Sunday, April 18, 2010

Two Approaches to Creating

Paul Graham is a software engineer and a venture capitalist. His latest essay talks about two approaches to creating software.
"There are two types of startup ideas: those that grow organically out of your own life, and those that you decide, from afar, are going to be necessary to some class of users other than you. Apple was the first type. Apple happened because Steve Wozniak wanted a computer. Unlike most people who wanted computers, he could design one, so he did. And since lots of other people wanted the same thing, Apple was able to sell enough of them to get the company rolling. They still rely on this principle today, incidentally. The iPhone is the phone Steve Jobs wants.

"Our own startup, Viaweb, was of the second type. We made software for building online stores. We didn't need this software ourselves. We weren't direct marketers. We didn't even know when we started that our users were called "direct marketers." But we were comparatively old when we started the company (I was 30 and Robert Morris was 29), so we'd seen enough to know users would need this type of software.

"There is no sharp line between the two types of ideas, but the most successful startups seem to be closer to the Apple type than the Viaweb type. When he was writing that first Basic interpreter for the Altair, Bill Gates was writing something he would use, as were Larry and Sergey when they wrote the first versions of Google."
Graham might not be aware of this, but he's described the difference between art created to satisfy the artist and commercial art. Note that he says that the most successful start-ups seem to come from the first approach, not the second.

There was a time in the recent past when that first approach seemed to dominate. It was the case at Disney in the early '90s, at Pixar and in TV in shows created by John K, Matt Groening, Craig McCracken, Genddy Tartakovsky, Joe Murray, etc.

These days, the trend seems to be going the opposite direction. One of the companies that's bucking the trend, surprisingly, is DreamWorks. With Kung Fu Panda and How to Train Your Dragon, the studio seems to be moving more towards films that have a strong connection to the creators. Ironically, Pixar seems to be moving in the opposite direction with its slate of sequels and Disney's rehashes-to-come like Pooh and the Tinkerbelle DVDs. It would be ironic if these two studios traded places or even if they met in the middle.

As audience members, we instinctively know when a work is personal and when it is not. While the latest Alvin and the Chipmunks revival has made money, everyone knows those films are being pushed by business people and not artists.

This is not to say that films made to satisfy an artistic need are inherently superior. There are a lot of artists who fail to master their craft or engage audiences, but it's interesting that in an unrelated field, Graham has come to a conclusion that we would all probably endorse: a personal need as opposed to a perceived market need is more likely to produce a better result. Unfortunately, the media conglomerates generally don't see it that way.

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