I almost look forward to air travel these days, ever since I started experimenting with a ‘no screen time’ rule in-flight. So instead of consuming mindless entertainment, I can use all that time to sharpen the saw, as Stephen Covey calls it. 

Just when I was looking for a book to continue my unbroken no-screen streak, my mentor Dan Sullivan gifted Peter Thiel’s ‘Zero To One’. I’ve known it as a significant read, but for tech start-ups and the like, so I never put it on my read list. But, knowing that Dan always has good reasons for any recommendation, I went for it.

To begin with, the core concept is a useful way to look at innovation: doing what someone else already knows how to do takes the world from one to N, adding more of something familiar. But when you do something new or build breakthrough, you go from zero to one. 

One of the key points that I resonated with was about monopoly: companies that think they are monopolies, (but are not), tend to make a lot of noise about it. True monopolies tend to be almost invisible, and underplay their power. No matter what scale you are at, it definitely pays to be understated. Modesty beats extravagance each time. Google is a great example, as is the sage of Omaha, Warren Buffett. 

The framework of the book is centered around seven questions that every business must answer, for example, the Durability Question: Will your market position be defensible ten and twenty years into the future? These are useful in not only analysing your own situation, but use this to analyse companies that you benchmark against, as well as client companies that you will work with. 

As I raced through the slim volume, it became evident why Dan thought this would be a good read for me. While JTCPL Designs clearly is a 1-to-N firm and I identify with Jack Ma, more than with Elon Musk, I could clearly see the zero-to-one principles that had, instinctively and by design, helped us differentiate, grow and thrive. Here are my five top lessons that can even apply to 1-to-N companies. 

Wow the client to differentiate 

Extremely tight execution can be a huge differentiating factor. While the core model of my firm or other service companies is simple, adding exceptional delivery to the mix makes you unique. In combination with under-committing and over-delivering, you can wow clients in measurable ways. This alone, for example, has taken us to a unique position in our field, with a reputation to deliver impeccably. For example, a 100,000 sq ft workspace design-and-build project handed over in four months is a JTCPL Designs norm (in a world where a 1000 sq ft apartment can take in excess of a year).  

Focus on the quality of the team

You need to work with people who inspire you, and operate at the highest possible levels. They help you learn, and will be the best foundation for a truly unique business. 

Focus on the kind of clients you acquire

Learning which clients to on-board, and which ones to say no to can be tough, because you have to say no to cash-generating business. And in trying to stay focused, you say ‘no’ many more times that you say ‘yes’, so you have to be prepared for that. But if you stay true to your focus, what you build can be unique almost to the point of being monopolistic. 

A good 1-to-N business is akin to value-investing

Warren Buffett’s investment philosophy is, “When you build investment portfolios with long-term horizons, you don’t needlessly chop and churn. If you get your strategy right, restraint is more effective than needless action.” Building a 1-to-N business is like that; by focusing on a few important things and doing them right again and again, to the point that it feels monotonous to an outside observer. Meanwhile your excitement comes from building expertise and rigor. To the unique 1-to-N company it becomes like muscle-memory, so doing extremely complex things can feel like not doing much at all.

Be secure to start small

Not every business needs to be looking at a massive market-share landgrab. Some of the most strategic firms leverage small, highly effective teams and operations into massive impact. My mentor Dan Sullivan’s Strategic Coach is actually one of the best examples of this that I have seen. 

Finally, here’s a quote from the book that sums this all up at a personal and professional level. 

Tolstoy opens Anna Karenina by observing: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Business is the opposite. All happy companies are different: each one earns a monopoly by solving a unique problem. All failed companies are the same: they failed to escape competition.