What is -1 to 0? A Philosophy of Ideation.

Defining a crucial stage of company-building—and why you should take it seriously.

What is -1 to 0? A Philosophy of Ideation.

This is the first in a series about how we think about -1 to 0.

If you have ever discovered a word that describes something you knew but couldn’t express, you are familiar with the power of giving something a name. Definition makes a thing more understandable, more tractable. It helps create best practices, repeatable processes, and benchmarks. It gives you language to communicate what you are doing and why it is worth doing well.

In the first few years after founding South Park Commons, I didn’t have that kind of language to explain the community’s purpose. What I used was the sequence of events leading to SPC’s founding. I had gone from rocket ship rides at Facebook, my own startup Cove, and Dropbox to …. nothing. I wanted to start something new but didn’t have any direction beyond ambition. I felt unmoored. 

What would eventually become SPC was my answer to that experience. Like-minded, talented, technical peers gathered around my kitchen table to help each other through a shared stage of ambiguity. And eventually we developed language for what exactly we were helping each other through.

This is not an article about SPC, but about the problem it was built for. We now call it -1 to 0.

The Squiggle

-1 to 0 is when you figure out what you want to work on next. It’s when you decide where to allocate the next 5-10 years of your life. 

This may sound simple, but in practice it is overwhelming and isolating. That period before SPC was not my first -1 to 0 experience. For a year after leaving Facebook to start my own company, it felt like I was banging my head against a wall. I had left the most exciting startup of my generation to sit in an old clothing factory office I had rented while I tried to come up with an idea. My friends were solving important problems and I was looking for a problem to solve. I struggled every day with self-doubt. But I can look back at those months spent shivering in an empty office without HVAC and see how they were absolutely necessary. 

As I discovered, talent and drive don’t mean you can skip -1 to 0. I had assumed an idea would be the easy part. I was wrong. If anything, talent can make the task feel more daunting because it increases the number of opportunities available to you.

Your goal at -1 is to tame the chaos of everything you could do into conviction in what you will do. Most people—and especially first-time founders—underestimate this search for conviction, or fail to even think of it as a distinct part of the journey. They anchor on the glass-eating reputation of later stages and get caught off-guard by what we affectionately call the Squiggle.

That’s what -1 to 0 feels like: messy, confusing—squiggly. The hardest part is escaping. What ultimately leads you out of the mess is conviction, a state you must build incrementally and internally. And conviction and certainty are not the same.

It’s worth noting here that for many people -1 to 0 is also about deciding how you want to work. In a startup? A big team? As a manager? What’s your appetite for risk? Avoiding these questions is the surest way to end up unsatisfied with work. It’s not uncommon for ambitious people to join SPC planning to start a company, go through our programming, and ultimately decide that a startup is not the right path. That is a successful -1 to 0 outcome.

But for the rest of this essay and series, I will assume you want to build a venture-scale technology startup. That is where I have the most personal experience and it is the most common path we help members navigate at SPC. For founders like you, it’s important to understand how -1 to 0 affects everything that happens after and why you should take it seriously.

Discard Good Ideas in Search of Great Ones

If you are familiar with the startup world, -1 to 0 probably brings to mind the idea of 0 to 1. That’s obviously intentional. But 0 to 1 isn’t just a useful reference point for a new concept. Placing these numbers on the same line makes it clear that they bound distinct stages of the same effort. A rocket’s mission to space doesn’t start at the moment of launch. What happens before 0 is critical to what happens after, and sequence matters.

I often sum up how the two stages differ like this: if 0 to 1 is about Product-Market Fit, -1 to 0 is about Founder-Market Fit. Figure out what you want to build before you try to build it.

This is helpful shorthand, but also a bit lossy. So much more happens in -1 to 0 than in 0 to 1. The squiggle takes you all over the place, which gives you the chance to focus your efforts when you finally find a path out. I’m not saying that Product-Market Fit is easy, but just the opposite: it’s one of the hardest things you will ever attempt, so don’t weigh yourself down with all the prep that could have happened earlier.

There are many in Silicon Valley who will tell you otherwise. Prevailing wisdom has it that talented founders can take some funding and throw things at the wall until something sticks, or that all you need is that first small group of users who love something you built. We celebrate when great teams beat bad markets and mythologize successful pivots. We say that opportunities are founder-constrained instead of idea-constrained.

I believe this is no longer the case. Tech isn’t a maverick industry anymore. This doesn’t mean you should play it safe—it means that investing your time in the early stages is more important than it used to be. It means you are less likely than in the past to discover a venture-scale idea while working a full-time job or tinkering in your garage. Your goal is category creation, not digital co-option. It’s harder to stumble upon low-hanging fruit when the lower branches have been picked. Software has already eaten.

Good ideas aren’t enough—you need great ones. The difference is conviction earned through a disciplined ideation process. Others might call it proof: the thing you build, the story you tell about the problem it solves, and why you are the right person to build that solution. You should try to find as much as you can of each in -1 to 0.

A lot more happens—or should happen—in -1 to 0 than you might think.

Weakness in any of these proof points makes it harder to convince the constituencies you need to believe in you in the early stages (customers, recruits, investors, yourself). The less proof you have, the more likely it is you are stuck in a local maximum. You might have built a product that 100 users love with no larger market opportunity, or found a market opening but not a potential product solution, or lack the founder-market fit to survive the company-building gauntlet.

The big danger is that a little proof is enough to lure you down a dead end. That’s why you should think about local versus global maxima. In early-stage venture, capital is a commodity. Even with a much weaker fundraising environment than the highs of 2021, it’s still relatively easy for founders to raise Seed money with a merely good idea, or with no idea at all. This is a trap. The bar for a Series A round is much higher than a Seed round. If anything, the survival rate between Seed and A is more punishing now than ever. A low-proof fundraise is more likely to leave you without a clear path to product market fit or your next round of financing.

My friend Anurag Goel is a good example of someone who could have fallen into this trap but avoided it by taking -1 to 0 seriously. He was employee #8 at Stripe—which alone would have been enough to raise a seed round and start hiring—and he had a good idea for an AI product that investors were interested in. But he didn’t have conviction, so decided to take his time and join me and the early group at SPC. Anurag was known in the community for collaborating with everyone, constantly iterating and testing hypotheses, which helped him incrementally build conviction in the need for a new kind of cloud services provider. This insight would eventually become his company Render. Anurag took the time to do in -1 to 0 what the venture ecosystem encouraged him to do in 0 to 1.

Think of it like this: pivoting after fundraising is -1 to 0 on a short runway. The less you have to wander after taking on Seed funding, the more you can concentrate your resources on finding Product-Market Fit. You want to pay people to build a product that solves a valuable problem, not to search for a new problem. If this seems laughably obvious, you would be shocked at how many founders don’t take it to heart. Invest the time early on to discard good ideas in pursuit of a great one. 

Go Slow to Go Fast

How, though? How do you know if you have founder-market fit? How do you build conviction in a great idea before setting out to build a company around it?

That’s beside the point here. There are best practices and better environments, of course, and we will share them in future installments of this series. But the first and most important step is understanding what you are trying to do and committing to it. I often see founders fall into the traps described above and then spend the next several years of their lives in the Squiggle struggling to find conviction. Value your time more. Spend a bit of it up front so you don’t waste more of it later. If at the end of a dedicated period of ideation you haven’t built conviction, you’ve likely saved yourself years of frustration. And if you do build conviction, you will shake off the naysayers and have a more successful fundraise. Go slow to go fast!

It is easier to generate and validate an idea—to build conviction for yourself and proof for others—if you think of -1 to 0 as a discrete stage of company-building. This is the core takeaway from my time in Silicon Valley. Treat ideation like your job. You will not have a eureka moment and come up with a billion dollar company idea while meditating on top of a mountain. Your career sabbatical full of interesting travel will not unlock your ambition. 

-1 to 0 isn’t a break or a stage you should rush. You only get a few shots at building your life’s work—so make them count.

If you are ready to figure out what's next, apply to the premiere community dedicated to navigating -1 to 0.