Peter Thiel’s contrarian startup classic, Zero to One, is a great book for understanding and building startups.
Zero to One. As Thiel explains in the opening pages, Zero to One is the concept of creating companies that bring new technology into the world: “The single word for vertical, 0 to 1 progress is technology.” This is in contrast to startups that simply copy existing ideas or other products and tackle problems 1 to n. In Thiel’s view, the great equalizer that allows you to create such an idea is proprietary technology. This can come in many forms: Google’s search algorithms, Amazon’s massive book catalog, Apple’s improved design of the iPad or PayPal’s faster integrated Ebay payments. But generally, to capture significant value from a market; the winning technology has to be 10x better than competition. To this end, Thiel says, “Don’t disrupt.... If your company can be summed up by its opposition to already existing firms, it can’t be completely new and it’s probably not going to become a monopoly.” The true way to become a massively successful company is to build something completely new that is 10x better than the way its currently being done. This 10x better product has to be conceived over the long term, with the idea that the final incremental feature added to the product gives it that 10x lift and takes it to monopoly status.
Beliefs and Contrarianism. Thiel begins the book with a thought-provoking question: “What important truth do very few people agree with you on?” To Thiel, however you answer this question indicates your courage to challenge conventional wisdom and thus your potential ability to take a novel technology from 0 to 1. Extending this idea, Thiel defines the word startup as, “the largest group of people you can convince of a plan to build a different future.” This sort of Silicon Valley contrarianism is exactly the mindset of Internet bubble entrepreneurs. Thiel continues on this thinking, with another question: “Can you control your future?” and to that question he answers with an emphatic, “Yes.” People are taught to believe that “right place, right time” or “luck” is the greatest contributor to individual success. And as discussed in Good to Great, while many CEOs and prominent executives make this claim, they often don’t believe it and use it much more as a marketing mechanism. Thiel firmly believes in the idea of self-determination, and why shouldn’t he? He’s a white male, Rhodes Scholar and Stanford Law School graduate who has now made billions of dollars. In his mind, you either believe something novel and create that future or you waste your time tackling the problems that exist today. This also conveniently mirrors Thiel’s investing focus and he even calls this out in a chapter detailing venture returns. Venture takes informed speculative bets on which technology will ultimately win out in a market – the best bets are the ones that differ so greatly from the established norm because the likelihood of landing in the monopoly position (though still small) is much greater than a Company that is recreating existing products.
Looking for Secrets and Building Startups. The answers to the Thiel question posed above are secrets: knowable but undiscovered truths that exist in the world today. He then poses: “Why has so much of our society come to believe that there are no hard secrets left?” He provides a four part answer:
Incrementalism – the idea that you only have to hit a minimum threshold for pre-determined success and that over-achieving is frequently met with the same reward as basic achievement
Risk Aversion – People are more scared than ever about being wrong about a secret they believe
Complacency – people are fine collecting rents on things that were already established before they were involved
Flatness – the idea that as globalization continues, the world is viewed as one hyper competitive market for all products
Sticking on his contrarian path, Thiel emphasizes: “The best place to look for secrets is where no else is looking…What are people not allowed to talk about? What is forbidden or taboo?” This question is especially interesting in the context of the latest round of startups going public. A lot of people have argued that the newest wave of startups are tackling problems that are of lower value to society, like food delivery – focused on pleasing an increasingly on-demand, dopamine driven world. Why is that? Have we reached a local maximum in technology for a given period? While you may not completely believe Ray Kurzweil’s Law of Accelerating Returns, the pace of technological evolution has probably not hit a maximum. It could be argued that we have enjoyed a great run with mobile as a dominant computing platform (PCs before that, Mainframes before that, etc.) and that the next wave of startups tackling “important" problems could spring out of such a development.
Monopoly profits. Thiel plainly states the overarching goal of business that is normally obfuscated by cult-like Silicon Valley startups: monopoly profits. This touches on a point that has been bouncing its way through the news media (Elizabeth Warren, Stratechery, Spotify/Apple) in recent months with Elizabeth Warren calling for a breakup of Apple, Facebook and Amazon, Spotify claiming the App Store is a monopoly, and others discussing whether these companies are even monopolies. He claims monopolies deserve their bad press and regulation, “only in a world where nothing changes.” Monopolies in a static environment act like rent collectors: “If you corner the market for something, you can jack up the price; others will have no choice but to buy from you.” This is true of many heavy regulated industries today like Utilities. It’s often the case consumers only have one or two providers to choose from at max, so governments regulate the amount utilities can increase prices each year. Thiel then explains what he calls creative monopolists, companies that “give customers more choice by adding entirely new categories of abundance to the world. Creative monopolies aren’t just good for the rest of society: they’re powerful engines for making it better.” Thiel cites a few interesting examples of “monopoly” disruption: Apple iOS outcompeting Microsoft operating systems, IBM hardware being overtaken by Microsoft software, and AT&T’s monopoly prior to being broken up. It should be noted that two of these examples actually did require government regulation – Microsoft was sued in 2001 and AT&T was forced to break up its monopoly. What’s even more interesting, is the prospect of the T-Mobile/Sprint merger being blocked because while the consolidation of the telecom industry could mean increased prices, both T-Mobile and Sprint have struggled to compete with guess who, AT&T and Verizon (who started as a merger with former AT&T company, Bell Atlantic). Whether monopolies are good or bad for society, whether its possible to call tech companies with several different business lines monopolies remains to be seen – but one things for sure – being a monopoly, tech monopoly, or creative monopoly is a great thing for your business.
Prioritizing Near Term Growth at the Risk of Long Term Success. Thiel begins his chapter on Last Mover Advantage with an interesting discussion on how investors view LinkedIn’s valuation (since acquired by Microsoft but at the time was publicly traded). At the time, LinkedIn had $1B in revenue and $21M in net income, but was trading at a value of $24B (i.e. 24x LTM Revenue and 1100x+ Net Income). Why was this valued so highly? Thiel provides an interesting answer: “The overwhelming importance of future profits is counterintuitive even in Silicon Valley. For a company to be valuable it must grow and endure, but many entrepreneurs focus on short-term growth. They have an excuse: growth is easy to measure, but durability isn’t.” Thiel then continues with two great examples of short-term focus: “Rapid short-term growth at Zynga and Groupon distracted managers and investors from long-term challenges.” Zynga became famous with Farmville, but struggled to find the next big hit and Groupon posted incredibly fast growth, but couldn’t get sustained repeat customers. This focus on short-term growth is incredibly interesting given the swarm of unicorns going public this year. Both Lyft and Uber grew incredibly quickly, but as the public markets have showed, the ride-sharing business model may not be durable with each company losing billions a year. Thiel continues: “If you focus on near term growth above all else, you miss the most important question you should be asking: will this business still be around a decade from now?” To become a durable tech monopoly, Thiel cites the following important characteristics: proprietary technology, network effects, economies of scale, and branding. It’s interesting to look at these characteristics in the context of a somewhat monopoly disruptor, Zoom Video Communications. CEO Eric Yuan, who was head of engineering at Cisco’s competing WebEx product, built the Company’s proprietary tech stack with all the prior knowledge of WebEx’s issues in mind. Zoom’s software is based on a freemium model, when one user wants to video chat with another, they simply send the invite regardless of whether they have the service already – this isn’t exactly a google-esque network effect but it does increase distribution and usage. Zoom’s technology is efficiently scalable as shown by the fact that its profitable despite incredibly fast growth. Lastly, Zoom’s marketing and branding are excellent and are repeatedly lauded within the press. The question is, are these characteristics really monopoly defining? Or are they simply just good business characteristics? We will have to wait and see how Zoom fairs over the next 10 years to find out.
Asymmetric Risk & VC Returns. Thiel started venture capital firm, Founders Fund in 2005 with Ken Howery (who helped start PayPal with Thiel). Thiel notes an interesting phenomena about VC returns that several entrepreneurs don’t truly understand: “Facebook the best investment in our 2005 fund, returned more than all the others combined. Palantir, the second best investment is set to return more than the sum of every investment aside from Facebook…The biggest secret in venture capital is that the best investment in a successful fund equals or outperforms the entire rest of the fund combined.” Venture capital investing, especially at the earliest stages like Seed and Series A (where Founder’s Fund invests) is a game of maximizing the chance of one or two big successes. In the past five to ten years, there has been a significant increase in venture capital investing, and with that a focus among many firms to be founder friendly. As discussed before, these founder friendly cultures have led to super-voting shares (like Snap, FB and others) and unprecedented VC rounds. Even with these changes, there is still a friction at most VC-backed companies: the supposedly value added VC board member doesn’t believe that Company XYZ will be the next Facebook or Palantir, and because of that chooses to spend as little time with them as possible. This has fueled the somewhat anti-VC movement that several entrepreneurs have adopted because as with Elon Musk at PayPal and Zip2, being abandoned by your earliest investors can be devastating.