Tag Archives: Business

Impressions of “Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future,” by Peter Thiel with Blake Masters

Impressions of “Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future,” by Peter Thiel with Blake Masters

Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal and Palantir, says competition is for losers. Zero to One is an exploration of this goal applied to founding a start-up. It’s based on lectures given at Stanford University, which are available online. (Thiel’s co-author is a student who took notes during class, and seems to have prepared the manuscript.)

Zero to One reads like a combination of three books, Seth Godin’s Linchpin, Jim Collin’s Good to Great, and Jordan Peterson’s Twelve Rules for Life, but applied at the company level. Lynchpin gave as career advice to do what is good at, passionate for, and can be get paid for. The goal is to become incomparable to other workers or professionals, so that one’s performance cannot be measured by exertion or time on task.

In Good to Great, Jim Collins urges doings this by finding a potential area to become the monopoly supplier of expertise in that is also enjoyable and profitable. Collins calls this the “hedgehog concept“, but this amounts to yoking a potential monopoly with an engine (enjoyment) to get there combined with a pay-off (a profitable market to be a monopoly in).

Thiel ads to this call a ‘greater’ scope — for Thiel the greatness is in the ability to form a company, for Peterson in 12 Rules For Life its in the ability to imitate the Logos. To Peterson “pulling yourself together,” having a more meaningful job, and so on are part of bringing order into chaos. Thiel includes several business guidelines, but I think more important is his view of creation, which mirrors Peterson’s (albeit with tech industry, and not cosmogonic, references):

“Every moment in business happens only once.

The next Bill Gates will not build an operating system. The next Larry Page or Sergey Brin won’t make a search engine. And the next Mark Zuckerberg won’t create a social network. If you are copying these guys, you aren’t learning from them.

It’s easier to copy a model than to make something new: doing what we already know how to do takes the world from 1 to n, adding more of something familiar. But every time we create something new, we go from 0 to 1. The act of creation is singular, as is the moment of creation, and the result is something fresh and strange.”
Peter Thiel, 12 Rules for Life

Given the similarity in their writing, and their politics, and Thiel’s role as an early Facebook investor, Peterson’s visit to Zuckerberg now make more sense to me.

Zero to One is a quick read, and includes many interesting anecdotes about life in Silicon Valley, and some about Thiel’s earlier career as a lawyer. I recommend it to anyone who is interested in self-improvement, technology start-ups, or the higher meaning of business.

I read Zero to One in the audible edition.

Impressions of “Beneath a Surface: The Inside Story of How Microsoft Overcame a $900 Write-down to Become the Hero of the PC Industry,” by Brad Sams

If you are unaware that Microsoft had a $900 million write-down related to the Surface tablet, this book is probably not to you. Rather, Beneath a Surface definitely is for the reader who wants an accurate, if partial, history of a Microsoft business unit.

It’s too high a praise to compare Beneath a Surface to God — even comparing author Brad Sams to the Divinity would be misplaced — but like the All-mighty, it is easier to say what Beneath a Surface is not than what it is. It is not a history of Panos Panay’s career at the company, or even Microsoft Hardware’s efforts (MS Hardware became MS Surface under Panay). It is not a history of the past few years of the company at the highest levels, or even like Hit Refresh a propagandist attempt to create a history from that level.

Rather, Beneath a Surface is a blow-by-blow account of the trials of the Surface project, told from the perspective of the group’s leadership. It resembles Renegades of the Empire in the sense of charting the successes and failures of a high-visibility project within Microsoft. Where it surpasses that book is in its journalistic focus. If you read Mary Jo Foley’s Microsoft 2.0 but wondered how the organizational tree she outlines would actually play out, this is the book for you.

The best part of the book was its the perspective on timing and tenor provided by Brad Sams. Given that Microsoft totally abandoned its mobile ambitions, the lateness with which phones were still being announced in tandem with new Surfaces. Panay was tasked with promoting phones built by a team he acquired but did not want, and the wording of his remarks shows it. Likewise, Sams confirms the extremely late decision to kill the Surface Mini — which was still being hinted at in the official press invitations sent out for a later-repurposed launch.

I read Beneath a Surface in the Kindle edition.

Impressions of “The Four: The Hidden DNA of Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google,” by Scott Galloway

Scott Galloway is a professor of marketing at the New York University Business School. In The Four: The Hidden DNA of Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google, he analyzes the success of four major technology firms. He provides a list of their strengths, and near the end a list of competitors. While Galloway is an engaging speaker, the length of this book is artificially expanded by dubious claims and heavy political signaling. He clearly wants to be a pundit and pop intellectual. Ultimately, you are better off listening to his talks than buying this book.

Galloway’s focus is on the importance of luxury brands. Luxury is a high margin business, and (along with finance) luxury businesses are the most valuable business in the world. Certainly, these two facts are related to each other! An important aspect of luxury is controlling the customer experience, through vertical integration of both delivery and story — marketing. The most insightful passages of The Four analyze two of these tech giants as luxury companies, and two as luxury-destroying companies.

Two of the four analyzed companies, Amazon and Apple, focus on controlling the user experience with their brand. Both Apple and Amazon have their own retails stores (Apple Stores and Whole Foods, respectively). This allows the control over inventory and store design, makes it easy to identify high margin products customers are interested in and take those business for themselves (such as Amazon Essentials or Apple dongles), and of course freeze out potential competitors. Interestingly, Galloway mentions in passing he was once on the board for the computer maker Gateway 2000, which had its own line of retail stores since 1996 — two years before Apple announced its own retail line. Of course Apple won and Gateway lost, but as Galloway was a board member of Gateway, some discussion of his personal failure at testing his own theory would have been interesting.

By contrast, Facebook and Google are brand-destroying companies. They have no physical interaction with the customer, and effectively place a barrier between brands and consumers. Even if you “like” a company on Facebook, for instance, you are unlikely to see that company’s posts unless they pay for an advertising campaign on the site. Likewise, while Google at least sells devices (Google Home, Pixel) and provides an operating system or two (Android, Chrome OS) these are not profit centers in themselves but serve to protect their advertising monopoly. Because Galloway sees corporate success through the lens of marketing, this makes him much more cautious about these firms than others.

Galloway provides an extended case study of the failure of the New York Times to adapt to the digital age. He gives the example of the Times as a potential luxury information brand whose value was being diluted first by Google and then by Facebook. Working for an investment firm, he suggested that the Times remove all of its content from all digital platforms except its own and an exclusive digital partner. His goal was either a buy-out of the Times at several times its existing market cap, or the creation of a media conglomerate that could monopolize a small but high-income mix of landing pages on the web. Galloway identifies the failure to do this, caused by the immense benefits Google and Facebook provide in the short term for abandoning the direct link to the customers, as a cause of the New York Times‘ long term decline.

This material would cover at most one-fourth of the books’ length. The rest is an aggravating collection of signaling to specific political factions, including what-in-retrospect seems like the assumption of an activist Democratic president in the White House. Extended and irrelevant asides to the importance of banning end-to-end cryptography, income redistribution, references to the “creative class,” and so on.

Galloway is well worth listening to, even if this book is not worth buying. He has an excellent hour-long interview on the Triangulation podcast that I highly recommend. The Four is not as detailed a corporate history as Console Wars, as good of a biography as King Larry, or as solid a personal advice book as many others. Skip the book — watch his interviews or speeches.

I listened to The Four: The Hidden DNA of Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google in the Audible edition.