The Jay Kim Show #73: Piruze Sabuncu (Transcript)
This week’s show guest is Piruze Sabuncu from Stripe. Piruze is head of Southeast Asia and Hong Kong for Stripe and shares with us a little bit today about her background that got her over here to Asia and how Stripe, as a company, is expanding its footprint across Asia, helping startups scale to the rest of the world. We also discuss a recent survey that her company did around the Startup Stack and what the key tools are which most startups need and should use to scale their businesses. If you work at a startup or are a startup founder or are just an entrepreneur in general and you’re looking to grow your business, then this episode is for you. Let’s get on to the show.
Jay: Hi, Piruze. This is Jay and welcome to the Jay Kim Show. I’m sure I just butchered the pronunciation of your name, for which I apologize. Maybe you can teach us, for the audience listening in, how do you pronounce your name, and who are you, and what do you do?
Piruze: Hi Jay. Actually you did pretty good. My name is Piruze. I am, right now, running the Singapore and Hong Kong operations, like Southeast Asia and Hong Kong operations for Stripe. For anyone who is not familiar with Stripe, we are a technology company that is helping start and scale Internet businesses.
Who I am is: I was born and raised in Turkey. I’m Turkish, but I spent about 15 years in the US starting with college, grad school, startup, and big-tech consulting. I moved to the region about three or four years ago. I worked with McKinsey focusing on digital projects in the region.
For the last two-and-a-half or three years, I’ve been working with Stripe. As we are building our Asia operations and we are focusing on this region, I’ve been helping with bringing the product here and various other things, specifically focused on Southeast Asia and Hong Kong.
Jay: All right. Thanks for the introduction. I think it’s exciting to see you guys build the presence here in Asia. Just taking a step back, with your background you said you spent some time, a number of years in the US, where you worked in tech and at a startup. Is that right?
Piruze: That’s correct.
Jay: Okay. So, you do have some experience. Granted, Stripe is not necessarily an early-stage startup anymore. It’s quite a mature company, but what was your experience like working at a startup previously?
Piruze: To be honest, it was not easy. It was a startup that was in an area that I was passionate about. It was in health tech. This was 2010, 2011. It was the time when all the mobile phones were coming. I don’t know if you remember with Zynga, Farmville, all those games were coming up on Facebook and gamification was the thing, like mobile identification. We were trying to help people build healthy habits while using these technologies, new tools, and behavioral economics findings. It was an interesting ride for me. At the end, unfortunately, we had to close the startup because we couldn’t monetize. That experience from building the team and focusing on the product to monetization gives me so much appreciation for Stripe and the experiences that I had a chance to build with Stripe and the team I’m working with at Stripe.
Jay: Right. I think that a lot of people—I have an investor background, so I’ve worked in some financial-type startups in the past, but never a full-blown, sort of like a startup. I think for investors, a lot of times we underestimate how difficult it actually is to be an entrepreneur, to work at a startup, and what that life really is like. As investors, we think that we’re smart, that we can pick the right companies to invest in and this sort of thing, but the real tasks and the difficulties and the struggle that an entrepreneur goes through is multiple times what any investor will ever have to deal with. I have a lot of respect for people that have worked at startups, are working at startups, or are startup founders. I definitely respect that hustle and the grind.
Let’s talk about Stripe. Maybe you can give me a little bit of background on the company itself. I know that we’ve had one of your co-founders here at the RISE Conference. I don’t know if it was this past year or the year before. I remember seeing him onstage. Obviously, as much of a household name as it is in probably the likes of the US, I think in Asia, in certain pockets, it’s still quite unknown. Maybe you could give us just a general overview. How did Stripe get started? What was the main goal and the purpose? How long has the company been around and a quick background that way?
Piruze: Sure. Stripe, as I said, is a technology company that is building the infrastructure to help Internet businesses to launch and scale. What we constantly say is, “Our goal is to increase the GDP of the Internet. As I mentioned, in my entrepreneurial journey, there has been a lot of progress on the infrastructure side of things, like with the emergence of mobile phones like 3G, 4G, etc. But it’s still very difficult for the world’s population to buy the things online or to sell things online. In a way, that’s how things started.
You can’t think that like, okay, there were a lot of companies that try to solve the payments problem. There were companies that were already solving the problem, but how Stripe approached this problem was we said, okay, this is not a financial infrastructure problem; this is a tech problem. This is a problem that developers can investigate and can solve. Our founders, John and Patrick, want to give the right tools and infrastructure to those peoples’ hands who were building the next generation of the products and coming up with the new business models. That is how Stripe started.
If you think of how things evolved and then why Stripe was successful, we were really able to put ourselves and the infrastructure there and allow the developers to really have the power on what kind of experience that they want to build, what kind of business model they want to build. Through working with these companies and entrepreneurs, we were able to launch many interesting products that picked up really well, like our marketplace product that was used by Lyft or our subscriptions product or some of our UI, UX elements that come with Stripe.
Jay: I like how you explained sort of the genesis of Stripe as… Obviously, the payment side is the beginning of every company; you have to earn money. But, it’s much, much more than that. I like how it’s not just a payment processor. You guys are actually—it’s a technology. It’s a technology solution for startups, which I think is pretty cool. The perspective in which you guys are growing out Stripe, building it up is fascinating to me.
How long has Stripe now been around for and how long have you guys been in Asia?
Piruze: We’ve been around for six or seven years. We’ve been in Asia officially for the last two-and-a-half years, but we’ve been working on building the solution for Asia for about three years. We started with Japan and Singapore and recently launched Hong Kong. We are also in Australia and New Zealand.
Jay: Right. You’ve been with the company now the entire time there or just more—
Piruze: I’ve been close to three years.
Jay: Wow. That’s amazing. Your role specifically there is—I mean, you basically run Asia for Stripe and all the development of the region?
Piruze: I am specifically focused on Southeast Asia and Hong Kong. If you ask me what my role is, it really depends on the year we’re in and what we want to build. What I can say is in the beginning, it was more bringing the core Stripe products to the entrepreneurs, tech companies, and the region.
I don’t know if you’re familiar with the Stripe products, but one of our key functionalities is, for example, to be able to set up immediately and get onboarded. So, making sure that we had that backend infrastructure to be able to do that. Another core feature is you can—when you have Stripe, you should be able to go global immediately and sell with 130 currencies out of the box. Those kinds of basic things.
We’ve absolutely evolved, and we have now many more features that are much more relevant to Asia. Like, we are enabling any Stripe user to not only accept credit cards but also Alipay, WeChat Pay, for example.
Jay: Right. That’s huge because that’s—talk about the largest consumer market in the world. To have access to that via your platform—customers to have access via your platform is just incredible.
Let’s dive a little bit deeper into Stripe. You mentioned there’s a suite of product offerings you have there. It goes well beyond just the payment side of things. If I’m a startup and I’m looking to basically scale, expand my business, and I come to you and I say, “Hey, I need a solution here,” how do you tailor a solution to them? Is there a one-size-fits-all that a startup can just signup with and sort of hit the ground running? How does that all work?
Piruze: I can…you know what the beautiful thing is? They don’t really need to come and talk to me.
Piruze: They can really, literally, they can go to Stripe.com and start to process and have access to our full suite. Many of the things that I mentioned actually come out of the package without doing anything else. Let’s give an example.
Let’s say you’re starting your business. When you start your business, you want to first say like, “Okay. Would anyone pay for this?” Most of the entrepreneurs, what do they do? They’re like, “Okay, let me first figure out what are the keywords? Would they search for us? Okay, it looks like it works because there is traffic. Now, how will they pay for it? Let me set up and then see how things go.” This is the first step.
Then, you’re evolving and you’re saying like, “Would they pay for it in another country?” Then you can test things out easily. Again, this is from your dashboard. This is something that you can enable. Then you say, “No, actually I want to change my business model. I’m going to go with monthly subscriptions.” That is something that you can enable. Actually, you don’t need to pay extra for this. That’s something that you can do and change and test and experiment with constantly.
Or, let’s say that you built yourself in a way that would not only want to be a Saas company, but you want to be a platform that is connecting the buyers and the sellers. Then you have access to our connect products. Now, you cannot get paid but also pay out to your supply side with Stripe.
Of course, along the way, if you have more questions and you need support, you can always reach out to us. Read our documentation and reach out to us. There will be people who are either technical or nontechnical answering any of your questions.
Jay: Got it. I’ve heard—I haven’t personally done it myself, but my colleagues that I’ve worked with and people have said the onboarding there at Stripe is of the easiest in the world or basically, the easiest because, like you said, first of all, you don’t have to talk to anyone. You can just jump online and go to the site and start the process. Is Stripe’s business model a subscription or is it basically just a by-volume, like a freemium-type thing? I guess it’s not freemium. You sign up and then based on the volume of transactions, initially, and then paying for other services as you upgrade?
Piruze: Yeah. First of all, there is no signup fee. We are not a subscription. We have a pay-as-you-go model. If you have successful transactions on your platform, you pay for that. That’s pretty much it. Many of the services that I mentioned come out-of-the-box with Stripe and you’re not paying for them.
Jay: Got it. That’s pretty cool. Being based in Singapore and Singapore being one of the startup hubs of Asia, one of the large ecosystems, are you seeing that your footprint there in Singapore is expanding? I know that in Hong Kong, they’re still, I believe—this is not a knock towards your company at all, but I think it’s just more of an awareness issue from the Hong Kong demographic. I knew what Stripe was years ago, but a lot of people in Hong Kong, they’re just not familiar with it. I’m curious as to what your thoughts are on how your penetration is in Singapore versus other countries such as Hong Kong where you have targeted efforts now?
Piruze: Absolutely. We are working with different types of users, both in Singapore and Hong Kong. To start with, Singapore—actually, they have a lot of similarities. We have some types of companies that are outside of this region that have been on Stripe that are coming into the region and to these countries with Stripe. You know that Kickstarter launched a year ago. They saying, “These are all Stripe users.” Or, like Shopify payments in Singapore, this is also like Stripe is working with that.
But, there are also a lot of companies that are small and big that are launching in Singapore and Hong Kong and going international. They are working with Stripe. We work with companies like Grab in Singapore and many other startups. Actually, both in Singapore and Hong Kong. About two-thirds of top-funded companies, startups, are on Stripe right now.
And, you’re right. Many, many people don’t see the major marketing campaigns from Stripe, but in the tech and ecosystem, we’ve been quite targeted. Most of the companies actually learned about Stripe through other Stripe companies.
Jay: Right. Absolutely. As you just mentioned, the likes of Grab, which is very much not early-stage startup-stage anymore, but it’s pretty much a listed company or very soon will be. It’s great to see that they’re on your platform. I know that here in Hong Kong, I believe Grana is on Stripe—is using Stripe. I know Luke, who has been on the podcast as well. I like his company and what they’re trying to do. I’m excited to see Stripe proliferate a little bit more here in Hong Kong.
As far as language localization, do you guys offer that here in Hong Kong? They’re obviously nuanced here. Like I said, Singapore, it seems like English is quite predominant in Hong Kong. A lot of local, say, startups, or if I was a local student, then I would probably go to just open up a local bank account, company bank account, and choose a local payment processor to begin my startup journey. So, what kind of plans do you have to provide more localized language support for Hong Kong specifically?
Piruze: Sure. First of all, you mentioned Grana. We are so proud of some of the companies that we are working with, like we work with HPX, Shopline, Tink Labs. We’ve been having also specific programs with the accelerators like Brink or HKSCP, co-working spaces like Garage Society. We officially launched this summer. You’re going to hear and see more from us in Hong Kong. So, thanks for the feedback.
Jay: Excellent. Again, I was saying that it’s funny. There’s a big divide between sort of the western international or internationally-educated Hong Kong residents or startup founders or this sort of thing and the locals. I mean, we have this challenge here in Hong Kong. That’s something that we’ve been trying to address for a long time. That runs the entire gamut from all the way up to the highest levels of sort of government supporting the startup ecosystem, all the way down to just a service provider. So, I think that as sort of the ecosystem here matures then we’re going to hear more and more about Stripe, which I’m quite excited about.
I heard about a piece of research that you guys conducted recently or you were involved in recently called the Startup Stack. Maybe you could talk to us a little bit about what that was all about.
Piruze: Yeah. We partnered with [inaudible 20:35] Ecosystem Players and companies like Jungle Ventures, Golden Gate, General Assembly and 500 startups. We launched a survey to pulse check on the startup economy in Singapore. We wanted to understand what kind of impacts cloud-based software is having and enabling entrepreneurs to start and scale their businesses. What the common, mostly used tools are and also understand how the founders are feeling about the growth prospects in Singapore today.
Piruze: Do you want me to tell you a few of the insights?
Jay: I would love—that was going to be my next question. Please, tell us what valuable insights you gathered from this survey.
Piruze: Sure. Let me tell you a few things and maybe we can also play a guessing game for you.
Jay: Okay, sure.
Piruze: So, I think that one of the big learnings for us, which might not be that surprising for you, being based out of Hong Kong, is how globally-minded the startups were. More than a third of the startups that launched last year were already selling outside of Singapore.
Jay: Hum. Interesting.
Piruze: Yeah. Many of the ones that were not global yet were thinking of going global in the next year. And, about 36% to 37% of startups believe that it could have been really hard to launch their businesses out of Singapore as little as five years ago. Basically, one of the major learnings was a lot of the startups are going global much faster. About one-third of startups that launched in the last year have already gone global. Many of them who have not launched are thinking of going global in the next year.
Piruze: Yeah. About 90% all these people are thinking that the cloud-based platforms are making it much easier and faster for them to start and scale their businesses. They use about six or more tools to run their businesses day-to-day.
Jay: Wow. It sounds like the findings were actually quite positive.
Piruze: Yeah. Definitely. I’m sure if you’re running your business or if you look at your website and what you’re doing, I bet you’re touching some of these tools that were mentioned. Would you want to guess what the top tools were?
Jay: The top tools that startups were using?
Jay: Well, I mean, I would hope that Slack was one of them. I mean, I’m sorry, Stripe was one of them. Maybe, Slack too.
Piruze: Yes, you hit two of the top five.
Jay: That was a slip there, but both startups that are very popular with ‘S’ names. Let me think. What else? Let me think about the other tools that a startup would use. Some sort of file sharing like a Dropbox, or a Box, or a Google Docs-type program.
Piruze: Yeah, they were definitely popular, but the other ones that came up were AWS.
Jay: Oh, right. Yep. Sure.
Piruze: For hosting, Google Analytics, and GitHub.
Jay: Ah, right. GitHub. Of course. Very interesting. Well, thanks for sharing the findings of that survey. Actually, I’m happy, pleasantly surprised because I would think that—I don’t know. I feel like maybe I’m a bit of a cynic of Hong Kong’s startup ecosystem, but I feel like we should do that survey here too because I want to be pleasantly surprised here in Hong Kong as well.
The last few questions, Piruze. Thank you again for coming on. I know how busy you are, and I appreciate your time. Our audience, I’m sure, is going to enjoy this chat. Let’s talk a little bit about what your outlook is, as far as growth areas in Asia. Where is Stripe’s main focus on the back of your outlook of where you think the explosive growth is and where Stripe can capture a piece of that action?
Piruze: Yeah. First of all, we are super excited to see what kind of momentum we were able to build in the last two years in the countries that we are in. We think that, as you mentioned, there is much more to do and much more to build in these countries. We want to go deeper with our products, to be more relevant. We want to be able to have a bigger impact in the ecosystem that we are in. That will be one of our major areas. But, of course, some of the things that we are going to do will be shaped by some of our users, their demands, and their needs. Asia has been an important focus area for many of our global businesses. You’re going to hear more interesting things coming up in the region. I’ll let you know the details when they come.
Jay: I’m excited. I’ll be waiting with bated breath. Lastly, I guess I have last two questions. The second to the last one is having been an entrepreneur yourself, worked at a startup, another startup, and are now working at Stripe, and actually working day-to-day with startups every day, really, really deep, rolling your sleeves up and helping these startups scale and this sort of thing… If you had one piece of advice you could give to either an entrepreneur or a startup founder, or maybe just a startup company, in general, about how to successfully scale their business and grow globally, what would that piece of advice be?
Piruze: So many things. I think one of the things that I personally believe is that you have a much better chance of being successful if you’re working on something that you’re passionate about. If there’s a theme, if there’s a goal that you want to achieve. With my original startup, it was, “I want to bring healthier habits to peoples’ lives.” With Stripe it is increasing the GDP of the Internet. You can go deep and understand, what is the user problem that you are trying to solve? There is this big, massive problem that you’re trying to solve. I think that to start with, having that mission with you is going to increase your chances of being successful. I think then, with that, having users in mind and thinking that the approach of users-first gets you to a long way.
First of all, you try to understand and listen to your users more. One of the key things: understanding your market. And also, you built an amazing service. Your users help you expand. And if you choose the right users you also expand with your users. In a way, that was kind of what Stripe’s story was.
I think that the last thing is given that especially in this region, Jay, like how scarce the developer resources are and other resources are, it is really important to be able to focus on what you’re trying to solve and do that instead of trying to reinvent the wheel.
Piruze: There are existing resources, existing tools that would enable you to scale and grow your business.
Jay: That’s awesome. You’ve given not one, but multiple pieces of advice. We really appreciate that, Piruze. We also really appreciate your time. The final question is where can people find you, follow you, connect with you, and learn a little bit more about either what you’re working on or what Stripe as a company is doing?
Piruze: Sure. Well, they can follow me on Twitter. My handle is Piruzes. P-I-R-U-Z-E-S. Of course, I’m on LinkedIn. For anything Stripe-related, you should check out our blog. We’re also on Twitter.
Jay: Fantastic. Well, thanks so much for your time, again. We really appreciate it. I can’t wait to hear about the exciting things that are going to happen not only here in Hong Kong, but in Asia and the entire region. Thanks again for your insights, Piruze.
Piruze: Thanks, Jay, for the opportunity.
Jay: All right. Take care.
Asia's latest investing trends and on-the-ground field research delivered directly to your inbox