David Singleton

One of the most common and cardinal mistakes startups often make when building a product is not conducting adequate market research.

There many instances of companies rolling out product or software updates that they believe to be innovative or competent, only to be met with indifference or displeasure by the public or users because they find the product unintuitive, cumbersome or simply of little utility — if at all.

This is made worse if a company has drummed up expectations of a product and/or users have already some sort of stake in it, such as through preorders or if they are already using said product.

The product would either have to be abandoned or the company would have to spend time and resources fixing the flaws and improving the product; either way, both are costly and unnecessary expenditures.

This is why companies need a constant reminder that the products they build and sell are meant to benefit consumers at the end of the day. Profits are important, yes, but dissatisfied users will hurt revenue flow.

One person who believes users should drive product development decisions is David Singleton, CTO at global e-payments infrastructure company Stripe. He says that it is important for developers to adopt and maintain a ‘user-first’ mindset.

This philosophy is enshrined in Stripe’s vision. From the very beginning, Stripe’s pitch to businesses is that it makes it easy for them to implement a payments infrastructure, by simply adding a few lines of code.

“Stripe was founded on the mission to increase the GDP of the internet by making it possible for startups and businesses to easily accept payments,” he says, in an interview with e27.

“What we have done is provide the economic infrastructure that helps companies really abstract away a lot of these [technical] problems that they would otherwise have to put a lot of engineering effort into, so they can focus on the problems that they founded their companies on and stay focussed,” he adds.

“We are founded on the premise of having a really simple, modern but very flexible API that companies can use,” says Singleton.

How Stripe engineers improve their products is by observing what customers are building on top of their platforms, and through that, develop new solutions that would cater to these needs.

“One example of this is our Stripe Connect, which is our payments platform for marketplaces, ” he says.

A typical development process at Stripe involves engineers building parts of a product, then showing them to users to gather feedback, then heading back to the drawing board to iterate until it has a fully working product that can scale to meet customers’ needs.

“A number of early users of Stripe like Shopify were trying to solve these multiparty marketplace problems; we observed that some of the things that really make it difficult for them scale to new countries are making their business model work with different regulatory environments and different building blocks,” says Singleton.

“Using a product like Stripe Connect allows them to benefit from Stripe’s engineering efficiency and leverage, as well as the platform’s clean and simple API,” he says.

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Being focused on delivering benefits to users also enables Stripe’s engineers to constantly innovate, take risks and challenge themselves to develop new solutions to new problems.

“When you innovate you really have to take risks; it’s important you try things you otherwise would not have in order to discover the ones that might have a lasting impact,” says Singleton.

Stripe’s engineers adhere to a development approach called programmable infrastructure. This process, as its name suggests, allows engineers to upgrade IT infrastructure and build new applications on top of it using programmatic interfaces. This reduces long, manual configuration processes to a series of simple and automatic commands.

“This creates tremendous developer leverage. We want engineers to spend their developer time with problems that are unique to a customer’s business rather than infrastructural problems that need to be solved again and again,” says Singleton.

Qualities of an effective engineering team

Like in any company, being able to work cohesively as a team is critical to Stripe’s continuous success.

“We are building teams who have a user-first mindset and are committed to helping everyone else around them express their ideas, and then together as a group create the best possible solutions,” says Singleton.

“That fits really closely with another operating principle, which is to think rigorously.  We really believe in many cases that looking at problems and opportunities through a new lens, such as a bottoms-up thinking principle, leads to best solutions,” he adds.

“Another operating principle that is pretty important to us is that we haven’t won yet. We are very proud of the impact we have had so far but there are tremendous opportunities left to tackle, so we are looking for engineers across all functions; folks hungry to make an impact on all users,” he says.

Stripe, being a global company, has offices and teams across the world, including US, Europe and Southeast Asia. This means the company has to manage disparate teams of different upbringing and culture, and keep them in line with its singular vision.

It’s not an easy job, but the company offers a lot of employee autonomy and total transparency, making it easy for teams to work on not only independent projects but also sync up to the mothership.

“It’s important to create an environment for teams where they have their own clear and complete missions. So they are not responsible for delivering individual pieces of work but rather, they are responsible for understanding the opportunities and the needs of users — and go on consulting on those from end to end,” says Singleton.

Also Read: Top questions asked by entrepreneurs around the world, part 1

“This way, we end up with teams with a huge amount of autonomy and have the ability to choose every day, month, or year what it is that they will work on. You reduce the amount of interdependency and synchronisation that is required between teams quite significantly,” he says.

Still, Singleton says it is important for the platform to have a consistent API across all countries. “We do that through video conferencing and having a huge amount of transparency internally,” Singleton emphasises. “We believe in sharing information openly within the company, and ensure everyone is connected to the same vision.”

Stripe also has a pretty comprehensive onboarding process. New engineers have to take classes in their first few weeks to understand Stripe’s operating principles as well as how their work will contribute to the company’s goals.

In addition,  they have to form teams and work on projects, producing real features for Stripe’s users. And all these happen within their first month in the company.

Talk about going through a crash course … it certainly doesn’t get more “startup” than this.