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It's Painting, Stupid

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I think I finally get the "Painters" thing.

A while back, I read "Hackers and Painters". What a great book. Written by Paul Graham, it's all about the world of technology and startups. The problem was, Paul uses an analogy between hackers and painters.

That didn't work for me.

All my life I had heard that there were two types of programmers. I had met both of these types. One was a good type. One was a bad type.

The good type was the programmer who realized that there is a structure to solving problems. You figure out what is needed, you design or model a bit, you code, you verify. Repeat and rinse. Programming was structured analysis -- perhaps done in a highly flexible and iterative way -- applying itself to technical problem-solving. The emphasis was on teamwork, having fun, and making folks happy.

The bad type was an "artist". They were special and wanted to be treated differently. They just kind of made up where they were going. To them, the technical beauty of a solution was more important than whether it made folks happy. The emphasis was on the artist, the message, purity and beauty. I thought Paul was saying that programming is a high art form, and that each program was somehow some special work of beauty and the art of programming should be emphasized over it's use as a tool.

But that's not what Paul was saying at all. When he started using the word "artist" or "painter" it brought up these other examples in my mind. I completely missed the point.

Over the past year I've decided to fail a lot. That is, I've decided that I'm so good at failing that instead of picking up projects that made me all tingly inside, ran for six months, then fizzled, I was going to pick up projects that I had no special attraction to at all, ran for two weeks, and then I moved on.

This, of all the books and chats and meetings and questioning, of all the things I have done so far learning about startups, has taught me the most.

No longer am I solving the world's problems. Now I am just trying to provide something people want as quickly as possible. No longer am I hung up on one really big sale, or one really big investor, or one really big press mention. Instead I'm focused on long-term, self-growing projects. Projects with "pull" from the customers. I'm not trying to find the perfect set of features. I'm just trying to make some small thing that people want.

What a change! The biggest part of that change is realizing how coding fits into this goal: it doesn't. Or rather coding is just another tool. Perhaps I write a set of pages about my Adcom stereo system, like I did a while back. I'm forced to ask myself: what would I want to read or do if I were interested in these stereos? The answer, as I guessed it, would be reviews. Maybe user manuals. When I wrote a site on hacker books, the answer, as I guessed it, was the ability to make book lists and recommend them to each other. When I wrote a site on hamburger casserole recipes, the answer, as I guessed it, was that folks want a clean page, a simple recipe list, and the ads out of the way. No muss, no fuss.

Did I guess right? Most of the time, probably not. Turns out nobody cares about my opinions and review research on my stereo system -- at least not yet. With my hacker books site, folks are coming by -- but nobody hardly uses the "Answer Question" page. I spent several days coding that up! It was a cool little app!

But nobody cared.

Then I do something like the thing with hamburger casseroles, and it's a hit. I get tens of thousands of folks googling it, dropping by, making their dinner, then leaving. They stay a long time on-site, and a good number of folks come back.

But it didn't involve any programming! How can that be considered a startup? How can that be considered worthy of a hacker. Hell, it's not even original!

Because it's all about making something people want that can scale. It's not about coding, or programming, or writing the next War and Peace. Yes, it can include nfity programs, or cute gadgets, or cool algorithms, or outstanding written content, but the minute you start focusing on one particular aspect of making something people want, that's the minute you lost focus on the most important part of the equation -- the people. Instead you're focusing on the tools. Don't do that.

I used to think that startups were about problem-solving: pick up a tool, form a hypothesis about what customers might need, fashion a solution to their problems, test it in the real world.

That's true, but it's incomplete. Startups are about painting. In front of you there are a bunch of colors. You have programming, widgets, social media, google organic search, google apps, AWS, video, Twitter, and all other kinds of things that exist in the world. Yes, you have a theory of what folks want, but the process is to look at your "paint" and use them all together in various ways to paint a picture, to create a tiny bit of uniquely-melded stuff, a personal creation, that provides them with a pleasant experience of getting what they want.

As outsiders we tend to focus on one tool or the other. We ask silly questions like "what kind of platform are you using?" or "Do you think the next JQuery version is worth moving up to?" We make observations that aren't germane. I remember the last time I spoke about self-publishing, one guy said something like "All these sites look marginal, but okay. The one I would worry about is that hamburger casserole recipe site. That's just a re-hash of other recipes".

To him, because there was no new information on the site, it was of dubious value. That's a fine viewpoint and he's welcome to it. But the goal of the site wasn't to provide new information, it was to package information in a more easily digestible and usable format. And by the numbers it's doing very well. His metric -- novelty or newness of the data -- was a great metric if you were only looking at the web as a container of factual information. But if you look at it as an experiential process, the experience folks got at my recipe site was pleasing, mostly. The experience they got at other sites wasn't as much. There was nothing wrong with his metric, it was just measuring the wrong thing.

When I did receving.it, it was in an effort to make something free available to people. Just a quick place to create lists and store them. Guess what? Nobody came by. That's okay, because one of the mistakes I made was thinking of an application as just a piece of technology that solves a problem. Yes, there were probably 100K people or more that could have used receiving.it and enjoyed it, but the entire "world" around the app, the positioning, the buzz, the features, the way it flowed, the type of information it had -- the feeling that it gave users as it passed through their lives -- just wasn't there.

That's nowhere near being about CSS 3-D buttons. Yes, I love talking tech, and I have found that I am so wrapped up in tech that I view all startups as some specific example of tech, but tech is just one tiny little bit of a spec of what's important. It's like viewing several paintings and talking about their use of the color blue. The color use may be important, in kind of a highly-technical way to somebody who knows all about painting, but for the average viewer, the painting is about the way it all fits together. To focus on one piece of it is nonsensical.

But I would do this. I would sit down, think up a problem, then make a great painting -- all in blue. I would spend 90% of my time doing some really cool tech work. Then, when I was done, I would sort of look around for the other colors. Maybe I need to send an email out to TechCrunch. Maybe I should tweet something about this. It was like imagining the painting all in blue, finishing it, then realizing something wasn't right, so going back and splattering some red or green in there to try to make it look right. It was ugly. And it didn't work. I should have imagined the painting in all of it's colors to begin with, then mixed and molded them all organically together while creating my vision. Why do we think in terms of only one color, even when we all realize it's never enough?

I think it's fear and our comfort zone. I think we do it because actually creating something from all these tools together, actually making a work of art that works in many dimensions at once? Creating something that people might not like? That might use old technology, or not be brave enough, or be viewed as a hack, or be made fun of? Something -- gasp -- that could fail? That's pretty scary. Most of us would really much rather be sitting on the sidelines, with our smart hats on and the air of false wisdom, talking about blue.

Good luck with that. I'm going to go continue failing.


Two things:


"...there is a structure to solving problems. You figure out what is needed, you design or model a bit, you code, you verify. Repeat and rinse."

Surprisingly, this is also the essence of art. Art, like engineering, is about failing on purpose so you don't fail by accident. We see the drawings Leonardo kept, not the ones he crumpled up and threw away.

2) I spend a lot of time trying to write erudite and cutting edge stuff in my blog. What one post got the most linkage? ...One that got picked up by a student homework resource site.


Thanks Neil. Good points.

I should have mentioned market -- if everybody is desperate for a painting of a cow, you can paint just about any old cow and they are going to like it. But if there are already ten thousand cow pictures, your cow painting had better be outstanding.

As somebody who plays at the keyboard (12 years of lessons and all my parents got from it was a headache) I know a tiny bit about art, composing and performing. Art is very much a structured process, agreed. Artists tend to structure their processes a little more ad-hoc than coders do, but in both worlds you don't start unless you have some mental plan -- however vague -- of how it's all going to fit together.

The really interesting question, as you point out, is "how do you structure creating art?"

Beats me. Hey, I'm just trying to figure all this stuff out! I'll let you guys know when I get a clue. :) I hope this article didn't come off as sounding like "I am the genius of startups and this is what you must do." It was more meant as "Gee, why didn't you figure that out sooner, stupid?"

Obviously there are folks who are very good at creating art. Mozart said once that he wrote music like cows piss: it was just part of who he was. Beethoven thought at a different level than the rest of us -- and he knew it. Some -- probably most -- folks are lucky to create one piece of art in their lifetimes that all kind of fits together and makes a difference. Most of us struggle. I think structure can help a lot her -- I believe that startup bootcamps and books and advice can serve a good purpose -- but there's also a bit of something else involved. Some degree of how the entire work fits into the mood and lifestyle of the population it is presented to. Lots of really great and awesomely-good artists nobody ever heard about. So not only is it art, it's also setting. Somebody said once that the most important part of an art gallery was setting.

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This page contains a single entry by DanielBMarkham published on January 27, 2011 6:26 AM.

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  • DanielBMarkham: Thanks Neil. Good points. I should have mentioned market -- read more
  • TechNeilogy: Two things: 1) "...there is a structure to solving problems. read more

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