Ambitions and Emotions Run Hot in ‘The Founders,’ a History of PayPal

Cindy F. Cape

The Story of PayPal and the Entrepreneurs Who Shaped Silicon Valley
By Jimmy Soni
474 pages. Simon & Schuster. $30.

Dying is easy; dramatizing the dot-com world is hard. Where is the action in people staring at computer screens, pointing and clicking and typing? Even the costumes, hoodies and such worn by coders, the props of empty pizza boxes and foosball tables and sleeping bags under the desk, lack a certain oomph. At least the finance bros of the ’80s had snappy suspenders, martini dinners, strip clubs and buy-sell pads they could wave around between screams on the trading floor.

The development of online “wallets” might seem particularly bloodless — what, those things you use sometimes to buy stuff on the internet and often forget the password to? — 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 run as red-hot as they did in the Facebook movie written by Aaron Sorkin, “The Social Network.” It helps that PayPal’s origin story, though essentially an ensemble piece, features two of the more complicated antiheroes of our time: Peter Thiel, who has become a significant player in right-wing politics, and Elon Musk, currently the richest person in the world, who makes aggressive forays into the cosmos. Each has previously been the subject of big biographies.

Here, though, interviewed along with scores of PayPal personnel — sometimes known as “the PayPal mafia” for their ruthless insularity — they are just two moneyed young men trying to lasso the moon, and often missing. Or crashing, as they did dramatically when Musk drove them to a meeting with Sequoia Capital in the McLaren F1 sports car he acquired after the sale of an early start-up, Zip2. Thiel compared the excursion somewhat opaquely to being “like this Hitchcock movie,” but it suddenly turned 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 unscathed, despite having forgone seatbelts, not even speaking of the incident.)

Thiel initially thought that “beaming” money between PalmPilots, those chunky and short-lived precursors to smartphones, would be the next big thing; a former Stanford classmate convinced him to focus on email payments instead. Thiel comes off in Soni’s telling as pessimistic, occasionally unscrupulous and fiercely competitive, beating nine out of 10 colleagues in chess even after doing a rare celebratory keg stand. “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.

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