5.0 out of 5 stars
Thiel has more wise things to teach you than just crazy though brilliant visions.
Reviewed in the United States on June 2, 2015
I have been reading Thiel‘s Zero to One in the last days. And after a compilation of his class notes last year, here are a few more comments. His book is as good as his notes but some readers may be puzzled. It’s not a book about how to build start-ups. (For this read Horowitz or Blank) “This book offers no formula for success. The paradox of teaching entrepreneurship is that such a formula necessarily cannot exist; 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.” [Page 2]
Thiel is a strong believer in exceptional achievements, in innovation just like in art or science. “The entrepreneurs who stuck with Silicon Valley learned four big lessons from the dot-com crash that still guide business thinking today:
1. Make incremental advances
2. Stay lean and flexible
3. Improve on the competition
4. Focus on products, not sales.
These lessons have become dogma in the startup world. (…) And yet the opposite principles are probably more correct:
1. It is better to risk boldness than trivaility
2. A bad plan is better than no plan
3. Competitive markets destroy profits
4. Sales matters just as much as product.“
There is one point where I disagree with Thiel. Though I tend to be convinced by his argument that monopoly is good and competition is bad – read Thiel with care for the subtlety of his arguments – I do not think he is right when he writes [page 33]: “Monopolies drive progress because the promise of years or even decades of monopoly profits provides a powerful incentive to innovate”. I prefer Levine and Boldrin. Now I do believe that established players are displaced by new players – not competitors – who innovate when the champions who have become dinosaurs stop being creative.
Thiel does not believe in luck. “You are not a lottery ticket” and I agree that you can minimize uncertainty by carefully planning and probably by adapting too. He still quotes [page 59] Buffett who considers himself “a member of the lucky sperm club and a winner of the ovarian lottery”. He also quotes Bezos with his “incredible planetary alignment” (which has not much to do with luck either). According to Thiel. success is never accidental.
I also like his piece about founders: “Bad decisions made early on – if you choose the wrong partners or hire the wrong people, for example – are very hard to correct after they are made. It may take a crisis on the order of bankruptcy before anybody will even try to correct them. As a founder your first job is to get the first things right, because you cannot build a great company on a flawed foundation. When you start something, the first and most crucial decision you make is whom to start it with. Choosing a co-founder is like getting married, and founder conflict is just as ugly as divorce. Optimism abounds at the start of every relationship. It’s unromantic to think soberly about what could go wrong, so people don’t. But if the founders develop irreconcilable differences, the company becomes the victim.” [page 108]
Ands now about sales: “In engineering a solution either works or fails. [Sales is different]. This strikes engineers as trivial if not fundamentally dishonest. They know they own jobs are hard so when they look at salespeople laughing on the phone with a customer or going to two-hour lunches, they suspect that no real work is being done. If anything, people overestimate the relative difficulty of science and engineering, because the challenges of those fields are obvious. What nerds miss is that it takes hard work to makes sales look easy. Sales is hidden. All salesmen are actors: their priority is persuasion, not sincerity. That’s why the word “salesman” can be a slur and the used car dealer is our archetype of shadiness. But we react negatively to awkward, obvious salesmen – that is, the bad ones. There’s a wide range of sales ability: there are many gradations between novices, experts and masters. […] Like acting, sales works best when hidden. This explains why almost everyone whose job involves distribution – whether they’re in sales, marketing, or advertising – has a job title that has nothing to do with those things: account executive, bus. dev, but also investment banker, politician. There’s a reason for these re-descriptions: none of us wants to be reminded when we’re being sold. […] The engineer’s grail is a product great enough that “it sells itself”. But anyone who would actually say this about a real product must be lying: either he’s delusional (lying to himself) or he’s selling something (and thereby contradicting himself). […] It’s better to think of distribution as something essential to the design of your product. If you’ve invented something new but you haven’t invented an effective way to sell it, you have a bad business – no matter how good the product.” [Pages 128-130] And if you do not like it said this way, watch HBO’s Silicon Valley episode 15… I may come with more comments when I am finished with this great book.
In fact I have... and here are a few more comments, less about entrepreneurship than about social issues. Whatever the reputation of Thiel in Silicon Valley as a possible Libertarian, there were a couple of topics he addresses very convincingly. He is not a pure Contrarian. He disagrees with mainstream fashion in a very serious manner. Here are a couple of examples:
– The machine will not replace humankind
Yes computers have made impressive progress in the recent decades, but not to the point of replacing mankind. He shows very convincingly through the cases of Paypal and Palantir [pages 144-148] that computers cannot solve automatically tough issues but are only (excellent and critical) complements to human beings. Even the Google experiment of recognizing cats “seems impressive – until you remember that an average four-year-old can do it flawlessly” [page 143]. He finishes his chapter about Man and Machine this way: “But even if strong AI is a real possibility rather than an imponderable mystery, it won’t happen anytime soon: replacement by computers is a worry for the 22nd century. Indefinite fears about the far future shouldn’t stop us from making definite plans today. Luddites claim that we shouldn’t build the computers that might replace people someday; crazed futurists argue that we should. These two positions are mutually exclusive but they are not exhaustive: there is room in between for sane people to build a vastly better world in the decades ahead. As we find new ways to use computers, they won’t just get better at the kinds of things people already do: they’ll help us to do what was previously unimaginable” [pages 150-151]. You will not be surprised I prefer this to Kurweil views.
– Greentech was a bubble and it was obvious from day 1.
I was always puzzled with greentech/cleantech. Why are people so excited about the promise to solve an important problem when we do not have any solution. Thiel is far tougher. First he shows the obvious: it was a bubble. Then he analyzes this industry through his “zero to one” arguments.
“Most cleantech companies crashed because they neglected one or more of the seven questions that every business must answer:
– Engineering: can you create a breakthrough technology instead of incremental improvements?
– Timing: is now the right time to start your particular business?
– Monopoly: are you starting with a big share of a small market?
– People: do you have the right team?
– Distribution: do you have a way to not just create but deliver your product?
– Durability: will your market position be defensible 10 and 20 years into the future?
– Secret: have you identified a unique opportunity that others don’t see?
If you do not have answers to these questions, you’ll run into lots of “bad luck” and your business will fail. If you nail all seven, you’ll master fortune and succeed. Even getting five or six correct might work. But the striking thing about the cleantech bubble was that people were starting companies with zero good answers – and that meant hoping for a miracle” [page 154]. What’s next? Fintech?
8 people found this helpful