Book Review: Zero to One by Peter Thiel and Blake Masters

I have a love-hate relationship with Zero to One by Peter Thiel and Blake Masters. When I launched my book, The 7 Day Startup, it got as high as #2 in the Startups category on Amazon. I couldn’t get passed the book at #1, Zero to One.

Not that I’m suggesting I deserved to be in such elite company, but still. Fuck that Peter guy. Who is he anyway?

That’s the hate part out of the way.

Peter Thiel is a billionaire entrepreneur, investor and big thinker. He was the founder and CEO of PayPal among other billion dollar companies, and one of the first investors in Facebook. He’s the kind of guy who probably doesn’t sit around writing books. In fact this book was pulled together by Blake Masters from Peter’s lecture notes. The book feels a bit choppy as a result, but the concepts are original and BIG, so the result stands alone well.

I read this book a few months after it was released. I’d heard most of the people I look up to, already tell me how amazing it was. So I had big expectations.

I didn’t agree with everything in the book. But I came to my senses and realized that I have no place disagreeing with a guy who has created multiple, billion dollar businesses. I went to sleep one night after reading some of it just trying to fathom how much a billion dollars really is. I can’t. It’s too big for my little brain.

The central question Thiel asks when creating a business is this:

“What is one thing you believe to be true that most do not?”

Holy shit I only have to choose ONE THING!

Thiel is a contrarian. He puts the contrarian view forward as not only a way to differentiate your thoughts and content, but a way to build a business without competition.

It sounds like a simple question, but Thiel argues it’s the basis for many multi-billion dollar companies. Of course if everyone else happens to be right, then it’s the basis for failure. A fate Thiel refreshingly refers to as ‘a tragedy’.

The central theme of the book is, how do you use what you know to create a monopoly, rather than a commodity business that battles directly with endless competition. He presents a compelling case of why having your own monopoly is a good idea for you, citing mainly popular examples like Facebook, Google, PayPal etc. His case for a monopoly being a great idea for society in general is a little thin. But good on him for sticking with the story!

One of my main criticisms about the book is while it’s great to have something that exists as a resource for this high level of thinking, it’s not all that useful. As someone who can’t even get my head around how much a billion dollars is, the book left me scratching my little insignificant head wondering how I would apply any of it. I have a WordPress support business, we’re hardly mining asteroids.

In a way he even admits this flaw himself:

“The paradox of teaching entrepreneurship is that such a formula necessarily cannot exist; because every innovation is new and unique, no authority can prescribe in concrete terms how to be innovative”.

Sounds like a cop out to me Peter! There is merit in trying at least. I’ve always felt there’s more value in prescribing a potential course of action than there is in analyzing past events. This is particularly true for examples that have been over analyzed to death already (Zuckerberg, Jobs, Gates etc). There’s no risk in that. You can’t be wrong.

What about the next wave of world-changing entrepreneurs. How do we create the next Elon Musk or Peter Thiel? I’m sure they have read this book. What do they do, that they aren’t already doing?

In terms of practical frameworks the book is pretty thin, and in a way unoriginal. Examples that I picked up:

  1. ‘Niche down’. The idea of finding a small niche to start with is a concept well and truly covered in entrepreneurship content over the years.
  2. ‘Planning is important’. Planning might be against the grain currently, but it’s not exactly an innovative concept.
  3. ‘Don’t build a commodity business’. Thiel’s focus on creating monopolies is a new spin, but we know not to create commodity businesses already.
  4. ‘Create a strong brand’. I agree, but again it’s a well accepted and never been given more importance in business than it is right now.
  5. ‘Differentiate’. Business 101.

I’d also argue some of the larger points in the book could be damaging to a lot of people reading the book. Consider:

“The perfect target market for a startup is a small group of particular people concentrated together and served by few or no competitors.”

That’s a pretty ballsy call! How many people do you know that have created a successful business where no previous market existed? I can’t think of any.

Perhaps that’s the point.

You can grab the book from Amazon here. I’d love to know your thoughts in the comments below.


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