Excerpts - Zero to One
February 1, 2020
WHENEVER I INTERVIEW someone for a job, I like to ask this question: “What important truth do very few people agree with you on?” This question sounds easy because it’s straightforward. Actually, it’s very hard to answer. It’s intellectually difficult because the knowledge that everyone is taught in school is by definition agreed upon. And it’s psychologically difficult because anyone trying to answer must say something she knows to be unpopular. Brilliant thinking is rare, but courage is in even shorter supply than genius.
What does this contrarian question have to do with the future? In the most minimal sense, the future is simply the set of all moments yet to come. But what makes the future distinctive and important isn’t that it hasn’t happened yet, but rather that it will be a time when the world looks different from today.
When we think about the future, we hope for a future of progress. That progress can take one of two forms. Horizontal or extensive progress means copying things that work—going from 1 to n. Horizontal progress is easy to imagine because we already know what it looks like. Vertical or intensive progress means doing new things—going from 0 to 1. Vertical progress is harder to imagine because it requires doing something nobody else has ever done. If you take one typewriter and build 100, you have made horizontal progress. If you have a typewriter and build a word processor, you have made vertical progress.
At the macro level, the single word for horizontal progress is globalization—taking things that work somewhere and making them work everywhere.
The single word for vertical, 0 to 1 progress is technology. The rapid progress of information technology in recent decades has made Silicon Valley the capital of “technology” in general.
Because globalization and technology are different modes of progress, it’s possible to have both, either, or neither at the same time. For example, 1815 to 1914 was a period of both rapid technological development and rapid globalization. Between the First World War and Kissinger’s trip to reopen relations with China in 1971, there was rapid technological development but not much globalization. Since 1971, we have seen rapid globalization along with limited technological development, mostly confined to IT.
OUR CONTRARIAN QUESTION—What important truth do very few people agree with you on?—is difficult to answer directly. It may be easier to start with a preliminary: what does everybody agree on? “Madness is rare in individuals—but in groups, parties, nations, and ages it is the rule,” Nietzsche wrote (before he went mad). If you can identify a delusional popular belief, you can find what lies hidden behind it: the contrarian truth.
Conventional beliefs only ever come to appear arbitrary and wrong in retrospect; whenever one collapses, we call the old belief a bubble. But the distortions caused by bubbles don’t disappear when they pop. The internet craze of the ’90s was the biggest bubble since the crash of 1929, and the lessons learned afterward define and distort almost all thinking about technology today. The first step to thinking clearly is to question what we think we know about the past.
At least PayPal had a suitably grand mission—the kind that post-bubble skeptics would later describe as grandiose: we wanted to create a new internet currency to replace the U.S. dollar. Our first product let people beam money from one PalmPilot to another. However, nobody had any use for that product except the journalists who voted it one of the 10 worst business ideas of 1999. PalmPilots were still too exotic then, but email was already commonplace, so we decided to create a way to send and receive payments over email. By the fall of ’99, our email payment product worked well—anyone could log in to our website and easily transfer money. But we didn’t have enough customers, growth was slow, and expenses mounted. For PayPal to work, we needed to attract a critical mass of at least a million users. Advertising was too ineffective to justify the cost. Prospective deals with big banks kept falling through. So we decided to pay people to sign up. We gave new customers $10 for joining, and we gave them $10 more every time they referred a friend. This got us hundreds of thousands of new customers and an exponential growth rate. Of course, this customer acquisition strategy was unsustainable on its own—when you pay people to be your customers, exponential growth means an exponentially growing cost structure. Crazy costs were typical at that time in the Valley. But we thought our huge costs were sane: given a large user base, PayPal had a clear path to profitability by taking a small fee on customers’ transactions. We knew we’d need more funding to reach that goal. We also knew that the boom was going to end. Since we didn’t expect investors’ faith in our mission to survive the coming crash, we moved fast to raise funds while we could. On February 16, 2000, the Wall Street Journal ran a story lauding our viral growth and suggesting that PayPal was worth $500 million. When we raised $100 million the next month, our lead investor took the Journal’s back-of-the-envelope valuation as authoritative. (Other investors were in even more of a hurry. A South Korean firm wired us $5 million without first negotiating a deal or signing any documents. When I tried to return the money, they wouldn’t tell me where to send it.) That March 2000 financing round bought us the time we needed to make PayPal a success. Just as we closed the deal, the bubble popped.
These lessons have become dogma in the startup world; those who would ignore them are presumed to invite the justified doom visited upon technology in the great crash of 2000. And yet the opposite principles are probably more correct: 1. It is better to risk boldness than triviality. 2. A bad plan is better than no plan. 3. Competitive markets destroy profits. 4. Sales matters just as much as product.
It is better to risk boldness than triviality. 2. A bad plan is better than no plan. 3. Competitive markets destroy profits. 4. Sales matters just as much as product.
your company could create a lot of value without becoming very valuable itself. Creating value is not enough—you also need to capture some of the value you create. This means that even very big businesses can be bad businesses. For example, U.S. airline companies serve millions of passengers and create hundreds of billions of dollars of value each year. But in 2012, when the average airfare each way was $178, the airlines made only 37 cents per passenger trip. Compare them to Google, which creates less value but captures far more. Google brought in $50 billion in 2012 (versus $160 billion for the airlines), but it kept 21% of those revenues as profits—more than 100 times the airline industry’s profit margin that year. Google makes so much money that it’s now worth three times more than every U.S. airline combined.
The airlines compete with each other, but Google stands alone. Economists use two simplified models to explain the difference: perfect competition and monopoly. “Perfect competition” is considered both the ideal and the default state in Economics 101. So-called perfectly competitive markets achieve equilibrium when producer supply meets consumer demand. Every firm in a competitive market is undifferentiated and sells the same homogeneous products. Since no firm has any market power, they must all sell at whatever price the market determines. If there is money to be made, new firms will enter the market, increase supply, drive prices down, and thereby eliminate the profits that attracted them in the first place. If too many firms enter the market, they’ll suffer losses, some will fold, and prices will rise back to sustainable levels. Under perfect competition, in the long run no company makes an economic profit.
The opposite of perfect competition is monopoly. Whereas a competitive firm must sell at the market price, a monopoly owns its market, so it can set its own prices. Since it has no competition, it produces at the quantity and price combination that maximizes its profits.
Americans mythologize competition and credit it with saving us from socialist bread lines. Actually, capitalism and competition are opposites. Capitalism is premised on the accumulation of capital, but under perfect competition all profits get competed away. The lesson for entrepreneurs is clear: if you want to create and capture lasting value, don’t build an undifferentiated commodity business.
Actually, capitalism and competition are opposites. Capitalism is premised on the accumulation of capital, but under perfect competition all profits get competed away. The lesson for entrepreneurs is clear: if you want to create and capture lasting value, don’t build an undifferentiated commodity business.
Monopoly Lies Monopolists lie to protect themselves. They know that bragging about their great monopoly invites being audited, scrutinized, and attacked. Since they very much want their monopoly profits to continue unmolested, they tend to do whatever they can to conceal their monopoly—usually by exaggerating the power of their (nonexistent) competition.
Think about how Google talks about its business. It certainly doesn’t claim to be a monopoly. But is it one? Well, it depends: a monopoly in what? Let’s say that Google is primarily a search engine. As of May 2014, it owns about 68% of the search market. (Its closest competitors, Microsoft and Yahoo!, have about 19% and 10%, respectively.) If that doesn’t seem dominant enough, consider the fact that the word “google” is now an official entry in the Oxford English Dictionary—as a verb. Don’t hold your breath waiting for that to happen to Bing. But suppose we say that Google is primarily an advertising company. That changes things. The U.S. search engine advertising market is $17 billion annually. Online advertising is $37 billion annually. The entire U.S. advertising market is $150 billion. And global advertising is a $495 billion market. So even if Google completely monopolized U.S. search engine advertising, it would own just 3.4% of the global advertising market. From this angle, Google looks like a small player in a competitive world. What if we frame Google as a multifaceted technology company instead? This seems reasonable enough; in addition to its search engine, Google makes dozens of other software products, not to mention robotic cars, Android phones, and wearable computers. But 95% of Google’s revenue comes from search advertising; its other products generated just $2.35 billion in 2012, and its consumer tech products a mere fraction of that. Since consumer tech is a $964 billion market globally, Google owns less than 0.24% of it—a far cry from relevance, let alone monopoly. Framing itself as just another tech company allows Google to escape all sorts of unwanted attention.
Competitive Lies Non-monopolists tell the opposite lie: “we’re in a league of our own.” Entrepreneurs are always biased to understate the scale of competition, but that is the biggest mistake a startup can make. The fatal temptation is to describe your market extremely narrowly so that you dominate it by definition.
PayPal was at that time the only email-based payments company in the world. We employed fewer people than the restaurants on Castro Street did, but our business was much more valuable than all of those restaurants combined. Starting a new South Indian restaurant is a really hard way to make money. If you lose sight of competitive reality and focus on trivial differentiating factors—maybe you think your naan is superior because of your great-grandmother’s recipe—your business is unlikely to survive.
But, like the lack of British restaurants in Palo Alto, maybe that’s a good thing. Non-monopolists exaggerate their distinction by defining their market as the intersection of various smaller markets:
Non-monopolists exaggerate their distinction by defining their market as the intersection of various smaller markets: British food ∩ restaurant ∩ Palo Alto Rap star ∩ hackers ∩ sharks
Monopolists, by contrast, disguise their monopoly by framing their market as the union of several large markets: search engine ∪ mobile phones ∪ wearable computers ∪ self-driving cars
What does a monopolist’s union story look like in practice? Consider a statement from Google chairman Eric Schmidt’s testimony at a 2011 congressional hearing: We face an extremely competitive landscape in which consumers have a multitude of options to access information.
RUTHLESS PEOPLE The problem with a competitive business goes beyond lack of profits. Imagine you’re running one of those restaurants in Mountain View. You’re not that different from dozens of your competitors, so you’ve got to fight hard to survive. If you offer affordable food with low margins, you can probably pay employees only minimum wage. And you’ll need to squeeze out every efficiency: that’s why small restaurants put Grandma to work at the register and make the kids wash dishes in the back.
So, a monopoly is good for everyone on the inside, but what about everyone on the outside? Do outsized profits come at the expense of the rest of society? Actually, yes: profits come out of customers’ wallets, and monopolies deserve their bad reputation—but only in a world where nothing changes.
Tolstoy opens Anna Karenina by observing: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Business is the opposite. All happy companies are different: each one earns a monopoly by solving a unique problem. All failed companies are the same: they failed to escape competition.
Had I actually clerked on the Supreme Court, I probably would have spent my entire career taking depositions or drafting other people’s business deals instead of creating anything new. It’s hard to say how much would be different, but the opportunity costs were enormous. All Rhodes Scholars had a great future in their past.
Why do people compete with each other? Marx and Shakespeare provide two models for understanding almost every kind of conflict. According to Marx, people fight because they are different. The proletariat fights the bourgeoisie because they have completely different ideas and goals (generated, for Marx, by their very different material circumstances). The greater the differences, the greater the conflict. To Shakespeare, by contrast, all combatants look more or less alike. It’s not at all clear why they should be fighting, since they have nothing to fight about. Consider the opening line from Romeo and Juliet: “Two households, both alike in dignity.” The two houses are alike, yet they hate each other. They grow even more similar as the feud escalates. Eventually, they lose sight of why they started fighting in the first place.
The hazards of imitative competition may partially explain why individuals with an Asperger’s-like social ineptitude seem to be at an advantage in Silicon Valley today. If you’re less sensitive to social cues, you’re less likely to do the same things as everyone else around you. If you’re interested in making things or programming computers, you’ll be less afraid to pursue those activities single-mindedly and thereby become incredibly good at them. Then when you apply your skills, you’re a little less likely than others to give up your own convictions: this can save you from getting caught up in crowds competing for obvious prizes. Competition can make people hallucinate opportunities where none exist. The crazy ’90s version of this was the fierce battle for the online pet store market. It was Pets.com vs. PetStore.com vs. Petopia.com vs. what seemed like dozens of others. Each
For Hamlet, greatness means willingness to fight for reasons as thin as an eggshell: anyone would fight for things that matter; true heroes take their personal honor so seriously they will fight for things that don’t matter. This twisted logic is part of human nature, but it’s disastrous in business. If you can recognize competition as a destructive force instead of a sign of value, you’re already more sane than most.
the value of a business today is the sum of all the money it will make in the future. (To properly value a business, you also have to discount those future cash flows to their present worth, since a given amount of money today is worth more than the same amount in the future.) Comparing discounted cash flows shows the difference between low-growth businesses and high-growth startups at its starkest. Most of the value of low-growth businesses is in the near term. An Old Economy business (like a newspaper) might hold its value if it can maintain its current cash flows for five or six years. However, any firm with close substitutes will see its profits competed away. Nightclubs or restaurants are extreme examples: successful ones might collect healthy amounts today, but their cash flows will probably dwindle over the next few years when customers move on to newer and trendier alternatives. Technology companies follow the opposite trajectory. They often lose money for the first few years: it takes time to build valuable things, and that means delayed revenue. Most of a tech company’s value will come at least 10 to 15 years in the future. In March 2001, PayPal had yet to make a profit but our revenues were growing 100% year-over-year.
For example, rapid short-term growth at both Zynga and Groupon distracted managers and investors from long-term challenges. Zynga scored early wins with games like Farmville and claimed to have a “psychometric engine” to rigorously gauge the appeal of new releases. But they ended up with the same problem as every Hollywood studio: how can you reliably produce a constant stream of popular entertainment for a fickle audience? (Nobody knows.) Groupon posted fast growth as hundreds of thousands of local businesses tried their product. But persuading those businesses to become repeat customers was harder than they thought. If you focus on near-term growth above all else, you miss the most important question you should be asking: will this business still be around a decade from now? Numbers alone won’t tell you the answer; instead you must think critically about the qualitative characteristics of your business.
CHARACTERISTICS OF MONOPOLY What does a company with large cash flows far into the future look like? Every monopoly is unique, but they usually share some combination of the following characteristics: proprietary technology, network effects, economies of scale, and branding.
Proprietary Technology Proprietary technology is the most substantive advantage a company can have because it makes your product difficult or impossible to replicate. Google’s search algorithms, for example, return results better than anyone else’s. Proprietary technologies for extremely short page load times and highly accurate query autocompletion add to the core search product’s robustness and defensibility. It would be very hard for anyone to do to Google what Google did to all the other search engine companies in the early 2000s.
proprietary technology must be at least 10 times better than its closest substitute in some important dimension to lead to a real monopolistic advantage. Anything less than an order of magnitude better will probably be perceived as a marginal improvement and will be hard to sell, especially in an already crowded market.
Network Effects Network effects make a product more useful as more people use it. For example, if all your friends are on Facebook, it makes sense for you to join Facebook, too. Unilaterally choosing a different social network would only make you an eccentric. Network effects can be powerful, but you’ll never reap them unless your product is valuable to its very first users when the network is necessarily small.
Economies of Scale A monopoly business gets stronger as it gets bigger: the fixed costs of creating a product (engineering, management, office space) can be spread out over ever greater quantities of sales. Software startups can enjoy especially dramatic economies of scale because the marginal cost of producing another copy of the product is close to zero. Many businesses gain only limited advantages as they grow to large scale. Service businesses especially are difficult to make monopolies. If you own a yoga studio, for example, you’ll only be able to serve a certain number of customers. You can hire more instructors and expand to more locations, but your margins will remain fairly low and you’ll never reach a point where a core group of talented people can provide something of value to millions of separate clients, as software engineers are able to do.
Branding A company has a monopoly on its own brand by definition, so creating a strong brand is a powerful way to claim a monopoly. Today’s strongest tech brand is Apple: the attractive looks and carefully chosen materials of products like the iPhone and MacBook, the Apple Stores’ sleek minimalist design and close control over the consumer experience, the omnipresent advertising campaigns, the price positioning as a maker of premium goods, and the lingering nimbus of Steve Jobs’s personal charisma all contribute to a perception that Apple offers products so good as to constitute a category of their own.
Apple has a complex suite of proprietary technologies, both in hardware (like superior touchscreen materials) and software (like touchscreen interfaces purpose-designed for specific materials). It manufactures products at a scale large enough to dominate pricing for the materials it buys. And it enjoys strong network effects from its content ecosystem: thousands of developers write software for Apple devices because that’s where hundreds of millions of users are, and those users stay on the platform because it’s where the apps are. These other monopolistic advantages are less obvious than Apple’s sparkling brand, but they are the fundamentals that let the branding effectively reinforce Apple’s monopoly.
In a single tweet, Yahoo! summarized Mayer’s plan as a chain reaction of “people then products then traffic then revenue.” The people are supposed to come for the coolness: Yahoo! demonstrated design awareness by overhauling its logo, it asserted youthful relevance by acquiring hot startups like Tumblr, and it has gained media attention for Mayer’s own star power. But the big question is what products Yahoo! will actually create. When Steve Jobs returned to Apple, he didn’t just make Apple a cool place to work; he slashed product lines to focus on the handful of opportunities for 10x improvements. No technology company can be built on branding alone.
Start Small and Monopolize Every startup is small at the start. Every monopoly dominates a large share of its market. Therefore, every startup should start with a very small market. Always err on the side of starting too small. The reason is simple: it’s easier to dominate a small market than a large one.
The perfect target market for a startup is a small group of particular people concentrated together and served by few or no competitors. Any big market is a bad choice, and a big market already served by competing companies is even worse. This is why it’s always a red flag when entrepreneurs talk about getting 1% of a $100 billion market. In practice, a large market will either lack a good starting point or it will be open to competition, so it’s hard to ever reach that 1%. And even if you do succeed in gaining a small foothold, you’ll have to be satisfied with keeping the lights on: cutthroat competition means your profits will be zero.
Scaling Up Once you create and dominate a niche market, then you should gradually expand into related and slightly broader markets. Amazon shows how it can be done. Jeff Bezos’s founding vision was to dominate all of online retail, but he very deliberately started with books. There were millions of books to catalog, but they all had roughly the same shape, they were easy to ship, and some of the most rarely sold books—those least profitable for any retail store to keep in stock—also drew the most enthusiastic customers. Amazon became the dominant solution for anyone located far from a bookstore or seeking something unusual. Amazon then had two options: expand the number of people who read books, or expand to adjacent markets. They chose the latter, starting with the most similar markets: CDs, videos, and software. Amazon continued to add categories gradually until it had become the world’s general store. The name itself brilliantly encapsulated the company’s scaling strategy. The biodiversity of the Amazon rain forest reflected Amazon’s first goal of cataloging every book in the world, and now it stands for every kind of thing in the world, period.
Don’t Disrupt Silicon Valley has become obsessed with “disruption.” Originally, “disruption” was a term of art to describe how a firm can use new technology to introduce a low-end product at low prices, improve the product over time, and eventually overtake even the premium products offered by incumbent companies using older technology.
It’s true that we took some business away from Visa when we popularized internet payments: you might use PayPal to buy something online instead of using your Visa card to buy it in a store. But since we expanded the market for payments overall, we gave Visa far more business than we took. The overall dynamic was net positive, unlike Napster’s negative-sum struggle with the U.S. recording industry. As you craft a plan to expand to adjacent markets, don’t disrupt: avoid competition as much as possible.
Indefinite attitudes to the future explain what’s most dysfunctional in our world today. Process trumps substance: when people lack concrete plans to carry out, they use formal rules to assemble a portfolio of various options. This describes Americans today. In middle school, we’re encouraged to start hoarding “extracurricular activities.” In high school, ambitious students compete even harder to appear omnicompetent. By the time a student gets to college, he’s spent a decade curating a bewilderingly diverse résumé to prepare for a completely unknowable future. Come what may, he’s ready—for nothing in particular. A definite view, by contrast, favors firm convictions. Instead of pursuing many-sided mediocrity and calling it “well-roundedness,” a definite person determines the one best thing to do and then does it. Instead of working tirelessly to make herself indistinguishable, she strives to be great at something substantive—to be a monopoly of one. This is not what young people do today, because everyone around them has long since lost faith in a definite world. No one gets into Stanford by excelling at just one thing, unless that thing happens to involve throwing or catching a leather ball.
Indefinite Pessimism: Every culture has a myth of decline from some golden age, and almost all peoples throughout history have been pessimists. Even today pessimism still dominates huge parts of the world. An indefinite pessimist looks out onto a bleak future, but he has no idea what to do about it. This describes Europe since the early 1970s, when the continent succumbed to undirected bureaucratic drift.
The indefinite pessimist can’t know whether the inevitable decline will be fast or slow, catastrophic or gradual. All he can do is wait for it to happen, so he might as well eat, drink, and be merry in the meantime: hence Europe’s famous vacation mania.
Definite Pessimism: A definite pessimist believes the future can be known, but since it will be bleak, he must prepare for it. Perhaps surprisingly, China is probably the most definitely pessimistic place in the world today. When Americans see the Chinese economy grow ferociously fast (10% per year since 2000), we imagine a confident country mastering its future. But that’s because Americans are still optimists, and we project our optimism onto China. From China’s viewpoint, economic growth cannot come fast enough. Every other country is afraid that China is going to take over the world; China is the only country afraid that it won’t. China can grow so fast only because its starting base is so low. The easiest way for China to grow is to relentlessly copy what has already worked in the West. And that’s exactly what it’s doing: executing definite plans by burning ever more coal to build ever more factories and skyscrapers. But with a huge population pushing resource prices higher, there’s no way Chinese living standards can ever actually catch up to those of the richest countries, and the Chinese know it. This is why the Chinese leadership is obsessed with the way in which things threaten to get worse. Every senior Chinese leader experienced famine as a child, so when the Politburo looks to the future, disaster is not an abstraction. The Chinese public, too, knows that winter is coming. Outsiders are fascinated by the great fortunes being made inside China, but they pay less attention to the wealthy Chinese trying hard to get their money out of the country. Poorer Chinese just save everything they can and hope it will be enough. Every class of people in China takes the future deadly seriously.
Definite Optimism To a definite optimist, the future will be better than the present if he plans and works to make it better. From the 17th century through the 1950s and ’60s, definite optimists led the Western world. Scientists, engineers, doctors, and businessmen made the world richer, healthier, and more long-lived than previously imaginable.
Indefinite Optimism: After a brief pessimistic phase in the 1970s, indefinite optimism has dominated American thinking ever since 1982, when a long bull market began and finance eclipsed engineering as the way to approach the future. To an indefinite optimist, the future will be better, but he doesn’t know how exactly, so he won’t make any specific plans. He expects to profit from the future but sees no reason to design it concretely. Instead of working for years to build a new product, indefinite optimists rearrange already-invented ones. Bankers make money by rearranging the capital structures of already existing companies. Lawyers resolve disputes over old things or help other people structure their affairs. And private equity investors and management consultants don’t start new businesses; they squeeze extra efficiency from old ones with incessant procedural optimizations. It’s no surprise that these fields all attract disproportionate numbers of high-achieving Ivy League optionality chasers; what could be a more appropriate reward for two decades of résumé-building than a seemingly elite, process-oriented career that promises to “keep options open”?
OUR INDEFINITELY OPTIMISTIC WORLD Indefinite Finance While a definitely optimistic future would need engineers to design underwater cities and settlements in space, an indefinitely optimistic future calls for more bankers and lawyers. Finance epitomizes indefinite thinking because it’s the only way to make money when you have no idea how to create wealth. If they don’t go to law school, bright college graduates head to Wall Street precisely because they have no real plan for their careers. And once they arrive at Goldman, they find that even inside finance, everything is indefinite. It’s still optimistic—you wouldn’t play in the markets if you expected to lose—but the fundamental tenet is that the market is random; you can’t know anything specific or substantive; diversification becomes supremely important. The indefiniteness of finance can be bizarre. Think about what happens when successful entrepreneurs sell their company. What do they do with the money? In a financialized world, it unfolds like this: • The founders don’t know what to do with it, so they give it to a large bank. • The bankers don’t know what to do with it, so they diversify by spreading it across a portfolio of institutional investors. • Institutional investors don’t know what to do with their managed capital, so they diversify by amassing a portfolio of stocks. • Companies try to increase their share price by generating free cash flows. If they do, they issue dividends or buy back shares and the cycle repeats.
At no point does anyone in the chain know what to do with money in the real economy. But in an indefinite world, people actually prefer unlimited optionality; money is more valuable than anything you could possibly do with it. Only in a definite future is money a means to an end, not the end itself.
Indefinite Politics Politicians have always been officially accountable to the public at election time, but today they are attuned to what the public thinks at every moment.
it’s not just the electoral process—the very character of government has become indefinite, too. The government used to be able to coordinate complex solutions to problems like atomic weaponry and lunar exploration. But today, after 40 years of indefinite creep, the government mainly just provides insurance; our solutions to big problems are Medicare, Social Security, and a dizzying array of other transfer payment programs.
The philosophy of the ancient world was pessimistic: Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus, and Lucretius all accepted strict limits on human potential. The only question was how best to cope with our tragic fate. Modern philosophers have been mostly optimistic. From Herbert Spencer on the right and Hegel in the center to Marx on the left, the 19th century shared a belief in progress. (Remember Marx and Engels’s encomium to the technological triumphs of capitalism from this page.) These thinkers expected material advances to fundamentally change human life for the better: they were definite optimists. In the late 20th century, indefinite philosophies came to the fore. The two dominant political thinkers, John Rawls and Robert Nozick, are usually seen as stark opposites: on the egalitarian left, Rawls was concerned with questions of fairness and distribution; on the libertarian right, Nozick focused on maximizing individual freedom. They both believed that people could get along with each other peacefully, so unlike the ancients, they were optimistic. But unlike Spencer or Marx, Rawls and Nozick were indefinite optimists: they didn’t have any specific vision of the future. Their indefiniteness took different forms.
Today, we exaggerate the differences between left-liberal egalitarianism and libertarian individualism because almost everyone shares their common indefinite attitude. In philosophy, politics, and business, too, arguing over process has become a way to endlessly defer making concrete plans for a better future.
Indefinite Life Our ancestors sought to understand and extend the human lifespan. In the 16th century, conquistadors searched the jungles of Florida for a Fountain of Youth. Francis Bacon wrote that “the prolongation of life” should be considered its own branch of medicine—and the noblest. In the 1660s, Robert Boyle placed life extension (along with “the Recovery of Youth”) atop his famous wish list for the future of science. Whether through geographic exploration or laboratory research, the best minds of the Renaissance thought of death as something to defeat.
Biotech startups are an extreme example of indefinite thinking. Researchers experiment with things that just might work instead of refining definite theories about how the body’s systems operate. Biologists say they need to work this way because the underlying biology is hard. According to them, IT startups work because we created computers ourselves and designed them to reliably obey our commands. Biotech is difficult because we didn’t design our bodies, and the more we learn about them, the more complex they turn out to be.
Definite pessimism works by building what can be copied without expecting anything new. Indefinite pessimism works because it’s self-fulfilling: if you’re a slacker with low expectations, they’ll probably be met. But indefinite optimism seems inherently unsustainable: how can the future get better if no one plans for it?
Definite optimism works when you build the future you envision.
progress without planning is what we call “evolution.” Darwin himself wrote that life tends to “progress” without anybody intending it. Every living thing is just a random iteration on some other organism, and the best iterations win.
But leanness is a methodology, not a goal. Making small changes to things that already exist might lead you to a local maximum, but it won’t help you find the global maximum.
A company is the strangest place of all for an indefinite optimist: why should you expect your own business to succeed without a plan to make it happen? Darwinism may be a fine theory in other contexts, but in startups, intelligent design works best.
YOU ARE NOT A LOTTERY TICKET: We have to find our way back to a definite future, and the Western world needs nothing short of a cultural revolution to do it. Where
A startup is the largest endeavor over which you can have definite mastery. You can have agency not just over your own life, but over a small and important part of the world. It begins by rejecting the unjust tyranny of Chance. You are not a lottery ticket.
FOLLOW THE MONEY MONEY MAKES MONEY. “For whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them” (Matthew 25:29).
In 1906, economist Vilfredo Pareto discovered what became the “Pareto principle,” or the 80-20 rule, when he noticed that 20% of the people owned 80% of the land in Italy—a phenomenon that he found just as natural as the fact that 20% of the peapods in his garden produced 80% of the peas. This extraordinarily stark pattern, in which a small few radically outstrip all rivals, surrounds us everywhere in the natural and social world. The most destructive earthquakes are many times more powerful than all smaller earthquakes combined. The biggest cities dwarf all mere towns put together. And monopoly businesses capture more value than millions of undifferentiated competitors.
the power law—so named because exponential equations describe severely unequal distributions—is the law of the universe.
This implies two very strange rules for VCs. First, only invest in companies that have the potential to return the value of the entire fund.
This leads to rule number two: because rule number one is so restrictive, there can’t be any other rules.
LAW The power law is not just important to investors; rather, it’s important to everybody because everybody is an investor. An entrepreneur makes a major investment just by spending her time working on a startup. Therefore every entrepreneur must think about whether her company is going to succeed and become valuable. Every individual is unavoidably an investor, too. When you choose a career, you act on your belief that the kind of work you do will be valuable decades from now. The most common answer to the question of future value is a diversified portfolio: “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket,” everyone has been told. As we said, even the best venture investors have a portfolio, but investors who understand the power law make as few investments as possible. The kind of portfolio thinking embraced by both folk wisdom and financial convention, by contrast, regards diversified betting as a source of strength. The more you dabble, the more you are supposed to have hedged against the uncertainty of the future. But life is not a portfolio: not for a startup founder, and not for any individual. An entrepreneur cannot “diversify” herself: you cannot run dozens of companies at the same time and then hope that one of them works out well. Less obvious but just as important, an individual cannot diversify his own life by keeping dozens of equally possible careers in ready reserve. Our schools teach the opposite: institutionalized education traffics in a kind of homogenized, generic knowledge. Everybody who passes through the American school system learns not to think in power law terms. Every high school course period lasts 45 minutes whatever the subject. Every student proceeds at a similar pace. At college, model students obsessively hedge their futures by assembling a suite of exotic and minor skills. Every university believes in “excellence,” and hundred-page course catalogs arranged alphabetically according to arbitrary departments of knowledge seem designed to reassure you that “it doesn’t matter what you do, as long as you do it well.” That is completely false. It does matter what you do. You should focus relentlessly on something you’re good at doing, but before that you must think hard about whether it will be valuable in the future. For the startup world, this means you should not necessarily start your own company, even if you are extraordinarily talented. If anything, too many people are starting their own companies today. People who understand the power law will hesitate more than others when it comes to founding a new venture: they know how tremendously successful they could become by joining the very best company while it’s growing fast. The power law means that differences between companies will dwarf the differences in roles inside companies. You could have 100% of the equity if you fully fund your own venture, but if it fails you’ll have 100% of nothing. Owning just 0.01% of Google, by contrast, is incredibly valuable (more than $35 million as of this writing). If you do start your own company, you must remember the power law to operate it well. The most important things are singular: One market will probably be better than all others, as we discussed in Chapter 5. One distribution strategy usually dominates all others, too—for that see Chapter 11. Time and decision-making themselves follow a power law, and some moments matter far more than others—see Chapter 9. However, you can’t trust a world that denies the power law to accurately frame your decisions for you, so what’s most important is rarely obvious. It might even be secret. But in a power law world, you can’t afford not to think hard about where your actions will fall on the curve.
WHY AREN’T PEOPLE LOOKING FOR SECRETS? Most people act as if there were no secrets left to find. An extreme representative of this view is Ted Kaczynski, infamously known as the Unabomber. Kaczynski was a child prodigy who enrolled at Harvard at 16. He went on to get a PhD in math and become a professor at UC Berkeley. But you’ve only ever heard of him because of the 17-year terror campaign he waged with pipe bombs against professors, technologists, and businesspeople. In late 1995, the authorities didn’t know who or where the Unabomber was. The biggest clue was a 35,000-word manifesto that Kaczynski had written and anonymously mailed to the press. The FBI asked some prominent newspapers to publish it, hoping for a break in the case. It worked: Kaczynski’s brother recognized his writing style and turned him in. You might expect that writing style to have shown obvious signs of insanity, but the manifesto is eerily cogent. Kaczynski claimed that in order to be happy, every individual “needs to have goals whose attainment requires effort, and needs to succeed in attaining at least some of his goals.” He divided human goals into three groups: 1. Goals that can be satisfied with minimal effort; 2. Goals that can be satisfied with serious effort; and 3. Goals that cannot be satisfied, no matter how much effort one makes. This is the classic trichotomy of the easy, the hard, and the impossible. Kaczynski argued that modern people are depressed because all the world’s hard problems have already been solved. What’s left to do is either easy or impossible, and pursuing those tasks is deeply unsatisfying. What you can do, even a child can do; what you can’t do, even Einstein couldn’t have done. So Kaczynski’s idea was to destroy existing institutions, get rid of all technology, and let people start over and work on hard problems anew. Kaczynski’s methods were crazy, but his loss of faith in the technological frontier is all around us. Consider the trivial but revealing hallmarks of urban hipsterdom: faux vintage photography, the handlebar mustache, and vinyl record players all hark back to an earlier time when people were still optimistic about the future. If everything worth doing has already been done, you may as well feign an allergy to achievement and become a barista.
All fundamentalists think this way, not just terrorists and hipsters. Religious fundamentalism, for example, allows no middle ground for hard questions: there are easy truths that children are expected to rattle off, and then there are the mysteries of God, which can’t be explained.
Why has so much of our society come to believe that there are no hard secrets left? It might start with geography. There are no blank spaces left on the map anymore. If you grew up in the 18th century, there were still new places to go. After hearing tales of foreign adventure, you could become an explorer yourself. This was probably true up through the 19th and early 20th centuries; after that point photography from National Geographic showed every Westerner what even the most exotic, underexplored places on earth look like. Today, explorers are found mostly in history books and children’s tales. Parents don’t expect their kids to become explorers any more than they expect them to become pirates or sultans. Perhaps there are a few dozen uncontacted tribes somewhere deep in the Amazon, and we know there remains one last earthly frontier in the depths of the oceans. But the unknown seems less accessible than ever. Along with the natural fact that physical frontiers have receded, four social trends have conspired to root out belief in secrets. First is incrementalism. From an early age, we are taught that the right way to do things is to proceed one very small step at a time, day by day, grade by grade. If you overachieve and end up learning something that’s not on the test, you won’t receive credit for it. But in exchange for doing exactly what’s asked of you (and for doing it just a bit better than your peers), you’ll get an A. This process extends all the way up through the tenure track, which is why academics usually chase large numbers of trivial publications instead of new frontiers. Second is risk aversion. People are scared of secrets because they are scared of being wrong. By definition, a secret hasn’t been vetted by the mainstream. If your goal is to never make a mistake in your life, you shouldn’t look for secrets. The prospect of being lonely but right—dedicating your life to something that no one else believes in—is already hard. The prospect of being lonely and wrong can be unbearable. Third is complacency. Social elites have the most freedom and ability to explore new thinking, but they seem to believe in secrets the least. Why search for a new secret if you can comfortably collect rents on everything that has already been done? Every fall, the deans at top law schools and business schools welcome the incoming class with the same implicit message: “You got into this elite institution. Your worries are over. You’re set for life.” But that’s probably the kind of thing that’s true only if you don’t believe it. Fourth is “flatness.” As globalization advances, people perceive the world as one homogeneous, highly competitive marketplace: the world is “flat.” Given that assumption, anyone who might have had the ambition to look for a secret will first ask himself: if it were possible to discover something new, wouldn’t someone from the faceless global talent pool of smarter and more creative people have found it already? This voice of doubt can dissuade people from even starting to look for secrets in a world that seems too big a place for any individual to contribute something unique.
There’s an optimistic way to describe the result of these trends: today, you can’t start a cult. Forty years ago, people were more open to the idea that not all knowledge was widely known. From the Communist Party to the Hare Krishnas, large numbers of people thought they could join some enlightened vanguard that would show them the Way.
To say that there are no secrets left today would mean that we live in a society with no hidden injustices.
What happens when a company stops believing in secrets? The sad decline of Hewlett-Packard provides a cautionary tale. In 1990, the company was worth $9 billion. Then came a decade of invention. In 1991, HP released the DeskJet 500C, the world’s first affordable color printer. In 1993, it launched the OmniBook, one of the first “superportable” laptops. The next year, HP released the OfficeJet, the world’s first all-in-one printer/fax/copier. This relentless product expansion paid off: by mid-2000, HP was worth $135 billion. But starting in late 1999, when HP introduced a new branding campaign around the imperative to “invent,” it stopped inventing things. In 2001, the company launched HP Services, a glorified consulting and support shop. In 2002, HP merged with Compaq, presumably because it didn’t know what else to do. By 2005, the company’s market cap had plunged to $70 billion—roughly half of what it had been just five years earlier.
HOW TO FIND SECRETS There are two kinds of secrets: secrets of nature and secrets about people. Natural secrets exist all around us; to find them, one must study some undiscovered aspect of the physical world. Secrets about people are different: they are things that people don’t know about themselves or things they hide because they don’t want others to know. So when thinking about what kind of company to build, there are two distinct questions to ask: What secrets is nature not telling you? What secrets are people not telling you? It’s
The best place to look for secrets is where no one else is looking. Most people think only in terms of what they’ve been taught; schooling itself aims to impart conventional wisdom. So you might ask: are there any fields that matter but haven’t been standardized and institutionalized?
So who do you tell? Whoever you need to, and no more. In practice, there’s always a golden mean between telling nobody and telling everybody—and that’s a company. The best entrepreneurs know this: every great business is built around a secret that’s hidden from the outside. A great company is a conspiracy to change the world; when you share your secret, the recipient becomes a fellow conspirator.
FOUNDATIONS EVERY GREAT COMPANY is unique, but there are a few things that every business must get right at the beginning. I stress this so often that friends have teasingly nicknamed it “Thiel’s law”: a startup messed up at its foundation cannot be fixed.
That’s why executives who manage companies and directors who govern them have separate roles to play; it’s also why founders’ and investors’ claims on a company are formally defined. You need good people who get along, but you also need a structure to help keep everyone aligned for the long term.
To anticipate likely sources of misalignment in any company, it’s useful to distinguish between three concepts: • Ownership: who legally owns a company’s equity? • Possession: who actually runs the company on a day-to-day basis? • Control: who formally governs the company’s affairs? A typical startup allocates ownership among founders, employees, and investors. The managers and employees who operate the company enjoy possession. And a board of directors, usually comprising founders and investors, exercises control.
In theory, this division works smoothly. Financial upside from part ownership attracts and rewards investors and workers. Effective possession motivates and empowers founders and employees—it means they can get stuff done. Oversight from the board places managers’ plans in a broader perspective. In practice, distributing these functions among different people makes sense, but it also multiplies opportunities for misalignment.
A board of three is ideal. Your board should never exceed five people, unless your company is publicly held. (Government regulations effectively mandate that public companies have larger boards—the average is nine members.) By far the worst you can do is to make your board extra large. When unsavvy observers see a nonprofit organization with dozens of people on its board, they think: “Look how many great people are committed to this organization! It must be extremely well run.” Actually, a huge board will exercise no effective oversight at all; it merely provides cover for whatever microdictator actually runs the organization. If you want that kind of free rein from your board, blow it up to giant size. If you want an effective board, keep it small.
ON THE BUS OR OFF THE BUS As a general rule, everyone you involve with your company should be involved full-time. Sometimes you’ll have to break this rule; it usually makes sense to hire outside lawyers and accountants, for example. However, anyone who doesn’t own stock options or draw a regular salary from your company is fundamentally misaligned. At the margin, they’ll be biased to claim value in the near term, not help you create more in the future. That’s why hiring consultants doesn’t work. Part-time employees don’t work.
CASH IS NOT KING For people to be fully committed, they should be properly compensated. Whenever an entrepreneur asks me to invest in his company, I ask him how much he intends to pay himself. A company does better the less it pays the CEO—that’s one of the single clearest patterns I’ve noticed from investing in hundreds of startups. In no case should a CEO of an early-stage, venture-backed startup receive more than $150,000 per year in salary. It doesn’t matter if he got used to making much more than that at Google or if he has a large mortgage and hefty private school tuition bills.
Cash is attractive. It offers pure optionality: once you get your paycheck, you can do anything you want with it. However, high cash compensation teaches workers to claim value from the company as it already exists instead of investing their time to create new value in the future. A cash bonus is slightly better than a cash salary—at least it’s contingent on a job well done. But even so-called incentive pay encourages short-term thinking and value grabbing. Any kind of cash is more about the present than the future.
VESTED INTERESTS Startups don’t need to pay high salaries because they can offer something better: part ownership of the company itself. Equity is the one form of compensation that can effectively orient people toward creating value in the future.
It includes some of the absurd perks Silicon Valley has made famous, but none of the substance—and without substance perks don’t work. You can’t accomplish anything meaningful by hiring an interior decorator to beautify your office, a “human resources” consultant to fix your policies, or a branding specialist to hone your buzzwords. “Company culture” doesn’t exist apart from the company itself: no company has a culture; every company is a culture. A startup is a team of people on a mission, and a good culture is just what that looks like on the inside.
We didn’t assemble a mafia by sorting through résumés and simply hiring the most talented people. I had seen the mixed results of that approach firsthand when I worked at a New York law firm. The lawyers I worked with ran a valuable business, and they were impressive individuals one by one. But the relationships between them were oddly thin. They spent all day together, but few of them seemed to have much to say to each other outside the office. Why work with a group of people who don’t even like each other? Many seem to think it’s a sacrifice necessary for making money. But taking a merely professional view of the workplace, in which free agents check in and out on a transactional basis, is worse than cold: it’s not even rational. Since time is your most valuable asset, it’s odd to spend it working with people who don’t envision any long-term future together. If you can’t count durable relationships among the fruits of your time at work, you haven’t invested your time well—even in purely financial terms.
From the start, I wanted PayPal to be tightly knit instead of transactional. I thought stronger relationships would make us not just happier and better at work but also more successful in our careers even beyond PayPal. So we set out to hire people who would actually enjoy working together. They had to be talented, but even more than that they had to be excited about working specifically with us. That was the start of the PayPal Mafia.
RECRUITING CONSPIRATORS Recruiting is a core competency for any company. It should never be outsourced. You need people who are not just skilled on paper but who will work together cohesively after they’re hired. The first four or five might be attracted by large equity stakes or high-profile responsibilities. More important than those obvious offerings is your answer to this question: Why should the 20th employee join your company? Talented people don’t need to work for you; they have plenty of options. You should ask yourself a more pointed version of the question: Why would someone join your company as its 20th engineer when she could go work at Google for more money and more prestige?
The only good answers are specific to your company, so you won’t find them in this book. But there are two general kinds of good answers: answers about your mission and answers about your team. You’ll attract the employees you need if you can explain why your mission is compelling: not why it’s important in general, but why you’re doing something important that no one else is going to get done. That’s
don’t fight the perk war. Anybody who would be more powerfully swayed by free laundry pickup or pet day care would be a bad addition to your team. Just cover the basics like health insurance and then promise what no others can: the opportunity to do irreplaceable work on a unique problem alongside great people.
Just cover the basics like health insurance and then promise what no others can: the opportunity to do irreplaceable work on a unique problem alongside great people.
Max Levchin, my co-founder at PayPal, says that startups should make their early staff as personally similar as possible. Startups have limited resources and small teams. They must work quickly and efficiently in order to survive, and that’s easier to do when everyone shares an understanding of the world. The early PayPal team worked well together because we were all the same kind of nerd. We all loved science fiction: Cryptonomicon was required reading, and we preferred the capitalist Star Wars to the communist Star Trek. Most important, we were all obsessed with creating a digital currency that would be controlled by individuals instead of governments.
The best thing I did as a manager at PayPal was to make every person in the company responsible for doing just one thing. Every employee’s one thing was unique, and everyone knew I would evaluate him only on that one thing. I had started doing this just to simplify the task of managing people. But then I noticed a deeper result: defining roles reduced conflict.
OF CULTS AND CONSULTANTS In the most intense kind of organization, members hang out only with other members. They ignore their families and abandon the outside world. In exchange, they experience strong feelings of belonging, and maybe get access to esoteric “truths” denied to ordinary people.
entrepreneurs should take cultures of extreme dedication seriously. Is a lukewarm attitude to one’s work a sign of mental health? Is a merely professional attitude the only sane approach? The extreme opposite of a cult is a consulting firm like Accenture: not only does it lack a distinctive mission of its own, but individual consultants are regularly dropping in and out of companies to which they have no long-term connection whatsoever.
We underestimate the importance of distribution—a catchall term for everything it takes to sell a product—because we share the same bias the A Ship and C Ship people had: salespeople and other “middlemen” supposedly get in the way, and distribution should flow magically from the creation of a good product.
SALES IS HIDDEN All salesmen are actors: their priority is persuasion, not sincerity. That’s why the word “salesman” can be a slur and the used car dealer is our archetype of shadiness. But we only react negatively to awkward, obvious salesmen—that is, the bad ones. There’s a wide range of sales ability: there are many gradations between novices, experts, and masters. There are even sales grandmasters. If you don’t know any grandmasters, it’s not because you haven’t encountered them, but rather because their art is hidden in plain sight.
Tom Sawyer managed to persuade his neighborhood friends to whitewash the fence for him—a masterful move. But convincing them to actually pay him for the privilege of doing his chores was the move of a grandmaster, and his friends were none the wiser. Not much has changed since Twain wrote in 1876.
Like acting, sales works best when hidden. This explains why almost everyone whose job involves distribution—whether they’re in sales, marketing, or advertising—has a job title that has nothing to do with those things. People who sell advertising are called “account executives.” People who sell customers work in “business development.” People who sell companies are “investment bankers.” And people who sell themselves are called “politicians.” There’s a reason for these redescriptions: none of us wants to be reminded when we’re being sold.
HOW TO SELL A PRODUCT Superior sales and distribution by itself can create a monopoly, even with no product differentiation. The converse is not true. No matter how strong your product—even if it easily fits into already established habits and anybody who tries it likes it immediately—you must still support it with a strong distribution plan.
Two metrics set the limits for effective distribution. The total net profit that you earn on average over the course of your relationship with a customer (Customer Lifetime Value, or CLV) must exceed the amount you spend on average to acquire a new customer (Customer Acquisition Cost, or CAC).
Complex Sales If your average sale is seven figures or more, every detail of every deal requires close personal attention. It might take months to develop the right relationships. You might make a sale only once every year or two. Then you’ll usually have to follow up during installation and service the product long after the deal is done. It’s hard to do, but this kind of “complex sales” is the only way to sell some of the most valuable products.
Complex sales works best when you don’t have “salesmen” at all. Palantir, the data analytics company I co-founded with my law school classmate Alex Karp, doesn’t employ anyone separately tasked with selling its product. Instead, Alex, who is Palantir’s CEO, spends 25 days a month on the road, meeting with clients and potential clients. Our deal sizes range from $1 million to $100 million. At that price point, buyers want to talk to the CEO, not the VP of Sales.
Businesses with complex sales models succeed if they achieve 50% to 100% year-over-year growth over the course of a decade. This will seem slow to any entrepreneur dreaming of viral growth. You might expect revenue to increase 10x as soon as customers learn about an obviously superior product, but that almost never happens. Good enterprise sales strategy starts small, as it must: a new customer might agree to become your biggest customer, but they’ll rarely be comfortable signing a deal completely out of scale with what you’ve sold before. Once you have a pool of reference customers who are successfully using your product, then you can begin the long and methodical work of hustling toward ever bigger deals.
Personal Sales Most sales are not particularly complex: average deal sizes might range between $10,000 and $100,000, and usually the CEO won’t have to do all the selling himself. The challenge here isn’t about how to make any particular sale, but how to establish a process by which a sales team of modest size can move the product to a wide audience.
Starting with small groups of users who had the most acute file sharing problems, Box’s sales reps built relationships with more and more users in each client company. In 2009, Blake sold a small Box account to the Stanford Sleep Clinic, where researchers needed an easy, secure way to store experimental data logs. Today the university offers a Stanford-branded Box account to every one of its students and faculty members, and Stanford Hospital runs on Box. If it had started off by trying to sell the president of the university on an enterprise-wide solution, Box would have sold nothing. A complex sales approach would have made Box a forgotten startup failure; instead, personal sales made it a multibillion-dollar business.
...making personal sales to doctors doesn’t just bring in revenue; by adding doctors to the network, salespeople make the product more valuable to consumers (and more consumer users increases its appeal to doctors). More than 5 million people already use the service each month, and if it can continue to scale its network to include a majority of practitioners, it will become a fundamental utility for the U.S. health care industry.
Distribution Doldrums In between personal sales (salespeople obviously required) and traditional advertising (no salespeople required) there is a dead zone. Suppose you create a software service that helps convenience store owners track their inventory and manage ordering. For a product priced around $1,000, there might be no good distribution channel to reach the small businesses that might buy it. Even if you have a clear value proposition, how do you get people to hear it? Advertising would either be too broad (there’s no TV channel that only convenience store owners watch) or too inefficient (on its own, an ad in Convenience Store News probably won’t convince any owner to part with $1,000 a year). The product needs a personal sales effort, but at that price point, you simply don’t have the resources to send an actual person to talk to every prospective customer. This is why so many small and medium-sized businesses don’t use tools that bigger firms take for granted. It’s not that small business proprietors are unusually backward or that good tools don’t exist: distribution is the hidden bottleneck.
Marketing and Advertising Marketing and advertising work for relatively low-priced products that have mass appeal but lack any method of viral distribution.
Advertising can work for startups, too, but only when your customer acquisition costs and customer lifetime value make every other distribution channel uneconomical.
Selling to Non-Customers Your company needs to sell more than its product. You must also sell your company to employees and investors.
Selling your company to the media is a necessary part of selling it to everyone else. Nerds who instinctively mistrust the media often make the mistake of trying to ignore it.
Most cleantech companies crashed because they neglected one or more of the seven questions that every business must answer: 1. The Engineering Question Can you create breakthrough technology instead of incremental improvements? 2. The Timing Question Is now the right time to start your particular business? 3. The Monopoly Question Are you starting with a big share of a small market? 4. The People Question Do you have the right team? 5. The Distribution Question Do you have a way to not just create but deliver your product? 6. The Durability Question Will your market position be defensible 10 and 20 years into the future? 7. The Secret Question Have you identified a unique opportunity that others don’t see? We’ve discussed these elements before. Whatever your industry, any great business plan must address every one of them.
THE ENGINEERING QUESTION A great technology company should have proprietary technology an order of magnitude better than its nearest substitute.
THE TIMING QUESTION Cleantech entrepreneurs worked hard to convince themselves that their appointed hour had arrived. When he announced his new company in 2008, SpectraWatt CEO Andrew Wilson stated that “[t]he solar industry is akin to where the microprocessor industry was in the late 1970s.
THE MONOPOLY QUESTION In 2006, billionaire technology investor John Doerr announced that “green is the new red, white and blue.” He could have stopped at “red.” As Doerr himself said, “Internet-sized markets are in the billions of dollars; the energy markets are in the trillions.” What he didn’t say is that huge, trillion-dollar markets mean ruthless, bloody competition.
The cleantech bubble was the biggest phenomenon—and the biggest flop—in the history of “social entrepreneurship.” This philanthropic approach to business starts with the idea that corporations and nonprofits have until now been polar opposites: corporations have great power, but they’re shackled to the profit motive; nonprofits pursue the public interest, but they’re weak players in the wider economy. Social entrepreneurs aim to combine the best of both worlds and “do well by doing good.” Usually they end up doing neither.
if something is “socially good,” is it good for society, or merely seen as good by society?
Doing something different is what’s truly good for society—and it’s also what allows a business to profit by monopolizing a new market. The best projects are likely to be overlooked, not trumpeted by a crowd; the best problems to work on are often the ones nobody else even tries to solve.
TESLA: 7 FOR 7 Tesla is one of the few cleantech companies started last decade to be thriving today. They rode the social buzz of cleantech better than anyone, but they got the seven questions right, so their success is instructive: TECHNOLOGY. Tesla’s technology is so good that other car companies rely on it: Daimler uses Tesla’s battery packs; Mercedes-Benz uses a Tesla powertrain; Toyota uses a Tesla motor. General Motors has even created a task force to track Tesla’s next moves. But Tesla’s greatest technological achievement isn’t any single part or component, but rather its ability to integrate many components into one superior product. The Tesla Model S sedan, elegantly designed from end to end, is more than the sum of its parts: Consumer Reports rated it higher than any other car ever reviewed, and both Motor Trend and Automobile magazines named it their 2013 Car of the Year. TIMING. In 2009, it was easy to think that the government would continue to support cleantech: “green jobs” were a political priority, federal funds were already earmarked, and Congress even seemed likely to pass cap-and-trade legislation. But where others saw generous subsidies that could flow indefinitely, Tesla CEO Elon Musk rightly saw a one-time-only opportunity. In January 2010—about a year and a half before Solyndra imploded under the Obama administration and politicized the subsidy question—Tesla secured a $465 million loan from the U.S. Department of Energy. A half-billion-dollar subsidy was unthinkable in the mid-2000s. It’s unthinkable today. There was only one moment where that was possible, and Tesla played it perfectly. MONOPOLY. Tesla started with a tiny submarket that it could dominate: the market for high-end electric sports cars. Since the first Roadster rolled off the production line in 2008, Tesla’s sold only about 3,000 of them, but at $109,000 apiece that’s not trivial. Starting small allowed Tesla to undertake the necessary R&D to build the slightly less expensive Model S, and now Tesla owns the luxury electric sedan market, too. They sold more than 20,000 sedans in 2013 and now Tesla is in prime position to expand to broader markets in the future. TEAM. Tesla’s CEO is the consummate engineer and salesman, so it’s not surprising that he’s assembled a team that’s very good at both. Elon describes his staff this way: “If you’re at Tesla, you’re choosing to be at the equivalent of Special Forces. There’s the regular army, and that’s fine, but if you are working at Tesla, you’re choosing to step up your game.” DISTRIBUTION. Most companies underestimate distribution, but Tesla took it so seriously that it decided to own the entire distribution chain. Other car companies are beholden to independent dealerships: Ford and Hyundai make cars, but they rely on other people to sell them. Tesla sells and services its vehicles in its own stores. The up-front costs of Tesla’s approach are much higher than traditional dealership distribution, but it affords control over the customer experience, strengthens Tesla’s brand, and saves the company money in the long run. DURABILITY. Tesla has a head start and it’s moving faster than anyone else—and that combination means its lead is set to widen in the years ahead. A coveted brand is the clearest sign of Tesla’s breakthrough: a car is one of the biggest purchasing decisions that people ever make, and consumers’ trust in that category is hard to win. And unlike every other car company, at Tesla the founder is still in charge, so it’s not going to ease off anytime soon. SECRETS. Tesla knew that fashion drove interest in cleantech. Rich people especially wanted to appear “green,” even if it meant driving a boxy Prius or clunky Honda Insight. Those cars only made drivers look cool by association with the famous eco-conscious movie stars who owned them as well. So Tesla decided to build cars that made drivers look cool, period—Leonardo DiCaprio even ditched his Prius for an expensive (and expensive-looking) Tesla Roadster. While generic cleantech companies struggled to differentiate themselves, Tesla built a unique brand around the secret that cleantech was even more of a social phenomenon than an environmental imperative.
THE FOUNDER’S PARADOX OF THE SIX PEOPLE who started PayPal, four had built bombs in high school. Five were just 23 years old—or younger. Four of us had been born outside the United States. Three had escaped here from communist countries: Yu Pan from China, Luke Nosek from Poland, and Max Levchin from Soviet Ukraine. Building bombs was not what kids normally did in those countries at that time.
the strangest thing about founders. Normally we expect opposite traits to be mutually exclusive: a normal person can’t be both rich and poor at the same time, for instance. But it happens all the time to founders: startup
CEOs can be cash poor but millionaires on paper. They may oscillate between sullen jerkiness and appealing charisma. Almost all successful entrepreneurs are simultaneously insiders and outsiders. And when they do succeed, they attract both fame and infamy. When you plot them out, founders’ traits appear to follow an inverse normal distribution...
Sir Richard Branson, the billionaire founder of the Virgin Group. He could be described as a natural entrepreneur: Branson started his first business at age 16, and at just 22 he founded Virgin Records. But other aspects of his renown—the trademark lion’s mane hairstyle, for example—are less natural: one suspects he wasn’t born with that exact look. As Branson has cultivated his other extreme traits (Is kiteboarding with naked supermodels a PR stunt? Just a guy having fun? Both?), the media has eagerly enthroned him: Branson is “The Virgin King,” “The Undisputed King of PR,” “The King of Branding,” and “The King of the Desert and Space.” When Virgin Atlantic Airways began serving passengers drinks with ice cubes shaped like Branson’s face, he became “The Ice King.” Is Branson just a normal businessman who happens to be lionized by the media with the help of a good PR team? Or is he himself a born branding genius rightly singled out by the journalists he is so good at manipulating? It’s hard to tell—maybe he’s both. Another example is Sean Parker, who started out with the ultimate outsider status: criminal. Sean was a careful hacker in high school. But his father decided that Sean was spending too much time on the computer for a 16-year-old, so one day he took away Sean’s keyboard mid-hack. Sean couldn’t log out; the FBI noticed; soon federal agents were placing him under arrest. Sean got off easy since he was a minor; if anything, the episode emboldened him. Three years later, he co-founded Napster. The peer-to-peer file sharing service amassed 10 million users in its first year, making it one of the fastest-growing businesses of all time. But the record companies sued and a federal judge ordered it shut down 20 months after opening. After a whirlwind period at the center, Sean was back to being an outsider again. Then came Facebook. Sean met Mark Zuckerberg in 2004, helped negotiate Facebook’s first funding, and became the company’s founding president. He had to step down in 2005 amid allegations of drug use, but this only enhanced his notoriety. Ever since Justin Timberlake portrayed him in The Social Network, Sean has been perceived as one of the coolest people in America. JT is still more famous, but when he visits Silicon Valley, people ask if he’s Sean Parker. The most famous people in the world are founders, too: instead of a company, every celebrity founds and cultivates a personal brand. Lady Gaga, for example, became one of the most influential living people. But is she even a real person? Her real name isn’t a secret, but almost no one knows or cares what it is. She wears costumes so bizarre as to put any other wearer at risk of an involuntary psychiatric hold. Gaga would have you believe that she was “born this way”—the title of both her second album and its lead track. But no one is born looking like a zombie with horns coming out of her head: Gaga must therefore be a self-manufactured myth. Then again, what kind of person would do this to herself? Certainly nobody normal. So perhaps Gaga really was born that way.
But why was it so important for archaic cultures to remember extraordinary people? The famous and infamous have always served as vessels for public sentiment: they’re praised amid prosperity and blamed for misfortune. Primitive societies faced one fundamental problem above all: they would be torn apart by conflict if they didn’t have a way to stop it. So whenever plagues, disasters, or violent rivalries threatened the peace, it was beneficial for the society to place the entire blame on a single person, someone everybody could agree on: a scapegoat. Who makes an effective scapegoat? Like founders, scapegoats are extreme and contradictory figures. On the one hand, a scapegoat is necessarily weak; he is powerless to stop his own victimization. On the other hand, as the one who can defuse conflict by taking the blame, he is the most powerful member of the community. Before execution, scapegoats were often worshipped like deities. The Aztecs considered their victims to be earthly forms of the gods to whom they were sacrificed. You would be dressed in fine clothes and feast royally until your brief reign ended and they cut your heart out. These are the roots of monarchy: every king was a living god, and every god a murdered king. Perhaps every modern king is just a scapegoat who has managed to delay his own execution.
Apple’s value crucially depended on the singular vision of a particular person. This hints at the strange way in which the companies that create new technology often resemble feudal monarchies rather than organizations that are supposedly more “modern.” A unique founder can make authoritative decisions, inspire strong personal loyalty, and plan ahead for decades. Paradoxically, impersonal bureaucracies staffed by trained professionals can last longer than any lifetime, but they usually act with short time horizons. The lesson for business is that we need founders. If anything, we should be more tolerant of founders who seem strange or extreme; we need unusual individuals to lead companies beyond mere incrementalism. The lesson for founders is that individual prominence and adulation can never be enjoyed except on the condition that it may be exchanged for individual notoriety and demonization at any moment—so be careful. Above all, don’t overestimate your own power as an individual. Founders are important not because they are the only ones whose work has value, but rather because a great founder can bring out the best work from everybody at his company.
Philosopher Nick Bostrom describes four possible patterns for the future of humanity. The ancients saw all of history as a neverending alternation between prosperity and ruin. Only recently have people dared to hope that we might permanently escape misfortune, and it’s still possible to wonder whether the stability we take for granted will last. However, we usually suppress our doubts. Conventional wisdom seems to assume instead that the whole world will converge toward a plateau of development similar to the life of the richest countries today. In this scenario, the future will look a lot like the present. Given the interconnected geography of the contemporary world and the unprecedented destructive power of modern weaponry, it’s hard not to ask whether a large-scale social disaster could be contained were it to occur. This is what fuels our fears of the third possible scenario: a collapse so devastating that we won’t survive it. The last of the four possibilities is the hardest one to imagine: accelerating takeoff toward a much better future. The end result of such a breakthrough could take a number of forms, but any one of them would be so different from the present as to defy description.
fourth scenario, in which we create new technology to make a much better future. The most dramatic version of this outcome is called the Singularity, an attempt to name the imagined result of new technologies so powerful as to transcend the current limits of our understanding. Ray Kurzweil, the best-known Singularitarian, starts from Moore’s law and traces exponential growth trends in dozens of fields, confidently projecting a future of superhuman artificial intelligence. According to Kurzweil, “the Singularity is near,” it’s inevitable, and all we have to do is prepare ourselves to accept it.