musings & critique about hi-tech, academia, building startups, and a journal to building eKita
Zero Sum and Positive Sum mentality is a crucial issue for would-be entrepreneurs to understand. I argue it might even the most important.

What are Zero Sum and Positive Sum models?

Zero Sum, can be described as a model in which people believe the world has a finite amount of resources & value. Thus, everyone must compete over the finite (limited) resources that exist.
Zero Sum creates a very competitive world, where the only path to success or self-sustainability is through taking from others their resources, in order to increase your own.

This obviously also creates a very harsh world, where cooperation can only exist if 2 parties believe they can jointly take more resources away from others, than by themselves. In the end, both of these parties will turn on eachother to take eachother's resources, too.

A Zero Sum world is dark, dangerous, and not very pleasant, creative, or innovative.

Positive Sum, can be described as a model in which people believe the world has an infinite amount of resources & value. Thus, everyone agrees that the easiest way to create more resources & value for themselves, is simply to create it.
Positive Sum results in a very cooperative world, where the easiest path to success or self-sustainability is through combining efforts with others who are doing the same / similar things, and being able to jointly grow much bigger and stronger than one would be able to by oneself.

This obviously creates a very creative, innovative world as is in fact the only kind of world where innovation and creativity can flourish. Innovation can only happen when innovative minds (plural) join together to build not only innovative new products, but an innovative way to sustain such products in a business capacity.
This is what a company in itself is - a positive sum model where people work together to achieve a common goal.

So what does this have to do with startups?

This model is not only limited to a singular company however - as entire economies which embrace a positive sum model, become the powerhouses of the world. For example: Silicon Valley, Tel Aviv, Boston. Those who flourish in these epicenters of innovation, are all pretty much on the same page: in order to flourish, we must share, collaborate, and pool our common resources to support our goals of innovation.

Startups by nature are new entities formed to accomplish something that is quite above their resources & means to do so. Therefor, startups - above all other types of entities - benefit the most by embracing a positive sum model and finding the others that do as well.

This sounds vaguely familiar

Human beings are by nature a positive sum animal. We are biologically a pack animal that only survives by bonding together and pooling our resources, each of us with our own specialties and contributions, roles and responsibilities.

Unlike polar bears, which are a zero sum animal. Polar bears eat whatever they can find, including their own children. Which is why they also live alone, their entire lives.

So how can I embrace this and get the most out of it?

Simple. A common rule of thumb in the innovation / startup industry is:
Create value and profit will follow.
So, focus on creating value. Just like a positive sum mentality dictates: create solutions, create resources, create value in what you do and in the space around you. Profit will follow.

Want an example?

Take a simple walk around to various startups and coworking spaces in Silicon Valley/Alley/Wadi - and you will see something that is rare in much of the rest of the world: people creating, out of seemingly thin air, new value - and sharing that value with eachother. Present in these ecosystems is not only an atmosphere of sharing knowledge, techniques, and opportunities - but there is a very different attitude in place. An attitude driven by openness, curiosity, and a true interest in building new things.
Everyday work in innovation ecosystems is quite a bit different than most people expect: People get together and talk, share their ideas, stories, and projects. They share contacts, share notes, and help eachother solve problems.
Startups in these successful ecosystems are predominantly built with a relatively flat hierarchy. Bureaucracy is taboo, shunned by all.
There are countless events, every night - setup by enthusiasts eager to share their knowledge - and, quite obviously, full of participants not only eager to learn; but also eager to share theirs as well.
The entire concept of "un-conference" birthed out of these startup ecosystems. This wasn't the only new model of human organization that became common-language due to startup ecosystems either. I'm sure you all have heard of "co-working spaces" - "hot desking" and both physical and virtual "collaborative workspaces".

The heralding of a new economic revolution, say goodbye to the industrial age!

In recent years there is even a new phenomena around using the "crowd". Crowdsourcing, crowdfunding - literally putting a request for value or resources out into the open and seeing how people eagerly jump in and provide that value or resource. A more cooperative and inclusive system would have never been thought possible by most, just 5 or 10 short years ago.
All of this might not seem so interesting to our younger readers; who are growing up in this new economic model. However, for those of us only as young as 30 - we remember quite well the early years of our careers where such concepts were considered absolutely crazy...and thus so were we for trying them anyway!

The mentality shift in professional and social life in the last few decades has obviously seen more shifts and more progress (I like to optimistically call it that) than most - if not all - previous generations. Business mentality in how to build new businesses with waste management sciences such as Lean Six Sigma, SCRUM, agile & leanstartup are becoming a fore-front issue in innovation ecosystems; and those companies that dont learn these techniques are rapidly dying.

In conclusion

So, you want to build a startup? Find others around you who openly share, give, and of course learn to do the same yourself.

Think about this...
If you have 50 hours a week, and you give 1 hour of your time to 2 people each week; what have you really lost? 2 hours?

Now, if you spend 4 weeks (a month) giving 1 hour to 2 new people each week (4 weeks * 2 people = 8 people) and just 1 of those 8 people turns out to be helpful? What have you lost? 2 * 7 = 14 hours?

Now, for that 1 person who turns out to be helpful - lets say he connects you with a co-founder for your startup, or intros you to an investor who wants to invest, or helps you solve a technical issue that saves you 4 months of bad technical decisions. What have you gained?

Furthermore, for the 14 hours you "wasted" on the other 7 people? You've actually gained something: you know that you never have to waste time or resources on them again.

So actually, you have gained everything.
You've not only found others who are good people to work with, share with, and collaborate with...
...but you've quickly found out who isn't - saving you from potentially wasting infinitely more time and resources on people who aren't worth it.

So don't be afraid to waste a bit of time helping others, providing value for them. Even if they don't return it.

People who aren't generous, who don't provide value openly, will not succeed anyway. So really the most important thing for you is to find an efficient way to figure out who the real valuable people are: the ones who will share, collaborate, and communicate as generously as you. This method works great for me.
Once you've found those who aren't generous, valuable, and capable? You can ignore them - leave them in your dust. Because they probably don't even know how to contribute anyway.

Like I said before...
Create value and profit will follow.
If you want to be a part of a successful startup ecosystem:
  • learn to focus on creating value for those around you
  • find cooperation where you thought there was only competition; a win-win situation is almost always possible
  • study and learn not only techniques, but also mentality and attitude from ecosystems that have succeeded
  • when opportunity arises to create new value, seize it!
  • always strive to be inclusive - if you leave your door open, value and profit will come to you