Book Summary: Zero to One

How to build the future

I have spent the last three years doggedly pursuing a single, contrarian idea: inventing better meat using emerging technology to ensure individuals will choose sustainable foods selfishly.

It seems so simple and obvious. Of course the meat we eat isn’t the best nature has to offer, it’s what our ancestors had access to. Of course we shouldn’t use sophisticated new technologies just to make commodities that lack strong differentiation. Of course as these new technologies mature, brands will become a big driver of the meats we eat the same way it does in every other category of food.

I remember the first time I read Zero to One, I was working at a University and hating every moment of it. As an organisation which should be obsessed with building and educating for the future universities are obsessed with everything but. Process, bureaucracy and maintaining the status quo are the goals of the institution. Zero to One felt like a peer into an incredible parallel world, one where huge ambition, risk, comradery and hard work could have a huge impact on the world (even though it may not be a positive one).

A lot has changed for me since I last read this book, revisiting it now provides a very different lens to all of those years ago. It still resonates, except now it feels far, far more practical.

One paragraph summary

It is tempting, either through pain from the dot-com crash, or MBA programs, or a desire to be ‘indefinite’ (keeping our options open) to look to copy from businesses that have worked in the past — going from 1 to n. But, each generation of great companies applies new technology in a non-obvious and contrarian manner. These breakthrough companies, those that introduce something truly new to the world, have a handful of things in common. They are (at least) a little monopolistic at scale, they start in small, concentrated markets, they have a genuine tech edge, good timing, a great team and (most importantly) see something others don’t.

We are taught, raised and often socialised to think of our world as zero sum. Companies (large and small), individuals and even countries love to reduce the world down into rivals and competitors. Our human propensity is to get entangle ourselves in human drama, focus on competitors, focus on the fight rather than the enduring thing we are building. This is why there were so many online pet stores during the dotcom bubble, they were all too busy looking at one another than what they were actually building.

But, the benefit of living right now is we are reshaping our world constantly with new technologies. There are nearly endless opportunities to offer new choices for people, the world is far from zero sum.

“Creative monopolists give customers more choices by adding entirely new categories of abundance.”

These ‘creative monopolies’ have a number of important elements in common:

Proprietary technology

Every one of these monopolies started with some technology or engineering capability that was significantly better than what else was out there. As a rule of thumb this proprietary technology needs to be at least 10x better than incumbent at the time of launch.

Network effects

To encourage rapid take up of these new products having an element of network effects is essential. Products that become better and more valuable with more users creates a strong moat around a company.

Economies of scale

Monopoly businesses must get stronger as they get bigger. The most successful businesses reach a point where a small, talented group of people can make things that provide value to millions. Service businesses scale very poorly — every increment of growth is delivered by hiring more people. Software businesses are the opposite, every increment of growth has close to zero cost.

Branding

Valuable monopolies are also recognisable brands that have been built intentionally.

Critically, all monopoly companies start in small markets. It’s tempting to assume companies that end up as large, impactful monopoly companies start in large and impactful markets. Pick any example of the largest companies on earth, each began with a big share of a small market.

Over the course of the book Peter Thiel boils down to the requirements of a startup to seven absolutely critical requirements for a meaningful and successful startup:

  1. Can you create breakthrough technology instead of incremental improvements?
  2. Is now the right time to start your particular business?
  3. Are you starting with a big share of a small market?
  4. Do you have the right team?
  5. Do you have a way to not just create but deliver your product?
  6. Will your market position be defensible in 10 and 20 years?
  7. Have you identified a market opportunity that others don’t see?

From a selfish, personal point of view where this is applied to biotech, specifically drug discovery, is one of the most interesting parts of the book.

Broadly Thiel generalises biotech as an example of indefinite thinking. Instead of biotech being built on a rational understanding of the human body and approaching these problems as an engineering systems challenge, drug discovery is an exercise in brute force and chance.

But, there’s another issue Thiel attributes to the slowness of drug discovery, many of these companies have scientific leaders with one foot in academia and one in the company. They maintain this dual commitment, rather than fully committing to the business to the degree that is necessary for success. Everyone else in the company mirrors this indefinite attitude creating a self-fulfilling promise of low intensity and commitment work.

The right team can’t be one that isn’t fully committed to solving the problems the startup has set out to solve.

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