Mark Twain once said, “There is no such thing as an original idea. It is impossible. We simply take a lot of old ideas and put them into a sort of mental kaleidoscope.”
Many of the ideas people have today have been worked through so many times that they’ve become cliche. For novelists, movie producers, and game creators, trying to make something eye-catching is more than a little bit of work. They need to shift their mental kaleidoscope into just the right position to get from zero to one.
Could that same thinking apply to business owners?
Zero To One
It’s easy to improve upon an existing idea, but creating an original idea is what will take you from zero to one. Going from zero to one just means going from nothing to something. But this is hard to do because it also means entrepreneurs have no examples to fall back on and nothing to compare their ideas to. New ideas, by their very nature, are unproven. This can hold entrepreneurs back, but it is necessary for success. Many entrepreneurs don’t even realize that unique ideas are exactly what they need to rise above the competition.
To thrive, a business needs to be unique and catch the eye of the consumer. As impossible as that may seem, it’s an achievable goal. In his book, Zero To One: Notes On Startups, Or How To Build The Future, Peter Thiel unravels this zero to one concept.
Thiel has always had an eye for business. In 1998, he co-founded Confinity, an American software company designed to make digital payments easy and low cost. Then, just one year later, the company merged with X.com. Soon after, PayPal was born, with Thiel as its chairman and CEO. When eBay acquired PayPal for $1.5 billion in 2002, Thiel became a multimillionaire and began investing in other business opportunities.
Throughout the early 2000s, Thiel helped fund Palantir, invested in Facebook, and established Founders Fund, which has invested in a number of startup companies, including SpaceX, Lyft, and Airbnb.
With his years of experience spotting unique business ideas, Thiel put together Zero to One. The book has over 6,000 reviews on Amazon and a 4.5 out of 5-star rating. And it’s no wonder why. As stated in the book’s description: “The great secret of our time is that there are still uncharted frontiers to explore and new inventions to create.”
Thiel explains the zero to one concept in terms any businessperson can understand while urging readers to discover, nurture, and develop those unique ideas on their own. Any business can come from even the smallest idea, but without proper innovation and scaling, that business will fall far behind.
One of the most profound concepts Thiel touches on is that any specific business venture only happens once. He writes, “The next Bill Gates will not build an operating system. The next Larry Page or Sergey Brin won’t make a search engine. And the next Mark Zuckerberg won’t create a social network. If you are copying these guys, you aren’t learning from them.” The key, Thiel urges, is to start with monopolies. Establishing a monopoly allows the business to net high profits and focus on the future, rather than the competition.
Though there are many great lessons in this book, one of the best comes from Thiel’s favorite interview question: “What important truth do very few people agree with you on?”
At first glance, this might seem like a straightforward question, but it is not. In fact, it’s one of the more difficult ones Thiel asks. He writes, “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.”
He then describes his ideal answer: “Most people believe in x, but the truth is the opposite of x.”
Now, we must ask ourselves: What is the lesson Thiel is trying to teach us? It ties back to his zero to one concept. “Most answers to the contrarian questions are different ways of seeing the present. Good answers are as close as we can come to looking into the future.” To Thiel, people who give good answers have what it takes to create and nurture ideas are that one in a million. They stand higher and are bolder than the rest.