Business tech guru Harper Reed: Future of the internet looks like one big "buy" button
Larger-than-life business tech guru Harper Reed peers into the future of online payments and explains why mobile is masterful
- The future of commerce is in the hands of a few experts, and Harper Reed — now at PayPal — is one
- We are creating tools for retailers that no one ever had before and they really are that kind of next generation, or future-focused toolsets
- Every country you go to people are using mobile phones, even where they don’t have infrastructure — there are 7.2 billion phones in the world, more than there are people
By Bernard Kellerman
Photography by Jason Ierace
The future of commerce is in the hands of a few experts, and Harper Reed — now at PayPal — is one.
Payments technology developer Reed believes the internet should be one big “buy” button and is intent on extending payment solutions from the net to mobile phones, and any other devices that become popular.
While looking like an eccentric outsider, Reed has been described as a technologist’s technologist at heart. His LinkedIn page shows him as simultaneously holding the roles of senior director, software development, at PayPal, and Head of Commerce, at Braintree (a PayPal subsidiary since 2013) from August 2015.
In 2012, fresh from an intense year helping President Obama get re-elected, Reed joined forces with fellow tech heavy hitter Dylan Richard to set up Modest, Inc, a mobile commerce company.
In August last year Modest, Inc became the first acquisition by PayPal after it was split from eBay and listed on the NASDAQ. The deal continues PayPal’s plan to move beyond processing payments online into mobile technology and beyond.
PayPal, while still a part of eBay, towards the end of 2013 had acquired online payments processing player Braintree so Modest, Inc. with its focus on the “buying experience”, was a natural fit.
Unlike Braintree founder and fellow Chicagoan, Bryan Johnson, Reed has stayed on with PayPal — attracted by the opportunities a major player can offer.
“What PayPal have been doing, oftentimes, is building out infrastructure, specifically for retailers. Back in the day they were the first to do anything like this; they were the first to create a better experience. They were the first to make it easier for people to pay.”
Reed is helping to move the easy to pay experience from online to mobile, and to do that in a way that appeals to customers and retailers alike.
“We are creating tools for retailers that no one ever had before and they really are that kind of next generation, or future-focused toolsets,” he says.
“Retailers are very good at selling shoes, for instance. They can’t be expected to write an iOS app, so how are they going to consciously make an application that works in every mobile phone, for their online store?
“I’m not very good at selling shoes. But I’m very good at retail technology. So we can work together to solve this in a very nice way together and make an impact, to find that synergy to solve these problems.”
He says a person selling shoes shouldn’t have to worry about whether they have the best payments technology. They should be thinking about the fastest way to sell shoes.
Making technology work
“Frankly, this is not an easy problem — it’s actually a very difficult problem. This is why the cohesion of what we have here at Braintree and PayPal, and what Modest had, worked so well. We’re focused on the problem of getting all of the stuff to work together in a very high-quality way.”
He says people often choose the wrong technology because it is a very complex thing to get your head around. He’s part of a team trying to make this technology more accessible.
“As a regular retailer you don’t need to think about this. We will think about it for you. Just continue selling shoes or doing exactly what you’re good at.”
Looking to the future of online payments, Reed says it’s very simple.
“I asked someone once: ‘Is mobile the future?’ They answered: ‘Actually, Harper, mobile is now. If you think mobile is the future then you’re already behind.’
“Everything is going to mobile. There is nothing else but mobile. Every time we think about the future, it’s going to be smaller and smaller and smaller.
“It’s pretty clear what we’re seeing — [use of] desktop computer is trending down. Every country you go to people are using mobile phones, even where they don’t have infrastructure — there are 7.2 billion phones in the world, more than there are people.”
I asked someone once: ‘Is mobile the future?’ They answered: ‘Actually, Harper, mobile is now. If you think mobile is the future then you’re already behind.'
Security just went mobile
The number of potential mobile phone transactions is a double-edged opportunity for retailers, Reed suggests.
“This is where security becomes such an important part of the conversation — security is what gives the consumer trust,” he says.
“The consumer is not going to buy from a retailer unless they trust them. We’ve seen this happen where a physical store gets hacked, that brand loses a bit [of consumer appeal].
“What we believe is that if we can build a very secure product that is an amazing experience for the consumer, this will help the retailer and will help everyone in that little world. So, this is very important.”
While security is getting better, hackers are getting better too, Reed says. But in line with his views on where retailers should concentrate, he says consumers shouldn’t have to worry about security solutions.
The innovations that are being made in security are something that the consumer should never see — they should be like plumbing, Reed suggests.
“This was one of many reasons that, when we at Modest were looking at who we wanted to work with, who we wanted to be our partner, that PayPal was such a big deal, because PayPal has amazing security.”
How well-developed are online payments?
Reed demurred when asked about the future of online payments.
“We already have things like bitcoin and M-Pesa, various aspects of a world which are very different to what we’ve been used to.”
He says, rather cryptically: “As always, we are looking to figure out how we fit the future, and how the future fits us. I figure it’s pretty positive.
“If you think of some of the big competitors to PayPal, many of them are still stuck in the world of credit cards — which personally is my favourite world, because credit cards work everywhere.”
Then he adds that he makes it a rule not to make public predictions because he’s never been right.
“I mean, I keep thinking we’d have jet packs by now and we don’t. I can’t fly to Colorado to visit my parents.”
The risks of not keeping up with current developments are, as far as company strategists in charge of payments are concerned, likely overblown, he says.
“Risk is complicated. One of the exciting things about what we do at PayPal and Braintree is that we build businesses that allow for smaller businesses to take on those risks and be innovative.”
The Obama campaign
Reed served as chief technology officer for the Obama for America campaign from April 2011 through to the November 2012 election.
A central component of that work was Project Narwhal, which required expertise pulling together a centralised database of electoral information. Reed helped build a team of developers from tech companies like Twitter, Google, Facebook, Craigslist, Quora, Orbitz and Threadless.
Hiring top technology experts from Silicon Valley, rather than the political realm, was seen as novel at the time.
The Atlantic wrote in 2012: “The team had elite and, for tech, senior talent — by which I mean that most of them were in their 30s — from Twitter, Google, Facebook, Craigslist, Quora, and some of Chicago’s own software companies such as Orbitz and Threadless, where Reed had been CTO.”
So just how did Reed hire away people from these huge names? He says he had a very effective recruiting line: “Do you want to come and work for the President of the United States? Usually people are going to say, ‘yes I do’.”
Reed says that his role was mostly to ensure the technology worked but that he also learned how to run a big team, to make sure work was impactful, and “how not to die on the job”.
“It was very hard; it was very complex — but I would recommend to anyone that if you get a ride on a rocket ship, hold on. It’s an amazing opportunity,” he says.
His advice is to bring in as many people as possible to work with you, and make sure they are different types of people.
“I believe strongly in diversity in the workplace because it really helps make the product better.”
And in a moment of complete seriousness, he has a warning for anyone taking on a similarly large and stressful venture.
“Very specifically, take care of yourself. Do anything you need to do to make sure that you don’t die. It’s a marathon, yet everyone treats it like a sprint.”
Bernard Kellerman is a Sydney based editor and commentator.
This article was first published in the June 2016 issue of Acuity magazine.