Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future Audible Audiobook – Unabridged
Every moment in business happens only once.
The next Bill Gates will not build an operating system. The next Larry Page or Sergey Brin won’t make a search engine. And the next Mark Zuckerberg won't create a social network. If you are copying these guys, you aren't learning from them.
It's easier to copy a model than to make something new: doing what we already know how to do takes the world from 1 to n, adding more of something familiar. But every time we create something new, we go from 0 to 1. The act of creation is singular, as is the moment of creation, and the result is something fresh and strange.
Progress comes from monopoly, not competition.
If you do what has never been done and you can do it better than anybody else, you have a monopoly - and every business is successful exactly insofar as it is a monopoly. But the more you compete, the more you become similar to everyone else. From the tournament of formal schooling to the corporate obsession with outdoing rivals, competition destroys profits for individuals, companies, and society as a whole.
Zero to One is about how to build companies that create new things. It draws on everything Peter Thiel has learned directly as a co-founder of PayPal and Palantir and then an investor in hundreds of startups, including Facebook and SpaceX. The single most powerful pattern Thiel has noticed is that successful people find value in unexpected places, and they do this by thinking about business from first principles instead of formulas. Ask not, what would Mark do? Ask: What valuable company is nobody building?
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|Listening Length||4 hours and 50 minutes|
|Author||Peter Thiel, Blake Masters|
|Whispersync for Voice||Ready|
|Audible.com Release Date||September 16, 2014|
|Publisher||Random House Audio|
|Best Sellers Rank|| #933 in Audible Books & Originals (See Top 100 in Audible Books & Originals) |
#1 in Starting a Business (Books)
#1 in New Business Enterprises
#6 in Small Businesses
Reviewed in the United States on June 16, 2016
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I'll start with what I liked:
1.) The book has a core theme of empowering the individual. The technological future is not going to happen unless individuals or teams thereof make it happen. The future is not inevitable. Moore's law for transistors just doesn't happen like a natural phenomena; you need a dedicated team of innovators always solving the technical challenges. (Actually, Moore's law is expected to not hold over the next decade, due to technological barriers.) I liked the idea of "You are not a lottery ticket." Too much credit is given to founder blind luck in the creation of successful companies in popular culture. There were a whole lot of people busting their humps with late nights and weekends making these things happen. Startups are not 9-5 M-F jobs with lots of vacation and perks built in.
2.) Thiel reminds engineers that while their work is essential at a startup, its not sufficient for a successful business venture. You have to get your product to the customer (i.e. figure out the manufacturing/supply chains/logistics). You have to explain how this product is going to benefit the customer. You have to convince a customer to part from his/her money. This doesn't just magically happen, you're going to have to be a hustler if you ever want to see real profits.
3.) Although sometimes obvious, the book is full of useful advice and anecdotal lessons learned from tech startups' failures and successes. If you are planning a startup or interested in joining one you should read this book. You will learn something about entrepreneurship.
Here's what I didn't like:
1.) Absence of Supporting Evidence. The writing style is very informal, which I actually enjoy (makes for a quick read), but many of his arguments are made poorly (sometimes unconvincingly). There are no citations in this book. No references are mentioned. Subjective opinions and personal anecdotes often substitute for any factual evidence. It's pretty clear Thiel has a disdain for statistics of any kind, both in a factual statistic sense and for any technology that relies on stochastic techniques. The book is also chock full of superlatives and (mostly false) dichotomies. A prime example: "Almost all successful entrepreneurs are simultaneously insiders and outsiders....When you plot them out, founders' traits appear to follow an inverse normal distribution." No citation or reference given....yeesh....I mean is this a personality study Peter Thiel personally did or does he just completely make this up? Another example is his central theme: "All happy companies are different: each one earns a monopoly by solving a unique problem. All failed companies are the same: they failed to escape competition." Not really true of either sentence as counter examples are given even by Thiel later in the book (e.g. some companies implode by poor distribution, infighting, unprofitable ideas, etc.) I'm glad Thiel didn't become a trial lawyer, he'd get embarrassed in any court room. Ironically, the book makes Thiel come across as sounding like the ivory tower university professor he so loathes, with all the 'take my word for it', 'I'm the expert'superficial arguments he makes in the book.
2.) Poor definitions and arbitrary/contradictory arguments. It's not real clear what's an incremental advance and what's not. A 10x improvement is not technically feasible or theoretically possible in many fields. For example, a power plant operating at 30% energy efficiency can't have a 10x advance in energy efficiency (more than 100 % efficiency breaks the conservation of energy law). Sometimes just a 2X (100%) advance is a big freaking deal. Doubling the fuel economy on a car (without negatively affecting its performance, safety, or cost) is a really hard problem that, if solved would be a huge breakthrough. It would line customers up at your door. Even Tesla, the company Thiel has a major hard-on for in the Seeing Green chapter, hasn't achieved that: a new Tesla roadster set you back at least $110,000 US, their lower end vehicles are still North of $60,000 US even with generous government subsidies and incentives. Not exactly a common man's car anyone can afford.
Also, the claim of "undifferentiated products" is kind of a straw man argument. Do any two companies really produce identical products? Yes Pepsi and Coca-cola both make similar soft drinks, but they are not identical. Some people like the taste of Coke, others prefer the taste of Pepsi, but they don't taste the same. Big Macs vs. Whoppers. One make/model of vehicles vs. others. One Airline carrier over others. Most people will prefer one over the other, even if just by a little, and even if the prices are different (within a reasonable range). That's why businesses still exist in competitive markets. If this wasn't true, the lowest price, even by a penny, wins by default and monopolies would happen naturally in the long run, without need for any further competition.
His last chapter on stagnation or singularity is very nebulous in which he plots "progress" on the vertical axis and time on the horizontal. It's not really clear why he chose just four scenarios? Why not linear progress? Why not linear with a mix of boom/bust cycles? The possibilities/combinations are endless. What does he mean by progress anyway? Computing power? World GDP? The DJI or NASDAQ Index? Your guess is as good as mine.
3.) Patently Obvious. Some statements that Thiel writes is blatantly obvious: see Elkin Wells "Ok, not amazing." review for great examples. The irony of this book is that it does not really represent a Zero to One contribution to thinking in technology, entrepreneurship, business, futurism, philosophy, etc. What Thiel states in this book has been said by many other people for quite some time. His central tenet of "creative" monopolies (i.e. a monopoly achieved through secured patents, copyrights, trade secrets, etc.) are a good thing that all startups should strive to achieve, wouldn't surprise anyone who has taken a basic economics or business class or has tried to start a business. I mean who starts a business (excluding franchises) and thinks I'm going to get rich producing exactly the same product this other guy did at the same cost. Everyone thinks their business is unique in some way. On the novelty factor, the US Patent & Trademark Office states it's mission is (it's also in the Constitution) "to promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writing and discoveries." This is pretty obvious stuff, if you have nothing to gain personally by inventing something and sharing it with the world, you probably won't. And we all lose out in that scenario. Thus, a creative monopoly is something to be encouraged. The other key concept here is that these are temporary monopolies on specific products/works (e.g. a utility patent has a expiration of 20 years after filing). Creative monopolies don't last forever. A company has to keep innovating in order to obtain more creative monopolies for different products or refined products. To be fair, I think Thiel was trying to say this about Google and Apple, but he didn't finish the thought.
4.) Started Strong, ended very weakly. The first few chapters were pretty balanced and thought-provoking. The later chapters on green technology, characteristics of founders, and a brief comment on what the future may look like were a collection of half-baked and half-hearted ideas. The Founders Paradox chapter was an embarrassingly bad mix of pop culture nonsense that compares tech founders to rock stars and Gods (I'm not kidding or exaggerating). The book has "How to Build the Future" in its title and all we get from Thiel's final chapter is what he thinks the future may look like in a five page conjecture about what shape the progress over time graph may look like. Thoroughly disappointing.
5.) The organization of the book is pretty haphazard as well. It jumps from discussions of monopolies and competition and recommendations/pitfalls to avoid for a successful startup (which fit the title of the book) to a poorly argued discussion about founder traits and green technology.
6.) Silicon Valley is the center of the Universe? Thiel constantly references Silicon Valley companies and culture ad nauseam. Google this and Apple that. Hoodies, Crocs, and T-shirts are the coolest.....Yes I know it is the IT Mecca and it's where every programmer wants to land a job, but there is a whole startup world outside of the Valley. HBO's Silicon Valley show highlights some of the absurdities within the Valley's tech culture. Silicon Valley tends to suffer from a lot of superiority complexes, group think, and trend chasing as a result of both its real and perceived successes.
7.) Peter Thiel can do no wrong, or he can see the future and you can't. Thiel has made a name for himself by claiming to be a "contrarian thinker" and for his financial successes at PayPal, Google, and Facebook. He also likes to point out indefinitely optimistic the financial world is (page 70) as if he somehow knows how to beat the market. However, his hedge fund took a beating just like all the rest of the others during the 2008 crash. He doesn't discuss any of his failed VC endeavors at all in the book. Would be nice to hear what mistakes you've learned from personally. Or maybe every investment Thiel's made has gone gangbusters? Doubtful. Never mentions the highly publicized failure of his Thiel fellowship where he paid $100K to 20 college students to drop out of college and start a business.
On page 75 he puts up a table of the differences between software and biotech companies (a real apples to oranges comparison, as evidenced by the table's stark contrast of biotech's study of expensive "poorly understood", "uncontrollable organisms" and software's artificially created, well understood, cheap environment.) He then makes the statement, "It's possible to wonder whether the genuine difficulty of biology has become an excuse for biotech startups' indefinite approach to research in general." Actually, Thiel I think the extreme contrast of lack of knowledge and understanding in a natural complex system like biology versus an artificial system like software (which he just highlighted) is the reason for the indefinite approach. Also Thiel seems to have a disdain for biotech (my guess is he has been burned by the slow pace of biological research on several investments in biotech) without a respect for its inherent complexity versus the highly linear and artificial world of computing. Yes, designing the software for PayPal's digital transactions is not trivial, but it pales in comparison to the difficulty of eradicating every ~100nm cancer cell in a human without killing the host. The number of variables (if they are even known in the biotech example) to account for are orders of magnitude larger than any problem a programmer would face. Re-iteration speed in computing is taken for granted as well. What's the worse that happens if your code has errors? It won't even break the machine it runs on unless that's your intent. We all know what the worse case is in biotech/medicine. He also acts like no innovation has come from biotech in the past 3 or 4 decades. What about the human genome mapping? What about artificial hearts and kidneys? Artificial hips and knees? Genetically modified plants that have 10x better yields? DNA matching of criminals from trace amounts of tissue samples that has revolutionized the justice system?
He also didn't see the Green Tech bubble coming? In the seeing green chapter he rails against solar companies for seeking only incremental advances in technology as their major downfall. Yet he fails to see the real technological challenges of solar and wind: they are location specific and their energy density (the amount of energy you get from the same stored volume or weight of the fuel) is nowhere near that of nuclear and non-renewables. That is a huge pitfall to overcome in the energy and transportation sector and it's always been the well-known reason why wind and solar are niche power applications. At a coal or nuclear power plant, if the energy demand from a nearby city goes up, you just burn more fuel and possibly start up another turbine. The amount of fuel you have is only limited by logistics and your onsite storage. Not only are onsite storage needs larger for a solar or wind farm (a battery has much lower energy density than a lump of coal/ fuel rod/gallon of gasoline of the same weight) but your fuel (essentially electrons for storage) is generated onsite. Both wind and solar need enormously large areas of generation equipment (panels or turbines) to generate any appreciable energy for even a small city. And the ideal location for solar and wind power plants are often in deserts or on mountain sides, or miles off the coastline: exactly where most people don't live. So any efficiency gains you get from putting it in an ideal location is lost to power line transmission by having to put it far away from people using the power. The poor energy density is an even bigger problem with electric vehicles. These are multiple engineering feats that need major improvement, not simply a 10x reduction in a single technology. Nevertheless, modest efficiency gains of even a few percent in the energy sector are technically challenging or costly or both; thermal efficiency of conventional power plants have gone up only ~10-15% in the past century. There are fundamental limits to thermodynamics.
In the end, Thiel is susceptible to the same dogmas ("peak oil", Malthusian resource shortages, the inevitability of "green" technology, reduce carbon emissions at all costs) that anyone else could end up believing without questioning any assumptions. Thiel shows a glaring ignorance of technology outside of IT. When technical progress doesn't meet the accelerated pace that he's seen in the computing world, he resorts to shooting the messenger and blaming the researchers within the field.
9.) If all the negatives above sounds like a class you've taken in college. That's because that's exactly how this book started. Thiel taught a class at Standford about startups with the same material. In fairness, Thiel's audience for the lectures that inspired the book, freshman and sophomores in Stanford's Computer Science department, probably know as much about business and economics as Thiel knows about being humble about his success at PayPal, hence the lack of any real depth on any particular subject matter. However, this is not forgivable when the notes from a class are almost pasted into a hardcover book verbatim. I mean there was a chance for some serious editing, more depth and refinement, and re-organization during this conversion process, but it doesn't appear much thought went into any of these. Honestly I thought the notes were better (which has more chapters as well), because they included many more pictures with better humor and more detail. My guess is that Thiel probably gave outstanding lectures with some cool Powerpoint slides, but any charisma and charm from the lectures were lost during the book transition.
Qualifiers and Disclaimers: I'm a bioengineer doing both hardware and software for a small biotech startup. I was a patent examiner (in semiconductors) for the USPTO and still do part-time contract work for them (in mechanical and medical devices) so I see innovation all the time. I also consider myself a libertarian politically, as does Peter Thiel. Read some of the other 3 star reviews of this book, they are very much on point.
And now this book.
Let me assure you that Zero to One is worth reading, even if you’re not engaged in the world of startups and venture capital. It’s worth reading in the same way a triple espresso is worth drinking: it makes you feel superhuman, at least for the moment. You can almost hear the caffeine coursing through your veins as you absorb the ideas.
You might want to read the book on two levels: both as a business book and as a political manifesto. And because the book is a hybrid, you may need to work a little to separate the baby from the bath water.
Thiel’s first point is that creating a game-changing company means going from zero to one—from nothing to something, instead of going from something to a slightly better something. What a zero-to-one company does is lay claim to an uninhabited stretch of market space in order to create a monopoly. A monopoly, in Thiel’s vocabulary, is not the bad kind we associate with bullies. It’s the good kind that opens up valuable market territory by doing something new.
Is he simply using the word monopoly to provoke us? Maybe, but it’s an effective way to get our attention so he can deliver the book’s main point, which is simply this: Businesses succeed better when they differentiate rather than compete. Direct competition drains value as companies beat each other up. Differentiation creates value as companies charge more for desirable products and services that customers can’t get anywhere else. It’s the same principle that forms the basis of brand strategy. We’ve already seen many books on the subject, including Positioning in 1981, by Jack Trout and Al Ries, and even classical writings on strategy by Sun Tzu and Carl von Clausewitz.
Why play dress-up with old ideas? So Thiel can lash on his peg leg and black eye patch and make room for further piratical assertions.
Consider the following:
“Creative monopolists” give customers more choices by adding entirely new categories of abundance. The history of progress is the history of new monopolies replacing incumbents. “Every business is successful exactly to the extent that it does something others cannot.” Monopoly, therefore, is not a pathology but a condition of success.
While “every monopoly is unique,” he adds, they share these four attributes: “proprietary technology, network effects, economies of scale, and branding.” Without these four, any business will be the equivalent of a family restaurant, where the kids have to wash dishes to keep the place running in the black.
He advises us to “err on the side of starting too small.” The perfect place to start is where there’s a small concentration of people served by few or no competitors. From there you can scale it up, as long as you have the advantages of proprietary technology (your secret sauce) and network effects (the tendency of a service to become more valuable as more people use it).
Whatever you do, don’t “disrupt” a market, he warns. Disruption has been devalued to “a self-congratulatory buzzword for anything posing as something trendy and new.” Disruptive companies in Silicon Valley often pick fights they can’t win.
Also in Silicon Valley, “would-be entrepreneurs are told that nothing can be known in advance; we’re supposed to listen to what customers say they want make nothing more than a ‘minimum viable product,’ and iterate our way to success.” He says that Apple succeeded by doing the exact opposite.
He encourages would-be entrepreneurs to ask this question: “What valuable company is nobody building?” Any good answer to this question must necessarily harbor a secret. It can be a secret of nature or secret of human nature, but in both places there are always hidden truths to be discovered—if we only look in a certain way. When you share your secret, you turn others into co-conspirators.
With contrarian flair he asserts that the less money a startup pays its CEO, the better it will do. “In no case should a CEO of an early-stage, venture-backed startup receive more than $150,000 per year in salary.” High pay incentivizes him to defend the status quo instead of working aggressively to find and fix problems.
“The most important task in business—the creation of new value—cannot be reduced to a formula and applied by professionals.” He observes that most founders are contradictions, bigger-than-life characters who can “make authoritative decisions, inspire strong personal loyalty, and plan ahead for decades.” He cites Richard Branson, Howard Hughes, Bill Gates, and Steve Jobs, and tosses in pop icons such as Elvis, Lady Gaga, Michael Jackson, and Britney Spears.
Finally, he examines a range of scenarios for the future of humanity, borrowed from philosopher Nick Bostrom. The most common four are: 1) recurrent collapse, a never-ending oscillation between prosperity and ruin; 2) a plateau, the belief that the rest of the world will catch up to the richest countries, and then we’ll stay at that level; 3) extinction, in which our technology will bring humanity to a cataclysmic end; and 4) takeoff, the idea espoused by transhumanists, in which humans increasingly blend with machines to create a world of complexity and abundance that we can’t even imagine today. Clearly, Thiel is in this camp, although he’s careful not to say it.
This is a fascinating collection of thoughts, including some surprising truths and more than a few exaggerations. So which part of the book is the baby, and which is the bath water?
Let’s start with monopolies. Do they really serve society better than price-busting competitors? Sure, as long as they unleash creativity and generate broad-based wealth. When they mature into self-perpetuating bullies (such as Microsoft, and increasingly Google, Apple, and Amazon) they tend to block other innovators using any means at their disposal.
Next, does every business really succeed exactly to the extent that it does something different? Not quite. First of all, it’s possible to launch a product that’s different but not compelling. Think of Pets.com, Apple Newton, or Clairol Touch-of-Yogurt Shampoo. Second, monopoly status doesn’t always encourage broad success. Monopoly becomes pathology when we create rules that favor a handful of “haves” and in the process hollow out the middle class, as we’re doing now.
He notes that every monopoly is unique, sharing only “proprietary technology, network effects, economies of scale, and branding.” This is one of Thiel’s truest observations. Strong companies are those that start with a unique market position; weak companies are those that fail to differentiate, believing the world only wants more instead of different.
Erring on the side of starting too small is good advice, too, but what about “Don’t disrupt”? He laments that the concept of disruption has degenerated into anything posing as trendy and new. Granted. But wouldn’t it be better to simply reject the popular definition? He could then reaffirm Clay Christensen’s original epiphany in The Innovator’s Solution—the observation that established products can be upended by cheaper or inferior solutions that don’t at first appear to be threats, then later grow into established products themselves. Christensen was the one who first mapped the road to Monopolyville. Couldn’t Thiel give him the credit?
In a sweeping generalization, he claims that Silicon Valley engineers are expected to “listen to what customers say they want” and give it to them. Really? I’ve worked there 35 years and have rarely heard this, except from a few old-school marketers. Even the designers at Apple start with a “minimum viable product” and iterate their way to success. They just do it before they go to market instead of after, so their products seem to spring fully formed from the brow of Tim Cook or Jony Ives.
Thiel has said that one of the book’s most valuable contributions is the notion that a monopoly is based on a secret. This is actually a great way to think about it. An interesting fact about these types of secrets is that they tend to stay secrets long after you tell everyone. If an idea is good enough, goes the saying, you’ll have to ram it down people’s throats. Think about the Aeron chair, the Prius, and even PayPal. None of these businesses launched themselves.
Another of Thiel’s rules is that the CEO of a startup should never receive more than $150,000 in salary. Nice and concrete. It’s too bad more CEOs of incumbent monopolies couldn’t set a similar example, as Jobs did with his annual salary of $1. What message does a seven- or eight-figure salary send to the employee whose innovative ideas are consistently labeled “too risky?”
Finally, are successful monopolists always contradictory characters? Not from where I sit. Warren Buffet, Bill Gates, and Jeff Bezos don’t strike me as particularly contradictory, although I’m sure they’re more driven than they might appear. It could be that Peter Thiel himself is a walking contradiction, and therefore wants to create some positive context for it. He delights in courting controversy, starting at Stanford when he attacked various sacred cows such as political correctness and hate-speech laws in his newspaper The Stanford Review, and now by writing a book that appears to defend monopolists.
Despite its exaggerations, pirated ideas, and libertarian swagger—or maybe because of them—Zero to One makes for a lively read. It contains a number of refreshing insights and personal truths that you won’t get from other books on inventing the next big thing. Just keep the baby and throw out the bath water.
Top reviews from other countries
"Doing what we already know how to do takes the world from 1 to n, adding more of something familiar. But every time we create something new, we go from 0 to 1. The act of creation is singular, as in the moment of creation, and the result is something fresh and strange."
Zero to One suggests a very different method from the lean-agile approach proposed by Steve Blank and Eric Ries in The Four Steps to the Epiphany and The Lean Startup respectively. They suggest that Customer Discovery, Validation, Creation and Building are the cornerstones of the startup approach.
I believe we need to start with a vision of what a successful business would look like, and we need to see that it will be significantly different (10x) from existing competitive solutions. How do we get there? By understanding and executing a market entry path that is iteratively to build, test & learn. I would also question Thiel’s suggestion that only technology enables that step change. In the cited case of Facebook, there were multiple solutions offering social media platforms and it appears the leadership and marketing of Facebook, were more the decisive factors. We could even argue that Facebook is an example of the Eric Ries approach.
The example of Paypal and Thiel’s insights into the economy and the investment community around the DotCom boom and bust were very interesting. The investor expectations are a constant challenge as I’ve heard from one investor that he wouldn’t get out of bed if a company wasn’t turning over €40million in 3 years and another saying if you showed me figures like that I’d think I was working with idiots with their heads in the clouds.
After the main point of vertical innovation is made, the book rambles and while the discussion points are interesting you often wonder what this has that to do with the main premise of the book. The book does feel a little unstructured and elements seem to be included as they were part of a lecture series rather than an integral part of a framework for achieving that 0 to 1 impact.
I would recommend reading this book as it may encourage and inspire you to consider where you want to go with the company and its core solutions. It does, however, need to be tempered with the knowledge that other approaches exist and Peter Thiel may be wrong, at least in parts.
Would recommend at the least underlining and recapping between readings. Very versatile book to as it caters to not only those who are starting out trying to think of a business idea, but also to those who have a business and are trying to build teams as well as anyone in business who wants to grow.
I have a degree, though with this book I learnt some amazing solid principles about economics and how the world works. What prompted me to give with 5 stars in stead of 4 is that for the majority, the author gave substantial evidence (often real life) to back up his theories and thus I really can't dismiss the book.
Book: Feels original, not a digital copy. But paper quality makes it doubtful.
Content: Author express the huge requirement of new ideas and uniqueness. Including success stories of Mark and Musk makes it interesting and inspirational to read.
Reviewed in India 🇮🇳 on May 15, 2018
Book: Feels original, not a digital copy. But paper quality makes it doubtful.
Content: Author express the huge requirement of new ideas and uniqueness. Including success stories of Mark and Musk makes it interesting and inspirational to read.
I do not always agree with Thiel's views - they're often borderline wacky, outlandish, and present what I would consider to be an overanalysis of the state of the world that tries to find meaning in places where perhaps there is very little. This also leads to contradictions in strategy that may be confusing to the novice start-up founder.
Regardless, Thiel's views provide excellent food for thought and sprinkled throughout the book are frameworks that are indeed useful when analysing the place of high-growth startups in society, as well as the growth potential of specific enterprises.
As a practical handbook for starting a business, this book falls down - however that is not entirely its purpose. If you are looking for an engaging and thought-provoking read that will make you consider the value and virtue of different types of businesses from new perspectives, this is well worth a read.