Hamish Fletcher

Business reporter for the NZ Herald

Peter Thiel - A friend with very deep pockets

Facebook billionaire Peter Thiel envisions this country as a 'tech mecca'. Photo / AP
Facebook billionaire Peter Thiel envisions this country as a 'tech mecca'. Photo / AP

There is a chorus of voices, both contemporary and historic, praising New Zealand as a land of plenty. As far back as 1890, Thomas Bracken labelled it "God's Own Country", and the phrase has stuck.

More than a century on, Tourism New Zealand's "100 per cent Pure" campaign maintains this image.

Now, Facebook billionaire Peter Thiel envisions this country as a "tech mecca".

"New Zealand is already a utopia. But Silicon Valley and New Zealand can learn a lot from each other and we want to make that happen," he told a San Francisco news service.

His high hopes are backed up by investments he has made here.

In October 2010, Thiel's New Zealand investment company Valar Ventures put $4 million into Xero, a developer of online accounting software, which exports its technology globally.

As well as taking a 3 per cent stake in Xero, Thiel also sits on its advisory board alongside chief executive Rod Drury and Trade Me founder Sam Morgan. Thiel's involvement is believed to have doubled Xero's share prices.

In Valar's second round of investment in New Zealand, Thiel injected an undisclosed amount this month into Pacific Fibre, the company planning the second trans-pacific internet cable linking New Zealand with the world. As with Xero, Pacific Fibre hopes Thiel's involvement will catch the eye of other investors with deep pockets.

The name "Valar" has a curious link to New Zealand, being characters out of J.R.R Tolkien's Middle Earth, the fantasy world in which the Lord of the Rings films are set.

Valar are spiritual beings which came to Middle Earth to develop and mould it.

Others certainly acknowledge the value he could bring to New Zealand start-ups.

Kiwi entrepreneur and multi-millionaire Derek Handley said the Government underestimates what Thiel and others like him could offer New Zealand.

"You just need ten Peter Thiels and you could change this country for ever. No one seems to realise that, there's moaning about this year's Budget, but that dude has more money that the whole of Auckland," Handley said.

"[They] could do more than five sets of Government, if the one Government realised how important they can be," he said.

Thiel, 43, is known for picking winners.

In 2000, he co-founded PayPal, an internet service which allows web-users to purchase goods without revealing their credit card details directly to the seller.

It was bought by internet auction site eBay for US$1.5 billion ($1.9 billion) just two years later, with Thiel pocketing US$55 million from the buyout.

In 2004, he took a chance with burgeoning social networking platform Facebook, putting forward US$500,000 to help build expand the website.

Facebook founder and chief executive Mark Zuckerberg reportedly turns to Thiel for advice.

Facebook is now valued as high as US$50 billion, with Thiel's stake amounting to over a billion.

You don't need to be a fund manager to see that's a good return.

Thiel's main financial pursuit is his company Clarium Capital, which he founded in 1998 and still presides over.

Although it has netted him a large amount of wealth, Clarium has suffered bad fortune since 2008 and the company's investments have dropped from US$7.8 billion to just US$681 million in 2010.

Not that Thiel is in any danger of going bust - in 2010 Forbes ranked him the 365th richest American, estimating his net worth at US$1.1 billion.

Thiel has another connection to New Zealand - the Herald understands he has purchased an exclusive Parnell property through Auckland real-estate agent Graham Wall.

It is also believed Thiel has privately met Prime Minister John Key.

But while the Facebook billionaire may not be famous in the South Pacific, both his success and his controversial views are widely known in the United States.

A critic of formal education, Thiel is known for paying promising undergraduates US$100,000 to drop out of university to become entrepreneurs.

In a video podcast on the website BigThink.com, Thiel said university, and student debt, can hold young achievers back.

"The idea of becoming an entrepreneur is something that is not taught very well in school and is something that people should try to do earlier on," he said.

"Technological innovation requires risk, it requires sacrifice and it may be very hard to do that if you have, you know, this enormous debt burden to try to repay. It's hard to start a great company if you bought a big house, and it may be hard to start a big company if you are burdened down with enormous amounts of student loans." Thiel himself attended California's Stanford University, where he "majored in philosophy and minored in political incorrectness" according to Forbes magazine.

Leaving with a law degree in 1992, he worked as a clerk in a law firm for less than a year before taking a job trading derivatives with Credit Suisse in New York.

Importantly, it was his time at Stanford that moulded Thiel's staunch libertarian ethos - so far to the right that it makes Roger Douglas look moderate.

For Thiel, the market is all - and anything that gets in the way of free enterprise is an unnecessarily nuisance.

In an essay Thiel wrote in 2009, he stressed that democracy has failed to safeguard "true" capitalist, freedom.

"I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible," he wrote.

"Capitalism simply is not that popular with the crowd."

Although somewhat bleak about the state of global politics, Thiel does have hope, but said people need to focus on the future, rather than present problems.

"Life is long, it doesn't end in six months or three years. And so people should be encouraged to think about long term horizons," Thiel told BigThink.

The future, is not something that Thiel wants to sit around and wait for, he'd like to meet it.

"Because there are no truly free places left in our world I have focused my efforts on new technologies that may create a new space for freedom," he wrote in 2009.

Thiel imagines these pockets of freedom will prosper in cyberspace, an area where he has already invested considerable time and effort, but also in outerspace and "seasteading".

Seasteading involves "settling the oceans" with floating self-governing micro-nations that would be outside the realm of current jurisdictions.

Thiel is serious about seasteading and has put in US$850,000 into researching the concept.

Much like mid-20th century science fiction, Thiel is also interested in colonising our solar system, hoping the final frontier will see the free market prosper.

"We are in a deadly race between politics and technology," he wrote, justifying the need for action.

"The fate of our world may depend on the effort of a single person who builds or propagates the machinery of freedom that makes the world safe for capitalism."

- NZ Herald

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