Zero to One: Notes on Startups, Or how to Build the Future

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Crown Business, 2014 - Business & Economics - 210 pages
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If you want to build a better future, you must believe in secrets.

The great secret of our time is that there are still uncharted frontiers to explore and new inventions to create. In Zero to One, legendary entrepreneur and investor Peter Thiel shows how we can find singular ways to create those new things.

Thiel begins with the contrarian premise that we live in an age of technological stagnation, even if we're too distracted by shiny mobile devices to notice. Information technology has improved rapidly, but there is no reason why progress should be limited to computers or Silicon Valley. Progress can be achieved in any industry or area of business. It comes from the most important skill that every leader must master: learning to think for yourself.

Doing what someone else already knows how to do takes the world from 1 to n, adding more of something familiar. But when you do something new, you go from 0 to 1. The next Bill Gates will not build an operating system. The next Larry Page or Sergey Brin won't make a search engine. Tomorrow's champions will not win by competing ruthlessly in today's marketplace. They will escape competition altogether, because their businesses will be unique.

Zero to One presents at once an optimistic view of the future of progress in America and a new way of thinking about innovation: it starts by learning to ask the questions that lead you to find value in unexpected places.

 

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LibraryThing Review

User Review  - James.Igoe - LibraryThing

The End: I eventually waded back, breezed through the rest of the book, and although I still think the book suffers from profound deficiencies, it is an insightful, thought-provoking work. The ... Read full review

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User Review  - publiusdb - LibraryThing

One of the most fascinating books I have read in recent months is Peter Thiel's Zero to One. I am not a tech entrepreneur or even starting a new business. But I found Zero to One so thought provoking ... Read full review

Contents

Zero to One
1
The Challenge of the Future
5
Party Like Its 1999
12
All Happy Companies Are Different
23
The Ideology of Competition
35
Last Mover Advantage
44
You Are Not a Lottery Ticket
59
Follow the Money
82
The Mechanics of Mafia
118
If You Build It Will They Come?
126
Man and Machine
140
Seeing Green
152
The Founders Paradox
173
Stagnation or Singularity?
191
Acknowledgments
197
Illustration Credits
199

Secrets
93
Foundations
107

Common terms and phrases

About the author (2014)

Preface

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 net-work. If you are copying these guys, you aren''t learning from them.

Of course, 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.

Unless they invest in the difficult task of creating new things, American companies will fail in the future no matter how big their profits remain today. What happens when we''ve gained everything to be had from fine- tuning the old lines of business that we''ve inherited? Unlikely as it sounds, the answer threatens to be far worse than the crisis of 2008. Today''s "best practices" lead to dead ends; the best paths are new and untried.

In a world of gigantic administrative bureaucracies both public and private, searching for a new path might seem like hoping for a miracle. Actually, if American business is going to succeed, we are going to need hundreds, or even thousands, of miracles. This would be depressing but for one crucial fact: humans are distinguished from other species by our ability to work miracles. We call these miracles technology.

Technology is miraculous because it allows us to do more with less, ratcheting up our fundamental capabilities to a higher level. Other animals are instinctively driven to build things like dams or honeycombs, but we are the only ones that can invent new things and better ways of making them. Humans don''t decide what to build by making choices from some cosmic catalog of options given in advance; instead, by creating new technologies, we rewrite the plan of the world. These are the kind of elementary truths we teach to second graders, but they are easy to forget in a world where so much of what we do is repeat what has been done before.

Zero to One is about how to build companies that create new things. It draws on everything I''ve learned directly as a co-founder of PayPal and Palantir and then an investor in hundreds of startups, including Facebook and SpaceX. But while I have noticed many patterns, and I relate them here, this book offers no formula for success. The paradox of teaching entrepreneurship is that such a formula necessarily cannot ∃ because every innovation is new and unique, no authority can prescribe in concrete terms how to be innovative. Indeed, the single most powerful pattern I have noticed is that successful people find value in unexpected places, and they do this by thinking about business from first principles instead of formulas.

This book stems from a course about startups that I taught at Stanford in 2012. College students can become extremely skilled at a few specialties, but many never learn what to do with those skills in the wider world. My primary goal in teaching the class was to help my students see beyond the tracks laid down by academic specialties to the broader future that is theirs to create. One of those students, Blake Masters, took detailed class notes, which circulated far beyond the campus, and in Zero to One I have worked with him to revise the notes for a wider audience. There''s no reason why the future should happen only at Stanford, or in college, or in Silicon Valley.


Chapter 1

The Challenge of the Future

Whenever I interview someone for a job, I like to ask this question: "What important truth do very few people agree with you on?"

This question sounds easy because it''s straightforward. Actually, it''s very hard to answer. It''s intellectually difficult because the knowledge that everyone is taught in school is by definition agreed upon. And it''s psychologically difficult because anyone trying to answer must say something she knows to be unpopular. Brilliant thinking is rare, but courage is in even shorter supply than genius.

Most commonly, I hear answers like the following:

"Our educational system is broken and urgently needs to be fixed."

"America is exceptional."

"There is no God."

Those are bad answers. The first and the second statements might be true, but many people already agree with them. The third statement simply takes one side in a familiar debate. A good answer takes the following form: "Most people believe in x, but the truth is the opposite of x." I''ll give my own answer later in this chapter.

What does this contrarian question have to do with the future? In the most minimal sense, the future is simply the set of all moments yet to come. But what makes the future distinctive and important isn''t that it hasn''t happened yet, but rather that it will be a time when the world looks different from today. In this sense, if nothing about our society changes for the next 100 years, then the future is over 100 years away. If things change radically in the next decade, then the future is nearly at hand. No one can predict the future exactly, but we know two things: it''s going to be different, and it must be rooted in today''s world. Most answers to the contrarian question are different ways of seeing the present; good answers are as close as we can come to looking into the future.

Zero to One: The Future of Progress

When we think about the future, we hope for a future of progress. That progress can take one of two forms. Horizontal or extensive progress means copying things that work--going from 1 to n. Horizontal progress is easy to imagine because we already know what it looks like. Vertical or intensive progress means doing new things--going from 0 to 1. Vertical progress is harder to imagine because it requires doing something nobody else has ever done. If you take one typewriter and build 100, you have made horizontal progress. If you have a typewriter and build a word processor, you have made vertical progress.

At the macro level, the single word for horizontal progress is globalization--taking things that work somewhere and making them work everywhere. China is the paradigmatic example of globalization; its 20-year plan is to become like the United States is today. The Chinese have been straightforwardly copying everything that has worked in the developed world: 19th-century railroads, 20th-century air conditioning, and even entire cities. They might skip a few steps along the way--going straight to wireless without installing landlines, for instance--but they''re copying all the same.

The single word for vertical, 0 to 1 progress is technology. The rapid progress of information technology in recent decades has made Silicon Valley the capital of "technology" in general. But there is no reason why technology should be limited to computers. Properly understood, any new and better way of doing things is technology.

Because globalization and technology are different modes of progress, it''s possible to have both, either, or neither at the same time. For example, 1815 to 1914 was a period of both rapid technological development and rapid globalization. Between the First World War and Kissinger''s trip to reopen relations with China in 1971, there was rapid technological development but not much globalization. Since 1971, we have seen rapid globalization along with limited technological development, mostly confined to IT.

This age of globalization has made it easy to imagine that the decades ahead will bring more convergence and more sameness. Even our everyday language suggests we believe in a kind of technological end of history: the division of the world into the so-called developed and developing nations implies that the "developed" world has already achieved the achievable, and that poorer nations just need to catch up.

But I don''t think that''s true. My own answer to the contrarian question is that most people think the future of the world will be defined by globalization, but the truth is that technology matters more. Without technological change, if China doubles its energy production over the next two decades, it will also double its air pollution. If every one of India''s hundreds of millions of households were to live the way Americans already do--using only today''s tools--the result would be environmentally catastrophic. Spreading old ways to create wealth around the world will result in devastation, not riches. In a world of scarce resources, globalization without new technology is unsustainable.

New technology has never been an automatic feature of history. Our ancestors lived in static, zero-sum societies where success meant seizing things from others. They created new sources of wealth only rarely, and in the long run they could never create enough to save the average person from an extremely hard life. Then, after 10,000 years of fitful advance from primitive agriculture to medieval windmills and 16th-century astrolabes, the modern world suddenly experienced relentless technological progress from the advent of the steam engine in the 1760s all the way up to about 1970. As a result, we have inherited a richer society than any previous generation would have been able to imagine.

Any generation excepting our parents'' and grandparents'', that is: in the late 1960s, they expected this progress to continue. They looked forward to a four-day workweek, energy too cheap to meter, and vacations on the moon. But it didn''t happen. The smartphones that distract us fr

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