Entrepreneurship is an art, not a job

(Editor’s note: Serial entrepreneur Steve Blank is the author of Four Steps to the Epiphany. This story originally appeared on his blog.)

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.