Zero to one attitude: How to start a business

With this article, we want to address one of the most relevant topics for starting a business. We call it the zero to one attitude. It doesn’t matter if you start a small side hustle or if you want to make your living with it. You start with nothing (0) and want to build something that works (1)!

This attitude is relevant for every business type: Consulting, agency businesses, software product businesses, e-commerce, media, and so on. You can go further and apply it to other endeavors as well. That attitude sounds like the golden solution! Unfortunately, there is no clear and repeatable path from 0 to 1! Sometimes you make the step in a few days. Other times the end is not in sight:

  • On the one hand, we moved with our software agency to 1 within a few weeks.
  • But, our bee tracker hasn’t taken off after a year full of hard work. 

One of the longest and most impactful upcoming articles is about the journey of building a successful software agency. We made it to 19 employees and big long-term customers in 1,5 years. Subscribe with your email below, so you don’t miss it! 

So… How do I know I made it from zero to one then?

Let’s answer that with a counter-question! Have you found a value proposition that customers will pay enough money for and that you can repeatedly offer to new prospects? Our agency and the bee-tracker are good examples again:

  • We built a combination of software and hardware for the bee tracker and sold some devices on fairs and other occasions. Still, even after a year, we had no repeatable way to sell the boxes. We didn’t find a way to control the customer acquisition.

With our software agency, we have gained two early customers through our network. That was a great start! However, this was not our 1. We saw that referrals are not something that is much under our control. The third customer we got through reach out on LinkedIn. That was the moment! The moment we have found a value proposition and a distribution channel. Since then, we have been able to present our services repeatedly to a specific audience. Yeah, we reached the 1!

So, what did we learn from this?

We made various experiences during our endeavors. Thereby three pieces of advice are the best equipment you can have for that 0 to 1 journey!

There is no compounding effort:

We are not saying that these effects do not exist. On the contrary, we write about compounding returns in many articles. But our unpopular idea is that this doesn’t apply to this 0 to 1 journey. You won’t reach 1 simply because you do an action every day. Instead, it feels more like chaos. You make a lot of educated guesses and experiments till something works. Some learnings still build upon each other. But at the end of the day, you need to make this one right shot. 

  • For the bee-tracker, we tried a lot of different sales channels. We went for cold calling, presentations, content marketing, social media, and fairs. Nothing worked even though we invested a lot of time in optimizations and learnings for every channel. 
  • We had to move on with our software agency. Inspired due to a single phone call, we tried out LinkedIn outreach, and it worked out quickly!

Critical reflection is crucial:

The analysis of your status quo is never a bad idea. However, in the wild west of 0 to 1, it is even more crucial. You have to understand whether your actions are helpful to move to 1 or not. Furthermore, you have to be honest with yourself. Have you really reached 1? Or have you fallen into the trap of that already works somehow! The assumed success must stand up to critical scrutiny.

  • For the bee-tracker, we didn’t critically reflect every step of the way. Was the problem worth solving? We had some evidence but couldn’t be sure. We just started building something. Was the product the right one for the audience? We were not sure. We just tried selling it for months.
  • For the software agency, we were much more critical about whether this is already a viable business. This reflection forced us to rethink customer acquisition until we had something satisfactory!

Be aware of the dilemma of moving on or being persistent:

That one is the most helpful mental model for us when thinking about 0 to 1! For every successful idea, there are 1000s of unsuccessful ones. The question is: When are these ideas labeled as unsuccessful? Give something up or push it a little more forward to see whether it might work out? This question is a constant dilemma in this journey. For the extremes, all consequences are clear. You know what to do when the status is this works great, or this doesn’t work at all. Unfortunately, you are somewhere between those extremes in most cases. In the entrepreneur scene, diverse advice is floating around. You have to be aware of sunk cost fallacy on the one hand, but you also need to be persistent and push through when others don’t see the finish line!

  • With the bee-tracker, we fell into the sunk and also into a social pressure fallacy. We thought that we have to push forward because we already spent so much time on the project and made it public. We thought it’s probably a business that needs a bit more time. Even after a year, it is hard for us to label the tracker finally as failed. We still don’t know if that was the right moment. Should we have done it earlier or kept trying? 
  • For the software agency, we’ve got some early indicators that it seems to be working out. The other side of the story is that several months after getting the first customer through the LinkedIn outreach we didn’t get more customers. This customer was an early outlier. Usually, it is much harder to get customers from LinkedIn. However, we believed that we already reached 1. So we just kept pushing and started to get customers again. It became something like a self-fulfilling prophecy. Without this early outlier, we would have given up too early and labeled the idea as a 0!

To sum it up:

There is no clear path how to go from 0 to 1.  But with this advises and the zero to one attitude in mind you can increase your likelihood to find the 1!