10x and the largest technological improvements of all time

I was first introduced to the concept of 10x in Peter Thiel’s 2014 book, Zero to One. He says, “As a good rule of thumb, proprietary technology must be at least 10 times better than its closest substitute in some important dimension to lead to a real monopolistic advantage.”

I believe it is not just technology, but the entire customer proposition that needs to be 10x better than the status quo. In my article on the topic, The 2 Principles of Startup Success, I incorporate Clayton Christensen's concept of “jobs to be done,” which gives us a simple premise: Truly innovative or disruptive products and services offer at least a 10x improvement over how things are currently done.


Using this framework to think about new ventures is incredible helpful to entrepreneurs, start-ups, and large corporations. You should always be thinking about the value you can deliver to your customers.

The concept of 10x -- or exponential value -- is powerful. To better understand the principle in practice, we’re going to take a look at a number of 10x innovations over the past 200 years, and look for the biggest breakthrough.

Recent 10x technological improvements

Let’s start our tour with some recent technological improvements that most everyone is familiar with. The first, classic example, is the iPod.

Before the iPod came along, mobile listeners might have 15-20 songs in their pocket. The iPod gave them 1,000 songs, a 50x improvement.

When Amazon.com came along, it offered a book selection larger than 10x than that of a traditional bookstore. The Amazon Kindle continues the trend by offering a package that greatly improves the book buying and reading experience.

Given the huge selection, instant gratification purchase process, and exponential storage benefits, the Kindle offers at least a 10x improvement over the alternative -- if not more.

Tinder, the swiping dating app, is a way to meet new people. Compared to the alternative method of going to a bar to meet people (or through work, or through common friends, or through local activities, etc), Tinder makes the process dramatically easier.

Not only does Tinder offer more than a 10x improvement in throughput (the amount of people you can meet or swipe through with significantly less effort), its design also eliminates the fear of rejection, making the entire experience 10x easier and more efficient.

Another classic example of disruption, Uber offers an exponentially improved process to get from point A to point B. When the alternative is catching a taxi, Uber offers certainty, cost savings (usually), and a frictionless payment process.

The result is a 10x improved experience from start to finish.

It’s no coincidence that each of these examples is a success -- in terms of product-market fit and customer traction. There is a direct correlation between delivering exponential customer value and market traction. If a product or service is truly 10x better than the status quo, customers will flock to it!

10x improvements over the past 200 years

It’s not just the past 15 years that give us examples of 10x improvements. Reaching back a bit further gives us even more massive improvements, showing how today’s technological innovations are quite small in comparison.

It’s not a happy thought, but the development of the atomic bomb represented an exponential increase in destructive firepower.

During World War II, a typical U.S. bomber would carry around 6 tons of TNT, and bombing missions would include hundreds of these bombers. With the advent of the first atomic bomb, a single bomber could deliver up to 20,000 tons of TNT. That’s a massive 3,300x increase in destructive firepower per plane, and a 200x-300x reduction in aircraft.

The invention of railroads ushered in an era where transport costs and transit times for people and goods dropped exponentially.

Railroads made transport drastically less expensive (100x cheaper) while improving the overall customer experience and travel time -- not just incremental improvements, but exponential as well.

Likewise, the advent of air travel continued to dramatically decrease travel times.

While railroads shifted travel times from months to days, air travel moved the basis from days to hours.

If we look at transatlantic crossing times over the past 150 years we can see how long it took a passenger to travel from London to New York. Dramatic improvements in boat technology slashed travel times from 15 to four days, but it’s still not a 10x improvement. Those were incremental improvements. It wasn’t until air travel that a true 10x improvement in travel time came, reducing transit time from days to hours.

The biggest exponential improvement?

When it comes to massive 10x improvements over the status quo, there’s a clear winner from my research. This technology (and the businesses that popped up supporting it) improved communication times up to 25,000x.

The winner? The wireless telegraph.

The wireless telegraph ushered in an exponential improvement in communications, and changed the world. No longer did it take weeks for news to travel around the world. Now it happened in a matter of minutes.

Looking to the future: SpaceX

The last example is my favorite: SpaceX. In a world of incremental technological improvements and relatively frivolous tech products, SpaceX represents a return to the heady days of the 19th and 20th century, when inventions really did change our world.

The promise of SpaceX rests in its 10x value proposition through use of reusable rockets. It’s aim of a 100x reduction in payload costs to orbit is a game changer, both as a business and for us as a species. If successful, it will put space within reach for generations to come. That’s why SpaceX is such a big deal.

The power of 10x

Not every new venture can be a 10x improvement over the status quo. These technological and experience improvements are few and far between. But the quality of thinking is something that can and should be brought to every company and every new venture.

Whether you’re a startup founder or a technology executive, think about the last three products you released for your customers. What was the additional value you delivered?

Chances are that it can be measured in tenths -- a 1.1x or 1.2x improvement.

The more incremental and exponential value that you can provide to your customers, the more successful your venture will be. Not everything can be 10x, but it shouldn’t stop the thinking. So never stop asking: How can we offer an experience that is 10 times better than the status quo?