Zero to One

Zero to One. This was an audiobook, narrated by the primary author, Peter Thiel. Thiel was cofounder of PayPal, is a director at Facebook and is an economic advisor to Donald Trump. It was originally compiled as entrepreneurship lecture notes by Stanford student Blake Masters.

Hearing his voice added a deeper insight into the book’s content. I could feel the experience behind his words. I could peer into the inner life of a Silicon Valley elite. How he viewed the world and those in it, as an insider. Surely an intellectual too.

He sounded mild and even tempered throughout, yet not boring because he sounded present and somehow healthy. Punctuated by sub-communicative insights. A hint of contempt for another elite person or organisation. A crack of sympathy for the unfortunate. Sometimes I felt this was contrived. It was interesting to hear someone speak about Facebook for example as an insider who had authority over it.

On to the content. I wasn’t struck by any great structure of the ideas. Being an audiobook it was hard to picture how the book was structured, as would appear in the contents. That can mean that the content itself is better though, remaining in the organic units of lessons, rather than being “boxed in” to an overall pleasing layout or architecture of ideas when they needn’t be. That’s how the content seemed to me overall: organised into lessons rather than a system. Then again “notes” is in the title.

It seems to me that the two great contemporary entrepreneurship books are The Lean Startup and this. Having read the former I felt compelled to contrast the two. During listening and now. The former felt more procedural and systematic. Whereas this felt more concerned with principles and fairly high level advices; the reason being that if you understand the principles and essential pieces then you can apply them to many or all scenarios and the details sort themselves out or don’t matter so much. Different people tend to prefer detailed or high level thinking, but I think it’s good to read both.

I feel Peter is more boss than Eric Ries. Thiel’s references to Shakespeare, Goethe and Tolstoy were impressive but it’s a rare person who can also speak personally about the likes of Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg as well. The book did feel a bit like a shrine to Thiel’s greatness or ego. It’s almost as if he rejected or never learned the value of humility. I suppose he intends and does a lot of good overall though which sufficiently justifies egoism in my view. It doesn’t beautify it but in this case the book is beautiful.

As the name suggests, this is a book primarily for ventures doing something new. I think the most central business message he had was that one should aim to be a monopoly: because in competition profits get competed away. The easiest way to be a monopoly is create something new.

Aim for technology that is 10x better than the nearest competitor. This was a message to engineers. This was balanced and contrasted by the message that you need a good sales strategy as well to succeed. The best ideas don’t always win, they have to succeed in the market to do that.

Some parts were very practical advice. Such as the importance of suitable cofounders and company culture.

It got philosophical at the beginning and towards the end. The thought experiment that there are four possible outcomes for humanity. The concept of “the singularity” being the logical end to technological advancement. Interesting, however briefly covered, and something that I’d want to look in to further. It made me realise that science fiction is probably good to read if you want to be a tech entrepreneur; thinking and feeling in terms of technology that doesn’t exist yet.

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