PayPal co-founder and first Facebook outside investor Peter Thiel spoke to Duke students in March about innovation and entrepreneurial endeavors, encouraging interested students to find their places in niche markets. As part of the sold-out event, students had the opportunity to ask him questions, as well as listen to his advice.
Thiel focused on how competition and capitalism intersect to create opportunities for aspiring entrepreneurs. He advised students to embrace technological progress and pursue smaller markets since they offer more opportunities than do larger, more saturated ones. He used PayPal as an example – it went from 0 percent market share to 40 percent within its first six months in 1998 when payment platforms will relatively new. Companies succeed, he said, when they find an unfilled market sector – they fail when they repeat what others have done.
To bolster beginning entrepreneurs, Thiel runs the Thiel Fellowship, an organization that helps students pay off their college debt and start a business. As part of this process, he said, he encourages them to concentrate on linking research to consumer needs and teaches them how to stay focused on their original creative ideas. The University and other like-focused institutions should strive for the same thing, he added.
Pairing investigational work with a current want is the best path for successful innovation, he said. But, for entrepreneurial efforts to reach their full potential, markets must more actively embrace science, and researchers must learn how to best promote their own work and creations.