When PayPal met the world in 1999 it had stiff competition from Elon Musk’s x.com. The worst part wasn’t the rivalry, but that x.com had practically copied PayPal’s product. Naturally, PayPal was determined to come out on top. For some early employees, doing so meant putting in hundred-hour work weeks to get ahead. For others it meant building a bomb, presumably for use on their adversary’s Palo Alto headquarters.
“One of our engineers actually designed a bomb for this purpose,” PayPal cofounder Peter Thiel explains in his new book, Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future. “When he presented the schematic at a team meeting, calmer heads prevailed and the proposal was attributed to extreme sleep deprivation.”
Calmer heads might have prevailed, but the x.com affair wasn’t the group’s first brush with explosives. Of the company’s six founders, four had dabbled in the decidedly fringe hobby of bomb building in high school.
The founding team’s uniqueness extended well past eccentric leisure activities, too. For starters, at Paypal’s launch in, five of the cofounders were a mere 23 years old. Four of the cofounders had been born outside of the U.S., and three of them had escaped from communist countries. Thiel also recalls that in their very first conversation, one of his cofounders, Luke Nosek, brought up signing up for cryonics, the process of being frozen at death in hope of future medical resurrection. Not exactly standard cocktail chatter.
Youth, outsider status, and a fascination with scifi immortality techniques aren’t in themselves enough to ensure success such as what PayPal saw. But what they do offer is fertile ground for eccentricity–a trait crucial to creating something from nothing. Thiel contends that there are two secrets to building a startup that can change the future, and they’re both grounded in a reverence for the weird.
Unconventional thinkers are the most valuable players of any startup, so Thiel starts looking for them at the very first interview. He always asks, “What important truth do very few people agree with you on?”
Of course, most answers he gets are pretty predictable. “There is no God,” is a popular one, as is “America is not exceptional.” But a few dozen unremarkable responses are worth it because this question is ace at sussing out unconventional minds. It shows whether the candidate is able to adopt a different perspective of the present, which, according to Thiel, is “as close as we can come to looking into the future.” This question incites heterodoxy–thinking that is counter to the status quo–which is exactly what Thiel wants. Only a person who can think outside of convention, he explains, can change it.
The people who surprise you with their answer to this question–the bomb builders and the cryogenics enthusiasts of the world–are the types you want on your team. Asking a question that invites them to say something unpopular is a good litmus test.
All truly great startups were built on a secret. Airbnb, for example, looked at the homeowners of the world and saw an untapped supply of accommodation. Meanwhile, they surveyed the hotel market and found an unaddressed demand for places to stay.
In much the same way, the private car services Lyft and Uber saw people clamoring to go places and surmised that there were probably auto owners who wanted to drive them there. Airbnb, Lyft, and Uber found their “open secret,” in the intersection between groups who had and groups who needed, connected the two, and ended up with billion dollar companies. The good news is that there are plenty more such “open secrets” to be had.
Finding a really great secret requires purposeful searching. In his book, Thiel offers the proof of Fermat’s last theorem as an example: In 1637 mathematician Pierre de Fermat conjectured a mathematical theory without providing the proof, and since then the theorem was almost universally considered to be impossible to prove. Between 1986 and 1995, one intrepid mathematician made it his business to prove the theorem on his own. It took him nine years, but eventually, he cracked the problem. He succeeded where others hadn’t simply because he chose to look.
In Zero to One, you won’t find tips about what kind of company you ought to build, or what product you should make–after all, such a revelation would be in direct opposition to everything Thiel espouses. The real deal key is understanding that you need a secret, and the only way you’ll get to it is by thinking what others never dare.
Ask yourself the “contrarian question” Thiel poses to all of his interviewees. What popular truth do you find unconvincing? This question, when taken on a larger scale, translates into “What valuable company is nobody building?” Start here and see where your unconventional thinking can take you.
Want to learn more about why the future belongs to oddballs with secrets? Check out Blinkist for a 12-minute summary of Zero to One’s key messages.
—Caitlin Schiller is a writer at Blinkist, a service that feeds curious minds key insights from nonfiction books. Caitlin reads, researches, and taps Blinkist’s hundreds of nonfiction book summaries to write stories that make people’s days a little bit smarter. Connect with her on Twitter.