Learning to be a Business Artist

I left my job at Mentor Graphics on November 15th with the stated goal of starting a new business.  But, I haven’t yet figured out what that new business should be.  In fact, I’m finding the process of thinking about what new business to start to be a real challenge.

I have certainly eliminated some businesses.  Businesses focused primarily on open-source development tools are right out because I have no desire to compete with my good friends at Mentor Graphics.  I love living in Bonny Doon, California, so businesses that require living elsewhere are out.  It seems generally desirable to make some use of my software engineering background, so businesses with no high-tech component are out.  And, as I would like the new business to have the chance to reach significant scale, starting an artisanal bakery featuring only goods made from recently-picked olallieberries doesn’t seem like a good idea.  Though it does sound yummy!

It was easy to start CodeSourcery.  I knew quite a lot about compilers (from an academic perspective) and I was starting to understand GCC pretty well.  CodeSourcery’s inception was, in fact, accidental!  Before even forming the idea of starting a business, I got a phone call from a prospective client, asking if I would take on some GCC development work.   All I did was to pay attention to an unambiguous signal that there was market demand for skills that I had.

But, in this new phase, I’m not looking to make direct use of something I already know.  I’m trying to identify a market opportunity — ideally, some product or service that doesn’t quite exist yet, but which will be in great demand soon — and then use my skills to pursue it.  I’ll probably have to develop new skills and work with other people in order to capture that market.  But, how does one go about the process of finding something exciting to pursue?

I’ve concluded that the process is inherently artistic, not scientific.  It’s not sufficient to say something like “smartphone sensors are a fast-growing market without an overly large entrenched competitor.”  That may be true, but there are probably dozens of companies entering the market, and big players like Samsung, Apple, and Google are almost certainly investing heavily.  There are so many unknowns that trying to scientifically determine, through methodical examination of the relevant data, where a good opportunity lies is impossible.  Instead, like a novelist thinking about a new plot, or a painter picking a subject, you need inspiration.

But, artists don’t just sit around waiting for inspiration to strike.  Great artists practice their technique.  They constantly observe the work of other artists.  Visual artists sketch.  Novelists write outlines, or short stories, or make notes on interesting characters they meet.  Composers improvise at the piano.  Eventually, an idea begins to gel.  Then, the artist goes to work more methodically, applying his or her technique to develop the idea into a finished work.

So, my job right now is to learn to be a business artist.  I’m reading books and magazines and news articles and blogs about businesses, technology, markets, psychology, management and anything else that seems relevant. I’m meeting anyone who is interested in talking to me about business.  I’m sketching business plans.  I’m making notes about things that frustrate me; there might be a business in eliminating those frustrations!  At some point, one of those ideas is going to start seeming worthy of more investment.  And, perhaps, with the right collaborators, I’ll be able to chisel away just the right amount of marble, in just the right way, to sculpt a beautiful business.


11 thoughts on “Learning to be a Business Artist

  1. Mark, however you decide to direct your artistic talents, I’m sure you’ll produce another masterpiece.

    Merry Christmas!


  2. As a Hacker Dojo member, I’m fascinated by the New Workplace and the New Education. Imagine a space or a service that unifies these two concepts. You were early to understand the New Workplace. What is new there since you founded CodeSourcery, and how does online education figure in? There are plenty of unknowns and hard problems there.

    • Coincidentally, I spent some time yesterday sketching out some ideas related to education. (Last week, I had an idea relating to how people make post-secondary education choices, but I concluded it was a stupid idea.) I think education is very interesting because (a) an increase in total human capital and human capital per human is good for all of us, (b) I have children, (c) it’s a vast market. (The total 4-year college market in the United States alone is something on the order of $300B, according to calculations I did based on .)

      Schools presently serve a dual mission: they provide education and day-care. I suspect that part of the reason parents are reasonably tolerant of the poor educational performance of most schools is that they are reasonably good day-care providers. You can generally count on your child being safe at the end of the day, even if you can’t be sure that she will have learned anything of value. Meanwhile, you have either used the time your child was in school to earn a living or to enjoy yourself. I’m confident that my wife and I could provide our children with an education superior to what they get in school — but we’re unwilling to pay the marginal price of home-schooling in order to obtain the marginal benefits.

      So, while MOOCs and other on-line forms of education seem very appropriate for post-secondary education (including continuing education for people in the workforce), and in many ways superior to conventional classroom instruction, they don’t seem very likely to me to displace traditional primary and secondary education. But, here are some trends that I would expect will take hold throughout the educational system: a focus on marketable skills over knowledge of the liberal arts (Chinese, not French; statistics, not calculus), online supplements to traditional learning methods, and a resulting reduction in the number of teachers. The economic forces seem irresistible. For example, California already spends over a third of its budget ($51B of $145B as per ) and is under tremendous pressure because of pension expense, Medicaid expense, and so forth.

      • I will have to slightly disagree on the value of MOOCs for primary and secondary education.
        Something like Khan Academy proved that there is a huge worldwide market that is not fully tapped in yet.

        One thing that might provide value, is a Virtual classroom environment that allows students to interact more than just forums, and provides more interaction possibilities between students and tutors other than offline videos or even Hangouts.

        This Virtual classroom could be built on top of a platform that provides virtual office environment for colleagues working on a distributed environment, that allows them to communicate and share information more effectively than using 4+ communication mediums.

        You mentioned you don’t want to compete with Mentor on open source, Why not help Mentor (and Open Source) 🙂

      • Mohamed, I agree that the Khan Academy has had a lot of impact. I suspect that my comments about schools serving a dual-role as day-cares may be more true in the United States than in some other parts of the world. Even in the US, there is a significant home-schooling movement, and many home-schoolers incorporate tutoring, online and otherwise, into their educational programs. I’m sure that there is room for innovation and business there. For example, Kumon is a $144M/yr. business in North America . That’s a supplemental tutoring business that is used by parents, whether they home-school or have children in traditional schools, and offers evidence that parents will spend time and money on incremental education.

        I’m in no way opposed to working in open-source, or to working with Mentor, but open-source is a software licensing model, not a business. I’ve always disliked the term “open-source business” because it doesn’t say what the business provides, but rather something about how it is provided. Nike is a shoe business, Coca-Cola is a drink business, and Apple is an electronic device business. So, for example, CodeSourcery was a software development tool business and a consulting business; it just happened that open-source was a key part of the business model. So, first, I’m going to figure out what problem to solve; then, I’ll try to figure out how to solve it. Open-source might or might not be part of that solution.

      • Precisely, Mohamed Hussein. I have a vague notion that gigantic changes are coming to education, particularly at secondary and post-secondary levels, and that new institutions and technologies will play a major role in the transformation. These changes will further flatten the Earth, to borrow Thomas Friedman’s metaphor, and allow smart technical people all over the world to contribute. Will students in MOOCs want to meet others in physical spaces, and if so, what should those spaces involve? Or should the spaces all be on-line, and allow students to interact with each other and faculty all the time? How can potential employers use the output of MOOCs to evaluate candidates? And so forth.

  3. The international aspect of the coming changes is what strikes me most. It’s clear to me that Lahore, Pakistan has a lot of smart residents. Residents of Lagos, Nigeria have to be pretty resourceful just to stay alive. How do we use the new educational tools to make all this untapped potential available to global business? The smart folks in Lahore don’t have degrees from famous universities; how should potential employers in other countries evaluate them? What new services and institutions do enrollees in MOOCs need? What new collaboration tools beyond Skype, Pastebin and Dropbox do international business require?

  4. Good initiative, very close to my own thoughts. I am currently in process of the same transition, though I have advanced a little bit more and already made my mind in terms of what my business will be.
    To tell the truth I missed in your article the primary purpose of your business. This purpose strongly influences the domain and scale of the business your will be building. I highly recommend reviewing this article before you proceed:
    View at Medium.com
    I wish you good luck in your endeavors!

    • Thank you for the comments, well wishes, and the pointer to the other article!

      You are correct that I did not clearly state a business purpose in my post. The good news that I am clear on the purpose: significant profit from building a large-scale enterprise. I’m not looking to make $100K or $1M; I’d consider even small eight-digit numbers as somewhat unsatisfying.

  5. Pingback: Cross-Pollination | Keeping Busy

  6. Hellо there! This article coulԁ not be written much better!
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    I’ll send this information to hіm. Fairly certain he’s going to have а great read.
    I apρreciate you for sharing!

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