In 1998, Peter Thiel co-founded PayPal and four years later sold up for $1.5bn.
He went on to be Facebook’s first investor, buying a 10% share (his advice to Mark Zuckerberg was deceptively simple: “Just don’t fuck it up”). He also co-founded Palantir Technologies with funds from the CIA’s venture capital arm and which, it is claimed, helped to locate Osama bin Laden. He is now one of the most successful and influential investors in Silicon Valley, and an outspoken supporter of libertarian politics and a major donor to causes as diverse as Ron Paul for president to Seasteading, an organisation that is aiming to create an offshore floating nation state.
Your book, Zero to One, is based on a course that you taught at Stanford University. And yet in the book, you’re very vocal about how universities are a waste of money and create a class of indentured slaves unable to think independently. Isn’t this a bit of a contradiction?
I don’t think universities are categorically bad. I think there’s something of an education bubble. It still is important to try to learn things. The goal I had in teaching this class on startups and entrepreneurship at Stanford was to try to figure out a way to convey all the knowledge that I have about business as an entrepreneur and investor over the last 15 years in Silicon Valley in the form of a single course. I’m trying to do the same thing with this book.
In the manifesto for your Founders Fund, you say: “We wanted flying cars and instead we got 140 characters.” Do you think that’s the problem, that we’ve been thinking too small?
I think the 2,000 people who work at Twitter will still have well-paying jobs 10 or 20 years from now. I think it’s a good business but I don’t think that it’s enough to take our civilisation into the future. I don’t think it’s necessarily the case that there will be enormous amounts of technological development in the next few decades. I’m not like Ray Kurzweil where the singularity is near and all you have to do is sit back and eat the popcorn. It’s something that we have to choose to work on and we have to make it happen.
Would it be accurate to describe you as a techno-Utopian? Would you still like a flying car?
Well, I don’t think science and technology are automatically good. We did develop nuclear weapons in the 20th century, but I do believe that in the future without technological progress, there can be no good future. We have seven billion people on this planet, it’s going to be 10 billion in the next century. If those people are going to have the living standards of the first world, it will require enormous amounts of innovation. Simply copying will not work. If everyone in China gets to drive a car as in the United States, you will have massive pollution, you will run out of oil. It does not work on its own terms.
But you don’t think that death is inevitable?
I think we’ve made our peace with death too much. We should not go gently into that good night. I think this question of ageing and longevity and mortality was deeply linked with the entire inspiration of the scientific technological age from the very beginning. And yet we know far more about theoretical physics than, for example, we do about nutrition.
Do you think that you have a reasonable chance of not dying then?
People always say they want to live every day as though it will be their last. I always have this contrasting view that I think I’d like to live every day as though it will go on for ever.
If we had an indefinite life span, we would continue to work and start great new projects, we would be very careful about how we treated the people around us because we would encounter them again.
In the book there’s a quote where you say Silicon Valley has become obsessed with “disruption” and that word has transmogrified into a trendy buzzword. But in a New Yorker profile of you three years ago, you said that it was one of your favourite words. What happened? Has disruption disrupted itself?
I think we get caught up too much in intense competition. The great businesses are not focused on disrupting some other business, they are focused on doing something that’s valuable on its own. In the same way that a successful career is not focused on disrupting someone else’s career, but on doing something valuable on your own.
You say one of the most contentious questions in business is whether success comes from luck or skill. You suggest that it’s skill. Could that be just because you’ve been very lucky in life?
I’ve certainly been fortunate and it is hard to actually figure out whether I was skilful at taking advantage of opportunities or just blind luck because you can’t actually run this experiment twice.
What I do think is that as a society we attribute too much to luck. Luck is like an atheistic word for God: we ascribe things to it that we don’t understand or don’t want to understand. As a venture capitalist, I think one of the most toxic things to do is to treat the people I’m investing in as lottery tickets where I say: “Well I don’t know if your business is going to work. It might, it might not.” I think that’s a horrible way to treat people. The anti-lottery ticket approach is to try to achieve a high level of conviction, to ask: “Is this a business that I have enough confidence in that I would consider joining it myself?”
You’ve created $100,000 scholarships for young people not to go to university and to become entrepreneurs, but you went to an elite university, and you’ve done pretty well, haven’t you?
You can’t run your life twice. I think the reality is that the elite schools are great credentials, but they also strangely narrow people’s focuses on certain very tracked careers of law and finance, maybe medicine, maybe politics. I worry that the people who go there could be doing a lot more for society. When you look at people graduating from high school, they have all these great dreams what they will do with their lives. I think there’s something about the university system that makes people compete very intensely and has the effect for most people of beating their dreams out of them.
You’ve donated an awful lot of money to politicians, most of whom, like Ron Paul, have gone on to lose. To the lay person that looks an awful lot like chucking money down the drain.
I’m fiscally more conservative and socially more liberal. And I always go back and forth on how much one should do in politics. Whether it’s just an endlessly frustrating process. I think what matters is trying to advance ideas and I do think Ron Paul had the effect of advancing a set of libertarian ideas. He questioned the various wars the US was engaged in and I do think that was important.
Wikipedia says that you’re on the steering committee of the Bilderberg group. Is that true and what does that involve? Are you the one who organises the covert world domination?
It is true though it’s not so secret and covert that I can’t tell you about it. It’s a good discussion among various business, political, media, finance leaders in the US and western Europe. I would say that I think there is no conspiracy. This is a problem in our society. There isn’t a secret plan. Our leaders do not have a secret plan of how to fix all of our problems. While secret plans might be a bad thing, I find the lack of any plan whatsoever to be far more disturbing.
Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future is published by Virgin Books, £16.99. To order a copy for £13.59 with free UK p&p go to theguardian.com/bookshop or call 0330 333 6846
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010