Zero To One: How Blake Masters Went From Being Peter Thiel’s Student To Co-Author

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In the spring of 2012, Peter Thiel taught a class called CS 183: Startup, at Stanford. One of the students in Thiel’s class, Blake Masters, posted detailed notes on his personal blog that became an instant hit in the tech community.

Now, Masters and Thiel have transformed those class notes into a book: “Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future.” This fall, Y Combinator is teaching a class at Stanford called CS 183B, and it features Thiel as a guest speaker.

What follows is a lightly edited excerpt of a conversation with Masters about Peter Thiel’s startup class, and how he went from being Thiel’s student to co-author.

TC: Let’s start at the beginning. What attracted you to taking Peter Thiel’s class?

Blake Masters: The CS 183 class that I took the notes in was actually not the first class I took with Peter…I met him first in January 2011. This class was just at the law school, but a small seminar… after like four or five classes you realize here’s a guy who’s thought a lot about different stuff. [Masters then worked for Thiel at Founders Fund in the summer of 2011, an experience he calls “a crash course in thinking about the future.”]

He was an informal mentor at that point. In January or February 2012, my last year at law school, we were emailing back and forth, and [Thiel] says, “Oh by the way, I’m teaching a class in the spring. If you can take it, it’s all about what I know about startups.”

I didn’t take any notes in the first class. I didn’t want to make that same mistake.

TC: What did you think of the course?

Masters: Right away there was a lot of energy in the room. Stanford is becoming such a — not a trade school for tech companies, I think that’s overblown — but you can tell it’s in Silicon valley. The room is totally full. Everyone’s excited. I felt like there was an unusual intensity in the room. And I go, “Okay, I have my raw chicken scratch notes, why don’t I just polish them up into an essay so that I can use this later?”

TC: What was the reaction to them?

Masters: I don’t know if the first one hit the front page of Hacker News or if that was the second class, but people started emailing me about it. I was pretty surprised — not because it wasn’t good content. I guess I was surprised at how many people were interested given that it was being filtered through a random student.

People clearly want to know what Peter has to say. There was never any one place where you could go and read all his thoughts. People could see this project that all of a sudden offered a coherent and complete or near complete set of Peter’s thoughts on entrepreneurship.

TC: So now, a few years after the class, you and Peter are publishing this book based on your notes and his class. How did that come about?

Masters: There was definitely a multi-month period where we were looking at how many people continued to engage with the notes. It wasn’t immediately obvious that we would make a book out of it.

I started seeing all these fake PDF versions. One guy even tried to charge for them. I started thinking: could we sort of edit the notes, professionally set them, add custom graphics, basically just make an e-book as an indie side project? We talked it through; it didn’t really feel right.

When we revisited the idea, it felt like everybody who was going to find out about the notes already had, and yet you need a lot more people to really get these ideas where we wanted them to go. We sort of agreed to explore the book project. The notes were great for what they are, but Peter’s always been a big reader, and books really help him organize his thinking.

The whole reason he taught the class is he wanted to get these ideas out; the exercise of going through and trying to crystalize everything into one curriculum made it much tighter. And the book is the next verison of that [tightening].

TC: How is the book different from the class notes and atmosphere of that class?

Masters: I think if you read the notes, to their credit, I think you can get some good ideas. But the clear prose of the book gives you direct access to the thought the author is trying to communicate.

The book has to be like half the words, literally. So if you’re interested in what Peter Thiel thinks about business and want to profit from his sustained thinking, the book has more care and time and energy in it.

TC: What’s the plan moving forward with this book?

Masters: I’ve enjoyed being able to help get these ideas out. I definitely know that the book is not going to last forever; at the same time, I don’t want it to be transactional where I do three weeks of touring and talking, and then it’s done. Because I suspect there’s a lot more to do with this stuff.

I have startup ideas but they’re half baked. Broadly speaking, I’m interested obviously in startups, investing in startups, and actually running them.

Zero to One is available now.

Disclosure: I work at Khosla Ventures, which invested (alongside Peter Thiel) in Judicata, which Masters co-founded. However, this piece is solely focused on Zero to One, and Thiel’s startup class, not Judicata.

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