Donald Trump. Saying it out loud could practically get you lynched in Silicon Valley. Still. Never mind that he won the election. Especially now that he won the election. Only one other name even comes close to drawing that kind of ire from the left-leaning Bay Area crowd: Peter Thiel.
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For the better part of 2016, the eccentric venture capitalist slash entrepreneur has been persona non grata in the Valley. Thiel’s first sin was bankrolling Hulk Hogan’s invasion of privacy suit that bankrupted Gawker Media and founder Nick Denton. Then he backed Trump for President. Everyone pretty much forgot all about Gawker after that.
Even though practically everyone who’s anyone in the tech industry – including most of the CEOs, entrepreneurs and investors Thiel worked with – supported Hillary Clinton, he wasn’t the least bit shy about backing her opponent. He went all in as a California delegate for Trump, a donor and a speaker at the RNC.
The Valley elite had a cow. They called for Facebook to drop Thiel from its board and lobbied Y Combinator to cut ties with him, to no avail. The insider-turned-outcast never flinched. And one week before the election, he walked into the lion’s den – the National Press Club in D.C. – and gave an impassioned speech on why he was behind Trump.
Talk about doubling down. Most in his position would shun the limelight. Avoid the controversy. Lay low and play it safe. Not Thiel. And, as the contrarian billionaire has done so many times before, he called it right. Now he serves as the Valley’s gatekeeper to the next U.S. President, an outcome I doubt even he could have foreseen.
Until his book Zero to One hit #1 on the New York Times bestseller list two years ago, few outside the Valley had ever heard of Thiel. But, practically everyone has heard of PayPal (PYPL), which he co-founded, not to mention Facebook (FB), LinkedIn (MSFT) and Yelp (YELP), where he was an early investor.
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As if that’s not enough evidence of the man’s uncanny ability to pick winners, Thiel’s venture arm, Founders Fund, has backed Airbnb, Lyft, Spotify and SpaceX. When cancer drug maker Stemcentrx is acquired by AbbVie, his VC firm stands to net more than $1 billion. And Palantir, which he cofounded, is now valued at $20 billion.
Peter Thiel is an entrepreneur’s entrepreneur. He’s a risk taker’s risk taker. But he doesn’t make high-risk bets and back unpopular causes for the reasons you might think. He’s not a contrarian for the sake of being one. He’s certainly not a thrill-seeker. He bets on a longshot when believes in the cause and he believes it’ll pay off. That’s his formula.
Thiel understands that there is no wisdom in crowds and nobody wins big by doing what everyone else is doing. “Thinking about how disturbingly herdlike people become in so many different contexts,” he once said, “As an investor-entrepreneur, I’ve always tried to be contrarian, to go against the crowd, to identify opportunities in places where people are not looking.”
Now a trusted advisor to the President-elect, the German born prodigy who immigrated to America with his parents as a young boy sat just to the left of Trump at a summit between his incoming administration and a dozen or so of tech’s most powerful executives, an event that Thiel played a key role in orchestrating.
Trump began the meeting by thanking his Silicon Valley surrogate – not just for putting so much on the line on behalf of the campaign, but for his extraordinary ability to see what others can’t.
“I want to start by thanking Peter because he saw something very early, maybe before we saw it and of course he’s known for that in a different way, but he’s been so terrific and so outstanding,” Trump said. “He’s ahead of the curve, and I want to thank you, man. You’re a very special guy.”
Indeed, he is.