Zero to One
Notes on startups, or how to build the future by Peter Thiel (Best quotes and summary)
Every moment in business happens only once. The next Bill Gates will not build an operating system. The next Larry Page or Sergey Brin won’t make a search engine. And the next Mark Zuckerberg won’t create a social network. If you are copying these guys, you aren’t learning from them.
Of course, it’s easier to copy a model than to make something new. Doing what we already know how to do takes the world from 1 to n, adding more of something familiar. But every time we create something new, we go from 0 to 1. The act of creation is singular, as is the moment of creation, and the result is something fresh and strange.
In a world of gigantic administrative bureaucracies both public and private, searching for a new path might seem like hoping for a miracle. This would be depressing but for one crucial fact: humans are distinguished from other species by our ability to work miracles. We call these miracles technology. Technology is miraculous because it allows us to do more with less.
Other animals are instinctively driven to build things like dams or honeycombs, but we are the only ones that can invent new things and better ways of making them. Humans don’t decide what to build by making choices from some cosmic catalog of options given in advance; instead, by creating new technologies, we rewrite the plan of the world.
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.
College students can become extremely skilled at a few specialties, but many never learn what to do with those skills in the wider world. My primary goal in teaching the class was to help my students see beyond the tracks laid down by academic specialties to the broader future that is theirs to create.
There’s no reason why the future should happen only at Stanford, or in college, or in Silicon Valley.
The challenge of the future
But what makes the future distinctive and important isn’t that it hasn’t happened yet, but rather that it will be a time when the world looks different from today. In this sense, if nothing about our society changes for the next 100 years, then the future is over 100 years away. If things change radically in the next decade, then the future is nearly at hand. No one can predict the future exactly, but we know two things: it’s going to be different, and it must be rooted in today’s world. Most answers to the contrarian question are different ways of seeing the present; good answers are as close as we can come to looking into the future.
Horizontal or extensive progress means copying things that work—going from 1 to n. Horizontal progress is easy to imagine because we already know what it looks like. Vertical or intensive progress means doing new things—going from 0 to 1. Vertical progress is harder to imagine because it requires doing something nobody else has ever done.
At the macro level, the single word for horizontal progress is globalization—taking things that work somewhere and making them work everywhere. China is the paradigmatic example of globalization; its 20-year plan is to become like the United States is today.
The single word for vertical, 0 to 1 progress is technology. The rapid progress of information technology in recent decades has made Silicon Valley the capital of “technology” in general.
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 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.
Party like IT´s 1999
The internet craze of the ’90s was the biggest bubble since the crash of 1929, and the lessons learned afterward define and distort almost all thinking about technology today. The first step to thinking clearly is to question what we think we know about the past.
So the backdrop for the short-lived dot-com mania that started in September 1998 was a world in which nothing else seemed to be working. The Old Economy couldn’t handle the challenges of globalization. Something needed to work—and work in a big way—if the future was going to be better at all. By indirect proof, the New Economy of the internet was the only way forward.
Dot-com mania was intense but short—18 months of insanity from September 1998 to March 2000. It was a Silicon Valley gold rush: there was money everywhere, and no shortage of exuberant, often sketchy people to chase it. Every week, dozens of new startups competed to throw the most lavish launch party.
The NASDAQ reached 5,048 at its peak in the middle of March 2000 and then crashed to 3,321 in the middle of April. We still need new technology, and we may even need some 1999-style hubris and exuberance to get it. To build the next generation of companies, we must abandon the dogmas created after the crash. That doesn’t mean the opposite ideas are automatically true: you can’t escape the madness of crowds by dogmatically rejecting them. Instead ask yourself: how much of what you know about business is shaped by mistaken reactions to past mistakes? The most contrarian thing of all is not to oppose the crowd but to think for yourself.
All happy companies are different
But in 2012, when the average airfare each way was $178, the airlines made only 37 cents per passenger trip. Compare them to Google, which creates less value but captures far more. Google brought in $50 billion in 2012 (versus $160 billion for the airlines), but it kept 21% of those revenues as profits—more than 100 times the airline industry’s profit margin that year. Google makes so much money that it’s now worth three times more than every U.S. airline combined. The airlines compete with each other, but Google stands alone. Economists use two simplified models to explain the difference: perfect competition and monopoly.
In this book, we’re not interested in illegal bullies or government favorites: by “monopoly,” we mean the kind of company that’s so good at what it does that no other firm can offer a close substitute. Google is a good example of a company that went from 0 to 1: it hasn’t competed in search since the early 2000s, when it definitively distanced itself from Microsoft and Yahoo!
PayPal was at that time the only email-based payments company in the world. We employed fewer people than the restaurants on Castro Street did, but our business was much more valuable than all of those restaurants combined. Starting a new South Indian restaurant is a really hard way to make money. If you lose sight of competitive reality and focus on trivial differentiating factors—maybe you think your naan is superior because of your great-grandmother’s recipe—your business is unlikely to survive.
Restaurants 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.) The competitive ecosystem pushes people toward ruthlessness or death.
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.
But the world we live in is dynamic: it’s possible to invent new and better things. Creative monopolists give customers more choices by adding entirely new categories of abundance to the world. Creative monopolies aren’t just good for the rest of society; they’re powerful engines for making it better.
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.
The ideology of competition
Creative monopoly means new products that benefit everybody and sustainable profits for the creator. Competition means no profits for anybody, no meaningful differentiation, and a struggle for survival. So why do people believe that competition is healthy?
Our educational system both drives and reflects our obsession with competition. Grades themselves allow precise measurement of each student’s competitiveness; pupils with the highest marks receive status and credentials. We teach every young person the same subjects in mostly the same ways, irrespective of individual talents and preferences. Students who don’t learn best by sitting still at a desk are made to feel somehow inferior, while children who excel on conventional measures like tests and assignments end up defining their identities in terms of this weirdly contrived academic parallel reality.
Inside a firm, people become obsessed with their competitors for career advancement. Then the firms themselves become obsessed with their competitors in the marketplace. Amid all the human drama, people lose sight of what matters and focus on their rivals instead.
As a startup, each clan had been content to leave the other alone and prosper independently. But as they grew, they began to focus on each other. The result? Windows vs. Chrome OS, Bing vs. Google Search, Explorer vs. Chrome, Office vs. Docs, and Surface vs. Nexus.
Rivalry causes us to overemphasize old opportunities and slavishly copy what has worked in the past. In January 2013, Apple’s market capitalization was $500 billion, while Google and Microsoft combined were worth $467 billion. Just three years before, Microsoft and Google were each more valuable than Apple. War is costly business.
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 caught up in crowds competing for obvious prizes.
Last mover advantage
Twitter went public in 2013, it was valued at $24 billion—more than 12 times the Times’s market capitalization—even though the Times earned $133 million in 2012 while Twitter lost money. What explains the huge premium for Twitter? The answer is cash flow. This sounds bizarre at first, since the Times was profitable while Twitter wasn’t. But a great business is defined by its ability to generate cash flows in the future. Investors expect Twitter will be able to capture monopoly profits over the next decade, while newspapers’ monopoly days are over.
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.
Proprietary technology is the most substantive advantage a company can have because it makes your product difficult or impossible to replicate. Google’s search algorithms, for example, return results better than anyone else’s.
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.
Or you can radically improve an existing solution: once you’re 10x better, you escape competition. PayPal, for instance, made buying and selling on eBay at least 10 times better.
Amazon made its first 10x improvement in a particularly visible way: they offered at least 10 times as many books as any other bookstore. When it launched in 1995, Amazon could claim to be “Earth’s largest bookstore” because, unlike a retail bookstore that might stock 100,000 books, Amazon didn’t need to physically store any inventory.
You can also make a 10x improvement through superior integrated design. Before 2010, tablet computing was so poor that for all practical purposes the market didn’t even exist. “Microsoft Windows XP Tablet PC Edition” products first shipped in 2002, and Nokia released its own “Internet Tablet” in 2005, but they were a pain to use. Then Apple released the iPad.
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.
When Steve Jobs returned to Apple, he didn’t just make Apple a cool place to work; he slashed product lines to focus on the handful of opportunities for 10x improvements. No technology company can be built on branding alone.
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.
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.
Silicon Valley has become obsessed with “disruption.” Originally, “disruption” was a term of art to describe how a firm can use new technology to introduce a low-end product at low prices, improve the product over time, and eventually overtake even the premium products offered by incumbent companies using older technology. This is roughly what happened when the advent of PCs disrupted the market for mainframe computers: at first PCs seemed irrelevant, then they became dominant. Today mobile devices may be doing the same thing to PCs. However, disruption has recently transmogrified into a self-congratulatory buzzword for anything posing as trendy and new.
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.
You’ve probably heard about “first mover advantage”: if you’re the first entrant into a market, you can capture significant market share while competitors scramble to get started. But moving first is a tactic, not a goal. 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. The way to do that is to dominate a small niche and scale up from there, toward your ambitious long-term vision. In this one particular at least, business is like chess. Grandmaster José Raúl Capablanca put it well: to succeed, “you must study the endgame before everything else.”
You are not a lottery ticket
The most contentious question in business is whether success comes from luck or skill. A few, like Steve Jobs, Jack Dorsey, and Elon Musk, have created several multibillion-dollar companies. If success were mostly a matter of luck, these kinds of serial entrepreneurs probably wouldn’t exist. In January 2013, Jack Dorsey, founder of Twitter and Square, tweeted to his 2 million followers: “Success is never accidental.”
From the Renaissance and the Enlightenment to the mid-20th century, luck was something to be mastered, dominated, and controlled; everyone agreed that you should do what you could, not focus on what you couldn’t. 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.”
Did Bill Gates simply win the intelligence lottery? Was Sheryl Sandberg born with a silver spoon, or did she “lean in”? When we debate historical questions like these, luck is in the past tense. Far more important are questions about the future: is it a matter of chance or design?
If you treat the future as something definite, it makes sense to understand it in advance and to work to shape it. But if you expect an indefinite future ruled by randomness, you’ll give up on trying to master it.
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.
China can grow so fast only because its starting base is so low. The easiest way for China to grow is to relentlessly copy what has already worked in the West. And that’s exactly what it’s doing: executing definite plans by burning ever more coal to build ever more factories and skyscrapers. But with a huge population pushing resource prices higher, there’s no way Chinese living standards can ever actually catch up to those of the richest countries, and the Chinese know it.
But it’s not working as well as it used to. Despite dramatic advances over the past two centuries, in recent decades biotechnology hasn’t met the expectations of investors—or patients. Eroom’s law—that’s Moore’s law backward—observes that the number of new drugs approved per billion dollars spent on R&D has halved every nine years since 1950. Since information technology accelerated faster than ever during those same years, the big question for biotech today is whether it will ever see similar progress.
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 to be.
Definite optimism works when you build the future you envision. Definite pessimism works by building what can be copied without expecting anything new. Indefinite pessimism works because it’s self-fulfilling: if you’re a slacker with low expectations, they’ll probably be met. But indefinite optimism seems inherently unsustainable: how can the future get better if no one plans for it?
Actually, most everybody in the modern world has already heard an answer to this question: progress without planning is what we call “evolution.” Darwin himself wrote that life tends to “progress” without anybody intending it. Every living thing is just a random iteration on some other organism, and the best iterations win.
Anyone who has held an iDevice or a smoothly machined MacBook has felt the result of Steve Jobs’s obsession with visual and experiential perfection. But the most important lesson to learn from Jobs has nothing to do with aesthetics. 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.
When Yahoo! offered to buy Facebook for $1 billion in July 2006, I thought we should at least consider it. But Mark Zuckerberg walked into the board meeting and announced: “Okay, guys, this is just a formality, it shouldn’t take more than 10 minutes. We’re obviously not going to sell here.” Mark saw where he could take the company, and Yahoo! didn’t. A business with a good definite plan will always be underrated in a world where people see the future as random.
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.
In 1906, economist Vilfredo Pareto discovered what became the “Pareto principle,” or the 80-20 rule, when he noticed that 20% of the people owned 80% of the land in Italy—a phenomenon that he found just as natural as the fact that 20% of the peapods in his garden produced 80% of the peas. This extraordinarily stark pattern, in which a small few radically outstrip all rivals, surrounds us everywhere in the natural and social world. Whatever Einstein did or didn’t say, the power law—so named because exponential equations describe severely unequal distributions—is the law of the universe.
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.
Consider what happens when you break the first rule. Andreessen Horowitz invested $250,000 in Instagram in 2010. When Facebook bought Instagram just two years later for $1 billion, Andreessen netted $78 million—a 312x return in less than two years. That’s a phenomenal return, befitting the firm’s reputation as one of the Valley’s best. VCs must find the handful of companies that will successfully go from 0 to 1 and then back them with every resource.
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.
The most common answer to the question of future value is a diversified portfolio: “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.
Our schools teach the opposite: institutionalized education traffics in a kind of homogenized, generic knowledge. Everybody who passes through the American school system learns not to think in power law terms. Every high school course period lasts 45 minutes whatever the subject. Every student proceeds at a similar pace. At college, model students obsessively hedge their futures by assembling a suite of exotic and minor skills. Every university believes in “excellence,” and hundred-page course catalogs arranged alphabetically according to arbitrary departments of knowledge seem designed to reassure you that “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.
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).
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 mistake in your life, you shouldn’t look for secrets. The prospect of being lonely but right—dedicating your life to something that no one else believes in—is already hard. The prospect of being lonely and wrong can be unbearable.
The 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 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.
Before Airbnb, travelers had little choice but to pay high prices for a hotel room, and property owners couldn’t easily and reliably rent out their unoccupied space. Airbnb saw untapped supply and unaddressed demand where others saw nothing at all. The same is true of private car services Lyft and Uber.
Few people imagined that it was possible to build a billion-dollar business by simply connecting people who want to go places with people willing to drive them there. We already had state-licensed taxicabs and private limousines; only by believing in and looking for secrets could you see beyond the convention to an opportunity hidden in plain sight. The same reason that so many internet companies, including Facebook, are often underestimated—their very simplicity—is itself an argument for secrets. If insights that look so elementary in retrospect can support important and valuable businesses, there must remain many great companies still to start.
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?
It’s easy to assume that natural secrets are the most important: the people who look for them can sound intimidatingly authoritative. This is why physics PhDs are notoriously difficult to work with—because they know the most fundamental truths, they think they know all truths. But does understanding electromagnetic theory automatically make you a great marriage counselor? Does a gravity theorist know more about your business than you do? At PayPal, I once interviewed a physics PhD for an engineering job. Halfway through my first question, he shouted, “Stop! I already know what you’re going to ask!” But he was wrong. It was the easiest no-hire decision I’ve ever made.
The best place to look for secrets is where no one else is looking. 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?
Companies are like countries in this way. 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.
A typical startup allocates ownership among founders, employees, and investors. The managers and employees who operate the company enjoy possession. And a board of directors, usually comprising founders and investors, exercises control.
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 have larger boards—the average is nine members.) By far the worst you can do is to make your board extra large.
Early employees usually get the most equity because they take more risk, but some later employees might be even more crucial to a venture’s success. A secretary who joined eBay in 1996 might have made 200 times more than her industry-veteran boss who joined in 1999. The graffiti artist who painted Facebook’s office walls in 2005 got stock that turned out to be worth $200 million, while a talented engineer who joined in 2010 might have made only $2 million. Since it’s impossible to achieve perfect fairness when distributing ownership, founders would do well to keep the details secret. Sending out a company-wide email that lists everyone’s ownership stake would be like dropping a nuclear bomb on your office.
The mechanics of mafia
We sold PayPal to eBay for $1.5 billion in 2002. Since then, Elon Musk has founded SpaceX and co-founded Tesla Motors; Reid Hoffman co-founded LinkedIn; Steve Chen, Chad Hurley, and Jawed Karim together founded YouTube; Jeremy Stoppelman and Russel Simmons founded Yelp; David Sacks co-founded Yammer; and I co-founded Palantir. Today all seven of those companies are worth more than $1 billion each.
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.
Talented people don’t need to work for you; they have plenty of options. You should ask yourself a more pointed version of the question: Why would someone join your company as its 20th engineer when she could go work at Google for more money and more prestige? 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 fit.
You probably can’t be the Google of 2014 in terms of compensation or perks, but you can be like the Google of 1999 if you already have good answers about your mission and team.
From the outside, everyone in your company should be different in the same way.
For the company to work, it didn’t matter what people looked like or which country they came from, but we needed every new hire to be equally obsessed.
On the inside, every individual should be sharply distinguished by her work.
But every company is also its own ecosystem, and factional strife makes it vulnerable to outside threats. Internal conflict is like an autoimmune disease: the technical cause of death may be pneumonia, but the real cause remains hidden from plain view.
If you build it, will they come?
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 looks.
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.
Man and machine
Today, more than 1.5 billion people enjoy instant access to the world’s knowledge using pocket-sized devices. Every one of today’s smartphones has thousands of times more processing power than the computers that guided astronauts to the moon.
30 years from now, will there be anything left for people to do? “Software is eating the world,” venture capitalist Marc Andreessen has announced with a tone of inevitability. VC Andy Kessler sounds almost gleeful when he explains that the best way to create productivity is “to get rid of people.” Forbes captured a more anxious attitude when it asked readers: Will a machine replace you?
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.
People don’t just compete to supply labor; they also demand the same resources. While American consumers have benefited from access to cheap toys and textiles from China, they’ve had to pay higher prices for the gasoline newly desired by millions of Chinese motorists. Whether people eat shark fins in Shanghai or fish tacos in San Diego, they all need food and they all need shelter. And desire doesn’t stop at subsistence—people will demand ever more as globalization continues.
Properly understood, technology is the one way for us to escape competition in a globalizing world. As computers become more and more powerful, they won’t be substitutes for humans: they’ll be complements.
Better technology in law, medicine, and education won’t replace professionals; it will allow them to do even more.
Why do so many people miss the power of complementarity? It 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.
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 ask: how can computers help humans solve hard problems?
The future of strong AI? 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.
Instead of a healthier planet, we got a massive cleantech bubble. Solyndra is the most famous green ghost, but most cleantech companies met similarly disastrous ends—more than 40 solar manufacturers went out of business or filed for bankruptcy in 2012 alone. The leading index of alternative energy companies shows the bubble’s dramatic deflation
Most cleantech companies crashed because they neglected one or more of the seven questions that every business must answer:
- 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?)
A great technology company should have proprietary technology an order of magnitude better than its nearest substitute. But cleantech companies rarely produced 2x, let alone 10x, improvements. Sometimes their offerings were actually worse than the products they sought to replace. Solyndra developed novel, cylindrical solar cells, but to a first approximation, cylindrical cells are only 1/π as efficient as flat ones—they simply don’t receive as much direct sunlight. The company tried to correct for this deficiency by using mirrors to reflect more sunlight to hit the bottoms of the panels, but it’s hard to recover from a radically inferior starting point.
Companies must strive for 10x better because merely incremental improvements often end up meaning no improvement at all for the end user. Suppose you develop a new wind turbine that’s 20% more efficient than any existing technology—when you test it in the laboratory. That sounds good at first, but the lab result won’t begin to compensate for the expenses and risks faced by any new product in the real world. Only when your product is 10x better can you offer the customer transparent superiority.
In 2006, billionaire technology investor John Doerr announced that “green is the new red, white and blue.” He could have stopped at “red.” As Doerr himself said, “Internet-sized markets are in the billions of dollars; the energy markets are in the trillions.” What he didn’t say is that huge, trillion-dollar markets mean ruthless, bloody competition.
Suppose you’re running a solar company that’s successfully installed hundreds of solar panel systems with a combined power generation capacity of 100 megawatts. Since total U.S. solar energy production capacity is 950 megawatts, you own 10.53% of the market. Congratulations, you tell yourself: you’re a player.
But what if the U.S. solar energy market isn’t the relevant market? What if the relevant market is the global solar market, with a production capacity of 18 gigawatts? Your 100 megawatts now makes you a very small fish indeed: suddenly you own less than 1% of the market.
And what if the appropriate measure isn’t global solar, but rather renewable energy in general? Annual production capacity from renewables is 420 gigawatts globally; you just shrank to 0.02% of the market. And compared to the total global power generation capacity of 15,000 gigawatts, your 100 megawatts is just a drop in the ocean.
At Founders Fund, we saw this coming. The most obvious clue was sartorial: cleantech executives were running around wearing suits and ties. This was a huge red flag, because real technologists wear T-shirts and jeans.
Every entrepreneur should plan to be the last mover in her particular market. That starts with asking yourself: what will the world look like 10 and 20 years from now, and how will my business fit in?
Cleantech entrepreneurs aimed for more than just success as most businesses define it. The cleantech bubble was the biggest phenomenon—and the biggest flop—in the history of “social entrepreneurship.
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 work on are often the ones nobody else even tries to solve.
Tesla: 7 for 7
Tesla is one of the few cleantech companies started last decade to be thriving today. They rode the social buzz of cleantech better than anyone, but they got the seven questions right, so their success is instructive:
- TECHNOLOGY. Tesla’s technology is so good that other car companies rely on it: Daimler uses Tesla’s battery packs; Mercedes-Benz uses a Tesla powertrain; Toyota uses a Tesla motor. General Motors has even created a task force to track Tesla’s next moves. But Tesla’s greatest technological achievement isn’t any single part or component, but rather its ability to integrate many components into one superior product.
- TIMING. In 2009, it was easy to think that the government would continue to support cleantech: “green jobs” were a political priority, federal funds were already earmarked, and Congress even seemed likely to pass cap-and-trade legislation. Tesla secured a $465 million loan from the U.S. Department of Energy. A half-billion-dollar subsidy was unthinkable in the mid-2000s. It’s unthinkable today. There was only one moment where that was possible, and Tesla played it perfectly.
- MONOPOLY. Tesla started with a tiny submarket that it could dominate: the market for high-end electric sports cars.
- TEAM. Elon describes his staff this way: “If you’re at Tesla, you’re choosing to be at the equivalent of Special Forces. There’s the regular army, and that’s fine, but if you are working at Tesla, you’re choosing to step up your game.”
- DISTRIBUTION. Most companies underestimate distribution, but Tesla took it so seriously that it decided to own the entire distribution chain.
- DURABILITY. Tesla has a head start and it’s moving faster than anyone else—and that combination means its lead is set to widen in the years ahead.
- SECRETS. Tesla knew that fashion drove interest in cleantech. Rich people especially wanted to appear “green,” even if it meant driving a boxy Prius or clunky Honda Insight.
The biggest idea behind it is right: the world really will need new sources of energy. Energy is the master resource: it’s how we feed ourselves, build shelter, and make everything we need to live comfortably. Most of the world dreams of living as comfortably as Americans do today, and globalization will cause increasingly severe energy challenges unless we build new technology. There simply aren’t enough resources in the world to replicate old approaches or redistribute our way to prosperity.
The 1990s had one big idea: the internet is going to be big. But too many internet companies had exactly that same idea and no others. An entrepreneur can’t benefit from macro-scale insight unless his own plans begin at the micro-scale. Cleantech companies faced the same problem: no matter how much the world needs energy, only a firm that offers a superior solution for a specific energy problem can make money. No sector will ever be so important that merely participating in it will be enough to build a great company.
The macro need for energy solutions is still real. But a valuable business must start by finding a niche and dominating a small market. Facebook started as a service for just one university campus before it spread to other schools and then the entire world. Finding small markets for energy solutions will be tricky—you could aim to replace diesel as a power source for remote islands, or maybe build modular reactors for quick deployment at military installations in hostile territories. Paradoxically, the challenge for the entrepreneurs who will create Energy 2.0 is to think small.
The founder's paradox
Primitive societies faced one fundamental problem above all: they would be torn apart by conflict if they didn’t have a way to stop it. So whenever plagues, disasters, or violent rivalries threatened the peace, it was beneficial for the society to place the entire blame on a single person, someone everybody could agree on: a scapegoat. Who makes an effective scapegoat? Like founders, scapegoats are extreme and contradictory figures. On the one hand, a scapegoat is necessarily weak; he is powerless to stop his own victimization. On the other hand, as the one who can defuse conflict by taking the blame, he is the most powerful member of the community.
Before execution, scapegoats were often worshipped like deities. The Aztecs considered their victims to be earthly forms of the gods to whom they were sacrificed. You would be dressed in fine clothes and feast royally until your brief reign ended and they cut your heart out. These are the roots of monarchy: every king was a living god, and every god a murdered king. Perhaps every modern king is just a scapegoat who has managed to delay his own execution.
Microsoft’s Windows claimed a 90% share of the market for operating systems in 2000. That year Peter Jennings could plausibly ask, “Who is more important in the world today: Bill Clinton or Bill Gates? I don’t know. It’s a good question.” The U.S. Department of Justice didn’t limit itself to rhetorical questions; they opened an investigation and sued Microsoft for “anticompetitive conduct.” In June 2000 a court ordered that Microsoft be broken apart. Gates had stepped down as CEO of Microsoft six months earlier, having been forced to spend most of his time responding to legal threats instead of building new technology. A court of appeals later overturned the breakup order, and Microsoft reached a settlement with the government in 2001. But by then Gates’s enemies had already deprived his company of the full engagement of its founder, and Microsoft entered an era of relative stagnation. Today Gates is better known as a philanthropist than a technologist.
||Just as the legal attack on Microsoft was ending Bill Gates’s dominance, Steve Jobs’s return to Apple demonstrated the irreplaceable value of a company’s founder. In some ways, Steve Jobs and Bill Gates were opposites. Jobs was an artist, preferred closed systems, and spent his time thinking about great products above all else; Gates was a businessman, kept his products open, and wanted to run the world. But both were insider/outsiders, and both pushed the companies they started to achievements that nobody else would have been able to match.
in 1985: Apple’s board effectively kicked Jobs out of his own company when he clashed with the professional CEO brought in to provide adult supervision. Jobs’s return to Apple 12 years later shows how the most important task in business—the creation of new value—cannot be reduced to a formula and applied by professionals. When he was hired as interim CEO of Apple in 1997, the impeccably credentialed executives who preceded him had steered the company nearly to bankruptcy. That year Michael Dell famously said of Apple, “What would I do? I’d shut it down and give the money back to the shareholders.” Instead Jobs introduced the iPod (2001), the iPhone (2007), and the iPad (2010) before he had to resign in 2011 because of poor health. By the following year Apple was the single most valuable company in the world.
A unique founder can make authoritative decisions, inspire strong personal loyalty, and plan ahead for decades. Paradoxically, impersonal bureaucracies staffed by trained professionals can last longer than any lifetime, but they usually act with short time horizons. The lesson for business is that we need founders. If anything, we should be more tolerant of founders who seem strange or extreme; we need unusual individuals to lead companies beyond mere incrementalism.
Above all, don’t overestimate your own power as an individual. Founders are important not because they are the only ones whose work has value, but rather because a great founder can bring out the best work from everybody at his company.
Stagnation or singularity?
Our task today is to find singular ways to create the new things that will make the future not just different, but better—to go from 0 to 1. The essential first step is to think for yourself. Only by seeing our world anew, as fresh and strange as it was to the ancients who saw it first, can we both re-create it and preserve it for the future.