5 Reasons Why Startups Are More Like Art Than War

It’s the same old theme since nineteen-sixteen.
In your head, in your head they’re still fighting,
With their tanks and their bombs,
And their bombs and their guns.
In your head, in your head, they are dying…

– The Cranberries, “Zombie”


The Marx Brothers in “Duck Soup”

If you spend any time hanging out at popular startuppy places online, like, say Fred Wilson’s blog, or Mark Suster’s blog, or Semil Shah’s blog (three of my fav’s), you know that war metaphors make a regular appearance in the discussion about startup life.

Famous warriors are frequently quoted. Startup strategy is regularly likened to war and battle strategy.

It’s useful. Even fight analogies can be enlightening. One of my favorites that gets recited all the time is from Mike Tyson: “Everyone’s got a plan until they get punched in the face.” I absolutely love the brevity of that one.

But I’ve never been to war or battle and neither have most of the people who use these gritty metaphors (although some have, and if they read this, I bet they’ll remind me in the comments). Personally, I feel much more energized when I think of my startup work as art.

I have an art (theater, drawing, music, writing) background. I know a little about the lives of different artists both living and dead. So maybe I’m just inclined to think of things on those terms. In any case, here’s my barely-thought-out list of why startups are more like art than war:

  1. When artists suffer, it’s by choice. OK, I suppose a lot of artists would say they had no choice. But on paper, they have a choice. They could go work their way up the ladder at Quizno’s or something.  To suffer for your startup is a choice. Even when we fail, founders often can’t wait to do it again. Most people, I think we can agree, who are involved in war are not there by choice. They want out as soon as possible, and they typically never want to do it again.
  2. Art is about imagining something that doesn’t yet exist and setting out to see if can be created successfully. Any battle involved is usually with one’s own shortcomings or limitations – the internal enemy. With startups, even when there’s intense competition, success or failure often comes down to the ability to execute and differentiate, to understand what the market wants (even if it doesn’t know it wants it yet). War, on the other hand, focuses on the outside enemy. Success or failure has to do with how much damage one is able to inflict upon the enemy. While hurting competitors is often a result of a startup’s activity, it’s (usually) not the focus.
  3. Art has the ability to create new territory where there was none. So does the startup. In both cases, this new territory benefits colleagues thereafter, indefinitely. In war, territory (when involved) is won or lost. Someone must lose, and the losers are often negatively impacted for generations afterward.
  4. Artists can surrender with little more than a bruised ego and a limping bank account. So can founders. (I’m not saying this is always the case, but it can happen.) Surrendering in war typically isn’t so simple. Therefore, I submit that it takes even more fortitude and focus to wage art and startups because, again, it’s by choice.
  5. When people experience great art, they want more of it and want it to last forever. I certainly want more of a great startup when I see it and want it to last forever. Can the same be said for war? Even when a great victory has been secured, few want more of the war.

When I need inspiration (which is pretty much every day at this stage), I always seek out the stories of artists who were told they were no good, or crazy, or who were otherwise rejected and went on to prove the naysayers wrong. These, to me, are much more applicable than, say, the Battle of Gettysburg.

By the way, if you’re currently in the struggle with your startup, rent and watch “From The Sky Down,” a documentary about U2’s do or die moment. I found it inspiring.

Never stop the action
Keep it up, keep it up
Work to the rhythm
Live to the rhythm
Love to the rhythm
Slave to the rhythm

– Grace Jones, “Slave To The Rhythm”