What Facebook billionaire likes about NZ

By Hamish Fletcher

Peter Thiel believes NZ has more to offer than Australia - and he's putting his money on it. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Peter Thiel believes NZ has more to offer than Australia - and he's putting his money on it. Photo / Brett Phibbs

Facebook billionaire Peter Thiel is known for picking winners - so it's comforting to hear he's betting on New Zealand.

The country has an entrepreneurial flavour that Thiel finds appealing, and a business environment that suits him.

"There's a lot of incredibly talented people in New Zealand," said the American technology investor.

"You look around and you see the small businesses and it's very entrepreneurial. It's not dominated by [long traditions] that say 'this is the way you have to do things'.

"New Zealand has some very interesting opportunities and it's also a place that's pleasant to spend some time in."

Thiel's love affair with New Zealand began 18 years ago after an adventure tourism trip to Queenstown, but lately his trips have been a mix of business and pleasure.

In October 2010, the Californian invested $4 million in Xero's online accounting software through his local capital firm, Valar Ventures.

The 43-year-old also sits on Xero's advisory board with Trade Me founder Sam Morgan, and his involvement is believed to have doubled the company's share price.

In his second round of local investment, Thiel put an undisclosed amount in January into Pacific Fibre, the company planning to build a second submarine internet cable to Australia and the United States.

In April, he donated $1 million to help people affected by the Christchurch earthquake.

Thiel is also dipping into the New Zealand property market and after buying in Parnell he is looking at a Queenstown purchase.

Although he praises New Zealand's entrepreneurial culture, he thinks he can offer the "Silicon Valley" perspective the country lacks.

"Technology is fundamentally a globally competitive business where you have to try to do something that's the best in the world.

"It's very different from a lot of other businesses where it's good enough to be the best [locally]."

But Thiel stopped short of giving specific advice to Kiwi companies wanting to crack the US market.

"All great companies are unique. Every successful tech company is doing something that's not been done before, so you can't come up with a good [formula for success]," he said.

"The formula is that there is no formula."

Although many of the country's best and brightest are going to Australia to take advantage of its larger economy, Thiel thinks New Zealand has more to offer.

"Australia is a sort of strange developed country where it's all about exporting commodities to China. Talented people in Australia don't really need to try that hard.

"It seems like it's a plus, but I don't know if it is in the long term. I think New Zealand is more attractive on the tech side than Australia would be."

Thiel warned that if tech entrepreneurs wanted to prosper, they should not idolise profit - despite his own net worth of around US$1.5 billion.

"In the most successful companies, there tends to be some idea of how they can change the world or make the world a better place.

"The really successful companies are typically not the sort who tried to make money ... there has to be a compelling vision of how [the company] is going to change the world."

Thiel's own pursuits have certainly made their mark; he was the first outsider to invest in Facebook, putting US$500,000 into the fledgling company in 2004.

Now with more than 750 million members, Facebook is the world's most popular social network and is worth upwards of US$80 billion.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg reportedly still turns to Thiel for advice and his shareholding is thought be worth more than US$1 billion.

In the early days, he knew Zuckerberg was on to going a good thing, he said, but there was no way of predicting Facebook would become one of the biggest companies of the Web 2.0 era.

"It had all the ingredients. The engineering team was good on it, it was growing very fast and it only needed money to buy more computers because so many people wanted to use the service.

"It was all very positive but the question of how far it was going to go was not obvious at the time. We thought it would probably scale into the entire US college market."

Thiel was already a multimillionaire when he took a gamble on Facebook.

In 1998, he co-founded PayPal, an internet service which enables web users to buy goods without revealing their credit card details directly to the seller.

It was bought by internet auction site eBay for US$1.5 billion four years later, and Thiel pocketed US$55 million in the deal.

Having seen the rise and fall of the tech sector before, he disagrees with those worrying it is geared up for another crash.

"No moment in history happens twice. There are obviously superficial similarities, but I do think it's very different from the 1990s because people have been extremely sceptical of the resurgence of technology right the way through," he said.

Despite making his fortune through web-based technology, Thiel sees the future of his industry being off-screen in the "real world" of everyday life.

"The kinds of things we're interested in is computing interfacing with the rest of the world - robotics is one version, there's bioinformatics and biology. The self-driving car's not quite there yet, but it seems like it's very close.

"To my mind the last decade has been simply about copying things that work and not enough of trying to do new things. I think there is a great need for us to do some new things."

And it's the prospect of doing something exciting and new that keeps Thiel coming back for more, though he admits he probably spends too much time in the office.

"I probably do work too hard. The resolution every year for the last five or six is to do less ... it ends up being pretty all-encompassing.

"But it's always a little bit new, it's never a cookie-cutter process, it always has this exciting component."

Social Network movie 'strange mix of fact and fiction'

The Social Network, starring Jesse Eisenberg as Mark Zuckerberg, shows young people what they can achieve, says Peter Thiel, who was portrayed in the movie.

Peter Thiel's role in building Facebook was chronicled in David Fincher's award-winning film, The Social Network.

It shows Thiel, played by Wallace Langham, meeting Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg in California 2004 and agreeing to put US$500,000 into the new business.

Many have questioned the film's authenticity but Thiel sits on the fence about it.

"I wasn't there for most of what the film portrays. That being said, my instinct is that it was a strange combination of fact and fiction. Some of the details are very accurate - they filmed outside my actual offices in San Francisco. Then there are all sorts of details I think they got quite wrong ..."

But he said the film should be celebrated for showing young people what they can achieve.

"It's inspiring how Zuckerberg worked and how determined and passionate he was about getting his business to succeed and I think it may end up being a very iconic movie."

- NZ Herald

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