Tom MacWright

tom@macwright.org

I read Zero to One by Peter Thiel on

Review

Is your startup idea any good? Has America declined from definite optimism in the 1950s to a new state of indefinite optimism? Is globalism bad for workers? Does Karl Marx or Shakespeare better understand the human condition?

Zero to One asks more questions than your average startup-founding book. And it gives more answers - forceful answers that never fail to surprise. It’s substantive and intelligent on the practical questions and provocative on the bigger ones.

If you’re hoping that it stays away from politics, you’ll be disappointed. I had previously thought of Thiel as a libertarian. The label isn’t entirely wrong, but he’s a lot of other things, too, both positive and (in my opinion) negative.

Almost always, his political theory is included to provide justification for his business strategy. His analysis of indefinite versus definite optimism feeds his argument that today’s educational and business world is too focused on diversifying risk and not enough on daring and grand projects. His ideas about automation and labor tie into a formula for startups that enhance productivity instead of replacing workers.

But not always, of course. Thiel’s condemnation of college pretty much sits by itself. Same with his bizarre paragraph that equates hipsters to the unibomber.

I found myself largely agreeing with his ideas, with the exception of his claim that monopolies are pro-consumer and are the only way that large companies can truly innovate. Using Google as an example for this thesis (as others have) ignores the fact that most of Google’s innovations in the last fifteen years have been acquired, from Maps to Android to Docs - all through acquisitions of relatively small companies.

Thiel presupposes a few things. That you want to build a monopoly. That you will probably raise venture capital funding. That the conditions of the economy are roughly the same as what they were at the book’s writing. That world-scale factors like global warming or an economic downturn don’t eliminate a lot of the opportunity for both diversified and concentrated bets.

If you’re interested in this viewpoint, which thoroughly accepts market thinking and encourages calculated risk-taking, then this might be the best you can read. For folks with unformed political views, the political elements might be a gateway to dangerous ideologies. Let’s not forget that Mr. Thiel took the stage to announce Donald Trump at the RNC and sued Gawker out of business as revenge, and so on. Whether those things make him more attractive to read, less, or you neatly separate from his body of work, is up to you.

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