Book review | The Contrarian: Peter Thiel and the pursuit of power in Silicon Valley Max Chafkin

Quick quiz: what is common between Facebook, PayPal, Quora, Spotify, Airbnb, Slide.com, Linkedin, Spotify, SpaceX, Quora, Asana, Yelp, Palantir, Metamed, Yammer, Stripe, Rypple?

It’s their investor, billionaire venture capitalist Peter Thiel. And even given all of these popular start-ups he’s invested in, there’s no public figure as mysterious as he is. This is why his biography, The Contrarian: The pursuit of power from Peter Thiel and Silicon Valley, is bound to be an interesting read. Someone who not only had a close-up view of some of the most interesting tech companies of our time, but as an investor, built some of them to generate spectacular returns. Add to that his legendary skills for navigating Silicon Valley, Wall Street and Washington, the three great corridors that define success in the American capitalist world as we know it and it’s a story we all wait to hear.

The biographer Chafkin, whose years Bloomberg Business Week surely gave him years of access to material about Thiel and his quest for wealth and power, unraveling Thiel’s life like an onion, little by little, first as an intellectual child, then as a tech investor, then as a hedge fund manager and finally as a right-wing political influencer.

Strange ability

As a child, Thiel’s favorite game was blitz, a form of speed chess, and Thiel would spend hours playing dozens of five-minute consecutive games, absorbing the lessons of the intense brain sport. In addition to the strategic acumen he developed to prepare for his opponents’ next move, the game taught him to make decisions quickly and to conjure up compelling contrarian arguments as a negotiating tool. As an anecdote, Chafkin cites an encounter Thiel had with a police officer when he was released after a speeding ticket where he argued that the concept of speed limits made no sense since cars were propelled at speeds well above the limits set on any road, and that was in fact unconstitutional and an infringement of freedom. The fact that he got away with this argument with just one warning is testament to his ability to navigate sticky situations in his business and political life.

Chafkin provides a wonderful commentary on how Thiel as a hedge fund manager and his rival turned partner Elon Musk as an entrepreneur viewed money and power. He explains how Thiel harshly negotiated the merger of his small finance company with Musk’s company to form Paypal, even though they had irreconcilable differences as individuals. a million dollar McLaren car, owned by Musk, at a meeting. Due to Musk’s reckless driving, the car crashed although the two survived. Thiel was completely shaken up and decided not to work with Musk anymore. Read the book to find out how they teamed up again to claim their respective glories in business.

The Jobs value system

Unlike Steve Jobs, whose value system was to maximize human potential, by getting customers to buy Apple products to transform their lives and their world, Chafkin defines Thiel’s value system as a pursuit of market power in using regulatory loopholes and spanning Silicon Valley. sense of propriety. Chafkin attributes all of Thiel’s activities to “blitzscaling,” the rapid creation of businesses, and causes so much disruption that the winner can take it all. This philosophy, called the PayPal Mafia Philosophy, has been shown at PayPal to spread at such a rate that the difference between its first offer from eBay to buy it for $ 300 million has turned into a final offer. $ 1.5 billion in a few months, giving Thiel a 4% stake, a pretty good amount of money, good enough for him to start a hedge fund.

Thiel’s worldview was that if you had one good thing and moved with conviction, nothing else mattered. Chafkin says Thiel often started companies and pushed their business models to flaunt the standards, then changed the rules and prepared to get rich in the new order.

Like any investor, Thiel can perhaps count Tesla and YouTube as two investments that he gave a regrettable pass. Although he teamed up with Musk again for Space X, which has now become an attractive proposition. Thiel used a kind of soft power, dirty tricks that sparked events that ultimately took place beyond his control and enriched him and strengthened his influence. Eventually, after the 9/11 attacks, Thiel used PayPal’s data and security technology to create Palantir, a data analytics company that helped government agencies like the CIA and NYPD track citizen behavior. , sort of forerunner of the surveillance economy and become a government supplier.

The jury is still out on whether the pursuit of valuation by the start-up ecosystem by monopolizing the markets is a sustainable model, but many of the technological battles with public policies that Thiel has waged still rage and do not give in. with easy answers. . Nowadays, Silicon Valley often feels in the grip of a powerful group of monopolists, Thiel being at the top.

Hollywood and hypocrisy

One of the landmark cases that put Thiel firmly in the Republican fold was his pursuit of media Gawker, a nascent and transgressive web post filled with stories of politics, power, sex, Hollywood and hypocrisy, who once said that Marissa Mayer, an executive at Google used to date Larry Page, the CEO of Google. Gawker had made the mistake of publicly declaring Thiel gay, and Thiel left no effort to bring down the media house using all his strength and muscle in Washington and Silicon Valley.

However, the book fails to give a balanced view of Thiel. Chafkin secretly manages to portray Peter Thiel as a villain who uses all the tricks of the book in the singular pursuit of wealth.

With easy writing and tons of research material, The Contrarian is indeed an incisive portrait of a technological industry whose explosive growth and power are both exciting and controversial.

Book: The Contrarian: Peter Thiel and the Pursuit of Silicon Valley Power Max Chafkin

  • Publisher: Bloomsbury
  • Pages: 362
  • Price: Rs 545

Check out the book on Amazon

(Naveen Chandra runs a regional film studio)

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