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What the “Start over with Nothing” thought experiment teaches us about entrepreneurship

What the “Start over with Nothing” thought experiment teaches us about entrepreneurship

There’s a fun game entrepreneurs play over drinks: 

Imagine starting over, totally from scratch.

With nothing.

Probably in an unfamiliar country or something. 

You have zero access to any of the capital or physical resources you have now.

You get to keep everything that’s already in your head: All the experience and hard-won learnings. 

But that’s it.

How long would it take you to get back to where you are today, success-wise?

People like to imagine that the Richard Branson or Elon Musk types of this world would wake up unrecognizable in some exotic place and immediately concoct a scheme. They’d figure out some re-brand, re-selling of bananas (or whatever).

Within a week, they’d be being driven around in a Rolls Royce. They’d be wearing a five thousand dollar suit. They’d be hailed by the locals as an entrepreneur genius. 

Or so the popular wisdom goes. 

I’m skeptical. 

I think there’s one important question to ask about this game:

Do you get to take your Rolodex with you?

If you were to really “start from scratch”, do you get access to that mentor who set you on your path when you were young? 

Do you get access to that first boss, who taught you everything you know about X?

Do you get that first client who unknowingly financed your first website… the website that landed you your second client… 

You get the idea. 

You can’t really remove entrepreneurial success from the environment it happens in.

An intricate and invisible web of social, psychological relationships weaves around you. It lifts you up and is as much a part of your success as your attitudes and thinking. 

Entrepreneurs struggle when they operate from a place of total entrepreneurial isolation.

The internet enables more people to build small – and large (but decentralized) – businesses from home than ever. The side effect of this? Entrepreneurs are more disconnected than ever before in history.

It is now absolutely normal for a business owner to operate from home and only socialize with “civilian” 9-to-5er friends, or – at best – people in wildly different businesses to theirs. 

The days of spending your time in close physical proximity to the people you’re accountable to – as an entrepreneur – are over.

This is problematic.

Isolation makes entrepreneurship harder than it should be.

This is why – if you really were to start over from scratch – your results would skyrocket the second you got someone in your corner. Genuinely support does tremendous things for the entrepreneur brain.

To drop into any situation and show up immediately as a focused, high leverage, execution powerhouse… requires help: Business success requires other humans to activate your social-primate brain that, in turn, motivates and focuses you. 

The first thing Richard Branson would do if were he dropped (unrecognizable) into Marrakesh with ten dollars in his pocket… would be assembling a team. 

You’re not supposed to do this by yourself. 


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  1. AMEN! Thank you for this post.

    THIS is the conversation we need to be having — CONNECTION is the missing element in the high performance entrepreneurial innovation equation. We are wired for it, and simply because one feels that they are an individualistic free thinking innovator does not make them less in need of this, in fact, if anything, it makes them starved for it that much more.

    I am convinced that this lack of connection/integration has everything to do with spiking rates of depression, suicide, addiction and divorce, particularly among entrepreneurs, than anything else.

    Thank you for speaking to this issue – it is so badly needed!

    1. 100% agreed Jenev.

      I’ve worked closely with many entrepreneurs who have constructed a lone wolf mythology for themselves and – for a whole host of reasons – it’s ended up landing them in a pretty miserable space IN SPITE of success.

      It’s an issue of incorrect pattern recognition: These people start retrospectively analyzing why they were able to win, and they pick out reasons that make them feel good. Invariably, they’re factors that lionize their personality and personal “origin story”.


    Understanding the impact of external social, political, and economic factors on individual success is so important. Likewise the importance of having other minds present to process ideas, fill in gaps of your knowledge, spark creativity, etc. etc.

    To me the idea of the “lone wolf” entrepreneur is analogous to thinking a writer invents the language whenever they begin a new book/article/etc. It completely ignores the prior context and support structures that enable them to do what they do.

    The writer has the grammar, syntax, and vocabulary of their language, but also the influence of other writers throughout history. Ideas, arguments, metaphors, tropes, and so on. The writer doesn’t create ex nihilo, but assembles a new creation out of the already-existing resources at their disposal. It is the same for the entrepreneur.

    1. I love your writer metaphor. It’s so accurate, especially when you think about Joseph Campbell’s hero mythology/archetype stuff.

      Thanks for the great thoughts Jason, you said much of this better than I ever could!

  3. Last year, I spent way too much time in isolation, drinking the guru koolaid from ads online.

    I made some pretty stupid mistakes (that I should have known already) seeing that I’d already built a successful practice years prior (before taking time off to have children).

    I tried to relaunch with FB ads as my only strategy. Got a bit of traction before Zucc shut me down. With no explanation, no recourse, it was truly a black swan event since anyone I knew with experience in this area had no idea why it happened or how to fix it.

    My point is this: My business eventually did pick back up — and it was ONLY through the kindnesses, the good will, the support and encouragement from real live, loving caring PEOPLE.

    I completely agree, Peter! You can’t build in isolation. Mentors, teachers, helpers pave the way. Our most fruitful relationships are built slowly and deliberately through trust, honesty and integrity.

    The rockstar entrepreneur in your tale better make damn sure he’s got some friends in the exotic village first before hatching a scheme. Otherwise, he’ll be shoved out of the group left to the hyenas.

  4. “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less…” And we’ll leave it just there at the double entendre!”

  5. It really is about who you know. I never thought that I “knew” anyone. I never thought that I had a network, until one day, at my new job, an old client of theirs recognized my last name. He used to work with my dad. Suddenly he TRUSTED ME to deliver what he needed for this job. Very quickly my boss was no longer part of the conversation and she left me to work out all the details. It was a huge step for me. Both professionally and personally! After that one incident, I realized that no matter what situation I was in, I “knew” someone. I have since gotten other jobs by calling an old friend, classmate or boss. People now call me and ask for assistance or advice. Its still an amazing feeling when it happens, and I cherish those people. They are the ones that will help me land my next client.

  6. Wow, thanks so much for this article. It’s exactly what I needed to hear. Because that’s what keeps me trapped all this time. I kind of realized it that year that I don’t want to be a Solopreneur anymore. And I feel that a lot of people are playing a similar game. Especially a lot of Online Business Owners. Again thanks so much for sharing Peter.

  7. This is sooooo spot on. I notice a lot of the “disconnected” are actually the most miserable.

    Work so hard for cash, get that cash level they sought or MORE even, and their life sucks.

    No family
    No true friends
    No health
    No sense of “well-being”

    Whats the point of making money if you lose everything else?

    You hit on a REALLY big point here that I think is even more important than “starting over” which is people missing out on the purpose of biz in the first place. All this desire to create a “lifestyle business” is often built upon the idea of “i don’t need a boss” or “i don’t need a 9-5” or whatever it is…

    I don’t need that. F*** you world.

    I always mention to my friends who say “I don’t want a job with a sucky boss”…I don’t want that either…what’s your point?

    They look at me funny but some take the point. Who says a “job” has to have a sucky boss?

    If thats all someone wants then getting a job with a good boss is 100x easier than starting a business. To me the point of business is to solve problems. If you like that…biz is fun. If you hate that…well you’re gonna have a rough life 🙂

    I think people really miss this…and you hit the nail on the head.

    Healthy people aren’t loners. Humans aren’t wired to be alone for too long. Chunks of solitude is good…but I don’t know a single person who can go without quality time with others that they find affinity with. Granted, I have only been here for 33 years so far but have found zero people.

    Cast Away and the book Robinson Crusoe or even Count of Monte Cristo all hit upon what happens when humans are “alone” for too long.

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