Why Are Entrepreneurs and Artists Alike

by | Jun 1, 2015

I recently finished reading a book which in many ways I found inspiring. This was because it managed to put into words some basic foundations of my perception of art and entrepreneurship. The book, Redesigning Leadership, by John Maeda, explains the role of leadership from a creative person’s point of view. Why did I find it inspiring and important? Mainly because the majority of leadership literature brings examples from the business world. How many of us read Lee Iacocca, Jack Walsh, Warren Buffett, and others? Yet, we hardly hear about leadership role models from the creative world. Maeda’s book aided me in articulating my thoughts – I have always claimed that entrepreneurs and artists are, in many ways, alike – they are both visionaries, push boundaries, are passionate, and inspiring. Maeda used the artist’s characteristics to describe leadership. I built on Maeda’s description to present the similarities between artists and entrepreneurs.

You might wonder who Maeda is and why he is a good example. I think he is a good example because he lives in the business world as well as in the artistic world. He is a designer, engineer, artist, and an MBA graduate – in the past, he was the President of the Rhode Island School of Design, and currently a Design Partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, a venture capital firm based in Silicon Valley. As such, he has many of the traits that I find in creative-entrepreneurial people.

I chose to start with a story Maeda is telling in his book which captures the common opinion about artists and their contribution to our world: “When I meet with politicians around…RISD..I often ask them if they have any RISD interns working for them. Their reaction is often one of amusement: ‘No, I have interns from Brown University [Ivy League Research University] or Providence College, but not RISD. I don’t need people drawing pictures for me.’”

This notion that artists are doing insignificant daily activities is something I believe should be changed. Most of the artists I know are determinate, passionate, hard-working people with a unique perception of the world around them. Frequently I hear that “you can either be creative or have a business mind” – but you can’t have both.

I think it’s incorrect and definitely arguable. In my mind entrepreneurs are artists.
They bring their creativity to life by creating businesses, companies, and products. They are the artists of the business world.

I developed my viewpoint about art and entrepreneurship through personal past experiences. Most of my closest friends are entrepreneurs, artists, designers, and creative professionals, and what I see is many similarities. Some of these common traits were presented in Maeda’s book. While Maeda focuses on the creative point of view, I tried to share here my humble opinion about the implications and similarities between the two – the artist and the entrepreneur.

Get your hands dirty – artists and designers say, Maeda, are not afraid to get their hands dirty in the process of creating art. They are their own painters, producers, marketers, and more. Experienced entrepreneurs know that in order to succeed, you do everything it takes – you are the salesperson who goes from door-to-door, you are the money collector, you are the customer representative, you are the business development. You do everything you need in order to succeed – in other words, you get dirty when needed while creating your own company.

Iterate – You’re probably familiar with the Lean Startup methodology. The methodology, which encourages countless iteration of the product/service in order to learn what the company’s customers are looking for, is the leading methodology in the startup world today. Every entrepreneur can quote from this book the concept of iteration. Designers, mentioned in the book, are trained to solve problems through making iterations – exactly like entrepreneurs. Artists are not hesitating to “jump” into creating something new, try new techniques and achieve what they desire. This process is iteration – you try new colors, new methods, and new techniques to get the end result.

Gut feeling – “For an artist ‘doing the right thing’ isn’t about logically selecting from a set of evaluated options, but is about feeling what is right at the moment,” wrote Maeda. In the past, I wrote about the link between management, art, and ‘gut feeling’ (Read it here). Good managers have good instincts which in many circumstances can be called gut feeling. He claims artists combine doing and thinking at the same time. They don’t necessarily plan the end result – they start working and while in the process they think about how they proceed; what motivates them is their belief in themselves to do the right thing when needed. It is quite similar to entrepreneurs. You often hear entrepreneurs that started with the belief they want to change something, yet they didn’t have a clear idea of what they were doing or how it was going to end Some of their friends and family members told them they are crazy, some told them it couldn’t be done – but they continued. They believed in their ability to get to the end result – how they going to do it, that doesn’t matter – they just do it.

Challenge – Many of us are familiar with the image of the “suffering artists” – those that don’t have sufficient resources to eat or to live a proper life, Well it is interesting because in his book Maeda mentioned a young student who complained that her life was like this. Maeda, wondering why she claimed it wasn’t satisfying, spoke with his colleague, Jessie Shefrin, on that matter. Shefrin answered [The student complained because] “all artists yearn to struggle. Without it, they don’t feel alive.” This answer made me think about all the successful entrepreneurs that already gained success and had enough money to retire but still went on to start a new company, develop a new product or service – I truly believe that it’s the need to do something new – it is the challenge. I am certain that entrepreneurs like the challenge of new things, similar to artists that don’t make themselves comfortable.

Intense life– Artists are derived from an intense life. The pressure from exhibitions, sales, and art critics is high. Yet, this pressure motivates the artist to prove they have something to say to the world. You can see artists exhausted, tired, depressed but still passionate and committed. This intense life is the entrepreneur’s life as well – the pressure of being on schedule for product launch, hiring and managing people, dealing with cash flow, suppliers, customers, banks. All these factors create an intense journey of the entrepreneurial life with no promise of big success. Maeda summarized it when saying that this is “…what artists do all the time – pursue high personal rewards with only the tiniest chance of success.”

The big picture view – Artists are influenced by what is happening around them. Each place and every story can be a great stimulus for artworks, and since the world is the artist’s influential source, they are aware of their surroundings. Artists may look at the world from a helicopter point of view; they will see the big picture. Entrepreneurs are visionaries; they look into the future and they know they want to be there. They react to what is happening in the world, they recognize opportunities and pursue them. Good entrepreneurs, in my opinion, have the helicopter point of view; one that can understand what is happening around them in a larger context.

Criticism – Artists are looking for critiques’ attention. The criticism process though can be painful and tough for the artist, is a common practice in art schools. Through this process, the artists learn how to improve, how to transmit a message, how people react to and interact with their works. Without criticism, you can’t learn something new and can’t highlight blind spots. “Critique teaches you to listen hard to others’ criticism so you can listen hardest to yourself,” said Shefrin at Maeda’s books. I think that another word we can use for criticism is feedback, a process entrepreneurs are looking for. When you are constantly looking for feedback from your customers, you move forward toward your target faster. I believe that “not knowing” can stimulate our curiosity and our openness to new things – smart entrepreneurs will be able to say “I don’t know” or “I don’t understand” in order to learn something new. Maeda summarized it better “Feedback makes the mind grow stronger”.

It’s about what you feel – In a previous post I mentioned Roger Mavity’s book “The Rule Breaker’s Book of Business.” Mavity opened his book with the sentence “This book is devoted to the belief that cold-blooded analysis is due for a kick in the backside, and it’s high time to put passion, vision, and creativity back where they belong: center stage.”

Why did I mention Mavitiy’s sentence here and what does it mean? It means that data is important but it is emotions that make things happen. You can’t convince people to buy your product by presenting data – you can convince them by relating to them emotionally with your product – “Stories trump statistics” said Maeda. Similar to the artists who are very good at telling their stories via different Mediums (painting, photography, video, etc.), the entrepreneurs are storytellers. Don’t get me wrong here. I don’t mean that a bad product or service can be successful just because you are a good storyteller, but I think you can do better if you have a good product and good telling story skills.

Intuition and Failure – Artists are acting upon their intuition. They don’t think it through but rather start doing it and then think about how to continue. Though it may sound like artists are gamblers, risk-takers with no plan, I think it’s more about their ability to feel what is right for them based on their intuition. Entrepreneurs are often operating in new fields that nobody was before, just like artists. There is no guide for these situations – entrepreneurs can only trust their judgment and intuition to do the right thing. Doing the right thing may require failure along the way. Intuition or “gut feeling” is something that you also develop as you go through your failures and successes. In a similar way to the artist who believes and is confident that they can do great things even if they fail on the way. The entrepreneur is going on a roller-coaster ride in the entrepreneurial journey. In this journey, which most of the time will end in failure rather than in success, the entrepreneur must count on themselves.

As you can see, there are similarities between entrepreneurs and artists; I’m quite positive that if I will continue to research I can find more. I hope I managed to show a different angle of an artist. I believe that engaging with art and getting to know other artists can expose one to a new way of thinking. If you are a business person, try to get to know artists…maybe you can gain more than you think.

I hope you enjoyed the post; I would greatly appreciate if you can share it and If you have your own thoughts about it, please share them with me.

Watch Maeda’s TED Talk


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