People want to make art

By February 13, 2013 7 Comments

I’ve started putting interesting Youtube videos in my ‘watch later’ folder and watching them on my Nexus 7 whilst I stretch and do physio in the mornings. This morning I finished watching a great Seth Godin talk on what’s wrong with our education system (embedded below). There’s lots of very thought provoking content and if education interests you I heartily recommend taking 15 minutes to watch the whole video. I will return to education briefly at the end of the post, but the thing I loved the most was the bit around 8mins 40s when Godin said:

Someone who is making art doesn’t say ‘Can I make one less canvas this month?’. They don’t say ‘Can I write one less song this month?’. … It’s art. They want to do more of it. But when it’s work, when it’s your job … of course you want to do less of it.

Hearing that I immediately thought about our portfolio companies. As you would expect, some of them are places where everyone loves their work and does a lot of it. They put a lot of hours in. For people there work is almost their first commitment. Whereas others have people who don’t love their work quite so much (sometimes they don’t like it at all) and they look to balance their work life and other interests much more evenly. When it comes to recruitment the first set of companies generally have an easier time – they are more able to find good candidates from their networks and people take salary cuts to join (at least in the early stages). The second set end up using headhunters more often and find themselves paying higher salaries.

These differences between companies where people love to work and those where they just work are not the be all and end all. We have had great exits from companies that definitely fall into the latter camp, and we have had our fair share of failures with companies where all the staff have been very passionate. Moreover, whilst I’ve painted a simple picture here with two types of company the reality is more complex with most companies sitting somewhere on a continuum between the two extremes, with different teams in the company being more or less passionate about their work.

However, with these caveats, I believe that companies with passionate people who love their work are more successful than the average.

Which begs the question: what makes people love their work?

Coming back to Godin – one of the big contributors is the feeling that they are making art, i.e. making something important. Companies create that feeling, or rather founders create that feeling, by combining vision and culture and by working in interesting areas.

Our portfolio company Lyst is a good example of a company where people love to work. They are aiming to build the worlds premier online destination to discover and buy fashion. That’s a big goal in an industry that many people find fascinating, and there are many interesting challenges that need to be solved to realise the vision. The company is still fairly small in headcount terms but it’s already clear that Chris and Seb (the founders) have created a positive and empowering culture.

This post is long enough already and I want to come back to education so I won’t comment more here on what constitutes a great vision or a how to build a strong culture, other than to say that for anyone thinking about these topics it is helpful to be mindful of the the distinction between art and work and how the former motivates whilst the latter demotivates. This is a confusing notion for many of us in the west who have been brought up as good capitalists with a protestant work ethic, but it will be increasingly important going forward as the higher value endeavours become more and more about creating something magical.

Coming back to education. The main point of Godin’s talk is that our educational systems were designed to create good factory workers who did what they were told. Too many of our schools teach us how to learn stuff by rote and follow plans without asking difficult questions. Those skills are less useful now. As Godin puts it, learning the dots isn’t enough now, we should be teaching our kids how to join them. The real disruption in education then is changing the goal of school to teaching our kids to create interesting things by joining new dots, and maybe to have an ethical agenda that is more socially responsible and less about industry and production.