Billionaire, Peter Theil, Shares His Wisdom at Harvard Business School

It was kind of ironic that Peter Thiel, who gives $100,000 to young entrepreneurs to forgo college, spent yesterday afternoon in front of a packed house at one of the world’s most prestigious universities… Harvard Business School.  What was he doing there?  Was he looking to recruit more college students away from the Ivy League?  Unlikely, as the real agenda behind his visit was to promote his upcoming book “Zero to One.” 

HBS Professor Bill Sahlman sat down with Theil who is a Co-Founder of PayPal, first outside investor of Facebook (which ultimately landed him ~$1B), Co-Founder of the Founders Fund, and Founder of the Thiel Fellowship, which essentially provides young aspiring entrepreneurs $100,000 to attack their business ideas instead of going to college. Here’s what the fellowship is all about as described in their words: 

“The Fellowship brings together some of the world’s most creative and motivated young people, and helps them bring their most ambitious projects to life. Thiel Fellows are given a grant of $100,000 to focus on their work, their research, and their self-education while outside of university… Rather than just studying, you’re doing.” 

Thiel describes the origin of and story behind the book, “Zero to One,” with the following: 

In 2012 I taught a class at Stanford called Computer Science 183: Startup, in which I told my students what I know about the world and how to change it. Blake Masters, then a law student at Stanford, took detailed notes on the class and posted them online. People read and discussed them widely, on the Stanford campus, and even in the New York Times. 

Blake’s notes captured the excitement in the room, but there’s no reason why the future should happen only at Stanford, or in college, or in Silicon Valley. To start a wider conversation, we have refined and expanded on the best ideas from the class to make a richer, fresher, more readable text. Zero to One is about learning from Silicon Valley why and how the most valuable businesses in the world are the ones that solve problems in new ways rather than competing on well-trodden paths. We hope you enjoy and profit from it.” 


The HBS Rock Center for Entrepreneurship sponsored the event that followed a standard Q&A between Sahlman and Thiel, followed by some text-in questions from the audience. 

A few insights and opinions from Thiel stood out to me: 

* You are better off with founders who are bad at business, than having people with business knowledge without any vision. 

* When you enter a large market with vast competition, you might as well open a restaurant. 

* He doesn’t believe we are in a bubble. 

* Airbnb is the next $100B company. (He’s an investor). When Sahlman asked who in the room has used the online accommodations site, almost everyone raised their hand. 

* Too much emphasis is put on “luck.” 

Surprisingly, education wasn’t discussed at length. Thiel did say he would push charter schooling and, of course, is big on experiential learning.  While discussing MOOC’s, Thiel said Harvard shouldn’t worry as much as they do… Sahlman quickly let him know Harvard is NOT worried. 

Another interesting tidbit on the education front was Thiel’s thoughts about group projects, saying the workload is actually less intensive and doesn’t really help gain the true team experience one would hope. 

Then there was the topic of failure. 

Thiel says, “the value of failure is highly overrated. Every death is a tragedy, not some educational thing.” Adding, “it’s a preposterous myth we tell ourselves.” 

At this point, I found myself wishing for a more open forum or even debate platform.  If Thiel fully backs experiential learning, many would say that going through an entrepreneurial journey is the ultimate learning / business experience. 

In fact, Mark Twain is quoted on Thiel Fellowship home page: “I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.” 

Entrepreneurs of all walks of life have made it to high levels of success with varying strategies and opinions. I feel the failure topic is often discussed, and Thiel’s view of it was one I hadn’t heard, at least not that firmly. 

Perhaps I’ll have to pick up “Zero to One” to get his full thoughts on this and many other intriguing topics.

 Josh Boyle is Director of Community & Marketing, VentureFizz.  You can follow him on Twitter @jb_sid
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