Kara Swisher

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Exclusive: PayPal Co-Founder Levchin Launches New Payments Startup, Affirm

High-profile Silicon Valley entrepreneur Max Levchin is launching a new mobile payments startup today called Affirm.

It’s the first project emerging from Levchin’s San Francisco tech incubator Hard, Valuable, Fun (HVF), which he started after selling his last company — Slide — to Google and then eventually leaving the search giant. Previous to that, Levchin and investor Peter Thiel had sold PayPal to eBay.

While it might seem at first as if Affirm is in direct competition with other mobile payments-focused companies such as Square and Stripe, it seems to be aimed at another layer of the value chain in an effort to improve conversion for mobile payments.

In fact, Stripe — in which Levchin is an investor, too — will be processing credit card payments on the back end.

But it will be an uphill battle for Levchin in the current payments arena, with a range of challenges from a multitude of rivals to regulatory scrutiny to the risks associated with credit in general.

Its most similar competitor, for example, is Klarna, a hugely funded company based in Sweden that offers payment solutions for a wide range of online storefronts across Europe that did $200 million in revenue last year. Klarna, which means “clear” in Swedish, is likely to be eying the U.S. market and has well-regard VC Mike Moritz of Sequoia Capital on its board.

As part of its effort, Affirm will use Facebook for authentication of consumers, and also use a number of other social and data signals to assess risk. It will then guarantee payment to merchants — who will pay Affirm a fee — after this check.

“We are trying to get as close as possible to one-click, which has always been the case on the desktop,” said Levchin in an interview today. “In mobile, it has become an imperative to be able to buy it now or you lose a customer quickly.”

Levchin described Affirm as a digital charge card rather than a credit card, trying to be valuable to merchants by lowering the abandonment rate of mobile transactions. Affirm’s beta launch retail partner is 1-800-Flowers.

“You will essentially be putting a purchase on a digital tab, and we are going to make it work for us by looking at all available data to determine if you are someone who will pay it back,” said Levchin.

Like an American Express or other charge card, consumers will have about 30 days to settle bills, although Affirm will not be making any money from them.

As to why he decided to enter the increasingly competitive online payment space — which is also rife with regulatory and fraud issues — Levchin said that his efforts at PayPal did not go far enough.

“Payments online are still too hard — we started the revolution with PayPal and democratized payments for small businesses, but we stopped short of changing the system,” he said. “The world is now awash in data and we can see consumers in a lot clearer ways.”

In addition, he added, the “overwhelming transformation of everything toward mobile changes all the fundamentals.”

Relying on Facebook could be an issue, of course, opening up a thicket of privacy issues and also worrisome reliance on the social networking giant. But Levchin said that Affirm’s system depends on the company for confirming identity more than anything else and there will eventually be a number of ways to do that.

Other data Affirm will be using, he said, range from incomes per zip code and even a user’s mobile device ID.

Affirm has been funded by Levchin and a group of friends in the “low-digit millions,” he said, with only a few dozen employees compared to bigger mobile payments efforts from others.

He said he knows the risk of entering the space, especially given that there are only so many solutions and a limited retailer attention.

Still, Levchin noted: “I just think there is so much more to do. Technology has come a long way since PayPal.”

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Just as the atom bomb was the weapon that was supposed to render war obsolete, the Internet seems like capitalism’s ultimate feat of self-destructive genius, an economic doomsday device rendering it impossible for anyone to ever make a profit off anything again. It’s especially hopeless for those whose work is easily digitized and accessed free of charge.

— Author Tim Kreider on not getting paid for one’s work