transfer pounds from his British HSBC account to Hinrikus’ at Lloyds. This would save them on international transfer fees, as well as on currency drag since they used the real exchange rate, known as the midmarket rate. Soon they had a Skype chat going with other Estonians who wanted to exchange money this way. Eventually this Skype-linked money exchange forum morphed into TransferWise. ... TransferWise uses a system not unlike the ones big financial institutions use to “cross-trade” securities, without incurring costs or commissions, by internally matching buyers and sellers. In this case the official midmarket price offers clarity–neither side is speculating–so it’s simply a balancing process, as TransferWise’s computers simultaneously verify that both sides have the money ready to swap. Indeed, its matching system means funds rarely cross international borders. ... The company is now producing roughly $5 million in revenue a month versus about $1 million per month a year ago. ... Of the $150 trillion in currency-transfer volume annually, the consumer portion amounts to an estimated $3 trillion. ... Still, that’s a decent-size market, with the revenue generated from it exceeding $45 billion.
Cash is the squirmy ferret of societal wealth—tricky to secure physically and, once liberated in the wild, almost impossible to get back—and money, as technology, has changed a lot in half a century. A day’s errands once called for bulging pockets. Now it’s possible to shop for groceries, pay rent, buy lunch, summon a taxi, and repay your sister for a movie without handling a checkbook, let alone fumbling with bills and coins. Most people think of card and electronic payments as conveniences, stand-ins for exchanging cold, hard cash. Yet a growing group of theorists, led in the United States by Kenneth S. Rogoff, a former chief economist at the International Monetary Fund, are embracing the idea that physical currency should be the exception rather than the rule. ... Phasing out big bills would make it harder for domestic currency to support corruption abroad. ... Hobbling the underground market should also temper tax evasion, a costlier problem than many people realize. The most recent I.R.S. estimates indicate a tax-payment shortfall of four hundred and sixty billion dollars a year—a disparity that’s transferred to those who pay. ... Most important for many economists, low-cash life allows for negative interest rates, in which the lender pays the borrower interest. ... In 2013, Sweden eliminated its largest-denomination bill, and demand for its second-largest bill, the five-hundred-krona note (about sixty dollars), surprisingly fell off soon afterward. By 2014, only a fifth of Swedish retail transactions were being conducted in cash. (In the U.S., it’s slightly less than half.)
It’s gunning for the $93 billion U.S. market for credit card issuing, an industry that’s dominated by giants such as American Express and Capital One, with PayPal and ambitious startups in close pursuit. Like PayPal, Klarna is an online-payments platform with an emphasis on “buy-now-pay-later” financing. … His dream is that enough merchants embrace Klarna as a free-floating credit issuer so that millions of shoppers will no longer see credit cards as a first choice for financed payments. ... Siemiatkowski has spent the past 11 years quietly turning Klarna into his home country’s biggest digital-payments platform. Klarna processes 40% of all Swedish online payments. Klarna’s big selling point is ease and simplicity. It lets you skip paying for an item up front–no more squinting at a credit card, typing in numbers and remembering a password. You simply enter your e-mail and delivery addresses. That information, plus your activity on an e-commerce site time of day, the product you’re buying and any Web cookies that can be picked up from your visit? is enough for Klarna to decide whether you’re a creditworthy human. Siemiatkowski calls this a “one click” experience. ... Remarkably, Klarna’s bold bet on people’s honesty and solvency has worked. Its default rates are under 1%. Credit card default rates in the U.S. have averaged 2.2% for 2016. ... Siemiatkowski would rather trust his customers than see them walk away at a checkout: 69% of online shoppers in the U.S. abandon their shopping carts, often because they’re asked to create an account or the process takes too long. That’s around $260 billion in lost orders.
Reversing Paralysis: Scientists are making remarkable progress at using brain implants to restore the freedom of movement that spinal cord injuries take away.
Self-Driving Trucks: Tractor-trailers without a human at the wheel will soon barrel onto highways near you. What will this mean for the nation’s 1.7 million truck drivers?
Paying with Your Face: Face-detecting systems in China now authorize payments, provide access to facilities, and track down criminals. Will other countries follow?
Practical Quantum Computers: Advances at Google, Intel, and several research groups indicate that computers with previously unimaginable power are finally within reach.
The 360-Degree Selfie: Inexpensive cameras that make spherical images are opening a new era in photography and changing the way people share stories.
Hot Solar Cells: By converting heat to focused beams of light, a new solar device could create cheap and continuous power.
Gene Therapy 2.0: Scientists have solved fundamental problems that were holding back cures for rare hereditary disorders. Next we’ll see if the same approach can take on cancer, heart disease, and other common illnesses.
The Cell Atlas: Biology’s next mega-project will find out what we’re really made of.
Botnets of Things: The relentless push to add connectivity to home gadgets is creating dangerous side effects that figure to get even worse.
Reinforcement Learning: By experimenting, computers are figuring out how to do things that no programmer could teach them.
This first mode of money is public. We might call it ‘state money’. Indeed, we experience cash like a public utility that is ‘just there’. Like other public utilities, it might feel grungy and unsexy – with inefficiencies and avenues for corruption – but it is in principle open-access. It can be passed directly by the richest of society to the poorest of society, or vice versa. ... Alongside this, we have a separate system of digital fiat money, in which our money tokens take the form of ‘data objects’ recorded on a database by an authority – a bank – granted power to ‘keep score’ of them for us. ... This second mode of money is essentially private, running off an infrastructure collectively controlled by profit-seeking commercial banks and a host of private payment intermediaries – like Visa and Mastercard – that work with them. The data inscriptions in your bank account are not state money. Rather, your bank account records private promises issued to you by your bank, promising you access to state money should you wish. ... The cashless society – which more accurately should be called the bank-payments society – is often presented as an inevitability, an outcome of ‘natural progress’. This claim is either naïve or disingenuous. Any future cashless bank-payments society will be the outcome of a deliberate war on cash waged by an alliance of three elite groups with deep interests in seeing it emerge.
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Given Estonia’s history, the invention of Skype in this country was ironic. While Americans were buying their first cell phones, about a quarter-century ago, Estonians were shut off from the world as an outpost of the Soviet Union. You could easily wait 10 years to be assigned a landline phone. By the time the Soviet Union imploded in 1991, the country was in a time warp. “We did not have anything,” says Gen. Riho Terras, the commander of Estonia’s armed forces, who had been a student activist at the time. The country had to reboot from zero. ... One generation on, Estonia is a time warp of another kind: a fast-f orward example of extreme digital living. For the rest of us, Estonia offers a glimpse into what happens when a country abandons old analog systems and opts to run completely online instead. ... At birth, every person is assigned a unique string of 11 digits, a digital identifier that from then on is key to operating almost every aspect of that person’s life—the 21st-century version of a Social Security number. The all-digital habits begin young: Estonian children learn computer programming at school, many beginning in kindergarten. ... this year Estonia will open the world’s first “data embassy” in Luxembourg—a storage building to house an entire backup of Estonia’s data that will enjoy the same sovereign rights as a regular embassy but be able to reboot the country remotely, in case of another attack. ... for a fee of 145 euros (about $154) e-residents can register companies in Estonia, no matter where they live, gaining automatic access to the EU’s giant common market—about 440 million once Britain leaves the union.
Seven years in, however, Stripe’s mission is less to send more books, vacuums, and grooming kits into the world than to “increase the GDP of the internet,” Patrick says. To do this, the company is beginning to move beyond payments by writing software that helps companies retool the way they incorporate, pay workers, and detect fraud. It’s part of an ambitious bid to revamp how online business has been conducted for 20 years and to give anyone with a bright idea a chance to compete. ... With Stripe, all a startup had to do was add seven lines of code to its site to handle payments: What once took weeks was now a cut-and-paste job. Silicon Valley coders spread word of this elegant new architecture. ... Although startups appreciated what Stripe was doing, most potential investors did not. How was a small group of young engineers going to alter the internet’s financial structure? Hadn’t they heard of PayPal?