Investor Peter Thiel has inspiring advice for wanna-be entrepreneurs, but he is unrealistic about where technology really comes from.
Is the technology investor Peter Thiel brilliant, or is he just strange? He is nothing if not industrious. Since he cofounded PayPal, in 1998, Thiel has had a hand in some of the most important and unexpected tech companies of our era. His success has made him an oracular presence in Silicon Valley.
Thiel’s contrarianism is notorious, and he appears to delight in saying or doing the unexpected, even at the risk of ridicule. Each year, his nonprofit gives a handful of college students $100,000 to drop out of school and pursue a risky startup. He has declared himself to be not only against taxes but against “the ideology of the inevitability of death.” And when the Seasteading Institute—a utopian group intent on building floating cities so as to escape the intrusions of government—sought funding a few years ago, Thiel ponied up half a million dollars.
If one wanted to emulate Peter Thiel’s success, would one have to do more than just the opposite of everyone else? His new book—a polished version of some lectures he gave at Stanford for aspiring entrepreneurs in 2012—suggests that there is such a creed as Thielism. His theories on what makes a good technology company and how such companies can improve society are by turns brazen, thoughtful, and precise; the challenge lies in separating the truth from the truthiness. Thiel insightfully diagnoses the failings of today’s technology (see Q&A), but the cures he suggests are questionable.
According to Thiel, most startups funded by his fellow Silicon Valley investors shouldn’t exist. All prospective entrepreneurs, he suggests, should ask themselves a simple and essential question: “What valuable company is nobody building?” If they don’t have an answer, they should do something else.