How a Ninja Is Becoming One of the Most Visible Execs in Payments

Seth Priebatsch, the 24-year-old founder and head of the mobile payment system LevelUp, has made his company a serious player in the emerging payments market — yet he also sports the less-than-serious job title of "chief ninja."

The nickname, he explains, has much to do with his approach to running a business.

The idea behind his title came five years ago when Priebatsch was speaking with venture capitalists about funding. He thought: venture capitalists know how to talk to CEOs, but they're probably not good at negotiating against ninjas.

Seth Priebatsch

Seth Priebatsch

Priebatsch's product, LevelUp, is just as different as he is. It is a mobile payment system for the point of sale that, notably, doesn't charge a fee for payments — a business model that hasn't always worked for other companies. Over time, LevelUp has gone from being a potentially disruptive outsider to a prominent partner of many established payments companies.

One of the weapons in Priebatsch's business-ninja arsenal is his accent. Because his South African father was the parent that read to him as a child — his mother, a Connecticut native, read to his sister — Priebatsch developed an accent. He favors it because "people tend to trust you more if you're foreign," he says.

His strategy to become a stealthy payments ninja seems to have paid off. The company behind LevelUp, called SCVNGR, was founded in June 2008 and today has over 100 employees. It created LevelUp in March 2011, operating the system briefly as a daily deals site before transforming it into a mobile payments product in July 2011.

Other members of the LevelUp team also take on unconventional titles. For example, Chris Mahl, the company's chief revenue and strategy officer, calls himself the Chief Alchemist for his desire to turn others' technology into gold, says Priebatsch

"The whole office is littered with completely incomprehensible titles," Priebatsch says. "It's a very silly thing but it's meant to set the personality and character of the company."

People won't work as hard if it's not fun, he says. And his employees definitely work hard. Many spend more than eight hours a day in the office, and Priebatsch says it's common to see people working at 10 p.m. on Sunday nights.

Priebatsch's other passions include extreme sports.   He recently tried kiteboarding in Miami and broke a couple ribs in the process.

He carries that same energy to LevelUp.

"Sometimes I think he's working too hard; the guy doesn't ever sleep and I don't know if he ever eats either," says Paul Purcell, a partner at Continental Investors LLC. Purcell came to know Priebatsch in April 2012 while putting capital into the startup. He now sits as an observer on the company's board.

Purcell says the founder keeps a sleeping bag under his desk in case he works too late to go home. 

"Having a startup is a very maternal/paternal relationship," says Rich Miner, general partner at Google Ventures. Miner met Priebatsch in 2009 after investing in SCVNGR.

At LevelUp's current stage, "it's hard to separate your own identity from that of the company," Miner says.

Priebatsch originally founded SCVNGR to be a social location-based gaming platform for mobile phones. He dropped out of Princeton University after his freshman year, shortly after the company launched.

But "we ran into a flaw," Priebatsch says. "While we could drive a huge amount of traffic and engagement, we could never track the value we were bringing to the merchant."

Then in January 2011, SCVNGR ran a campaign with Buffalo Wild Wings. The campaign drove a huge amount of revenue for the retailer, Priebatsch says. Out of SCVNGR's social data and Buffalo Wild Wings' transaction data, the idea behind LevelUp was spawned.

LevelUp still uses game mechanics in a subtle way and shifts those methods to payments, Priebatsch says. Its methods resemble the process of checking in at locations on the Foursquare and Facebook networks, but "on steroids," he adds.

LevelUp continues to grow, partnering with large players such as Heartland Payment Systems and Merchant Warehouse and capturing more than 500,000 users as of November. The startup has also launched white-label products. It is currently developing apps for First Trade Union Bank and the Sweetgreen salad chain.

Purcell says Sweetgreen is just the beginning of a myriad of multi-location merchant partnerships LevelUp plans to develop apps for.