Ask Peter Thiel Anything

Thursday, September 11th, 2014

Peter Thiel is doing a Reddit AMA. Some highlights:

  • Most people deal with aging by some strange combination of acceptance and denial. I think the psychological blocks to thinking about aging run very deep, and we need to think about it in order to really fight it.
  • The zero-sum world [The Social Network] portrayed has nothing in common with the Silicon Valley I know, but I suspect it’s a pretty accurate portrayal of the dysfunctional relationships that dominate Hollywood.
  • Start with focusing on a small market and dominate that market first.
  • What did you think when you first met Elon Musk? Very smart, very charismatic, and incredibly driven — a very rare combination, since most people who have one of these traits learn to coast on the other two.
    It was kind of scary to be competing against his startup in Palo Alto in Dec 1999-Mar 2000.
  • Is Palantir a front for the CIA? No, the CIA is a front for Palantir.
  • If technology involves doing more with less, than US health care (like US education) is the core of “anti-technology” in this country: For the last four decades, we have been spending more and more for the same (or even for less).
  • At 22, I didn’t think it was important to meet people.
  • In your view, has the Thiel Fellowship been a success? Yes, on both a micro and a macro scale.
    Micro: the 83 fellows have collectively raised $63 million, and a number of their companies are tracking towards solid Series B venture rounds. Almost all of them did and learned far more than they would have in college.
    Macro: we started an important debate about the education bubble. Student debt is over $1 trillion in this country, and much of that money has gone to pay for lies that people tell about how great the education they received was.
  • I like the genre of past books written about the future, e.g.: Francis Bacon, The New Atlantis; JJ Servan-Schreiber, The American Challenge; Norman Angell, The Great Illusion; Neal Stephenson, The Diamond Age.
  • In the Soviet Union, chess was considered a sport — and I think that’s the one thing the communists got right.
  • I don’t agree with the libertarian description of the NSA as “big brother.” I think Snowden revealed something that looks more like the Keystone Kops and very little like James Bond.
  • Most people believe that capitalism and competition are synonyms, and I think they are opposites. A capitalist accumulates capital, and in a world of perfect competition all the capital gets competed away: The restaurant industry in SF is very competitive and very non-capitalistic (e.g., very hard way to make money), whereas Google is very capitalistic and has had no serious competition since 2002.
  • PayPal built a payment system but failed in its goal in creating a “new world currency” (our slogan from back in 2000). Bitcoin seems to have created a new currency (at least on the level of speculation), but the payment system is badly lacking.
    I will become more bullish on Bitcoin when I see the payment volume of Bitcoin really increase.
  • What is your view on Neoreaction? Sounds like a self-contradiction — if you’re reactionary, why do you need the “neo?”
  • I think there’s been a Gresham’s Law in science funding in this country, as the political people who are nimble in the art of writing government grants have gradually displaced the eccentric and idiosyncratic people who typically make the best scientists. The eccentric university professor is a species that is going extinct fast.
  • If our great expectations about the future are not realized, then we need to save way more than we are doing today. China (with 40% savings) is perhaps more “rational” than the US (with about 0% savings), at least in a world of general stagnation.
  • Sociopathic investor behavior that worked shockingly well in the 1980s and 90s will work much less well in today’s more transparent and founder-centric world.
    As an investor, I think one must always maintain a certain amount of humility. There is only so much we can do to help the companies in which we invest. And because of this, the act of making the investment (rather than the ability to fix things later) remains by far the most important thing we do.
  • A sense of mission is critical, but I think the word “social” is problematically ambiguous: it can mean either (1) good for society, or (2) seen as good by society.
    In the second meaning, it leads to me-too copycat companies. I think the field of social entrepreneurship is replete with these, and that this is one of the reasons these businesses have not been that successful to date.
  • Biggest mistake ever was not to do the Series B round at Facebook.
    General lesson: Whenever a tech startup has a strong up round led by a top tier investor (Accel counts), it is generally still undervalued. The steeper the up round, the greater the undervaluation.
  • Yes, I think [Henry] George is a really interesting thinker. The idea that we should tax land heavily (and perhaps not tax anything else at all) is very interesting, since many of the bad monopolies in our society involve the unholy coalition of urban slumlords and pseudo-environmentalists.
  • I think Andreessen is half-right: Snowden is both a hero and a traitor.
    It is really unfortunate that there were no internal checks in our system, and so it took something like Snowden breaking all the rules for us to have a serious discussion about the NSA.
  • Even when one understands that exponential growth and exponential forces are incredibly important, it is still hard to internalize this. PayPal was growing at 7%/day at the time of the launch (Oct 99-Apr 2000, from 24 users to 1 million), and we did not fully fathom the rocket we were riding.
  • I do not find myself fully on the side of any of our political leaders — because none of them are fully on my side.


  1. S says:

    Tax having babies, not owning land.

  2. James James says:

    “in a world of perfect competition all the capital gets competed away”

    More accurately, the above-average returns to capital get competed away. Capitalists still get to make a “normal” profit, and the capital itself certainly does not get destroyed.

  3. James James says:

    “The steeper the up round, the greater the undervaluation.”

    That’s a fascinating lesson.

  4. James James says:

    “What is the Straussian interpretation of Zero to One?”

    “Perhaps you should not become an entrepreneur…”


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