Artists and Founders: A Twitter Debate
Kanye West is notorious for posting a lot of controversial content on Twitter. However, one of his recent tweets caught my eye: “Artists are Founders.” This tweet caused quite a stir among other Twitter users. Then, in a reference, Suhail Doshi, CEO of Mixpanel, tweeted his opinion: “Founders are Artists”.
Both tweets generated thousands of likes and retweets. Surveys were taken, memes were created and the internet monster got what it needed to start a debate about what defines artists and founders, and what their roles in society are.
I couldn’t stop thinking, why does this idea attract so much debate? Why are artists not seen as founders or the opposite?
The Value of Interdisciplinary Thinking
Maybe it relates to the many years of separating disciplines. Given my experiences within the business sector and trainings I have led, I was not surprised to see that many people defined the categories as completely independent of each other. To them, artists were artists and founders were businesspeople. They did not believe that the two worlds could intertwine and benefit from each other because we have been taught from a young age that each section operates differently. Stemming from ideologies born during the industrial revolution, we were taught to accept directions without asking questions. We learned that artists are right-brained: creative, whimsical and rebels that challenge social norms. Founders, when viewed in a business context, are instead associated with being left-brained, analytical, and part of the social structure. We were told that we needed to choose between them, that it was impossible to be both.
But two have existed together before! If we look back to the Renaissance, we associate it with innovation in art, architecture, engineering, and culture. It was a time that gave us minds like Filippo Brunelleschi and Leonardo da Vinci. Both were famous artists but were also known for ideating significant scientific and architectural advancements. Brunelleschi, a sculptor, and architect, who rediscover the linear perspective, was also granted the first known patent for creating boats with special lifting equipment.
Asking the Right Questions
This history contradicts another Twitter response that suggested artists and founders couldn’t exist together because artists function to challenge society’s systems of power by asking questions and seeking alternative possibilities. In their opinion, founders aim to build these systems, so it is contradictory to believe that they could be artists since they would be trying to dissect the very structures they desire to create.
However, I believe that because artists are prone to asking these questions, their mindset can add value to the business world. Both entrepreneurs and artists are not afraid to push forward into the unknown, creating innovations that would have otherwise may not have happened. Such as Samuel F.B Morse, the inventor of the telegraph, who has been a painter before his invention, or Jim McKelvey, creator of Square and an accomplished glass artist*. For most successful founders, entrepreneurship is a pursuit of creative expression disguised as a business pursuit. Because people like these are not afraid to challenge the status quo, they aren’t held back.
But artists are creators who often need to build their artistic recognition, create a product, and sell it. Entrepreneur Steve Blank, who helped launch the lean startup movement, drew a parallel to this ideology, explaining that founders operate with the same desire to realize a vision, to work towards “what could be.” In response to one of the writers, Doshi wrote: “Bunch of non-founders in my mentions thinking art is just using a paintbrush and being starved. Have you met people in music? Hungriest people I know who use every tool available.” This is what I believe – art is not about the object, about putting paint on a canvas – it is about originality. It is about creating something completely new and unique from observations we have made about our world.
Some users also said that founders generally only cared about their financial success, whereas artists were willing to pursue their passions regardless of the economic benefits (or lack thereof). To that Paul Graham, co-founder of Y-Combinator, and one of Silicon Valley’s most well-known investors responded: “The most successful [founders that are artists] ones. Some are in it just for the money. But for the most successful founders, the company is also their project in the same way a painting or book (or a piece of software) is for its creator”.
In this way, Graham draws a similarity between artists and founders. Both want their projects to succeed in order to fulfill their own vision, not necessarily to become rich. Elon Ganor*, a successful entrepreneur turned professional artist, echoed this idea in our podcast, saying that good entrepreneurs aren’t completely driven by money, but by their desire to solve problems and change the world.
This debate itself shows how people view art and business differently, but also recognize the value of each. Imagine what we could do if we learned to intertwine the two disciplines? At The Artian, we teach the idea that an artistic mindset is crucial to creative innovation in business. Learning to observe the world around us through a critical lens allows us to see the way society operates, how humanity functions, and therefore how we can improve both. Asking the questions an artist would ask allows us to improve our projects and worldview.
Maybe a different phrase for “founders are artists” is “‘entrepreneurs are the artists of the business world”?
What do you think? Shout out in the comments.
* Jim McKelvey, “Audacity in Art and Entrepreneurship”
* Elon Ganor, “Creativity in Art and Business”
* Featured image – Micrographic Design in the Shape of Circle build-up from Intersecting Circles early 17th century | Source: Met Museum