Entrepreneurship is an Art not a Job

Some men see things as they are and ask why.
Others dream things that never were and ask why not.
George Bernard Shaw

Over the last decade we assumed that once we found repeatable methodologies (Agile and Customer Development, Business Model Design) to build early stage ventures, entrepreneurship would become a “science,” and anyone could do it.

I’m beginning to suspect this assumption may be wrong.

Where Did We Go Wrong?
It’s not that the tools are wrong, I think the entrepreneurship management stack is correct and has made a major contribution to reducing startup failures. Where I think we have gone wrong is the belief that anyone can use these tools equally well.

Entrepreneurship is an Art not a Job
For the sake of this analogy, think of two types of artists: composers and performers (think music composer versus members of the orchestra, playwright versus actor etc.)

Founders fit the definition of a composer: they see something no one else does. And to help them create it from nothing, they surround themselves with world-class performers. 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 startup founders do. It is a very different skill than science, engineering, or management.

Entrepreneurial employees are the talented performers who hear the siren song of a founder’s vision. Joining a startup while it is still searching for a business model, they too see the promise of what can be and join the founder to bring the vision to life.

Founders then put in play every skill which makes them unique – tenacity, passion, agility, rapid pivots, curiosity, learning and discovery, improvisation, ability to bring order out of chaos, resilience, leadership, a reality distortion field, and a relentless focus on execution – to lead the relentless process of refining their vision and making it a reality.

Both founders and entrepreneurial employees prefer to build something from the ground up rather than join an existing company. Like jazz musicians or improv actors, they prefer to operate in a chaotic environment with multiple unknowns. They sense the general direction they’re headed in, OK with uncertainty and surprises, using the tools at hand, along with their instinct to achieve their vision. These types of people are rare, unique and crazy. They’re artists.

Tools Do Not Make The Artist
When page-layout programs came out with the Macintosh in 1984, everyone thought it was going to be the end of graphic artists and designers. “Now everyone can do design,” was the mantra. Users quickly learned how hard it was do design well (yes. it is an art) and again hired professionals. The same thing happened with the first bit-mapped word processors. We didn’t get more or better authors. Instead we ended up with poorly written documents that looked like ransom notes. Today’s equivalent is Apple’s “Garageband”. Not everyone who uses composition tools can actually write music that anyone wants to listen to.

“Well If it’s Not the Tools Then it Must Be…”
The argument goes, “Well if it’s not tools then it must be…” But examples from teaching other creative arts are not promising. Music composition has been around since the dawn of civilization yet even today the argument of what “makes” a great composer is still unsettled. Is it the process (the compositional strategies used in the compositional process?) Is it the person (achievement, musical aptitude, informal musical experiences, formal musical experiences, music self-esteem, academic grades, IQ, and gender?)  Is it the environment (parents, teachers, friends, siblings, school, society, or cultural values?) Or is it constant practice (apprenticeship, 10,000 hours of practice?)

It may be we can increase the number of founders and entrepreneurial employees, with better tools, more money, and greater education. But it’s more likely that until we truly understand how to teach creativity, their numbers are limited.

Lessons Learned

  • Founders fit the definition of an artist: they see – and create– something that no one else does
  • To help them move their vision to reality, they surround themselves with world-class performers
  • Founders and entrepreneurial employees prefer operating in a chaotic environment with multiple unknowns
  • These type of people are rare, unique and crazy
  • Not everyone is an artist

Listen to this post here: Download the Podcast here

39 Responses

  1. It takes a lot of ingredients to make a successful entrepreneur, but that really isn’t the point. The point is that it doesn’t necessarily take the same ingredients.

    Starting a company is not a science, but it requires the Scientific Method. Not all companies are started by people that quit their day jobs, but many are. Not all companies are started by visionaries, but many are. Most companies have to pivot at some point, but many don’t. Not every scalable start up starts in the Valley, but many do (not most).

    As much as we would all like to pick up a book and read it and have it give us the map to get to the pot at the end of the rainbow, that book doesn’t exist. The great books help shape how we think. They add data points of experience that we can use in real time when we need to make a decision, Go Left or Go Right … They are guides and they will help more people succeed, but not everyone that reads them will, nor will all successful founders read those books.

  2. Steve:

    I agree wholeheartedly with your thought that entrepreneurship is an art. However, it can also be a discipline.

    Many great artists are neither crazy nor chaotic nor addicted to the unknown. They accept the potential of failure and realize that creating newness (a sculpture or a new category of product) will require great effort and great patience.

    They are also aware of the micro and macro processes at work. Not a highly detailed, granular process, but a big blocks of quantum progress process. They understand and believe, more than most people that:
    1) Failure = a chance to learn (10x the learnings from success)
    2) The failure & learning must stop for success to occur.

    Great artists and entrepreneurs share the ability to see what should be and, either immediately or over time, being right.

    Early on, they make practical mistakes and then they gain the tools to consistently make their vision reality (‘Hi, my name is Steve Jobs.’).

    The chaotic ones are just immature: either as people or in their craft.

    The crazy ones (and I have worked with more than one) leave more potential on the table (as a group) than they capture: avoid them is my advice.


  3. Love your artist analogy. I suspect that this is the endpoint that all fields subject to mass production and mass distribution achievements is heading towards. When access to the necessary tools and materials is available to all, it is the ability to create meaning that is left to be valued. An artist has something they are driven to say. After mastering their craft, it’s their heart that is the special difference that sets them apart.

  4. Great analogy. One thing I thinks that’s happened in particular to Web Development which is my area of expertise is that now everyone has the ability to make a website in a few seconds it pushed the true enthusiasts further to provide better alternatives. Just like music software can help people make professional quality music it makes a lot of bad composers too and so does free web tools and web software. The way I see it, the more crap out there, the more the good artists stand out.

  5. I totally agree! In this era full of technological advances, entrepreneurship is an art even if a process model of entrepreneurship already exists

  6. I love how this post motivated me like hell while the last one made me feel like a napkin entrepreneur.

  7. Entrepreneurship is likely a blend of art and science. All science will result in a bland, repeatable process – for better or worse. All art may result in a creative, yet chaotic environment. I suspect that the answer may be an optimal blend of the two.

    “Now everyone can do design,” – Sure everyone “can” but they should not necessarily do so. I believe the same is true of entrepreneurship – in theory everyone can, but in practice some should and some should not.

  8. Welcome to the challenges of characterizing or describing good human intelligence!

    All the way back to the guy who took a long, sharp stick and left his cave at night, climbed to a particular branch on a particular tree, and waited until dinner for the week came by and did eat that week versus the guy who didn’t, success required seeing clearly enough enough of reality, seeing it better than most of the other guys, and maybe even having some good, bright ideas about sharp sticks, animal paths at night, the importance of sitting still and waiting for much of the night, the position of the moon, maybe the role of some bait, etc.

    Still, unless very lucky, have to look out there and see enough of reality clearly enough, be patient enough and determined enough, and maybe have some good, bright ideas.

    For a little more, for both the guy in the cave and now, the steps of guess, try, and ‘pivot’ are a bit crude. Instead, need to see reality more clearly. For a way to cut out some combinatorial explosion of steps of wasted effort, good to see something like ‘causality’.

    While talking to target customers can be from okay up to really helpful, usually can’t really expect to get the needed ‘intelligence’ mostly from what customers explain and, instead, should analyze the situation more clearly between the most relevant two ears. This analysis is best done alone in a quiet place. ‘Good’ intelligence knows how to do this analysis effectively; ‘bad’ intelligence goes off into nonsense land and is not effective.

    Intelligence is amazing stuff, is not so easy to find, and can beat even luck.

  9. Incredible post as we host our bi-annual FounderCamp for True today in SF. I particularly resonate with your definition of Founder as Creator. Well said!

  10. Super post.

    Your management stack is more than just a tool for the creative founder. In a world full of noise, of a hundred different startup philosophers, quacks and charlatans, it has provided scientific method to entrepreneurship.

    While this might not increase the number of creative founders on the planet, it will surely enable them to create valuable enterprises faster, cheaper and better than ever before in human history.

  11. I agree with Steve completely. I spent about 30 years at the Livermore Lab, doing a wide variety of high tech crazy things and then got to manage their IRD program -seeing over 2000 projects. Leaders of the type Steve mentions are rare, incredible effective by 20x compared to normal techies (except when they crash), and they can pick themselves up and go again. However, there comes a time, after a couple of rounds, when they usually need to step back or aside – Google is an interesting example of these processes.
    John Holzrichter

  12. The difference between art and science is simply the level of logical explanation available for actions taken.

    Entrepreneurial science would say that if it’s summer time then people at the beach would be hot. People who are hot like to buy snow cones. Thus, we should sell snow cones at the beach. Thus a business is born from a logical conclusion.

    Entrepreneurial art consists of going to that same beach and interacting with a lot of people. By getting to know them you “suddenly” realize that the culture demands an ice cream pizza shop. You’re doing the same thing just at the uncontentious level. You notice the people sweating. They want something cold. You notice people talking about pizza. You may crack a few jokes about combining ice cream and pizza that go over well. The moment before your revelation you notice your friend has a locally famous gram cracker crust recipe. The feeling comes over you that this will work. Your still drawing conclusions off of a number of premises they are just being evaluated through the uncontentious mind.

    Great businesses are born out of both however; the complex nature of the internet makes a logical explanation of all of the factors that make a product and service almost imposable, even to yourself. That’s the “I just know” feeling. If you took the time to explain logically everything you know in your head the opportunity would probably be long gone, taken by somebody else.

  13. Your thoughts are almost universally true even beyond entrepreneurship. It is essentially the difference between an architect and a carpenter. Ideally however, the architect (entrepreneur) should also have carpentry skills (hands-on, beyond academia.)

    An analogy of this in terms of marketing is here: http://bit.ly/ihKc38

    Bill Ross

  14. I couldn’t agree more. Right brain relational thinking are helpful on seeing things others don’t. Often great thinkers and entrepreneurs are left-handed as their right brain forces them to think outside of the box. Obviously upbringing (i.e. Outliers) circumstances and exposure to that environment are critical as well.

  15. The commentary from Steve deeply resonates

    I have founded multiple start-ups…and coincidentally survived the founding of multiple start ups:)

    Steve has provided a wonderful description and analysis of what makes an Entrepreneur tick and how we go about our day…

  16. […] Reprinted from SteveBlank.com […]

  17. […] Entrepreneurship is an Art not a Job Some men see things as they are and ask why. Others dream things that never were and ask why not. George Bernard […] […]

  18. An interesting parallel is Chris Alexanders development from Pattern Language to Nature of Form.

    Deployment of tools involves perception. This can be sharpened (so taught in a sense).

    The distinctive of entrepreneurs I think is their spotting of opportunity. They are opportunists in a positive sense.

    There is no reason why this can’t be trained. Beginning with the simple and becoming gradually more complex.

    Just as looking can be trained in the visual arts. Check out Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain.

    For a broad philosophic base see Perls, Hefferline and Goodman’s Gestalt Therapy.

    Much experience is required. This can go from responses in five minutes to a case study, to more complex case studies to designing a business in an hour or two to games simulating business to checking out business ideas in a week to implementing businesses rapidly. It is not hard to design.

  19. You can’t teach anyone to be an entrepreneur. There’s no mba, book or class or steps to success. You need to learn from your own mistakes, jump to the water and swim.

  20. […] Conference (May 22 – 25th in Atlanta).] I encourage you to take a few minutes, and read Steve Blank’s article on the intangibles of entrepreneurship. Focus on the last paragraph: It may be we can increase the […]

  21. This post struck a chord with me, as I’ve thought and written about the connection between art and entrepreneurship in the past (orchestra vs jazz).

    The conclusion you’ve come to is that creativity may not be teachable, at least not in the way that we think of teaching. Creativity is an experience and a feeling more akin to emotion, while efficiently applying it to productive outcomes is a skill. I think a better way to induce creativity is to cultivate the environments and states of mind which allows it to best flow (Paul Graham’s makers vs manager’s schedule). Alan G Carters did some fascinating research in the area of gel teams (programmer’s stone), and that’s a good place to look for understanding the source of creativity, at least with respect to software development.

  22. Steven,

    I rarely comment on blog posts, but felt compelled to respond to your post Entrepreneurship is an Art not a Job.

    No doubt that entrepreneurship is about creativity. Science is too though. Einstein often said he felt his idea came from an other dimension.

    But the tools you are giving us, give structure to that creativity. It’s really important. It has changed my approach completely and your insights are giving my creativity direction. And I know it is doing that for many other entrepreneurs.

    Creativity might be hard to teach. But with your tools and awareness, people with access to this creativity will be able to paint more beautiful paintings. Painters think in patterns and structures too. As do musicians and so forth.

    Thanks for what you have done for me. You are really nailing it.


  23. Steve, on the one hand, this post is depressing. You seem to be saying that entrepreneurs are born rather than made. That in some sense, this endeavor to teach more people about entrepreneurship is hopeless.

    On the other hand, you pointed out not everyone can use these tools equally well. Well good! If they could, what point in striving against all the other people starting businesses if we’re all automatons executing the master plan.

    The point is that you can, with the right tools, raise the game of everyone who uses them. With the right education and experience, you can elevate their internal game and process. You can give everyone a tennis racquet, and they won’t all be equally good, even with the same equipment. But you can teach EVERYONE to be better at tennis. I can’t believe you wouldn’t think the same is true for entrepreneurship, management, running a business.

    I’m also disheartened to see people referring to science as if it isn’t creative. It is. If it wasn’t, we’d just let the computers do the science and R&D wouldn’t we? The scientific method and the “Pivot” don’t sound terribly different to me.

    The Word processor doesn’t make someone an artist- but it has made people who write more productive – allowing, no doubt, more people to get into writing as a side-career rather than starving while they pursue their craft.

    Regarding that practice: recall that it has to be practice with a purpose (the learning that goes with the practice, the purposeful working on weaknesses and leveraging strengths). Giving entrepreneurs a better framework and tools gives them a better shot at practice with purpose.

    And having said all of that, I find it encouraging that human variance will still mean that some will succeed beyond others. Because individualism still matters too. That sounds like capitalism to me.

    Given how many successful businesses there are in the world, perhaps we think this entrepreneur thing is a little bit more rare than it really is 😉

  24. I am more interested in why you came to this conclusion.

    It must be something more than some people are further along on the “talent” distribution curve than others.

    I know of number of artists that started out terribly and ended up quite accomplished, they just had a lot of passion and stuck with it.

  25. Steve,
    I totally agree that entrepreneurship is more art than science. However, while you did not say it, it is also not completely mysterious. I would describe what I call the innovation process as an intuitive process, not a causal process. There are patterns and skills that can be learned. There are certain tools that can help, including the ones you have been using. But they must be applied in an intuitive manner that is somewhat unique to the individual. Such an intuitive process cannot be ‘taught’ directly, but one can learn it and get better at it by practicing. That is what you are doing in the Stanford class. If you add the component of collaboration (as you are also doing in the class), you can bring the effectiveness of those who are not natural visionaries close enough to be effective as innovators. The only thing I find you cannot learn is the persistence of the natural entrepreneur — the drive to go his or her own way no matter what anyone else says.

    In music, I cannot “teach” someone to be another Mozart, but I can mentor them to achieve a high level of performance in the field if they get enough practice. Similarly, I can mentor students to master the innovation process used by entrepreneurs pretty well through practice. Once they get it, they develop much higher confidence to try it outside the learning environment. They still won’t likely have the drive of the natural entrepreneur, but they can be successful in even a modestly supportive environment. The key is to “teach” entrepreneurship as an art to be practiced, not as a science to be formally applied. As I mentioned earlier, we find that even high school students get it once they have really done it.

  26. Wouldn’t a corollary to “entrepreneurship is an art” be that angel investing is more like art collecting than stock picking?

  27. Not really sure what the point of defining it as “art” since artists are not under any requirement to make money.

    Are you saying people should invest in entrepreneurship in the way they might “sponsor” an artist…without hope of returns?

    Many corporate projects and research end up this way as well.

    • May entrepreneurs go into the game with a concept not knowing how to make money on it. Many not caring at first. On the flip side many artists get into it so they can be rich and famous. (You see that more in the film/litterateur world.)

  28. Entrepreneurship should be the perfect amalgam of art and science. Not necessarily science in the sense of numbers and charts, but a fundamental understanding of how and why your market works.

  29. While I agree that tools do not make the artist, better tools can make the artist better.

  30. […] posited that Customer Development (the precursor to Lean Startups) doesn't work for everyone:http://steveblank.com/2011/03/31…Over the last decade we assumed that once we found repeatable methodologies (Agile and Customer […]

  31. […] I read Steve Blank proclaim, “Entrepreneurs are artists,” I agreed. Studying engineering and business gave me the skills to work in a business. I am […]

  32. […] In March, Steve Blank wrote on his blog that “Entrepreneurship is an art not a job.” […]

  33. […] Blank recently said that entrepreneurs are artists, something which I largely agree with but would take one step further.  If innovation is about […]

  34. […] their own right) a few years ago, and it still holds true to day. In fact, Steve Blank wrote “Entrepreneurship is an Art not a Job” just two months ago. Here’s the post by […]

  35. […] Blank recently said that entrepreneurs are artists, something which I largely agree with but would take one step further.  If innovation is about […]

  36. Although I agree that there are right brain components – in order to be successful, one needs a plan and to follow that plan. Leadership and Entrepreneurship are highly correlated. I teach both.

  37. […] third post is from Steve Blank Entrepreneurship is an Art not a Job. Steve does a good job of talking about what life in a startup is like. Like this:LikeBe the first […]

  38. […] find the whole post about this in Steve Blank blog here. Share this:TwitterFacebookTumblrLinkedInEmailLike this:LikeBe the first to like this. Leave a […]

Leave a Reply to John SeifferCancel reply

%d bloggers like this: