A rebuttal of "Don't be an artist"

In Michael Siebel's recent YC Lecture - Building Product, he said:

What I find interesting is that a lot of people think of their product as a painting, as something that could be appreciated as a piece of art, as something that, even if it's appreciated by one person, is special. That's not what you're making. Products are not paintings. They're not art. If users don't find products useful, then the products, by definition, not useful, and they're a waste of your time to build. And I think a lot of people want to be artists. Startup world is very unforgiving to artists. And I think that interestingly, after the fact a lot of people are painted as artists, right? Like Steve Jobs is painted as this magical artist, right? At the end of the day, you get to figure out how to make a phone that millions of people would buy. If only one person bought the iPhone, he would be seen as a failure. The definition of art is it only has to be appreciated by one, or maybe even none. That's not the appreciate ... Maybe just the creator. That's not the definition of a successful product. This is what you should always be gut checking. Does your MVP solve a problem?

This isn't really about art or artists, its about creating products people don't need. I have no argument with this but the take-away message people is "Don't be an artist". It's code for doing something irrelevant but needs correction.

Using a category as a pejorative is a red flag for a bad argument. It evokes tacit assumptions that evaporate with clarification. Does it still hold as "don't be a successful artist"? If it doesn't, the argument is really "don't be unsuccessful" and this is the level of most start-up advice - profound at a glance, empty inside.

Successful artists are single-founders with technical chops. Each work is a product and they are the salesman. When successful, they build a studio, start a movement, make tons of money and earn a place in history. Maybe we should be studying them not using them as code for failure.

Choosing goals that resonate

Employees are given goals but artists and entrepreneurs choose them. They are observers of the world looking for what others cannot see. They can choose badly and are only successful when their goals resonate with an audience. Like an entrepreneur, the artist has a feedback loop of direct practice that can lead in new directions. As they chase one problem, they might discover a better one and switch tracks. The value of an artist is often in their ability to pick subjects, not in execution.

Artists are engineers

I wonder how many people know what artists actually do. If you watch an artist at work, they look more like an engineer that you expect. They are problem solving, experimenting and they really get into the science of their tools and materials. There is a rich thought process going on as they busily debug the composition. For some reason, non-artists have an image of the artistic process as less intellectual than engineering when its really very similar.

Artists are marketers

Successful artists are unambiguously entrepreneurial. From Michelangelo to Damien Hurst, their art are products. They are often notorious self-promoters, weaving a story around themselves and their works. Whether a Dali or a Picasso, they promote an image as strong as any start-up brand. They know how to put on a show and they know how to sell.

Fake Steve Jobs

In the discussion dismissing art, Siebel and Rusenko evoke Jobs to puncture the myth that he was an artist and cast him as someone compatible with modern day start-up dogma.

However, Jobs often evoked art and artists. He used art as code for taste and maniacal attention to detail and for technology to move you beyond its function. He didn't appeal to art to build something irrelevant but as means to pursue what would. Like most of Job's messaging, this is part marketing and part truth. He was an unflinching capitalist unhappy to leave a dollar in your pocket so beauty wasn't the only goal.

His MVP vs. Art view might be best captured by:

real artists ship

Not one to compromise, he wanted both worlds. Beauty but in MVP time-scales achieved by destructive work practices like intense bullying and "90 hours a week and loving it". So... not exactly a role-model.


The other way to interpret "don't be an artist" is to discourage premature attention to design and quality. I would call this craftsmanship rather than art. A lot of the talk of release-early, be-embarrassed MVPs etc. are arguments to forgo craftsmanship in favour of learning and experimentation. This is an example of contextual advice. Brilliant idea for poorly understood problems but sometimes craftsmanship is a feature, a differentiator or just table-stakes.

I particularly like Paul Bucheit's take because it makes you consider what most startup advice lacks, the context in which you are making a decision:

launch when your product is better than what's out there

"Better" might mean zero polish or it might mean much more. You need to know your market and not blindly follow cliché. Maybe studying artists can help you find the "better" you need.