When global companies think about incorporating offshore, they typically look to places such as Bermuda, Ireland, or the Netherlands. Kenyan entrepreneur Trevor Kimenye decided to go with Delaware.
Kimenye co-founded his digital marketing startup Ongair Inc. in Nairobi two years ago. He said companies around the world use Ongair’s tools to help them communicate with customers through WhatsApp and other messaging apps. Ongair has the look and feel of Silicon Valley software, but whenever it tried to collect payment from companies using its services, there would be an inevitable moment of confusion. “Everyone thought we were from the Valley, and now we’re, like, ‘OK, send this money to a Kenyan bank account,’” Kimenye said. “They were, like: ‘Are you Nigerian princes?’”
Ongair employees hacked together a system of wire-transfer services and web payments tools from PayPal Holdings Inc. to facilitate transactions from around the globe. But Kimenye said he was spending way too much time studying the complexities of foreign-exchange currency markets: “I was becoming a forex guru.” He considered switching to Stripe Inc., but the San Francisco startup, which makes payments tools that are popular with coders in the Valley, doesn’t service Kenya.
So Stripe helped him incorporate in the U.S. through a new program called Atlas. “When we automatically took money for the first time from a credit card, everyone in the office was like, ‘Wow,’” Kimenye said. “We felt it had leveled the playing field for us with other companies in the Valley or in Europe. It was no longer holding us back.”
Stripe has been slowly rolling out Atlas over the last three months, pitching it as a startup in a box. For a $500 fee, an aspiring entrepreneur can get the paperwork needed to incorporate in Delaware, a business account with Silicon Valley Bank, connections to American law and consulting firms, and a Stripe account to accept payments online. So far, Stripe has welcomed 440 startups from 91 countries into Atlas. Stripe said it has received applications from entrepreneurs in just about every country in the world but declined to disclose the number of applicants.
Atlas provides a way for Stripe to make customers come to its home country, instead of having to go to them. Stripe works only with businesses based in 25 countries, mostly developed economies, because establishing operations in a new place can involve coordination with local banks, custom technical work, and language localization. Atlas helps Stripe reach developing markets without having to go through the costly process of opening in each one. While Atlas startups aren’t required to use Stripe to process payments, most likely will. Stripe, a venture-backed startup valued at $5 billion, will take a cut of each transaction—which could grow to become a big revenue stream if the companies take off.
Patrick Collison, chief executive officer and co-founder of Stripe, said Atlas can help his company gain the loyalty of a growing set of global entrepreneurs. Their governments should like Atlas, too, he said. The program serves as an alternative to sucking entrepreneurial talent away from emerging markets. “When you discover it’s extremely difficult to start a business or gain access to Stripe in your home country, for many people the easiest response to that is to leave and move to where it is,” Collison said. Stripe said most Atlas participants plan to stay in their home countries.
Stripe surveyed Atlas companies and found that 42 percent were incorporating as a business for the first time, while 20 percent had previously tried unsuccessfully to incorporate in the U.S. They said Atlas simplifies a complicated procedure that otherwise would involve flying to the U.S. to meet with banks and lawyers.
As the wait list for Atlas grows, Stripe declined to say when it plans to open the floodgates. The company said it’s still refining the application process. Stripe underestimated how many questions startups would have when signing up. Several applicants found a phone number listed in some of Stripe’s automated e-mails, which belonged to a leader on the Atlas project, and sent him a barrage of messages through WhatsApp: Do we need a U.S. business address? How many shares should we issue through our new company? What do the different roles on a board of directors do?
To address common issues, Stripe added suggestions inside the sign-up form and to an ever-growing list of frequently asked questions. The goal is to help a startup fill out the form and submit electronically signed documents over the course of a few days. Eventually, any company should be able to join Atlas as long as it doesn’t violate Stripe’s rules prohibiting activities such as drug paraphernalia, gambling, pornography, and pyramid schemes. “There are enough gatekeepers and sources of requisite permission in the world,” Collison said. “We don’t want to introduce more.”
Atlas startups are also hoping their presence in the U.S. will help them attract venture capital. Most said they plan to seek funding in the next year, according to Stripe’s study. Paulo Tenorio, who started Brazilian marketing company Trakto, is hoping Atlas will make his startup more desirable to American venture capitalists after getting turned away in the past. “I'm going to say, ‘I have the legal presence you need here. I can be here in a day. I can spend months here,’” Tenorio said. “I'm going to try it out.”