Originality is for artists

There are no prizes for originality in business. There is no shame in copying others, sorry – idea borrowing. So many aspiring entrepreneurs say they are just waiting for a great idea. The original idea for them to launch a startup under. I was once this person too. And I was so very wrong. I learned the hard way by losing half a million in venture funding that originality is over rated. I’m convinced highly original ideas increase our probability of financial failure.

The startup blog view is this: originality is for artists.

Let me explain. People want change they can cope with, and so the business world (consumers) are most likely to reward incremental improvements. Ideas which people can cope with. Ideas that are easy to spread because the audience has a reference point. Something to switch to, a substitute. Yes, radical products and services can be a success, but they are so rare (especially with low and self funded businesses) that it is tactically foolish to chase them. We ought leave that to large corporations, and heavily VC backed startups.

It comes back to our objective – do we want to run a business, or be original? It’s rare to achieve both, so make the choice early and know whether you are an artist or an entrepreneur.


17 Comments Originality is for artists

  1. Pingback: Originality Is For Artists « Rubber Tyres –> Smooth Rides

  2. Jussi Pasanen

    Hi Steve, good and provocative as always!

    I do agree that highly original (novel, innovative, strange) ideas for the *product* or *service* that you sell can increase the probability of failure. Just see how many questions on “how to educate the market” Smart Company’s Aunty B gets in her regular column.

    However even if you’re selling something that is an incremental improvement over an idea proven by someone else, I think there’s plenty of room to be highly original (controversial, disruptive, revolutionary) in the ways you organise and run your business. Remember the “Official memorandum to subversive entrepreneurs” from Anthill #21? 😉

    Cheers, Jussi

  3. Steve Sammartino

    Agree there is room for revolution, but I honestly believe the real revolution is not what you do, sell or make, rather how you do it.

    In reference to the “Official memorandum to subversive entrepreneurs” from Anthill #21, it was more about a way of operating rather than inventing demand for new stuff…

    Stevie 🙂

  4. Steve

    I agree, to put it plainly it isnt rocket science and shouldnt be treated that way.

    As for the revolution, i am a big believer in the KISS principle (why should i recreate the wheel?) but innovation is all about seeing what others do/have done and do it better and in a different way.

    I see business as nothing more than showing the world the way which i think things should be done, if people like that then thats cool and if they dont i will keep changing it till they do 🙂

  5. Daniel

    Disagree. After reading Seth Godin’s latest, I think that many businesses will stand out & lead because of art.

    Daniel (@darosi via twitter)

  6. Scott Handsaker

    I think the issue is slightly more nuanced than original vs unoriginal. It depends on market as much as anything (ala Steve Blank).

    Take an existing market with an existing, well serviced need. Here originality is rewarded as long as your product stays within the accepted norms of the existing offerings. An example here is the iphone. Massive, well serviced market (mobile phones), but what they delivered was highly original. Original wins.

    Take a brand new market with no existing products. Here originality is the only thing that is rewarded, because you have nothing else to riff off when building your offering. But here most products fail….not because of the fact that they are original, but because they are in a brand new market (and new markets are hard!). The segway flopped not because it was original, but because they built a product for a new market….one that it turned out didn’t exist.

    So I would argue the determinant is not whether your product is original or not, but whether your market is new or existing. Original can win in both, but a new market is ten times harder (and requires 10 times more $$).

    Your advice is solid, but I would re-phrase it as “When starting a business, your chances of success increase if you choose an existing market with an existing need”.

    My 2 cents. 🙂

  7. Michelle Matthews

    The reason being in business is interesting to me is for the opportunity to be creative and try new things. The pursuit of originality is necessary for innovation. It doesn’t always result in riches but it’s worth getting up for in the morning.

    I’m happy to leave the imitators to pursue mediocrity.

  8. Scott Kilmartin

    I sit somewhere between ‘lil Stevie and Scotty Handshaker with a pinch Michelle Matthews thrown in for good measure.

    I’ve experienced plenty of Jussi’s point, educating the market and it’s frustrating as all hell.

    If you’re going all revolutionary original then go get some long investment coin and be prepared to burn it.
    Hybrid ideas are definably less risk for the smaller startup.

    Art style business can be bloody tricky to commercialise unless you cut your ear off or hang from some church ceiling for 4 years like Mick from Florence did.

    The trouble is, it’s the WOW, creative & different ideas that get this little brown bear out of bed. Some times it comes down to tempering emotion with proven business logic.

    OK, back to easel and water colours for me…just to confuse matters i’ll leave you with this.

    Making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art.
    ~ Andy Warhol

  9. Jussi Pasanen

    Hey Steve,

    > I honestly believe the real revolution is … how you do it.

    > … it was more about a way of operating rather than inventing demand for new stuff

    this is exactly what I meant – thanks for saying it better!

    Cheers, Jussi

  10. Josh Moore

    I agree Steve.

    Most people are out to make $$$ yet so many entrepreneurs end up making less than they could as employees.

    It all comes back to what you are in business for. Are you aiming for a lifestyle or a high growth business? Personally I aim for the former, so VC is not needed as I don’t need to build a business that makes millions of dollars to fund my ideal lifestyle.

    $$$ come far more quickly and easily to someone who is aiming for a lifestyle business. It is a lot easier to set yourself up as a contractor to corporates for a higher salary and less hours than as an employee vs building something from scratch. However, those who want to build the next twitter, etc. usually have a desire for more than just money.

    The key in this post is ‘financial failure’. Be an artist if you desire but don’t rely on it for income.

  11. Anna

    I think there is a lot of focus on originality, but for most of us it’s so hard to acutally see what might be an improvement in our lives.

    I think the world needs a healthy balance of both, as does business, as without artists we don’t get true change but people also need to be refining changes to improve.

    People often say you have to be first to market, yet you think about search engines 15 years ago, Alta Vista was the preeminent search engine, netscape the browser, yet in 2010 they are not the market leaders, or really even known about.

    But they started the revolution, but google have made improvements to this.

    Artists are generally in the world to make it a better place, business people are they to make money out of a better world…

    same same but different, a great idea if it’s not commercialised and marketed in the right way goes no where, a great marketing campaign with a rubbish product also…

    like all things in life there needs to be balance

  12. Jason Strachan

    I would argue the reason why most stuff fails is because designers / managers / people who build stuff fail to innovate.

    Why is Yahoo dying? They have failed to bring anything new to the table in the last few years. Why does Apple succeed? Because they are constantly innovating and add the stuff thats not absolutely required. Apple could have built the standard shitty UI on the iphone, but they didn’t, they gave you something for nothing and thats the differentiator.

    On the other hand timing is everything, there is lots of innovation that is simply too early and does not really fill a need. But making those decisions is all part of being an artist.

  13. John Calabro


    originality and art are pretty broad terms with very subjective definitions. For me, it’s those factors that make a business unique that will determine if people choose to give it patronage. It’s point of difference is the only thing giving it any kind of leg up over it’s competitors. That’s originality to me. Maybe it isn’t to you… Cheers jc

  14. Ilhan

    Hi Steve!

    Just have to say that the picture for this post is hilarious, and I will always remember it…

    Thanks for that!

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