The Story of PayPal and the Entrepreneurs Who Shaped Silicon Valley
By Jimmy Sonic
474 pages. Simon & Schuster. $30.
Dying is easy; dramatizing the dotcom world is hard. Where’s the action in people staring at computer screens, pointing and clicking and typing? Even the suits, hoodies and the like worn by coders, the props of empty pizza boxes and foosball tables and sleeping bags under the desk, lack a certain aura. At least the financial brethren of the ’80s had snappy suspenders, martini dinners, strip clubs, and buy-sell pads they could wave in between the screams on the trading floor.
The development of online “wallets” may seem particularly bloodless – what, those things that you sometimes use to buy things on the Internet and often forget the password? — and yet “The Founders: The Story of PayPal and the Entrepreneurs Who Shaped Silicon Valley,” by Jimmy Soni, is an intensely magnetic chronicle in which ambitions and emotions become as red-hot as in the Facebook movie written by Aaron Sorkin,” The social network.” It helps that PayPal’s origin story, while essentially an ensemble piece, features two of the more complicated anti-heroes of our time: Peter Thiel, who has become a major player in right-wing politics, and Elon Musk, currently the richest person in the world, who is aggressively trips into the cosmos. Each has been the subject of major biographies before.
Interviewed here, however, along with dozens of PayPal employees — otherwise known as “the PayPal Mafia” for their ruthless insularity — it’s just two young men with a fortune trying to catch the moon and often go missing. Or crash, as they dramatically did when Musk drove them to a meeting with Sequoia Capital in the McLaren F1 sports car he acquired after selling an early start-up, Zip2. Thiel compared the excursion somewhat opaque to his “like this Hitchcock movie,” but it suddenly became more “Dukes of Hazzard”: The car hit an embankment and sailed through the air “like a discus,” Musk recalls. (He and Thiel walked into the meeting separately, but unharmed, despite having dropped their seat belts, not even about the incident.)
Thiel initially thought that “blasting” money between PalmPilots, those chunky and short-lived forerunners of smartphones, would be the next big thing; a former Stanford classmate convinced him to focus on email payments instead. Thiel comes across in Soni’s story as pessimistic, at times unscrupulous and fiercely competitive, beating nine out of ten colleagues in chess even after a rare celebratory kegstand. “Show me a good loser and I’ll show you a loser,” he told an early employee, echoing the rhetoric of Donald J. Trump, whose presidential campaign Thiel would later support.