In order to carry out this assignment, students must carefully read Peter Thiel’s book, Zero to One.
The world is undergoing radical transformation. With Brexit, the British voted to leave the European Union, an unthinkable move just a few years ago. Meanwhile, within the UK, the Scots, Northern Irish and possibly Welsh are looking into leaving the UK itself. The 2016 Presidential election in the United States was unprecedented in modern times, where voters expressed dissatisfaction with the status quo by supporting two total outsiders: Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. In the Middle East, Isil strives to build a supranational caliphate by means of horrific, terrorist policies. On the economic front, the prospects for large emerging economies – particularly Brazil, India and Russia – have dimmed; only China continues to move forward strongly.
In Zero to One, Peter Thiel, one of the premier venture capitalists and a successful founder of billion dollar businesses describes what it takes to grow a business from the start-up stage to billion dollar enterprise, going from “zero to one.” Thiel’s track record is impeccable. He cofounded Paypal and Palantir then went on to be an investor in assorted successful high-tech companies. He was the first outside investor to invest in Facebook: his $500,000 investment in 2004 gave a 10.2% equity interest in the firm and ultimately earned him billions of dollars. Mr. Thiel’s views are particularly interesting because he is an avowed libertarian. He believes that success in companies requires that their managers, directors, and employees take contrarian views on how to carry out their business.
Thiel’s views on what is needed to create great new companies is different from what business schools teach. He rejects current fads such as lean, flexibility, and incremental growth. He rails against competition and promotes monopoly. His positions make him sound like a crank, but his superlative track record suggests he must be taken seriously.
This assignment is designed to familiarize MBA students with Thiel’s upside-down world. It requires students to examine both Thiel’s perspective and the conventional wisdom critically. In a disruptive age, managers must think seriously about handling the disruption by thinking disruptively.
- Peter Thiel is a contrarian who supports contrarian thinking and action. He believes that many of the standard lessons we are taught at school yield mediocre performance at the individual, group, enterprise and national level. The highest performing students at prestige universities, such as Stanford University (Thiel’s alma mater) are molded into being conformists – often the top students go into high status, high paying fields such as law, consulting and finance – careers that do not add value to the economy or society. One of his most controversial views is that competition is not generally good for individuals, groups, enterprises and societies. This view goes against the most basic precepts of economic and financial thinking.
- Explain Thiel’s critique of competition. Do you agree with his perspective? Why or why not?
- Explain Theil’s statement that companies should strive to become monopolies. Do you agree with his perspective? Why or why not? Please illustrate your points with examples.
- One of Thiel’s recurring themes is that great companies have secrets. What does he mean by this? How do the secrets contribute to superlative performance? Please illustrate your points with examples.
- Thiel devises a simple framework for predicting an enterprise’s future performance. He asks: 1) Do the enterprise’s leaders and employees have a perspective on the business that is definite or indefinite? 2) Do the leaders and employees have a perspective that is optimistic or pessimistic? Bottom line: there are four distinct combinations of these perspectives: definite-optimists, indefinite-optimists, definite-pessimists, indefinite-pessimists.
- Briefly describe the characteristics of each of these four outlooks. Please illustrate your points with examples.
- Which outlook is best-suited to establishing a start-up that can grow into a great enterprise? Explain. Please illustrate your points with examples.
- What is your opinion on Thiel’s framework? Does it make sense to you? Why or why not? Please answer this question in a business context (no gut feeling, non-specific responses, please).
- When examining new ventures to see whether they merit support from his venture capital company, Thiel raises and answers seven questions about the initiative:
- The engineering question: Can you create breakthrough technology instead of incremental improvements?
- The timing question: Is now the right time to start your particular business?
- The monopoly question: Are you starting with a big share of a small market?
- The people question: Do you have the right team?
- The distribution question: Do you have a way to not just develop but deliver your product?
- The durability question: Will your market position be defensible 10 to 20 years in the future?
- The secret question: Have you identified a unique opportunity that others don’t see?
- Which of these questions apply to the full gamut of non-trivial new ventures needing investment dollars, from establishing a trendy restaurant to starting a computer security business to coming up with a truly innovative product that has the potential to move markets? Explain your rationale.
- Think about this list of questions. There are some notable questions missing that are usually viewed as important questions investors should ask before investing in a new venture. Identify two. Why do you think Thiel doesn’t include them in his list?