This is the second in a series about how we think about -1 to 0.
So you’re ready to take -1 to 0 seriously and treat ideation like your job—your next question is probably, “how?” How do you find an idea worth spending the next 5-10 years of your life on? How do you build conviction in one path over another?
For venture-scale companies, the best answer is to become a worldbuilder, not just a problem solver.
Worldbuilding is not a rhetorical device—it’s a tactical response to the problem of venture scale. The common joke about Silicon Valley is that every tech company says it’s changing the world. But by definition, any startup with a venture-scale outcome has affected, at a minimum, many thousands of people’s lives. That kind of outcome disrupts entrenched incumbents or creates new product categories. It has a meaningful and measurable impact on the world.
If impact on the world state is your aim, start aiming early. This essay is SPC’s guide for discovering and harnessing pieces of some future world to refine your ambition into conviction. Worldbuilding motivates big swings and forces you to articulate a vision across multiple time horizons. At every step, it’s important to ask yourself if the idea or hypothesis you’re exploring makes your vision more believable—to others, and critically in -1 to 0, to yourself.
There are two general approaches to building conviction: from the bottom-up (the builder’s approach) and from the top-down (the investor’s approach). Worldbuilding happens when you do both. If you don’t get potential users and customers interacting with your product ideas, you won’t know if the world you imagine is one others can believe in. And if you fail to think beyond immediate feedback to the last thing you made, you run the risk of substituting user opinions for your own and getting stuck in a local maxima.
You have to imagine and articulate a vision beyond what you’re capable of building right now, and you have to start building it.
But first you need an idea…
Choose a North Star
…and before you have an idea (or even if you have one already), you need a North Star. This is the premise, value, insight, or domain that guides your exploration. It should preferably be something where you have experience and which you are increasingly passionate about, otherwise you risk getting distracted or lost while getting up to speed. Here are some examples we have seen founders use to successfully navigate -1 to 0:
- Helping people with rare diseases achieve the best medical outcomes
- Turning anyone into a software developer
- Using AI to transform the financial services industry
- Reducing frictions in homebuilding to address housing affordability
Your North Star narrows exploration to a manageable scope and keeps you on a general heading long enough for your learnings to compound. Don’t underestimate these benefits. Choice paralysis is one of the most common problems founders face in -1 to 0. The more talented you are, the easier it is to convince yourself that any given path is viable. But it’s also dangerously easy in the earliest stages to jump around so much that you never level up your thinking and develop unique insights.
Once you have a North Star in mind, you should be able to construct a handful of proxy markets that fall naturally from it. While you don't need to do a full top-down validation, a bit of napkin math serves as a useful gut check. Can you construct a plausible market now or projecting forward the next few years that could sustain a billion dollar company (i.e. $100M+ of annual revenue)? Is the direction you’re headed big enough to contain a new world?
This should be at most a half-day exercise. If you can’t pencil out enough open territory to conceivably contain a $1 billion outcome, you’re probably headed for a cash flow business or a very frustrating few years. If the numbers pencil, you’re ready for ideation.
Don’t be precious about ideas
Many people treat ideation like polishing a gemstone. They become protective of the thing that brought them into -1 to 0 or overly attached to the first shiny object they discover. This is not the time to fixate—focus comes later. Early on, you are probably polishing a rock.
Ideation is a numbers game. To get started, list out as many ideas as you can. Go for volume. Force yourself to hit a number that feels like a stretch. Don’t worry about viability or founder-market fit or market size of the specific idea. Don’t prejudge anything. Spend a full day documenting everything you can think of within your chosen constraints. Do this even if you already have an idea you want to validate.
We have found that quantity produces quality. One theory for why, popularized by Alex Osborn in the 1960s, is that good ideas emerge later in brainstorming because they are less obvious. If something seems obvious to you, it is probably obvious to others, and there are likely good reasons why incumbents remain unbeaten or the problem unsolved.
Think of ideation like you would physical exercise. It’s the later effort—the last few miles or reps or ideas—that produces the most results.
Beware the “research” trap
It is tempting early on to overindulge in “research” (we use quotation marks here to distinguish how founders typically use the term from how an actual research scientist would understand it). Research is dangerous because it feels more productive than it is. Reading up on the competitive landscape, market dynamics, or new technical advances can provide useful context, but is not the actual work. Those are all pieces of the existing world, not the beginnings of your new one. Prototyping is real work. Writing is real work. Running an experiment is real work. Customer discovery is real work.
If you find yourself spending more than a few days in a row reading instead of doing, that’s a good sign to course correct. Either your North Star has led you too far away from your expertise and you’re trying to compensate, or you’re avoiding the harder work. Worldbuilding doesn’t happen in your head.
It’s about where you end up, not where you start
Another common mistake we see is pre-validation: fixating on which idea is best to start with instead of just getting started. This is often an extension of the research trap. Don’t worry about whether your first choice is a dead end—it probably is, and that’s fine.
The best way to pick from your list of ideas is to develop specific, testable hypotheses that you think you can answer in the next few weeks. What is the first thing that needs to be true to make the world you imagine real? Start with your strongest opinions and intuitions, but create a timebox. If your first hypothesis requires you to train a completely new foundation model or build a fully-functional hardware prototype, try to break the solution down into something more easily testable.
This does not mean you can MVP your way to venture-scale. That’s the builder’s trap. Over time your experiments should get longer and your hypotheses more ambitious. Your learning curve should be geometric, not linear. An MVP is a good way to lower the barrier to getting started, not the sacred aim of -1 to 0.
Having a hypothesis is the most important part of the validation process. It is the dividing line between ideation and validation. What needs to be true to make the world you’re building a little more believable?
Working without a hypothesis is the most common way founders get stuck. This is so important that we will repeat it: you should always have a hypothesis. Do not proceed until you can articulate what you are testing. You must have opinions about the way you think the world works in order to change it, and you must test those opinions to see if you are correct. If you are struggling to form a hypothesis, try another idea within the scope of your North Star.
A good way to test a hypothesis is by creating artifacts. An artifact pulls forward some small part of a future world that currently exists only in your head and lets other people interact with it. Making artifacts forces you to have an opinion and keeps you out of the research trap.
There are two main types of artifacts that align with the two directions you can approach an idea: the demo (for the bottom-up builder approach) and the memo (for the top-down market approach). As we wrote at the beginning, worldbuilding happens when you do both. If you are feeling stuck with one approach, try switching to the other. Each validation pathway tends to reveal new approaches or hypotheses in the other.
Validating from the bottom-up
This is usually where engineer founders start. We use the shorthand “demo”, but the builder’s artifact can be anything that users or customers engage with: stand up a landing page; whip up some product screenshots; code a working demo of the product; run a painted door test, etc..
Once you’ve built something, get it in front of people and evaluate the engagement results against your initial hypothesis. Don’t confuse coding with validation. Coding produces the structure of an experiment; people interacting with what you built produces the actual signal.
Say you put together an MVP and have a handful of users who like it. Have you validated the idea? Should you now have high conviction and dash off to fundraise? No! Here again is the builder’s trap. You can talk yourself into a positive spin on anything you build, especially if you have a few happy users. Moving in short hops from MVP to MVP is a very common failure mode for builder types in tech, and there’s a lot of accumulated dogma that reinforces it. If your goal is to build something venture-scale you also need to validate the market.
Validating from the top-down
Top-down thinking is investor thinking. Look critically at how large the market is today. Study growth rates for this area. Compare outcomes of other players in the space. Reach out to founders who previously failed (most will happily share what they learned). Determine what market share you’d need to achieve to hit various revenue targets. All of these inputs will help fill out the shape of the world you want to create and inform which hypotheses you should test. Great founders become students of their industries—you should be the one explaining your market to investors.
For technical founders, the top-down approach is often an unnatural motion and needs to be an intentional exercise. We see this often in the default-builder culture of SPC (and it’s why we emphasize it here for a default-builder audience). This is, in a sense, the world side of worldbuilding. It gives you conviction in the scale of what you’re trying to achieve. You’ll draw upon this conviction when persuading investors, customers, and candidates about your company’s potential.
You should also create artifacts when validating top-down, though in this case you’re writing a memo instead of coding. The memo is a written argument with an investor (or potential hire) audience in mind, articulating how the world could change and how you could be the one to change it. There is a good chance you will eventually share something like this with actual investors—many founders send memos ahead of pitch meetings and save pitch decks for use as conversational aids during the meeting. Regardless, it’s a very useful document to write. Memos externalize the altered world state in your head well before you can do so more concretely with demos. It’s easier to spot muddled thinking or half-baked assumptions in written form than in casual conversation.
The hardest part of the -1 to 0 process is getting out, and the thing that leads you out is conviction. The simplest definition of conviction we can provide is this: if you bet the next five years of your life on this idea and it failed, do you think you would still feel good about the bet?
One thing we are sure of is that conviction and certainty are not the same. Certainty means safety, and if a venture-scale startup idea feels safe then it is destined to fail. We have also observed repeatedly that conviction cannot come from others—you have to build it yourself. Other people provide data, not conviction.
Everything in -1 to 0 is a form of storytelling. Ideas are the kernel of a story that you try to start telling from the bottom-up (about user behavior or your ability to build something) or top-down (about the market and where it’s vulnerable to disruption). Conviction is the story you tell yourself. Are you getting more excited as you learn and write and build? Are your hypotheses getting more ambitious as you answer them? Are you experiencing the good pain of the founding journey instead of the bad pain? The early chapters should be convincing to yourself most of all.
Frameworks and expectations
So you want to start a company. Specifically, a venture-scale company. You’ve committed to being a worldbuilder. Will this framework demystify -1 to 0 and set you on the sure path to IPO?
Of course not.
Frameworks are often both true and limited—true, because they outline a process that really can produce a desired result, but limited, because they don’t provide the secretly hoped for shortcut past hard work. The approach we outline above, like all frameworks, is a loose structure to help aim your ambition. No amount of productivity hacking or clever process can replace the drive needed to build a venture-scale company. If you internalize any bit of VC or founder wisdom, let it be that. Everything else is just a minor course correction to the relentless vehicle that is you.
Start building a new world.
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