Paint on a large canvas, one brushstroke at a time

This post is part of my Thinking Like an Entrepreneur Series, where I attempt to distil my personal experiences for would-be entrepreneurs.

I find building an enterprise or organization to be an intensely creative process. Lots of complex interacting decisions, lots of uncertainty in how they get resolved, much analytics but also much human emotion involved.

That’s why I think it shares some similarities with painting. Painting is also intensely creative, an artist is not sure exactly what the work is going to shape into. Each artist masters his or her own technique and ultimately there is emotion involved, the artist’s, of course, but also that of the viewer of the work.

The analogy is simple-minded, and leaves out a great deal, to be sure, for example, the genre of painting (landscape, portraiture, miniature, abstract etcetera), the choice of surface and materials, and so on. But that’s also true of building an enterprise, which also has myriad details. The power of the analogy is in its simplicity.

I often use this analogy with my students embarking on a big project – perhaps PhD students getting ready to embark on their magnum opera, their dissertations, or MBA students undertaking a business plan in some area with which they haven’t had much familiarity. For them, the version of the point-of-view in this brief post is the following: Identify a big exciting problem in your field, but chip away at it, a sliver at a time, as this is manageable, and let insights cumulate.

For my ventures, I similarly say, let’s pick off a challenge at a time, and remember the big picture.  Paint on a big canvas but one brushstroke at a time. Set achievable goals, perhaps some aggressive timelines, so that you can periodically take stock and course-correct.

After each such effort – a brushstroke in my analogy – you can step back and expose the results to right groups of people to get their input

Both the idea of working on a big canvas and the frequent validation/ course correction are motivating ultimately.

There is a book I skimmed the other day by the founder of the now-well-known seed accelerator, Y Combinator, called “Hackers and Painters,” which as it turns out is related to this post.  The author goes back and forth between Firenze (Florence) and the art there, and his experiences in the US building a company and then drawing on his incubator experiences.

The polymath Leonardo da Vinci once said, “Painting is a thing of the mind” (La Pittura è cosa mentale). I’d say we need to realize that entrepreneurship, building a new enterprise, needs to be as much a thing of the mind as a series of frenzied decisions reacting on the fly to unexpected stimuli.  Keeping the big picture in the mind, remembering the canvas, helps to ensure that the brushstrokes cumulate into something you will love and of which you’ll be proud.

 

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