Thursday, December 11, 2014

Book Review: Zero to One

As a birthday/Christmas present, a  friend sent me Peter Thiel’s “Zero to One” in a four CD audio format. Peter reads through and presents nearly four hours of audio that goes much faster than the elapsed time would indicate. On the audio production aspects and delivery, it does very well. Having said that, how about the book as a whole?

Zero to One is a book about being an entrepreneur. For many of us, we may stop right there and think “ehh, I’m not an entrepreneur, so this book isn’t for me”. I would encourage anyone with that attitude to not think that way. Regardless of whether or not we work for a company, or we are the founder of a company, or we do freelance work in various capacities, all of us are entrepreneurs. In the curation of our own careers, absolutely we are. To that end, we want to create, to do something interesting, and maybe, dare we say it, change the world.

Most businesses we will see tend to copy someone else in some capacity. They are content to copy what has been successful for others. This is what Peter refers to as "One to N” improvement. It’s incremental, it’s a shaving of time, it’s an improved efficiency, it’s streamlining of process. It may keep you afloat, but it will not rocket you ahead. For that, you need a different approach, a true sense of innovation, a mindset that will bring you from Zero to One.

Thiel presents many anecdotes from the past thirty years in Silicon Valley, with many familiar stories, ups and downs, and memories, oh the memories (having been at Cisco Systems in the 1990s, and with several smaller companies through the ensuing fourteen years, Thiel’s stories are not just memorable, they are my history, and some of the stories hit a little too close to home ;) ).

The book is structured around seven questions that any company (and any individual) should be ready and willing to ask themselves before they commit to a venture or creating what they believe will be a “killer startup”. Those questions are:

Zero to One:  Can you create something new and revolutionary,  rather than copy the work of others and improve upon it?

Timing: Is NOW the time to start your business? If so, why? If not, why?

Market Share:  Are you starting as a big player in a small or underserved market?

People: Do you have the right people to help you meet your vision?

Channel: Can you create and effectively sell your product?

Defensibility: Can you hold your market position 10 and 20 years from now?

Secrets: Have you found a unique opportunity or niche others don’t know about?

Additionally, Thiel encourages that any product that will qualify as a Zero to One opportunity will not just compete with other options, but it will offer a 10X level of improvement over what has come before. If it doesn’t, then competition may overtake and erode anything you may offer. Harsh, but perfectly understandable.

Thiel addresses topics like success and failure, of disruption and collaboration, of replacement and complementarism, and of the fact that any real good technology, no matter how good, needs to be sold and marketed. Engineers believe that if their products is as good as they think it is, it will sell itself. History shows time and time again that that is not the case, and Thiel comes down hard on the side of sales being a driver, and that sales must be shepherded.

Bottom Line: Zero to One makes the case that true entrepreneurship needs to start from the idea of doing something unique, and being willing to look at the seven questions realistically and determinedly. If you cannot answer all seven of the questions with a YES, your odds of success are greatly diminished. Even if all seven can be answered with yes, there are no guarantees. This book is not a tell all guide as to how to be an entrepreneur, but it does give some concrete suggestions as to how to approach that goal. It’s a what and a why book, not a how book, at least not a "formula" how book. It does, however offer a lot of suggestions that the future entrepreneur, company worker, or freelance creator could learn a lot from. If you get the book, read it twice. If you get the audio version, listen to it three times. I think you’ll find the time well spent.

No comments: