REVIEW - Zero to One - Notes on Startups or How to Build the Future


Zero to One

Notes on Startups or How to Build the Future


Peter Thiel with Blake Masters


Virgin Books (2015)




Ian Bruntlett


May 2021



Verdict: Recommended.

Going from ‘Zero to One’ is another way of describing doing something that hasn’t been done before. This book defines globalisation as “taking things that work somewhere and making them work everywhere”, citing China as a “paradigmatic example”. It defines ‘0 to 1’ progress as technology – “Properly understood, any new and better way of doing things is technology”. It also defines a startup as “the largest group of people you can convince of a plan to build a better future”.

I’ll deal with this book chapter by chapter. ‘Party Like It’s1999’ covers the dotcom boom, and the lessons learned from it. ‘All Happy Companies Are Different’ discusses monopolistic companies vs competitive companies – how businesses should avoid commodity markets and aim for a decent profit. ‘The Ideology of Competition’ discusses how “Creative monopoly means new products that benefit everybody and sustainable profits for the creator”. He argues against competition, stating “competition means no profits for anybody”. He basically states that cut-throat competition in academia has broken Higher Education and that competition is a distraction from real threats – like an impending tech bubble that the author survived by merging with a rival’s firm. ‘Last Mover Advantage’ is all about carefully choosing small markets for your startup and avoiding competition by dominating a small niche and scaling up from there. ‘You Are Not a Lottery Ticket’ is all about circumstances, outlook – optimistic vs pessimistic and whether or not planning for the future is relevant. It asks “Can you control your future?” and explores the ramifications of answering that question. ‘Secrets’ cites the Unabombers three categories of Human goals – those that require minimal effort, those that require serious effort, and those that cannot be satisfied. It states that profits are to be gained by finding and exploiting secrets. ‘Foundations’ is about Thiel’s law “a startup messed up its foundation cannot be fixed”. This chapter describes the Do’s and Don’ts of structuring a startup. ‘The Mechanics of Mafia’ is all about the importance of gathering people who want to work together and are personally rather than financially oriented. He states there is a spectrum ranging from extreme involvement (a cult) through to having no long term interest in your company at all (consultant). ‘If You Build It, Will They Come?’ is all about the hidden importance of sales and distribution. ‘Man and Machine’ is how the differences in the capabilities of computers and people means that they complement each other rather than compete with each other. ‘Seeing green’ is all about how many environmentally friendly companies failed by ignoring good business practice. ‘The Founder’s Paradox’ discusses founders and ‘Where Kings Come From’ is a cautionary tale for unconventional founders. Finally, ‘Stagnation or Singularity?’ discusses four possible futures for the Human Race. In the end, the author advises “The essential first step is to think for yourself”.

I have worked for a couple of startups as a software developer in the UK. This book covers getting up to being a startup and planning to survive but does not cover ‘What next?’ In other words what happens when your startup is no longer a startup and you’ve suddenly got an established company on your hands. Suddenly the founders are distanced by company structure from the original developers they once closely worked with and they have to deal with things like Health and Safety, Accounts and Cash Flow issues. Despite that, this book seems pretty relevant. A further reading section would have been a good idea.

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