To Go 0 to 1, First Go -1 to 0

Why product-market fit requires founder-market fit

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There is often an awkward stage before founding a company when you have a drive to build—but it can be difficult to know where to apply that energy. Ruchi Sanghvi is an expert at solving this problem. She founded and runs South Park Commons, one of the world’s premier communities for builders. I’ve always found the SPC team to be thoughtful and helpful, and this piece continues that trend. Read Ruchi’s piece to learn how to become the kind of person who can build a company of their own. —Evan

If you have ever discovered a word that describes something you knew but couldn’t express, you are familiar with the power of naming. 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 initial years after founding South Park Commons (SPC) in late 2015, I didn’t have 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—as the first female engineer at Facebook, co-founder of productivity and collaboration software company Cove, and VP of operations at Dropbox after Cove’s acquisition—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 shared ambiguity. This is not an article about SPC, but about the problem it was built for—to help talented, ambitious technologists and founders figure out what's next. We now call this stage -1 to 0.

The squiggle between -1 and 0

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

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This may sound simple, but it can be overwhelming and isolating in practice. That period before SPC was not my first -1 to 0 experience. I spent the year after leaving Facebook to start Cove feeling like I was banging my head against a wall. I had left the most exciting startup of my generation to sit in the old clothing factory office I had rented, trying to come up with an idea. My friends were solving important problems while I was looking for a problem to solve. I struggled with self-doubt. But those months were absolutely necessary. They led to my idea for Cove, and they also highlighted the need for a structured environment and more systematic thinking about -1 to 0.

As I discovered, talent and drive aren’t enough. If anything, talent can make finding ideas feel more daunting because it increases the number of available opportunities.

Your goal at -1 is to turn the chaos of everything you could do into conviction in what you will do. Most people—especially first-time founders—underestimate this search for conviction, or fail to even consider it a distinct part of the journey. They anchor on the glass-eating reputation of the difficult later stages and are 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.

For many people, -1 to 0 is also about deciding how you want to work. In a startup? In 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 with plans to start a company, go through our programming, and ultimately decide that a startup is not the right path for them. That is a successful -1 to 0 outcome.

But for the rest of this piece, I will assume you want to build a venture-scale technology startup. That is where I have the most experience, and it is the most common path we help members navigate at SPC. For founders like you, -1 to 0 affects everything that happens in your startup journey, and it’s important to 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 0 to 1. That’s intentional. 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—to build something new. 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.

If 0 to 1 is about product-market fit, -1 to 0 is about founder-market fit. Figure out what you want to build and why you are the right person to build it before you start.

This is helpful shorthand, but also a bit diffuse. So much more happens in -1 to 0 than in 0 to 1. The squiggle takes you all over the place, which allows you to focus your efforts when you finally find a path. I’m not saying that product-market fit is easy, but just the opposite: it’s one of the hardest things you’ll ever attempt, so it benefits founders to shift as much prep work into the -1 to 0 stage as they can so that they can focus later on.

There are many in Silicon Valley who will tell you otherwise. Prevailing wisdom is that talented founders can take funding and throw things at the wall until something sticks, or that all you need is that first group of users who love something you’ve 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. You need conviction that is earned through a disciplined ideation process. Others might call this 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 whose belief you need in the early stages—customers, recruits, investors, yourself. The less proof you have, the more likely that 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 without 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 weaker fundraising environment than in 2021, it’s still relatively easy for founders to raise seed money with just a good idea, or with no idea at all. This is a trap. A low-proof fundraise is more likely to leave you without a clear path to product-market fit or your next round of financing. 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. 

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 number eight 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 he decided to take his time and join me and the early group at SPC. Anurag collaborated with everyone, iterating and testing hypotheses that 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. 

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. There are best practices, of course. 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 spend the next several years of their lives in the squiggle, struggling to find conviction. Value your time. Spend a bit of it upfront so you don’t waste more of it later. If you haven’t built conviction at the end of a dedicated period of ideation, 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 fund-raise. Go slow to go fast.

The core takeaway from my time in Silicon Valley is to think of -1 to 0 as a discrete stage of company-building. Treat ideation like your job. You will not have a eureka moment and come up with a billion-dollar idea for a company 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.

Ruchi Sanghvi is the founder of South Park Commons, a community and venture capital fund. She was previously the vice president of operations at Dropbox, which she joined following the acquisition of her company Cove. Prior to Cove, Ruchi was the first female engineer at Facebook. This piece was originally published on SPC’s website.

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@batsirai 6 months ago

Would love to get resources like worksheets or questions we can ask ourselves as we work through this -1-0 phase. I’m in it right now, ex-Buffer PM, trying to decide what to problem to solve and who to serve.

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