Image: Christian Owens

The tech CEO who stepped down at 29

Christian Owens on co-founding Paddle aged 18—and how Britain villainises success
December 6, 2023

Christian Owens’s first office was not particularly evocative of Silicon Valley. “It felt like a hospital waiting area,” says the 29-year-old tech entrepreneur. “Like when you go into a council building, or a public library or something in a small town, and everything’s that very strange shade of blue, with fake pine everywhere.” We’re sitting in a meeting room at his current, slightly grander office: the London headquarters of Paddle, a firm he co-founded aged 18. Paddle handles online payments and legal compliance issues for thousands of software companies, including encrypted internet provider NordVPN and the popular game Geoguessr. A fundraising round last year valued the firm at more than £1bn, awarding it rare “unicorn” status—but in April, Owens stepped back as CEO, handing the title to the then COO Jimmy Fitzgerald, about two decades his senior.

Paddle began life in a room on an industrial estate at the edge of Corby, the Midlands town where Owens grew up. His dad worked at the local British American Tobacco factory; his mum was a secretary. He “didn’t do great in school”, he says, but taught himself to code aged 13 by reading an 800-page book on the subject. After going door to door in Corby making websites for local businesses, he moved into selling invoicing software, and his parents “begrudgingly” let him drop out of education at 16.

Owens’s co-founder, Harrison Rose, left Paddle just under two years ago, and now only advises it “around the edges.” After relinquishing CEO status, Owens named himself executive chairman—a role that “means whatever you want it to mean, in tech companies these days”, he says. For him, it was a case of clawing back the time he was spending on day-to-day operations to focus on long-term strategy and product development. He commutes into the office a few days a week from Bath, where he has a house with his girlfriend on a hill just outside the tourist-thronged centre.

“It’s a really lonely thing, building a company,” Owens says. He recalls going to business networking events in his early 20s where all the other attendees would be 50-somethings complaining about juggling children with work. What provided some much-needed community was becoming a Thiel fellow—a programme launched by PayPal founder and former Donald Trump backer Peter Thiel, which provides funding and networking opportunities to young entrepreneurs. “It’s not as mysterious as it sounds,” he says: events with fellow fellows involve work talk but also off-duty activities like hikes.

Spending time in the US showed him that people starting businesses there were “celebrated”, and failures weren’t stigmatised. In Britain, however, you become a “villain” once you reach a certain level of success. “We live in a society that encourages people to play it safe”, he says: bright kids study to go to good universities, then take safe jobs in big companies. With each of those steps, you “dig the hole a little bit deeper.”

Nevertheless, Owens is optimistic about London’s burgeoning tech scene. “We’re doing the right things to attract talent,” he says, and people are tempted over from Silicon Valley precisely because the city isn’t a monoculture. “You go to Silicon Valley or San Francisco, and everybody works in tech. You go to a gym or a yoga class or something, and everybody’s in tech.” The capital is “definitely in the top three, if not number two” of hubs for AI development, and the first place where many notable US companies, including Sequoia Capital and OpenAI, opened offices outside of Silicon Valley. Owens doesn’t rule out moving stateside himself—“the weather’s really nice” in California, for one thing—but is clear where his loyalties lie. “I really love London. And I love building a business in London.”