That one time PayPal narrowly avoided a huge international money laundering scandal



During the PandoMonthly fireside chat with Max Levchin last night, Sarah Lacy reflected on a story Reid Hoffman had once told her.

“At one point he and Peter realized if they were standing on the roof throwing wads of hundred dollar bills off the roof they would be spending money less fast than PayPal was,” Lacy said.

Levchin reflected on the “existential crises” and the stress about running out of funding. Then he dropped a bombshell: That one time PayPal almost became embroiled in a money laundering scandal.

The company had moved beyond the stress of the NASDAQ crash into a more financially stable place. They were raising a monster round and expanding exponentially, and investors wanted in on the action. PayPal was considering foreign investors in particular because they were willing to accept weaker deal terms.

A Japanese company reached out and said they wanted to invest $ 300 million, but Levchin and Thiel refused. PayPal didn’t need the money, but the Japanese company wouldn’t take no for an answer.

“They found out our wiring instructions from some corrupt lawyer somewhere and wired us [$ 30 million instead],” Levchin remembers laughing. The money was sent without deal terms or paperwork.

What did PayPal’s founders think when they received the cold $ 30 million, no strings attached? Levchin told Lacy:

We’re like, ‘Wow we must be doing really well. But — reality check — we’re not doing that well, we’re not profitable. We’re not nearly profitable. Why in the world is this crazy Japanese company wiring us money?’

It turned out, the company was in the process of being shut down by the Japanese government, and they had were trying to park 450 million outside the hands of the regulators. “They’re like, ‘Silicon Valley startups — those things gobble money up like crazy, maybe some of it will come back!’” Levchin says.

Eventually PayPal wired the money back, to the displeasure of the Japanese investors.

In the end, the shady company was shut down, but not before it successfully invested in a couple other startups in Silicon Valley.

“Who?” Lacy asked.

“I don’t know,” Levchin said.

“It would be great if it was Google,” Lacy said.

“Easy way to wind up without a pinky,” Levchin concluded. “My pinkies are in tact so we didn’t take any money from them.”