Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

How is a writer like an entrepreneur?

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Ron Popeil

Like most people, I’ll occasionally come up with what I’m convinced is a great invention or business idea. Now that I have a newborn daughter in the house, my brainstorms tend to center around products for babies: for instance, a reliable baby glove that won’t slip off within seconds of being pulled on, leaving my daughter’s sharp nails free to claw at her little face. I’m not particularly tempted to follow up on these ideas, of course, partially because products for babies can be hard to test and market—as an acquaintance of mine recently pointed out, the best idea in the world isn’t worth much after it sends one kid to the emergency room—and because I lack the skills and inclination to develop a business idea into something more. I’ve spent all my time learning how to write, and I suspect that a real entrepreneur would respond to my ideas for a killer baby app with the same impatience with which I regard people who insist that they’re full of great ideas for novels, if only they had the time to write them down.

Writers and entrepreneurs have at least one thing in common: success in either field rarely comes down to one magic idea. Rather, in the latter case, it’s the habit of entrepreneurship itself, and the ability to develop ideas and bring them to completion, that typifies the best startups. Paul Graham, the programmer, essayist, and venture capitalist I’ve quoted here before, likes to say that he’s investing in the personalities of the founders, not in the product they’re currently selling. A recent Vanity Fair piece by Randall Stross on Graham’s Y Combinator, a sort of startup boot camp where teams of young entrepreneurs pitch ideas for funding, points out that a team’s initial concept will often change between the time their application is accepted and the day of their actual interview. “We liked you guys more than the idea,” Graham tells one group at the start of a meeting, and he cautions that a company’s goals will often change as the founders figure out what problem they’re trying to solve. As the article notes:

Graham is much more interested in the founders than in the proposed business idea. When he sees a strong team of founders with the qualities that he believes favor success, he will overlook a weak idea.

Paul Graham

And if a writer often resembles a kind of serial entrepreneur, it’s because he’s distinctive less because his ideas are better than anyone else’s—good ideas, as we all know, are cheap—than because he’s relentlessly resourceful, and knows what to do with an idea when he sees it. In short, he’s like Ron Popeil, the pitchman behind the Ronco Food Dehydrator, Mr. Microphone, and the Pocket Fisherman. As Malcom Gladwell observes in a famous New Yorker piece, Popeil isn’t just a salesman, but an inveterate tinkerer, the kind of man who might “lay awake at night thinking of a way to chop an onion so that the only tears you shed were tears of joy.” And because he has the skills not just to come with with an idea, but to package and market it, he’s done so again and again. Similarly, as a writer, I have plenty of room for improvement, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that given a decent idea and sufficient time—a few weeks for a short story, nine months to a year for a novel—I can turn it into a finished manuscript. Whether anyone else will want to buy it is another matter. But as Stephen Sondheim says in another context, it will be a proper song.

Of course, the fact that I had to quit my job to figure out writing to my own satisfaction hints at another point of similarity. As Graham notes elsewhere:

Statistically, if you want to avoid failure, it would seem like the most important thing is to quit your day job. Most founders of failed startups don’t quit their day jobs, and most founders of successful ones do. If startup failure were a disease, the CDC would be issuing bulletins warning people to avoid day jobs.

Yet I wouldn’t say that quitting one’s day job is what makes a successful entrepreneur. More likely, it’s the other way around: true entrepreneurs, like writers, tend to be people who just aren’t happy doing anything else, so it’s only a matter of time before they decide to devote all of their energies to it. I probably could have learned how to write a decent novel while holding down another job on the side—and plenty of other authors have done so—but quitting my job, while not the cause, was certainly an effect of where my life ended up taking me. And although a writer’s life, like an entrepreneur’s, is hardly an easy one, it allows me to say, in Popeil’s enticing words: “But wait, there’s more…”

Written by nevalalee

March 11, 2013 at 9:50 am

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