Highlights: Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future, by Peter Thiel;Blake Masters
Raw Generation of Kindle Notes, up for Summary + Review
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
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
Everyone learned to treat the future as fundamentally indefinite, and to dismiss as an extremist anyone with plans big
Globalization replaced technology as the hope for the future. Since the ’90s migration “from bricks to clicks” didn’t work as hoped, investors went back to bricks (housing) and BRICs (globalization). The result was another bubble, this time in real estate.
The most contrarian thing of all is not to oppose the crowd but to think for yourself.
Americans mythologize competition and credit it with saving us from socialist bread lines. Actually, capitalism and competition are opposites. Capitalism is premised on the accumulation of capital, but under perfect competition all profits get competed away. The lesson for entrepreneurs is clear: if you want to create and capture lasting
aren’t much better even at the very highest rungs, where reviews and ratings like Michelin’s star system enforce a culture of intense competition that can drive chefs crazy. (French chef and winner of three Michelin stars Bernard Loiseau was quoted as saying, “If I lose a star, I will commit suicide.” Michelin maintained his rating, but Loiseau killed himself anyway in 2003 when a competing French dining guide downgraded his restaurant.)
it’s also characteristic of a kind of business that’s successful enough to take ethics seriously without jeopardizing its own existence. In business, money is either an important thing or it is everything. Monopolists can afford to think about things other than making money; non-monopolists can’t. In perfect competition, a business is so focused on today’s margins that it can’t possibly plan for a long-term future. Only one thing can allow a business to transcend the daily brute struggle for survival: monopoly profits.
Actually, yes: profits come out of customers’ wallets, and monopolies deserve their bad reputation—but only in a world where nothing changes.
It’s possible to question whether anyone should really be awarded a legally enforceable monopoly simply for having been the first to think of something like a mobile software design. But it’s clear that something like Apple’s monopoly profits from designing, producing, and marketing the iPhone were the reward for creating greater abundance, not artificial scarcity: customers were happy to finally have the choice of paying high prices to get a smartphone that actually works.
So why are economists obsessed with competition as an ideal state? It’s a relic of history. Economists copied their mathematics from the work of 19th-century physicists:
Tolstoy opens Anna Karenina by observing: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Business is the opposite. 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.
More than anything else, competition is an ideology—the ideology—that pervades our society and distorts our thinking. 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.
students ascend to higher levels of the tournament. Elite students climb confidently until they reach a level of competition sufficiently intense to beat their dreams out of them. Higher education is the place where people who had big plans in high school get stuck in fierce rivalries with equally smart peers over conventional careers like management consulting and investment banking. For the privilege of being turned into conformists, students (or their families) pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in skyrocketing tuition that continues to outpace inflation. Why are we doing this to ourselves?
probably would have spent my entire career taking depositions or drafting other people’s business deals instead of creating anything new. It’s hard to say how much would be different, but the opportunity costs were enormous. All Rhodes Scholars had a great future in their
Shakespeare, by contrast, all combatants look more or less alike. It’s not at all clear why they should be fighting, since they have nothing to fight about.
Rivalry causes us to overemphasize old opportunities and slavishly copy what has worked in the past. Consider the recent proliferation of mobile credit card readers. In October 2010, a startup called Square released a small, white, square-shaped product that let anyone with an iPhone swipe and accept credit cards.
The hazards of imitative competition may partially explain why individuals with an Asperger’s-like social ineptitude seem to be at an advantage in Silicon Valley today. If you’re less sensitive to social cues, you’re less likely to do the same things as everyone else around you. If you’re interested in making things or programming computers, you’ll be less afraid to pursue those activities single-mindedly and thereby become incredibly good at them. Then when you apply your skills, you’re a little less likely than others to give up your own convictions: this can save you from getting
Who could create the best Super Bowl ads?—these companies totally lost sight of the wider question of whether the online pet supply market was the right space to be in. Winning is better than losing, but everybody loses when the war isn’t one worth fighting. When Pets.com folded after the dot-com crash, $300 million of investment capital disappeared with
For Hamlet, greatness means willingness to fight for reasons as thin as an eggshell: anyone would fight for things that matter; true heroes take their personal honor so seriously they will fight for things that don’t matter. This twisted logic is part of human nature, but it’s disastrous in business. If you can recognize competition as a destructive force instead of a sign of value, you’re already more sane than most. The next chapter is about how to use a clear head to build a monopoly business. 5
For Hamlet, greatness means willingness to fight for reasons as thin as an eggshell: anyone would fight for things that matter; true heroes take their personal honor so seriously they will fight for things that don’t matter. This twisted logic is part of human nature, but it’s disastrous in business. If you can recognize competition as a destructive force instead of a sign of value, you’re already more sane than most. The next chapter is about how to use a clear head to build a monopoly business.
For example, rapid short-term growth at both Zynga and Groupon distracted managers and investors from long-term challenges. Zynga scored early wins with games like Farmville and claimed to have a “psychometric engine” to rigorously gauge the appeal of new releases. But they ended up with the same problem as every Hollywood studio: how can you reliably produce a constant stream of popular entertainment for a fickle audience? (Nobody knows.) Groupon posted fast growth as hundreds of thousands of local businesses tried their product. But persuading those businesses to become repeat customers was harder than they thought. If you focus on near-term
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. Anything less than an order of magnitude better will probably be perceived as a marginal improvement and will be hard to sell, especially in an already crowded market.
going to happen. Paradoxically, then, network effects businesses must start with especially small markets. Facebook started with just Harvard students—Mark Zuckerberg’s first product was designed to get all his classmates signed up, not to attract all people of Earth. 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 good startup should have the potential for great scale built into its first design. Twitter already has more than 250 million users today.
Beginning with brand rather than substance is dangerous. Ever since Marissa Mayer became CEO of Yahoo! in mid-2012, she has worked to revive the once-popular internet giant by making it cool again. In a single tweet, Yahoo! summarized Mayer’s plan as a chain reaction of “people then products then traffic then revenue.”
The perfect target market for a startup is a small group of particular people concentrated together and served by few or no competitors. Any big market is a bad choice, and a big market already served by competing companies is even worse. This is why it’s always a red flag when entrepreneurs talk about getting 1% of a $100 billion market. In practice, a large market will either lack a good starting point or it will be open to competition, so it’s hard to ever reach that 1%. And even if you do succeed in gaining a small foothold, you’ll have to be satisfied with keeping the lights on:
gradually until it had become the world’s general store. The name itself brilliantly encapsulated the company’s scaling strategy. The biodiversity of the Amazon rain forest reflected Amazon’s first goal of cataloging every book in the world, and now it stands for every kind of thing in the world, period.
Sequencing markets correctly is underrated, and it takes discipline to expand gradually. The most successful companies make the core progression—to first dominate a specific niche and then scale to adjacent markets—a part of their founding narrative.
However, disruption has recently transmogrified into a self-congratulatory buzzword for anything posing as trendy and new. This seemingly trivial fad matters because it distorts an entrepreneur’s self-understanding
But if you truly want to make something new, the act of creation is far more important than the old industries that might not like what you create. Indeed, 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.
PayPal could be seen as disruptive, but we didn’t try to directly challenge any large competitor. It’s true that we took some business away from Visa when we popularized internet payments: you might use PayPal to buy something online instead of using your Visa card to buy it in a store. But since we expanded the market for payments overall, we gave Visa far more business than we took.
The overall dynamic was net positive, unlike Napster’s negative-sum struggle with the U.S. recording industry. As you craft a plan to expand to adjacent markets, don’t disrupt: avoid competition as much as possible.
It’s much better to be the last mover—that is, to make the last great development in a specific market and enjoy years or even decades of monopoly profits.
It’s true that already successful people have an easier time doing new things, whether due to their networks, wealth, or experience. But perhaps we’ve become too quick to dismiss anyone who claims to have succeeded according to plan.
Ralph Waldo Emerson captured this ethos when he wrote: “Shallow men believe in luck, believe in circumstances.… Strong men believe in cause and effect.” In 1912, after he became the first explorer to reach the South Pole, Roald Amundsen wrote: “Victory awaits him who has everything in order—luck, people call it.” No one pretended that misfortune didn’t exist, but prior generations believed in making their own luck by working
Process trumps substance: when people lack concrete plans to carry out, they use formal rules to assemble a portfolio of various options. This describes Americans today. In middle school, we’re encouraged to start hoarding “extracurricular activities.” In high school, ambitious students compete even harder to appear omnicompetent. By the time a student gets to college, he’s spent a decade curating a bewilderingly diverse résumé to prepare for a completely unknowable future. Come what may, he’s ready—for nothing in particular.
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.
The indefinite pessimist can’t know whether the inevitable decline will be fast or slow, catastrophic or gradual. All he can do is wait for it to happen, so he might as well eat, drink, and be merry in the meantime: hence Europe’s famous vacation mania.
productive forces than all preceding generations together. Subjection of Nature’s forces to man, machinery, application of chemistry to industry and agriculture, steam-navigation, railways, electric telegraphs, clearing of whole continents for cultivation, canalisation of rivers, whole populations conjured out of
American thinking ever since 1982, when a long bull market began and finance eclipsed engineering as the way to approach the future. To an indefinite optimist, the future will be better, but he doesn’t know how exactly, so he won’t make any specific plans. He expects to profit from the future but sees no reason to design it concretely.
for years to build a new product, indefinite optimists rearrange already-invented ones. Bankers make money by rearranging the capital structures of already existing companies. Lawyers resolve disputes over old things or help other people structure their affairs. And private equity investors and management consultants don’t start new businesses; they squeeze extra efficiency from old ones with incessant procedural optimizations. It’s no surprise that these fields all attract disproportionate numbers of high-achieving Ivy League optionality chasers; what could be a more appropriate reward for two decades of résumé-building than a seemingly elite, process-oriented career that promises to “keep options open”?
The rest of their generation was left behind, but the wealthy Boomers who shape public opinion today see little reason to question their naïve optimism. Since tracked careers worked for them, they can’t imagine that they won’t work for their kids,
But they miss the even bigger social context for their own preferred explanations: a whole generation learned from childhood to overrate the power of chance and underrate the importance of planning. Gladwell at first appears to be making a contrarian critique of the myth of the self-made businessman, but actually his own account encapsulates the conventional view of a generation.
While a definitely optimistic future would need engineers to design underwater cities and settlements in space, an indefinitely optimistic future calls for more bankers and lawyers.
money when you have no idea how to create wealth. If they don’t go to law school, bright college graduates head to Wall Street precisely because they have no real plan for their careers. And once they arrive at Goldman, they find that even inside finance, everything is indefinite. It’s still optimistic—you wouldn’t play in the markets if you expected to lose—but the fundamental tenet is that the market is random; you can’t know anything specific or substantive; diversification becomes supremely important.
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
Nate Silver’s election predictions are remarkably accurate, but even more remarkable is how big a story they become every four years. We are more fascinated today by statistical predictions of what the country will be thinking in a few weeks’ time than by visionary predictions of what the country will look like 10 or 20 years from now. And it’s not just the electoral
- To increase discretionary spending we’d need definite plans to solve specific problems. But according to the indefinite logic of entitlement spending, we can make things better just by sending out more checks.
better: they were definite optimists. In the late 20th century, indefinite philosophies came
In the late 20th century, indefinite philosophies came to the fore. The two dominant political thinkers, John Rawls and Robert Nozick, are usually seen as stark opposites: on the egalitarian left, Rawls was concerned with questions of fairness and distribution; on the libertarian right, Nozick focused on maximizing individual freedom.
To Nozick, any voluntary exchange must be allowed, and no social pattern could be noble enough to justify maintenance by coercion. He didn’t have any more concrete ideas about the good society than Rawls:
However, in exchange for better insurance contracts, we seem to have given up the search for secrets about longevity. Systematic knowledge of the current range of human lifespans has made that range seem natural. Today our society is permeated by the twin ideas that death is both inevitable and random.
Biotech startups are an extreme example of indefinite thinking. Researchers experiment with things that just might work instead of refining definite theories about how the body’s systems operate. Biologists say they need to work this way because the underlying biology is hard. According to them, IT startups work because we created computers ourselves and designed them to reliably obey our commands. Biotech is difficult because we didn’t design our bodies, and the more we learn about them, the more complex they turn out
buzzwords of the moment call for building a “lean startup” that can “adapt” and “evolve” to an ever-changing environment. 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.
But iteration without a bold plan won’t take you from 0 to 1. A company is the strangest place of all for an indefinite optimist: why should you expect your own business to succeed without a plan to make it happen? Darwinism may be a fine theory in other contexts, but in startups, intelligent design works
The greatest thing Jobs designed was his business. Apple imagined and executed definite multi-year plans to create new products and distribute them effectively. Forget “minimum viable products”—ever since he started Apple in 1976, Jobs saw that you can change the world through careful planning, not by listening to focus group feedback or copying others’ successes.
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.
right, they take a cut of the returns—usually 20%. A venture fund makes money when the companies in its portfolio become
overall. Rather, they follow a power law: a small handful of companies radically outperform all others. If you focus on diversification instead of single-minded pursuit of the very few companies that can become overwhelmingly valuable, you’ll miss those rare companies in the first place.
Our results at Founders Fund illustrate this skewed pattern: Facebook, the best investment in our 2005 fund, returned more than all the others combined. Palantir, the second-best investment, is set to return more than the sum of every other investment aside from Facebook.
implies two very strange rules for VCs. First, only invest in companies that have the potential to return the value of the entire fund. This is a scary rule, because it eliminates the vast majority of possible investments. (Even quite successful companies usually succeed on a more humble scale.) This leads to rule number two: because rule number one is so restrictive, there can’t be any other rules.
However, every single company in a good venture portfolio must have the potential to succeed at vast scale. At Founders Fund, we focus on five to seven companies in a fund, each of which we think could become a multibillion-dollar business based on its unique fundamentals. Whenever you shift from the substance of a business to the financial question of whether or not it fits into a diversified hedging strategy, venture investing starts to look a lot like buying lottery tickets. And once you think that you’re playing the lottery, you’ve already
They generate annual revenues equivalent to an astounding 21% of GDP. Indeed, the dozen largest tech companies were all venture-backed. Together those 12 companies are worth more than $2 trillion, more than all other tech companies combined.
An entrepreneur makes a major investment just by spending her time working on a startup. Therefore every entrepreneur must think about whether her company is going to succeed and become valuable. 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.
“Don’t put all your eggs in one basket,” everyone has been told. As we said, even the best venture investors have a portfolio, but investors who understand the power law make as few investments as possible. The kind of portfolio thinking embraced by both folk wisdom and financial convention, by contrast, regards diversified betting as a source of strength. The more you dabble, the more you are supposed to have hedged against the uncertainty of the future.
do. You should focus relentlessly on something you’re
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.
If anything, too many people are starting their own companies today. People who understand the power law will hesitate more than others when it comes to founding a new venture: they know how tremendously successful they could become by joining the very best company while it’s growing fast. The power law means that differences between companies will dwarf the differences in roles inside companies. You could have 100% of the equity if you fully fund your own venture, but if it fails you’ll have 100% of nothing. Owning just 0.01% of Google, by contrast, is incredibly valuable (more than $35 million as of this writing).
However, you can’t trust a world that denies the power law to accurately frame your decisions for you, so what’s most important is rarely obvious. It might even be secret. But in a power law world, you can’t afford not to think hard about where your actions will fall on the curve.
Remember our contrarian question: what important truth do very few people agree with you on? If we already understand as much of the natural world as we ever will—if all of today’s conventional ideas are already enlightened, and if everything has already been done—then there are no good answers. Contrarian thinking doesn’t make any sense unless the world still has secrets left to give
Kaczynski, infamously known as the Unabomber. Kaczynski was a child prodigy who enrolled at Harvard at 16. He went on to get a PhD in math and become a professor at UC Berkeley. But you’ve only ever heard of him because of the 17-year terror campaign he waged with pipe bombs against professors, technologists, and businesspeople.
Kaczynski argued that modern people are depressed because all the world’s hard problems have already been solved. What’s left to do is either easy or impossible, and pursuing those tasks is deeply unsatisfying. What you can do, even a child can do; what you can’t do, even Einstein couldn’t have done. So Kaczynski’s idea was to destroy existing institutions, get rid of all technology, and let people start over and work on hard problems anew.
loss of faith in the technological frontier is all around us. Consider the trivial but revealing hallmarks of urban hipsterdom:
future. If everything worth doing has already been done, you may as well feign an allergy to achievement and become a barista.
All fundamentalists think this way, not just terrorists and hipsters. Religious fundamentalism, for example, allows no middle ground for hard questions: there are easy truths that children are expected to rattle off, and then there are the mysteries of God, which can’t be explained. In between—the zone of hard truths—lies heresy.
modern religion of environmentalism, the easy truth is that we must protect the environment. Beyond that, Mother Nature knows best, and she cannot be questioned. Free marketeers worship a similar logic. The value of things is set by the market. Even a child can look up stock quotes. But whether those prices make sense is not to be second-guessed; the market knows far more than you ever could.
Along with the natural fact that physical frontiers have receded, four social trends have conspired to root out belief in secrets. First is incrementalism.
Second is risk aversion. People are scared of secrets because they are scared of being wrong. By definition, a secret hasn’t been vetted by the mainstream. If your goal is to never make a
Third is complacency. Social elites have the most freedom and ability to explore new thinking, but they seem to believe in secrets the least. Why search for a new secret if you can comfortably collect rents on everything that has already been done? Every fall, the deans at top law schools and business schools welcome the incoming class with the same implicit message: “You got into this elite institution. Your worries are over. You’re set for life.”
if it were possible to discover something new, wouldn’t someone from the faceless global talent pool of smarter and more creative people have found it already? This voice of doubt can dissuade people from even starting to look for secrets in a world that seems too big a place for any individual to contribute something unique.
From the Communist Party to the Hare Krishnas, large numbers of people thought they could join some enlightened vanguard that would show them the Way. Very few people take unorthodox ideas seriously today, and the mainstream sees that as a sign of progress. We can be glad that there are fewer crazy cults now, yet that gain has come at great cost: we have given up our sense of wonder at secrets left to be discovered.
At first, only a small minority of abolitionists knew that slavery was evil; that view has rightly become conventional, but it was still a secret in the early 19th century. To say that there are no secrets left today would mean that we live in a society with no hidden injustices.
The sad decline of Hewlett-Packard provides a cautionary tale. In 1990, the company was worth $9 billion. Then came a decade of invention. In 1991, HP released the DeskJet 500C, the world’s first affordable color printer. In 1993, it launched the OmniBook, one of the first “superportable” laptops. The next year, HP released the OfficeJet, the world’s first all-in-one printer/fax/copier. This relentless product expansion paid off: by mid-2000, HP was worth $135
you think something hard is impossible, you’ll never even start trying to achieve it. Belief in secrets is an effective truth.
actual truth is that there are many more secrets left to find, but they will yield only to relentless searchers. There is more to do in science, medicine, engineering, and in technology of all kinds. We are within reach not just of marginal goals set at the competitive edge of today’s conventional disciplines, but of ambitions so great that even the boldest minds of the Scientific Revolution hesitated to announce them directly. We could cure cancer, dementia, and all the diseases of age and metabolic decay. We can find new ways to generate energy that free the world from conflict over fossil fuels. We can invent faster ways to travel from place to place over the surface of the planet; we can even learn how to escape it entirely and settle new frontiers. But we will never learn any of these secrets unless we demand to know them and force ourselves to look.
If insights that look so elementary in retrospect can support important and valuable businesses, there must remain many great companies still to start.
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?
don’t need a dozen years of higher education to ask the questions that uncover them: What are people not allowed to talk about? What is forbidden or taboo?
Sometimes looking for natural secrets and looking for human secrets lead to the same truth. Consider the monopoly secret again: competition and capitalism are opposites.
Most people think only in terms of what they’ve been taught; schooling itself aims to impart conventional wisdom. So you might ask: are there any fields that matter but haven’t been standardized and institutionalized? Physics,
There’s plenty more to learn: we know more about the physics of faraway stars than we know about human nutrition. It won’t be easy, but it’s not obviously impossible: exactly the kind of field that could yield secrets.
The few who knew what might be learned, Foolish enough to put their whole heart on show, And reveal their feelings to the crowd below, Mankind has always crucified and burned. Unless you have perfectly conventional beliefs, it’s rarely a good idea to tell everybody everything that you know.
The best entrepreneurs know this: every great business is built around a secret that’s hidden from the outside. A great company is a conspiracy to change the world; when you share your secret, the recipient becomes a fellow conspirator.
A board of three is ideal. Your board should never exceed five people, unless your company is publicly held. (Government regulations effectively mandate that public companies
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
himself. A company does better the less it pays the CEO—that’s one of the single clearest patterns I’ve noticed from investing in hundreds of startups. In no case should a CEO of an early-stage, venture-backed
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
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.
What’s wrong with this picture? It includes some of the absurd perks Silicon Valley has made famous, but none of
We didn’t assemble a mafia by sorting through résumés and simply hiring the most talented people. I had seen the mixed results of that approach firsthand when I worked at a New York law firm. The lawyers I worked with ran a valuable business, and they were impressive individuals one by one. But the relationships between them were oddly thin. They spent all day together, but few of them seemed to have much to say to each other outside the office. Why work with a group of people who don’t even like each other? Many seem to think it’s a sacrifice necessary for making money. But taking a merely professional view of the workplace, in which free agents check in and out on a transactional basis, is worse than cold: it’s not even rational. Since time is your most valuable asset, it’s odd to spend it working with people who don’t envision any long-term future together. If you can’t count durable relationships among the fruits of your time at work, you haven’t invested your time well—even in purely financial terms.
Recruiting is a core competency for any company. It should never be outsourced. You need people who are not just skilled on paper but who will work together cohesively after they’re hired. The first four or five might be attracted by large equity stakes or high-profile responsibilities. More important than those obvious offerings is your answer to this question: Why should the 20th employee join your company?
You’ll attract the employees you need if you can explain why your mission is compelling: not why it’s important in general, but why you’re doing something important that no one else is going to get done. That’s the only thing that can make its importance unique. At PayPal, if you were excited by the idea of creating a new digital currency to replace the U.S. dollar, we wanted to talk to you; if not, you weren’t the right
The startup uniform encapsulates a simple but essential principle: everyone at your company should be different in the same way—a tribe of like-minded people fiercely devoted to the company’s mission.
Max Levchin, my co-founder at PayPal, says that startups should make their early staff as personally similar as possible.
They must work quickly and efficiently in order to survive, and that’s easier to do when everyone shares an understanding of the world. The early PayPal team worked well together because we were all the same kind of nerd.
But entrepreneurs should take cultures of extreme dedication seriously. Is a lukewarm attitude to one’s work a sign of mental health? Is a merely professional attitude the only sane approach? The extreme opposite of a cult is a consulting firm like Accenture: not only does it lack a distinctive mission of its own, but individual consultants are regularly dropping in and out of companies to which they have no long-term connection whatsoever.
Distribution may not matter in fictional worlds, but it matters in ours. We underestimate the importance of distribution—a catchall term for everything it takes to sell a product—because we share the same bias the A Ship and C Ship people had: salespeople and other “middlemen” supposedly get in the way, and distribution should flow magically from the creation of a good product. The Field of Dreams conceit is especially popular in Silicon Valley, where engineers are biased toward building cool stuff rather than selling it. But customers will not come just because you build it. You have to make that happen, and it’s harder than it
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.
Sales is the opposite: an orchestrated campaign to change surface appearances without changing the underlying reality. This strikes engineers as trivial if not fundamentally dishonest. They know their 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 make sales look easy.
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.
Even the agenda of fundamental physics and the future path of cancer research are results of persuasion. The most fundamental reason that even businesspeople underestimate the importance of sales is the systematic effort to hide it at every level of every field in a world secretly driven by
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).
Two metrics set the limits for effective distribution. The total net profit that you earn on average over the course of your relationship with a customer (Customer Lifetime Value, or CLV) must exceed the amount you spend on average to acquire a new customer (Customer Acquisition Cost, or CAC). In general, the higher the price of your product, the more you have to spend to make
Businesses with complex sales models succeed if they achieve 50% to 100% year-over-year growth over the course of a decade. This will seem slow to any entrepreneur dreaming of viral growth. You might expect revenue to increase 10x as soon as customers learn about an obviously superior product, but that almost never happens. Good enterprise sales strategy starts small, as it must: a new customer might agree to become your biggest customer, but they’ll rarely be comfortable signing
no good distribution channel to reach the small businesses that might buy it. Even if you have a clear value proposition, how do you get people to hear it? Advertising would either be too broad (there’s no TV channel that only convenience store owners watch) or too inefficient (on its own, an ad in Convenience Store News probably won’t convince any owner to part with $1,000 a year). The product needs a personal sales effort, but at that price point, you simply don’t have the resources to send an actual person to talk to every prospective customer. This is why so many small and medium-sized businesses don’t use tools that bigger firms take for granted. It’s not that small business proprietors are unusually backward or that good tools don’t exist: distribution is the hidden bottleneck.
is a great big megaphone,” and when you can only afford to spend dozens of dollars acquiring a new customer, you need the biggest megaphone you can find.
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.
“This company is so good that people will be clamoring to join it.” And there’s a fundraising version too: “This company is so great that investors will be banging down our door to invest.” Clamor and frenzy are very real, but they rarely happen without calculated recruiting and pitching beneath the surface.
computers will necessarily replace human workers. 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.
are greatest when there’s a big discrepancy in comparative advantage, but the global supply of workers willing to do repetitive tasks for an extremely small wage is extremely
People have intentionality—we form plans and make decisions in complicated situations. We’re less good at making sense of enormous amounts of data. Computers are exactly the opposite: they excel at efficient data processing, but they struggle to make basic judgments that would be simple for any human.
When a cheap laptop beats the smartest mathematicians at some tasks but even a supercomputer with 16,000 CPUs can’t beat a child at others, you can tell that humans and computers are not just more or less powerful than each other—they’re categorically different.
The stark differences between man and machine mean that gains from working with computers are much higher than gains from trade with other people. We don’t trade with computers any more than we trade with livestock or lamps. And that’s the point: computers are tools, not
The fraudsters’ adaptive evasions fooled our automatic detection algorithms, but we found that they didn’t fool our human analysts as easily. So Max and his engineers rewrote the software to take a hybrid approach: the computer would flag the most suspicious transactions on a well-designed user interface, and human operators would make the final judgment as to their legitimacy.
Advanced software made this possible, but even more important were the human analysts, prosecutors, scientists, and financial professionals without whose active engagement the software would have been useless.
starts in school. Software engineers tend to work on projects that replace human efforts because that’s what they’re trained to do. Academics make their reputations through specialized research; their primary goal is to publish papers, and publication means respecting the limits of a particular discipline. For computer scientists, that means reducing human capabilities into specialized tasks that computers can be trained to conquer one by one.
We have let ourselves become enchanted by big data only because we exoticize technology. We’re impressed with small feats accomplished by computers alone, but we ignore big achievements from complementarity because the human contribution makes them less uncanny. Watson, Deep Blue, and ever-better machine learning algorithms are cool. But the most valuable companies in the future won’t ask what problems can be solved with computers alone. Instead, they’ll
clear whether strong AI would save humanity or doom it. Technology is supposed to increase our mastery over nature and reduce the role of chance in our lives; building smarter-than-human computers could actually bring chance back with a vengeance. Strong AI is like a cosmic lottery ticket: if we win, we get utopia; if we lose, Skynet substitutes us out of existence.
The cleantech bubble was the biggest phenomenon—and the biggest flop—in the history of “social entrepreneurship.” This philanthropic approach to business starts with the idea that corporations and nonprofits have until now been polar opposites: corporations have great power, but they’re shackled to the profit motive; nonprofits pursue the public interest, but they’re weak players in the wider economy. Social entrepreneurs aim to combine the best of both worlds and “do well by doing good.” Usually they end up doing neither.
Doing something different is what’s truly good for society—and it’s also what allows a business to profit by monopolizing a new market. The best projects are likely to be overlooked, not trumpeted by a crowd; the best problems to
Paradoxically, the challenge for the entrepreneurs who will create Energy 2.0 is to think small.
Almost all successful entrepreneurs are simultaneously insiders and outsiders. And when they do succeed, they attract both fame and infamy. When you plot them out, founders’ traits
The lesson for founders is that individual prominence and adulation can never be enjoyed except on the condition that it may be exchanged for individual notoriety and demonization at any moment—so be careful.
In this respect Rand was a merely half-great writer: her villains were real, but her heroes were fake. There is no Galt’s Gulch. There is no secession from society. To believe yourself invested with divine self-sufficiency is not the mark of a strong individual, but of a person who has mistaken the crowd’s worship—or jeering—for the truth. The single greatest danger for a founder is to become so certain of his own myth that he loses his mind. But an equally insidious danger for every business is to lose all sense of myth and mistake disenchantment for wisdom.
Whether we achieve the Singularity on a cosmic scale is perhaps less important than whether we seize the unique opportunities we have to do new things in our own working lives. Everything important to us—the universe, the planet, the country, your company,
Whether we achieve the Singularity on a cosmic scale is perhaps less important than whether we seize the unique opportunities we have to do new things in our own working lives. Everything important to us—the universe, the planet, the country, your company, your life, and this very moment—is singular.