Thursday, September 18, 2014

Peter Thiel Speaks at Columbia: Contrarian, Aspergers and One-of-a-Kind



PayPal founder and Facebook investor opened up to an auditorium full of Columbia students last night.

His most compelling observations seemed to be that conformity is the enemy of Entrepreneurship and the high occurrence of Asberger types in the Entrepreneur camp. He also noted that capitalists are anti-competitive in the sense that they are always looking for monopolies - but you already knew that!

It would be hard to draw everyman lessons from what he said, except that when it comes to Entrepreneurship, being out of step with everyone else may be the first sign that you are on the right track.

It's a tricky lesson because being a contrarian doesn't also make you right. But Thiel has made billions by placing big bets on those rare people who can seem wrong but also be so defensibly right. Facebook was unfundable for its first two years - in both Boston and New York - but Thiel wasted no time writing the first $500,000 check before anyone else did.

His craziest bet - at least according to his limited partners - was Elon Musk's Space X. Aside from the fact that he knew Musk as a fellow PayPal founder, when he looked deeper into the business, it made a ton of sense. They had a champion at NASA who was happy to order rockets and who also got Uncle Sam to pay up front. SpaceX, as it turns out, was a great cash flow deal hiding under space exploration! As for PayPal, they were really out to create a new currency but tat the same were responding to a need created by eBay - how to make online payments to individuals.

On a personal level, Thiel is a Stanford grad, lawyer and chessmaster, who hated lawfirms and had an early life crisis that drove him to the "wild west" of the Internet.

If you had to draw an inference from his somewhat rambling philosophy of investing - what he looks for is something like this: a well-structured renegade thinker who has taken on a challenge that could go big and that has no easy competitor.

This sounds obvious enough until you realize that few investors go with renegade because they tend to go with what they know and understand. But we all know that the next big thing never is. As for the renegades themselves, let's just say they are not the most outgoing people either. Hence the title of the book One to Zero - as in one of a kind.

Fortunately, there are more conventional ways to understand Investors. You can get an insight on the rules and mindset of the Investor community from my forthcoming book Are You Fundable? which will be released - finally! - in early October.




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