Peter Thiel's Zero to One: Notes on Start-Ups, Or How to Build the Future is a book for our moment, that is, the digital age in 2015, a time of ongoing revolution and transformation. (The book evolved out of a course that Thiel taught at Stanford. His co-writer, Blake Masters, a student in the class, took such good notes that his name is also on the cover.)
Besides being a successful digital age entrepreneur and investor--he co-founded PayPal and Palantir and was an early investor in Facebook and SpaceX--Thiel is a highly opinionated evangelist. The book is peppered with memorable quotes and aphorisms such as: "Money makes money." "Monopoly is the condition of every successful business." "Everybody sells." "Like acting, sales works best when hidden."
For Thiel, the intelligently designed startup that will eventually evolve into what he calls the creative monopoly is the key to a brighter future for our world. Better products and higher profits will come from startups. For him, these creative monopolies do something that other companies cannot do and have similar characteristics: "proprietary technology, network effects, economies of scale, and branding."
Our economy and our society have been transformed in the last fifteen years or so in such a profound way by creative monopolies that if someone were to be parachuted into 2015 from 1999, that person would have to re-acclimate to a whole new set of realities and learn a new way of thinking about the world.
We know the names and brands that mark this brave new world: Google, Facebook, Twitter, the iPhone, Netflix, Uber, etc. They have changed the way we think about everything from business to everyday life. They are examples of zero to one or n to 1. They've created something where there was nothing before. For Thiel, they represent progress and the future roadmap for our survival.
He says there's horizontal progress and vertical progress. Horizontal progress, he writes, means "copying things that work." But, vertical progress is harder and more challenging "because it requires doing something nobody else has ever done."
Thiel boils down the two concepts to globalization which equals horizontal progress and is best exemplified by China and its plan to simply copy the U.S. and technology which equals vertical progress and is best exemplified by Silicon Valley, a place that Thiel seems to feel may be the last bastion of American innovation.
For Thiel, the startup is the model and worldview that will allow humans to truly progress. He says we're stuck in a 20th century world with a few 21st century tools such as the smartphone and the Internet. Everything else is basically where it's been for several decades. In his view, there's been very little progress made except by startups that metastasized into monopolies.
Why does he think startups do innovation so well? Because of size. The smaller size of a startup as compared to a big corporation or organization is, for Thiel, the optimal way "to question received ideas and rethink business from scratch."
This all sounds good and it's hard to argue with success. Thiel also has to know that not everyone wants to be an entrepreneur, not everyone wants to take risks, and not everyone wants to be a new thinker and do new things. But for those who do want to innovate and who do want to make something new and different, this book is full of useful advice and makes you think deeply about where we are and where we want to go.
Thiel is justifiably enthralled with the startup and why not? When so much of our economy is stagnating while new world companies are thriving and excelling, it seems that the startup is the viable prototype for growth, prosperity, and progress.
As I was reading this book, I happened to visit The Kairos Society in San Francisco, which seemed to mirror many of the attributes that Thiel writes about in Zero to One. Their manifesto is that they believe that "there has never been a better time for young entrepreneurs to solve problems." They are working in over 50 countries and with over 100 universities and colleges.
Kairos is an ancient Greek word that means the opportune moment, the supreme moment, in fact. The young people I met at Kairos had that fresh exuberant energy of youth and a clear willingness to try anything to see what might work (or not).
The Kairos Society is more than just words or a manifesto, which are important, but it always comes down to action and impact. They say that since 2013, Kairos companies have raised more than $43 million in funding, six of those companies have been bought, and 22 of them of them have joined topline accelerators.
Thiel closes his book by saying that, "Only by seeing our world anew, as fresh and strange as it was to the ancients who saw it first, can we both re-create it and preserve it for the future." Thiel is no blind optimist but he is asking us to fully embrace change and see things as they've never been seen before. The book that helps us understand our current unique supreme moment has yet to be written but, for now, Thiel's Zero to One is worth a read for the insights it provides into the startup world of infinite possibility.