Starting a business has never been easier. The internet is abundant of solid business ideas, methods, strategies, and even step-by-step instructions on how to create a profitable business. Social media is full of people who share how they build a successful business which is earning them six or seven figures. But don’t be fooled.
By following or consuming the content of seemingly successful entrepreneurs, crypto investors, coaches and other gurus, you will unconsciously desire and then imitate what they did. Instead of creating the future, you will end up doing what has already been done.
Did you join a Facebook group full of freelancers? You will end up imitating what they did, and become a freelancer yourself. Or you joined your local startup ecosystem? You will end up imitating these people and end up building a similar business in a similar way.
You want to create a certain type of business because you see other people wanting to create a certain type of business.
So, because we model our desires based on the desires of others, we will end up in competition with the same companies solving the same problem in the same way.
This is what René Girard called “Mimetic Desire”. According to Girard, imitation is inevitable. Therefore, the most important decision a founder can make is to ask whom to mimic.
One to N
Building upon René Girard, Peter Thiel applied the Memetic theory to business and especially startups, to explain why we are technologically stagnating and why we are not creating the future.
Copying or building upon an existing business model while only slightly adjusting it is what Peter Thiel calls “going from one to n” (1 ⇾ n).
For example: by adding a new hot branding to a business model, or by bringing an existing business model to a different market, you go from 1 to – for example – 1,5. You don’t create something new. You don’t create the future. You simply do the same thing in a slightly different way.
But how do we go from zero to one?
Zero to One
Going from zero to one (0 ⇾ 1) means doing something that has never been done before.
Instead of incremental improvements, you build a business which is based on breakthrough technology.
Peter Thiel wrote a brilliant book called Zero To One, which itself is an exercise for entrepreneurs to challenge and question their mimetic desires to actually create the future.
To create the future, you can use several helpful questions (taken from Zero to One) which you can apply to entrepreneurship and your startup.
1. The Engineering Question
Is your technology at least X times better than the technology of your closest competitor? Can you create real breakthrough technology?
If your technology is not at least a multiple better than your closest competitor, you’ll end up competing – and thus not creating the future.
2. The Timing Question
Is now the right time to start your particular startup? Why start the business now? Being the first is a strategy not a goal. Often it is better to be the last company which enters the market, or as Peter Thiel puts it: “It’s much better to be the last mover – that is, to make the last great development in a specific market and enjoy years or even decades of monopoly profits.“
3. The Monopoly Question
Are you starting in a small niche market where you can instantly capture 80% of the market share – versus trying to catch 1% of a large $1B+ market? Is your technology superior enough so that you can become a monopoly – not only in your niche but over time in your entire market? According to Peter Thiel, the problem of a competitive business is its lack of profits. Monopolies “aren’t just good for the rest of society; they’re powerful engines for making it better.“
4. The People Question
Do you have the best people in your team? People are the biggest and most important strength of a startup. Being with the right people allows startups to think new and different. Which is a startups’ biggest strength.
5. The Distribution Question
Having the best product does not mean anything if you don’t have the means to sell it. Peter Thiel disagrees with the common notion in Silicon Valley which tells entrepreneurs “Focus on product not sales”. But “sales matters just as much as product”.
6. The Durability Question
Can your business defend your market position for 10, 20, or 30 years into the future? You escape your competition by starting in a niche market, dominating it, and then growing with the market.
7. The Secret Question
Have you identified a unique opportunity that others don’t see? Ask yourself: “What important truth do very few people agree with you on?”. A good answer will be formulated as: “Most people believe in x, but the truth is the opposite of x.”
Creating the Future by Going from Zero to One
Peter Thiel believes that there are many secrets left and thus many world-changing companies yet to be started. Most importantly, we must avoid mimicking what other people and other businesses have already done before – myself included. Creating the future means going from Zero to One.
“Zero to One” by Peter Thiel
“The Ideas of Rene Girard: An Anthropology of Religion and Violence” by David Cayley
René Girard 5-Part CBC interview with David Cayley (2001)