A Paystack Friendship
Montages about dreaming, scenius, and lasting friendships.
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August 20, 2015. Ope was awake but dreaming: that sweaty Thursday, he sat in front of his computer and sent a cold email.
“Hi,” his email said, “I’m Aikomo Opemipo, a 23-year-old Nigerian, and I’d like an opportunity to intern with Bakken & Bæck in January 2016 as a frontend developer.”
Ope’s email was the first step of his grand plan. Bakken & Bæck wasn’t just any agency – it was the agency. A four-year-old product development studio in Oslo, Norway, Bakken & Bæck had an established design team, and Ope wanted to be a part of that for at least six months. He’d built a decent portfolio by writing code for two years and designing for longer. By the time his internship ended, he’d have figured out what he wanted to do.
But his loftiest aspiration, according to his email, beyond gaining practical exposure with a team he admired, was to advance digital design in Nigeria as a discipline after his Master’s. Every day, he stalked their website. He learnt about the people and studied their work, from their blogs to case studies and pet projects – like the two beehives on their rooftop and the 100,000 bees. So he sent the email. Norway remains one of 159 countries where Nigerians need more than desire and good intent to enter. So he applied for a visa.
To his internship request, Bakken & Bæck responded with an enthusiastic yes. But his visa request was an emphatic no from the Norwegian government. In December 2015, his visa was rejected without explanation.
Ope felt stuck, but his friend, Ezra, had an idea. “Why not come here and work on this product with us until Norway clicks?”
Ezra Olubi was in America, working on a nifty little product out of a small flat in Sunnyvale with his co-founder and friend, Shola Akinlade. That November, Paystack had just been accepted into the W16 batch of Y-Combinator, YC, the biggest startup accelerator in the world, where they’d get access to mentorship, an ambitious network, and, most importantly, funding.
Amongst the 3,000 startups funded since 2005 by YC, many have gone on to affect millions of people everywhere – from Airbnb, helping strangers host other strangers in their homes to Stripe and their mission to increase the GDP of the internet. When these companies first entered YC, they were often nifty little tools with big ideas. With a 300-person waitlist, Paystack was one of those ideas.
Paystack’s first application to YC was rejected early in 2015. It happened shortly after demoing this idea to his friend and another tech entrepreneur, Oo Nwoye.
“Guy!” Oo said when Shola showed him his idea, “This is a company! This is Stripe!”
After Paystack’s rejection, Oo emailed Michael Siebel, who’d just turned CEO of YC. Michael replied, asking Shola to tell him about Paystack. A few improvements and one YC batch later, Paystack became the first Nigerian startup to get into YC.
The decisive day for Ope’s next move came in December 2015.
“How far?” Shola said. “Do you have a US visa?” Ope did; his mum had helped him get a visa. “Come to Yankee.” Ope went.
In August 2015, Shola contracted Ope to work on some of Paystack’s frontend. Paystack promised a continuation of an old, flourishing thing: going with Ezra on a new adventure. Ope knew Ezra before Ezra knew him. Most young people who actively belonged in the Lagos tech ecosystem did. And If you didn’t know Ezra, you probably used some technology he built.
In 2007, Ezra worked on SoftPurse, a product which helped people add money to a digital wallet to buy airtime. That year, up to 10,000 people credited their wallets. By 2010, when he was 24 years old, Ezra built the first version of Eyowo at Softcom.
Three years later, he led the effort to take Jobberman from dedicated servers to the cloud as CTO. Shortly after they’d migrated to the cloud, an engineer accidentally hit delete on Jobberman’s entire database, wiping out the data of thousands of companies and job seekers. AWS, their cloud service, has a point-in-time recovery feature that helps them restore all the lost data by simply returning to a time before the deletion. They'd have lost everything if they still used their previous setup.
Ezra joined Delivery Science as CTO in 2014, a startup helping FMCGs build efficient technology for their logistics. Ope and Ezra were coworkers at Delivery Science, but neither remembers precisely when they became friends. They agree it happened at Ezra’s house through a mutual friend and colleague, Yomi Osamiluyi, with whom Ope had been friends.
Yomi and Ezra lived in the same neighbourhood, so a visit to Yomi’s house inevitably meant they’d all hang out at Ezra’s. They spent their evenings bonding over Archer, ranting about being broke while eating whatever Ezra’s cook made, mainly rice dishes.
In those moments in front of the TV, side projects materialised and became a lifeline. Ezra and Yomi were backend engineers, and Ope was the designer and frontend developer. There were the “let’s try this” projects, the “it might be worth nothing, but what if” projects, and most importantly, the “there’s this gig, let’s work on it and split the money” projects.
By mid-September 2015, Ezra had grown disillusioned about his time at Delivery Science – the business was in dire straits. The company owed as much as four months’ salaries – Ezra, a senior hire, even longer. He’d lost confidence in the leadership of the business.
He spent less time at his office, but to ensure he left the house, he started working out of another office close to home: Klein Devort. One of the co-founders of this business was his friend, Shola Akinlade.
Shola and Ezra met two decades ago as first-year computer science students at Babcock University. Ezra, who had applied for the same course, was assigned to the agric department. He eventually switched to computer science the following semester.
Every year at Babcock, there was a computer science students' exhibition. That year, many Computer Science students demoed exciting things. Ezra, an agric student, wrote a script that approximated the processor clock speed of computers by benchmarking how fast they could do math. Ezra's approach not only worked, it also aligned with the basic principles of computer science. It earned him Programmer of the Year – and a friendship with Shola. They exhibited every year, and in their final year in 2006, Shola and Ezra exhibited as a tag team: their winning demo was a program that helped them remotely control other computers.
When they remotely ejected a disc from another computer in front of a crowd, everyone went berserk.
Shola went corporate after graduation, working in a Business Intelligence role at Nigerian Breweries. But he quickly grew disillusioned and started Klein Devort less than two years later with Mayowa Okegbenle, another friend from Babcock. For much of the next decade, Shola spent his time at Klein Devort building software and consulting for businesses. Their flagship product was Precurio, a collaboration and document workflow tool for businesses.
One of Shola’s last projects at Klein Devort was with Access Bank, where he worked with their Digital Factory and Innovation team to build a product called PayWithCapture. The product helped customers make payments easily; the flagship feature was a QR scanner that helped customers make contactless payments in stores.
PayWithCapture planted seeds in two people: Shola, the consultant, who went on to build Paystack, and Gbenga Agboola, the Head of the Digital Factory and Innovation team, who went on to build Flutterwave.
Before Ezra’s Delivery Science disillusionment, before the first YC application, much earlier in 2015, Shola dragged Ezra to a corner at a birthday party. He pulled out his computer to show Ezra something he’d been working on. He inputted his card details into the code editor and hit enter. His card was automatically debited.
“Wait, what?” Ezra said.
In 2015, if you built a website and tried to sell stuff on it, you’d have to hire a software engineer to set up with a payment processing company like Interswitch, pay ₦150,000 for access to their APIs, receive a PDF with all the API documentation required to integrate and go through a review process before your website went live.
In that corner with Shola, against a loud office party with junk food and cheap drinks, Ezra had just watched Shola legally enter a house without a gatekeeper. No payment companies and long review processes. Paystack progressed with Ezra reviewing some of its architecture, testing and offering feedback. He hadn’t joined Paystack, but he enthusiastically followed its development.
Before everyone took to Twitter to announce new raises and critique products, the ecosystem convened at Radar, a now-defunct online community forum for tech enthusiasts, to discuss everything. One day in September 2015, Ezra shared his longest post, then rounded up his rant about Nigeria’s online payments problem with a P.S.
“Payments is still a real and interesting problem to solve in Nigeria today, and I am definitely interested in getting on board with anyone looking to do so, pro bono. A couple of friends over at Paystack are on to something interesting and are worth keeping an eye out for.”
It was the first time Paystack was mentioned in public. Ezra had started speaking to Shola about his general disillusionment and feeling stuck at the time. And so, when Shola asked him to be his cofounder a month later, Ezra said yes. They moved to Sunnyvale, California, soon after.
Ope joined them in January 2016. He planned to spend only three months working on Paystack before re-applying to Norway.
Ezra, Shola and Ope built early Paystack features in that tiny apartment. Once they had an idea, they worked asynchronously to build it, from APIs to frontend and backend. Ope and Ezra shared a room but hardly ever slept in it at the same time – whenever one was awake or working, the other was asleep. Shola, too, spent some time in development, but he divided his attention between building features and meetings with potential investors.
Consider software development like building a house. Before laying the first brick, a vision of the final structure is essential. The foundation of this digital ‘house’ is backend engineering, providing essential stability and form, much like a house's physical foundation, walls, and floors.
The software also needs ‘plumbing and electricity’ – the APIs. These channels within the software allow seamless communication, just like plumbing and electrical systems ensure that a house's water flow and power distribution are uninterrupted.
Then, there’s the frontend of the software that mirrors the tangible aspects of a house – everything you interact with and experience directly. It focuses on user interaction and design, ensuring that each element functions as intended, just as doors lead to the correct rooms and switches reliably light up a room.
Ope would write out the documentation for the APIs, and even before he had a backend, he’d start writing out the code for elements of the frontend and designing, knowing where everything would be. Ezra would focus on the backend while working on the APIs in places beyond Ope’s scope. It’s like a no-look pass in a game, where a player passes the ball to their opponent without looking, confident that their teammate will receive it.
In 1965, American psychologist Bruce Tuckman proposed a model for understanding team development in his article “Developmental Sequence in Small Groups”. Based on his observations on how they affect productivity, teams developed in four stages.
In the forming stage, team members first meet and begin to understand the objectives and their roles in the team. It’s also when members begin to know each other. Then, they start expressing each other’s ideas and perspectives, which can lead to conflicts; this is the storming stage. When they resolve these conflicts, they develop a sense of cohesion, entering the norming stage. Things start to really pick up at the performing stage; the team’s energy is channelled into the objective, and everyone understands each other’s strengths and weaknesses.
Many factors came together to help them reach their performing stage quickly in that Sunnyvale apartment. Ezra and Ope’s work history meant that tools, templates, and tempo were already familiar. Ezra was Ope’s manager at their last job and a collaborator on side projects. There wasn’t much of a learning curve for how to work, and so they worked as a unit.
They were huddled together in one flat, away from Lagos worries like electricity; the TV never ran out of shows, and the fridge never ran out of ice cream. Ezra made sure. They went grocery shopping for the house together every week. They’d bought the furniture for the house together from IKEA, too. Whatever ideas anyone had, Ope was always down for the adventure, whether it was seeing an observatory or trying out a Mongolian restaurant.
By the end of 2016, the long toil over the years begun to take its toll on Ezra. He was tired, and everything took longer. Suffice it to say, he was burnt out. The way Ezra remembers it, he was setting the team back. But Ope disagrees; he barely even registered it.
A significant part of their friendship dynamic had been Ope looking up to Ezra. Watching him take extreme ownership of his work and be understanding, Ezra’s awe for Ope found new heights and remains to this day. The work also didn’t slow down because Paystack had a growing formidable engineering team in Ibrahim, Loknan, and Douglas.
In their book about startups and scale, Blitzscaling, Reid Hoffman and Chris Yeh discuss the five stages of team growth. They describe companies at the nation stage as having over 10,000 employees, city stage at 1,000-9,999, village at 100-999, tribe at 10-99, and a family stage at 1-9 employees.
In this family stage, a team might be a high-performing team that won’t call themselves family, but they tend to have a strong sense of intimacy and shared purpose.
Back in Lagos, Paystack was taking shape. Pockets of old friendships were nurtured as new ones formed. One of the first ten employees was Abiola, the Swiss army woman: she ran analysis, customer support, business ops, HR, and did whatever needed to get done. She’d followed Shola from Klein Devort. She straddled every role until a function needed deeper solutions, and someone had to be hired to do it. Seike, another of the first ten employees, joined Paystack as its customer support and operational needs grew. She’d worked with Ezra before Paystack. Loknan came from Delivery Science, while Ibrahim worked with Shola before Paystack.
Seun Runsewe joined Paystack from KPMG after her maternity leave to lead the newly formed Business function. Some days, she showed up to work with her four-month-old, and everyone took turns to babysit. Other days, she took time off for hospital runs without fear of reproach for being out of office too long. Seun Odusanya joined the business team as the tenth member of the team.
Douglas would go the extra mile with his ingenuity, making tools that helped Seun’s work pitching businesses easier. Seike would go to bed and wake up to see that Loknan from Engineering had resolved all the support issues that popped up while she slept.
Everyone owned something. Everyone owned everything.
By the end of 2016, Paystack’s growth strongly indicated they were up to something. They had 1,407 live customers who’d processed about 200,000 transactions valued at over 1.1 billion naira. Investors also believed that they were onto something, and so not only did they secure the standard $120,000 investment from YC, but they also raised another $1.3 million from other investors.
The small but enthusiastic team was now established. Their shared sense of values and purpose had brought them this far, but all of this first became ingrained in the culture code through Emmanuel Quartey.
In mid-2017, a few months after Quartey rounded off his work as General Manager of MEST Incubator in Ghana, Shola asked him to come and advise Paystack on how to think about growth. He spent one month with the team, speaking to everyone and exploring what Paystack was already doing well and what it could do better.
Everyone he spoke to sounded like they owned the business, in the depth of their knowledge and the intensity of their care.
After witnessing a passionate debate over why the front desk had to be beautiful and observing the entire company transform a customer disaster into a moment of care, Quartey knew he wanted to stay.
In the week Quartey’s one-month session would’ve ended, Shola asked if he’d be interested in joining Paystack to lead the growth effort. He said yes in a heartbeat. He’d effectively decided to uproot his life in Ghana to join Paystack in Lagos.
Quartey would go on to codify how Paystack, as a team, viewed the world. Shola had an idea at almost twenty employees: he believed the team had the right vibe and wanted it codified somehow, so he asked Quartey to figure it out. And so, Shola led a session where everyone sat in a room and talked about themselves. His prompt to the room for everyone to answer was, “If you knew me, you’d know X”. He also went first and put everything on the table, sharing things people outside the team might never know.
And so, across the room, one after the other, each person poured. Quartey swears that everything good that has happened at Paystack originated from that day. The exercise made them always see themselves as whole human beings and created a deep well of collective understanding they continue to sip from. Shola still holds these sessions with new employees, albeit voluntarily.
Quartey then spent the next few days collecting feedback from people on what they believed Paystack’s values were. What people sent back overlapped – what they had wasn’t ideals they aspired to, it was traits they already embodied as a collective.
They created a decision-making mental model to guide how they hired, what they rewarded, what they discouraged, and how they solved problems. This became Paystack’s core values, a framework for how people at Paystack see themselves and the world.
In the 1970s, MIT researcher Thomas J. Allen developed the Theory of Proximity or Allen Curve, a pivotal theory in organisational behaviour at the time: the closer people are to each other, the more likely they are to communicate with each other, create spontaneous interactions, generate better ideas, and inevitably drive serendipitous innovation.
Ope and Ezra’s productivity in Sunnyvale proved this theory; it also came in handy for Paystack’s growth. For instance, they had to rent an apartment close to the office to ease Quartey's relocation. Shola took out a room in that apartment and thus began the idea of a Paystack House, executed by Abiola, whose focus had been streamlined to HR and Admin.
When employees who lived far away from the office at Ikeja needed to be closer to work, they moved into a room rented by Paystack. For about a year starting in 2017, if two Stacks – they call themselves that – wanted to rent a space, and it sat in a particular radius around the office, they could get support from HR.
More and more Stacks began to live close to each other. They went to work and the gym and often hung out around the Paystack Houses. It felt like a closely-knit community had been created amongst the Stacks.
The Paystack team’s closeness took its first major beating in 2020 when COVID hit and the relentless flu tested their cohesion. Like most companies everywhere who had to go remote, they found inventive ways to huddle. Ope’s team, for example, would stay on Looms all day, hopping into conversations when needed or listening for sounds of life to fill the gap created by isolation.
As the company navigated its new COVID reality, something else was happening within the leadership team: Stripe had begun conversations to acquire Paystack. It wasn’t the first time Stripe’s possible acquisition was on the table, but Paystack thought it was too early. Stripe decided to invest in their Series A fundraising round instead in 2018. The second time, it still didn’t feel like the right time, but when Stripe came back with an acquisition offer of over $200 million, the Stacks had a new home at Stripe.
You might get issued stocks – the atomic unit of ownership – when you join a startup, especially in its early stages. At the moment you join, they are not very valuable. But as the company grows and its value increases, so does your share. When a company like Stripe acquires the company you work at, they’re buying off your stocks for cash or stocks in their own company. For acquisitions like Paystack’s, people’s fortunes changed forever.
After months of due diligence and paperwork, Paystack’s acquisition was announced. This announcement also came in mid-October, as young Nigerians across the country and abroad organised around the #EndSARS movement, protesting against police brutality that often targets young people, including those who’d look like the average person at Paystack.
There was some concern over the time of the announcement internally, and whether it’d distract from the protests, but when it went out, it was cogent proof of why people were out protesting: if young Nigerians feel safe being themselves, they make incredible things.
Many things have changed at Paystack. The team no longer works from just one office; they’re scattered across three continents, but Shola, who now runs a football club while leading Paystack, continues to advocate for the nimble spirit.
Ope and Ezra haven’t worked as closely in years. Ope leads a team of designers at Paystack, while Ezra leads engineering. They’ll still be found on calls together, hashing out high-level stuff, but never really hand in the mud, shoulder to shoulder.
In 1977, twelve years after he proposed his team development model, a fifth stage was added to Tuckman’s original model: adjourning or mourning. A sense of achievement marks this stage and sometimes a yearning as team members are separated and move to their next endeavour. In 2021, Ope yearned to collaborate closely with Ezra. But in November 2023, he remembers it differently.
Their work at Paystack began as taking that code Shola had written and showed Ezra, building an experience around it, and then working with hundreds of Stacks to serve it to people everywhere, billions of times. You start out being a big part of a small toolbox, then become a small part of a massive engine. They formed, barely stormed, performed exceptionally, and now, this is their adjournment – what a run.
Now, you can have an idea at dawn tomorrow and start receiving payments before dusk. You could try to sell e-books; the next thing you know, you have the largest creator platform in Africa. You could have an idea to make cravings arrive faster, and after eighteen months, you’ve helped people pay 1 billion naira. Your idea could make it easy for people to automate their daily, weekly, or monthly savings.
Consider that all these ideas and thousands more – every app or website that enables payments – were made possible because of Paystack and businesses like it.
In the 90s, British musician Brian Eno described a word to his friend: Scenius. He believed that significant changes in history resulted from large numbers of people and circumstances to create something new. Scenius is the communal concept of genius, a collective intelligence and intuition that resides in the scene where it’s happening beyond the genes of the people in it.
Quartey believes this is the point – to bring people together in good faith, work on a collective mission where people feel whole, and create pure vibes – to create scenius.
In this way, Paystack’s mission as a business is not just powering a new generation of enterprises across Africa. It’s also creating a culture that won’t revolve around a cult figure but around a cult of Paystack – where people could become their best selves while building a community of practice.
Ezra, Ope and other friends – Tolu, Fatima and Tomi – meet every year for a week in Abuja. They get a lovely apartment, cook, and catch up while eating. They want to buy a beach house together somewhere, each with a key to use anytime. And they’d hang out for no reason – dolce far niente.
Ope was supposed to spend only three months at Paystack, but he’s added another eighty-eight months to those three and is still going. He’s built a multidisciplinary design team at Paystack. Outside Paystack, he’s started a production studio for passion projects.
One day, Ope ended up at a bar in Oslo, having drinks with people he knew and respected and who also knew and respected him. That evening was happening because Ope had sent another email, “Hi Johan, I’m in Oslo! Arrived today. Let me know when to stop by the office.”
There had been many emails in between, but this last one landed on August 20, 2023, exactly six years since the first one to Bakken & Bæck. Ope has drank with his heroes.
The date was unplanned. The date was perfect.
Thank you for reading A Paystack Friendship. Share your thoughts in the comments, and most of all, subscribe to get the next thing.
It took a village and a lot of time to put this together.
First, you’re reading this story because of Vistanium’s backers. It takes a lot of time and resources to make this happen, and they make it possible.
There are many ways to tell a Paystack story or any startup’s story, but my curiosity about this angle began in 2021. I’d read James Somers’ essay about Jeff and Sanjay, two of Google’s earliest engineers. The story wasn’t about Google in the true sense, it was about friendship at work and the impact it can have in creating meaningful work. And so, I thought, what would it look like to explore this theme in the context of my environment? Thank you, James, for writing.
The first conversation was had in 2021. The most obvious person to talk to when exploring a company’s founding is the CEO. But I wanted to explore what it’d look like to do this without talking to the CEO. Thank you, Ope, for setting it up, Ezra, for taking the time, and both of you for talking to me.
The story had to be about chemistry, so I tried to get some practice on another one: The Flutterwave Store.
I kept taking stabs at it between 2021 and now, but reached a point of no return a few weeks ago. Solomon made some of the first edits, and asked good questions in this final round. The gaps started to become apparent.
So, I went back to look for more stories to fill them. Seike was my guide for this part, so thank you for guiding me through the rabbithole, and answering my plenty questions. And getting Seun on the phone.
I was trying to figure out what the point of it might be. Why does this code and value system matter, and what can it make possible? I wasn’t sure of the language, but Quartey was the one who tied it up for me, especially introducing me to the concept of scenius. Many of the Early Stacks think of Quartey as some sort of oracle – I agree with them.
I spoke to six people inside Paystack for this story across two years, and they all tended to say the same thing in different words. But I still wanted to get an extra perspective from someone who wasn't an employee but had been in the room a lot – Seyi – and it still checked. Dami and Seyi of Dá led the creation of Paystack’s timeless brand identity.
In all, it was Ruka who dragged this story to the finish line, making me almost cry and throw up and wonder who sent me message.
One day, while I was whining about how stressful this story was, Binjo said, “Publish.“
Penzu did all the illustration and motion.
David did a typo check, and Ezra did a final factcheck.
I’m writing this way past midnight, so thank you, Nana, for not dragging me to bed, and tolerating me as I whined endlessly about this story.
I really set out to explore teams, and how they come together to make incredible things. I hope I accomplished that for you too.
An extra PS:
A few weeks ago, Shola announced that they were laying off people. Losing a job is hard, and I thought it was done as ethically/thoughtfully as possible, but it feels like anyone who comes to read this might find this context, especially the handling of it, useful.
Corrections: The “if you knew me“ prompt was Shola’s idea; an earlier version said it was Quartey’s.