Review: Zero to One

:: Peter Thiel, non-fiction, non-technical, startup, entrepreneurship

Zero to One

Zero to One collects the edited version of a college course on Entrepreneurship taught by Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal and Palantir1. It analyzes the ground on which a startup can prosper, drawing examples from both his personal experience and from the usual success cases, even though, maybe. in this book there aren’t so many, or at least are not presented as a dry collection of anecdotes.

The first interesting reflection that spurred my old brain is that you should never aim for competition, in business as in life. And this is especially difficult, because the whole education system first, and our career later, hammer so hard on competition. But it is really a fool’s game: competition dries up every contestant’s energy, preventing them from really tackle big and interesting problems.

Then the author states the intention of this book very clearly: it is a thought-provoking collection of thoughts. And provoking he is: I didn’t really appreciate the description of the whole Europe as a stagnating economy where people have no hope in the future, so they slack their lives away. I understand the will to stir, but this is a bit of over-generalization, especially when a few page later, he starts boasting the optimism of the USA. True, his criticism doesn’t disappear in that case; but it is only about the homogenization of the education and the construction of an army of jack-of-all-trades, prepared in every conceivable discipline from a very young age, but never thought about how to make big decisions. Simplistic, I didn’t like it.

The message of hope, however, is strong. The contents are about how we can concretely plan for the future with bold, long-term careful planning: the example of Apple and Steve Jobs soar above the others. And the message is positive and optimistic: this I liked.

A few chapters are yet another variation on the recipe for success: how to choose the timing, the people, the founders, the relationships among the engineering team, the distribution, the VCs, you name it. Interesting stuff, but heard elsewhere (I’m thinking about The hard thing about hard things).

A couple of reflections stand out. The first is about the positive value of secrets. If everyone knows the thing that you are building, and sees its obvious value, he will start building it, and you get the competition, which, as said above, you don’t want at all. The second is about the engineering myth of “so good it will sell itself”, the importance of salespeople, and of the art of selling in general, its secrecy, its subtlety, the fact that the master salesperson will never make evident she is selling you anything. Worth remembering.

Overall a good, short read that I’d suggest to like-minded friends.

1This means the book had a tiny sentimental value to me, since I have interviewed with the guys at Palantir in 2014, and even though I didn’t get an offer, it was a great experience.