Zero to One by Peter Thiel

I have dreamt of starting my own kickass business for as long as I can remember. I imagined that I would be doing exciting and meaningful work that would not only be fulfilling to me and the people I work with, but that it would change people’s lives for the better. I even had a timeframe for when I would start this business. I would work and learn as much as I can until I turn 30 and then start that kickass company….that is until I read zero to one.

In this book, Peter Thiel indirectly challenges any notion of merely starting a business just for just. His key point argues that while most businesses move industries from 1 to n- meaning that they do not necessarily do or bring groundbreaking innovations- what we actually need are businesses that tip the scale and move industries from zero to 1. Using Facebook as a primary example, he argues that merely creating an app that mimics Facebook does nothing but saturate the market and because all businesses that have moved the industry from zero to 1 have a strong differentiation factor, saturating the industry is a mere waste of time since you’re competing with a monopoly. With this underlying concept as his key point, most of the book is spent trying to explain some factors that differentiate innovative businesses and their blue ocean strategies.

Now as someone who has been planning to start a business since forever, being confronted with the fact that you might not really be moving the industry forward with your slightly differentiated idea but are merely saturating an industry, can be rather crippling. So after weeks of going through disappointment and then discouragement and then making a decision to give up on this whole notion of starting a business altogether since it will be mediocre anyways, a few interesting thoughts have emerged that I would like to share:

Zero to One 2

  1. Thiel is a white man in the United States of America.

Now now, before you use your high-pitched voice on me about how this isn’t a racial issue, allow me to complete that thought. And no, this is NOT a cop out or defence of mediocrity. My point is: While we need to acknowledge him for his skills and expertise, this fact makes it such that we operate in different universes and have very very different struggles.   While him, Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk and all his other white male friends- that have all started amazing businesses which he details in his book if I might add- have done really groundbreaking work, as a black woman in South Africa, I need to be careful not to equate our struggles. The principles of starting something new and tipping the scale are all valid ones but the things we will most likely innovate on are extremely different depending on where we are and the challenges we face. I for one am not trying to create the next PayPal, regardless of how important it is.

With financial inclusion still a huge challenge in Africa for example, the solutions we bring need to cater to these very real needs. Sometimes this might mean taking an existing first world solution and tweaking it so that it becomes valuable and useful to our context. Though according to Peter Thiel’s definition, this may not be considered as moving from zero to 1, it would be extremely beneficial to our people.

  1. We need to consolidate our networks.

One of the things that is highlighted in the book is how Thiel and his buddies have been able to link up their varying skills and create innovative things. One of the things I personally haven’t done particularly well is in ensuring that I capitalize on meeting people interested in similar things as myself and then turning those encounters into real innovation opportunities. Moving forward, we need to do better in this area because while we’re all good at something, we do not possess skills in everything and actually require others to complement our skills.

Finally, we need a creative way to integrate into existing value chains.

One of the key challenges for new businesses is to actually be integrated/absorbed and used in existing industries. For this to happen, there need to be actual customers who use the product and a growing trial and demand for it. For the sake of an honest and fruitful discussion, I would like to start with a disclaimer: my thoughts around solutions for this are not yet fully clear and I would genuinely appreciate a rigorous discussion around this area.

One of the advantages for white men in particular is in knowing that they have an expansive network base that will at least sample their new product offering and even trial it in their businesses should it seem interesting enough. This of course is crucial for any new innovation as it creates your first customer base and makes it easier for your product to be absorbed into the market. Black innovators rarely get this benefit of doubt and so they struggle to even get any meaningful client to trial their product. I am inclined to suggest that one of the ways to solve this is if black business leaders who are in industry, take it upon themselves to be intentional in supporting black innovators with at least being samplers of their innovations. Of course this only applies to exciting and useful innovations that come knocking at their doors. While it is my inclination to suggest this as one solution, I would rather leave it to our industry gurus to suggest to black innovators how they can get their products into their companies.

When it comes to entrepreneurship, zero to 1 is one of the most well-written books that I’ve read in a while. Though it became clear pretty early into the book that I am obviously not the target market given the different operating contexts that Thiel and I have, I realised that this did not mean that we throw the baby out with the bathwater. As a result, I have tried to contextualize Thiel’s content to my context. This intentional effort of stripping down work to its essence has been a huge learning for me. While it is easier to dismiss people we deem tone deaf/ non-applicable to our context, this book has taught me that we have a lot to learn even from those we have very little in common with. This however requires that we be willing to do the hard work of scraping out the non-essentials, twisting, bending and reshaping their work until it makes sense to our realities.

By Frank(ie) Talk

Frank(ie) Talk is a Development Finance Masters student at the University of Cape Town. When she is not making bracelets at Relate, you’ll find her at some coffee shop in Cape Town reading or theorizing about the World.

This article could not have come at a better time. I have seen this book doing the rounds on social media and Frank(ie) has conveniently given us glimpse of it. When chatting with friends about finances, the common discussion tends to centre around having multiple streams of income and having startups. Learning how to come up with an innovative idea is a challenge and just even knowing where to begin can be a hindrance. The only way around this is learning and reading as much about the ‘how’. Not everything we read will be essential to our context but as Frank(ie) mentioned, it is all about ‘scraping out the non-essentials, twisting, bending and reshaping their work until it makes sense to our realities.’-Lerato


2 thoughts on “Zero to One by Peter Thiel

  1. Ijangolet says:

    Enjoyed reading this! I am a firm believer in being a learner of life and reducing content to what is nutritious for you and your context.

    I absolutely agree with the sheer importance of networks and forming meaningful relationships with black leaders in industry . I think the challenge we often face is getting that needed buy in and the “reaching down” narrative to be genuine from those who are in these positions .

    The problem becomes two fold firstly the shift towards an individualist world but equally I think there simply may not be enough black leaders in industry to support all young and ambitious black talent.

    However this should not dishearten us and we must continue knocking on doors, being the change in conciously helping where we can, making opportunities access and pursuing ventures that add social capital to Africa.

    Thanks for your thoughts Frankie.

  2. Sandisiwe Eletu Yengeni says:

    Hello Ijangolet,

    Thank you for your kind words and thoughts. I am fully aware of the limits in terms of numbers and so forth that still plagues the black population when it comes to industry. I think my issue with those that we have is that there doesn’t appear to be an intentionality regarding support of black innovators. I would love to hear from someone leading in industry regarding this.
    Let’s keep this conversation going even in our circles so we can start to iron out our ideas and convert those who might not even be thinking about these things.

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