Entrepreneurs as Dissidents

Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. While some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.


If you can’t see the video above click here.

Countries that put their artists and protesters in jail will never succeed in building a successful culture of entrepreneurship.  They will be relegated to creating better mousetraps or cloning other countries’ business models.

Entrepreneurs as Dissidents
When Steve Jobs returned to Apple, he ran the Think Different ads, a brilliant marketing campaign to make Apple’s core customers believe that Apple was still fighting for the brand.

But in hindsight, the ad captured something much more profound.

The crazy ones? The misfits? The rebels? The troublemakers? To celebrate those people as heroes requires a country and culture that tolerates and encourages dissent.

Because without dissent there is no creativity.

Countries that stifle dissent while attempting to encourage entrepreneurship will end up at a competitive disadvantage.

Pushing the boundaries
Most startups solve problems in existing markets – making something better than what existed before. Some startups choose to resegment a market – finding an underserved niche in an existing market or providing a good-enough low cost solution.  These are all good businesses, and there’s nothing wrong with founding one of these.

But some small segment of founders are truly artiststhey see something no one else does. These entrepreneurs are the ones who want to change “what is” and turn it into “what can be.“ These founders create new ideas and new markets by pushing the boundaries. This concept of creating something that few others see – and the reality distortion field necessary to recruit the team to build it – is at the heart of what these founders do.

The founders that make a dent in the universe are dissidents. They are not afraid to tell their bosses they are idiots or tell their schools they been teaching the wrong thing or to tell an entire industry to think different. And more importantly they are not afraid to tell their country it’s mistaken.

Freedom of Speech, Expression and Thought
Entrepreneurs in the United States take for granted our freedom of speech, freedom of expression and freedom of thought. It’s enshrined in our constitution as the first amendment.

In the last few years I’ve traveled to lots of countries that understand that the rise of entrepreneurship will be an economic engine for the 21st century. In several of these countries, the government is pouring enormous sums into building entrepreneurship programs, faculties and even cities. Yet time and again when I ask the local entrepreneurs themselves what questions they have, most often the first question is, “How do I get a visa to the United States?’

For years I thought the reason hands were raised was simply an economic one. The same countries that repress dissent tend to have institutionalized corruption, meaning the quality of your idea isn’t sufficient enough to succeed by itself, you now need new “friends in the right places.” But I now see that these are all part of the same package. It’s hard to focus on being creative when a good part of your creative energies are spent trying to figure out how to work within a system that doesn’t tolerate dissent.

Lessons Learned

  • Entrepreneurs require the same creative freedom as artists and dissidents
  • Without that freedom, countries will be relegated to cloning others’ business models or creating better versions of existing products
  • History has shown that the most creative people leave repressive regimes and create elsewhere

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34 Responses

  1. The greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something and tell what it saw in a plain way. Hundreds of people can talk for one who can think, but thousands can think for one who can see. To see clearly is poetry, prophecy and religion, all in one.

  2. Reblogged this on Cyprus.Diverse.City and commented:
    The crazy ones? The misfits? The rebels? The troublemakers? To celebrate those people as heroes requires a country and culture that tolerates and encourages dissent.

  3. Fantastic post – thank you. Just a lesson learned from my experience – don’t be too much of a dissident to your boss if you’re planning on leaving your job and signing him/her up as one of your first clients :)

  4. Beautifully said Steve.

  5. Well put. Having worked in the US and in India on startups (and looked at entrepreneurial culture in other Asian countries), I’ve seen this in action. A culture that not only tolerates, but welcomes questioning and dissent may make things quite uncomfortable in the short term for the status quo, but in the long term, it’s essential for any company, government, or system to thrive. Thanks for this!

  6. [...] Blank escreveu um post que eu gostaria de ter escrito: Empreendedores como Dissidentes. Essa propaganda me acompanha e acredito que a muitos de nós desde 97. Não passa muito tempo sem [...]

  7. “An Artist that is in Sync with his king is at odds with his art”… not sure where I heard this but thank you your post came even as i”m battling the challenge of seeing what can be…

    I’ve recently began using creative Industries rather than creative entrepreneurs as I recognized that true entreprenuers including technologist are simply creatives! “Creative Entrepreneurs” seemed redundant!

    Building industry places a different focus, as it expands beyond self. The truly innovative need to see solutions in it’s broadest perspective even as they key in to details!

    Creatives need to focus beyond self to be successful as an industrialist!
    In my opinion an Industry looks at the total financial extraction of value of a product, entertainment art, production and even apprenticeship and learning!

    However we need as leaders and innovators to give ourselves as Industrialists permission to be “Dissidents”. Even how we train our children, the inheritors of these innovations needs to change! Our perception of value is oft based on “Marketing and branding machine of the US” often leads to adoption of solutions that have no bearing on the particular case or culture! Yet That “perception of value” learning ho w to effectively communicate the “why”- Ambassadorship of one’s vision as such is a tool that helps!

    I am a founder who wants “to change “what is” and turn it into “what can be.“ I also challenge others to create new ideas and new markets by pushing the boundaries. To do so I needed (and still need) to show many how to tap into that inner vision and more imortatntly communicate and express it!

    It is not easy … in Fact it is daunting. Change is uncomfortable! Indoctrination often seems irreversible! Especially when the “indoctrinated” simply believes that what is… simply is!

    IIt’s a daily fight … after seven years i recognize that in most cases a full year/cycle needs to evolve before the truly innovative are comfortable in their instinct.

    To grow into your full potential you need to step outside your “self defined” box.

    “I now see that these are all part of the same package. It’s hard to focus on being creative when a good part of your creative energies are spent trying to figure out how to work within a system that doesn’t tolerate dissent.”

    … or worse masks that intolerance as protection of it’s culture! I am from a third world country vying for first world status by 2020 yet as i’m outside the system I am able to observe the very ones who clamor for ‘freedom” refusing to step outside of their boundaries.

    I just started a support group for global leaders creative Industrialists;, artist and designers crafters, who may feel isolated n their vision. What I did not foresee and I am realizing is that dissenters seek to leave as an exit from their exile of silence!

  8. I would like to triple like this post if possible :)

  9. The difference between being an artist and business founder? None! I face the same challenges running my start up as I did when I was in my punk band. Funny. http://confusionism.tumblr.com/post/10684995873/technology-is-the-new-rock-and-roll-fuck-yeah

  10. Cloning sells well to investors. These dudes are all risk averse and would rather throw megabucks at a ripoff that is guaranteed to make no mistake than risk a dime at a rebel. And guess what – they are right. Clone is a money press, especially if the country government is nice enough to block out US competitors. Ask China. Ask Russia. Ask Germany.

  11. I posted earlier but apparently it didn’t take.

    I take issue with this:
    “Because without dissent there is no creativity.”

    Walk into any kindergarten class and you’ll see this is not accurate. Creativity doesn’t require dissent, conflict, or friction.

    But dissent, conflict, and friction can serve as catalysts for creativity, just not exclusively.

  12. [...] The founders that make a dent in the universe are dissidents. They are not afraid to tell their bosses they are idiots or tell their schools they been teaching the wrong thing or to tell an entire industry to think different. And more importantly they are not afraid to tell their country it’s mistaken. — in Entrepreneurs as Dissidents [...]

  13. Different . . . Diversity correlates with economic prosperity. Tolerance of others different from ourselves is required for diversity. Over half of the people living in Silicon Valley don’t speak English at home. I believe that living in this diverse environment has made me appreciate the richness diversity brings to life. And I think it’s one of the reasons Silicon Valley is so entrepreneurial.

  14. I’m trying to figure out why I find this posting so troubling. As mentioned by one commenter, it is not necessary to be a dissident to be creative. My observation and experience are that creativity is welcomed and invited – and then stolen. I have seen bright new inventions in the solar market turned into going concerns, only to be looted by the “entrepreneurs” who took over marketing and accounting of the growing company. The inventive minds were left with a handful of dust. How do we build a system which has space for those creative minds which move the whole culture forward, while limiting the predators and parasites who suck the juices out of them and leave them poor and embittered?

  15. It’s indeed sad to see some places not tolerant dissidents now. But I’d like to think this way, the relative freedom in US comes from the sacrifice of its previous rebels.

    When those “get US visa” people can’t get one, eventually some of them will become the initial rebels in their countries instead of being escapers or cowards ,and push the freedom forward there.

    So, this might be a excuse for the money-centered VCs, but not a excuse for the true entrepreneurs.

    • Correction: Their relative freedom came because of the sacrifices of people who gave their time and on many occassions lives on hundreds of physical battlegrounds nowhere near wall street, kalamazoo, or silicon valley.

  16. In East-EU if you want to start a company you need to have “the right neighborhood”. But you know, at least we’ve some political diseases like our friendly dictator, daily racism, changing law backward, incredibly high establishment costs and very high taxes for nothing… I said nothing?!

    The worst joke is: by paying tax you become a part of the regime which doesn’t let you feel free.

    A system like these pushes every single deviant out. Status qou and lack of free rights are the 2 main enemies of free people – like artists or entrepreneurs.
    What do you think, how can these countries change enough to be “liveable” for deviants?

  17. so much I could say about this, but personally I don’t think the US does enough to tolerate these people either. For every creative person I know (myself included) college is one of the most liberating and miserable experiences at the same time. To finally find and be with a lot of like minded people, who are educated and understand, and then to one by one watch them drop out(not out of ability but of being tired of the system) while the idiots you share a class with go on to graduate and get higher grades. They are praised, the ones who dropped out usually aren’t.

    I’m very lucky to be in the USA where I’m tolerated more than I would have been say in China, but to think that people who go against the grain are praised here hasn’t really been my experience.

  18. Yeah Creative Freedom! Not like great artists, scientists and dissidents, great entrepreneurs -once successful- have proven to be very creative at playing against fiscal law and labor ethics.

    Yes vision, innovative and disruptive products, and exporting is absolutely great and vital to an healthy economy, but it seems to me that comparing Einstein, Gandi and other great men in history of ideas to the likes of Branson and Jobs is an intellectual fallacy.

  19. Hi Steve
    Great resume of my philosophy and …..life .
    Hope to meet you one day to tell all my story

    Thanks from a thru political dessident of the 70’s

  20. Good Post. Since my encounter 10 years ago with the asian business culture, I always thought that their Confucian belief in paternalistic hierarchies is rather bad for innovation.

    But dissent alone does not propell innovation, the French are very likely to revolt, but France as a whole is not very innovative.

    That means open speech is only one necessity to innovate. There is also a need for a culture that honors risk taking. That is a problem in Germany, if you are going bust with your business you are punished by law and by society. That means the legal framework has to be flexible towards going bust and getting rid of debt quickly (in the US and UK it is rather easy compared to continental Europe).

  21. It’s time to rephrase the immigration debate.

    “How many jobs does an immigrant need to create to earn citizenship?”

    If we could get our politicians to debate the that question (regardless of whatever answer they came up with–5, 15, 500), then we could give the most motivated of the of the world’s population a solvable puzzle with a strongly motivating prize–US citizenship.

    Everyone gets what they want. Each immigrant works like a madman to earn his citizenship, and as part of the citizenship requirement creates Xnumber of jobs for Americans.

  22. Repression can come in many forms. Governments picking winners (like Solyndra) is just as devastating to market-based innovators as a water board. Crony-capitalist innovation deprives the market of opportunity and is quickly destroyed on the rocks of technological and economic reality.

  23. •History has shown that the most creative people leave repressive regimes and create elsewhere
    By which you mean our version of History has shown this. The version written by creative people who do not leave regimes labelled as repressive by you might disagree.

  24. Nice article Steve. What do you think entrepreneurs in such countries should do? Do you have any ideas to share on this?

  25. [...] Perhaps these folks will listen to Steve Blank. [...]

  26. It really is amazing that the gifts that entrepreneurs have in common, are not appreciated by recruiters nor often by their potential employers…………

  27. Nice post. I’d add one thing – entrepreneurs need an environment in which they can experiment and fail, and specifically, an environment in which failure is tolerated and accepted, and doesn’t result in them being branded as failures. This seems to me to be an essential ingredient in a high potential innovation/entrepreneurial ecosystem, and it’s why so many ‘minorities’ prefer to create in the US than just about any other country on the planet.

  28. Steve, what great timing on this! I was actually speaking at Columbus College of Art and Design this past weekend about how to help artists and creatives do a better job growing their businesses. I was working on the presentation and making a case how artists and entrepreneurs are so much alike, then you sent this out!

    I mentioned you and used the Apple quote and the Business Model Canvas in the presentation and it was well received. Working with both is interesting and they are very similar. Apple was speaking about them both at once, in my opinion.

    I have been teaching entrepreneurship at Ohio State for several years and we are now piloting the program at this art school. We teach an accelerator course at OSU using the Canvas and hope to do the same at this school soon.

    Thanks for the inspiration and great timing!

  29. Among the species of beetles there is one, which according to all laws of aerodynamics should not be able to fly. Luckily for the beetle, he is not aware of these laws, and flies.

  30. [...] so, ignore the other voices. The world moves forward on those who are dissidents. Because without dissent there is no creativity. A healthy disrespect for the status quo coupled with passion, persistence and agility trumps [...]

  31. [...] Iterations and pivots are a tough concept if you’ve never been taught to think for yourself. And challenging the system is not something that’s actually encouraged in [...]

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