THE CHALLENGE OF THE FUTURE
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.
Technology is miraculous because it allows us to do more with less, ratcheting up our fundamental capabilities to a higher level. Other animals are instinctively driven to build things like dams or honeycombs, but we are the only ones that can invent new things and better ways of making them. Humans don’t decide what to build by making choices from some cosmic catalog of options given in advance; instead, by creating new technologies, we rewrite the plan of the world.
Whenever I interview someone for a job, I like to ask this question: “What important truth do very few people agree with you on?” This question sounds easy because it’s straightforward. Actually, it’s very hard to answer. It’s intellectually difficult because the knowledge that everyone is taught in school is by definition agreed upon. And it’s psychologically difficult because anyone trying to answer must say something she knows to be unpopular. Brilliant thinking is rare, but courage is in even shorter supply than genius.
What does this contrarian question have to do with the future? In the most minimal sense, the future is simply the set of all moments yet to come. But what makes the future distinctive and important isn’t that it hasn’t happened yet, but rather that it will be a time when the world looks different from today. In this sense, if nothing about our society changes for the next 100 years, then the future is over 100 years away. If things change radically in the next decade, then the future is nearly at hand. No one can predict the future exactly, but we know two things: it’s going to be different, and it must be rooted in today’s world. Most answers to the contrarian question are different ways of seeing the present; good answers are as close as we can come to looking into the future.
When we think about the future, we hope for a future of progress. That progress can take one of two forms. Horizontal or extensive progress means copying things that work—going from 1 to n. Horizontal progress is easy to imagine because we already know what it looks like. Vertical or intensive progress means doing new things—going from 0 to 1. Vertical progress is harder to imagine because it requires doing something nobody else has ever done. If you take one typewriter and build 100, you have made horizontal progress. If you have a typewriter and build a word processor, you have made vertical progress.
At the macro level, the single word for horizontal progress is globalization—taking things that work somewhere and making them work everywhere. The single word for vertical, 0 to 1 progress is technology.
My own answer to the contrarian question is that most people think the future of the world will be defined by globalization, but the truth is that technology matters more. In a world of scarce resources, globalization without new technology is unsustainable.
Positively defined, a startup is the largest group of people you can convince of a plan to build a different future. A new company’s most important strength is new thinking: even more important than nimbleness, small size affords space to think.
PARTY LIKE IT'S 1999
It is better to risk boldness than triviality.
A bad plan is better than no plan.
Competitive markets destroy profits.
Sales matters just as much as product.
We still need new technology, and we may even need some 1999-style hubris and exuberance to get it. To build the next generation of companies, we must abandon the dogmas created after the crash. That doesn’t mean the opposite ideas are automatically true: you can’t escape the madness of crowds by dogmatically rejecting them. Instead ask yourself: how much of what you know about business is shaped by mistaken reactions to past mistakes? The most contrarian thing of all is not to oppose the crowd but to think for yourself.
ALL HAPPY COMPANIES ARE DIFFERENT
The business version of our contrarian question is: what valuable company is nobody building? This question is harder than it looks, because your company could create a lot of value without becoming very valuable itself. Creating value is not enough—you also need to capture some of the value you create.
The airlines compete with each other, but Google stands alone. Economists use two simplified models to explain the difference: perfect competition and monopoly.
“Perfect competition” is considered both the ideal and the default state in Economics 101. So-called perfectly competitive markets achieve equilibrium when producer supply meets consumer demand. Every firm in a competitive market is undifferentiated and sells the same homogeneous products. Since no firm has any market power, they must all sell at whatever price the market determines. If there is money to be made, new firms will enter the market, increase supply, drive prices down, and thereby eliminate the profits that attracted them in the first place. If too many firms enter the market, they’ll suffer losses, some will fold, and prices will rise back to sustainable levels. Under perfect competition, in the long run no company makes an economic profit.
The opposite of perfect competition is monopoly. Whereas a competitive firm must sell at the market price, a monopoly owns its market, so it can set its own prices. Since it has no competition, it produces at the quantity and price combination that maximizes its profits. To an economist, every monopoly looks the same, whether it deviously eliminates rivals, secures a license from the state, or innovates its way to the top. In this book, we’re not interested in illegal bullies or government favorites: by “monopoly,” we mean the kind of company that’s so good at what it does that no other firm can offer a close substitute.
Americans mythologize competition and credit it with saving us from socialist bread lines. Actually, capitalism and competition are opposites. Capitalism is premised on the accumulation of capital, but under perfect competition all profits get competed away. The lesson for entrepreneurs is clear: if you want to create and capture lasting value, don’t build an undifferentiated commodity business.
In business, money is either an important thing or it is everything. Monopolists can afford to think about things other than making money; non-monopolists can’t. In perfect competition, a business is so focused on today’s margins that it can’t possibly plan for a long-term future. Only one thing can allow a business to transcend the daily brute struggle for survival: monopoly profits.
So, a monopoly is good for everyone on the inside, but what about everyone on the outside? Do outsized profits come at the expense of the rest of society? Actually, yes: profits come out of customers’ wallets, and monopolies deserve their bad reputation—but only in a world where nothing changes. But the world we live in is dynamic: it’s possible to invent new and better things. Creative monopolists give customers more choices by adding entirely new categories of abundance to the world. Creative monopolies aren’t just good for the rest of society; they’re powerful engines for making it better.
Monopolies drive progress because the promise of years or even decades of monopoly profits provides a powerful incentive to innovate. Then monopolies can keep innovating because profits enable them to make the long-term plans and to finance the ambitious research projects that firms locked in competition can’t dream of.
Perfect equilibrium may describe the void that is most of the universe. It may even characterize many businesses. But every new creation takes place far from equilibrium. In the real world outside economic theory, every business is successful exactly to the extent that it does something others cannot. Monopoly is therefore not a pathology or an exception. Monopoly is the condition of every successful business. Tolstoy opens Anna Karenina by observing: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Business is the opposite. All happy companies are different: each one earns a monopoly by solving a unique problem. All failed companies are the same: they failed to escape competition.
THE IDEOLOGY OF COMPETITION
Creative monopoly means new products that benefit everybody and sustainable profits for the creator. Competition means no profits for anybody, no meaningful differentiation, and a struggle for survival. So why do people believe that competition is healthy? The answer is that competition is not just an economic concept or a simple inconvenience that individuals and companies must deal with in the marketplace. More than anything else, competition is an ideology—the ideology—that pervades our society and distorts our thinking. We preach competition, internalize its necessity, and enact its commandments; and as a result, we trap ourselves within it—even though the more we compete, the less we gain.
The hazards of imitative competition may partially explain why individuals with an Asperger’s-like social ineptitude seem to be at an advantage in Silicon Valley today. If you’re less sensitive to social cues, you’re less likely to do the same things as everyone else around you. If you’re interested in making things or programming computers, you’ll be less afraid to pursue those activities single-mindedly and thereby become incredibly good at them. Then when you apply your skills, you’re a little less likely than others to give up your own convictions: this can save you from getting caught up in crowds competing for obvious prizes.
LAST MOVER ADVANTAGE
Simply stated, the value of a business today is the sum of all the money it will make in the future. (To properly value a business, you also have to discount those future cash flows to their present worth, since a given amount of money today is worth more than the same amount in the future.) Comparing discounted cash flows shows the difference between low-growth businesses and high-growth startups at its starkest. Most of the value of low-growth businesses is in the near term. An Old Economy business (like a newspaper) might hold its value if it can maintain its current cash flows for five or six years. However, any firm with close substitutes will see its profits competed away. Nightclubs or restaurants are extreme examples: successful ones might collect healthy amounts today, but their cash flows will probably dwindle over the next few years when customers move on to newer and trendier alternatives. Technology companies follow the opposite trajectory. They often lose money for the first few years: it takes time to build valuable things, and that means delayed revenue. Most of a tech company’s value will come at least 10 to 15 years in the future.
What does a company with large cash flows far into the future look like? Every monopoly is unique, but they usually share some combination of the following characteristics: proprietary technology, network effects, economies of scale, and branding.
As a good rule of thumb, proprietary technology must be at least 10 times better than its closest substitute in some important dimension to lead to a real monopolistic advantage. Anything less than an order of magnitude better will probably be perceived as a marginal improvement and will be hard to sell, especially in an already crowded market.
Network effects make a product more useful as more people use it. For example, if all your friends are on Facebook, it makes sense for you to join Facebook, too. Unilaterally choosing a different social network would only make you an eccentric. Network effects can be powerful, but you’ll never reap them unless your product is valuable to its very first users when the network is necessarily small. Paradoxically, then, network effects businesses must start with especially small markets.
A monopoly business gets stronger as it gets bigger: the fixed costs of creating a product (engineering, management, office space) can be spread out over ever greater quantities of sales. Software startups can enjoy especially dramatic economies of scale because the marginal cost of producing another copy of the product is close to zero.
A good startup should have the potential for great scale built into its first design.
Every startup is small at the start. Every monopoly dominates a large share of its market. Therefore, every startup should start with a very small market. Always err on the side of starting too small. The reason is simple: it’s easier to dominate a small market than a large one. If you think your initial market might be too big, it almost certainly is.
The perfect target market for a startup is a small group of particular people concentrated together and served by few or no competitors. Any big market is a bad choice, and a big market already served by competing companies is even worse. This is why it’s always a red flag when entrepreneurs talk about getting 1% of a $100 billion market.
Once you create and dominate a niche market, then you should gradually expand into related and slightly broader markets. Sequencing markets correctly is underrated, and it takes discipline to expand gradually. The most successful companies make the core progression—to first dominate a specific niche and then scale to adjacent markets—a part of their founding narrative.
Disruption has recently transmogrified into a self-congratulatory buzzword for anything posing as trendy and new. This seemingly trivial fad matters because it distorts an entrepreneur’s self-understanding in an inherently competitive way. The concept was coined to describe threats to incumbent companies, so startups’ obsession with disruption means they see themselves through older firms’ eyes. If you think of yourself as an insurgent battling dark forces, it’s easy to become unduly fixated on the obstacles in your path. But if you truly want to make something new, the act of creation is far more important than the old industries that might not like what you create. Indeed, if your company can be summed up by its opposition to already existing firms, it can’t be completely new and it’s probably not going to become a monopoly. As you craft a plan to expand to adjacent markets, don’t disrupt: avoid competition as much as possible.
You’ve probably heard about “first mover advantage”: if you’re the first entrant into a market, you can capture significant market share while competitors scramble to get started. But moving first is a tactic, not a goal. What really matters is generating cash flows in the future, so being the first mover doesn’t do you any good if someone else comes along and unseats you. It’s much better to be the last mover—that is, to make the last great development in a specific market and enjoy years or even decades of monopoly profits. The way to do that is to dominate a small niche and scale up from there, toward your ambitious long-term vision.
YOU ARE NOT A LOTTERY TICKET
You can expect the future to take a definite form or you can treat it as hazily uncertain. If you treat the future as something definite, it makes sense to understand it in advance and to work to shape it. But if you expect an indefinite future ruled by randomness, you’ll give up on trying to master it. Indefinite attitudes to the future explain what’s most dysfunctional in our world today. Process trumps substance: when people lack concrete plans to carry out, they use formal rules to assemble a portfolio of various options.
A definite view, by contrast, favors firm convictions. Instead of pursuing many-sided mediocrity and calling it “well-roundedness,” a definite person determines the one best thing to do and then does it. Instead of working tirelessly to make herself indistinguishable, she strives to be great at something substantive—to be a monopoly of one. This is not what young people do today, because everyone around them has long since lost faith in a definite world.
You can also expect the future to be either better or worse than the present. Optimists welcome the future; pessimists fear it. Combining these possibilities yields four views:
Indefinite Pessimism: An indefinite pessimist looks out onto a bleak future, but he has no idea what to do about it. This describes Europe since the early 1970s, when the continent succumbed to undirected bureaucratic drift. Today the whole Eurozone is in slow-motion crisis, and nobody is in charge.
Definite Pessimism: A definite pessimist believes the future can be known, but since it will be bleak, he must prepare for it. Perhaps surprisingly, China is probably the most definitely pessimistic place in the world today. When Americans see the Chinese economy grow ferociously fast (10% per year since 2000), we imagine a confident country mastering its future. But that’s because Americans are still optimists, and we project our optimism onto China. From China’s viewpoint, economic growth cannot come fast enough. Every other country is afraid that China is going to take over the world; China is the only country afraid that it won’t.
Definite Optimism: To a definite optimist, the future will be better than the present if he plans and works to make it better. From the 17th century through the 1950s and ’60s, definite optimists led the Western world. Scientists, engineers, doctors, and businessmen made the world richer, healthier, and more long-lived than previously imaginable.
Indefinite Optimism: After a brief pessimistic phase in the 1970s, indefinite optimism has dominated American thinking ever since 1982, when a long bull market began and finance eclipsed engineering as the way to approach the future. To an indefinite optimist, the future will be better, but he doesn’t know how exactly, so he won’t make any specific plans. He expects to profit from the future but sees no reason to design it concretely. Instead of working for years to build a new product, indefinite optimists rearrange already-invented ones.
In an indefinite world, people actually prefer unlimited optionality; money is more valuable than anything you could possibly do with it. Only in a definite future is money a means to an end, not the end itself.
The other three views of the future can work. Definite optimism works when you build the future you envision. Definite pessimism works by building what can be copied without expecting anything new. Indefinite pessimism works because it’s self-fulfilling: if you’re a slacker with low expectations, they’ll probably be met. But indefinite optimism seems inherently unsustainable: how can the future get better if no one plans for it?
The buzzwords of the moment call for building a “lean startup” that can “adapt” and “evolve” to an ever-changing environment. Would-be entrepreneurs are told that nothing can be known in advance: we’re supposed to listen to what customers say they want, make nothing more than a “minimum viable product,” and iterate our way to success. But leanness is a methodology, not a goal. Making small changes to things that already exist might lead you to a local maximum, but it won’t help you find the global maximum.
A company is the strangest place of all for an indefinite optimist: why should you expect your own business to succeed without a plan to make it happen? Darwinism may be a fine theory in other contexts, but in startups, intelligent design works best.
A startup is the largest endeavor over which you can have definite mastery. You can have agency not just over your own life, but over a small and important part of the world. It begins by rejecting the unjust tyranny of Chance. You are not a lottery ticket.
FOLLOW THE MONEY
In 1906, economist Vilfredo Pareto discovered what became the “Pareto principle,” or the 80-20 rule, when he noticed that 20% of the people owned 80% of the land in Italy—a phenomenon that he found just as natural as the fact that 20% of the peapods in his garden produced 80% of the peas. This extraordinarily stark pattern, in which a small few radically outstrip all rivals, surrounds us everywhere in the natural and social world. The most destructive earthquakes are many times more powerful than all smaller earthquakes combined. The biggest cities dwarf all mere towns put together. And monopoly businesses capture more value than millions of undifferentiated competitors. The power law—so named because exponential equations describe severely unequal distributions—is the law of the universe. It defines our surroundings so completely that we usually don’t even see it.
This chapter shows how the power law becomes visible when you follow the money: in venture capital, where investors try to profit from exponential growth in early-stage companies, a few companies attain exponentially greater value than all others. Most businesses never need to deal with venture capital, but everyone needs to know exactly one thing that even venture capitalists struggle to understand: we don’t live in a normal world; we live under a power law.
The biggest secret in venture capital is that the best investment in a successful fund equals or outperforms the entire rest of the fund combined. This implies two very strange rules for VCs. First, only invest in companies that have the potential to return the value of the entire fund. This is a scary rule, because it eliminates the vast majority of possible investments. (Even quite successful companies usually succeed on a more humble scale.) This leads to rule number two: because rule number one is so restrictive, there can’t be any other rules. Of course, no one can know with certainty ex ante which companies will succeed, so even the best VC firms have a “portfolio.” However, every single company in a good venture portfolio must have the potential to succeed at vast scale.
The power law is not just important to investors; rather, it’s important to everybody because everybody is an investor. An entrepreneur makes a major investment just by spending her time working on a startup. Therefore every entrepreneur must think about whether her company is going to succeed and become valuable. Every individual is unavoidably an investor, too. When you choose a career, you act on your belief that the kind of work you do will be valuable decades from now.
Life is not a portfolio: not for a startup founder, and not for any individual. An entrepreneur cannot “diversify” herself: you cannot run dozens of companies at the same time and then hope that one of them works out well. Less obvious but just as important, an individual cannot diversify his own life by keeping dozens of equally possible careers in ready reserve.
It does matter what you do. You should focus relentlessly on something you’re good at doing, but before that you must think hard about whether it will be valuable in the future.
Every one of today’s most famous and familiar ideas was once unknown and unsuspected.
Remember our contrarian question: what important truth do very few people agree with you on? If we already understand as much of the natural world as we ever will—if all of today’s conventional ideas are already enlightened, and if everything has already been done—then there are no good answers. Contrarian thinking doesn’t make any sense unless the world still has secrets left to give up.
People are scared of secrets because they are scared of being wrong. By definition, a secret hasn’t been vetted by the mainstream. If your goal is to never make a mistake in your life, you shouldn’t look for secrets. The prospect of being lonely but right—dedicating your life to something that no one else believes in—is already hard. The prospect of being lonely and wrong can be unbearable.
Four social trends have conspired to root out belief in secrets.
First is incrementalism. From an early age, we are taught that the right way to do things is to proceed one very small step at a time, day by day, grade by grade. If you overachieve and end up learning something that’s not on the test, you won’t receive credit for it. But in exchange for doing exactly what’s asked of you (and for doing it just a bit better than your peers), you’ll get an A.
Second is risk aversion. People are scared of secrets because they are scared of being wrong. By definition, a secret hasn’t been vetted by the mainstream. If your goal is to never make a mistake in your life, you shouldn’t look for secrets. The prospect of being lonely but right—dedicating your life to something that no one else believes in—is already hard. The prospect of being lonely and wrong can be unbearable.
Third is complacency. Social elites have the most freedom and ability to explore new thinking, but they seem to believe in secrets the least. Why search for a new secret if you can comfortably collect rents on everything that has already been done?
Fourth is “flatness.” As globalization advances, people perceive the world as one homogeneous, highly competitive marketplace: the world is “flat.” Given that assumption, anyone who might have had the ambition to look for a secret will first ask himself: if it were possible to discover something new, wouldn’t someone from the faceless global talent pool of smarter and more creative people have found it already? This voice of doubt can dissuade people from even starting to look for secrets in a world that seems too big a place for any individual to contribute something unique.
You can’t find secrets without looking for them. If you think something hard is impossible, you’ll never even start trying to achieve it. Belief in secrets is an effective truth.
The same reason that so many internet companies, including Facebook, are often underestimated—their very simplicity—is itself an argument for secrets. If insights that look so elementary in retrospect can support important and valuable businesses, there must remain many great companies still to start.
There are two kinds of secrets: secrets of nature and secrets about people. Natural secrets exist all around us; to find them, one must study some undiscovered aspect of the physical world. Secrets about people are different: they are things that people don’t know about themselves or things they hide because they don’t want others to know. So when thinking about what kind of company to build, there are two distinct questions to ask: What secrets is nature not telling you? What secrets are people not telling you?
The best place to look for secrets is where no one else is looking. Most people think only in terms of what they’ve been taught; schooling itself aims to impart conventional wisdom. So you might ask: are there any fields that matter but haven’t been standardized and institutionalized? Physics, for example, is a real major at all major universities, and it’s set in its ways. The opposite of physics might be astrology, but astrology doesn’t matter. What about something like nutrition? Nutrition matters for everybody, but you can’t major in it at Harvard. Most top scientists go into other fields. Most of the big studies were done 30 or 40 years ago, and most are seriously flawed. The food pyramid that told us to eat low fat and enormous amounts of grains was probably more a product of lobbying by Big Food than real science; its chief impact has been to aggravate our obesity epidemic. There’s plenty more to learn: we know more about the physics of faraway stars than we know about human nutrition. It won’t be easy, but it’s not obviously impossible: exactly the kind of field that could yield secrets.
If you find a secret, you face a choice: Do you tell anyone? Or do you keep it to yourself? It depends on the secret: some are more dangerous than others/ Unless you have perfectly conventional beliefs, it’s rarely a good idea to tell everybody everything that you know. So who do you tell? Whoever you need to, and no more. In practice, there’s always a golden mean between telling nobody and telling everybody—and that’s a company. The best entrepreneurs know this: every great business is built around a secret that’s hidden from the outside. A great company is a conspiracy to change the world; when you share your secret, the recipient becomes a fellow conspirator.
Every great company is unique, but there are a few things that every business must get right at the beginning. I stress this so often that friends have teasingly nicknamed it “Thiel’s law”: a startup messed up at its foundation cannot be fixed.
When you start something, the first and most crucial decision you make is whom to start it with. Choosing a co-founder is like getting married, and founder conflict is just as ugly as divorce. Optimism abounds at the start of every relationship. It’s unromantic to think soberly about what could go wrong, so people don’t. But if the founders develop irreconcilable differences, the company becomes the victim.
To anticipate likely sources of misalignment in any company, it’s useful to distinguish between three concepts:
Ownership: who legally owns a company’s equity?
Possession: who actually runs the company on a day-to-day basis?
Control: who formally governs the company’s affairs?
A typical startup allocates ownership among founders, employees, and investors. The managers and employees who operate the company enjoy possession. And a board of directors, usually comprising founders and investors, exercises control. In theory, this division works smoothly. Financial upside from part ownership attracts and rewards investors and workers. Effective possession motivates and empowers founders and employees—it means they can get stuff done. Oversight from the board places managers’ plans in a broader perspective. In practice, distributing these functions among different people makes sense, but it also multiplies opportunities for misalignment.
A board of three is ideal. Your board should never exceed five people, unless your company is publicly held.
As a general rule, everyone you involve with your company should be involved full-time. Sometimes you’ll have to break this rule; it usually makes sense to hire outside lawyers and accountants, for example. However, anyone who doesn’t own stock options or draw a regular salary from your company is fundamentally misaligned. At the margin, they’ll be biased to claim value in the near term, not help you create more in the future. That’s why hiring consultants doesn’t work. Part-time employees don’t work. Even working remotely should be avoided, because misalignment can creep in whenever colleagues aren’t together full-time, in the same place, every day. If you’re deciding whether to bring someone on board, the decision is binary. Ken Kesey was right: you’re either on the bus or off the bus.
For people to be fully committed, they should be properly compensated. Whenever an entrepreneur asks me to invest in his company, I ask him how much he intends to pay himself. A company does better the less it pays the CEO—that’s one of the single clearest patterns I’ve noticed from investing in hundreds of startups. In no case should a CEO of an early-stage, venture-backed startup receive more than $150,000 per year in salary. It doesn’t matter if he got used to making much more than that at Google or if he has a large mortgage and hefty private school tuition bills. If a CEO collects $300,000 per year, he risks becoming more like a politician than a founder. High pay incentivizes him to defend the status quo along with his salary, not to work with everyone else to surface problems and fix them aggressively. A cash-poor executive, by contrast, will focus on increasing the value of the company as a whole. Low CEO pay also sets the standard for everyone else.
Startups don’t need to pay high salaries because they can offer something better: part ownership of the company itself. Equity is the one form of compensation that can effectively orient people toward creating value in the future. However, for equity to create commitment rather than conflict, you must allocate it very carefully.
Since it’s impossible to achieve perfect fairness when distributing ownership, founders would do well to keep the details secret. Sending out a company-wide email that lists everyone’s ownership stake would be like dropping a nuclear bomb on your office.
Stories of startup chefs becoming millionaires notwithstanding, people often find equity unattractive. It’s not liquid like cash. It’s tied to one specific company. And if that company doesn’t succeed, it’s worthless. Equity is a powerful tool precisely because of these limitations. Anyone who prefers owning a part of your company to being paid in cash reveals a preference for the long term and a commitment to increasing your company’s value in the future. Equity can’t create perfect incentives, but it’s the best way for a founder to keep everyone in the company broadly aligned.
The most valuable kind of company maintains an openness to invention that is most characteristic of beginnings. This leads to a second, less obvious understanding of the founding: it lasts as long as a company is creating new things, and it ends when creation stops. If you get the founding moment right, you can do more than create a valuable company: you can steer its distant future toward the creation of new things instead of the stewardship of inherited success. You might even extend its founding indefinitely.
THE MECHANICS OF MAFIA
You can’t accomplish anything meaningful by hiring an interior decorator to beautify your office, a “human resources” consultant to fix your policies, or a branding specialist to hone your buzzwords. “Company culture” doesn’t exist apart from the company itself: no company has a culture; every company is a culture. A startup is a team of people on a mission, and a good culture is just what that looks like on the inside.
Why work with a group of people who don’t even like each other? Many seem to think it’s a sacrifice necessary for making money. But taking a merely professional view of the workplace, in which free agents check in and out on a transactional basis, is worse than cold: it’s not even rational. Since time is your most valuable asset, it’s odd to spend it working with people who don’t envision any long-term future together. If you can’t count durable relationships among the fruits of your time at work, you haven’t invested your time well—even in purely financial terms.
Recruiting is a core competency for any company. It should never be outsourced. You need people who are not just skilled on paper but who will work together cohesively after they’re hired. The first four or five might be attracted by large equity stakes or high-profile responsibilities. More important than those obvious offerings is your answer to this question: Why should the 20th employee join your company? Talented people don’t need to work for you; they have plenty of options. You should ask yourself a more pointed version of the question: Why would someone join your company as its 20th engineer when she could go work at Google for more money and more prestige? The only good answers are specific to your company, so you won’t find them in this book. But there are two general kinds of good answers: answers about your mission and answers about your team. You’ll attract the employees you need if you can explain why your mission is compelling: not why it’s important in general, but why you’re doing something important that no one else is going to get done. That’s the only thing that can make its importance unique.
However, even a great mission is not enough. The kind of recruit who would be most engaged as an employee will also wonder: “Are these the kind of people I want to work with?” You should be able to explain why your company is a unique match for him personally. And if you can’t do that, he’s probably not the right match. Above all, don’t fight the perk war. Just cover the basics like health insurance and then promise what no others can: the opportunity to do irreplaceable work on a unique problem alongside great people.
What makes a startup employee instantly distinguishable to outsiders is the branded T-shirt or hoodie that makes him look the same as his co-workers. The startup uniform encapsulates a simple but essential principle: everyone at your company should be different in the same way—a tribe of like-minded people fiercely devoted to the company’s mission.
Max Levchin, my co-founder at PayPal, says that startups should make their early staff as personally similar as possible. Startups have limited resources and small teams. They must work quickly and efficiently in order to survive, and that’s easier to do when everyone shares an understanding of the world.
On the inside, every individual should be sharply distinguished by her work. The best thing I did as a manager at PayPal was to make every person in the company responsible for doing just one thing. Every employee’s one thing was unique, and everyone knew I would evaluate him only on that one thing. I had started doing this just to simplify the task of managing people. But then I noticed a deeper result: defining roles reduced conflict. Most fights inside a company happen when colleagues compete for the same responsibilities. Startups face an especially high risk of this since job roles are fluid at the early stages. Eliminating competition makes it easier for everyone to build the kinds of long-term relationships that transcend mere professionalism. More than that, internal peace is what enables a startup to survive at all. When a startup fails, we often imagine it succumbing to predatory rivals in a competitive ecosystem. But every company is also its own ecosystem, and factional strife makes it vulnerable to outside threats.
In the most intense kind of organization, members hang out only with other members. They ignore their families and abandon the outside world. In exchange, they experience strong feelings of belonging, and maybe get access to esoteric “truths” denied to ordinary people. We have a word for such organizations: cults. The best startups might be considered slightly less extreme kinds of cults. The biggest difference is that cults tend to be fanatically wrong about something important. People at a successful startup are fanatically right about something those outside it have missed. You’re not going to learn those kinds of secrets from consultants, and you don’t need to worry if your company doesn’t make sense to conventional professionals. Better to be called a cult—or even a mafia.
IF YOU BUILD IT, WILL THEY COME?
The Field of Dreams conceit is especially popular in Silicon Valley, where engineers are biased toward building cool stuff rather than selling it. But customers will not come just because you build it. You have to make that happen, and it’s harder than it looks.
Like acting, sales works best when hidden. The most fundamental reason that even businesspeople underestimate the importance of sales is the systematic effort to hide it at every level of every field in a world secretly driven by it.
The engineer’s grail is a product great enough that “it sells itself.” But anyone who would actually say this about a real product must be lying: either he’s delusional (lying to himself) or he’s selling something (and thereby contradicting himself). The polar opposite business cliché warns that “the best product doesn’t always win.” Economists attribute this to “path dependence”: specific historical circumstances independent of objective quality can determine which products enjoy widespread adoption. That’s true, but it doesn’t mean the operating systems we use today and the keyboard layouts on which we type were imposed by mere chance. It’s better to think of distribution as something essential to the design of your product. If you’ve invented something new but you haven’t invented an effective way to sell it, you have a bad business—no matter how good the product.
Superior sales and distribution by itself can create a monopoly, even with no product differentiation. The converse is not true. No matter how strong your product—even if it easily fits into already established habits and anybody who tries it likes it immediately—you must still support it with a strong distribution plan. Two metrics set the limits for effective distribution. The total net profit that you earn on average over the course of your relationship with a customer (Customer Lifetime Value, or CLV) must exceed the amount you spend on average to acquire a new customer (Customer Acquisition Cost, or CAC). In general, the higher the price of your product, the more you have to spend to make a sale—and the more it makes sense to spend it.
Marketing and advertising work for relatively low-priced products that have mass appeal but lack any method of viral distribution. Advertising can work for startups, too, but only when your customer acquisition costs and customer lifetime value make every other distribution channel uneconomical.
A product is viral if its core functionality encourages users to invite their friends to become users too. This is how Facebook and PayPal both grew quickly: every time someone shares with a friend or makes a payment, they naturally invite more and more people into the network. This isn’t just cheap—it’s fast, too. If every new user leads to more than one additional user, you can achieve a chain reaction of exponential growth. The ideal viral loop should be as quick and frictionless as possible. Funny YouTube videos or internet memes get millions of views very quickly because they have extremely short cycle times: people see the kitten, feel warm inside, and forward it to their friends in a matter of seconds.
One of these methods is likely to be far more powerful than every other for any given business: distribution follows a power law of its own. This is counterintuitive for most entrepreneurs, who assume that more is more. But the kitchen sink approach—employ a few salespeople, place some magazine ads, and try to add some kind of viral functionality to the product as an afterthought—doesn’t work. Most businesses get zero distribution channels to work: poor sales rather than bad product is the most common cause of failure. If you can get just one distribution channel to work, you have a great business. If you try for several but don’t nail one, you’re finished.
Your company needs to sell more than its product. You must also sell your company to employees and investors.
Selling your company to the media is a necessary part of selling it to everyone else. Nerds who instinctively mistrust the media often make the mistake of trying to ignore it. But just as you can never expect people to buy a superior product merely on its obvious merits without any distribution strategy, you should never assume that people will admire your company without a public relations strategy. Even if your particular product doesn’t need media exposure to acquire customers because you have a viral distribution strategy, the press can help attract investors and employees.
MAN AND MACHINE
Computers are complements for humans, not substitutes. The most valuable businesses of coming decades will be built by entrepreneurs who seek to empower people rather than try to make them obsolete.
When we design new computer technology to help solve problems, we get all the efficiency gains of a hyperspecialized trading partner without having to compete with it for resources. Properly understood, technology is the one way for us to escape competition in a globalizing world. As computers become more and more powerful, they won’t be substitutes for humans: they’ll be complements.
Most cleantech companies crashed because they neglected one or more of the seven questions that every business must answer:
The Engineering Question: Can you create breakthrough technology instead of incremental improvements?
The Timing Question: Is now the right time to start your particular business?
The Monopoly Question: Are you starting with a big share of a small market?
The People Question: Do you have the right team?
The Distribution Question: Do you have a way to not just create but deliver your product?
The Durability Question: Will your market position be defensible 10 and 20 years into the future?
The Secret Question: Have you identified a unique opportunity that others don’t see?
Cleantech entrepreneurs aimed for more than just success as most businesses define it. The cleantech bubble was the biggest phenomenon—and the biggest flop—in the history of “social entrepreneurship.” This philanthropic approach to business starts with the idea that corporations and nonprofits have until now been polar opposites: corporations have great power, but they’re shackled to the profit motive; nonprofits pursue the public interest, but they’re weak players in the wider economy. Social entrepreneurs aim to combine the best of both worlds and “do well by doing good.” Usually they end up doing neither. The ambiguity between social and financial goals doesn’t help. But the ambiguity in the word “social” is even more of a problem: if something is “socially good,” is it good for society, or merely seen as good by society? Whatever is good enough to receive applause from all audiences can only be conventional, like the general idea of green energy.
Doing something different is what’s truly good for society—and it’s also what allows a business to profit by monopolizing a new market. The best projects are likely to be overlooked, not trumpeted by a crowd; the best problems to work on are often the ones nobody else even tries to solve.
The 1990s had one big idea: the internet is going to be big. But too many internet companies had exactly that same idea and no others. An entrepreneur can’t benefit from macro-scale insight unless his own plans begin at the micro-scale. Cleantech companies faced the same problem: no matter how much the world needs energy, only a firm that offers a superior solution for a specific energy problem can make money. No sector will ever be so important that merely participating in it will be enough to build a great company.
THE FOUNDER’S PARADOX
It’s more powerful but at the same time more dangerous for a company to be led by a distinctive individual instead of an interchangeable manager.
Perhaps founders aren’t really as extreme as they appear. Might they strategically exaggerate certain qualities? Or is it possible that everyone else exaggerates them? All of these effects can be present at the same time, and whenever present they powerfully reinforce each other. The cycle usually starts with unusual people and ends with them acting and seeming even more unusual.
The famous and infamous have always served as vessels for public sentiment: they’re praised amid prosperity and blamed for misfortune. Primitive societies faced one fundamental problem above all: they would be torn apart by conflict if they didn’t have a way to stop it. So whenever plagues, disasters, or violent rivalries threatened the peace, it was beneficial for the society to place the entire blame on a single person, someone everybody could agree on: a scapegoat. Who makes an effective scapegoat? Like founders, scapegoats are extreme and contradictory figures. On the one hand, a scapegoat is necessarily weak; he is powerless to stop his own victimization. On the other hand, as the one who can defuse conflict by taking the blame, he is the most powerful member of the community.
Apple’s value crucially depended on the singular vision of a particular person. This hints at the strange way in which the companies that create new technology often resemble feudal monarchies rather than organizations that are supposedly more “modern.” A unique founder can make authoritative decisions, inspire strong personal loyalty, and plan ahead for decades. Paradoxically, impersonal bureaucracies staffed by trained professionals can last longer than any lifetime, but they usually act with short time horizons.
The lesson for business is that we need founders. If anything, we should be more tolerant of founders who seem strange or extreme; we need unusual individuals to lead companies beyond mere incrementalism. The lesson for founders is that individual prominence and adulation can never be enjoyed except on the condition that it may be exchanged for individual notoriety and demonization at any moment—so be careful. Above all, don’t overestimate your own power as an individual. Founders are important not because they are the only ones whose work has value, but rather because a great founder can bring out the best work from everybody at his company. That we need individual founders in all their peculiarity does not mean that we are called to worship Ayn Randian “prime movers” who claim to be independent of everybody around them. In this respect Rand was a merely half-great writer: her villains were real, but her heroes were fake. There is no Galt’s Gulch. There is no secession from society. To believe yourself invested with divine self-sufficiency is not the mark of a strong individual, but of a person who has mistaken the crowd’s worship—or jeering—for the truth. The single greatest danger for a founder is to become so certain of his own myth that he loses his mind. But an equally insidious danger for every business is to lose all sense of myth and mistake disenchantment for wisdom.
CONCLUSION: STAGNATION OR SINGULARITY?
Philosopher Nick Bostrom describes four possible patterns for the future of humanity.
The ancients saw all of history as a neverending alternation between prosperity and ruin. Only recently have people dared to hope that we might permanently escape misfortune, and it’s still possible to wonder whether the stability we take for granted will last.
However, we usually suppress our doubts. Conventional wisdom seems to assume instead that the whole world will converge toward a plateau of development similar to the life of the richest countries today. In this scenario, the future will look a lot like the present.
Given the interconnected geography of the contemporary world and the unprecedented destructive power of modern weaponry, it’s hard not to ask whether a large-scale social disaster could be contained were it to occur. This is what fuels our fears of the third possible scenario: a collapse so devastating that we won’t survive it.
The last of the four possibilities is the hardest one to imagine: accelerating takeoff toward a much better future. The end result of such a breakthrough could take a number of forms, but any one of them would be so different from the present as to defy description. The most dramatic version of this outcome is called the Singularity, an attempt to name the imagined result of new technologies so powerful as to transcend the current limits of our understanding. Ray Kurzweil, the best-known Singularitarian, starts from Moore’s law and traces exponential growth trends in dozens of fields, confidently projecting a future of superhuman artificial intelligence. According to Kurzweil, “the Singularity is near,” it’s inevitable, and all we have to do is prepare ourselves to accept it. But no matter how many trends can be traced, the future won’t happen on its own. What the Singularity would look like matters less than the stark choice we face today between the two most likely scenarios: nothing or something. It’s up to us. We cannot take for granted that the future will be better, and that means we need to work to create it today. Whether we achieve the Singularity on a cosmic scale is perhaps less important than whether we seize the unique opportunities we have to do new things in our own working lives. Everything important to us—the universe, the planet, the country, your company, your life, and this very moment—is singular. Our task today is to find singular ways to create the new things that will make the future not just different, but better—to go from 0 to 1. The essential first step is to think for yourself. Only by seeing our world anew, as fresh and strange as it was to the ancients who saw it first, can we both re-create it and preserve it for the future.