I recently left Stripe after 4.5 formative and magical years. Some reflections on what made working at Stripe feel different than working other places:
4/Principled decision-making
6/Talking up
7/The API metaphor

1/Turpentine: Picasso said, “when art critics get together they talk about Form and Structure and Meaning. When artists get together they talk about where you can buy cheap turpentine.” Stripe is obsessed with turpentine.

Turpentine is what is really going on at the one-inch altitude. It’s not the generic, cliched, shape of it observed from 10,000 feet. Even the smartest, most thoughtful, best-intentioned people won’t get it right without the ground-level perspective and visceral sense of what is.

Still not crystal clear on why turpentine matters? Pixar’s research trips are a great example.

When making Ratatouille, the entire crew visited restaurant kitchens in Paris to get an feel for them. Ed Catmull credited these trips with the “obsessive specificity” of the kitchen scenes; the sound of clogs on the tiles, how chefs held their arms while chopping, etc.

Turpentine makes Stripe’s product *and* culture better. Getting neck-deep versus ankle-deep into the minds of users and watering holes of the problem space makes the work more rewarding because Stripes can feel their impact and hone their instincts for what to put into the world.

2/Writing: Over time at Stripe, meetings, company plans, product strategies, important company announcements, and even board meetings, increasingly oriented around prose versus presentations. I’ve got a few hunches about why:

First, clarity of writing reflects clarity in thinking. Surely writing is not the only proxy for clarity in thinking, but I think it’s a good one. Jeff Besos famously banned presentations at Amazon in favor of “Narratives.”

In his words, “the reason writing a good 4 page memo is harder than ‘writing’ a 20 page powerpoint is because the narrative structure of a good memo forces better thought and better understanding of what’s more important than what, and how things are related.”

Second, writing democratizes ideas. Anyone with an insight or idea can write it down regardless of status or access. And, anyone can read it, regardless of status or access. Stripe’s leaders explicitly open themselves up to receiving memos. I’ve seen people get hired this way!

Third, good writing scales. On more than one occasion, I’ve seen a document written in a corner of the organization generate so much enthusiasm that it directly and meaningfully influences top-level product and company decisions.

3/Meticulousness: Stripes aren’t afraid to spend the extra hours, weeks, or months to get every pixel perfect. It may sound exhausting but it’s surprisingly energizing to push the limits of craft and ship something truly spectacular. Plus, users and onlookers always notice.

4/Principled decision-making: Building a great company requires that great decisions are made at all levels; not just the top. As a company grows, the number of decisions and the number of people making them proliferates. What to do?

At Stripe, the principles behind a decision are as important as the decision itself. I’ve observed that a sound decision is more likely when conversation and documentation is encouraged about the why *and* the what. (This also helps Stripes teach and learn from each other.)

5/Ambition: Stripe’s leaders are often asked what companies we should focus on and the answer has always been the same; “the ambitious ones.” It’s inspiring. @mmcgrana’s post on the impact of ambition on product, culture, and talent also resonates here:  https://markmcgranaghan.com/lessons-from-stripe 

6/Talking up: Stripe believes that its users and employees are smart, curious, ambitious, and excited to learn. And, as such, they don’t shy away from technical terms, big ideas, or challenging concepts. Talking up rises the tide for everyone.

Examples? The first time our CFO addressed the company, he talked about EBITDA. I had never heard of EBITDA before but I learned. To launch Sigma, Stripe’s *maximally flexible) reporting product, Stripe trusted that users would either know or learn SQL.

7/The API metaphor: When spinning up new projects or processes (ex- standing up company planning, welcoming newly acquired teams into Stripe, building Stripe Press), I was often encouraged to think of myself as the “API to X.” I always think about this.

Good API’s make things easier by providing a layer of abstraction between complex systems and I think it’s a pretty good metaphor for collaboration and communication. Abstract away the crufty bits so the interfaces are clean and interactions are more elegant (and more pleasant).

Overall, Stripe changed the way I think and changed my outlook on how a company could operate. It was a magical place to spend the majority of my career and if you ever want to talk about life at Stripe, get in touch. DM’s are open.

You can follow @zebriez.


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