I began to wonder about other Bell-like constellations of talent—including tech companies like PayPal, General Magic, and Fairchild Semiconductor, but also non-technological cohorts like the Fugitive Poets, the Bloomsbury Group, and the Soulquarians. The British musician and producer Brian Eno once said that as a visual art student he was taught that artistic revolution came from solitary figures—Picasso, Kandinsky, Rembrandt. But as he looked into these
revolutionaries, he discovered them to be products of "very fertile scenes involving lots and lots of people—some of them artists, some of them collectors, some of them curators, thinkers, theorists...all sorts of people who created a kind of ecology of talent."
Eno called it "scenius." "Scenius," he said, "is the intelligence of a whole...operation or group of people. And I think that's a more useful way to think about culture, actually." It's also a useful way to think about the PayPal story, properly understood as a narrative about the lives, intersections, and interactions of several hundred individuals, set at a moment in time when the consumer internet took shape.
Modern technology tales are usually told as stories of individual achievement—more "genius" than "scenius." Jobs is inseparable from the Apple narrative, as is Bezos from Amazon, Gates from Microsoft, or Zuckerberg from Facebook. PayPal's success is a story of a different kind. There is no single hero or heroine. At different moments in the company's history, various team members produced critical, company-saving breakthroughs; remove any one of them, and it's possible that the whole thing would have collapsed.
Moreover, many of PayPal's signature achievements emerged from the productive friction of the group—the tension among the product, engineering, and business teams yielding pearls of innovation. The company's early history was marked by deep disagreements, and yet, as early engineer James Hogan observed, "There was some way where we just were not stepping on each other's toes, interpersonally and emotionally, in a way that really spiraled into dysfunction." At PayPal, disharmony produced discovery.
I wanted to grasp this ecology, the fertile mix of the people involved, the challenges they faced, and the moment in technological history in which they faced them.
For the prospective author, PayPal's origin tale is thrilling—though daunting—to write. I began with an exhaustive look at what had already been said and written on the subject. Thankfully, many of those who built the company had prolific public profiles; they had written books, launched podcasts, and spoken about PayPal at conferences, on television, on the radio, and in print. I reviewed hundreds of hours of their prior commentary and the hundreds of articles written about PayPal during its formative years, as well as a small number of books and academic papers that included the company as a case study.
I also tried to contact many of PayPal's pre-IPO employees, and I interviewed hundreds during the course of this project. I was grateful to have spoken to and interviewed all of the company's original cofounders and most of its board members and earliest investors. I also talked with outsiders who provided invaluable perspectives: the company's technical advisors, the person whose firm birthed the "PayPal" name, would-be investors who almost pulled the trigger, and the leaders of competing firms, among many others. I am grateful to all who generously allowed me to rummage through their collections of notes, documents, photos, memorabilia, and tens of thousands of pages of email correspondence from PayPal's earliest days.
In many cases, I uncovered previously untold PayPal stories—including harrowing accounts of the near-breakdown of the Confinity-X.com merger, and how close the company came to collapse at several critical points. I also tried to understand how—through the mayhem—PayPal's internet innovations came to be and came to form today's internet landscape.
What emerged from those years of research is a tale of ambition, invention, and iteration. From a period of duress came a generation of entrepreneurs, whose later creations bear PayPal's imprint. But the first triumph—the success of PayPal—was hard-won. Properly understood, PayPal's story is a four-year odyssey of near-failure followed by near-failure.
It's fitting, then, that PayPal's story starts with an historic technological breakdown—a disaster thousands of miles from Silicon Valley that exposed a future PayPal founder to computer technology for the first time.
***** TABLE OF CONTENTS *****
Part 1 Sicilian Defense
1. Building Blocks
2. The Pitch
3. The Right Questions
4. "What Matters to Me Is Winning"
5. The Beamers
7. Money Talks
Part 2 Bad Bishop
8. If You Build It
9. The Widget Wars
11. The Nut House Coup
13. The Sword
14. Ambition's Debt
Part 3 Doubled Rooks
16. Use the Force
17. Crime in Progress
19. World Domination
22. And All I Got Was a T-shirt
Conclusion: The Floor