“So what can this thing do?” asked venture capitalist Peter Thiel from the passenger seat of the sleek 627-hp McLaren F1.
“Check this out,” Elon Musk replied.
It was March 2000, a year after 28-year-old Musk sold his first startup for $22 million. He dumped $1 million of that on the silver sports car and then pumped most of the rest into a grandiose business model: X.com, an internet-based megabank aimed at reshaping the global financial system.
But his plans had been blocked by Confinity, a company run by Thiel. The two were close to discussing a “shotgun marriage” merger to end their destructive competition. Musk accidentally offered Thiel a ride. “I didn’t really know how to drive a car,” he tells author Jimmy Soni in The Founders: The Story of PayPal and the Entrepreneurs Who Shaped Silicon Valley (Simon & Schuster), available now.
Musk fired the McLaren’s gold-plated engine. The force was more than he could handle. The car skidded on the busy Silicon Valley road, hit an embankment, flew through the air and crashed on the side of the road. Glass shattered, tires burst and the vehicle’s suspension broke.
The crash could have killed both men and also destroyed PayPal — the company that revolutionized e-commerce and birthed YouTube, LinkedIn, Yelp, Tesla, and SpaceX — before it even got started.
But miraculously, Thiel and Musk were unharmed. They dusted themselves off, crossed their fingers, and hitchhiked to change internet history.
In “The Founders,” Soni tells the story of PayPal from its beginnings as a simple bill-splitting app intended for the now-forgotten PalmPilot device worshiped by pre-smartphone Silicon Valley. The app was the brainchild of Max Levchin, a 24-year-old computer programmer who had become friends with then-32-year-old Thiel through a series of what Levchin calls “ultra-nerd dates,” bookstore meet-ups where they spend hours at a time sleepovers with brain teasers and math problems.
When the financier and engineer launched Confinity, the geek crowd raved about Levchin’s PayPal app, which allowed PalmPilot users to beam money to each other — if their devices were in the same room.
It was impressive technology for the time, but limited. Then Levchin added an after-the-fact bonus feature to PayPal’s website: email-based payments.
Buyers and sellers on eBay were immediately enthusiastic. Within six months of PayPal’s launch in November 1999, the company had more than a million users.
However, Musk’s deep X.com also targeted eBay users, luring them with hefty sign-up bonuses that Confinity struggled to match. “It was kind of a race to see who would run out of money the fastest,” Musk said.
After the car crash in early 2000, the exhausted fighters agreed to band together under the X.com banner. But the merger proved rocky. Still aiming for his ultimate goal of financial world domination, Musk only saw PayPal as a means to that end.
As CEO of the blended company, Musk insisted on the primacy of the X.com brand — even though customers hated it, focus groups found. “I kept getting the ‘Oh God I wouldn’t trust that’ theme,” recalled Vivien Go, PayPal’s director of marketing. “‘It’s an adult site.'” Regardless: Musk ordered PayPal to be rebranded to “X-PayPal.”
Musk then decreed that PayPal’s code should be scrapped in favor of a brand new code base that meshes with X.com’s architecture. That was a blow to Levchin, whose PayPal code was riddled with quirks bearing his fingerprints — lines known to all as the “Max Code.”
“It… just destroys my will to live,” Levchin recalls desperately.
“I didn’t quite appreciate the emotional element,” Musk later admitted.
Enraged Levchin staged a coup. When Musk left for Australia for a long-delayed honeymoon, Levchin mobilized Thiel and other allies on the X.com board and ousted Musk from his position as CEO.
“Sneaky sneaky bastards,” Musk said in 2019 — humorously, writes Soni. “Too scared to stab me in the front.”
Musk kept his stake and benefited well when PayPal went public in 2002. The capital he raised from the company’s billion-dollar IPO helped launch SpaceX.
Today, Thiel and Musk hit it off, with Thiel even joking about the car accident that preceded their success.
“I had taken off with Elon,” Thiel told the author, “but not in a rocket.”
https://nypost.com/2022/03/26/how-elon-musk-and-peter-thiel-almost-died-in-a-2000-car-crash/ How Elon Musk and Peter Thiel almost died in a car accident in 2000