Peter Thiel
Peter Thiel

Peter Thiel

Type of Investing:

Firms:

Who is Peter Thiel?

Peter Thiel is an entrepreneur, investor, and philanthropist most known for founding PayPal, Palantir, and Founders Fund. He is strong believer that technological innovations is what enables society to function, a thesis that is embodied in his investing, philanthropy, and political activism.

Peter's first company was a digital payments startup called Cofinity that eventually merged with a rival startup founded by Elon Musk. Post-merge the company was called PayPal, and it became one of the few success stories of companies that started right before the dot com crash. PayPal eventually went public and was later acquired by eBay. After PayPal, Peter went on to found and invest in many world-changing startups, funds, and philanthropy projects including Clarium Capital, Palantir, Facebook, Founders Fund, and the Thiel Fellowship.

In short, Peter Thiel is a live player that has played a significant role in the disruption of fintech, venture capital, social media, govtech, and education. Thiel's book, Zero to One, is one of Silicon Valley canons and can be credited with a disproportionate amount of influence on today's startup culture. His management practices and investing principles were heavily influenced by Rene Girard, a literary theorist at Stanford. Thiel's influence and success in business and investing has since popularized Girard's mimetic theory and crowned Peter as one of Silicon Valley's reigning philosopher kings.

Aphorisms

  • Never invest in a tech CEO wearing a suit
  • Competition is for losers
  • Thiel's Law: A startup messed up at its founding can never be fixed
  • A bad plan is better than no plan
  • If blockchain is libertarian then AI is communist

Investing Firms

  • Founders Fund - VC
  • Clarium Capital - hedge fund
  • Mithril Capital - hedge fund
  • Pronomos Capital - charter city seed fund

Startups

  • PayPal
  • Palantir

Philanthropy

  • The Seasteading Institute: a non-profit developing artificial islands and innovative governance systems
  • The Thiel Fellowship: grants to college dropouts who are starting business
  • Breakout Labs: grants to early-stage scientific research that is too speculative for VC
  • Imitatio: a project to understand the world through mimetic theory
  • The PayPal Mafia
    The PayPal Mafia

What does Peter Thiel think about...

"I always find myself very distrustful of intense crowd phenomena and I think those are things that we should always try to question, especially critically. But at the same time, it's not simply going against the crowd; it is always the much more important question to try to figure out what the truth of the matter is."

Philosophy

Thiel's philosophy and religion are less understood than his views on startups, investing, and politics. However, understanding his beliefs is central to understanding the frame in which Thiel has built his career and political activism. As an undergraduate at Stanford, Thiel majored in philosophy. The professor that impacted him most was a literary scholar named Rene Girard. Peter took Girard's unique theories on the nature of culture, religion, status, and violence very seriously, and continues to cite them as foundational to his worldview. The short version of Girardian philosophy is that all human desire emerges from imitation. We desire the things that we notice other people desiring. Mimetic desire leads to competition over scarce resources, inducing conflict and violence.

Girard believed that human societies formed sacrificial rituals in order to release the pressure of built up violence. Human sacrifices saved human societies from destruction, hence these Founding Murders became the cornerstone of religion and culture. In this way, society contains intrinsic violence through the mimetic nature of our desires, and yet society also contains violence in the sense that has formed internal mechanisms to reduce its force. The Girardian Scapegoat archetype saves society by transforming the "war of all against all to a war of all against one".

Girard believed that these insights on society and human nature had been discovered many times throughout history by great thinkers such as Jesus Christ and Shakespeare. These thinkers chose to hide these ideas within a larger text or speech using "Straussian" rhetoric techniques that reserved their true message for other intelligent readers. Peter Thiel himself uses Straussian methods for conveying ideas that he considers too contrarian to be public. He ends his essay The Optimistic Thought Experiment with the following line:

"Because this second part is more difficult and controversial, I make only occasional references — between the lines, as it were — to the latter."

Startups and Investing

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Note: For a more exhaustive summary of Peter's thoughts on startups, see

In his book, Zero to One: Notes on Startups or How to Build the Future, Thiel never mentions the words mimetic desire. Still, much of Thiel's advice is distinctly Girardian. Peter writes that competition is an ideology "that pervades our society and distorts our thinking", that it "can make people hallucinate an opportunity where none exists". He advises to avoid thinking in terms of "disruption" because it narrows the company's vision and creative potential. Instead of chasing large markets, Thiel suggests that companies should grow by monopolizing small markets. On management, Peter advises that every individual within the company should have a role that is sharply distinguished from other employees. The origination of each of these strategies can be traced to the idea that humans have a constant drive to imitate (read compete) and that the only way to escape unprofitable and ruthless, markets and office dynamics is to do the opposite: be different, do something no one else is doing.

The Name

Peter believes that the name of a startup is very predictive of the company's future success. MySpace sounds antisocial and somewhat selfish. Facebook, on the other hand, sounds transparent and extroverted. Uber sounds aggressive, Lyft sounds light. PayPal sounds friendly, "it's your pal that helps you pay".

Management

Keith Rabois describes Peter's management style as "draconian" because he was so rational and didn't give people much emotional validation. Keith also says that Peter focuses on the super high level decisions and delegation....

, high level, hyper rational, focused on delegation and the 3-4 most important decisions per year

Investing

Diversification is overrated

Power law

Facebook story (learning the right lessons from previous startup failures)

Progress and Stagnation

Hyperspecialization of science makes it harder to figure out how much progress we are making. The specialists are incentivized to claim that they are super close to curing cancer or creating general AI, but no one else is able to fact check them

Outside of the world of computers, nothing has changed that much. iPhones are simply distracting from the fact that the subways, cars, and homes we are in are the same. Nixon declared a war on cancer, the goal was to defeat if by 1976, yet now the expected time are farther than ever.

Nixon declared a war on cancer in the 70s

The human genome project was supposed to translate into all sorts of cures by now

life expectancy is going down

big science is an oxy moron, when you make it big, it stops being science

Politics

Religion

Education

Quotes

Go Deeper

“Brilliant thinking is rare, but courage is in even shorter supply than genius.”

Compilations of Peter Thiel's Writing

Peter Thiel's Religion

Peter Thiel's Politics

Books

Zero To One
Zero To One

Videos & Podcasts

There are hundreds of videos Peter Thiel on the internet. After watching a few dozen, it becomes obvious that Thiel has a central message that he would like to get across which becomes somewhat repetitive. Videos of Thiel with a talented interviewer or debater tend to do a better job at moving beyond Thiel's central message. Below is a curated list of some of Thiel's more broad discussions.

The Popular Contrarian - Interview by Jerry Bowyer

The Straussian Moment

One of Thiel's more intellectual interviews, the talks about the Enlightenment, Rene Girard, and China

An Era of Stagnation & Universal Institutional Failure

In-depth and more personal interview on stagnation, Trump, preference falsification, and violence

Peter Thiel + Tyler Cowen

A long-form, well-rounded, and fast-paced interview with Tyler Cowen

Peter Thiel vs Marc Andressen on Innovation

Famous debate between two top VCs on technological stagnation

Socrates In the City Interview

Using Apollo 11 and Woodstock as reference points, Thiel and Metaxas explore the idea that we live in an age of technological stagnation, and cover a range of topics — globalization, Greta Thunberg, academia, the worst of the cardinal sins, communion, and more.

Where Did the Future Go?

Peter Thiel (Libertarian) vs David Graber (Anarchist) on technology and social change

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