Mar 14, 2015

No Work™: My response to Peter Thiel's big question

Peter Thiel’s now-famous question that forms the foundation of his book Zero to One is this: what is one thing you believe to be true that most do not?

A major thesis of his book is basically his answer to his own question. He believes entrepreneurs should not chase competitive markets where they might provide great value but capture very little of it. Rather they should find monopolies in (usually) smaller lesser-known markets where they can capture a large portion of the value they provide. In short, competition is for losers and monopolies are for winners. Of course, the long-held “truth” he is calling bullshit on is: that winners win by facing the competition. Instead, Peter believes winners win by avoiding competition.

I totally agree Peter. However, I’m not writing this post to talk about why I agree, because that would be boring. Rather, I’d like to present a contrarian belief of my own -

  • Long held “truth”: winners win by working hard.
  • My belief: winners win by doing no work.

A simple way to see this is to compare manual work with knowledge work. More specifically, let’s compare laying brick at a construction site versus building a website for a client. Both activities face a similar degree of their own respective market competition but have striking dischord in the ratio of value captured to work done. For the same 8-hour day of labor, it is literally more work (taking the physics definition of work: force exerted over a direction of movement) to lay bricks all day than it is to think and type out the HTML/CSS/JS needed to build a website. Yet you will make more per hour building a website than you will laying brick. Furthermore, you have more creative latitude in the average website contract (varying style, user experience, etc.) than you do in laying brick (directly implementing the architect’s plan). When building a website, you are free to creatively use shortcuts and simplifications and pursue tradeoffs that speed the process with no degredation in the quality of your work. Latitude in creativity also gives you the added benefit of differentiation and building personal brand when building a website, making it likely for you to land more clients with less work to acquire them in the future. Even if you lack creativity, copy-and-paste and bootstrapped work are not uncommon in the website building industry, whereas you cannot copy and paste an existing brick structure in brick-laying endeavors. Did you fuck up the website? No worries, change a few files and lines, and all you’ve lost is time and have incurred no materials costs. There is a clear upper limit on how well you can perform brick-laying work: you might be really good at it but you probably won’t be able to lay many more than 10,000 bricks in a work day. What improvements you do make to your craft are incremental, and they are not something the brick-laying market pays quantum leaps more for. Contrast this to website building: leveling up your skills from basic HTML/CSS to adding rich functionality with Javascript gives you immense leverage in the value you can bring to a client. The market perceives and pays out that value exponentially - you may be paid 10x the amount for a richly interactive and engaging website than you would be paid for a static non-interactive one. Simply said: if you improve your brick laying, at best it can translate to linear improvement in your capture of value; but when you improve your website building skills, it could mean an exponential improvement in your capture of value. This effect is even further amplified in the sense that you are doing exponentially less work (just measure and compare those Netwon-meters!) when building a website - this gives you two orders of exponential benefit!!! Doing less work (literally) is clearly the winner here.

I didn’t choose the brick-laying example by accident - it’s from one of my favorite movies: Good Will Hunting. Will says “What’s wrong with laying brick? That’s someone’s house I’m building.” This No Work™ argument isn’t saying that there’s no value in laying brick. In fact, there is tremendous value to society for laying brick. But just as Peter Thiel has identified that tremendous value is created by the airline industry for society yet it is excruciatingly difficult for airlines to capture that value created because the profit is competed away; I would similarly argue that while laying brick creates tremendous value for society, it is excruciatingly difficult for brick layers to capture that value because the profit is worked away.

So let’s move on to another example: successful companies in Silicon Valley. Specifically, let’s hone in on Airbnb. Airbnb’s $13 billion valuation has become the subject of great hair pulling and frustration among the incumbents of the hotel industry - it has exceeded the valuation of the Hilton Group. Yet Airbnb does exponentially less work than Hilton does. The Hilton hotels staff 100x more employees that do significantly more manual labor (think of all those sheets and towels cleaned and replaced, and the tooth brushes they run up to the rooms!) and in-person contact with customers on a daily basis than Airbnb’s staff ever needed to in its entire existence. Hilton’s 100x headcount is exacerbated by the inevitable management overhead and oversight it creates. Additionally, most of those hotel workers perform unskilled labor at minimum wage rates and hence their motivations are guided by selfish needs to get by on their income rather than the average Airbnb employee’s selfless desires to provide value and innovate for their employer. This is all just human nature but nonetheless the circumstances create a giant gap in the value of work at Airbnb vs. Hilton - in fact it is an exponential gap. The Hilton employees’ capacity for innovation and value creation has been worked away, whereas Airbnb does comparatively No Work™ and hence can spend time on value-add initatives. Finally, Hilton owns and operates actual real estate while Airbnb doesn’t own a single building. The ownership and management of real estate creates more net work for Hilton because it now inherently needs to spend time fighting the fires of excess room inventory, financing with large debt structures, locational risk involved in real estate development, and other “today” issues for which solving them doesn’t add value but merely maintains value. Again we see that Hilton’s profit has been worked away.

Another way to observe the exponential value captured by doing No Work™ is in comparing service industries with product industries. In a service industry, what you sell is your work. Therefore it is inherently unscalable because human work output is not mass-manufacturable: its marginal value captured equals marginal work done. You are literally trading time for money. It is a horrible deal with lower odds of success than playing Vegas because in this trade, the house wins over your relativistically impossible endeavor to create more time with which to barter for more value. However in a product industry, mass manufacturing gives you the advantage of being able to capture value independent of time spent and work done.

This is why if you look at the list of portfolio companies of top VC firms, you will not find any companies that perform services themselves. Instead, smart investors invest only in product companies that can mass-manufacture their product and do no marginal work to capture more value. Successful portfolio companies either broker services (the act of brokering a service is a mass-manufacturable activity in of itself) or sell a mass-manufactured product. The common theme here is that there is no marginal work needed to capture more value. Put another (more contrarian) way, VCs only invest in companies that do No Work™ and hence capture a large chunk of value. Even if a service company has profits, smart investors know to avoid that kind of fake profit. They know what real profit is: profit that has not been worked away.

There is nothing fundamentally wrong with working hard. Hard work is a great tenet to live by and an important American virtue. But our society’s tendency to equivocally deify hard work leads to the same sheep-like behavior problem as deifying competition. Eventually people forget that if they are working too hard to capture value, chances are there is an exponentially better way to capture value with exponentially less work.