“Zero to One” is Not the Startup Bible

It causes people to imagine a startup emerging from out of the vast, foggy netherworld of primordial soup and leaping fully-formed from the mind of the founder into a machine of growth.

I was actually a big fan of the “Zero to One” idea for startups when I first read the Stanford CS183 lectures documented by Blake Masters. But I’ve since realized that the terminology can cause confusion and it does a disservice to many new entrepreneurs looking to forge a path.

The reality is, almost every startup that ever got big was actually more like “0.5 to 1" (obviously, but unfortunately, that would make for a really crappy book title!).

It’s not the people who are toiling out in left field waiting for the world to wake up to their fringe “from zero” discoveries.

Rather it’s the people who find new ways to think about or build upon the art of the day. It’s observing all of the R&D happening in plain sight and finding a new and better approach to the contemporary problems.

Think about the largest successes and some of the observations about the contemporary services which already had shown demand and evidence of a strong consumer behavior, but were lacking in some critical aspects for success:

Google — Yahoo, AltaVista

Youtube — Vimeo, Google Video

Facebook — Friendster, SocialNet, Myspace

Airbnb — Couchsurfing, Craigslist

Instagram — Hipstamatic, PicPlz, TwitPic, YFrog, (even Facebook Mobile!)

Uber — Cabulous, Zimride (Lyft), Sidecar, TaxiMagic

GoFundMe — Kickstarter, Indiegogo, Tilt

What are the categories today with plenty of consumer demand, but which for one reason or another have not yet figured out an economic or service delivery model that ultimately serves the market’s needs?

Some areas I’ve been thinking about where something (or many things) should work:

  1. Blockchains — Bitcoin, Ethereum, Litecoin, Zcash, etc.
  2. Transportation — Uber, Waymo, Tesla, Apple, GM/Cruise, etc — so many use-cases still underserved — government needs, enterprise needs, regional transit, long-haul consumer transit, air travel
  3. Interactive Fiction — Hooked, Yarn, Tap, etc — The consumer demand, new mechanics, familiar patterns, and strong monetization suggests to me that there could be a Netflix-like company in this category as the content quality continues to escalate.
  4. Food, delivered — Sprig, Munchery, Postmates, DoorDash, OrderAhead, etc. No one has really solved this yet (in an economically viable way, at least). Maybe Uber will get there, but I think there are more disruptive approaches still to be tried.
  5. Video Communication — Marco Polo, Snapchat, Facebook Messenger — I’m still a believer that Houseparty is building something really special here.
  6. Local Buy/Sell networks — OfferUp, LetGo, VarageSale, Facebook Marketplace, Nextdoor — this seems like an area that should consolidate to a single UX/brand with a strong, dominant network effect

What other areas seem ripe for a winner to build upon an ecosystem of learnings? Tweet at me.

Thanks to Jen Yip, Rohan Seth, Ashvin Kumar, and Raymond Tonsing for contributing to this piece.
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