Going from Zero to One

Zero to one is the process of creating new things while 1 to n is ‘copying things that work.’ 01 Nov 2012

In the first session of his class at Stanford, Peter Thiel uses the framework of “0 to 1” and “1 to n” to talk about technology and progress.

At a most basic level, 0 to 1 refers to the process of creating new things, or simply “technology.” True innovation is synonymous with going from 0 to 1. You start with nothing and create something.

In contrast, 1 to n is, in Thiel’s words, “copying things that work”. It is similar to what Clayton Christensen calls “sustaining innovations.” While the difficult work of 0 to 1 is mainly creative in nature, 1 to n is primarily a management and distribution problem. The enduring image of 1 to n is the factory line – repeatable processes embedded within a hierarchical organization.

Startups exist because large companies find it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to go back to 0 once they are already at n. To innovate, large companies have to find a small group of talented people and literally send them away to begin fresh, without the influence of the parent company.

Startups are a natural home for multi-disciplinary thinkers because they require people able to consider the deep aspects of problems and synthesize novel solutions to them. Being able to see beyond narrow limits allows solutions to appear that would have remained hidden had a question been considered only from the perspective of a specific discipline. And getting multi-disciplinary people to talk to each other multiplies this effect.

But many startups don’t take the revolutionary nature of their mission seriously enough. Too many vestiges of big company thinking make their way in. The 9 to 5, Monday through Friday work week is a holdover from the factory line, not the natural schedule of someone engaged in critical-thinking about difficult problems. Hierarchical titles and rigid departmental structures are more examples of big company thinking.

Undoubtedly, not all startups are engaged in true 0 to 1 work. Many startups are simply small companies engaged in 1 to n work. But for those attempting true innovation, the highest priority must be fostering an environment that allows multi-disciplinary thinkers the best chance to create things the world has never seen before.