Retailers   //   February 3, 2022

‘Mob’ accusations add fuel to the online battle between one-click payments startups Fast and Bolt

On Twitter, allegations were posted about mob-like behavior. Then things began to spiral out of control. 

Last week, Ryan Breslow — the founder of one-click checkout provider Bolt — posted a bold proclamation on Twitter. He called payments processor Stripe and accelerator Y Combinator, the “mob bosses” of Silicon Valley, laying out his rationale in 31 subsequent tweets. As part of Breslow’s convoluted theory, he accused Y Combinator’s Hacker News of suppressing news that was unfavorable to Stripe (a graduate of Y Combinator) citing instances in which the Hacker News community upvoted Stripe news ahead of news about Bolt. 

But for Breslow, the final straw was when Stripe financed Bolt competitor Fast, which raised a $102 million funding round in January 2021, not too long after Fast had formally launched its one-click checkout product in September. It was part of Stripe’s playbook, Breslow said, of “funding competitors just to get back at you.” Why Breslow thinks Stripe has a specific axe to grind against Bolt while giving preferential treatment to Fast remains unclear. Despite Breslow’s gripes about the mob, Bolt still recently hit an $11 billion valuation.

On Monday, eyes turned back to Bolt when Breslow announced that he would transition from CEO of Bolt to executive chairman. Jokes about how this is what happens when one runs afoul of the mob ensued.

For people who had never heard of Bolt or Fast before, it was a bizarre entry point into the one-click checkout space. But for a very niche section e-commerce Twitter, it was the latest popcorn-worthy development in the chatter surrounding Bolt and Fast: two companies a layperson likely never heard of.

Bolt and Fast are both two relatively new companies to the online payments space, and combined, are available on less than 2,000 e-commerce sites worldwide. But, both have raised a boatload of venture capital funding in the past year and a half, fueled by a number of tailwinds (record high venture capital financing, higher-than-ever-levels of online shopping).

These two companies are out to prove they can be competitive in a world dominated by Apple Pay, PayPal and other tech giants. Twitter, over the past two years, has become the arena for Bolt and Fast to make bold proclamations about their potential. But the battle of online bravado hit another level thanks to Breslow’s bold accusations.

Fast CEO Domm Holland told Modern Retail in an interview on Monday that “we’re actually far less competitive with Bolt than they make out to be.” When asked for his thoughts on Breslow’s tweet thread, he said “It’s just frankly, not a good look… I think that it was pretty clearly a kind of beef marketing exercise, trying to leverage two of the biggest names in Silicon Valley and put yourself on the same page as them.”

Breslow, for his part said in emailed comments that “I only have one goal: empowerment… I felt compelled to do my part in my industry in Silicon Valley where there’s a lot of bad that happens behind closed doors.”

Top Silicon Valley venture capitalists were quick to dismiss Breslow’s tweets about Stripe and Y Combinator as “fan fiction,” and to move on to the next Twitter joke. But his tweets added fuel to a year-and-a-half long series of jokes about the perceived drama between Bolt and Fast among certain sections of e-commerce Twitter.

“[Three] dramas I always look forward to here: web2 vs web3, bnpl vs networks, bolt vs fast,” Sar Haribhakati, a program director at OnDeck tweeted in October. Morning Brew posted a comedic video in July about what it would look like if Bolt and Fast competed at the Olympic Games, prefacing it with “this one is niche.” Nearly every time that Bolt has announced one of its (many) rounds of funding this year, someone is quick to quote tweet with the retort, “that was fast.” 

Twitter as hype machine

Even if a startup executive or founder hasn’t used Bolt’s or Fast’s checkout before, they’ve likely come across their respective executives on Twitter, where they’ve built sizable followings by posting often broad business truisms geared at wannabe entrepreneurs. Some of the advice dispelled on Twitter by Holland, Breslow and Fast co-founder Allison Barr Allen — a few examples: “the busiest people always seem to be the most responsive,” or “The secret: productivity is a process of REMOVAL” — have garnered thousands of likes and retweets, often from many of the same people who worship businesses like Stripe and Y Combinator.

While the valuations of Bolt and Fast have risen, so too have the Twitter profiles of their respective founders. Breslow has more than 145,000 Twitter followers now. Holland and Bar Allen, respectively have 36,800 and 57,400 followers on Twitter, respectively.

Holland — a native Australian who just moved to the U.S. several years ago — said that Twitter has been an important networking tool for him. He said that he met Barr Allen through Twitter, for example. But he also said he’s spent less time on Twitter over the past year, because “I’ve got a much bigger company to run.” 

“Twitter is an essential tool for tech founders, and I see it as a way to democratize audience building,” Breslow wrote. “It gives people a chance to connect with me without a filter or intermediary.”

Twitter has always been a place for founders to showcase bravado. But, thanks in particular to the rise of Twitter-addicted CEOs like Elon Musk, venture capitalists and founders have increasingly called for founders to “go direct.” On Twitter, they can reach anyone, and dispel business advice even before their company is proven to be a success story.

Race to payment domination 

The thesis driving both Bolt and Fast is that there’s no clear e-commerce payments winner just yet. While all of the major tech giants have created their own digital payment wallets — ApplePay, Amazon Pay, PayPal, ShopPay — none of them yet account for a majority of online transactions in the U.S. 

Because there’s no one dominant player in the payments space in the U.S.,  there’s no one or two digital wallets that every shopping website optimizes for. That — according to players like Fast and Bolt — creates a confusing experience for shoppers. The thesis goes: If Bolt and Fast can offer even a slightly better checkout experience, they can drive hundreds of millions of revenue.

Bolt and Fast both claim to offer one-click checkout, but each with a different twist. Fast’s checkout system allows people to check out on the product detail page, rather than having to click on a separate go-to cart button. Bolt’s checkout system, meanwhile, still supports other digital wallets like PayPal and Apple Pay, but people can save their information with Bolt for faster checkout. Bolt then sends users who have created accounts a pin number each time they subsequently check out with a Bolt retailer, eliminating the need to enter an address or password. 

“One-click checkout as a technology, it’s kind of seen as magic in a certain sense,”  Humayun Rashid, the CEO of Shopify-focused product studio Nessa, told Modern Retail. “When you think about everyone being on their phones more…having one-click checkout technology is incredibly important because it closes the friction point between product discovery and actually buying it.”

Making payments software hip

Fast made a splash in March 2020 when it announced that Stripe was leading its Series A funding round, months before Fast had officially launched its product. By contrast, eight-year-old Bolt had just raised a $75 million series C round a month earlier, at roughly the same valuation as Fast, according to Breslow’s tweets.

Since then, Bolt’s valuation has catapulted past that of Fast’s: Bolt raised a $355 million Series E last month at an $11 billion valuation, and is reportedly pursuing a $14 billion valuation now. According to blog posts from Breslow, has increased its valuation by 30x in 30 months.

Yet while Bolt and Fast have accumulated hundreds of millions in funding — and thousands of followers — their user bases remain limited. Fast says that more than 1,000 sites now offer its checkout services, while Bolt says that it works with “hundreds of merchants.” Bolt says that about 10 million shoppers have signed up for its services as of November. PayPal, by comparison, said that it has 426 million active accounts.

Bolt’s and Fast’s still relatively small user bases — combined with their penchants for being the main characters on e-commerce Twitter — unearths a larger truth about their respective strategies: It’s historically very hard to get the attention of people as a payments-focused startup.

Building out a customer base as a payments startup, “takes a two-pronged approach,” according to Rashid.  “You need adoption from the development community to want to use your product on behalf of their clients,” he explained. Startups like Bolt and Fast also then have to convince customers to use their digital wallet, instead of defaulting to Apple Pay or Shop Pay every time.

Twitter gives the founders of companies like Fast and Bolt to build a following in their own right, even before (or if) their products become household names. It provides business-to-business startups a way to make their names known to people in a way they hadn’t been able to previously, until they reached a certain level of scale where they can afford more expensive TV and billboard ads. (Which, they are now starting to do — Bolt just unveiled a new TV ad this week featuring ASPCA staple Sarah McLachlan.)

“It is very difficult to scale [in the payments space] especially as a brand new entrant,” Rashid said.”if you don’t have a ton of funding, good luck.