Peter Thiel is a co-founder of PayPal and an early investor in Facebook. Yesterday night, he came to campus to promote his new book, Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build The Future. Armchair Analyst Kevin Chen went to see what it was all about.
As an audience consisting mostly of well-dressed B-school students filed in, songs from the Mulan soundtrack played over the speakers. The line to get into the event stretched across 114th Street and past Butler. But if you thought that was long, the list of event co-hosts was even longer: Columbia Organization for Rising Entrepreneurs, The Eugene Lang Entrepreneurship Center at Columbia Business School, and Columbia University Entrepreneurship.
After promising Vincent Ponzo, Director of the Lang Center, that we’d give Thiel a “warm New York City welcome” (if such a thing even exists), we finally got to see the man himself.
According to Thiel, Zero to One is about the unique moments that happen when someone creates a new product for the first time: maybe the first airplane, or the first iPhone. Do these events have anything in common with each other that can be applied again and again? Thiel says yes—and that’s the question the book tries to answer.
“We’re living in a world where courage is in even shorter supply than genius,” Thiel likes to say, meaning that people are more afraid to deviate from what they’ve been taught, keeping them from pursuing new ideas they come up with. The book focuses on what Thiel calls “contrarian answers”—challenges to conventional wisdom. Most people believe this, but that’s not the truth. Most people believe capitalism is synonymous with competition, but Thiel claims they are opposites. Google is a capitalist (making a lot of money) because it has no competition. There’s a ton of competition for NYC restaurants so none of them are making that much money. “The people who have monopolies don’t talk about them”—Google defines itself as a technology company competing in many areas against the likes of Apple, Facebook, and Microsoft, to draw attention away from its monopoly in search.
People seek competition because there’s a sense of safety in crowds. Thiel takes this opportunity to talk about his background. He started out as your stereotypical Ivy Leaguer: after graduating from Stanford (shush, it’s the Ivy League of the west coast), he went to law school and worked at a NYC law firm. Through a “quarter-life crisis,” he realized that he hated how his coworkers always tried to one-up each other. Thiel moved to California and started PayPal during the tech boom of the late 1990s.
Thiel wraps up his prepared statement by touching on the trade-off between globalization and technological innovation. In the last 40 years, the world has been focused on copying and globalizing at the expense of innovation—for instance, we aren’t seeing many solutions to the energy and transportation problems. It’s even reflected in our language: the developing world is supposed to copy the developed. “When we say we live in the developed world, we say that there will be nothing new. We should be asking how we can develop the developed world.”
Questions for Thiel: monopolies, SpaceX, and Star Trek, coming up after the jump.