Builder vs. Artist

The distinction is harder than you think

“I’m a builder. I like to build things.” She says this with an impressive resume and a glowing smile.

The smile is genuine, but she might as well be the cat who swallowed the canary. I as the interviewer am supposed to like to hear things like this.

She’s playing the odds well, since “I like to build things” is a key attribute for which product and engineering recruiters screen: focus on results (preferably via buzzphrase).

True, not everyone actually likes building. Even fewer can get the building done, aka ship. But the mechanical process of building something constitutes just a small subset of what I’m usually looking for.

Meanwhile, different goals and situations call for variations in what gets built and how. No one will enjoy every type of building. The main obstacle in starting and growing an insurance business is going to be very different than a SaaS product. The building is the solving of the main problem at any given time. So if you don’t like sales, then you won’t like building a car dealership.

Thus, expressing a blanket sentiment such as “I like to build things” is vacuous — or at least is based on a silo of experience.

We as a society are confused between three distinct actions:

  1. Making something (engineers, construction workers)
  2. Being involved in the making (product/project managers, scrum masters, HR)
  3. Making something beautiful (artists, sometimes designers)

The thing you need to ask yourself is whether you are a builder — or an artist. Steve Jobs and the Airbnb guys seem to value strong design and beauty, and the former is especially known for his perfectionism. The examples of his imperfections detailed in Walter Isaacson’s biography and elsewhere belie a person who had to have it his way. A kind of dictator. A whiny, spoiled child.

Maybe through his imperfections we see perfectionism. Through his intolerance of anything that deviated from his vision, we see an artist.

Product managers early in their careers and some of us older hangers-on like to think about the fun parts of the work: the interfaces we can design, the experiences we can improve, the processes we can streamline, the copy we can write, the technologies we can invent.

The art. Aka “creation.”

So it is easy to dupe oneself into thinking that “building” means “creation.” For a lucky few, the art is their day-to-day. But most product people find that the art represents 5% of their job.

Jobs like product management and design attract lots of people who probably should be artists, in two forms:

  1. Those who followed academic/business-y tracks and are in denial about their inner artist.
  2. Those who fully realize they should be an artist but “sold out” to pay the bills.

Each camp is coming from opposite directions to the same career. But both groups will feel the same tension.

Anything You Want by Derek Sivers and The e-Myth Revisited by Michael Gerber describe a startup as the founder’s own little utopia, where he or she can tinker away to serve (wait for it) their own interests. They get to express what they want to see in the world. 1

In “The 4-Hour Workweek” author Tim Ferriss encourages readers to “find the muse.” He applies what is normally an artistic metaphor to entrepreneurial inspiration. When I first read “4HWW” decades ago, I noticed that TF takes the metaphor even further. He intentionally conflates the inspiration for a new venture and the business itself.

Money is not the only objective for many founders. There’s a magic and aesthetic in their money-making oeuvre. Beauty doesn’t need to be visual or auditory. There can be joy in a perfectly balanced system. I witnessed beauty every time we planned and executed a flawless military operation.

But what a founder has that a product manager doesn’t is complete creative autonomy. A startup CEO and a product manager might do what looks like the same job. But the CEO has the freedom to create a kind of art. He can have a vision and make it happen exactly as he sees it in his mind. A product manager usually executes the vision of someone else, and he has infinitely more constraints.

There is no true art without freedom.

Of course, often the best way to make money isn’t the most beautiful. Perhaps your humble artisan Monte Cristo sandwich shop with the homey interior would be a $1B business as an inauthentic, mass-produced sammy franchise with aluminum chairs and tacky decor. Instead of the tattooed lit majors that customers love talking with behind the counter, you could hire clean, ambitious upstarts (who happen to make sandwiches a lot faster). You could stack a few boring MBAs in a fluorescent lit office with a kitchenette and free lattes.

But what’s the fun in that?

1 I’m not making a normative statement; I’m not saying that everyone should be a founder. I’m also not denying that not all founders have such freedom given outside investors, convention within an industry, etc.