The Artist’s Dilemma

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While I make the occasional investment in startups, I’m by no means a VC/Angel, and certainly am not in the same universe as people like Fred Wilson, Bijan Sabet , Todd Dagres. That said, I do get a LOT of business plans/ideas put in front of me.

As I don’t want to waste my time or the time of those pitching me, I’ve devised a method to cut to the chase when I’m pitched by a young entrepreneur with a plan that has a heavy web component (as most do).

The conversation goes something like this:

Me: OK, what’s the idea?
Entrepreneur: It’s an idea for a web site…
Me [interrupting]: Are you a very skilled web developer?

If they answer “No,” I ask if their partner is a very skilled web developer. If they answer “No” to that as well, I tell them I’m not interested, and they either need to develop the skills or partner with someone who has them, and then come back and see me.

If the answer to the questions above are “Yes” (i.e. either the entrepreneur or his/her partner is a skilled web developer), my ears prick up, and we continue down the road to the good stuff.

Sadly, for 95% of the pitches I hear, the answer to whether the entrepreneur or his/her partner is a skilled web developer is “No.”

The reality is that unless you or your partner can develop for the web you will very quickly hit a wall.

Is it possible that if you can’t do the development yourself that you can hire someone? Of course. But, remember, these are startups that typically have no capital; so, they’re going to end up trading equity to someone they don’t know (it’s OK to have a web dev partner with equity; the fact that he/she is your partner means that the ethical fiber is there and the values align – one would hope, at least) and/or take on a burdensome expense.

In both cases (giving equity to someone you don’t know/taking on a burdensome expense) your chances of success have just diminished so greatly that no rationale investor would invest.

Too often young entrepreneurs create teams that are really just several clones of themselves (i.e. their friends): people whose skill sets overlap to the point that there’s no value add from the additional head count.

As you assemble your idea, you must also assemble a team (a SMALL team, like a team of 2) where the skill sets don’t overlap, but rather compliment, even while the values align.

What this means in the real world is that if you have a great idea, but are not a web developer, your teammate darn well better be.

Take a look at most of the recent successful startups. In almost all cases either the founder him/herself or his/her partner was a web developer.

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Wonderful video below from one of the most creative minds out there. In it Ms. Tharp addresses one of the issues with I wrestle with the most: the dreaded art/commerce nexus.

I’ve taken a bit of criticism of late for, I guess, overemphasizing the business elements and under emphasizing the creative elements. (By the way, I’m very fine with the criticism. I love the discourse; it helps me articulate. So, let ‘er rip.)

To me it’s about balance. My life has been basically dedicated to helping creative types monetize their passion so that they can keep creating on their own terms. We are now in a creative age where we can no longer hand off our creative output to some “company,” and allow them to handle all the business, while we just create. However, erring too far on focusing on business will have just as adverse affect as will erring too far on focusing on creativity.

How to strike the balance, and exist as creative types in this new landscape is the subject of my next book.

Ms. Tharp sums up the dilemma very concisely in the video below when she says:

“X dollars have nothing to do with making dance. They do however have to do with paying for the studio…paying your own bills…so, yes, it’s a problem.”

If you haven’t read Ms. Tharp’s work, I highly recommend The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life.

But, don’t take my word for it, I think you’ll want it after you watch this video:

[via 43 Folders]

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