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Meet the Billionaire Commanding SpaceX's All-Civilian Mission—He Dropped Out of High School to Start His Business

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At some point during the first quarter of Sunday's Super Bowl LV, billionaire entrepreneur Jared Isaacman is set to appear on around 100 million television screens in a 30-second spot he bought to tout "the world's first all-civilian mission" to space — a SpaceX mission he is paying to command.

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The mission, dubbed Inspiration4, is a charitable endeavor to highlight an effort to raise $200 million for St. Jude Children's Research Hospital to fight childhood cancer.

But beyond fundraising, orbiting the earth in a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule that will launch at the end of 2021 will also fulfill the 37-year-old founder's childhood dream of going to space.

"I decided I was going to go to space when I was 5 [years old]. I was pretty calculated about it at that point, it just took me a little while to get it into motion," says Isaacman, the founder of Shift4 Payments, who is also an accomplished pilot. (He set a world record in 2009 for the fastest around-the-world flight in a light jet.)

The self-proclaimed "space geek," who has an estimated net worth of $2.3 billion, according to Forbes, declined to reveal how much the endeavor will cost him. It certainly won't be cheap: Isaacman has already committed $100 million to St. Jude's. And 30-second Super Bowl ad spots are reportedly going for around $5.5 million this year. That's not to mention the trip, for which he is covering all four crew seats (one of which will go to Hayley Arceneaux, a 29-year-old physician's assistant at St. Jude's who is also a survivor of childhood bone cancer, the mission announced on Feb. 22). NASA pays SpaceX about $55 million for each astronaut who makes the trip to space aboard a SpaceX capsule, for context.

Whatever the bill, Isaacman believes it's a small price to pay. "This is the first step towards a world where everybody can go and venture among the stars," Isaacman says.

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk and Shift4 Payments CEO Jared Isaacman pose together at SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, California to announce the Inspiration4 all-civilian space mission.
Source: SpaceX
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk and Shift4 Payments CEO Jared Isaacman pose together at SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, California to announce the Inspiration4 all-civilian space mission.

From teen entrepreneur to multibillionaire

For the past two decades, Isaacman's main focus has been running the company he founded as a teenager in his parents' basement in New Jersey. 

As a teen, Isaacman and his friend, Brendan Lauber, spent much of their free time fixing computers and building websites, so they decided to try and make some money with their skills. In high school, Isaacman took a summer job selling computers at the now-shuttered retailer CompUSA. But, really, he says he was using that gig to funnel clients to his own fledgling business.

"I was poaching customers," he explains. When customers would come into the store with computer issues, he would tell them: "Well, you could buy this, or maybe, if you want, I've got this business on the side and I'll take care of you."

One of those clients was Mario Parisi, the CEO of a payment processing company called Merchant Services Inc. (MSI), who was so impressed by Isaacman's work clearing the company's network of viruses that he offered him a job as an in-house IT consultant. Isaacman dropped out of high school and took the job — though, his parents had just one condition.

"My parents wanted to make sure I at least had the high school diploma, so I got a GED. That was the big requirement," says Isaacman (who also later earned his college degree).

After just six months at MSI, though, Isaacman had an idea that could allow him to start his own company — a payments processor that would make it easier for merchants to set up credit card terminals at their businesses without being buried in paperwork. Isaacman thought he could entice businesses by simplifying that process, which he says used to be akin to "getting a commercial mortgage" in terms of the amount of forms that needed to be filled out. 

He used a $10,000 check from his grandfather as seed money to get his business running in his parents' basement: "$10,000, you know, you needed to build a couple of computers. That wasn't expensive. And, you needed some phones, and that was enough to get you going," he says.

He called the company United Bank Card, which later became Harbortouch in 2012 and then Shift4 Payments six years later. Isaacman immediately hired his dad, an experienced salesman who had worked for a home security company, as well as his friend Lauber, who remains the company's chief technology officer.

Lauber and Isaacman used their coding and IT skills to build the online application process while Isaacman's father called local restaurants and other small businesses in search of clients. It allowed the still teenaged Isaacman to avoid interacting face-to-face with prospective clients and potentially scaring them off by (literally) showing his age.

"I don't know if I came out and interacted in public [with clients] until, maybe, 2004 or 2005," when he was in his early 20's, Isaacman admits.

Isaacman says "there's just no way, at that age, you could ever imagine" the company one day being worth more than $6 billion, as it now is after launching an IPO in June 2020 that valued Isaacman's stake in the company at roughly $2.3 billion. Still, he looks back at the early days of his start-up fondly.

"One of the best times at a start-up is when you've got the eight people in the basement eating Chinese food and everybody kind of shares knowledge, and you share in your successes and failures together, and you learn together," he says.

One of United Bank Card's first major clients was shipping company Mail Boxes, Etc., which hired Isaacman's start-up to provide payment processing systems for more than 4,000 retail locations. Then, in 2001, Mail Boxes, Etc. was acquired by UPS. There are now over 5,000 UPS Stores in North America that all use payment processing technology provided by Isaacman's company, he says.

That same year, Isaacman moved his business operations out of his parents' basement and into its first corporate offices, in High Bridge, New Jersey. Over the next few years, he opened more offices in Arizona and North Carolina.

Today, Shift4 Payments has its headquarters in Allentown, Pennsylvania, with more than 730 employees spread across eight office locations overall in the U.S., Canada and Lithuania.

With annual revenues of more than $700 million, Shift4 now processes billions of transactions each year, worth more than $200 billion, for over 200,000 businesses that include large restaurant chains like Popeyes, Auntie Anne's and Denny's, as well as hospitality chains like Caesar's Entertainment and the Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group.

A hobby becomes a passion

"As soon as I got my business going, after a couple of years ... it was pretty much consuming my whole life," Isaacman says. "And at one point, pretty early on, I was almost burning myself out, just running it 24/7. So I decided I wanted to start flying."

Isaacman had been into planes and flying from a very early age. He says that as a kid he attended Aviation Challenge, a youth camp hosted by the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama, where he learned about military aircraft and got to use flight simulators.

He started taking flying lessons in 2004 and just five years later managed to set a world record with his around-the-world flight in a Cessna Citation CJ2 that took him just under 62 hours, or about 20 fewer hours than the previous record-holder. 

In 2012, Isaacman founded Draken International, a company that employs military-trained fighter pilots who train student pilots for the U.S. Air Force. He sold the company last year to investment firm Blackstone Group for "a nine-figure sum," according to Forbes. But running that company gave him the opportunity to fly a number of military-grade airplanes, including fighter jets like the Mikoyan MiG-29 and the Douglas A-4 Skyhawk.

Still, he says he doesn't "think there's anything as a comparison" between the planes he's flown before and the challenge of flying a spacecraft that will orbit around the Earth. That's why he and his eventual crew will spend much of the next several months training for the mission with astronauts and SpaceX.

The crew will include Isaacman, two contest winners (one who donates to St. Jude and one via an online competition among entrepreneurs on the Shift4 Payments platform) and one of St. Jude's "ambassadors," who are childhood cancer survivors.

They will have to become a "team," says Isaacman: "We're all going to get super familiar with each other here on Earth long before we ever strap onto a rocket and go up into space. There's a lot to learn."

But Isaacman has been lobbying for this opportunity for years, waiting for a private company to be ready to launch an all-civilian flight. "Probably starting in 2007, I started banging on the door of SpaceX and some of the other [private aerospace companies] just expressing my interest that, you know, 'Hey, if it ever comes to be, look me up,'" he says.

After years of waiting and pestering Elon Musk, the opportunity came together rather quickly at the end of 2020, after SpaceX made history by launching the first-ever manned space flight by a private company in June with two NASA astronauts, followed by a launch of a full crew of four astronauts in November.

"We've just been sprinting ever since to get to this point," says Isaacman.

Announcing the mission this week, Musk agreed with Isaacman that the all-civilian flight is "an important milestone toward enabling access to space for everyone."

"If you do believe there's going to be a world like 'The Jetsons,' where everybody jumps in their rocket — very 'Star Wars' or 'Star Trek' — and people are exploring new planets and new worlds, then we've got to get the first one right," Isaacman tells CNBC Make It. "It's a big responsibility."

Musk told NBC News that Isaacman is a "pioneer." And in a press conference, Musk noted that the trip will last "two to four days," but he also jokingly told Isaacman: "If you want to stay up longer, that's fine, too."

UPDATE: This article has been updated to include information about Hayley Arceneaux joining the Inspiration4 crew.

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