If you don't live in (or spend much time in) Silicon Valley, you may not have come across the term, "PayPal Mafia." It refers to the numerous former colleagues who, after the $1.5 billion sale of PayPal to eBay, went on to create an additional seven companies worth more than $1 billion dollars each. This includes:

Space X
Tesla Motors
LinkedIn
YouTube
Yelp
Yammer
Palantir

In arguably one of the best business books of our time, Peter Thiel's Zero to One , identifies the seven key questions that every business must answer. He attributes #7 "The Secret Question" as the most misunderstood by entrepreneurs and dedicates much of the content of his book to helping you answer this question for your own company and industry.

Peter Thiel goes on to acknowledge that Tesla Motors scores 7 out of 7. Their technology is so breakthrough that other car companies rely on it. In 2010, the timing was perfect to secure a $465 million dollar loan from the US Department of Energy. Its (creative) monopoly was high-end electric sports cars. Elon Musk refers to his team as his "Special Forces" equivalent and has set a high performance bar which has attracted the right team. Tesla Motors currently owns the entire distribution chain, opting out of the traditional independent dealer network. Durability doesn't seem to be a problem as Tesla not only has a head start but is also moving faster than everyone else, so their lead is only increasing.

Most importantly, Tesla Motors saw a unique opportunity that others didn't (and probably still don't) see. While everyone else in the cleantech (short for clean technology) movement was focused on engineering feats to reduce people's carbon footprint and save the planet, Tesla saw things differently. Tesla realized that no one actually fell in love with the boxy look of the Prius as much as what that boxy design represented: "being green". In other words, people were buying a Prius because of the statement it made, rather than passionately loving the look and feel of the car. Tesla saw that wealthy people would much prefer a high-end sports car that was also green if it were available. In short, the unique opportunity was to satisfy the social pressures of being green AND to deliver that emotional connection new car owners attach to their well-designed and highly enviable sports cars.

If your company hasn't aced these 7 questions, it doesn't mean you can't build a successful company. However, getting these questions right will dramatically increase your probability of long-term growth and continued success. I will leave you with one of my favorite quotes from Peter Thiel:

A great company is a conspiracy to change the world; when you share your secret, the recipient becomes a fellow conspirator.

I encourage you to spend time thinking about and identifying a unique opportunity that others don't see. This isn't a fast and easy exercise. But then again, you're no stranger to hard work. And if you get stuck, you will find many words of inspiration in Zero to One. I highly recommend reading it.

Published on: Nov 21, 2014
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.