Learning From Matisse

Matisse — Dishes and Fruit (1901)

“Creativity takes courage.” — Henri Matisse

This is one of my favorite quotes about innovation, by an innovator who is still revered 100 years later; it’s the first thing you’ll see if you go to my personal website. Matisse was an amazing innovator, and his innovation and originality.

Innovation, Originality, Creativity — why are these things so important in the tech startup world? And what do they have to do with art or painting?

In Matisse’s time, ~1900, he was a major innovator. His art didn’t look like all the popular impressionists around him; he was different. It would have been easier to just go with the flow. Originally a print maker, he used that industrial art background to interpret things differently.

“To create one’s own world takes courage.” — Georgia O’Keeffe

It makes me smile to think about courage and art in the same thought by two great artists. Having tried several artistic endeavors throughout my life, I completely understand. A big part of the courage to be an artist is showing your creations to the world, and then asking the world to appreciate them, and maybe pay money for them. Being an artist is similar to being a startup entrepreneur — personal and vulnerable.

I have the opportunity to visit many secondary and tertiary startup markets in my travels, meaning not Silicon Valley or New York, and one of the things that always strikes me is the lack of originality in almost every company pitch I see or hear. Creativity takes courage, not copying skills.

I can see that the entrepreneurs I meet are sincere, have usually put a ton of work and pride in their invention or product. Often they have put a fair amount of personal or family capital into the venture (these days that’s usually their parents money).

The major flaws in their planning process are denial and ego fortification — they don’t do enough homework to see how many are already doing something similar because they don’t really want to know; and they highly overrate themselves as amazing entrepreneurs. This is a bad combination for success, but I see it daily.

I get it; I know it’s more difficult than ever to build a real career and easier than ever to start a company. But the very core of creating an interesting and new business should be the concept of originality. Some originality, enough to be different, unique, without being too weird.

Jackson Pollack shocked people when he dripped paint onto giant canvasses. Picasso’s distortions of the human face eventually caught on but early on were denounced as not being real art. In his early years Al DeMeola wasn’t understood as a guitarist. He was thought of as a sellout by traditionalists. Now he is a king of jazz, a virtuoso.

Writers like Bukowski and Henry Miller were banned at first; now their books are modern classics and their homes designated as historical landmarks. The Beatles hacked American blues into easy to digest rock-n-roll. In turn, they were copied by Eric Clapton, The Stones, Led Zeppelin, and almost every British and American band since. The Beatles innovated the blues enough so that it sounded like new music. Their music not only influenced their followers, it continues to enrich the world to this day.

Real originality comes from within, because it is inspired, comes from adrenaline and emotion, not from a spreadsheet or desire to merely make money. That’s why so many startups fail now — they copy.

Finding the mid point between originality and capitalism is what I define as business innovation.

There’s nothing new under the sun, so you must critically modify, hack, or turn sideways existing systems with a truly new vision. Instead of just copying or slightly modifying something you see, try to take it a few steps further.

One of the quite innovative methods Matisse and his peers used was finding inspiration from other skills they already knew, leveraging their expertise as craftsmen. As mentioned, Matisse was a draftsman, a printmaker and a sculptor, and you can see these influences in his paintings.

Part of the magic of great business innovations is knowing which rules to break. Matisse broke some of the rules, but kept many intact. The rules about the way business processes flow are too often just accepted, but if you can analyze them, find an achilles heel, then innovate a better answer. Get rid of the obsolete rules without breaking the good ones, and great things will happen. It’s about where to hack and where not to.

I went to a pitch fest in one of those secondary markets the other day. Most of the presentations were weak delivery, boring, been done before and uninspiring. But there was one that was pretty amazing, by an 18-year-old who had become deaf at 12. He has developed an exercise system for handicapped people; you tell by his excitement and thought process that he was inspired, and created true innovation. He wasn’t polluted by how corporations work or the rules of business — he was still in high school.

Another Matisse quote is “There are always flowers for those who want to see them.” Look carefully, take the extra time and find the uniqueness in any idea you want to realize — it’s there. Find me on twitter at @tomnora