Book Review #1: Zero to One

Written by Peter Thiel of PayPal fame, Zero to One is a high-level look at entrepreneurship rather than a how-to guide. It examines how startups can strive to stand out from competitors, build a founding team and the conditions under which a startup will succeed. 

Why I chose this book: I chose this book to start with, because I thought it was fitting for my first blog post. After seeing far too many people use the catchphrase “zero to one”, I wanted to find out what the hype was about. It turns out, “zero to one” is what startups need to do, to question existing ideas and find new ways of doing things. This involves rethinking businesses from scratch. This is different from going from “1 to N”, or copying things that work. 

My three biggest takeaways 

  • Monopoly is the condition of every successful business: Thiel argues that in order for a business to have long-lasting success, it has to be so good at what it does that no other firm can offer a close substitute. But I found it fascinating how whether a company is a monopoly also depends on the market in which it claims it belongs to. Google is undoubtedly a search engine monopoly, but if we see it as an advertising company or a technology company, it would resemble a small player. Strategic positioning makes a big difference, which is why smaller companies have an incentive to cultivate an image of themselves as the intersection of a few markets. 
  • Last mover advantage: Thiel challenges the concept of the “first mover advantage” – how those who are first to enter a market will capture the lion’s share of it. While first-movers may get a head-start, startups can’t just grow, they have to endure. Instead, Thiel argues how it’s better to be the last mover, to make the last great development in a specific market. When I read this, I couldn’t help but think of Apple. Apple didn’t invent any of the technologies it is celebrated for – the first tablet, portable music player or touch screen. But customers, including myself, remain loyal fans because of how well-designed and easy to use Apple’s products are. 
  • Seven questions for success: Bookmark Page 153, if you ever need to know whether a company you run/fund/are looking to join will succeed. According to Thiel, a successful company must create breakthrough technology, have good timing and become a monopoly. It must have the right team, a way to deliver its products and be relevant 10 years from now. It must also have a secret – to see a unique opportunity that others don’t see. That definitely sounds like a high bar to me! Perhaps that’s why NFTs and crypto have heated up so much in 2021. I don’t really understand how Web3 operates, but there must be a reason why Facebook rebranded as meta and why crypto influencer Irene Zhao wants to build SO-COL  as a social network for influencers 

Real-life applications 

  • At my job: Some of the most successful journalists I know have carved out their own unique niche. They might not have been the first to start a beat, but I’m definitely inspired by how they have found their own unique understanding of what readers want. I’m still finding my way 1 year 8 months into the job. But I’ve noticed how my better stories have been about issues that are timely and not too broad, like Covid-19 testing and charities. 
  • Startups I know: I can’t think of a single company which lives up to Thiel’s standards for long-term success. But as a consumer, I have a better understanding of why Secret Lab chairs are so popular. Although I do not use one, I can see why Secret Lab has succeeded during the Covid-19 pandemic. It started with a small market (gamers) and dominated it. The pandemic made work-from-home the default, providing it with the perfect opportunity to scale. I can’t imagine a chair will ever be outdated either. 

That’s a wrap for my first book review 🙂 If you enjoyed this review, feel free to leave me a message here or share this post. I will be reviewing The Lean StartUp in my next post in a few weeks’ time.

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