PayPal is famous for being one of the few dotcom successes that survived the 1999 bubble. It is also famous for the ‘PayPal Mafia’ — the founding group of individuals who left PayPal in the wake of their 2002 eBay acquisition and then spread out to start multiple successful companies in Silicon Valley over the subsequent decade.
Reading this, it felt like PayPal succeeded mainly by luck, because money beaming using PalmPilots doesn’t sound like a good idea, and the part of their product that did succeed was something they’d dismissed as unimportant. In contrast, TikTok and Amazon succeeded because they’d persisted with decisions that seemed unwise at that time but later paid off. The other examples like Instagram and Microsoft also felt more intentional.
This surprised me because being known for the “PayPal Mafia” suggests that that the employees must be skilled in some way for them to achieve such consistent success. Perhaps part of it is a willingness to entertain unusual ideas, but General Magic was very willing to experiment and yet they’d failed.
In an Acquired podcast, PayPal alumni were described as outstanding for their willingness and ability to iterate quickly – they are willing to release products that aren’t quite ready yet, so they can iterate according to the actual market feedback. It seems then that being right isn’t as important as being able to seek and respond to feedback. Their initial ideas did not work out, but they managed to get there by iterating, unlike General Magic which stubbornly clung to the same idea.
PayPal succeeded because of luck, but only because they were willing to give different ideas a chance. They may not have been good at identifying winning ideas, but they were good at changing their minds and exploring further so they could iterate towards one.
Now, the one thing I’m wondering is this: the problems with PalmPilot that Hoffman highlighted seem very valid. Did the others not do anything to address his concerns?
My understanding from The Founders is that no, half the company was so fixated on the PalmPilot idea that they just ignored it. Not entirely, of course — Levchin implemented the initial email service as a result of Hoffman’s prodding, but it really does seem like changing your mind is a difficult thing, especially since you’ve already spent months of all-nighters getting the PalmPilot software to work.
Interesting case. So far the common theme I perceive in the three first cases (this one + TikTok + iPhone keyboard) is the importance of people who have the right intuitions about user behavior.
It seems focusing on technical or even financial logic can lead you astray when trying to build successful mass products in tech. Ultimately, it’s the user experience that tips or tanks adoption and growth.
This case is different from the others in that we have a prime example of engineering myopia. Reid Hoffman’s points were valid and with today’s standards for business analysis, almost comically common sense.
It’s amazing that the smart engineers would still want to continue on the beaming functionality when the conditions for success was that everyone needs to have the devices to generate utility. I wonder if this is because the strategy discussions were polluted by many other factors we are not aware of.