Peter Thiel Duke

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Over 300 students, professors, and local entrepreneurs gathered at Duke University’s Gross Hall on Monday, March 30th to attend a very special discussion by a very special guest. 

“This man hardly needs an introduction,” said moderator Dr. Eric Toone of Duke’s Innovation and Entrepreneurship Initiative as he opened the sold-out event. Of course, to many in the audience, the cofounder and former CEO of PayPal, early investor in Facebook, creator of a fellowship which pays university students to drop out and start companieschallenger of U.S. government and incredibly successful venture capitalist (yes, this is all one person) is a common household name. Peter Thiel was met with a warm welcome and an applause that echoed.

The night began with Thiel giving some general thoughts on entrepreneurship. He urged everyone to think about the following prompt:

“Tell me something that’s true that very few people agree with you on.”

Thiel argues that in a world where courage is in shorter supply than genius, it is a mark of success if your answer is something that makes the questioner uncomfortable. The exercise represents Thiel’s larger theme of advocating against the “ape” mentality and our human tendency to imitate in business.

One of his own answers to the prompt is that there's a big difference between capitalism and competition.

“You don’t want to be the nth person in a category; you want to be a category of your own.”

Thiel claims that the next big innovator won’t be in the space of social networking like Facebook or computer systems like Microsoft. He warns against following trends and buzzwords like education software, healthcare technology and big data, because that means there are a lot of people working in that space. 

“Go after big market shares, not big markets,” he advises.

He also elaborated on the difference between globalization and technological innovation. The first was an example of horizontal progress—the process of simply expanding what already works. Innovation, on the other hand, is uncharted and unpredictable and results in new systems and ideas. In his opinion, the environment and culture in America is generally hostile to technological innovation. Daunting space movies and skepticism within the media create an attitude of distrust towards novelty. The very fact that we refer to our country as developed means that we’re assuming “nothing new is going to happen.”

Thiel ended with the poignant question, “How can we go about developing our so-called developed world?”

His address was followed by a question-answer with Dr. Toone and other questions from the audience. Among the many subjects addressed, he spoke about the role of the university in innovation. He admits that there is a lot of research success at universities that is often not paired with a sufficient entrepreneurship model to bring those ideas to market. He also spoke about the importance of finding a compelling story for your business and building the essential skills of design and complex coordination.

Thiel’s new book, Zero to One, was on sale at the door, and the event concluded with a book-signing opportunity. Reactions to the discussion were overwhelmingly positive, with many inspired to innovate and chase dreams of creating their own categories.

Photo courtesy of David Maialetti.