Tag Archives: Thiel

When Peter Thiel talks about Start-ups – part 6: founder uniqueness, technology singularity

Thiel’s concludes his Class Notes Essays (CS183 —Stanford, Spring 2012) with philosophical considerations about the uniqueness of founders (class 18) and the singularity of technology (class 19). Founders are a topic I regularly covered, for example with European Founders at Work or Founders at Work.

Again Thiel presents unusual ideas about founders. He sees them as a combination of extreme outsiders and extreme insiders.
which he reinforces with this virtuous/vicious circle:

If this is not clear, two examples may help:
– “All [these] questions apply to Gates. Was it nature or nurture? He was a Harvard insider but a dropout outsider. He wore big glasses. Did he become a nerd unwillingly? Did he prosper by accentuating his nerdiness? It’s hard to tell.”
– “And then there’s the Steve Jobs version. […] He had all the classic extreme outsider and extreme insider traits. He dropped out of college. He was eccentric and had all these crazy diets. He started out phreaking phones with Steve Wozniak. He took LSD.”

Thiel is convincing when he explains that a start-up is not a democracy. Founders are Kings, and Thiel may have followed René Girard at Stanford since he then develops a theory of scapegoats. The god may become a victim.

Thiel is a little short about the dual-founder situation: “The dual founder thing is worth mentioning. Co-founders seem to get in a lot less trouble than more unbalanced single founders. Think Hewlett and Packard, Moore and Noyce, and Page and Brin. There are all sorts of theoretical benefits to having multiple founders such as more brainstorming power, collaboration, etc. But the really decisive difference between one founder and more is that with multiple founders, it’s much harder to isolate a scapegoat. Is it Larry Page? Or is it Sergey Brin? It is very hard for a mob-like board to unite against multiple people—and remember, the scapegoat must be singular. The more singular and isolated the founder, the more dangerous the scapegoating phenomenon. For the skeptic who is inclined to spot fiction masquerading as truth, this raises some interesting questions. Are Page and Brin, for instance, really as equal as advertised? Or was it a strategy for safety? We’ll leave those questions unanswered and hardly asked.”


Thiel’s vision (as well as the visions of his guests – I mixed them here) of technology was mentioned in my previous post. Again quite fascinating. “People do tend have some view of the future. They usually project relative stagnation. People tend to believe that, not only will most things not change, but what will change won’t change very quickly.” But “there’s a compelling case that we’ll very likely see extraordinary or accelerated progress in the decades ahead.”

One guest: “My take is that innovation comes from two places: top-down and bottom-up. There’s a huge DIY community. These hobbyists are working in labs they set up in their kitchens and basements. On the other end of the spectrum you have DARPA spending tons of money. Scientists are talking to each other from different countries, collaborating. All this interconnectedness matters. All these interactions in the aggregate will bring the change.

Another guest: “I disagree. There are a very few visionary people who can make a real difference at the formative early stage. This is why mainstream opinion formers are absolutely pivotal. Perhaps no other subset of people could do more to further radical technology. By overpowering public reluctance and influencing the discourse, these people can enable everyone else to build the technology. If we change public thinking, the big benefactors can drive the gears.”

The third guest: “I do not think that progress will come from the top-down or from the bottom-up, really. Individual benefactors who focus on one thing, like Paul Allen, are certainly doing good. But they’re not really pushing on future; they’re more pushing on individual thread in homes that it will make the future come faster. The sense is that these people are not really coordinating with each other. Historically, the big top-down approaches haven’t worked. And the bottom-up approach doesn’t usually work either. It’s the middle that makes change—tribes like the Quakers, the Founding Fathers, or the Royal Society. These effective groups were dozens or small hundreds in size. It’s almost never lone geniuses working solo. And it’s almost never defense departments or big institutions. You need dependency and trust. Those traits cannot exist in one person or amongst thousands.”

Peter Thiel: “That’s three different opinions on who makes the future: a top-down bottom-up combo, social opinion molders, and tribes.”

To be honest, I was more convinced with his analysis of founders than of technologies. His conclusion is worth reading as inspiration: “This course has largely been about going from 0 to 1. We’ve talked a lot about how to create new technology, and how radically better technology may build toward singularity. But we can apply the 0 to 1 framework more broadly than that. There is something importantly singular about each new thing in the world. There is a mini singularity whenever you start a company or make a key life decision. In a very real sense, the life of every person is a singularity. The obvious question is what you should do with your singularity. The obvious answer, unfortunately, has been to follow the well-trodden path. You are constantly encouraged to play it safe and be conventional. The future, we are told, is just probabilities and statistics. You are a statistic. But the obvious answer is wrong. That is selling yourself short. Statistical processes, the law of large numbers, and globalization—these things are timeless, probabilistic, and maybe random. But, like technology, your life is a story of one-time events. By their nature, singular events are hard to teach or generalize about. But the big secret is that there are many secrets left to uncover. There are still many large white spaces on the map of human knowledge. You can go discover them. So do it. Get out there and fill in the blank spaces. Every single moment is a possibility to go to these new places and explore them. There is perhaps no specific time that is necessarily right to start your company or start your life. But some times and some moments seem more auspicious than others. Now is such a moment. If we don’t take charge and usher in the future—if you don’t take charge of your life—there is the sense that no one else will. So go find a frontier and go for it. Choose to do something important and different. Don’t be deterred by notions of luck, impossibility, or futility. Use your power to shape your own life and go and do new things.”

Reading these last lines, I remembered the conclusion of my book: “And I suddenly remembered an essay by Wilhelm Reich, the great psychoanalyst, which he wrote in 1945: “Listen, Little Man”. A small essay by the number of pages, a big one in the impact it creates. “I want to tell you something, Little Man; you lost the meaning of what is best inside yourself. You strangled it. You kill it wherever you find it inside others, inside your children, inside your wife, inside your husband, inside your father and inside your mother. You are little and you want to remain little.” The Little Man, it’s you, it’s me. The Little Man is afraid, he only dreams of normality; it is inside all of us. We hide under the umbrella of authority and do not see our freedom anymore. Nothing comes without effort, without risk, without failure sometimes. “You look for happiness, but you prefer security, even at the cost of your spinal cord, even at the cost of your life”.

When Peter Thiel talks about Start-ups – part 5: a vision of the future of technology

I am still not sure how Thiel’s class notes on start-ups will finish, but they are more and more fascinating, class after class. At least his vision of this world is.

Class 14 is about cleantech and energy. “Alternative energy and cleantech have attracted an enormous amount of investment capital and attention over the last decade. Almost nothing has worked as well as people expected. The cleantech experience can thus be quite instructive. […] To think about the future of energy, we can use the [another] matrix. The quadrants shake out like this:
Determinate, optimistic: one specific type of energy is best, and needs to be developed
Determinate, pessimistic: no technology or energy source is considerably better. You have what you have. So ration and conserve it.
Indeterminate, optimistic: there are better and cheaper energy sources. We just don’t know what they are. So do a whole portfolio of things.
Indeterminate, pessimistic: we don’t know what the right energy sources are, but they’re likely going to be worse and expensive. Take a portfolio approach.”

Both for energy and transportation, Thiel’s fills his quadrants with interesting examples:

and he adds: “Petroleum has dominated transportation. Coal has dominated in power generation. […] Typically a single source dominates at any given time. There is a logical reason for this. It doesn’t make sense that the universe would be ordered such that many different kinds of energy sources are almost exactly equal. Solar is very different from wind, which is very different from nuclear. It would be extremely odd if pricing and effectiveness across all these varied sources turned out to be virtually identical. So there’s a decent ex ante reason why we should expect to see one dominant source. This can be framed as a power law function. Energy sources are probably not normally distributed in cost or effectiveness. There is probably one that is dramatically better than all others.”

But the analysis explaining the cleantech bubble were far from clear. “One problem was that people were ambiguous on what was scarce or problematic. Was there resource scarcity? Or were the main problems environmental?” […] “To have a successful startup, you must have good answers—or at least a good plan for getting those answers.” Answers to many issues such as
– the market
– the secrets
– the team and its culture
– the funding
and unfortunately many mistakes were made.

Regarding the market, there was the issue of both explaining how to become a leader of one segment (PV, wind,…) and why a segment was better. Regarding the secret: “If you want to start a company, you should have some important secret. But in practice, most wind, solar, and cleantech ventures relied on incremental improvements.” Even worse, “most cleantech companies in the last decade have had shockingly non-technical teams and cultures. Culture defaulted toward zero-sum competition. Savvy observers would have seen the trouble coming when cleantech people started wearing suits and ties. Tech people and computer people wear t-shirts and jeans. Cleantech people, by contrast, looked like salesmen. And indeed they were. This is not a trivial point. If you’re dealing in something that’s incremental and of questionable durability, you actually have to be a really good salesman to convince people that it’s dramatically better.” Finally “a good, broad rule of thumb is to never invest in companies who are looking for less than $1 million or more than $1 billion. If companies can do everything they want for less than a million dollars, things may be a little too easy. There may be nothing that is very hard to build, and it’s just a timing game. On the other extreme, if a company needs more than a billion dollars to be successful, it has to become so big that the story starts to become implausible.”

If Thiel were to bet on soemthing, it would apparently be Thorium as a nuclear fuel.

Class 15 is about other future bets.


Thiel is a strong believer in contrarian (and sometimes huge) bets. He is interested in or at least puzzled by transportation, robotics, weather and energy storage. And his way of choosing is to look at what did not work (yet) in the past: “Various VC firms in Silicon Valley warned expressed concern about [investing in unique technologies]. They warned us that investing in SpaceX was risky and maybe even crazy. And this wasn’t even at the very early stage. […] (Danielle Fong:) People like to act like they like being disruptive and taking risks. But usually it’s just an act. They don’t mean it. Or if they do, they don’t necessarily have the clout within the partnership to make it happen. (Peter Thiel:) It is very hard hard for investors to invest in things that are unique. The psychological struggle is hard to overstate. People gravitate to the modern portfolio approach. The narrative that people tell is that their portfolio will be a portfolio of different things. But that seems odd. Things that are truly different are hard to evaluate. […] The upside to doing something that you’re unfamiliar with, like rockets, is that it’s likely that no one else is familiar with it, either. The competitive bar is lowered. You can focus on learning and substantive things over process, which is perhaps better than competing against experts.”

Class 16 is about maybe the highest of all bets: life and death.

I have not so far mentioned the sentence which comes at the top of each series of class notes: “Your mind is software. Program it. Your body is a shell. Change it. Death is a disease. Cure it. Extinction is approaching. Fight it.”

The problem.

“Like death itself, modern drug discovery is probably too much a matter of luck. Scientists start with something like 10,000 different compounds. After an extensive screening process, those 10,000 are reduced to maybe 5 that might make it to Phase 3 testing. Maybe 1 makes it through testing and is approved by the FDA. It is an extremely long and fairly random process. This is why starting a biotech company is usually a brutal undertaking. Most last 10 to 15 years. There’s little to no control along the way. What looks promising may not work. There’s no iteration or sense of progress. There is just a binary outcome at end of a largely stochastic process. You can work hard for 10 years and still not know if you’ve just wasted your time.

To be fair, we must acknowledge that all the luck-driven, stats-driven processes that have dominated people’s thinking have worked pretty well over the last few decades. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that indeterminacy is sound practice. Its costs may be rising quickly. Perhaps we’ve found everything that is easy to find. If so, it will be hard to improve armed with nothing but further random processes. This is reflected in escalating development costs. It cost $100 million to develop a new drug in 1975. Today it costs $1.3 billion. Probably all life sciences investment funds have lost money. Biotech investment has been roughly as bad a cleantech.”

The perspectives.

“Drug discovery is fundamentally a search problem. The search space is extremely big. There are lots of possible compounds. An important question is thus whether we can use computer technology to reduce scope of luck. Can Computer Science make biotech more determinative?”

“These are big secrets that play out over long time horizons, not web apps that have a 6-week window to take over the world.”

“The sequencing of the genome is like the first packets being sent over ARPANET. It’s a proof of concept. This technology is happening, but it isn’t yet compelling. So there is a huge market if one can make something compelling enough for people to actually go and get a genome sequenced. It’s like e-mail or word processing. Initially these things were uncomfortable. But when they become demonstrably useful, people leave their comfort zones and adopt them.”

“Biotech got quite a burst in late 70s early 80s, with new recombinant DNA and molecular biology techniques. Genentech led the way from the late 70s to the early 80s. Nine of the 10 biggest American biotech companies were founded during this really short time. Their technology came out some 7-8 years later. And that was the window; not very many integrated biotech companies have emerged since then. There was a certain amount of stuff to find. People found it. And before Genentech, the paradigm was pharma, not biotech. That window (becoming an integrated pharmaceutical company) had been closed for about 30 years before Genentech. So the bet is that while the traditional biotech window may be closed, the comp bio window is just opening.”

“There’s really no rush to spill the secret plans. This space is very much unlike fast-moving consumer Internet startups. Here, if you have something unique, you should nurse it.”

“Slow iteration is not law of nature. Pharma and biotech usually move very slowly, but both have moved pretty fast at times. From 1920-1923 Insulin moved at the speed of software. Today, platforms like Heroku have greatly reduced iteration times. The question is whether we can do that for biotech. Nowhere is it written in stone that you can’t go from conception to market in 18 months. That depends very much on what you’re doing. Genentech was founded the same year as Apple was, in 1976. Building a platform and building infrastructure take time. There can be lots of overhead. Ancillary things can take longer than a single product lifecycle to accumulate. [… the] VC is broken with respect biotech. Biotech VCs have all lost money. They usually have time horizons that are far too short. VCs that say they want biotech tend to really want products brought to market extremely quickly. “Integrated drug platform” is an ominous phrase for VCs. More biotech VCs are focused on globalization than on real technical innovation. VCs typically found a company around a single compound and then pour a bunch of money into it to push it through the capital-intensive trial process. Most VCs not interested in multi-compound companies doing serious pre-clinical research.”

And as a conclusion of class 16, “Startups are always hard at the start. There are futons and ironing boards in the office. You have to rush to clean up for meetings. But maybe the hardest thing is just to get your foundation right and make sure you plan to build something valuable. You don’t have to do a science fair project at the start. You just have to do your analytical homework and make sure what you’re doing is valid. You have to give yourself the best chance of success as things unfold in the future.”

Class 17 is about the brain, artificial intelligence, maybe the last frontier in technology, certainly going further than the previous topics addressed here.


Not much more to add except maybe the short description of the approach by 3 start-ups:
Vicarious is trying to build AI by develop algorithms that use the underlying principles of the human brain. They believe that higher-level concepts are derived from grounded experiences in the world, and thus creating AI requires first solving a human sensory modality.
Prior Knowledge (acquired by Salesforce since Thiel’s class) is taking a different approach to building AI. Their goal is less to emulate brain function and more to try to come up with different ways to process large amounts of data. They apply a variety of Bayesian probabilistic techniques to identifying patterns and ascertaining causation in large data sets. In a sense, it’s the opposite of simulating human brains.
– The big insight at Palantir (…) isn’t regression analysis, where you look at what was done in the past to try to predict what’s going to be next. A better approach is more game theoretic. Palantir’s framework is not fundamentally about AI, but rather about intelligence augmentation.

And one more comment: “For the most part, academics aren’t (working on strong AI or crazy things) because their incentive structure is so weird. They have perverse incentive to make only marginally better things. And most private companies aren’t working on it because they’re trying to make money now.(…) Bold claims also require extraordinary proof. If you’re pitching a time machine, you’d need to be able to show incremental progress before anyone would believe you. Maybe your investor demo is sending a shoe back in time. That’d be great. You can show that prototype, and explain to investors what will be required to make the machine work on more valuable problems. It’s worth noting that, if you’re pitching a revolutionary technology as opposed to an incremental one, it is much better to find VCs who can think through the tech themselves. When Trilogy was trying to raise their first round, the VCs had professors evaluate their approach to the configurator problem. Trilogy’s strategy was too different from the status quo, and the professors told the VCs that it would never work. That was an expensive mistake for those VCs. When there’s contrarian knowledge involved, you want investors who have the ability to think through these things on their own.”

End of part 5!

When Peter Thiel talks about Start-ups – part 4: it’s customer, stupid!

Thiel’s classes 9 to 12 leave the pure field of start-ups to the higher levels of economy, business and innovation. Thiel gives general advice such that customers are important and more important than competitors with the recurring “obsession” that peace and correlated monopoly  are better than war and deadly competition.


Class 9 is about customers and more specifically how to find them. “People say it all the time: this product is so good that it sells itself. This is almost never true. […] The truth is that selling things is not a purely rational enterprise. There is much stranger stuff at work here. […] Most engineers underestimate the sales side of things because they are very truth-oriented people. In engineering, something either works or it doesn’t. […] Engineering is transparent. […] Sales isn’t very transparent at all. (As a side comment, I advise again to read Packer about transparency and politics in SV, in fact look at what follows!) […] A good analogy to the engineer vs. sales dynamic is experts vs. politicians. If you work at a big company, you have two choices. You can become expert in something. The other choice is to be a politician. […] The really good politicians are much better than you think. Great salespeople are much better than you think. But it’s always deeply hidden. In a sense, probably every President of the United States was first and foremost a salesman in disguise.

Thiel loves quadrants but does not draw one here, he just explains it:
– Product sells itself, no sales effort. Does not exist.
– Product needs selling, no sales effort. You have no revenue.
– Product needs selling, strong sales piece. This is a sales-driven company.
– Product sells itself, strong sales piece. This is ideal.

Thiel has similar views on marketing “Advertising is tricky in the same way that sales is” and he uses the famous quote: “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted: the trouble is I don’t know which half.” Sales follow a power law similar to the one existing in value creation. Viral marketing rarely works… and viral marketing requires that the product’s core use case must be inherently viral.

In his class 10, Thiel begins to explore the future and shows how difficult it is to identify opportunities. He even mentions the nice quote (but never said in reality) “everything that can be invented has been invented” (falsely) attributed to U.S. Patent Commissioner Charles H. Duell in 1899. Again both in terms of technology innovation (vs. computers) or globalization (vs. China), he advises not to compete but to collaborate.

But the worst competitor is time… “More interesting are cases where people are right about the future and just wrong on timing. […]And being too early is a bigger problem for entrepreneurs than not being correct. It’s very hard to sit and just wait for things to arrive. It almost never works.” Andreessen who was Thiel’s guest approved: “For entrepreneurs, timing is a huge risk. You have to innovate at the right time. You can’t be too early. This is really dangerous because you essentially make a one-time bet. It’s rare are to start the same company five years later if you try it once and were wrong on timing. Jonathan Abrams did Friendster but not Facebook.

And Andreessen also agrees about sales: “The number one reason that we pass on entrepreneurs we’d otherwise like to back is focusing on product to the exclusion of everything else. We tend to cultivate and glorify this mentality in the Valley. We’re all enamored with lean startup mode. Engineering and product are key. There is a lot of genius to this, and it has helped create higher quality companies. But the dark side is that it seems to give entrepreneurs excuses not to do the hard stuff of sales and marketing. Many entrepreneurs who build great products simply don’t have a good distribution strategy. Even worse is when they insist that they don’t need one, or call no distribution strategy a viral marketing strategy.”

Again about timing: “You can go wrong in a few ways. One is that the future is too far away […] It’s like surfing. The goal is to catch a big wave. If you think a big wave is coming, you paddle really hard. Sometimes there’s actually no wave, and that sucks. But you can’t just wait to be sure there’s a wave before you start paddling. You’ll miss it entirely. You have to paddle early, and then let the wave catch you. The question is, how do you figure out when the next big wave is likely to come?”

A few not related topics:
– You need to find the balance that lets you think about patents least. It’s basically a distracting regulatory tax.
– What’s ideal is to have a founder/CEO who is a product person. Sales operators handle the sales force. Larry Ellison [is no exception and] is a product guy.
– Being CEO is a learnable skill. With the “world class” CEO model, you miss out on Microsoft, Google, and Facebook. The CEOs of those companies, of course, turned out to be excellent. But they were also the product people who built the companies. [Do not misunderstand] everybody thinks management is a bunch of idiots, and that engineers must save the day by doing the right things on the side. That’s not right. Management is extremely important. Great management and a great product person running the company is characteristic of the very best companies.

Class 11 is also about the future, but in terms of “secrets” which may be important to know how to identify real opportunities: “Some secrets are small and incremental. Others are very big. The focus should be on the secrets that matter: the big secrets that are true. The big ones so far have involved monopoly vs. competition, the power law, and the importance of distribution. “Capitalism and competition are antonyms.” That is a secret; it is an important truth, and most people disagree with it.”

Thiel explains why secrets are important: “Four primary things have been driving people’s disbelief in secrets.
– First is the pervasive incrementalism in our society. People seem to think that the right way to go about doing things is to proceed one very small step at a time. […] Academics are incented by volume, not importance. The goal is to publish lots of papers, each of which is, in practice at least, new only in some small incremental way. […]
– Second, people are becoming more risk-averse. People today tend to be scared of secrets. They are scared of being wrong. Of course, secrets are supposed to be true. But in practice, what’s true of all secrets is that there is good chance they’re wrong. If your goal is to never make mistake in your life, you should definitely never think about secrets. Thinking outside the mainstream will be dangerous for you. […]
– Third is complacency. There’s really no need to believe in secrets today. Law school deans at Harvard and Yale give the same speech to incoming first year students every fall: “You’re set. You got into this elite school. […]
– Finally, some pull towards egalitarianism is driving us away from secrets. We find it increasingly hard to believe that some people have important insight into reality that other people do not. Prophets have fallen out of fashion. Having visions of the future is seen as crazy. In 1939 Einstein sent a letter to President Roosevelt urging him to get serious about nuclear power and atomic weaponry. Roosevelt read it and got serious. Today, such a letter would get lost in the White House mailroom.”

But… “There is no straightforward formula that can be used to find secrets.”

Class 12 is about war and peace again, but I do not have much to comment here except a quote from Reid Hoffman: “A side note on invention and innovation: when you have an idea for a startup„ consult your network. Ask people what they think. Don’t look for flattery. If most people get it right away and call you a genius, you’re probably screwed; it likely means your idea is obvious and won’t work. What you’re looking for is a genuinely thoughtful response. Fully two thirds of people in my network thought LinkedIn was stupid idea. These are very smart people. They understood that there is zero value in a social network until you have a million users on it. But they didn’t know the secret plans that led us to believe we could pull it off. And getting to the first million users took us about 460 days. Now we grow at over 2 users per second.” Peaceful secrets are safer than competing for known things.

When Peter Thiel & Friends talk about Start-ups – part 3: company culture, founders, team, investors

Part 3 of my series of comments about Thiel’s class notes at Stanford mainly cover his Class 5-8. But first I should add that Thiel invited a “honor class” of innovators during his 19 classes. Quite fascinating!

Thiel-Friends-CS1st row: Stephen Cohen, co-founder and Executive VP of Palantir Technologies,
Max Levchin, co-founder PayPal and Slide,
Roelof Botha, partner at Sequoia Capital and former CFO of PayPal,
2nd row: Paul Graham, partner and co-founder of Y Combinator,
Bruce Gibney, partner at Founders Fund,
Marc Andreessen, general partner Andreessen Horowitz,
3rd row: Reid Hoffman, co-founder of LinkedIn,
Danielle Fong, Co-founder and Chief Scientist of LightSail Energy,
Jon Hollander, Business Development at RoboteX,
4th row: Greg Smirin, COO of The Climate Corporation,
Scott Nolan, Principal at Founders Fund and former aerospace engineer at SpaceX,
(Elon Musk was going to come, but he was busy launching rockets),
5th row: Brian Slingerland. Co-Founder, President & COO at Stem CentRx,
Balaji S. Srinivasan, CTO of Counsyl,
Brian Frezza, Co-founder, Emerald Therapeutics,
6th row: D. Scott Brown, co-founder of Vicarious,
Eric Jonas, CEO of Prior Knowledge,
Bob McGrew, Director of Eng, Palantir,
7th row: Sonia Arrison, Associate Founder of Singularity University,
Michael Vassar, the Singularity Institute for the study of Artificial Intelligence (SIAI),
Aubrey de Grey, Chief Science Officer at the SENS Foundation.

Thiel covered how to build a company from the ideas and vision of founders, through hiring and sometimes funding from investors. But he began with a critical though fuzzy concept, the company culture: “A robust company culture is one in which people have something in common that distinguishes them quite sharply from rest of the world.”

He mentions also some important dimensions of the culture:
– Consultant-nihilism or Cultish Dogmatism: “You want to be somewhere in the middle of that spectrum. To the extent you gravitate towards an extreme, you probably want to be closer to being a cult than being an army of consultants.” which could be why Thiel said earlier,
pre-money valuation = ($1M*n_engineers) – ($500k*n_MBAs).
– To Fight or Not To Fight (i.e. Nerds or Athletes or again Zero-sum and Non zero-sum). “So you have to strike the right balance between nerds and athletes. Neither extreme is optimal. Consider a 2 x 2 matrix. On the y-axis you have zero-sum people and non zero-sum people. On the x-axis you have warring, competitive environments and then you have peaceful, monopoly/capitalist environments. The optimal spot on the matrix is monopoly capitalism with some tailored combination of zero-sum and non zero-sum oriented people. You want to pick an environment where you don’t have to fight. But you should bring along some good fighters to protect your non zero-sum people and mission, just in case.”
I was just told this is crytic… I agree… another reason to read Thiel directly!

Foundings are obviously temporal. But how long they last can be a hard question. The typical narrative contemplates a founding, first hires, and a first capital raise. But there’s an argument that the founding lasts a lot longer than that. The idea of going from 0 to 1—the idea of technology—parallels founding moments. The 1 to n of globalization, by contrast, parallels post-founding execution. It may be that the founding lasts so long as a company’s technical innovation continues. Founders should arguably stay in charge as long as the paradigm remains 0 to 1. Once the paradigm shifts to 1 to n, the founding is over. At that point, executives should execute.”

Max Levchin: The notion that diversity in an early team is important or good is completely wrong. You should try to make the early team as non-diverse as possible. There are a few reasons for this. The most salient is that, as a startup, you’re underfunded and undermanned. It’s a big disadvantage; not only are you probably getting into trouble, but you don’t even know what trouble that may be. Speed is your only weapon. All you have is speed. […] How to hire? A specific application of this is the anti-fashion bias. You shouldn’t judge people by the stylishness of their clothing; quality people often do not have quality clothing. Which leads to a general observation: Great engineers don’t wear designer jeans. So if you’re interviewing an engineer, look at his jeans. There are always exceptions, of course. But it’s a surprisingly good heuristic. […] PayPal also had a hard time hiring women. An outsider might think that the PayPal guys bought into the stereotype that women don’t do CS. But that’s not true at all. The truth is that PayPal had trouble hiring women because PayPal was just a bunch of nerds! They never talked to women. So how were they supposed to interact with and hire them?

“No CEO should be paid more than $150k per year” (in Silicon Valley)
“Another important insight is that people must either be fully in the company or not in it at all.”

Dilution and funding
Building a valuable company is a long journey. A key question to keep your eye on as a founder is dilution. The Google founders had 15.6% of the company at IPO. Steve Jobs had 13.5% of Apple when it went public in the early ‘80s. Mark Pincus had 16% of Zynga at IPO. If you have north of 10% after many rounds of financing, that’s generally a very good outcome. Dilution is relentless. The alternative is that you don’t let anyone else in. It’s worth remembering that many successful businesses are built like this. Craigslist would be worth something like $5bn if it were run more like a company than a commune. GoDaddy never took funding. Trilogy in the late 1990s had no outside investors. Microsoft very nearly joined this club; it took one small venture investment just before its IPO. When Microsoft went public, Bill Gates still owned an astounding 49.2% of the company. So the question to think about with VCs isn’t all that different than questions about co-founders and employees. Who are the best people? Who do you want—or need—on board?

The VC model in a nutshell: a power law. “To a first approximation, a VC portfolio will only make money if your best company investment ends up being worth more than your whole fund. (And the investment in the second best company is about as valuable as number three through the rest.)”

I have not yet read the following classes…

When Peter Thiel talks about Start-ups – part 2: value creation

As promised, here are additional comments from my reading Peter Thiel’s class notes on start-ups at Stanford University (after the general ones in part 1 about innovation). And today, it’s about value creation. When I teach valuation techniques at EPFL, I provide similar information: value creation is future cash flows adjusted for time value (check Wikipedia for valuation using DCF). The difficulty with DCF is that in the case of start-ups most of the value appears in the very long term and given the uncertainty of start-up projection revenues, it makes DCF nearly useless… This is why, for start-ups, it is often easier to use techniques based on multiples & comparables (again check Wikipedia for valuation using multiples.)

Thiel enlighted me here by providing a very interesting explanation of why DCF still makes sense for start-ups. First he defines “Great Technology Companies”: “Great companies do three things. First, they create value. Second, they are lasting or permanent in a meaningful way. Finally, they capture at least some of the value they create.” Surprisingly (for me), the second thing is the most important: they are lasting or permanent in a meaningful way. He then introduces DCF with a growth rate:
and then he adds: “Tech and other high growth companies are different. At first, most of them lose money. When the growth rate—g, in our calculations above—is higher than the discount rate r, a lot of the value in tech businesses exists pretty far in the future. Indeed, a typical model could see 2/3 of the value being created in years 10 through 15. This is counterintuitive. Most people—even people working in startups today—think in Old Economy mode where you have to create value right off the bat. The focus, particularly in companies with exploding growth, is on next months, quarters, or, less frequently, years. That is too short a timeline. Old Economy mode works in the Old Economy. It does not work for thinking about tech and high growth businesses. Yet startup culture today pointedly ignores, and even resists, 10-15 year thinking.”

I will not add much more here but just mention that Thiel has in this Class 3 & 4 very interesting arguments about why competition may not be that good and monopoly not that bad for the economy and individuals… “Whether competition is good or bad is an interesting (and usually overlooked) question. Most people just assume it’s good. The standard economic narrative, with all its focus on perfect competition, identifies competition as the source of all progress. If competition is good, then the default view on its opposite—monopoly—is that it must be very bad. But exactly why monopoly is bad is hard to tease out. It’s usually just accepted as a given. But it’s probably worth questioning in greater detail.”

He does the analysis not only for companies but also for individuals with a moving section about fierce competition at Princeton, Yale or Harvard with an interesting comparison with Stanford: “Of all the top universities, Stanford is the farthest from perfect competition. Maybe that’s by chance or maybe it’s by design. The geography probably helps, since the east coast doesn’t have to pay much attention to us, and vice versa. But there’s a sense of structured heterogeneity too; there’s a strong engineering piece, the strong humanities piece, and even the best athletics piece in the country. To the extent there’s competition, it’s often a joke. Consider the Stanford-Berkeley rivalry. That’s pretty asymmetric too. In football, Stanford usually wins. But take something that really matters, like starting tech companies. If you ask the question, “Graduates from which of the two universities started the most valuable company?” for each of the last 40 years, Stanford probably wins by something like 40 to zero. It’s monopoly capitalism, far away from a world of perfect competition.”


He finishes with an analysis consistent with his first class on zero to one: “If globalization had to have a tagline, it might be that “the world is flat.” Technology, by contrast, starts from the idea that the world is Mount Everest. If the world is truly flat, it’s just crazed competition. (…) And yet, the single business idea that you hear most often is: the bigger the market, the better. That is utterly, totally wrong. The restaurant business is a huge market. It is also not a very good way to make money.
Where does venture capital fit in? VCs tend not to have a very large pool of business. Rather, they rely on very discreet networks of people. That is, they have access to a unique network of entrepreneurs. So VC is anti-commoditized. That kind of dynamic arguably characterizes all great tech companies, i.e. last mover monopolies. Last movers build non-commoditized businesses. They are relationship-driven. They create value. They last. And they make money.”

More to come…

When Peter Thiel talks about Start-ups – part 1

““We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters.” The Founders’ Fund


Peter Thiel is probably one of my favorite characters when I think of start-ups and Silicon Valley. Here are just two posts where I mentioned him:
Technology = Salvation in October 2010
The promise of technology. Disappointing? in November 2013 (about the great article by George Packer from the New Yorker: No Death, No Taxes – The libertarian futurism of a Silicon Valley billionaire.
And I should not forget short mentions related to The Social Network and PayPal.

An EPFL acquaintance and business angel (thanks Dave :-)) just told me about the course Thiel gave at Stanford in 2012 and the comprehensive notes taken by one of his student, Notes Essays—Peter Thiel’s CS183: Startup—Stanford, Spring 2012. I copied and pasted the notes from this 19-session class, and it makes a 233-page pdf document. Indeed, Thiel will publish this together with his student as a book next summmer: Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future.


As I did with Mazzucato, I plan to posts a few articles about this piece of work which I find really interesting. His first chapter is about the need for start-ups in innovation and technology, and it motivates the title Zero to One:

“Progress comes in two flavors: horizontal/extensive and vertical/intensive.
– Horizontal or extensive progress basically means copying things that work. In one word, it means simply “globalization.”
– Vertical or intensive progress, by contrast, means doing new things. The single word for this is “technology.”
Intensive progress involves going from 0 to 1 (not simply the 1 to n of globalization).
Maybe we focus so much on going from 1 to n because that’s easier to do. There’s little doubt that going from 0 to 1 is qualitatively different, and almost always harder, than copying something n times. And even trying to achieve vertical, 0 to 1 progress presents the challenge of exceptionalism; any founder or inventor doing something new must wonder: am I sane? Or am I crazy?
Teaching vertical progress or innovation is almost a contradiction in terms. Education is fundamentally about going from 1 to n. We observe, imitate, and repeat. Infants do not invent new languages; they learn existing ones. From early on, we learn by copying what has worked before. That is insufficient for startups. At some point you have to go from 0 to 1—you have to do something important and do it right—and that can’t be taught. So case studies about successful businesses are of limited utility.”

Then he addresses “why start-ups?” and “why do a start-up?”

“Size and internal vs. external coordination costs matter a lot. North of 100 people in a company, employees don’t all know each other. Politics become important. Startups are important because they are small; if the size and complexity of a business is something like the square of the number of people in it, then startups are in a unique position to lower interpersonal or internal costs and thus to get stuff done.
The easiest answer to “why startups?” is negative: because you can’t develop new technology in existing entities. Anyone on a mission tends to want to go from 0 to 1. You can only do that if you’re surrounded by others to want to go from 0 to 1. That happens in startups, not huge companies or government.
Doing startups for the money is not a great idea. Perhaps doing startups to be remembered or become famous is a better motive. Perhaps not. A better motive still would be a desire to change the world. The U.S. in 1776-79 was a startup of sorts. What were the Founders motivations? There is a large cultural component to the motivation question, too. In Japan, entrepreneurs are seen as reckless risk-takers. The respectable thing to do is become a lifelong employee somewhere. The literary version of this sentiment is “behind every fortune lies a great crime.” Were the Founding Fathers criminals? Are all founders criminals of one sort or another?

More to come soon. But if you like this, just read Thiel!

The promise of technology. Disappointing?

After reading the great New Yorker article about Silicon Valley and politics, I searched for “Silicon Valley” on the magazine web site and found two contrasting articles:


– the first one is a kind of introduction to my previous post, it was also written by George Packer (clearly a great and insightful writer) in 2011 and is about Peter Thiel, the famous libertarian entrepreneur and investor: NO DEATH, NO TAXES – The libertarian futurism of a Silicon Valley billionaire.
– the second one is much older and is about the early days of Google and Internet search: SEARCH AND DEPLOY by Michael Specter.

They are kind of contradictory because the second one is optimistic about what technology can solve (Google greatly improved our access to knowledge) whereas Packer shows Thiel’s pessimism with the outcome of technology even if he has great hope in it. In fact as mentioned in the previous article about SV and politics, he belongs to the group of people distrusting politics to the point that he believes technology might / must be the alternative.

Let me begin with the optimistic first: in 2000, Google was already seen as the winner of the Internet search race. Even if it did not have yet its business model, Google solved better our search on the Internet. Page and Brin did it by finding a better mathematics algorithm, the PageRank system based on the popularity and frequency of reference of web pages. As a funny side result, Google had less queries than other sites on porn: “About ten per cent of Google queries are for pornography. The figure is lower than that of most other search engines. This reflects the demographics of the people who use the search engine, but perhaps it also demonstrates one of Google’s obvious failings: porn sites are sought out by millions of Internet users but are rarely linked to prominent Web pages. Without links, even the most popular page is invisible.”

The credo of Thiel’s venture-capital firm: “We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters.” Photograph by Robert Maxwell.

It’s been known that Thiel has been disappointed with high-tech innovation. Just read again my 2010 post, Technology = Salvation. I think you should read Packer’s article if you liked (or even if you did not) his Change the World. Both articles show the power and limits of these visionary people and the sometimes scary vision of technology vs. politics. There is something of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey in all this. He brilliantly shows the strange nature of these people (a high concentration of Asperger syndromes and dyslexia – apparently two rather high frequency features of entrepreneurs). Again just short notes (you have to read it to see the broadness of the topics:

“Thiel believes that education is the next bubble in the U.S. economy. He has compared university administrators to subprime-mortgage brokers, and called debt-saddled graduates the last indentured workers in the developed world, unable to free themselves even through bankruptcy. Nowhere is the blind complacency of the establishment more evident than in its bovine attitude toward academic degrees: as long as my child goes to the right schools, upward mobility will continue. A university education has become a very expensive insurance policy—proof, Thiel argues, that true innovation has stalled. In the midst of economic stagnation, education has become a status game, “purely positional and extremely decoupled” from the question of its benefit to the individual and society. It’s easy to criticize higher education for burdening students with years of debt, which can force them into careers, like law and finance, that they otherwise might not have embraced. And a university degree has become an unquestioned prerequisite in an increasingly stratified society. But Thiel goes much further: he dislikes the whole idea of using college to find an intellectual focus. Majoring in the humanities strikes him as particularly unwise, since it so often leads to the default choice of law school. The academic sciences are nearly as dubious—timid and narrow, driven by turf battles rather than by the quest for breakthroughs. Above all, a college education teaches nothing about entrepreneurship. Thiel thinks that young people—especially the most talented ones—should establish a plan for their lives early, and he favors one plan in particular: starting a technology company.”

Always consistent with his thoughts, he “came up with the idea of giving fellowships to brilliant young people who would leave college and launch their own startups. Thiel moves fast: the next day, at TechCrunch Disrupt, an annual conference in San Francisco, he announced the Thiel Fellowships: twenty two-year grants, of a hundred thousand dollars each, to people under the age of twenty. The program made news, and critics accused Thiel of corrupting youth into chasing riches while truncating their educations. He pointed out that the winners could return to school at the end of the fellowship. This was true, but also somewhat disingenuous. No small part of his goal was to poke a stick in the eye of top universities and steal away some of their best.”

I am not sure I follow him too much (I am just too normal), for example in his quest for eternity, but I understand many of his visions. He is as much a dreamer as a doer, his fund had mixed results, but he is with Elon Musk (one of his his co-founders in PayPal) among the people who push “trying” to the limits without being afraid of failing.

The New Facebook Legacy

Facebook will not only produce new millionaires with its IPO next Thursday; it has already created a new generation of entrepreneurs and start-ups. The New York Times just published an article A Circle of Tech: Collect Payout, Do a Start-Up and a related video Facebook’s Network of Tech Tycoons which illustrates the fact.

A few Facebook alumni entrepreneurs

I had already showed the power of networks when I commented Once you’re lucky, Twice you’re good a book subtitled The Rebirth of Silicon Valley and the Rise of Web 2.0. You can check again the web of people connected ten years ago or so. I had done the same with the older and now mature EDA industry. This new NYT article shows new connections illustrated by the new figure below:

Let me just quote the article: “The history of Silicon Valley has always been one generation of companies gives birth to great companies that follow”…”This is the story line of Silicon Valley, from Apple to Netscape to PayPal and now, to Facebook.” … and finally, “the social fabric of Silicon Valley is a dense set of overlapping spider webs, meaning everyone is connected.”

In my article on the web2.0, I had also shown the value creation. There had been $800M of VC money invested for a $17B value creation (mostly paper value). The new table below adds another $100M of VC money, and the value creation is now… $113B!!

The Social Network

The new movie about Facebook’s founder, Mark Zuckerberg, is a great movie. It does not matter so much if it is a description of reality. You may watch it as a piece of fiction, and it would remain a great movie thanks to the actors and screenplay.

It is also great because it describes the start-up world in a very accurate manner. It is not a movie about start-ups really, but there are details which reminds me a lot of real-life stories.

The first lesson is that money and friendship seldom work together. The stories of Eduardo Saverin, the founder soon to be diluted, Sean Parker, the exhuberant founder of Napster and Plaxo and mentor of Zuckenberg and the short appearance of Peter Thiel are such examples.

It also shows the old world of Boston where people think ideas are crucial and the new world of Silicon Valley where what matters is implementation. It’s why Silicon Valley is the Triumph of the Nerds. It shows how right Paul Graham is when he says Silicon Valley is about nerds and money. You see the crazy, sad, exciting, depressing life of these hard-working people. You may like it or not, but it is mostly what start-ups are about.

I just looked for what some key people thought of the movie. So, for example, Eduardo Saverin said here: “The Social Network” was bigger and more important than whether the scenes and details included in the script were accurate. After all, the movie was clearly intended to be entertainment and not a fact-based documentary. What struck me most was not what happened – and what did not – and who said what to whom and why. The true takeaway for me was that entrepreneurship and creativity, however complicated, difficult or tortured to execute, are perhaps the most important drivers of business today and the growth of our economy.”

And Dustin Moskovitz said there: It is interesting to see my past rewritten in a way that emphasizes things that didn’t matter (like the Winklevosses, who I’ve still never even met and had no part in the work we did to create the site over the past 6 years) and leaves out things that really did (like the many other people in our lives at the time, who supported us in innumerable ways). Other than that, it’s just cool to see a dramatization of history. A lot of exciting things happened in 2004, but mostly we just worked a lot and stressed out about things; the version in the trailer seems a lot more exciting, so I’m just going to choose to remember that we drank ourselves silly and had a lot of sex with coeds. […] I’m very curious to see how Mark turns out in the end – the plot of the book/script unabashedly attack him, but I actually felt like a lot of his positive qualities come out truthfully in the trailer (soundtrack aside). At the end of the day, they cannot help but portray him as the driven, forward-thinking genius that he is. And the Ad Board *does* owe him some recognition, dammit.

And Zuckerberg himself!

Watch live video from c3oorg on Justin.tv
This is from Garham’s start-up school and here is part 2

Watch live video from c3oorg on Justin.tv

Of course, this looks like corporate language, we should remember these guys have FaceBook shares! Talking about shares, there was another thing I did not like recently, the fact that according to Forbes, Zuckerberg would be richer than Steve Jobs. I had a discussion with a friend over the week end and he agreed with the statement whereas I disagreed. It may be a detail: but as long as Facebook is not quoted, Zuckerberg’s wealth is mostly paper value he can not really trade. I am sure he is already rich, he probably has already monetized some of his shares but not all of them whereas Jobs owns shares which are liquid. It may not be a big difference given the success of Facebook, but I have seen to many stories of start-ups where people thought the paper value of the stock was real wealth and the next day worth nothing…

When my daughter told me yesterday, she might at least explain her friends what her dad was doing. i.e. working in the world of start-ups, I thought the movie had at least reached that goal of reaching a large audience towards this important topic!

Final point, a recurrent topic in my blog: Facebook cap. table and shareholder structure. As Facebook is private, it is a challenge to know what’s true and what’s myth. I have still tried the exercice from what the Internet gives. One interesting feature is Saverin’s dilution from 30% to 5% whereas Zuckerberg went from 65% to 24%, not really pro-rata! We shall see when Facebook goes public, who wrong I was!

Technology = Salvation

“Our technocratic elite told us to expect an ever-wealthier future, and science hasn’t. Except for computers and the Internet, the idea that we’re experiencing rapid technological progress is a myth.”

So speaks Peter Thiel in an interview to the Wall Street Journal Technology = Salvation that I read while traveling to Helsinki to discover the Finnish high-tech ecosystem (I will come back on my trip when I am back home). I did not know Peter Thiel was German, I mean one more European migrant to Silicon Valley. For those who do not know him, Thiel was the business angel in Paypal and then Facebook.

Zina Saunders

“People don’t want to believe that technology is broken. . . . Pharmaceuticals, robotics, artificial intelligence, nanotechnology—all these areas where the progress has been a lot more limited than people think. And the question is why.” […] Innovation, he says, comes from a “frontier” culture, a culture of “exceptionalism,” where “people expect to do exceptional things”—in our world, still an almost uniquely American characteristic, and one we’re losing. […] The idea that technology is broken is taboo. Really taboo.

Peter Thiel is an interesting fellow. A unique character, I am not sure he is a conservative or a libertarian like T. J. Rodgers. You should read the full article (I am not sure the WSJ still offers it for free, but I copied it below) as well as the comments. The reason why I mention this is that it is also a concern of mine I have wrote about in my previous posts on the crisis or about books on the science crisis such as Smolin, or (in French) Zuppiroli or Ségalat

So here is the full interview but I am not sure the WSJ would like this…

Technology = Salvation

An early investor in Facebook and the founder of Clarium Capital on the subprime crisis and why American ingenuity has hit a dead end.


The housing bubble blew up so catastrophically because science and technology let us down. It blew up because our technocratic elite told us to expect an ever-wealthier future, and science hasn’t delivered. Except for computers and the Internet, the idea that we’re experiencing rapid technological progress is a myth.

Such is the claim of Peter Thiel, who has either blundered into enough money that his crackpot ideas are taken seriously, or who is actually on to something. A cofounder of PayPal and an early investor in Facebook (his stake was recently reported to be around 3%), Mr. Thiel is the unofficial leader of a group known as the “PayPal mafia,” perhaps the most fecund informal network of entrepreneurs in the world, behind companies as diverse as Tesla (electric cars) and YouTube.

Mr. Thiel, whose family moved from Germany when he was a toddler, studied at Stanford and became a securities lawyer. After PayPal, he imparted a second twist to his career by launching a global macro hedge fund, Clarium Capital. He now matches wits with some of the great macro investors, such as George Soros and Stanley Druckenmiller, by betting on the direction of world markets.

Those two realms of investing—narrow technology and broad macro—are behind his singular diagnosis of our economic crisis. “All sorts of things are possible in a world where you have massive progress in technology and related gains in productivity,” he says. “In a world where wealth is growing, you can get away with printing money. Doubling the debt over the next 20 years is not a problem.”

“This is where [today is] very different from the 1930s. In the ’30s, the Keynesian stuff worked at least in the sense that you could print money without inflation because there was all this productivity growth happening. That’s not going to work today.

“The people who bought subprime houses in Miami were betting on technological progress. They were betting on energy prices coming down and living standards going up.” They were betting, in short, on the productivity gains to make our debts affordable.

We’ll get back to what all this means. Mr. Thiel wants to meet me at a noisy coffee shop near Union Square in Manhattan. Because a Fortune writer invited to his condo wrote about his butler? “No,” Mr. Thiel tells me. “And I don’t have a “butler.”

His mundane thoughts these days include whether Facebook should go public. Answer: Not anytime soon.

As a general principle, he says, “It’s somewhat dangerous to be a public company that’s succeeding in a context where other things aren’t.”

On the specific question of a Facebook initial public offering, he harks back to the Google IPO in 2004. Many at the time said Google’s debut had reopened the IPO window that had closed with the bursting of the tech bubble, and a flood of new tech companies would come to market. It didn’t happen.

What Google showed, Mr. Thiel says, is that the “threshold” for going public had ratcheted up in a Sarbanes-Oxley world. Even for a well-established, profitable company—which Google was at the time—the “cost-benefit trade-off” was firmly on the side of staying private for as long as possible.

Mr. Thiel was early enough in the Facebook story to see himself portrayed in the fictionalized movie about its birth, “The Social Network.” (He’s the stocky venture capitalist who implicitly—very implicitly—sets the ball rolling toward cutting out Facebook’s allegedly victimized cofounder, Eduardo Saverin.)

Today, Mr. Thiel (the real one) has no remit to discuss the company’s many controversies. Suffice it to say, though, he believes the right company “won” the social media wars—the company that was “about meeting real people at Harvard.”

Its great rival, MySpace, founded in Los Angeles, “is about being someone fake on the Internet; everyone could be a movie star,” he says. He considers it “very healthy,” he adds, “that the real people have won out over the fake people.”

Only one thing troubles him: “I think it’s a problem that we don’t have more companies like Facebook. It shouldn’t be the only company that’s doing this well.” Maybe this explains why he recently launched a $2 million fund to support college kids who drop out to pursue entrepreneurial ventures.

Mr. Thiel is phlegmatic about his own hedge fund, which took a nasty hit last year after being blindsided by the market’s partial recovery from the panic of 2008. Listening between the lines, one senses he faces an uphill battle to convince others of his long-term view, which he insists is “not hopelessly pessimistic.”

“People don’t want to believe that technology is broken. . . . Pharmaceuticals, robotics, artificial intelligence, nanotechnology—all these areas where the progress has been a lot more limited than people think. And the question is why.”

In true macro sense, he sees that failure as central to our current fiscal fix. Credit is about the future, he says, and a credit crisis is when the future turns out not as expected. Our policy leaders, though, have yet to see this bigger picture. “Bernanke, Geithner, Summers—you may not agree with the them ideologically, but they’re quite good as macroeconomists go,” Mr. Thiel says. “But the big variable that they’re betting on is that there’s all this technological progress happening in the background. And if that’s wrong, it’s just not going to work. You will not get this incredible, self-sustaining recovery.

And President Obama? “I’m not sure I’d describe him as a socialist. I might even say he has a naive and touching faith in capitalism. He believes you can impose all sorts of burdens on the system and it will still work.”

The system is telling him otherwise. Mankind, says Mr. Thiel, has no inalienable right to the progress that has characterized the last 200 years. Today’s heightened political acrimony is but a foretaste of the “grim Malthusian” politics ahead, with politicians increasingly trying to redistribute the fruits of a stagnant economy, loosing even more forces of stagnation.

Question: How can anyone know science and technology are under-performing compared to potential? It’s hard, he admits. Those who know—”university professors, the entrepreneurs, the venture capitalists”—are “biased” in favor of the idea that rapid progress is happening, he says, because they’re raising money. “The other 98%”—he means you and me, who in this age of specialization treat science and technology as akin to magic—”don’t know anything.”

But look, he says, at the future we once portrayed for ourselves in “The Jetsons.” We don’t have flying cars. Space exploration is stalled. There are no undersea cities. Household robots do not cater to our needs. Nuclear power “we should be building like crazy,” he says, but we’re sitting on our hands. Or look at today’s science fiction compared to the optimistic vision of the original “Star Trek”: Contemporary science fiction has become uniformly “dystopian,” he says. “It’s about technology that doesn’t work or that is bad.”

The great exception is information technology, whose rapid advance is no fluke: “So far computers and the Internet have been the one sector immune from excessive regulation.”
Mr. Thiel delivers his views with an extraordinary, almost physical effort to put his thoughts in order and phrase them pithily. Somewhere in his 42 years, he obviously discovered the improbability of getting a bold, unusual argument translated successfully into popular journalism.

Mr. Thiel sees truth in three different analyses of our dilemma. Liberals, he says, blame our education system, but liberals are the last ones to fix it, just wanting to throw money at what he calls a “higher education bubble.”

“University administrators are the equivalent of subprime mortgage brokers,” he says, “selling you a story that you should go into debt massively, that it’s not a consumption decision, it’s an investment decision. Actually, no, it’s a bad consumption decision. Most colleges are four-year parties.”

Libertarians blame too much regulation, a view he also shares (“Get rid of the FDA,” he says), but “libertarians seem incapable of winning elections. . . . There are a lot of people you can’t sell libertarian politics to.”

A conservative diagnosis would emphasize an unwillingness to sacrifice, necessary for great progress, and once motivated by war. “Technology has made war so catastrophic,” he says, “that it has unraveled the whole desirability of it [as a spur to technology].”

Mr. Thiel has dabbled in activism to the minor extent of co-hosting in Manhattan last month a fund raiser for gay Republicans, but he has little taste for politics. Still, he considers it a duty to put on the table the idea that technological progress has stalled and why. (To this end, he’s working on a book with Russian chess champion and democracy activist Garry Kasparov.)

You don’t have to agree with every jot to recognize that his view is essentially undisputable: With faster innovation, it would be easier to dig out of our hole. With enough robots, even Social Security and Medicare become affordable.

Mr. Thiel has not found any straight line, however, between his macro insight and macro-investing success. “It’s hard to know how to play the macro trend,” he acknowledges. “I don’t think it necessarily means you should be short everything. But it does mean we’re stuck in a period of long-term stagnation.”

Some companies and countries will do better than others. “In China and India,” he says, “there’s no need for any innovation. Their business model for the next 20 years is copy the West.” The West, he says, needs to do “new things.” Innovation, he says, comes from a “frontier” culture, a culture of “exceptionalism,” where “people expect to do exceptional things”—in our world, still an almost uniquely American characteristic, and one we’re losing.

“If the universities are dominated by politicians instead of scientists, if there are ways the government is too inefficient to work, and we’re just throwing good money after bad, you end up with a nearly revolutionary situation. That’s why the idea that technology is broken is taboo. Really taboo. You probably have to get rid of the welfare state. You have to throw out Keynesian economics. All these things would not work in a world where technology is broken,” he says.
Perhaps it really does fall to some dystopian science fiction writer to tell us what such a world will be like—when nations are unraveling even as a cyber-nation called “Facebook” is becoming the most populous on the planet.

Mr. Jenkins writes the Journal’s Business World column.