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Zero to One: The Secret Question

Zero to One: The Secret Question
Source: https://medium.com/@chris.verdence/startups-should-be-built-on-secrets-143a8416e737

This note is a part of a series that presents ideas from the book, Zero To One, where I have shared seven questions that all startups must answer. In this note, we open up the third question in Thiel's list: The Durability Question.

The Secret Question - Have you identified a unique opportunity that others don’t see?

Another powerful idea in Zero to One is around secrets. Theil explains that all successful companies are built on some beautiful secrets that no one realized in the beginning but the founders of the company did. The secret is the heart of all the other six questions and essentially the job of founders is to find these secrets in the real world. For instance, Thiel says that the secret behind the success of Tesla was that Tesla knew that it was fashion that drove the automobile industry and the clean-tech industry. Hence, they decided to make electric cars cool. Tesla is one of the very few clean-tech companies that has reached staggering success in the 21st century.

Thiel gives some perspective on these secrets so that you can find your own.

Why don't people look for secrets?

Thiel points out that people often are illusioned to think that out of all secrets, those that were to be found have been found in the past and the ones that are left would be extremely difficult to crack. Imagine how when we study scientific theorems we tend to believe that if there was a meaningful theorem not known yet then either it would be very difficult to find or else it would have already been found. In the above axis, people essentially believe that there are no secrets to be found, either they are conventions or they are mysteries.

However, this is far from the truth. Secrets reveal themselves to those who come looking for them. Most people make the mistake that they do not go out looking for secrets. Thiel encourages us all to be inspired to build the future and embark on our journey to find our own secrets.

The nature secrets and the people secrets

Theil makes a distinction between two types of secrets. The first one is the nature secrets that are pertaining to how things work and what technology can do for us. The second one are the people secrets, that is majorly concerned with how people think and what people desire. Both secrets are important for business. To find these secrets you need to be curious about the nature around you and about the lives of the people around you. That is essentially how you find secrets.

What to do with secrets?

Theil makes it clear that any successful business is built on a secret hidden from the outside world and any secret is essentially a conspiracy to change the world. Hence, when you find a secret be careful to share it only with those that you need to because every time you share the secret with someone they become your co-conspirators.

What will the future be like?

Thiel wraps up the book with a discussion on where will we head towards in the future. He outlines the four possibilities for a future and expresses his concerns on the same.

  1. Recurrent Collapse: That in simple harmonic motion we will collapse and rise again just like a phoenix. Thiel doesn’t believe this to be very unlikely.
  2. Plateau: That we will reach a certain point and then technological innovations will exhaust. Thiel believes that this is unlikely as well because competition will always push innovation.
  3. Extinction: That human civilisation will self-destruct itself and fail to survive. In this state, the question of how to plan for it is futile, there won’t be much to do.
  4. TakeOff: That we will continuously keep growing and reach a level of superhuman intelligence and finally attain singularity.


With the final question, we are finishing this series on Zero to One. I welcome all questions about the book and I would like to recommend it for all budding entrepreneurs to read. I am generally interested in getting to know stories where businesses found an interesting answer to any of these questions. Please feel free to connect with me if you have a story to tell or if you want to discuss some of the interesting stories I know.

The next book in book summaries will be Principles by Ray Dalio.