Elon Musk is adapting his vision to tech that exists Today: Jimmy Soni

Author Jimmy Soni on the Twitter takeover being a stepping stone for everything app 'X', the PayPal mafia, and more

Divya J Shekhar
Published: Jun 19, 2023 12:18:31 PM IST
Updated: Jun 19, 2023 12:23:06 PM IST

Elon Musk is adapting his vision to tech that exists Today: Jimmy SoniJimmy Soni discusses Elon Musk’s Twitter takeover and his vision for X, the everything app Image: Damon Dahlen

Jimmy Soni spent more than six years documenting the origin story of payments platform PayPal and the rise to power of its founders, including Peter Thiel, Elon Musk, Max Levchin and Reid Hoffman, who are some of Silicon Valley’s most powerful people today, known as the PayPal Mafia. Soni is the former managing editor of The Huffington Post. He was earlier a consultant at McKinsey and a speechwriter at the office of the Mayor of the District of Columbia in the US.

His latest book, The Founders, chronicles how PayPal shaped modern consumer internet. In an episode of From the Bookshelves podcast, Soni discusses Musk’s Twitter takeover and his vision for X, the everything app, and how PayPal has created a template of entrepreneurship for a generation of young startup entrepreneurs. Edited excerpts from an interview for the podcast From the Bookshelves:

Q. You’ve written about Elon Musk’s fondness for the letter X. The takeover of Twitter is likely the first step to realise that. And in the biography of Musk, Ashelee Vance writes that he has set about building something that has the potential to be much grander than anything Steve Jobs has built. Do you agree?
I agree with the statement [made by Vance], but it applies to space and SpaceX. To take a step back, Elon had issued a tweet that said part of the Twitter acquisition is the first step to building X, the everything app, which is sort of supposed to be like what WeChat is in China. Now, I am not familiar with WeChat, but my understanding is that it does messaging, payments, a little bit of everything.

When Elon was getting started with PayPal, he bought a domain called X.com, and the PayPal we know was the fusion of two companies, His X.com and Peter Thiel and Max Levchin’s Confinity. For him, X.com was supposed to be all things financial at that time. He wanted to unite, let’s say, savings account, checking account, mortgage, all things financial. Because his belief is that if you did that, you would save consumers’ money. As he put it to me, ‘If all the money is in one place, why would you want to put it anywhere else?’ He wanted to change finance. That was then. Now, we have different technologies, and he is adapting his vision to what is existing today.

I don’t have the kind of research or background to know if it’ll be successful, but I think the statement that Ashlee made applies very much to space tech. The idea is that in reducing space travel, he [Musk] wants to make it possible for humankind to explore new planets, to build on new planets, and to basically expand human civilisation. It would seem to me that that is a very big ambition. I think you could fairly argue it is bigger than what Steve Jobs wanted to do.

Also read: Boards should let "visionary" CEOs proceed with plans

Q. In your book, you describe the work culture at PayPal as a “haze of exhaustion and anxiety”. What does this say about the founders who run their businesses?
I had planned to meet with Musk on a Friday, late afternoon. I think there had been some layoffs that day, either at SpaceX or Tesla, and his team called me saying, ‘Listen, things have gotten a bit crazy… why don’t you go to his house on Saturday, at 1 pm and he’ll talk to you then’. I show up at his home, we shake hands, and I said, ‘Elon, I really appreciate you doing this on a Saturday.’ And he doesn’t even look at me, and says, ‘I work seven days a week, so whatever’.

This group as a whole [PayPal co-founders] work very hard to bring things into creation. Now, not all of them work this way, but Max Levchin and Elon Musk, they feel driven to build these companies and that’s it for them. At least when I was writing about them at PayPal, it was a seven day-a-week affair. Fundamentally, you have people who see the hustle culture as central to success, and in the 20 years that have passed since, we have also learnt how that might be counter-productive. It’s hard for anyone to square that circle, but I imagine that over time, particularly as both have become parents, that they both probably moderate it just a little at least for people who have children and families. But if you read some of the early accounts of SpaceX, it’s hard to create new things in the world, and the idea of it being all-consuming is hard to separate from a startup.

Elon Musk is adapting his vision to tech that exists Today: Jimmy Soni

Q. Could you talk about the PayPal Mafia moniker that’s associated with the co-founders?
The PayPal part of my story ends in 2002, and what happens in the aftermath is that you have this group of people who have made some money from PayPal. They’ve also seen the internet can be successful, and started to make investments in other internet companies. A lot of those companies were being created by friends and former co-workers at PayPal. For example, Hoffman creates LinkedIn, and the money, in part, comes from other people who have worked with Hoffman in PayPal. Yelp [online review site] is created by Russel Simmons and Jeremy Stoppelman, PayPal alumni. The first money into Yelp comes from Levchin.

As the years go by, those companies become successful and a kind of mystique emerges around the PayPal alumni group. In 2006, there’s an article in Forbes where the writer refers to them as the ‘PayPal Diaspora’ and in 2007, Fortune magazine does a cover photo and the headline is ‘The PayPal Mafia’. And that sticks, because there’s this iconic photo of these people dressed up in gangster gear in an Italian restaurant.

These people were helping each other in the aftermath of their success. They became friends, advisors, served on each other’s boards. So what has happened is that all over the world, when a company has a successful exit, people will immediately ask the question, ‘Is this going to be the Flipkart mafia?’ I think what it implies is that: ‘Is this going to be a group that fathers the ecosystem of technology in this particular country or in this particular domain?’ And my understanding, although limited, is that many of the founders of Flipkart have either invested in or created new startups.

Also read: Will 2023 bring some calm and stability at Twitter?

Q. Are there nuggets from the book that can inspire young entrepreneurs?
In 1999, Levchin and Thiel were turned down for funding for PayPal over 100 times. Someone, in 1999, called PayPal one of the worst business ideas of 1999. We look at these people—Musk, Hoffman, Levchin, David Sacks, Thiel—today because they are successful. For a lot of these people, that success started at PayPal. I come out of this book with so much more respect for startup entrepreneurs, particularly young people. It’s so uncertain, you’re just trying to make it work, and your eyeballs are bleeding trying to figure this thing out. The problem with only focusing on the 2022 version of these people is that we forget that at one point, Musk did not know whether he had to go to Stanford Graduate School, join a company or start a company. Don’t forget they started with the same uncertainty.


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