The “Intellect” and “Bravado” Behind the Success of Thiel, Musk, and the “PayPal Mafia”

(p. C7) Next week marks the 20th anniversary of PayPal becoming a publicly traded company. The IPO valued the online payments processor at nearly $1 billion—an eye-opening sum at the time. Back in the day, technology firms marked such occasions with glitzy celebrations. PayPal took a different path. Its youthful employees gathered in the parking lot of their Palo Alto, Calif., office building, where the company’s enigmatic chief executive, Peter Thiel, performed a keg stand and then played 10 simultaneous games of speed chess, winning nine of them.

Jimmy Soni tells that story and many others in “The Founders,” a gripping account of PayPal’s origins and a vivid portrait of the geeks and contrarians who made its meteoric rise possible. His richly reported narrative includes corporate intrigue, workplace hijinks, breakthrough innovation and first-class nerdiness.

. . .

Julie Anderson, one of X.com’s early employees, dropped the company’s California-based telephone customer-service provider and relaunched the service in Nebraska. Why there? Because many of her relatives lived there.

. . .

Confirming a cliché, staffers do spend all night at the office—sometimes sleeping under their desks, though not always. “There’s this massive value that you harness when you’re doing an all-nighter,” says Mr. Levchin, “when you’ve gone for presumably seven or eight hours of work, and you’re really getting up to a point when something’s about to be born—and then you go for eight more hours! And instead of stopping to go to sleep and letting these ideas dissipate, you actually focus on the findings you’ve made in the last few hours, and you just go crazy and do some more of that.”

. . .

Why did PayPal thrive when others—eMoneyMail, PayPlace, c2it—failed? One key was limiting the losses from fraud. If the company had taken a traditional approach, observes a member of the fraud-analytics team, it “would have hired people who had been building logistic regression models for banks for twenty years but never innovated.” Instead it turned to young, open-minded engineers who devised unorthodox methods.

. . .

. . . “The Founders” makes crystal-clear that PayPal’s human capital—a potent cocktail of intellect, bravado and competitiveness, complemented by the occasional keg stand—laid the foundation for success.

For the full review, see:

Matthew Rees. “Making the Future Click.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, Feb. 12, 2022): C7.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date February 11, 2022, and has the title “‘The Founders’ Review: Making the Future Click.”)

The book under review is:

Soni, Jimmy. The Founders: The Story of PayPal and the Entrepreneurs Who Shaped Silicon Valley. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2022.

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