Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future by Peter Thiel

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Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future

Thiel, Peter; Masters, Blake

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?”

Brilliant thinking is rare, but courage is in even shorter supply than genius.

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.

Startups operate on the principle that you need to work with other people to get stuff done, but you also need to stay small enough so that you actually can. Positively defined, a startup is the largest group of people you can convince of a plan to build a different future. A new company’s most important strength is new thinking: even more important than nimbleness, small size affords space to think.

2. Party Like It’s 1999

Small, incremental steps are the only safe path forward.

2. Stay lean and flexible All companies must be “lean,” which is code for “unplanned.” You should not know what your business will do; planning is arrogant and inflexible. Instead you should try things out, “iterate,” and treat entrepreneurship as agnostic experimentation.

3. Improve on the competition Don’t try to create a new market prematurely. The only way to know you have a real business is to start with an already existing customer, so you should build your company by improving on recognizable products already offered by successful competitors.

4. Focus on product, not sales If your product requires advertising or salespeople to sell it, it’s not good enough: technology is primarily about product development, not distribution. Bubble-era advertising was obviously wasteful, so the only sustainable growth is viral growth.

The most contrarian thing of all is not to oppose the crowd but to think for yourself.

3. All Happy Companies Are Different

THE BUSINESS VERSION of our contrarian question is: what valuable company is nobody building? This question is harder than it looks, because your company could create a lot of value without becoming very valuable itself. Creating value is not enough—you also need to capture some of the value you create.

if you want to create and capture lasting value, don’t build an undifferentiated commodity business.

existence. In business, money is either an important thing or it is everything.

Perfect equilibrium may describe the void that is most of the universe. It may even characterize many businesses. But every new creation takes place far from equilibrium. In the real world outside economic theory, every business is successful exactly to the extent that it does something others cannot. Monopoly is therefore not a pathology or an exception. Monopoly is the condition of every successful business.

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.

4. The Ideology of Competition

We preach competition, internalize its necessity, and enact its commandments; and as a result, we trap ourselves within it—even though the more we compete, the less we gain.

5. Last Mover Advantage

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? Numbers alone won’t tell you the answer; instead you must think critically about the qualitative characteristics of your business.

What does a company with large cash flows far into the future look like? Every monopoly is unique, but they usually share some combination of the following characteristics: proprietary technology, network effects, economies of scale, and branding.

As a good rule of thumb, proprietary technology must be at least 10 times better than its closest substitute in some important dimension to lead to a real monopolistic advantage.

The clearest way to make a 10x improvement is to invent something completely new. If you build something valuable where there was nothing before, the increase in value is theoretically infinite. A drug to safely eliminate the need for sleep, or a cure for baldness, for example, would certainly support a monopoly business.

Network effects make a product more useful as more people use it. For example, if all your friends are on Facebook, it makes sense for you to join Facebook, too. Unilaterally choosing a different social network would only make you an eccentric.

This is why successful network businesses rarely get started by MBA types: the initial markets are so small that they often don’t even appear to be business opportunities at all.

A monopoly business gets stronger as it gets bigger: the fixed costs of creating a product (engineering, management, office space) can be spread out over ever greater quantities of sales. Software startups can enjoy especially dramatic economies of scale because the marginal cost of producing another copy of the product is close to zero.

A good startup should have the potential for great scale built into its first design. Twitter already has more than 250 million users today. It doesn’t need to add too many customized features in order to acquire more, and there’s no inherent reason why it should ever stop growing.

A company has a monopoly on its own brand by definition, so creating a strong brand is a powerful way to claim a monopoly. Today’s strongest tech brand is Apple: the attractive looks and carefully chosen materials of products like the iPhone and MacBook, the Apple Stores’ sleek minimalist design and close control over the consumer experience, the omnipresent advertising campaigns, the price positioning as a maker of premium goods, and the lingering nimbus of Steve Jobs’s personal charisma all contribute to a perception that Apple offers products so good as to constitute a category of their own.

Every startup is small at the start. Every monopoly dominates a large share of its market. Therefore, every startup should start with a very small market. Always err on the side of starting too small. The reason is simple: it’s easier to dominate a small market than a large one. If you think your initial market might be too big, it almost certainly is.

The perfect target market for a startup is a small group of particular people concentrated together and served by few or no competitors.

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.

As you craft a plan to expand to adjacent markets, don’t disrupt: avoid competition as much as possible.

6. You Are Not a Lottery Ticket

“Success is never accidental.”

“Shallow men believe in luck, believe in circumstances.… Strong men believe in cause and effect.”

“Victory awaits him who has everything in order—luck, people call it.”

A definite view, by contrast, favors firm convictions. Instead of pursuing many-sided mediocrity and calling it “well-roundedness,” a definite person determines the one best thing to do and then does it. Instead of working tirelessly to make herself indistinguishable, she strives to be great at something substantive—to be a monopoly of one. This is not what young people do today, because everyone around them has long since lost faith in a definite world. No one gets into Stanford by excelling at just one thing, unless that thing happens to involve throwing or catching a leather ball.

Finance epitomizes indefinite thinking because it’s the only way to make money when you have no idea how to create wealth.

At no point does anyone in the chain know what to do with money in the real economy. But in an indefinite world, people actually prefer unlimited optionality; money is more valuable than anything you could possibly do with it. Only in a definite future is money a means to an end, not the end itself.

A business with a good definite plan will always be underrated in a world where people see the future as random.

A startup is the largest endeavor over which you can have definite mastery. You can have agency not just over your own life, but over a small and important part of the world. It begins by rejecting the unjust tyranny of Chance. You are not a lottery ticket.

7. Follow the Money

MONEY MAKES MONEY. “For whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them” (Matthew 25: 29). Albert Einstein made the same observation when he stated that compound interest was “the eighth wonder of the world,” “the greatest mathematical discovery of all time,” or even “the most powerful force in the universe.” Whichever version you prefer, you can’t miss his message: never underestimate exponential growth. Actually, there’s no evidence that Einstein ever said any of those things—the quotations are all apocryphal. But this very misattribution reinforces the message: having invested the principal of a lifetime’s brilliance, Einstein continues to earn interest on it from beyond the grave by receiving credit for things he never said.

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.

everybody is an investor. Irreverent investor. We all are.

Every individual is unavoidably an investor, too. When you choose a career, you act on your belief that the kind of work you do will be valuable decades from now.

“it doesn’t matter what you do, as long as you do it well.” That is completely false. It does matter what you do. You should focus relentlessly on something you’re good at doing, but before that you must think hard about whether it will be valuable in the future.

8. Secrets

what valuable company is nobody building?

There are two kinds of secrets: secrets of nature and secrets about people. Natural secrets exist all around us; to find them, one must study some undiscovered aspect of the physical world. Secrets about people are different: they are things that people don’t know about themselves or things they hide because they don’t want others to know. So when thinking about what kind of company to build, there are two distinct questions to ask: What secrets is nature not telling you? What secrets are people not telling you?

What are people not allowed to talk about? What is forbidden or taboo?

9. Foundations

As a general rule, everyone you involve with your company should be involved full-time. Sometimes you’ll have to break this rule; it usually makes sense to hire outside lawyers and accountants, for example. However, anyone who doesn’t own stock options or draw a regular salary from your company is fundamentally misaligned. At the margin, they’ll be biased to claim value in the near term, not help you create more in the future. That’s why hiring consultants doesn’t work. Part-time employees don’t work. Even working remotely should be avoided, because misalignment can creep in whenever colleagues aren’t together full-time, in the same place, every day. If you’re deciding whether to bring someone on board, the decision is binary. Ken Kesey was right: you’re either on the bus or off the bus.

Equity is a powerful tool precisely because of these limitations. Anyone who prefers owning a part of your company to being paid in cash reveals a preference for the long term and a commitment to increasing your company’s value in the future. Equity can’t create perfect incentives, but it’s the best way for a founder to keep everyone in the company broadly aligned.

The most valuable kind of company maintains an openness to invention that is most characteristic of beginnings. This leads to a second, less obvious understanding of the founding: it lasts as long as a company is creating new things, and it ends when creation stops. If you get the founding moment right, you can do more than create a valuable company: you can steer its distant future toward the creation of new things instead of the stewardship of inherited success. You might even extend its founding indefinitely.

10. The Mechanics of Mafia

They had to be talented, but even more than that they had to be excited about working specifically with us. That was the start of the PayPal Mafia.

The best startups might be considered slightly less extreme kinds of cults. The biggest difference is that cults tend to be fanatically wrong about something important. People at a successful startup are fanatically right about something those outside it have missed. You’re not going to learn those kinds of secrets from consultants, and you don’t need to worry if your company doesn’t make sense to conventional professionals. Better to be called a cult—or even a mafia.

11. If You Build It, Will They Come?

In Silicon Valley, nerds are skeptical of advertising, marketing, and sales because they seem superficial and irrational. But advertising matters because it works. It works on nerds, and it works on you. You may think that you’re an exception; that your preferences are authentic, and advertising only works on other people. It’s easy to resist the most obvious sales pitches, so we entertain a false confidence in our own independence of mind. But advertising doesn’t exist to make you buy a product right away; it exists to embed subtle impressions that will drive sales later. Anyone who can’t acknowledge its likely effect on himself is doubly deceived.

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.

HOW TO SELL A PRODUCT Superior sales and distribution by itself can create a monopoly, even with no product differentiation. The converse is not true. No matter how strong your product—even if it easily fits into already established habits and anybody who tries it likes it immediately—you must still support it with a strong distribution plan.

Whoever is first to dominate the most important segment of a market with viral potential will be the last mover in the whole market.

Most businesses get zero distribution channels to work: poor sales rather than bad product is the most common cause of failure. If you can get just one distribution channel to work, you have a great business. If you try for several but don’t nail one, you’re finished.

12. Man and Machine

But that premise is wrong: computers are complements for humans, not substitutes. The most valuable businesses of coming decades will be built by entrepreneurs who seek to empower people rather than try to make them obsolete.

Americans fear technology in the near future because they see it as a replay of the globalization of the near past. But the situations are very different: people compete for jobs and for resources; computers compete for neither.

13. Seeing Green

  1. The Engineering Question Can you create breakthrough technology instead of incremental improvements?

  2. The Timing Question Is now the right time to start your particular business?

  3. The Monopoly Question Are you starting with a big share of a small market?

  4. The People Question Do you have the right team?

  5. The Distribution Question Do you have a way to not just create but deliver your product?

  6. The Durability Question Will your market position be defensible 10 and 20 years into the future?

  7. The Secret Question Have you identified a unique opportunity that others don’t see?

Companies must strive for 10x better because merely incremental improvements often end up meaning no improvement at all for the end user.

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