20 Under 20 Retreat

During the past couple days the Thiel Foundation hosted a retreat for the 20 Under 20 Thiel Fellows at the Headlands Institute in Golden Gate National Park, California. While it’s ironic the camp area could hardly support cell phone technology, the fellows flew in from around the country for a special bonding trip and enriching entrepreneurial talks.

The fellows were announced last month, and have been granted $100,000 to forgo college enrollment during the fellowship and devote full attention to their project. We are working with the purpose of making scientific breakthroughs and technological advancement for the increased quality of life of humans, which leads to continuous economic growth. The projects can are mostly a combination of making intensive progress by building new technology and then extensive progress through globalization and scale. Contrary to the popular debate around this program, hardly any of the fellows disagree with the social or experiential value in attending college. The common belief among those participating in the program is that the time to pursue a new venture is now, because it may be either too late or not possible in the rapidly evolving word of technology. Simply waiting for society to accept that you have dedicated an extended period of time pursuing greater intelligence is unnecessary.

To put this in perspective, consider the evolution of humans. The first modern human skeletons appeared on earth over 200,000 years ago. The pace at which innovation occurred was extremely slow, tens of thousands of years. Even during the time which some of the first revolutionary thinkers Isaac Newton or Galileo lived, they were unable to witness innovation within a lifetime. Applying their findings and spreading innovation simply took too long for them see while they lived. Now jump forward a few hundred years and consider Facebook. The longest Facebook friendships are just seven years, and this social revolution makes us wonder what the “old” days must have been like without a social life online. Today, with only a handful of years and technical innovation, visionaries can change the world.

Jim O’Neil, President of the Thiel Foundation, made the interesting comparison to a young adult during the Middle Ages: A boy at the age of 14 would leave home to work as an apprentice to a skilled worker. Eventually he would master his craft and develop tangible skills for him to be productive in the workforce. Thus, the notion that a young adult must experience several costly years pursuing work unrelated to their future work is unnecessary. And the cost is steadily increasing: In the past thirty years the average cost of attending college has risen twice as much as the rate of inflation. Has the value obtained from attending college increased? No.

So, the common question arises: Where and how are these 24 audacious college dropouts going to obtain the intangible social benefit of attending college? There is of course some sacrifice with this answer, but with the help of this movement and Thiel Foundation network, each of the fellows have support in one of the toughest emotional aspects of leaving a safe and comfortable setting.

In the typical college environment, students have easy access to professors during their “office hours”, some of the smartest people in their fields of study. In the real business world the reality is that people are busy, and it’s rare for anyone to have hours set-aside during their workweek to provide help. If you’ve prepared yourself with the necessary “Street Smarts”, then its inherent that you would go out and select the – mentors – who are helpful for you, and then arrange time to meet. Yes, the myth is absolutely true: “It’s not about what you know, it’s about who you know”.

The closest comparison to formal education that can be made with the Thiel Fellowship is a student pursuing an independent study and surrounding themselves with self-selected teachers who have experience to guide them. However, in the real world our customers decide the grading criteria, and the evaluation is determined by one of two outcomes: Profitable or not profitable.

Getting to profitability is no easy task, and it’s not uncommon for a new business to be unprofitable for over two years. A few of the speakers in the past couple days had a few practical tips from their experience building successful businesses and managing life as a startup founder. Here are some thoughts from my conversation with Peter Thiel:

His speech contained a number of personal anecdotes about building PayPal and entering a market with relatively few competitors for the highest probability of domination/monopoly. He advises that you offer a unique value to customers that’s so compelling they would not go anywhere else, even if they became just a little bit dissatisfied. And being “unique” means much more than simply defining your own small niche that is attractive to only a few customers. Here’s an example he used:

Starting a restaurant is relatively easy. If you have $50,000, you can rent your space and start selling food. However, it’s incredibly difficult to be “unique” in the market for food. Being the only Peruvian restaurant in New Jersey is not unique, because the market is for food, not Peruvian cuisine.

Other interesting activities included the team-building hike through the park and camera-less memocracy social. (A documentary team and the 60-Minutes film crew tagged along to most other events.) It was a really great experience to get to know the personality of the other fellows and share quick tidbits of information that help drastically increase productivity and efficiency. For example, the hike was great for understanding the necessary traits to lead a team through unforeseen challenges. The social talks provided valuable insight into daily time and goal management.  There was plenty of practical information shared to get started on the right foot everyone begins their journey in the next few months. I’m looking forward to learning along the journey, and officially begin my unofficial education.


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06 2011