The Alan Howard Foundation / JW3 Speaker Series presents Peter Thiel in conversation with Niall Ferguson.
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On April 29th, PayPal founder and Facebook director Peter Thiel told a sell-out audience at the JW3 cultural centre how to spot the next Mark Zuckerberg.
Harvard University Professor of History and author, Niall Ferguson, interviewed Thiel for this seventh talk in the Alan Howard Foundation/ JW3 Speaker Series. Globalisation, technology, education and politics were among themes he raised with the American entrepreneur.
Thiel was the first outside investor in Facebook, and early on in the talk Ferguson asked him how investors could spot the next Zuckerberg. Thiel said investors ought to focus on businesses run by competent people and with few competitors.“Always aim for a monopoly,” he said, “capture a small market and grow it over time. Facebook went from zero to 60 per cent market share in ten days.”
Later in the discussion, Thiel gave further investment advice by saying the more investors an enterprise has, the more likely it is to be overhyped. And he recommended that people who wanted to start their own business needed to be idiosyncratic: do something you like, you’re good at and few others are doing.
Although Thiel has a BA and Law degree from Stanford, he left law the law firm he worked at after only seven months and three days, saying it was like Alcatraz. Too many people attend college for negative reasons he believes.”People see it as an insurance product, a defence against falling through the cracks, not as an investment”, he said.
Asked about his politics Thiel said he was fiscally conservative and socially liberal, but said power was with the bureaucrats, not politicians, so there was little point in taking politics too seriously.“I aspire to be a political atheist. I don’t think we should place too much hope in our political leaders,” said Thiel, “A lot of it seems to resemble World Wide Wrestling with the difference that the wrestlers know it’s all fake.”
one way of kicking this off would be to ask Peter about the title of his best-selling book I must admit when you handed me the bound galleys in San Francisco I took her kind of step back because zero to one where I come from is a football score did it occur to you that you've given your book the title but you know most Londoners would associate with Arsenal Football Club I became aware of that after somewhat after the fact and it's I gather not not the football score you generally want to have either it basically uh it comes on from this question of how does one on how does one start new things how does one create new things and I it comes out of a contrast that I develop in the book between two different modalities of progress that I think are very important in the 21st century one of them is globalization which I always draw on the x-axis involves copying things that work going from 1 to N doing more of things that already work and then the other modality I'd subscribe is technology broadly understood doing new things draw it on the y-axis it's vertical intensive progress going from 0 to 1 so globalization is going from 1 to 100 typewriters technology we going from a typewriter to a word processor and and I believe we are live in a world that for many decades has been more dominated by by globalization than by technology a lot of which works best in the last 4050 years has been more on the globalization side for a number of reasons I think that this has been somewhat unbalanced that that if we're going to have a successful 21st century it will require a somewhat higher ratio of technological progress than we've had in recent decades but at the same time it's a very strange kind of a thing because doing new things has a very different character from copying things that work no copying things that work is sort of mechanistic formulaic there's a sense in which sort of conventional science always starts with a number two it starts with experiments you can repeat and do over again whereas I'm inventing new things it's not quite scientific you know the next Bill Gates will not start an operating system company the next Larry Page will not start a search engine the next Mark Zuckerberg won't start a social network if you try to copy these people there's some sense in which you're not learning from them so this is sort of a deep paradox in teaching about entrepreneurship because you know the core advice you have to do something new and if I try to reduce that to a formula you have lost the essence of everything what I ask you briefly about Facebook because that's one of your most famous and successful investments I just want to make everybody including myself squirm a bit in August 2004 you put five hundred thousand dollars into a company called Facebook and that brought you just over ten percent of the equity what when you sold that investment you haven't sold it all I think we still have five million shares the the sales in two tranches yielded more than a billion dollars if that doesn't make you feel terrible the only prospect I think the only person that doesn't make feel terrible is probably Allen but everybody else is going you know we should it's not like a zero-sum world ok as long as we have as long as we progress in our world I shouldn't be quite that 0 song but let me let me ask you about about about how you saw the potential in that company tell us a bit about how you can tell a winner from a loser because you see a whole ton of tech companies that come and pitch to you in your venture capital mode how can you spot a winner as big as a car burger well it's um it would probably probably would be somewhat misleading to say that all of this could be could be seen seen from the from the very beginning I had looked at it already a number of these different social networking sites and there were definitely a lot of the early attributes were quite good they seemed very competent technically which was actually strangely not true man you the other companies but I think one of the other one of the other things to always poke that I hope I'm always very focused on this point is not just the product or the the abilities of the people but but sort of the third part is where I would describe is the business model the business strategy and I think that's often not given enough weight because you're inventing something new is generally good for the world it doesn't mean that you automatically will do well as an inventor most scientists and inventors end up doing disturbingly capturing disturbingly little of the value you create you know to succeed as an inventor or scientist or entrepreneur you have to create X dollars of value for the world and you have to capture y % of X and the the one important detail people forget is that x and y are completely independent variables and that in most cases y equals zero percent and this is sort of I think it's certainly been my own experience yeah well we're not you know we're not commenting on the bank under backs either here but I believe that we'll leave that unanswered even if you had generated vast amounts of value for the world how much of that you captures is quite open-ended and I think I think there is sort of a history of innovation that one could tell where most of the time the business models have been far too competitive it's been far too difficult to capture anything of great value you know the business model that I'm I'm very fixated on um which I think anyone who starts a company a vest San Juan joins one early on you should always aim for monopoly and this is sort of my my one big transgressive idea yeah you're not allowed to talk about it Sheldon the fact the fact the fact that you're not allowed to talk about it is I think always a bit of a clue that it's perhaps an under explored idea and there are there are certainly questions at what point is this good for society at what point is it bad for society we have antitrust laws to protect us from bad monopolies on the other hand we have copyright patent trademark laws to encourage other creation of new things so from a society perspective it's very complicated but from the from the inside you always want to have a monopoly and I think one of the sort of key early indications for monopolies is not do you have a vast market which is sort of the standard business school model if you want to go after big markets big markets I think are often quite bad because they mean there are lots of people in them you could open a restaurant in London you know the foodservice market industry is an enormous industry and it's it's ferociously competitive if you will never make any money so if you want to compete like crazy and not make money you should open up open a restaurant and then I hope there no restaurant to us here I'm sobbing as you speak I think sort of the the I think in some ways one of the things that's been very powerfully successful is where you've captured small markets and then sort of grown the market over time PayPal started with on power sellers on eBay which was a subset of a subset of e-commerce was a really tricky payments problem there were maybe twenty or thirty thousand of these people in late 99 when we launched we captured maybe 25 30 percent market share over four to five months which was sort of a very auspicious start and then you gradually build it out in concentric circles from there Facebook started with 10,000 students at Harvard University a market so small that if you had written it up as a business plan it would have never gotten funded people say that's that's way too small a market to be interesting and you went from zero to 60 percent market share in 10 days which was you know an extremely auspicious start and then it turned out that could be replicated other colleges and beyond is it is it true that your advice to Zuckerberg at one point was simply don't f it up I'm not sure I maybe don't mess it up something like that did you ask him your killer question which you you cite in the book is the question you always ask people you're interviewing as potential employees quote what important truth do very few people agree with you on did you ask him that question I don't I I think I could focus on that question and years years later it's I don't want always ask it because it turns out to be it's it's one of these interview I don't ask anymore because you've put it in a book it's actually are all Pressley there's a subset of interview questions most interview questions you know once you know they exist just lose their value so if you have some sort of strange math puzzle and you can memorize the answer then it doesn't work quite as well anymore so this is what most of the Google interview questions are these math puzzles and people just eventually memorize how to how to do them all but I think this is actually one of those unusual questions where even if you read on the internet that I asked it of everybody it doesn't make it much much easier to answer because um the answer to this question it's not a hard question because you have to be super brilliant to have some idea of a truth that other people don't agree with you and I think I think most of us actually have answered this question the real problem is a as a psychosocial one it's very uncomfortable because the correct answer isn't something lame like the education system doesn't work or our politicians are a bunch of clowns or things like that that everybody already agrees on the answers have to be things that that the interviewer or the person you're talking to will be deeply uncomfortable about and therefore and that's that's and we I think we live in a world which courage isn't far shorter supply than genius I certainly agree with that is is your version is your answer to the question monopoly is okay what's that you're shocking view that whatever most people don't know you know I mean certainly my my my most shocking answers I would I would refuse to to give in any context since uh just out of self-preservation I was having to drive monopolies roughly at that that's roughly at the limit of what I'd be uh would I be willing to say you know the the somewhat flip answer that I always give is that that people think this is an easy question to answer but it is a hard question because there's something about originality that's always much harder than people people think you know already in the time of Shakespeare the word ape meant both primate and to imitate and there's something it's sort of how human beings learns how we learn language from our parents is how you know culture gets transmitted in our society we are these incredibly powerful imitating machines but then there also are places where this this goes very wrong it goes wrong it's sort of the madness of crowds and financial market bubbles and sort of runaway crazy fashions of one sort or another and so somehow being able to think for oneself is it's always easy to say very hard to do there's a you know there's a somewhat strange phenomenon in Silicon Valley where you know a surprisingly large number of the successful founders and entrepreneurs seem to be suffering from a mild form of Asperger's or something like this mentioning no names mentioning no names and but I think we need to always turn this around as an indictment of our society and say what is it about our society where where if you are not suffering from Asperger's you will sort of be subtly talked out of all of your interesting original ideas before they're even fully formed you will sort of pick up on subtle cues from the people around you oh that's a little bit too strange people are looking at me funny I better not say that I better not do that you know I should just go open that restaurant after all they've done these studies at Harvard Business School which you can sort of I often think of the Business School contingent with apologies to people in the audience here but I think the Business School contingent is sort of the anti Asperger's contingent it's sort of people who are extremely socially adapted they're very well socialized that may be somewhat low on the conviction level and when you put all these people in a in a hothouse environment for two years where they're supposed to figure out what they're gonna do with the rest of their lives and they talked to one another and of course nobody has a clue what to do this is sort of a formula for some rather bad decisions getting made and they've done these studies at on Harvard Business School where they found the largest cohort of people systematically end up going into the wrong thing oh it's all sorted after two years conclude they should all try to catch the last wave by when it's generally too late so you know in 1989 they all want to work for Michael Milken one or two years before it really got in trouble with the junk bonds you know they were never interested in tech except for 99 2000 when they descended on Silicon Valley and timed the end of the dot-com bubble perfectly and on and on where are they now quite like to know what are they are they back in Silicon Valley because there's a sense of one can hear I mean I'm working at Harvard I should perhaps defend the institution but you kept you that's a that's a that's a very robust defense it's a wonderful University that the business it is a university will come back to universes a minute I'll give the game away because Peter has extremely interesting views on on university but he's a Stanford guy so you should expect him to run Harvard Dan but what is interesting at the moment is the subtle suspicion that may be and this is very much at the business could maybe the action is in fact on the west coast does that mean they're all coming back to Silicon Valley just in time for another debt comm crash you know it's I think these things probably work best at the very extreme point I'm not you know I'm not sure it's quite extreme enough to to signal that but but yeah there probably are a lot of people who who end up trying to be sort of so much fake entrepreneurs where the goal is to be an entrepreneur if you ask what do you want to do with your life what do you want to when you grow up I want to be an entrepreneur which I always think is a somewhat too common something disturbingly somewhat too common and I think you know it's it's a it's um you know it's saying that you want to be an entrepreneur is sort of like saying I want to be rich I want to be famous you know nobody in their right mind starts a company for the sake of starting a company you start a company because there's a very important problem to solve that's not getting solved in large you know governmental or nonprofit or for-profit institutions and that's why you actually need to start a new company just starting a company for the sake of doing so is a is a really odd thing to do