The Value of Starting from Zero (Divergent Thinking FTW)


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Yesterday I met with a savvy founder working on her first startup. She was looking for feedback and, of course wanted to mention that they happened to be closing out their angel round – there *might* be a little room left for me.

In all meetings, I like to get to the product as quickly as possible, so I asked:

“Can you show me your product?”  I’m a sucker for good product.

The founder proceeded to show me a site that looked exactly like Pinterest, but that was focused on a single vertical (which I will leave out).

“Pinterest clone!” was my immediate thought.

As the product was only 70% as refined as Pinterest, I quickly moved on:

“Uninspired founder!”

… and “Poor executer!”

At that point the meeting was basically over in my mind. Why?  

a) the projects and people I tend to invest in are ‘starting from zero’ and building up, and b) I only invest in folks who can build products that are as good or better than what’s in the market.

The LAUNCH Fund’s investments all have wickedly designed products:, and (and hey, two of three have .io domains – hmmmm).

These are my biases, and they’re largely based on my own reflection of when I’ve done great work and when I’ve done ‘menza menza’ work.

The Save
Interestingly, in the last five minutes I asked the founder why she wanted to build this product and she got a huge save. She explained her personal frustration trying to solve a problem in her life: the granular details of the problem and the potential solutions she tried after talking to her friends.

“...And why is none of that is in this product?” I asked her.

She didn’t have an answer, but I quickly laid it out for her: start from zero.

1. Find a world-class designer.

2. Find a world-class UX person.

3. Brainstorm as many solutions as possible without any regard for their ability to actually work.

4. Narrow down to the few that speak to you personally and mock them up.

5. Dream of insane ways to make them work.

Many of the big hits in the world come from divergent thinking. Not all, but many.

And when you’re trying to impress investors and get the attention of the world, there are a couple of buckets people will quickly put you and your idea into:

1. stolen/copied

2. evolutionary/iterative

3. groundbreaking/divergent

Now, this doesn’t mean folks are *correctly* bucketing your idea OR that it correlates with success.

Some of the most successful products in the world were stolen/copied from poorly executed earlier versions (Windows and Facebook were better executed versions of the Mac and MySpace).

For example, here is how most folks would react to common products when they first saw them:

1. copied: Facebook (Friendster 2.0)

2. evolutionary: Twitter (evolution of blogging); YouTube (evolution of RealPlayer)

3. revolutionary: Tesla, Uber, Google Glass

But there is a hack: you can move up in these buckets based on exceptional execution.

For example, Google search and the iPad were evolutionary – but people often level them up into the “groundbreaking” bucket because of exceptional execution (i.e. design, UX and performance).

Reactions to Google search and iPad:

1. copied: Cynics said Google & iPad were knock offs of Lycos & Microsoft tablets.

2. evolutionary: Accurately, Google & iPad were much evolved versions of Lycos & Microsoft tablets.  

3. revolutionary: Delusionally/over-generously, Google & iPad were groundbreaking devices.

The lessons here for this founder (and for all founders) are:

a) You don’t have to be groundbreaking/divergent to be successful, but you should be seriously iterative and evolutionary.

b) If you execute on an extraordinary level people will consider you groundbreaking even though you’re not.

c) Divergent thinking is a great way to classify yourself with the binary outcomes that investors are looking for.


My Example
When I created the LAUNCH Ticker I asked myself, “How can I get through all these horribly written tech stories more efficiently?”

I thought about all of these problems:

1. 90% of ‘journalists’ are no longer doing original reporting – they’re just rewriting other folks’ work. So if I read their piece, I really should have read the original.

2. The herd mentality of Techmeme drives 50 tech blogs to cover the same thing – and with no original reporting going on. I’m wasting a ton of time.

3. There are really interesting things out in the world spread across hundreds of niche sites I don’t have the time to scour.

So, I thought of a ton of solutions for this, and divergent thinking lead me to a simple one: someone would read all this stuff and come up to me every two hours and tell me what was going on in the world.

You know, like I was Captain Picard, President Obama or some other really important person who had a brilliant Lt. Commander Data to bring him reports, and Deanna Troi to give insights.

That manifested itself in a Google Doc, which then led to the building of a CMS for LAUNCH Ticker.

[ You can signup for the ticker here: ]

Which is a completely original idea that has resonated deeply with folks. People say to me, over and over, “This is the best product you’ve ever built!”

Of course, I tell them to wait for the divergent thinking of if they want to be really impressed.

[ You can signup for the beta of Inside: ]

And I’m obsessing over the design and experience of LAUNCH Ticker and Because in my head, I know the difference between being “evolutionary” and “revolutionary” is sometimes just how well you execute the UI, the content, the speed, the stability and the joy it brings folks.

Just like the Tesla is “just another car,” but all the little pieces add up to a revolutionary product.



1. Angels/VCs: How does my theory track with your investment experience?

2. Founders: Have you been placed into the wrong bucket? How did you level up?

3. Everyone: Thoughts on how you would evolve my theories here? These newsletters are a starting point – you hitting reply and calling BS on them is CRITICAL for me. 





PS - Had a divergent thinker Steve Jurvetson on This Week in Startups:

PPS - The LAUNCH Hackathon (Nov. 8 - 10, San Francisco) is in 23 days and we have 1,000 folks signed up. We need to hit 1,200 to be the largest hackathon in the world. Teams can register here:

PPPS - The LAUNCH Festival will be on Feb 24 - 26. We are giving 5k founders/ entrepreneurs scholarships here:

PPPS - My AngelList Syndicate is at $775k and my thinking right now is to close it at $1M. So, if you want in (and you are accredited/ rich):