It's Starting to Dawn on PayPal: We Might Really Be in Trouble

By Sarah Lacy , written on September 7, 2012

From The News Desk

I spend a lot of time complaining about the bad lessons you can draw from blog metrics. Things like: You should write about Apple all the time, and never cover startups because the former is what drives traffic. If you look at metrics too closely, you start to chase readers instead of lead. And that gives us, well, nothing but a world of lists and slideshows. So I only watch our per-story metrics through one half-squinted eye.

But sometimes a story pops so much, drives traffic so disproportionate for our overall size and does it for so long that it can only tell us, we've hit on a major point of angst in the ecosystem. And oddly enough, for us, it usually doesn't have to do with Apple. A post I wrote about the major changes happening in many levels in the payment ecosystem did that. It was called, harshly enough, "Exactly How Screwed Is PayPal? (Hint: Very)." It was not only one of the highest trafficked stories in our history: The vast majority of the traffic came from what ChartBeat calls emails, IMs and apps-- a catch-all bucket that includes ways that individuals pass stories around to one another.  It's an anti-Huffington Post bounce.

In the weeks since doing that story, I've heard anecdotes of it being discussed at the board level at eBay and individual developers saying their friends sent it to them multiple times. That tells me two things. The first is that even if it's a "vocal minority" that's unhappy with PayPal, it's a vocal minority that matters: The developers who control what payment system gets installed, or in some cases, uninstalled. The second is that the senior brain trust of eBay is taking this shit seriously.

We're not alone in noticing this. AllThingsD's Tricia Duryee writes about PayPal's new president David Marcus responding in angry comment threads on Hacker News-- pretty much developer zeitgeist central. The whole thing started when a small business owner named Elliot Jay Stocks wrote a post called "Good riddance, PayPal," that was picked up on Hacker News and started a feeding frenzy of negative comments about the service.

Stocks' reason for switching was a mistake that caused funds in his account to be frozen-- a common problem with PayPal's automated fraud-detection system that competitive upstart Braintree expressly uses to market its human-touch customer service. Meanwhile, PayPal mafia-funded Stripe is aggressively going after developers, with it's extreme ease of use and instant underwriting capability. 

In his comments on Hacker News, Marcus was surprisingly frank, acknowledging how "hated" PayPal is in the developer ecosystem and pledging to "make this company GREAT again." He said: "This WILL change, and we won't rest until you all see it. The first installments are due very soon. So stay tuned..."

As I've said before, I don't have a lot of optimism that PayPal can solve this problem. It's just neglected innovation for too long. As Elon Musk told us, the plan PayPal has now is less aggressive than the done he wrote back in 2000.

Marcus says there's a cultural change underway, and that they acknowledge when they "suck" now. That may be, but fixing it is another matter. PayPal has the benefit of a massive installed base that will take these upstarts a long time to chip away at. But with that sort of cushion comes complacency and an innovator's dilemma.

But give Marcus credit for one thing: Admitting there's a problem. Will a potential acquisition be the solution?