Zero to One by Peter Thiel

Posted on Oct 17, 2014
Berlin, Germany

The purpose book is not always clear, it drifts between notes for startups to geopolitical musings, historical interpretation, psychological categorization, and national call-to-arms. The brashness of the pronouncements is typical of a successful investor and businessman.

Throughout the writing, Theil’s modus-operandi is to make a statement that he expects most of his readers to agree with and then to tear it down. Some of these are insightful, such as thought that a company that is rotten at the foundation will never succeed and that a bad plan is better than no plan. He criticises as characteristic of of the post-70s US societal attitude recent trends in startup culture that emphasizes that it is impossible to know how things will develop so making plans are a waste of time.

The less-helpful analyses are those that are in historical and geo-political in nature. For example, his statements on what China is and what it isn’t read like a pundit’s whose never before visited the place, or perhaps has but spent his 10-day trip there escorted on an official tour by overly-positive minders. He puts entire countries along a two-axis grid of optimism/pessimism and decisiveness/indecisiveness. Europe (to Theil as a whole) is indecisive and pessimistic while the US is indecisive and optimistic. This is why Europe, in contrast to the United States, has “a vacation obsession”. This demonstrates Theil’s, and the classic capitalist investor’s attitude, that the best rewards in life are financial.

Overall, I view this book more as a study of the mindset of a successful investor in startups in the US rather than a manual for insights that could help someone starting their own company to follow. You learn more about things that you should not do rather than things that you should do. Nevertheless, as Edison was said to have told an acquaintance upon observing the 1000th failure of his light bulb, that he has learned 1000-ways not to do something. These type of lessons are valuable, too.