Read! Share! Please don’t transform or sell.

Several people have asked if they can make ebook versions of the notes essays. 

You can, of course, always do this for your own use. But for now at least, please do not distribute to the public. (One guy even tried to sell a version that he made!)

Creative Commons License

All of these notes are wrapped in a creative commons license. 

If we do end up publishing a pdf/ePub/Kindle version, we will likely want to work with a single designer and get things to our liking. 

I’m not trying to stifle innovation with IP. Obviously I want Peter’s ideas and the notes to spread far and wide. And to be clear, I’m not interested in making money from them.

But neither do I want dozens of versions of a book alleging to have been written by myself or Peter Thiel floating around when, in fact, neither of us has seen or approved the particular formatting, editing, etc.

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Peter Thiel’s CS183: Startup - Class 11 Notes Essay

Here is an essay version of my class notes from Class 11 of CS183: Startup. Errors and omissions are mine. Credit for good stuff is Peter’s.

Class 11 Notes Essay—Secrets

I.  Secrets

Back in class one, we identified a very key question that you should continually ask yourself: what important truth do very few people agree with you on? To a first approximation, the correct answer is going to be a secret. Secrets are unpopular or unconventional truths. So if you come up with a good answer, that’s your secret.

How many secrets are there in the world? Recall that, reframed in a business context, the key question is: what great company is no one starting? If there are many possible answers, it means that there are many great companies that could be created. If there are no good answers, it’s probably a very bad idea to start a company. From this perspective, the question of how many secrets exist in our world is roughly equivalent to how many startups people should start.

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CS183 Notes - Traffic So Far

I’ve put 10 class notes essays online so far. That material represents roughly half of the course (there are 19 classes in total).

Several people have asked me what the traffic to the site has been. I always enjoy when people post this kind of data that gives their projects more transparency (e.g. this). So here is some of that for anyone who might be interested.

The date range is April 2nd (when the class started) through this morning, May 10th.

At first glance an average visit duration of 2 minutes seems very low. Many people are not reading material that, at least for a moment, is literally right in front of them. But maybe 2 minutes is actually quite high. While many people may tl;dr click away, many others seem to be reading the full posts.

The image below shows the spike from David Brooks’ Creative Monopoly piece in the NYT. Daily visitors shot up to 25k and have since settled down to about 5k/day since. 

(I edited this graphic a bit to get the visits axis labeled on this scale.)

Update: here is the visit duration view:

Some possibly relevant things that people have told me today:

  • Readers using things like Instapaper or Pocket might not be fully represented.
  • Google Analytics can’t detect single page time, so visits from people who read in full off a link and then bounce go unrecorded or are logged in the first bucket.

The traffic stuff is interesting. I won’t pretend I know exactly what the stats mean. In some sense it doesn’t matter; it’s the same undertaking whether 2, 200, or 200k people follow along. But truly interesting ideas should spread far and wide, and it’s been fun to see that happening.

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Peter Thiel’s CS183: Startup - Class 10 Notes Essay

Here is an essay version of my class notes from Class 10 of CS183: Startup. Errors and omissions are mine.

Marc Andreessen, co-founder and general partner of the venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, joined this class as a guest speaker. Credit for good stuff goes to him and Peter. I have tried to be accurate. But note that this is not a transcript of the conversation.

Class 10 Notes Essay—After Web 2.0 

I.  Hello World

It all started about 40 years ago with ARPANET.  Things were asynchronous and fairly low bandwidth. Going “online” could be said to have begun in 1979 with the CompuServe model. In the early ‘80s AOL joined in with its take on the walled garden model, offering games, chat rooms, etc. Having laid the foundations for the modern web, the two companies would merge in ’97.

The Mosaic browser launched in 1993. Netscape announced its browser on October 13th, 1994 and filed to go public in less than a year later. And so began the World Wide Web, which would define the ‘90s in all kinds of ways.

“Web 1.0” and “2.0” are terms of art that can be sort of hard to pin down. But to speak of the shift from 1.0 to 2.0 is basically to speak of what’s changed from decade to decade. When things got going content was mostly static. Now the emphasis is on user generated content, social networking, and collaboration of one sort or another. 

Relative usage patterns have shifted quite a bit too. In the early ‘90s, people used FTP. In the late ‘90s they were mostly web browsing or connecting to p2p networks. By 2010, over half of all Internet usage was video transmission. These rapid transitions invite the question of what’s next for the Internet. Will the next era be the massive shift to mobile, as many people think? It’s a plausible view, since many things seem possible there. But also worth putting in context is that relative shifts don’t tell the full story. Total Internet usage has grown dramatically as well. There are perhaps 20x more users today than there were in the late ‘90s. The ubiquity of the net creates a sense in which things today are very, very different. 

II.  The Wild West

The Internet has felt a lot like the Wild West for last 20 years or so. It’s been a frontier of sorts—a vast, open space where people can do almost anything. For the most part, there haven’t been too many rules or restrictions. People argue over whether that’s good or bad. But it raises interesting questions. What enables this frontier to exist as it does? And is the specter of regulation going to materialize? Is everything about to change? 

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Peter Thiel’s CS183: Startup - Class 9 Notes Essay

Here is an essay version of my class notes from Class 9 of CS183: Startup. Errors and omissions are my own. Credit for good stuff is Peter’s entirely. 

Class 9 Notes Essay—If You Build It, Will They Come?

 I. Definitions 

Distribution is something of a catchall term. It essentially refers to how you get a product out to consumers. More generally, it can refer to how you spread the message about your company. Compared to other components that people generally recognize are important, distribution gets the short shift. People understand that team, structure, and culture are important. Much energy is spent thinking about how to improve these pieces. Even things that are less widely understood—such as the idea that avoiding competition is usually better than competing—are discoverable and are often implemented in practice.

But for whatever reason, people do not get distribution. They tend to overlook it. It is the single topic whose importance people understand least. Even if you have an incredibly fantastic product, you still have to get it out to people. The engineering bias blinds people to this simple fact. The conventional thinking is that great products sell themselves; if you have great product, it will inevitably reach consumers. But nothing is further from the truth.

There are two closely related questions that are worth drilling down on. First is the simple question: how does one actually distribute a product? Second is the meta-level question: why is distribution so poorly understood? When you unpack these, you’ll find that the first question is underestimated or overlooked for the same reason that people fail to understand distribution itself.

The first thing to do is to dispel the belief that the best product always wins. There is a rich history of instances where the best product did not, in fact, win. Nikola Tesla invented the alternating current electrical supply system. It was, for a variety of reasons, technologically better than the direct current system that Thomas Edison developed. Tesla was the better scientist. But Edison was the better businessman, and he went on to start GE. Interestingly, Tesla later developed the idea of radio transmission. But Marconi took it from him and then won the Nobel Prize. Inspiration isn’t all that counts. The best product may not win. 

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Peter Thiel’s CS183: Startup - Class 8 Notes Essay

Here is an essay version of my class notes from Class 8 of CS183: Startup. Errors and omissions are mine.

Bruce Gibney, partner at Founders Fund, gave the lecture these notes are based on. Credit for good stuff goes to him and Founders Fund.

Class 8 Notes Essay—The Pitch

I.  Pitching Context & Goals

One of the most important things to remember when thinking about pitching is that there are huge numbers of pitches in the world. Venture capitalists hear quite a few of them. And they find the process frustrating because it is such a low yield activity (a tiny fraction of first pitches lead to subsequent diligence and even fewer of those lead to a deal). So if you want VCs to listen to you, you need to force them to listen—to break through the clutter. Doing so requires you to hack into the VC mind. 

Conceptually, pitching sounds easy. You are smart. You have a great idea and you tell people with money that great idea. They’re rational; they give it to you. 

But it’s not that easy. What you essentially have to do is convince a reasonably smart person to exchange his capital for your piece of paper (a stock certificate) that is really nothing more than a promise about something that may be valuable later but, on a blind statistical basis, probably won’t be. It turns out that this is difficult.

Humans are massively cognitively biased in favor of near-term thinking. VCs are no different. That’s curious, because you’d think they would have overcome it, since good long-term thinking is sort of the entire nature of venture capital. But humans are humans. VCs are just sacks of meat with the same cognitive biases as everyone else. They are rational systems infected with emotional viruses (and infused with a tinge of wealth and privilege and all that implies). You must address both sides of their brains; you have to convince VCs that your proposal is economically rational, and then you must exploit their reptilian brains by persuading their emotional selves into doing the deal and overcoming cognitive biases (like near-term focus) against the deal. You should also offer VCs entertainment. They see several pitches a day (most bad) and that gets boring. Be funny and help your cause. In the tech community, even one joke will suffice.

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Peter Thiel’s CS183: Startup - Class 7 Notes Essay

Here is an essay version of my class notes from Class 7 of CS183: Startup. Errors and omissions are mine.

Roelof Botha, partner at Sequoia Capital and former CFO of PayPal, and Paul Graham, partner and co-founder of Y Combinator, joined this class as guest speakers. Credit for good stuff goes to them and Peter. I have tried to be accurate. But note that this is not a transcript of the conversation.

Class 7 Notes Essay—Follow the Money

I.  Venture Capital and You

Many people who start businesses never deal with venture capitalists. Founders who do interact with VCs don’t necessarily do that early on. First you get your founders together and get working. Then maybe you get friends, family, or angels to invest. If you do end up needing to raise a larger amount of capital, you need to know how VC works. Understanding how VCs think about money—or, in some cases, how they don’t think about it and thus lose it—is important. 

VC started in late 1940s. Before that, wealthy individuals and families were investing in new ventures quite frequently. But the idea of pooling funds that professionals would invest in early stage companies was a product of the ‘40s. The Sand Hill road, Silicon Valley version came in the late 1960s, with Sequoia, Kleiner Perkins, and Mayfield leading the field. 

Venture basically works like this:  you pool a bunch of money that you get from people called limited partners. Then you take money from that pool and invest it in portfolio companies that you think are promising. Hopefully those companies become more valuable over time and everybody makes money. So VCs have the dual role of encouraging LPs to give them money and then finding (hopefully) successful companies to back.

Most of the profits go back to LPs as returns on their investment. VCs, of course, take a cut. The typical model is called 2-and-20, which means that the VC firm charges an annual management fee of 2% of the fund and then gets 20% of the gains beyond the original investment. The 2% management fee is theoretically just enough to allow the VC firm to continue to operate. In practice, it can end up being a lot more than that; a $200m fund would earn $4m in management fees under a 2-and-20 structure. But it’s certainly true that the real payout that VCs look for come with the 20% cut of the gains, which is called the carry.

VC funds last for several years, because it usually takes years for the companies you invest in to grow in value. Many of the investments in a given fund either don’t make money or go to zero. But the idea is that the companies that do well get you all your money back and then some; you end up with more money in the fund at the end than LPs put in to begin with.

There are many dimensions to being a good VC. You have to be skilled at coming up with reasonable valuations, identifying great entrepreneurs, etc. But there’s one dimension that is particularly important, yet surprisingly poorly understood. It is far and away the most important structural element of venture capital: exponential power. This may seem odd because it’s just basic math. But just as 3rd grade arithmetic—knowing not just how many shares you get, but dividing that by the shares outstanding—was crucial to understand equity, 7th grade math—understanding exponents—is necessary to understand VC.

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Peter Thiel’s CS183: Startup - Class 6 Notes Essay

Here is an essay version of my class notes from Class 6 of CS183: Startup. Errors and omissions are my own. Credit for good stuff is Peter’s entirely. This class was kind of a crash course in VC financing. I didn’t include all the examples since you can learn more about VC math elsewhere, e.g. here or here. As usual, though, I’ve tried to include all the key insights from the lecture.

CS183: Startup—Notes Essay—Thiel’s Law

I.  Origins, Rules, Culture

Every company is different. But there are certain rules that you simply must follow when you start a business. A corollary of this is what some friends have (somewhat grandiosely) called Thiel’s law: A startup messed up at its foundation cannot be fixed.  

Beginnings of things are very important. Beginnings are qualitatively different. Consider the origin of the universe. Different things happened then than what we experience in everyday life. Or think about the origin of a country; it necessarily involves a great many elements that you do not see in the normal course of business. Here in the U.S., the Founders generally got a lot of things right. Some things they got quite wrong. But most of the time they can’t really be fixed.  Alaska has 2 senators. So does California. So Alaska, despite having something like 1/50th of California’s population, has equal power in the Senate. Some say that’s a feature, not a bug. Whatever it is, we’re likely to be stuck with it as long as this country exists.

The insight that foundings are crucial is what is behind the Founders Fund name. Founders and founding moments are very important in determining what comes next for a given business. If you focus on the founding and get it right, you have a chance. If you don’t, you’ll be lucky at best, and probably not even that.

The importance of foundings is embedded in companies. Where there’s a debate or controversial claim at Google, one says, “The Founders have scientifically determined that x is true,” where x is his preferred position. If you think that certain perks should be extended since happy people are the most productive, you say that Larry and Sergey have already settled the matter. The point is that all the science is done at the founding. No new data can interfere with the founding moment.

Foundings are obviously temporal. But how long they last can be a hard question. The typical narrative contemplates a founding, first hires, and a first capital raise. But there’s an argument that the founding lasts a lot longer than that. The idea of going from 0 to 1—the idea of technology—parallels founding moments. The 1 to n of globalization, by contrast, parallels post-founding execution. It may be that the founding lasts so long as a company’s technical innovation continues. Founders should arguably stay in charge as long as the paradigm remains 0 to 1. Once the paradigm shifts to 1 to n, the founding is over. At that point, executives should execute. 

There is, of course, a limit to how much you can do with rules. Things can and will break down even with perfect rules. There is no real chance of setting things up correctly such that the rest unfold easily. But you should still get the early stuff as right as possible.

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Peter Thiel’s CS183: Startup - Class 5 Notes Essay

Here is an essay version of my class notes from Class 5 of CS183: Startup. Errors and omissions are mine.

Stephen Cohen, co-founder and Executive VP of Palantir Technologies, and Max Levchin of PayPal and Slide fame joined this class as guest speakers. Credit for good stuff goes to them and Peter. I have tried to be accurate. But note that this is not a transcript of the conversation.

CS183: Startup—Notes Essay—The Mechanics of Mafia

I. Company Cultures

Everybody knows that company culture is important. But it’s hard to know exactly what makes for an ideal culture. There are obviously some things that work. Even though they didn’t necessarily look like a winning investment at the time, the early Microsoft team clearly got something right.

Would you invest?

Then there are some things that don’t work so well. A cult is perhaps the paradigmatic version of a culture that doesn’t work. Cults are crazy and idealistic in a bad way. Cult members all tend to be fanatically wrong about something big.

And then there is what might be called anti-culture, where you really don’t even have a culture at all. Consulting firms are the classic example here. Unfortunately, this is probably the dominant paradigm for companies. Most of the time, they don’t even get to the point of having culture. People are mercenaries. People are nihilistic.

Picture a 1-dimensional axis from consultant-nihilism to cultish dogmatism. You want to be somewhere in the middle of that spectrum. To the extent you gravitate towards an extreme, you probably want to be closer to being a cult than being an army of consultants.

Good company culture is more nuanced than simple homogeneity or heterogeneity. On the homogeneity side, everyone being alike isn’t enough. A robust company culture is one in which people have something in common that distinguishes them quite sharply from rest of the world. If everybody likes ice cream, that probably doesn’t matter. If the core people share a relevant and unique philosophy about something important, you’re onto something.

Similarly, differences qua differences don’t matter much. In strong company cultures, people are different in a way that goes to the core mission. Suppose one key person is on an ice cream only diet. That’s quirky. But it’s also irrelevant. You want your people to be different in a way that gives the company a strong sense of identity and yet still dovetails with the overall mission. Having different kinds of problem-solvers on a team, for example, can make for a stronger culture.

II. Zero Sum vs. Not

A. To Fight or Not To Fight

Generally speaking, capitalism and competition are better seen as antonyms than as synonyms. To compete isn’t what you should set out to do. That doesn’t mean you should slack off. To succeed you probably need to work intensely. But you should work on something that others aren’t doing. That is, focus on an area that’s not zero-sum.

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Peter Thiel’s CS183: Startup - Class 4 Notes Essay

Here is an essay version of my class notes from Class 4 of CS183: Startup. Errors and omissions are my own. Credit for good stuff is Peter’s entirely. 

CS183: Startup—Notes Essay—April 11—The Last Mover Advantage

I. Escaping Competition

The usual narrative is that capitalism and perfect competition are synonyms. No one is a monopoly. Firms compete and profits are competed away. But that’s a curious narrative. A better one frames capitalism and perfect competition as opposites; capitalism is about the accumulation of capital, whereas the world of perfect competition is one in which you can’t make any money. Why people tend to view capitalism and perfect competition as interchangeable is thus an interesting question that’s worth exploring from several different angles.

The first thing to recognize is that our bias favoring competition is deep-rooted. Competition is seen as almost quintessentially American. It builds character. We learn a lot from it. We see the competitive ideology at work in education. There is a sense in which extreme forms of competition are seen as setting one up for future, non-competitive success. Getting into medical school, for example, is extremely competitive. But then you get to be a well-paid doctor.

There are, of course, cases where perfect competition is just fine. Not all businesses are created to make money; some people might be just fine with not turning a profit, or making just enough to keep the lights on. But to the extent one wants to make money, he should probably be quite skeptical about perfect competition. Some fields, like sports and politics, are incredibly and perhaps inherently competitive. It’s easier to build a good business than it is to become the fastest person alive or to get elected President.

It may upset people to hear that competition may not be unqualifiedly good. We should be clear what we mean here. Some sense of competition seems appropriate. Competition can make for better learning and education. Sometimes credentials do reflect significant degrees of accomplishment. But the worry is that people make a habit of chasing them. Too often, we seem to forget that it’s genuine accomplishment we’re after, and we just train people to compete forever. But that does everyone a great disservice if what’s theoretically optimal is to manage to stop competing, i.e. to become a monopoly and enjoy success.

A law school anecdote will help illustrate the point. By graduation, students at Stanford Law and other elite law schools have been racking up credentials and awards for well over a dozen years. The pinnacle of post law school credentialism is landing a Supreme Court clerkship. After graduating from SLS in ’92 and clerking for a year on the 11th Circuit, Peter Thiel was one of the small handful of clerks who made it to the interview stage with two of the Justices. That capstone credential was within reach. Peter was so close to winning that last competition. There was a sense that, if only he’d get the nod, he’d be set for life. But he didn’t. 

Years later, after Peter built and sold PayPal, he reconnected with an old friend from SLS. The first thing the friend said was, “So, aren’t you glad you didn’t get that Supreme Court clerkship?” It was a funny question. At the time, it seemed much better to be chosen than not chosen. But there are many reasons to doubt whether winning that last competition would have been so good after all. Probably it would have meant a future of more insane competition. And no PayPal. The pithy, wry version of this is the line about Rhodes Scholars: they all had a great future in their past.

This is not to say that clerkships, scholarships, and awards don’t often reflect incredible accomplishment. Where that’s the case, we shouldn’t diminish it. But too often in the race to compete, we learn to confuse what is hard with what is valuable. Intense competition makes things hard because you just beat heads with other people. The intensity of competition becomes a proxy for value. But value is a different question entirely. And to the extent it’s not there, you’re competing just for the sake of competition. Henry Kissinger’s anti-academic line aptly describes the conflation of difficulty and value: in academia at least, the battles are so fierce because the stakes are so small.

That seems true, but it also seems odd. If the stakes are so small, why don’t people stop fighting so hard and do something else instead? We can only speculate. Maybe those people just don’t know how to tell what’s valuable. Maybe all they can understand is the difficulty proxy. Maybe they’ve bought into the romanticization of competition. But it’s important to ask at what point it makes sense to get away from competition and shift your life trajectory towards monopoly.

Just look at high school, which, for Stanford students and the like, was not a model of perfect competition. It probably looked more like extreme asymmetric warfare; it was machine guns versus bows and arrows. No doubt that’s fun for the top students. But then you get to college and the competition amps up. Even more so during grad school. Things in the professional world are often worst of all; at every level, people are just competing with each other to get ahead. This is tricky to talk about. We have a pervasive ideology that intense, perfect competition makes the best world. But in many ways that’s deeply problematic.

One problem with fierce competition is that it’s demoralizing. Top high school students who arrive at elite universities quickly find out that the competitive bar has been raised. But instead of questioning the existence of the bar, they tend to try to compete their way higher. That is costly. Universities deal with this problem in different ways. Princeton deals with it through enormous amounts of alcohol, which presumably helps blunt the edges a bit. Yale blunts the pain through eccentricity by encouraging people to pursue extremely esoteric humanities studies. Harvard—most bizarrely of all—sends its students into the eye of the hurricane. Everyone just tries to compete even more. The rationalization is that it’s actually inspiring to be repeatedly beaten by all these high-caliber people. We should question whether that’s right.

Of all the top universities, Stanford is the farthest from perfect competition. Maybe that’s by chance or maybe it’s by design. The geography probably helps, since the east coast doesn’t have to pay much attention to us, and vice versa. But there’s a sense of structured heterogeneity too; there’s a strong engineering piece, the strong humanities piece, and even the best athletics piece in the country. To the extent there’s competition, it’s often a joke. Consider the Stanford-Berkeley rivalry. That’s pretty asymmetric too. In football, Stanford usually wins. But take something that really matters, like starting tech companies. If you ask the question, “Graduates from which of the two universities started the most valuable company?” for each of the last 40 years, Stanford probably wins by something like 40 to zero. It’s monopoly capitalism, far away from a world of perfect competition. 

The perfect illustration of competition writ large is war. Everyone just kills everyone. There are always rationalizations for war. Often it’s been romanticized, though perhaps not so much anymore. But it makes sense: if life really is war, you should spend all your time either getting ready for it or doing it. That’s the Harvard mindset.

But what if life isn’t just war? Perhaps there’s more to it than that. Maybe you should sometimes run away. Maybe you should sheath the sword and figure out something else to do. Maybe “life is war” is just a strange lie we’re told, and competition isn’t actually as good as we assume it is.

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