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When entrepreneurs believe they’re artists, it’s okay – let’s break down the wall

“Are startups ‘the new art’?” asked a moustache-clad TechCrunch writer in an interview with SoundCloud CEO Alexander Ljung at TechCrunch Disrupt in Berlin last week.

After a suspended pause, Ljung carefully responded, “No… but there’s a huge amount of creativity and artistic elements involved in creating a great startup.”

The same day, Wall Street Journal Europe’s Tech Editor Ben Rooney posted a commentary on the exchange and wrote: “When people start to talk about startups as art, rather than what they are (or what they should be), which is businesses, then the hubris bubble gets a huge injection of hot air.”

I agree – startups are not art, nor are they “the new art” (whatever that means). And yes, it’s slightly disconcerting when people begin discussing startups in this manner.

However, one vague question doesn’t make a discussion, especially when it was preceded by this smartly-worded one: “So, could you explain the factors that contribute to Berlin’s music scene being so fucking awesome?” (?!)

And to use a headline such as “When entrepreneurs believe they are artists, get out”, as Rooney did, is to send a different kind of message – one that implies a sharp entrepreneur-artist dichotomy and suggests that mixing the two can lead to a startup bubble…

Entrepreneurs and artists – they’re not that different

Last month, Twitter cofounder and Square CEO Jack Dorsey gave a talk at Y Combinator’s Startup School that consisted of – among other things – a reading from The Art Spirit by American painter Robert Henri interspersed with commentary on how the passages deeply impacted his entrepreneurial journey.

“Art – when really understood – is a province of every human being. It is simply a question of doing things, anything, well. It is not an outside, extra thing,” Dorsey read to the audience.

“When the artist is alive in any person, whatever his kind of work may be, he becomes an inventive, searching, daring, self-expressing creature. He disturbs, upsets, enlightens, and he opens for a better way of understanding. Where those who are not artists are trying to close the book, he opens it; shows there are still more pages possible.” 

Many entrepreneurs, including Steve Blank and Paul Graham, have openly embraced the cross-pollination of art and technology.

The tech press? Not so much. After Dorsey’s talk, a number of snarky headlines trickled into the interwebs – a tech writer was so weirded out he even referred to it as a “strange but surprisingly well-received lecture”.

Dorsey’s presentation may have strayed from the conventional “startup talk” – but is it really so “strange” that he read lines from a couple of books or got inspired by a painter or played some music? Or are our ideas of the startup founder archetype so narrowly defined that we can’t imagine them doing anything other than spew out banal business advice on stage?

Artists and entrepreneurs are often dissected into distinct professional breeds, but the two share a lot in common. The inner urgency to create in an artist mirrors the inner urgency to start up in a founder. Both paths involve high degrees of uncertainty, rejection and creating your own conventions (rather than falling into established ones).

So where do the two branch off as their own species? It’s debatable, but a discernible difference lies in whose needs are met during and after the creation process. In art, it’s about creating out of necessity and fulfilling the artist’s inner need – which often has nothing to do with the viewers’ needs. While in entrepreneurship, it’s about fulfilling the founder’s inner need and fulfilling the customers’ (or users’) needs.

Bringing the sensibility of art to entrepreneurship

SoundCloud’s Ljung put it nicely: “Generally, a startup has a bit more of a functional purpose than what I would think of normal art as… but there are artistic elements to it.”

Despite the entrepreneurial benefits of channelling an artist’s mentality, it still seems easier for people to swallow when it’s artists taking a page out of the entrepreneur playbook. But the two don’t have to be mutually exclusive… After all, if 2012 was (apparently) the year of the “artist-entrepreneur“, maybe 2014 will be the year of the entrepreneur-artist?

So – don’t “get out” when entrepreneurs believe they’re artists. “Get out” when entrepreneurs believe they’re artists when crafting their business models because while reaching profitability may be a top priority for startups it’s not the top priority for artists.

Closing off, Dorsey read one of his favourite passages by Henri: “The art student of these days is a pioneer. The art student of today must pioneer beyond the mere matters of fact. I believe the great artist of the future will use fewer words, copy fewer things – essays will be shorter in words and longer in meaning. We must paint only what is important to us.”

image credit: flickr/George M. Groutas