We have nerd-off

On his good days Elon Musk resembles Thomas Edison. An innovator with an appetite for risk, he’s eager to accelerate technology. The companies with which he’s most involved, Tesla and SpaceX, aim to revolutionize life on this planet and enable us to inhabit other ones. Yet on the days when he inflames social media with offhand remarks about being an alien, while letting his followers know he composes his tweets on the loo, he has the air of a prankish eight-year-old who’s acquired an adult slingshot. He was Time‘s person of the year for 2021, with the magazine characterizing him as “clown, genius, edgelord, visionary, industrialist, showman, cad”. In The FoundersJimmy Soni – formerly managing editor of the Huffington Post – portraying him as a shy misfit, easily frustrated and allergic to bureaucracy, but also as a pioneer who Edison’s talent for self-publicity and penchant for catnaps.

Peter Thiel is less famous, yet still well known. The model for the tech magus Peter Gregory in the television comedy series Silicon Valley, he bankrolled the lawsuit that ruined the irreverent website Gawker and backed the presidential candidacy of Donald Trump. He funds a fellowship program which encourages bright young people to skip university and “pursue ideas that matter”. Among the attributes that make him sound like a character in an Ayn Rand novel are a determination to cheat death (“Why is everyone else so indifferent about their mortality?”, he asked a New York Times interviewer in 2017) and an eagerness to create communities at sea that are free from government control. Soni represents him as a lover of esoteric puzzles with a broad intellectual reach, and as a furiously competitive contrarian, given to utterances such as “Show me a good loser, and I’ll show you a loser”.

Both Musk and Thiel were immigrants to the United States. Musk grew up in Pretoria, moved to Canada in his late teens, and then studied at the University of Pennsylvania. Thiel was born in Frankfurt and arrived in the US aged nine. The two men are linked by their involvement with PayPal. Launched by Thiel’s Confinity as a payments platform for users of Palm Pilots (remember them?), it evolved after a merger with Musk’s X.com, an online bank which to many observers sounded as if it might be a cornucopia of smut. PayPal’s mythic status in Silicon Valley derives from its starry roster of ex-employees, among whom are founders of LinkedIn, YouTube and Yelp. An article in Fortune magazine in 2007 conjured the lurid image of a “PayPal Mafia”, and the phrase stuck, though its alumni network, as the duo’s former colleague David Sacks observes, is less club than diaspora.

Most of Soni’s book is taken up with the period between 1998, when Thiel founded Confinity, and 2002, when PayPal made its stock market debut. In his painstaking account of its early days, the office culture sounds like an exhausting nerd-off. Who can sit on a basketball the longest? Whose caffeine consumption is most extreme? Who’s prepared to sleep under their desk? A recruitment meeting supposed to last ten minutes goes on for eight hours. As the company grows, its progress is tracked using a tool called the World Domination Index, and when at last it’s publicly listed, Thiel celebrates in the car park by playing ten simultaneous games of speed chess – of which, to his horror, he wins only nine.

Soni’s focus is the business of how PayPal became a success: enticing users, fighting off rivals, wrestling with regulators, stamping out fraud. He writes convincingly about his subjects’ personalities, but he’s not especially interested in their philosophies. Where Thiel is concerned, this feels like a missed opportunity. Although he touches on Thiel’s interest in his late mentor René Girard’s theory of “mimetic desire”, he doesn’t elaborate on it. Nor does he say anything of substance about Thiel’s various political and religious disquisitions, which are peppered with allusions to Nietzsche, Thomas Hobbes and Leo Strauss, yet contain such surprises as a twelve-line quotation from Tennyson’s “Locksley Hall”.

Still, the story ticks along satisfyingly, even when Soni has to address such dry matters as competition over transaction fees and the security of mobile wallets (with much talk of “pivoting” and “iterating”). To his credit, he doesn’t romanticize innovation, instead dwelling on its messiness – the experiments, conflict, frustrations, wrong turnings and what Musk calls “recursive self-improvement”. Perhaps most importantly, he is alive to the importance of what he terms, with a nod to the musician Brian Eno, “scenius”: while the book’s dominant characters are Musk and Thiel, there’s a keen sense of the ways in which their enterprises have on drawn others’ talents, and Soni deftly integrates material from a large number of interviewees. Some are heavy hitters, such as the Confinity co-founder Max Levchin. But there’s space for smaller players, too, including a fraud investigator who has Bill Clinton’s way with a past participle, reflecting that “Wild horses could not have drug me out of that profession”.

One of the book’s most revealing episodes occurs when Musk and Thiel, shortly after the merger of Confinity and X.com, travel to meet the legendary venture capitalist Michael Moritz. Musk has recently bought a $1 million McLaren sports car, which he considers a “work of art”. En route, Thiel quizzes him about its capabilities, and events take what Soni describes as “a distinctly cubist turn”. Musk’s driving skills are no match for the uninsured McLaren’s vertiginous acceleration, and when he swerves to avoid another vehicle he hits an embankment, causing the car to fly through the air like a discus. Passers-by assume the crash must have been fatal, but both men emerge unscathed. Thiel, who wasn’t even wearing a seatbelt, dusts himself down and hitches a lift to Moritz’s office. Musk soon follows. Neither offers any explanation for being late. Thiel’s take on the incident, more than twenty years later, is to joke that, come what may, he could say he’d “achieved lift-off with Elon”.

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