Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future by Peter Thiel (Virgin Books, £16.99)
Peter Thiel, the founder of the online payment service PayPal and first outside investor in Facebook, thinks competition is overrated. In a perfectly competitive environment, no business makes a profit and hence all of them exit. Successful businesses have monopolies.
If you think that’s a broad and sweeping statement, then here’s another: people are either indefinite or definite thinkers. Indefinite thinkers start with the data, if you like, or the world as they find it. You might like the sound of them, but they don’t create value. The world is complex and engaging with it in this way leads to inertia. What we need, says Thiel, are more definite thinkers: people with fixed ideas willing to cast them on the world. And what venture capitalists like him can do is spot the difference between the indefinite thinkers who value old-fashioned ideas such as competition, and the definite thinkers who will build the new monopolies.
Is this a rich man’s fantasy or is there some truth to it? Sadly the place of innovation in the modern economy is much smaller than Thiel’s version suggests. For example, the proportion of firms’ turnover that comes from new products or services is only around 15 per cent in the highest performing countries and as low as 7 per cent in the UK. On the whole, we keep buying the same old stuff and companies make money by selling it to us. Thiel’s book might do the trick for an entrepreneur whose spirits are flagging; it’s less powerful as a guide for economic policy.
Read more books in brief:
The Rich by John Kampfner
Limonov by Emmanuel Carrère
Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit