The Mindset of the Entrepreneur #2: The Danger of Zero Sum Thinking

Updated: Feb 10, 2019



While a great start needs a great product or service, the start also needs a found that has the right mindset. This is the second in a series of blog posts that will be focused on the mindset of successful entrepreneurs.

Over the years, we have talked to and interacted with thousands of startup founders from all over the world. They come to Silicon Valley for many reasons. They want to sell their product or service in the US market. They want to attract talent. They want to find channel partners. They want funding from a Silicon Valley venture capital firm or possible be acquired by one of the companies here. Silicon Valley is seen as a place with almost unlimited potential. And they are not wrong. But there are many factors that get in the way of their success. One of the largest is zero sum thinking.

Zero-sum thinking is captured by the saying "your gain is my loss" (or conversely, "your loss is my gain"). It is driven by the belief that the size of a market is finite. The pie is only “this big.” As a result, all the players in a market are fighting over how big is their piece of the pie. In a zero-sum world, everyone is a competitor. Marc Andreessen states, “The rise of zero-sum thinking — which has come snapping back recently — slows and even halts progress.”

Why is zero-sum thinking so harmful? The effect of zero-sum thinking is that you end up seeing everyone a competitor… the enemy… someone that must be defeated… someone that can’t be trusted. For a startup founder, this creates a fear that “someone is going to steal my idea!” And that fear keeps the founder from sharing openly with other people about their product or service. They are guarded and only give out tiny nuggets of information. And they almost never share with other people what are the things they need help with… what keeps them up at night.

By adopting this attitude, they do themselves and their company a grave disservice.

In Silicon Valley, most people have the opposite attitude. We view everyone around us not as a competitor, but as a resource – someone who can help me achieve my goals. This is because most people in Silicon Valley are thinking about “How can we make the pie bigger?” If the pie is constantly getting bigger, everyone in the market does better.

When you share openly about what you are doing and most importantly the help that you need, other people can actually help you. They can tell you about a new technology that they saw recently. They can refer someone as a potential employee. They can tell you about a company that is looking for a product or service like yours. The list is endless.

In a recent podcast, Marc Andreessen and Ben Horowitz of the VC firm bearing their name talked in greater detail about zero sum thinking and how it negatively impacts progress. You can listen to the podcast here.


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