Book Review: Zero to One

By Julia Dopp

In the year since its initial publication, Peter Thiel’s Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future has come to be regarded as a modern classic in business manuals. Floating somewhere between being a how-to book, an inspirational memoir, and a philosophical power player’s resource guide, Zero to One turns general assumptions about commerce, startups, and the world on their heads with wit, humor, and allusions galore. By weaving philosophy, literature, and pop culture together, Thiel presents a relevant, almost tangibly urgent, case for changing the way we think about and do business.

In Thiel’s view, the problem with modern commerce is that it isn’t nearly as modern as one might assume. The title itself is a reference to this fact, and the necessity of changing it. The problem boils down to the reality that it’s easier to expand upon preexisting concepts and products than to envision and create something entirely new. Accordingly, Thiel argues, the world has largely found itself somewhat lazily content with tweaking what we already have, rather than conceiving something for which no predecessor exists (going from zero to one, in other words). Thiel refers to these differing standards of progress as the struggle between globalization and technology, which is to say, sharing versus innovating.

To drive the difference home, he makes a very sobering, rather uncomfortable statement:

If every one of India’s hundreds of millions of households were to live the way Americans already do — using only today’s tools — the result would be environmentally catastrophic. Spreading old ways to create wealth around the world will result in devastation, not riches.”

While this may sound dangerously similar to the elitist, mercantilistic jargon that justifies the deprivation of the many for the benefit of the few, Thiel’s acknowledgment of the fact that attempting to merely spread current wealth and technology will do more harm than good proves a vital point, before an even more vital solution is presented: With a heightened emphasis on creative developments, everyone — innovators and bystanders alike — will profit.

Relatively unsurprisingly, Thiel presents startups as the key to this creative future. Comparatively unburdened by corporate bureaucracy and unabashedly capable of singular focus, startups are naturally equipped to be lean, adaptable, and fast-moving. More controversially, he also suggests that startups are the most effective route to monopolies — which, he argues, are the ultimate, benevolent vessel of capitalism.

In a book filled with thought-provoking, unconventional ideas, the hailing of monopolies as the potential saving grace of the world economy might be the most off-the-wall. Yet, true to form, Thiel spells out the reasoning behind his argument in such a clear, comprehensive way that it’s difficult to see it as anything but ironclad. He clarifies, and to some extent redefines, the theory behind monopolies by proclaiming that true monopolization is the perfect compliment to capitalism, rather than its nemesis, as we have generally been led to assume. By his reasoning, competition is in fact the enemy of capitalism, whereas monopolization allows for greater progress and cooperation across platforms.

Besides destroying popular myths about economy and spelling out the path to a successful future, Thiel outlines the ways in which a reader can become part of this future. Whether you are founding, overhauling, or maintaining a startup business, Thiel’s emphasis on a new mindset that advocates for leanness, flexibility, and focus points the way to a new model of shared profit. In other words, Thiel argues that by generating something truly original, you can be the best by default, which allows you the freedom to provide the best product for consumers while enjoying the security of a business that exists without competition.

There is no one-size-fits-all advice for the modern, socially conscious entrepreneur, but this book is about as good as it gets. If nothing else, we guarantee that reading it will challenge you to think about your ideas about business and the world at-large, which is reason enough to pick up a copy. We hope you find it as thought-provoking as we did.

You can purchase a copy of Zero to One on Amazon.