Day Zero

This might as well be a private journal entry and it’s certainly an internal narrative found biking in -0º weather and walking alone in the woods during 2 very cold weeks in Iowa. Sometimes time alone just gives you space to think and other times the inspiration from others is just what you need.

What got me thinking about this was three-fold. The suggestion from a friend to read Innovation Stack, which I slowly did as he can attest. A Junto comprised of a group of people who I now think of as friends even though initially I was intimated by them. And an astounding amount of dialogue with my friends JT & Sarah who have helped to reframe my own thoughts back to me in ways that have made what I’m trying to say feel clearer. I’m attempting to cite inspirations for this blog as opposed to closing with those who approved of it. I don’t know that anyone will approve of it.

Preamble complete. Day Zero has been on my mind a lot late lately.

Day Zero, as I mean it here, is the genesis moment for a big idea or movement. Being present at this moment is profound for everyone involved. When it happens, you perpetually know you were in the room when it happened.

When it happens, the connection to ideas feels inalienable. Ideas can be profound and change us. Yes, without action they are meaningless but my life is filled with people with a bias for action so I assume that impacts my thinking here. The connection we have to the discovery of an idea and how we view its impact on the world is a direct corollary, for some of us, to being present when the idea is formed with the same people who will bring the idea into the world.

So much of the technology we’re going to experience over the next 100 years isn’t even at Day Zero yet. The majority of the influences that society will measure future innovations on 20 years from now are scaled, but many of the innovations that will have changed the world in 2041 haven’t even been put into motion. It’s one of the incredible things about being alive right now and having an opportunity to build companies. Which can now be built more quickly, at less cost, and distributed more quickly than ever before.

The optimism for the future lives in sales pitches and in an overarching market euphoria but the number of people who are acting on Day Zero insights with deep conviction are a rare breed. These folks are at the genesis of the scariest and most rewarding ideas in history. They might be in existing companies who no one expects to breakout, founding new ones, and writing papers that are going to be deeply misunderstood. Many of them are simply doing the hard work quietly because they believe.

These ideas and teams cure Cancer & Parkinsons, crack the exposome, free transportation from the confines of concrete + emissions we’re currently poisoning the planet with, give control of the internet knowledge-base to the people freeing it from any regime’s control, create the world’s new Alexandria, and solve warfare by teaching computers that some human ideas are simply incomputable nonsense. Maybe not that last one but I’m hoping for the best.

Ideally, they’ll even standardize fairness in ways that humans could have never thought of. It’s possible that a Day Zero discussion, that can’t get to day one, is that fairness is a purely human concept and the various solutions we rely on should be rethought. Nature certainly doesn’t mimic fairness nor do economics but they both force equilibriums. Depending on the people who are in the room the argument would likely be made that those equilibriums are a form of fairness. Either way, it’s an unsolved problem.

So many of the solutions don’t yet exist just like it’s not clear how to scale fairness globally. Someone will create them and when they do some group of people will be present at the genesis of the idea who see it into the world. I’m convinced that being present at that point in time changes who people are.

The genesis of an idea is long before it’s anything else. For an idea or a team, it’s a Day Zero conversation where the DNA of the thing is being formed as its being discussed. Being present for the genesis of something for which you deeply care becomes a part of you.

Jeff Bezos has a memorable memo about Day 1. It’s always resonated with me because it forces us to remember that no one’s place is guaranteed. Not within a team and not with the client. Some things have to be earned everyday, just like on day 1. Execution isn’t a given and teams who execute tend to rule the day, as well as the market.

Thiel’s concept of from Zero to One, something from nothing has also influenced my thinking on this a lot. It’s a basic thought but I really enjoy the Zero part and learning from people who have been changed by it. On that day, what to do isn’t clear and you’re not even sure how to measure it. When the best solution is to invite the smartest and most transparent people in the world to see what happens next. It’s the moment when the probability is that you’ll be swimming in failure searching for something that’s not there for some unknown and vast amount of time. It’s grey area where the statistical probability of your success is so remarkably laughably low that to continue is nonsense.

On Day Zero, there are only ideas and it’s everything that happens to get to day 1 that is the focus. It’s where most people get scared and where most ideas die. Where our discomfort and fear of sounding crazy stops us from speaking.

Day Zero is where the bonds to ideas and people can’t ever be undone. It’s where the context comes from that you can never really explain to anyone else.

A trait that’s hard to ignore when talking to people involved in these things is that they came together with dramatically different views. Yet, while modernity pushes us further away and at times those different views have become so polarizing it’s hard to remember that the differing viewpoints can actually help make us better. Acceptance and tolerance of certain viewpoints aside (human focused isms are things I personally deeply struggle with tolerating), trust matters.

For example, if you were talking about the merits of the creation of the United States, your opinion might vary based on where you are at in the world. If you were talking about the value in creating a new currency and thinking about examples with the creation of the federal bank and balancing private investments, your opinion might vary based on your life experiences or even your general awareness of the funding scheme that brought Columbus to the Americas. While the vast differences in experience, context, and viewpoints could create conflict, when there is absolute trust on Day Zero, the likelihood of a genuinely novel view being developed feels higher likelihood than by happenstance. Trust holds your differing viewpoints together so you can find truth. It’s the thing that keeps people in the room so it can happen.

What can change the course of everyone involved is when the folks present on Day Zero have the ability to finance, recruit, and build everything needed on the subsequent days. When that happens the likelihood the change actually occurs in the world is significantly higher. While this moves the needle a little, the likelihood of success is still infinitesimally small… Yet we persist.

If you ask teams to repeat what happened on their Day Zero and how things came about, I think you’ll find they’ll agree in public but their personal recollection is a game of Rashomon. While the emotional recollection of the bond tends to be different, everyone agrees it existed and the descriptions hardly matter.

After that, on Day 1 it’s all something very different. On Day zero emotional bonds are formed to concepts and on Day 1, we execute them.

Day Zero at Dwolla (for me) was sitting on the steps of my old company’s warehouse talking to a friend about it being time to start something new, and feeling like everything that came out of my mouth for 24 months after that was ridiculous. I started pitching bankers on replacing the credit card networks and how https was the obvious transition from batch.

For many people at Dwolla now, their Day Zero moment might be the moment when we debated, at volume, if the future of the company was literally being the extension of a bank or being the white label infrastructure for businesses. It might be something else. In hindsight, Day Zero can actually repeat. I know it has for me at Dwolla and will likely continue to. It can happen when a company already exists and a new idea is tied to an insight that wouldn’t exist without the company. It’s hard not to think of the iPhone or AWS in this context.

Lately, it seems that fresh perspectives have given life to a stream of seemingly nonsense ideas and conversations in my life. The debates would certainly sound insane to any uninitiated observer but now that I know what this is, it feels quite comforting.

On Day Zero, everything is possible.