Series: Getting from "Zero" to "One" in Your Startup

The Founder's Eye: prelude

This is part of my ongoing Series on Getting from Zero to One in your Startup.

I had the pleasure of reading Patrick O'Brian's biography of Picasso in the mid-nineties. O'Brian is of course best known for his magnificent Aubrey-Maturin series, but he was actually also friendly with Picasso and wrote a tremendous biography about him in the seventies. Throughout the book are references to Picasso's magnificent artistic eye. The "eye" is at various points called "beaming", "knowing", "young", "intelligent", "dark", "lustrous", "gleaming", "compassionate", the "brilliant window to his mind", "piercing". I never forgot this emphasis O'Brian put on that all-seeing Picassoan eye which, in O'Brian's judgment, was the source of the great genius of the man. All this stood out to me because it was one of the few occasions in the biography of an artist or writer that I'd read, in which the author even tried to comprehend the nature/origins of his subject's genius. As an artist himself (and a great one), and as a friend of Picasso's, O'Brian dared to tread in that realm.

So where am I going with this? Well, it's well established by now that many visionary founders are artists in their own right. The world-changing companies they build are their particular canvas.

I think all visionary founders who have built great companies possess a "magnificent eye". Think of all that it must capture and perceive:

  • an immense and compelling vision for something that doesn't exist and that few can see or understand
  • the innate understanding of what team members are needed to help make some version of this vision a reality
  • the confidence and charisma to convince teammates, partners, investors, customers, the media, and others that their vision (or something close to it) coming to fruition is inevitable
  • the tenacity to overcome extreme opposition, to pivot, to change direction and adapt to new information and changing circumstances

So next time you're looking to join a startup, or, if you're an angel or VC to invest in an entrepreneur's company, look for the Picassoan eye, that mythical Founder's Eye.... is it there or are they kidding themselves and perhaps you?

Or maybe you have it yourself? If so, make haste, the world is waiting for you.

For the next post in the Getting from Zero to One Series click here

The Founder and His Vision


This is part one of my ongoing Series on Getting from Zero to One.

You suspect you possess the Founder's Eye- that mythical Picassoan Eye referred to in the Prelude.

To put it another way, you don't laugh to yourself at the suggestion.

Why is this? 

You probably see the outlines of something immense in your mind's eye. 

And again, why is this?

It may not be something you can immediately explain- and is more likely something you just feel instinctively.

And why is this?

It's probably because you have encountered or witnessed a problem or obstacle or gap in your life at work or elsewhere that frustrated or perhaps even infuriated you. Something inside you told you there must be a better way to do this and now you believe you will be the agent of change- that you will build something that destroys this particular issue and perhaps goes far beyond it.

You feel a passion for this cause, for this arena- you are ready to fight for it at enormous cost. You feel something larger than yourself is at stake and you are consumed by this feeling.

But where do you begin? How do you harness this immense energy?

A thousand questions crowd your mind: How and where to begin? What to build? Who to call? Who to trust? Who to partner with? Do I need funding? If so how to raise funds? Who to help me with my model? It goes on and on. Some never make it past this first day, overwhelmed by the anxiety of it all- most just muddle through somehow in a perpetual state of nervous tension. It doesn't have to be like this.

If you’re going through this or are about to launch your first startup, this series of posts is for you. I was inspired to write it by the many young entrepreneurs I meet who are trying to make their way through this "blessed warm fog" (as Conrad put it).  It’s the beginning after all- and one of the most difficult and misunderstood phases of a startup’s lifecycle. It requires some of the most concrete tasks and yet some of your most creative thinking all at once.  

It's time to take the first steps, one at a time. I like to call this‘Going from Zero to One’.

This series is essentially going to be a Buddhist chant with a singular mantra, to be repeated in a steady, rhythmic tone, over and over again…. Zero to One, Zero to One, Zero to One.... I will explain, I promise.

For the next post in this Series on Getting From Zero to One, click here.

Map it Out!

This is part of my Series on Getting from Zero to One

No matter how world-changing you believe your startup may be, the most important thing you need to do at this preliminary juncture is to take things one step at a time. You are at “Zero” now and the goal is not “100”- it is actually “One”.

Remember- at some point in the not-too-distant future you actually need to build a product that people- (many people!) will want to use. That is the essence of what you need to achieve and don’t forget it. You must relentlessly focus on making this a reality. Everything you do now must be subsumed to that singular purpose.

One way to impose this discipline upon yourself is to break your company down into a diagram or two that you can paste on the wall above your desk so that you see them every day. Everyone’s different, so you need to use diagrams that work for you. Some people swear by Osterwalder's Startup Canvas, others use other tools. Nevertheless, at this preliminary stage I believe that it helps to have at least one that gives you an orchestral view of every aspect of the fledgling company’s operations. Here’s a primitive template I devised that I often recommend to entrepreneurs I’m mentoring:


As the company evolves, you are constantly refining this diagram, adding granularity with names, companies, action steps and the like within of all of the above categories.Grow new branches, add new categories, move things around to suit your eye- all this is very helpful to a Founder, who otherwise has to keep all this swimming around in his head.

So whereas your executive summary, business plan, google docs, Xcel spreadsheets, GANT charts, wireframes, use-cases and the like will all reside on your laptop or in the cloud somewhere- I’m suggesting you have at least one orchestral view on old-fashioned paper pasted front-row and center. When you’re feeling overwhelmed and frustrated, simply glance up for a few moments and orient yourself. With that one glance and perhaps a tweak here or there you can quickly recalibrate things and get back into focus.

Are you beginning to hear the rhythmic chanting in the distance? … Zero to One… Zero to One… Zero to One…

 For the next post in this Series, (Mapping it Out Some More!) click HEre.

Mapping it Out Some More!!

This is part of my Series on Getting from Zero to One.

Last time I encouraged entrepreneurs (especially first-timers) to be orchestral and actually map-out their startup early on.I further recommended that once created this map ought to be printed out and prominently displayed over their workspace so they could refer to it every once in a while during the work day so as to stay focused.

Because of the interest and questions this last post generated, I’ve gone a step further with a more fleshed-out map of a fledgling start-up. Hopefully first-time entrepreneurs may find it to be a helpful template as they create their own maps.

Below you’ll see a template map fleshing out the various ingredients needed to get a startup off the ground. The three legs of the stool are technology, team and money. (I’ve also added a university section (in red) in the event you intend on spinning-out technology from a university’s tech transfer office or venture lab.)

Remember- everyone's map is their own and you should customize it to suit your own needs. 

(Lastly, as the print is quite small on this map, simply click on it and it will open in a separate window)

The Hidden Passage: A Succession of Firsts


This is part of my Series on Getting from Zero to One.

Take a look at that map of yours for a moment and let your eye roam around it clockwise: Mentor, Team, Technology/Product, Partnerships/Customers and Funding. Yes they’re all inter-related, one affecting the other to a large extent- but you can’t worry about that now.If you choose well and execute, success in one will often lead to success in another. You have mapped out the big picture, but now it's time for granularity. You will break your company down into its component parts and again ask yourself basic questions such as these:

What is my vision? What has my customer development told me? What minimum viable product will I begin with? Have I found a good mentor? Who is the first person I need on my team? Who my first channel partnership or first customer? What is the minimum funding I need to get through this first stage? Can I provide it or will it need to come from someone else?

You’re after a succession of firsts all at once, nothing more and nothing less.

Initial Idea & Vision, early Customer Development, early MVP, early Mentor, first team member, first customer, first 10 customers, first 20 customers, first funding in, first revenue.... and on and on... each is a major milestone and each should be thrilling to you. Individually these initial steps in each category may seem modest, but when executed in their totality, something absolutely magical happens to your startup. It is something I have marveled at time and time again when I see it occur and I consider it to be one of the great hidden forces at play in the realm of entrepreneurship. Suddenly, as if by some magic spell, the world begins looks at you and your company differently. What has happened here? 

From nothingness you have created Value.

And the delicate needle trembles, moving slowly away from “zero” and tantalizingly close to “one”.The crowd begins to murmur now…. very softly, almost in a whisper…. “zero to one…. zero to one….. zero to one……”

For the next post in this Series on Getting from Zero to One, click HERE

The People

(Photo courtesy of the super-talented Inaki Vinaixa:

This is part of my Series on Getting from Zero to One.

Amidst the "succession of firsts" we described in the last post, you sense that it's time to identify team-mates for your startup (whether they be cofounders or not). You've been looking and listening for some time and in the back of your mind you've imagined the sort of people and culture you'd like to cultivate.

And yet you've heard about the 'importance of team' so often by now that it hardly carries much meaning to you in the abstract. In event after event, panel and conference alike, you hear the tired refrain... "It's about the team"... "I only invest in people"... "I favor team over technology", etc.... but by now you think you don't really know what this means.

Actually, deep-down you do know.

  • You are looking for mission-oriented, committed and trustworthy people who can operate in massively challenging and adverse conditions. People who are tough and have no quit in them.
  • You are looking for enormously talented people with domain expertise that always look to add value first and foremost. People who disdain politics and just get things done.
  • It means finding people who are confident in themselves, with enormous energy, with huge appetites for adventure, people who move at a fast pace and never hold things up.

By laying out the affirmative qualities above there is no need anymore to say what these people 'are not'. It is obvious to you by now- you already knew.

You needn't "seek them out" in that when you meet them they will stand out from all others and you will know.

If they see the same qualities in you, you may well have a new team member.

Click here for my next post in this Series on Getting from Zero to One in your startup

Your Customers

This is part of my ongoing Series on Getting from Zero to One.

You have been refining and cultivating your map almost daily by now, pursuing a succession of firsts. The exercise has not been in vain. Steadily you approach the time when you will launch your new business. The early team somehow is materializing. You are readying yourself through preparation, listening, thinking, learning. Your mantra of Vision, Team, Technology/Product continues.... you are iterating on it all in parallel. You have reams of google docs prepared which include your financial model, your potential customers, your potential advisors, partners, investors, team members, product road map, and the like.

But do you really understand your customer and the problem you seek to remedy? How deeply have you examined it? Have you spoken at length with potential customers, partners and experienced hands in this space? What is the competitive landscape? What is your true addressable market and is it substantial enough? What unfair(!) competitive advantage will you be bringing to this space? What makes this venture truly special? Lastly, as Heinemeier-Hansson asks- is it your best idea?

There is no escaping complete immersion in this market in that you must understand its every nuance. You must speak to the actual people who dwell in it every day of their lives and understand what their experiences and challenges are. By doing so you will stress-test your initial assumptions, meet potential customers, partners, founders, team members, and perhaps new friends. You will no doubt find yourself adjusting your model, your map, your strategy. By the time you launch everyone should know you and many of them should be willing to work with you and use your product- it is the only way. Startups are a community activity, not a solitary exercise. Have you familiarized yourself with the work of Steve Blank? Do you deeply understand the art of customer development? Have you read the work of Giff Constable. I recommend you do so now.

You must also know that your first foray into this market will probably not strike the bullseye- so your company must be designed with flexibility in mind, always ready to pivot and iterate until you find the right product/market fit.

So while you consider everything else we have been discussing in getting from Zero to One, remember- all of these considerations are subsumed by the overarching reality of the needs of "the customer". This is the realm in which you will operate and you will always be hyper-attuned and in a never-ending conversation with your customers.


Zero Becomes One: The Founder's Journey Begins

This is my final post  from my ongoing Series on Getting from Zero to One in Your Startup.

The weeks and months have passed. Something strange has happened. You pause to reflect.

  • You have a product in the hands of the customers with whom you are continually engaging as you iterate this product
  • Their feedback has been enormously helpful and you have adjusted to it intelligently
  • These customers may have started paying you for your product or perhaps it is free- but you have simplified some aspect of their lives already and they are pleased and happy to give feedback
  • Your map is in constant flux, hardly resembling it's first incarnation
  • You have the nucleus of a team you instinctively feel you can build upon. It just seems to "work" and you sense this
  • In your continuous conversations with customers, colleagues, friends, investors, experts, mentors and the like- offers of seed investment have presented themselves to you. You have taken your time and have built real relationships with all of these people and investors and some of these relationships have blossomed
  • You may have some or all of these by now including a card, a website, an app, a presence, a small office, other people working with you, funding, revenue, feedback, p/r, momentum, attention....

In taking stock, you further realize that you are no longer at Zero.

You are at One.

Your journey has begun.

I wish you well.....