Day Zero to One: What I learned (re)reading Peter Thiel’s Classic

I first read Thiel’s ‘Zero to One’ when it was first released a few years ago and thoroughly enjoyed it. Regardless of where you are in your career, it is a useful thought exercise and you’re able to temporarily borrow the brain of one of the most unique, free-thinking business leaders of our generation.

For those that don’t know Peter Thiel is the co-founder of PayPal, the highly successful fintech company and a partner in the Founder’s Fund. More recently, he is better known for his association with Trump which, if nothing else, speaks to his ability to stand up for his beliefs regardless of what his peers. He also found himself in the headlines as a result of the highly-publicized scandal with Gawker and the great American hero, Hulk Hogan!

Characters and political associations aside, Thiel is undoubtedly one of the leading thinkers when it comes to entrepreneurship. While many of the lessons from his book are more relevant to tech or software startups than to energy investment platforms, I found the following 5 lessons immensely helpful during the startup and fundraising phase at MEI:

1.       The Foundation (the who) is essential to success. Thiel believes founder relationships are just as important as a marriage and that breakups can be worse than divorce. While many companies sacrifice fit for speed, it usually comes back to haunt them in the long run. Moving down the chain, he also stresses the danger that comes with outsourcing recruiting. Attempting to manufacture a culture (he believes the company is the culture, it doesn’t ‘have’ a culture), is dangerous. He advises against hiring contractors because it can damage the culture. Project-level work is different than building a product, but still there are lessons to be gleaned from this. Roles should be clearly defined – at least as much as they can be early on – and at the top, management must be crystal clear about ownership, possession and control. Fortunately, at MEI us co-founders have worked successfully together for a number of years and each have clearly-defined areas of expertise. And more importantly, our locally-focused partners are the very best at what they do. This didn’t happen overnight and will continue to evolve, but we are lucky to have this as our baseline.

2.       Start small, dominate and then grow. This is becoming a common, yet difficult to obtain goal. Amazon went from dominating online books to selling everything known to mankind. Facebook started as an exclusive network on Harvard’s campus and now has much of the human race on its network. And one of Thiel’s companies, PayPal began as a way for vendors on ebay to collect payment easily to dominating digital payments. While it is nothing short of ludicrous to compare MEI to any of the aforementioned behemoths, it is helpful to use their growth strategy as a compass. We are beginning with C&I solar in the US and hope to be the global leader in financing distributed generation.

3.       Start with the end in mind and remove cognitive biases along the way. It is irreverent to mention cognitive biases without mention Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. Their work is well-documented in “Thinking Fast and Slow” and dozens of other books and articles. Thiel has a quote in “Zero to One” that really stuck with me and has strands of recency bias and availability bias woven within. He says: “Ask yourself how much of what you know is shaped by mistaken reaction to past mistakes?” Again, this is more relevant to tech b2c start-ups, but it certainly applies to energy investing. I can think of numerous times when we altered our pricing strategy, negotiation strategy, new market targeting and other key strategic initiatives because of a recent failure with a current deal or portfolio. Thiel would suggest avoiding these knee-jerk reactions and instead focusing on the process with the end in mind.

4.       Do whatever you can to escape competition. There is an entire chapter in the book dedicated to differentiating between monopolies, which is Thiel’s desired state, and commodity providers. Thiel cleverly points out that monopolies pretend to be heavily competitive to avoid anti-trust issues – Google claiming to be a search engine and not an advertising company. Conversely, commodity providers pretend to be monopolies. The example he gives in the book is how a British Indian restaurant in Palo Alto may convince themselves they are the only such restaurant in the area while failing to realize they are competing against a variety of restaurants in the region. At MEI, we are undoubtedly somewhere in the middle. We do our best to provide enough value to our partners where we are not in many competitive solutions, but the market is transparent enough to prevent us from going ‘full monopoly’.  

5.       Every startup MUST be able to answer the ‘7 questions’. And the good news is (especially for us) you don’t have to answer yes to all 7 to be successful.

1.       Engineering question: Do you have breakthrough technology that is at least 10x better than the competition?

MEI Answer: No. Technology in DG is mostly commoditized. Now, we can certainly utilize a combination of these technologies to our benefit, but not to a 10x magnitude. The 10x value in DG comes with people, not product.

2.       Timing question: Is now the right time to be in this business?

MEI Answer: Resounding YES! Our starting market of C&I solar in the U.S. is going gangbusters, and our eventual market of global distributed generation is poised to do the same.

3.       Monopoly question: Will you have a big share of a small market?

MEI Answer: half/yes, half/no. We will have big shares of multiple small markets – (e.g. we may have over 50% market share in a certain state C&I market), but for the U.S. C&I solar market as a whole, while we may be one of the leading players, we will never have significant market share due to the scattered nature of the industry. My gut tells me Thiel would count this as a no.

4.       People question: Do you have the right team in place?

MEI Answer: Yes. As discussed previously, we are fortunate to have three co-founders that have worked well together for several years, have different areas of expertise and are great friends in and out of the office. And of course, we have our partners who know their local markets well and are the experts on the ground.

5.       Distribution question: Are you able to create AND deliver your product?

MEI Answer: Yes. Creating the product is a combination of originating quality projects through trusted partners and structuring the financing in such a way that allows for maximum savings to customers, earnings for partners and returns for MEI investors. This three-way balancing act is not easy, but we have been able to do so to the tune of $1B in assets. It sounds simple and trite, but it comes down to treating people the right way and doing repeat business with those people. The second half of the distribution question may be the hardest as it relates to C&I projects. Scale within C&I mandates a lot of volume in a lot of markets. This makes the delivery of the product very challenging. Our delivery and operations team possess the experience, track record, relationships and skill set to deliver a variety of project types in a variety of markets on time and on budget.

6.       Durability question: Are you positioned so that your business will be around 10-15 years from now?

MEI Answer: Yes. This was the easiest question of them all considering almost all the contracts we will enter into are greater than 15 years. However, to continue to grow that business with existing customers and partners we must perform on each and every project. This will allow us to do more projects with partners in new and existing markets and more sites with customers with new and existing technologies.

7.       Secret question: Have you identified an opportunity that others don’t see?

 MEI Answer: Yes. I would be lying if I said nobody sees this opportunity, but the financing gap (according to the World Economic Forum, only 0.5% of institutional capital is invested in ‘low carbon investments resulting in a $2.5 - $4.8 trillion gap) is so large that if we, as financing platform, obey lesson # 2 (start small, dominate, then grow) then we are sure to be successful.

We are excited to begin this new venture and hope that our 5.5/7 score on Thiel’s test will result in growing a highly t successful capital deployment and asset management platform dedicated to distributed generation.