The Creative Phase

The digital technology revolution was, from the day the transistor was invented in the late 40s until the early part of last decade, largely about engineering. It is still very much about engineering but I've been thinking for a while now that as this revolution matures, it is becoming more and more about creativity and less about engineering.

Why the distinction between engineering and creativity? Can't engineers be creative. Of course they can and are. Maybe there is a better word to use. But what I am trying to delineate between is the hard work of designing and building systems and the more abstract efforts to entertain, educate, and emote with these systems.

You could call it the difference between the front end and the back end. You could call it the difference between the lower layers of the stack and the upper layers. All of these are imperfect models for what I see and feel is happening.

Here's a paragraph from Steven Johnson's excellent analysis of what has happened in NYC in the past decade:

One secret to New York’s technological success lies in the Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP), a two-year graduate course at New York University. In spite of its focus on technology, the ITP is nonetheless based in the Tisch School of the Arts, and its official description emphasises an “imaginative use of communications technologies.”

Was it accidental or intentional the ITP was located in an arts school? I don't know. I should find out. But regardless of why it was done that way, the result has been impactful. ITP churns out talented people who are half engineer, half artist. And the things they build reflect that view of the world.

When we look at our portfolio and analyze what has worked and what has not, we see a high correlation between having that "creative element" firmly ensconced into the founding team and success. The teams that are engineer heavy and creative light have not worked nearly as well as the teams that are creative heavy and engineer light.

Our portfolio is not a definitive sample. It could simply reflect our biases and therefore mean nothing. But I encourage everyone out there in tech startup land to think about this distinction and see if it rings true. Because I think we are in new territory in the digital technology revolution and some of the old rules matter less and new rules matter more. And if that is true, we ought to figure out what the new rules are and make sure we are focused on them.

#VC & Technology#Web/Tech

Comments (Archived):

  1. Tom Labus

    For a long time I’ve felt that the IT teams within the corporate world should have “marketing” and “PR”team members. To often a good team can’t effectively communicate the value that they offer to both management and users. A lot of good stuff is left on the table.

    1. fredwilson

      Have you been involved in a team like that?

      1. Tom Labus

        companies in the mid market will barely pay for new work let alone anything new or creative. Some how between overseas and the economy the strategic value of software got badly trashed and work goes to the lowest bidder.

      2. Tereza

        I have many times. When you’re a strategist in a firm that does major custom bespoke systems (e.g. IBM, Accenture) it’s a core part of the job.Sometimes they have you in from the beginning, which is the right way — because we own the customer value understanding.Then other times they’d cheap out and bring us in later which was inevitably too late. They called them “Benefits Realization Projects”, or we’d cynically call them BuRP. The issue was that key architectural decisions had been made and partially built — in some cases upwards of $100m spent — and no one had any knowledge of what the system was actually supposed to do. Often but not always this came when the CTO/CIO changed and new people came in and were like, WTF?Then they spend on people like me to go in, talk to tons of people and come up with reasons why this big initiative should still exist.Nightmare.Made me want to jump out a window because this was all information they could have had YEARS earlier. I don’t blame the engineers at all; it’s not their job or skillset. They’ve got too much on their plate already.When you’re dealing with complex or subtle user problems you really need people who know how to talk to customers EARLY because they can greatly rationalize what you are spending your development resources correctly.Every time I’ve seen an overly rigid commitment to pure product/engineering without a legitimate and respected connection to what the customers /users really need.So, yes, I agree with Tom. The ones that have Best Practices have a Business Lead on each project, partnering with the IT lead. This is well-established among the major projects that work.

  2. chris dixon

    I agree with the spirit, but do think it has a lot to do with USV’s focus on web apps. Many of the most successful venture backed companies of the last decade were extremely engineer heavy (Google, VMWare – plus tons of “boring” enterprise companies like Data Domain, 3Par). That said, I think given that the infrastructure layer of the web is more mature, where you guys are focused is the most interesting area hence agree that creative product people have become much more important than in the past.

    1. David Semeria

      I was thinking the same thing Chris.USV’s focus on acquiring users over initial monetization would seem to favour teams that can deliver innovative and creative user experiences – but these don’t necessarily require ground-breaking tech.

    2. fredwilson

      yes, i suggested that this may be a result of our investment bias

    3. kenberger

      Even further, I immediately think it’s largely an East Coast – West Coast thing. The garden variety Valley VC emphasizes a preference for deep defensible technologies, the more engineers the better. Many NYC VC’s prefer TEB “Technology *Enabled* Businesses”. Not as sure about Boston VC’s, maybe more a combo of both.

    4. MartinEdic

      I would argue that the barrier between having programming skills and not having them is dissolving and this is where the creatives can enter the market in force- there are so many technical resources available for virtually nothing and developers have had to make UI design and simplicity top priorities to compete. The result is that as a creator I can envision a business and create it without programming skills (beyond basic web stuff). Proprietary code is less and less of a business advantage

  3. ErikSchwartz

    I think you mean “design” rather than “creativity”.The tools to allow less technically savvy people to build interesting applications were built by engineers. Most web apps are pretty trivial from an engineering standpoint. So from the consumer facing standpoint design is the differentiator and very important.BUTThe two biggest challenges before us (more bandwidth (both wired and wireless) and better batteries) are HUGELY engineering dependent.

    1. fredwilson

      I agree about batteries and bandwidthI think design is too limiting in terms of what I am trying to express

      1. georgeju

        I agree here. I think too often tech heavy people hear the word creativity and they immediately think design or ux. Creativity involves much more than that and IMHO I would say marketing creativity. Sure, there is creativity involved in selling the product. But the real creative genius is in the observation, the supposition, the research. It feels like we are coming to a time when that drives the development, rather than develop first and market second. Want to be successful? Make sure your marketing people understand there is an ART to programming. Make sure your tech people understand there is a SCIENCE to marketing. Then you can speak the lingua franca of entrepreneurship.

      2. femmebot

        Completely agree that Design isn’t the right word. There are a lot of designers who aren’t creative—they simply have design production skills….and as always, thanks to you and @stevenbjohnson for the ITP shout-out!

      3. Mike Veytsel

        I would call this ‘experience architecture.’Engineers generally work to build technology. Creatives generally work to craft experiences.The technology which engineers build affects how quickly, broadly, directly, and deeply creatives can craft experiences.I think your observation points to the fact that we’re reaching a stage where technology platforms are robust enough that much of their internal complexity is abstracted away from creatives, enabling them to place most of their focus and emphasis on imagining, designing, and architecting experiences which can add immediate and tangible value to people.

        1. fredwilson

          yes, that’s in line with what i am thinking

        2. Carl Rahn Griffith

          It’s all about Passion.Sadly a very rare commodity in today’s cynical times…

        3. COMRADITY

          I’ve been in the market for a robust technology platform with the following features:* ubiquitous reach* ideas can transmitted in real time in high production value and engage participation from and among the audience in a way to adds value to the experience * creatives and the audience maintain control over their personal data, information, and content shared remains under their own control* match content with audience – so less time and money is wasted finding audience and content and more is spent experiencing the benefits of it.Is this what you mean by robust platform?

    2. zionaetzion

      Design, creativity and the know how to connect all the dots.As a ‘less tech savvy” user I think that simplification is still something to be worked on.

  4. Dan Ramsden

    The pure tech vs. tech + artistry distinction is personified in a lot of ways by the GOOG vs. AAPL competition. On one hand, a company driven by the tech team, and on the other hand, Steve Jobs. I always go back to Jobs’s commencement address at Stanford a few years back, in which he singles out his study of calligraphy as a major influence on what eventually became Apple Computer. The results are evident, and this combination of artistry and engineering is the major differentiator that has always set Apple apart.

    1. AnthonyGadgetX

      I totally agree. What’s maddening is speaking to somebody with a Phd in engineering that simply will not accept it, even as the survival of their company hangs in the balance.

  5. Alex Murphy

    Great article. As I was reading it, the statement of “… but we’re not here to write cool code” kept going through my mind. “Hybrids,” which are people that are Design/Creative/Business focused AND have the technical knowhow are awesome. I think that as the last 10 years have evolved, more and more of the Design heavy people have learned how to use the technical tools more effectively and it is easier to put out at least a prototype product to test a hypothesis. As that trend continues, we should see more and more applications of all forms that have more Utility.

  6. Vladimir Vukicevic

    Sharp post Fred. Two out of three co-founders of my startup all have a heavy artistic background – one co-founder is an filmmaker who is also currently an active singer/songwriter in NYC, the other is a former actor who currently produces indie shows. I’m the “least” creative because I come from a more business/tech background but still I write, etc.Our approach seems to be quite different from the startups I’ve encountered – i.e. no engineering/coding limitation is placed on the initial development of new ideas. Something our CTO may not initially like but something that has generated quite a few interesting innovations. This creative approach permeates everything we do and is part of the ethos of the company.

    1. ShanaC

      been a while.. welcome back

  7. Dale Allyn

    Creativity is a very important part of problem solving, and that applies to engineering (of many types) as well as aesthetic design, product design, UI, UX, etc. Creativity is essential to good customer service and support and PR, and in my opinion, is an important trait to nurture, hone or seek in team building. Too often, creativity is thought to mean “art” as in aesthetics, but it’s more than that. (And of course, an artistic solution to an engineering problem is very cool too. 😉

  8. LIAD

    increasing (web) tech commodotization & most ideas being derivatives of previous ones – leaves color (in its most abstract sense) as the last real axis for product differentiation.Creativity gives inanimate matter a personality and identity – those who can bring something soulless to life are the real masters of the universe.Engineers work in the realm of science, creatives in the realm of art. Human emotion and psychology their tool-sets.It’s clear in our post-industrial age, that knowing how to pull-on human heartstrings will be more lucrative than knowing how they work

    1. Daniel Berninger

      Even aside from creativity versus engineering, we need to dial back the degree of self-satisfaction regarding accomplishments. I still have not heard a satisfactory explanation of why telephone voice quality remains unchanged for the last 70 years. The existing level of voice quality was set by a Bell Labs study a decade or so before the transistor or first computer. The everyone continues to live happily in a fuzzy voice realm (even those carrying the amazing iPhone) equivalent to a world without glasses.

  9. Dan Deppen

    The thing you’re talking about has really hit home for me over the past few months, as I’ve been building a web app. Going in I thought the back end was the hard part and the front end was the easy part. Turns out it was easy to find some to do the back end, and the people I got to do it nailed it. But finding a talented front end person to make the core app marketing was much more challenging.

  10. Guest

    You’re right about a couple things, but you can’t complete de-couple engineering and design, and you really do mean design — you can be a creative engineer. What I think you are getting at is that the more visually creative things tend to do better in the marketplace, which is your unstated measure of success here.But there are counter examples; twitter for example fails on most counts. Architecturally its a mess, and the design of the page is like something they’d make in HTML101, albeit the new design is better.People are drawn to the visual, but stick with the functional. It takes competence, not necessarity creativity to combine the two.For a startup, its the glitz that gets the attention, but it won’t necessarily hold it.As examples, examine Twitter and Facebook. Creative? Functional? Hardly engineering feats for sure, but likewise not exactly design award winners. They are functional.Why someone doesnt make one that is both, well, we all know; entrenchment, which you don’t discuss.IMO it takes design and engineering to succeed, or neither as I just pointed out.T

    1. fredwilson

      i’d love to discuss this in a more conversational setting because idon’t think design is entirely what i am talking about here but i amhaving trouble explaining why

      1. paramendra

        I do think you did not fully capture what you were getting at.

      2. Vijay Sundaram

        It’d be great to see you do a follow-on post if/when you have additional thoughts on the topic.There certainly is a trend towards towards an increased focus on design/experience relative to engineering/functionality amongst successful consumer web companies. This makes sense based on where we are along the maturity curve. Early on in the industry, leverage came from the invention of new functionality and capabilities where none existed before, and in this environment employees must be deeply technical to invent new tech and the user base is forgiving as they are happy to have a new widget at all. As barriers to entry have lowered and competition has intensified, there are less and less widgets to invent, broadly speaking, and users are more inundated with and discriminating of their options. In this environment, company leverage starts to come from brand, design and experience, to help attract away and preserve a user base. Which is why companies with a more creative-infused talent pool are well-aligned to this industry at this point.I think this process is probably consistent across a variety of sectors, but within tech it’s probably furthest along in the consumer web which is why you are seeing it “early” so to speak. The barriers to entry and switching costs are still quite a bit higher in enterprise environments though you can start to see the tides changing there as well (glacially).This topic is tough because this is a macro- / decadal-level dynamic, and generalization at this level is always tricky. But I agree it’s happening, ITP is yet another micro-level indicator.

      3. sweller

        When I read your post I thought it was less about “designers” vs “engineers” and more about “creativity” in general.But as I sit here trying to find word to explain it, it’s easier to explain in pictures:http://static.neatorama.comhttp://basedigitalphotograp…In first picture took a team of 11 people, mules, horses, one dog and $5,000.The second is used by potentially millions of people around the world who know nothing about the technology behind photography. Now there are multitudes of industries who rely on the technology of photography to enable their creativity.

        1. COMRADITY

          Photography inspires a unique consumer research technique to elicit more articulate and deeper responses – the Zaltman Metaphor Elicitation Technique… in which consumers respond to questions with photos – in the spirit of “a picture is worth a thousand words”.

  11. RichardF

    The big problems are almost always going to be solved by scientists and engineers. The decorators get brought in later.

    1. LIAD

      dont agree. calling them decorators is belittling their contribution.creativity ingenuity solves a lot of problems before engineers even know about them.

      1. RichardF

        I take your point Liad, my comment was a little facetious.

    2. Dave W Baldwin

      Move over to new school Richard, for we do not have to seperate science and engineers from art. It is a matter of encouraging the science side to let loose and be creative. In the end run, it is more of a challenge designing toward what may be considered obscure, yet defend it and what it will deliver to a bigger market. It is easier to just rehash the old.

      1. JLM

        This is why college should be about 6 years long. Learn a discipline and then learn the art of the world. Learn how to operate your discipline in the world.

        1. Dave W Baldwin

          Actually it is what we could do with High School. In the evolution per my stating back when the fact a 9th grader who sees nothing local to attain with Education counting down the days to drop out, we are entering the time where geographic location of the push toward innovation is not so important.Combining the abilities and the inspirations attained via collaboration will speed progress along those fronts. Since our file systems (neurons) are actually little jpg’s/vids, the next doubling in the ability of digital matched with the ease of multitasking enabled via AI will allow a major push in the disruptive.The nice thing is the definition of disruptive will evolve and we will adjust to what we are enabled to do.Then back to High School, we will inspire and deliver the greater number of ‘makers’ vs. the ‘takers’ we have currently waiting for the future to be handed to them.

      2. RichardF

        I do agree with you. The Renaissance is of huge interest to me. However not everyone can be a polymath imo. My experience of working with scientists and engineers tells me that their personalities, interests and way that they think is different to those of an artistic nature. There will always be exceptions of course.

        1. Dave W Baldwin

          Good point. What will make the coming Renaissance more interesting is abigger participation in the engineering/science arena where the decoratorwill ask questions of the engineer before layout instead of after.This will lead to more cross sharing in the lower grades which will be ofbenefit.Besides, most of the higher intellect population is at least into music…itis just a matter of pushing them to throw away the chains of repetativemusic theory and move to fascinating dissonance/syncopation…which by theway guys, the girls like better.

    3. JLM

      Getting the solution to the marketplace and making a buck is where the decorators come in handy.The dynamic tension and passion between the engineers and the marketing guys is actually a symptom of a healthy relationship as each side is trying to maximize their contribution.While I am a guy who appreciates a well run process, I must say that the dynamic tension required to define the roles and process is just as important as the ultimate scheme or process documentation.When ideas wrestle, the resulting idea is always stronger. Always.

      1. RichardF

        absolutely JLM, most of the scientists I have worked with are not motivated by money.

    4. ShanaC

      When we talk about interactive location games, and the problems behind, I always cite one art group as being influential:…Primarily made of comp sci students who went into art later.Creativity comes in many practices uniting

    5. Mark Essel

      Are the big problems technical, or are they human?My perspective is that the big problems are nourishment, love, belonging, curiousity, and filling those around us with a sense of wonder and awe in life. Why label and segregate the inventors and creatives from technical expertise? The more I learn about web development, the more artistic each form and framework appears.

      1. RichardF

        Your right about them being human. Survival is the biggest problem in large parts of the world. Which is why I think what the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is doing is awesome. (Nice article about Bill Gates in this weekend’s FT, along with Steve Johnson)

  12. Don Winslow

    I think it goes in phases of engineering-creativity, engineering-creativity.Engineers make a bunch of stuff, creatives put them together and whoever makes it as fun, useful, sexy, etc. the best wins.Like when all the components to make PCs became available. Most PCs have the same stuff in them. But the winners have changed. First it was Apple, then IBM, then Gateway, Dell, HP, Apple again.Just a thought.

  13. Michael F. Martin

    Creativity is an amorphous concept, and I wish you’d pushed yourself harder to articulate what you’re seeing.I like the Csikszentmihalyi theory of creativity, which models it as a group product — that is, I takes both a creative contributor and a field of recognized experts working within a standard set of rules and procedures for a creative contribution to be made.With that theory in mind, I understand what you’re saying as a democratization of technology. Whereas the field used to be other engineers and the rules arcane mathematical models for signal processing, that technology has created a new field of expert web app desiners and a new set of rules for good design. Paul Graham is the Bob Widlar of web apps. Except for the booze and women. (At least as far as I know.)The challenge in a very big field is to maintain coherence. You see that play out in academia where good literature is far more difficult to define than good math. On the other hand, if the domain is appealing enough to non-experts, its lack of coherence is a virtue, givig resilience. Reddit seems to be going strong even as Digg stumbles.I wish Fred would say more about what he means by creativity.

    1. fredwilson

      clearly that is the central theme of this comment threadyou all are pushing me to say moreand i don’t have the right words yetbut i will accept the challenge and try to come up with themgotta start reading i think

      1. JamesHRH

        Fred – I would suggest that by creativity you actually mean brand building.I don’t think that UI/UX is a substitute for building a consumer brand, and I doubt you do either, which is why you are uncomfortable providing a response to requests to define ‘creativity’ ( you said you blog to ‘work things out’: I’m here to help ;-).A brand is a lot more than the right features with some NYC groove poured over it, piped through enough bandwidth, that’s for sure.As a consumer internet brand exists only in people’s perceptions (minds), it starts as a simple promise but soon gets delivered through a multitude of interfaces – the actual online service being the most important, followed by 2) what people say / think about people who use the service 3) what the people who use the service project about themselves to others, 4) whether the brand promise is aligned with the business model, 5)………..Run Google, Facebook and Twitter through these prisms and assign ‘hurting brand’ or ‘helping brand’ to each one, as an exercise in brand management. For fun…. ;-)I believe that this ‘creativity’ post will take you to the same place as Chris Dixon’s ‘you can’t invest in social if you don’t do it’ post. Reading about consumer branding is not like building / delivering a brand – it is not going to help you very much. Founders (and I guess investors like you) who want to enter this space need training and experience in branded product development.BTW, classic definition here: a brand is something that does not have a dedicated person to represent it. Products or services with sales reps calling on customers have ‘reputation’ – pet peeve.However, if you want to do some reading, I would start with the founding fathers of modern brand building codification – Jack Trout and Al Ries. Their first book (Positioning – written in the early ’70’s) and one of their last (The 22 Immutable Laws of marketing) are my faves. I was given Positioning at my very first job, in the traditional media space, and told ‘its the bible’, which it was and still is (sorry for the poor grammar).Another aside – if you are wondering how hard brand positioning and execution is to accomplish…….. as an example: on page 136 of the original 1991 edition of Moore’s Crossing the Chasm ( the paperback version ), at the beginning of chapter 6 (on competitive positioning entitled Defining the Battle), Moore states ‘if we get to set the competitive criteria for winning, why would we ever lose? …because we don’t do it right’. And he’s talking about whole products with sales teams (not stand alone consumer brands)!As a final thought, many posts here note that because the engineering has gotten easier, it is now the time for creativity.I would argue that the timing is right for big things in the consumer internet space, but that the timing that matters is the state of the market, not the state of the technology.I believe that customer education on computing and the Internet ( now aged 10 and fully part of most Western lives for people < 50?60?65? ) will drive the coming boom in the consumer internet (not many Facebook users know whay Ruby is…).The student is ready, the teachers will appear. Or, if you like, you need a Blackberry to exist as a huge business category and an iPod to exist as a huge consumer category for an iPhone to be adopted as an even larger consumer category…….As the Echo Gen brings their internet sensibility into middle age, opportunities will abound in the consumer internet space. However, success will require insight into consumers, a combination of authentic design / execution discipline ( in all aspects of the business that touch consumers ), and, supporting that effort, top rate tech.Hope that helps.Can’t, for whatever reason, get Disqus to allow me to post with my name – James Harradence

      2. Antonio Tedesco

        As others have suggested, read Pink’s book. He looks at as engineer/left-brained vs artist/right-brained. The Information Age is transitioning to the Conceptual Age.Engineering skills are becoming commodities outsourced to the cheapest provider. There might be a shortage of talent for start-ups but I’m talking engineers in the broader sense.

      3. COMRADITY

        Fred, I meant to place this comment… as a reply to your use of the word “challenge” here.

    2. Tereza

      Great comment — but for evoking the name of a Hungarian with an impossibly spelled last name ending in “-yi” AND spelling it correctly, you get a +10, not simply a +1.Way to go, my friend!

  14. William Mougayar

    “Thinking is the opposite of Doing.”I’m not sure of who said that first, but the point is that if you’re too busy doing stuff, you don’t have time to Think and be creative. So, whatever the job is, you need to give enough time for thinking and creativity.That’s why when we’re not in the office,- i.e. on the train, in a conference, driving, etc…some of the best thinking comes to mind. When we step out of our regular environment, the creative juices start to flow.Bill Gates, during his hey days, used to take a week retreat by himself with no work, but just books and time for him to think. That’s it.Think (IBM’s motto from the 1930’s)

    1. JLM

      Brainstorming is the ultimate freedom earned by being the CEO.

  15. famolari

    The future belongs to artists and storytellers.

    1. JLM

      Brilliant comment.The story is THE STORY.The ability to tell THE story has always been the critical element in any successful endeavor.Find me a guy who can motivate people and he is a guy who can tell a story about the future.Find me a guy who can raise money and he is a guy who can paint pictures of the story.Not to put too fine a point on it but don’t you think that America fell in love with Barack Obama’s STORY and the real problem is that reality is nowhere near as good as the freakin’ story?

      1. howardlindzon

        awesome. and so true. rare skills.

      2. Mike Duda

        You just described why I am a co-founder of Consigliere (

      3. Lucas Dailey

        Big fan, but I gotta disagree with this.I think the future belongs more to social anthropologists.It’s less about telling a story, and more about enabling people to tell theirs.Analysis and research are becoming more powerful than narrative. In the world 5, 10 years ago, sure, but the web as a social appendage has become sufficiently sophisticated and many (most?) of the early stories have already been told.However, I do think persuasion as an art has sufficiently permeated all aspects of contemporary life that we’ve collectively become much better storytellers. Look at Apple commercials over the years juxtaposed with their contemporary media.On the Barry Obams note:I think the reality matches the story. The real issue is with another story, the story of the presidency. The story of the presidency lives much larger than almost any other story in the American pantheon. In the story of the presidency, that divine person (you did vote for the one you’d prefer as pope, right?) wields nearly limitless power over society and even world politics. There is no congress in that story, no supreme court, and no budgetary constraints (even during fat years.)Should we blame W for the recession? The presidency story says he had the power to prevent it; the recession mostly occurred and was at its worst during his watch. But the reality is his power to affect it was very limited (later TARP improvements helped save tax money, but didn’t effect the recession.)

        1. fredwilson

          my partner Brad talks a lot about “social anthropologists”you guys see the world the same way

      4. Sanjay

        Telling the story is an important component, but if you don’t have the right audience, its for not. Being in the right circles is what matters most. In other words, its not motivation, etc, but influence. Sorry, but if you are in middle America, you have no tech influence, no worthy connections, and your prospects are bleak. The likes of Fred Wilson will not find you.

    2. howardlindzon

      yep. in every tiny niche possible

  16. chrisdorr

    I think you put it very well when you use the words “educate, entertain and emote” as a way to describe the creativity you are aiming at. Design is part of the mix as some have noted. But there is another part which no one has yet mentioned. It is “storytelling”. If you want to educate, entertain or emote–you have to be good at storytelling. You learn that skill by studying the best storytellers that all the great civilizations have provided us. Not usually part of the engineering course of study–but it should be.

    1. fredwilson

      yes, that’s where i am headed Christhank you

      1. Eli

        Yahtzee! At the end of the day I think overwhelmingly Americans want to use technology for entertainment purposes rather than utilitarian purposes.

    2. riemannzeta

      One could say that learning the great stories and art of storytelling is a core purpose of a liberal arts education. In Silicon Valley, most of the great product managers seem to have been engineers in the past. I’m thinking of Andy Groves, for example. The great product managers right now are still engineers, but they have a broader perspective.Ultimately, my sense is that we’re at too abstract a level of generality to say too much that isn’t either obvious or wrong. Probably even the level of USV’s portfolio is too high to say much that isn’t obvious or wrong. Particular customer needs for education, entertainment, and emotional engagement are not being met by particular products. But the need for high quality, low-cost, gigabit ethernet switches is not being muffed because of a lack of focus on entertaining customers.

    3. JLM

      Interesting and insightful observation and comment.I am an engineer who never really practiced engineering. I became a real estate developer and built tall buildings.Building tall buildings is like conducting a symphony — getting the architect, structural engineer, MEP engineer, etc to play nice with the inspectors, contractors, subcontractors and the finance and marketing guys.The engineers built a product that the marketing guys had to bless as having the appropriate USPs to compete in the marketplace and win.I went to many a grand opening of a successful project and looked up 300′ at the top of a building and thought — this all happened because the marketing guys told the builders what they needed to fight and win in the marketplace.Because I was an engineer w/ an MBA and had built some lovely buildings, I could arbitrate and mediate between the competing forces and speak both of their languages.Every interface with a prospective tenant — which is of course why we built the damn buildings in the first place — was a campfire story telling exercise educating them on why that building was just right for them.I think I may go back to building tall buildings! LOL

      1. Dave W Baldwin

        Well put JLM. Those that sit on the sideline do not appreciate what it takes. Ironically, how many lard asses rent/purchase space in those tall buildings! It is better to see the view without having to climb the stairs.

        1. JLM

          Just a bit of tongue in the cheek —Apparently only about 75% of the space available? LOL

          1. Evan

            who built the Frost Bank building? whoever did that is a stud.

          2. JLM

            Cousins Properties out of Atlanta.

          3. Evan

            I think I read a Tom Wolfe book about them.

  17. ian_peterscampbell

    I agree about the importance of a mix, but not that it is something new. The video game industry (or at least the good parts of it) has been about the mixture of creative and engineering for 30 years. Even go back to Infocom: a game company that produced novelistic text games that were written in a platform independent scripting language that they invented? Wow!One thing I do wonder about is how, now that the games industry is so consolidated and ‘corporate’, and now that creativity is so much easier to mix with engineering in other mediums, whether those large companies will be able to keep their holy grail status to college students and continue their business model of paying low wages to talented young people who want the glory of working in games. Does it lead to a revolution in gaming, a move back to indy development and online sales? That could be a lot of fun 🙂

    1. fredwilson

      so trueafter i posted this, i sent a link to my friend Bing Gordon who was inthe video games business for 20 years with EAhe’s now a VC with Kleiner Perkins and the managing partner of theirnew social fund

      1. sweller

        I like the analogy to the video game industry.I can remember that at one time you needed really hard-core engineering chops to produce a video game. It was a medium where if you were a creative engineer, it was really easy to push the limitations of the technology — the processors, ram, disk, etc.I would suspect that most of the people in this community understand that technology has fractured so many established verticals. Especially advertising and print. But, for the same reason that Infocom created their own platform independent scripting language, there are now many tools available to publishers that enable them to push the limits of new distribution platforms. These tools have empowered this phase of creativity in the same way the EA’s proprietary internal tools, scripting languages, etc empower their staff to create amazing new games. But to compete in any vibrant publishing vertical, you still need the engineering discipline to take the tools to the next level. Look no farther than video games and movies to see the necessary balance between these two disciplines.As i see it (and my thoughts on this are always evolving), but there are some distinct new rules for start ups that exist within media and publishing.1. Executive team needs to be a distinct mix between left-brain thinkers (people who tend to be analytic) and right-brain thinkers (creative, big-thinkers). Because capital is so constrained for new start ups, too much focus in any one area can be very costly.2. You need to incubate a small team with complementary roles. “Functional” organization are immediately at a competitive disadvantage. You need to grow your organization from a cohesive team of designers, engineers and producers that have a common “win”. If you are a small and early start up with communication and flow issues between “creative” and “engineering”, then you have a functional mentality within your team. Re evaluate and change or face the consequences.3. Keep the development around your core IP on shore with your core team but find effective ways to outsource everything else. Maximize the tools available to create speed around development. Iterate often.4. Don’t worry so much about “all the right features” or “efficiency” and “getting it ALL right” prior to launching your core product. Focus more on the personality of your product and the core features. You’ll spend plenty of time later making your product and technology more “efficient” and with the right team and feedback from users, iterating on more features.4. Have fun. Create an environment and work flow that is fun to engage in. Life’s short. Enjoy it. 😉

  18. Dale Larson

    Great thought to point out that every problem used to be technically hard, and startups used to be more about engineering. In a more mature industry, engineering is what you do when you have a stable product that has to scale. Many startups now are more about defining, differentiating and marketing product than about engineering them. The focus now is on the customer first rather than the tech first.

    1. Dale Larson

      This also changes the importance of soft skills, perhaps more than anything else. Better communication and culture with strong interdisciplinary teams focused on the customer will win vs. the best “creative” or engineering organization that is wasting time working on the wrong problems or in internal battles. The question to ask is not are we and engineering-driven org or a creative-driven one (or any other single discipline).

      1. Startup Happiness

        Dale, I agree wholeheartedly on the “soft skills” rising in importance, and I’m seeing more people in engineering purposefully seeking out and mastering those skills. EQ truly matters!

  19. bkrasnove

    This is my first time commenting, although many of your posts provoke and stimulate thoughts. I’ve been reading Steven Johnson’s new book (which is excellent so far) and he raises the concept of the adjacent possible, building something innovative with the spare parts around you. My sense is that the spare parts today (frameworks like Ruby, Django, and Drupal, readily available APIs, mobile bandwidth, and advancements like Cloud Computing) enable engineers to spend more time creating and thinking about the user experience, the business model and working more closely with designers, product managers and business owners to build more innovative applications.

    1. fredwilson

      very true

    2. clmensch

      I’m a recent grad of ITP (’09), and one of the self-descriptions of thrown around ITP is “Center for the Recently Possible”. After reading Steven’s “Where Good Ideas Come From”, I decided we need to change that to “Center for the Adjacent Possible”!

      1. fredwilson

        nicely done!

  20. Tereza

    I’ve been treading this Yin/Yang for my career.Interestingly when I started in Europe in TV in the early 90’s having done some internships stateside I was surprised at how much more fluid people there were across art/tech/business. More people were able, interested and willing to cross those lines.In the old media world, especially in the US, those lines were very rigid. So you were either a “suit” or “creative”.The fact that I was in a small country may have played into it — more generalists, fewer specialists.It has been liberating that the web world is less rigid…although it got more rigid over time. But it does feel that’s changing, or needs to change in order to create what’s truly possible at the nexus of tech, UGC, and professionally developed content. It’s still so untapped. Food 52 is a great example. And NY offers so much possibility. But the publishing people can’t get there alone and the tech people can’t get there alone, it’s in between. I recently blogged about a film from 1967 called the Kinoautomat. It was a Czech production which, coincidentally, my mother worked on. ITP profs have studied it as it is widely considered the first interactive film ever.Anyone who is old enough to have been at at Expo 67 in Montreal would know about it.The premise is a guy’s doorbell rings, he opens it, and his young attractive female neighbor is standing there in only a towel locked out of her apartment and is begging for help. His wife is supposed to be home any second. And it’s her birthday. What should he do? Audience votes Green for “let her in!” or Red for “don’t!”. The film goes through 9 such decision branches.I recently started looking at Kinoautomat more closely and an interesting observation is that they used almost no new technology — but were in how much work went into the structuring of the interactions and defining the precise moments of decision.Getting really really smart about helping people make really good decisions — not just analytically, but also ethically/emotionally, and in a totally tailored way — that’s really interesting territory. And I think much of the code that needs to be cracked comes from the arts + people side. Paired w technology it’s a killer combo.

    1. Mark Essel

      Groovy film format. It’s not hard to imagine viewers writing in uncreated branches as the next frontier. We’re no longer writing scripts, or even trees, we’re crafting new forms that lead to unexplored personal freedom.I see this evident in the wildfire Indy game Minecraft, where players not only are allowed to alter the environment, they collaboratively imagine new works of art.

  21. Dave W Baldwin

    The new rules are happening and will accelerate as adjoining parts to the puzzle join in. We have to push creativity mixed with realities of economics. If we do, then more is gained from the younger mindset and that mindset if set free will deliver more thru spontaniety.Regarding the acceleration, digital uses will free up time for all ages enabling our getting more done and allow more time to explore arts, thru sharing and/or building upon. For at least as humans, we are happy when we know someone else sees/understands what we see/convey.As I’ve mentioned before, this will be quite the decade!

  22. Scott Belsky

    Perhaps the time has come where being a “tech company” will not suffice? The “creative heavy” teams you site would probably define themselves more by their MISSION than the MEDIUM (the technology) through which they pursue it.Which begs to question whether “VC’s in tech” ask the wrong questions when looking to invest in industry-changing start-ups that are developing technology as a means rather than an end?The time has finally come when (1) you can achieve revolutionary user experience through design rather than technical prowess, (2) you can solve major tech problems through open source resources rather than expensive ingenuity, (3) you can build a brand and methodology as a startup that is more of a competitive advantage than a breakthrough algorithm.I think “the creative phase” will bring together teams with a more holistic view of the problems they wish to solve. They will tought the WHY of their companies over the traditional HOW. As a result, we will see more companies take a creative approach – building a brand, offline products and services, and straying away from being too tech-centric. I suspect that Investors will have a hard time making sense of it. But then again, nothing extraordinary is ever achieved through ordinary means.

    1. fredwilson

      and you are in the center of this transition Scott

    2. Spencer Fry

      Both Behance — I believe — and Carbonmade have what has been typically thought of as a disproportionate number of creatives to developers that make up our teams. We’re three designers, one copy-writer, and one illustrator per one engineer.Bonkers.

    3. howardlindzon

      all i ever hear though is that data is what matters and content is unleverageable and even I believe that

      1. Tereza

        I think optimal person-to-person interactions haven’t been exploited yet.For example, I believe that many of the prevailing social interactions on the web are “male” in terms of how they’re structurally set up. Women think differently and there is opportunity to create systems around that.These can and should be branded as they represent a gestalt, and also imply a level of trust (e.g. fully open doesn’t always work with women).So the content is still user-generated. But some of us have studied the ways certain kinds of ways humans interact. And this “art” can certainly be applied to these businesses….and make LOTS of money along the way.

        1. Dave W Baldwin

          That is what something we are working on Tereza, so hang in there.

      2. karen_e

        the delicious unique object, the special one-off. unleverageable, yes

  23. reece

    funny, just last night i caught up with a friend in VC in BOS.he lamented on the lack of UI/UX in BOS (though they have the technical chops) and joked that a crafty startup could do database/heavy lifting with a team in BOS and UI/UX with the creatives in NYC.

    1. fredwilson

      our UI/UX heavy teams in NYC often go eastern europe for the technical chops

      1. kenberger

        our dev team is in Asia, and one thing we’ve yet to be successful at is finding graphics design skills there that work for our US and Euro clients.It’s not that the design people in Asia are bad, it’s that their output doesn’t typically match that of western sensibilities, at least in our experience so far. So we instead work with graphics people in Eastern Canada, of all places.

        1. fredwilson

          it’s getting easier to “outsource or offshore” engineering but the creative stuff is not so easily outsourced or offshored

          1. kenberger

            Exactly. And we believe that collaborative, Agile methods are the way to go for the engineering, which itself is increasingly creative too.

  24. Stephen Stark

    Dan Pink (@danielpink) wrote a great book describing the coming social shift from left brain to right brian thinking several years ago called A Whole New Mind. It touches on this concept – worth reading.

    1. fredwilson

      need a “add this to kindle” button in disqus#disqusfeaturerequest

    2. Noone

      Yeah, this post made me think of “A Whole New Mind” as well. I don’t know that I fully buy the thesis, but it’s an interesting read on this topic.

  25. Steve Hallock

    The shift you are referring to goes hand in hand with the maturing of a medium. Engineering gets easier and easier as more people are doing it and more has been done. And engineering gains get far into the area of diminishing returns. The point of separation becomes creativity.Highly generalized, everyone has the tools to make their ideas, so the best ideas win.

  26. Colin Hawkett

    The profile line on my blog has always been ‘Creativity and rigour are the yin and yang of engineering’ – Each requires a small element of the other, and together they deliver the wholet. I agree that we too often see engineering as a clinical execution of strict principles – and while that is true, it is only half the story. Great post! Thx.

  27. Dan Ramsden

    There really are two different subjects in this broader theme. One, I think, relates to the micro level of consumer interface, design, and the growing importance of esthetics in a fragmented and maturing sector. The other, the macro level, perhaps more important, has to do with ethics, or the entrepreneur’s long term vision and ability to incorporate one’s strategy into a bigger social context. This isn’t so much about artistic execution as it is about artistic thought. Not so much about studying design as studying the humanities. Both interrelate though, and both require a way of thought that transcends coding and coolness factor.

    1. fredwilson

      i agreewhen you can combine both, you have a winner

    2. leapy

      I agree with your macro-ethics premise. That is where the real thought-leadership (read “creativity”) will reside in the coming period. In my day-job, I get exposed to the risk registers for corporate clients and it is amazing how many now include ethical considerations – ethics in the true sense not *just* the [eco-conscious|hug the whale|treat our partners equitably] issues. If you believe that corporate concerns reflect the concerns of the individuals and society in which they operate then ethics have to be a major driver for new businesses and social organisations trying to succeed in that same society.Get it right and they are half-way there….the other half being, as you correctly state, the aesthetic/functional aspects.

  28. Kishore Subramanian

    Nice article !!I have been pondering about this distinction ever since Steve Jobs said “Apple wantsTo be at the intersection of technology and liberal arts” during the iPad launch last year. Companies that understand this are more successful than their peers. This also has implications on what is expected from an Engineer.

  29. William Mougayar

    What inspires Clint EastwoodSomewhat related to this, but a fascinating read. He’s turning 80 and working on his next movie.

    1. JLM

      Having tried to retire once upon a time at 45, I can tell you that what keeps all of us going is our work. Man was made to work.Hell, when asked “what do you do?” — we all reply with our work.I suspect that if Clint Eastwood stopped working, he would die shortly thereafter.I doubt I will ever really retire, I suspect I will be doing deals on my deathbed and I suspect that will delay the inevitable. I am hoping so.I am not reluctant to say — I enjoy the Hell out of working!

      1. William Mougayar

        Exactly. I’m with you. As long as one’s health and mental abilities allow it.But I was slightly under-whelmed about his nugget that “a good script is what keeps him going”. I guess, to each their own motivation.

  30. Clay Shirky

    It would be difficult to describe all the things about ITP that are are “accidental” (which is to say things that get decided because they seem like a good idea at the time, but without any particular master plan).Being in an Arts School is the least of it: ITP has always been The Land of Mis-fit Toys. Engineers and techies who care about humans, artists and designers who aren’t afraid of machines, on and on.So Fred, as a footnote, let me add a page from ITPedia documenting some of the significant moments of the institution from 1979 to the present:

    1. fredwilson

      hi clayi like last entry in that wiki

    2. paramendra

      You never know who will show up at the bottom of a Fred Wilson blog post.

  31. AnthonyGadgetX

    I’ve been thinking of his very issue, and how difficult it is to convey the idea within engineering oriented management. Systems hat were once built to service existing culture are now creating culture in and of themselves.

  32. JLM

    Very interesting topic but one that I think is as old as the hills rather than being novel or unique to the technology business.One can look at any utilitarian product — cars, appliances, phones — and see a constant evolution of function and form making the otherwise utilitarian product into a borderline “haute design” luxury good while not compromising the utilitarian function of the product.Look at Bang & Olufsen’s desk phones and see a product that is almost too far gone to the design gods. It is almost unrecognizable as a phone.Engineering will always be a tangible, foundation process, evolutionary — by which I mean the next advance will be founded upon the last advance. A fairly linear progression.Design will always have the opportunity to be revolutionary — by which I mean the next advance can completely disregard and abandon the last advance. A disjointed and wholesale new direction.The only difference between evolution and revolution is the speed.There is no question that engineering and design are converging in much the same way that everything else is converging.This is why we no longer have 20 years of experience but one year of experience 20 times.

    1. Tereza

      JLM I think you are absolutely correct. This is a recurring theme in the maturity of a sector.

      1. JLM

        Every generation thinks THEY discovered sex.

        1. Aaron Klein

          Whoa. Mine didn’t? 😉

          1. JLM

            No, no, no, of course — yours DID discover sex, my bad!

          2. Aaron Klein

            But we didn’t discover Catherine Deneuve, so advantage to you… ;)(By the way, I’ve got something that your other comments lead me to believe you’d be really interested in hearing about. If so, shoot me an e-mail: ak AT

    2. Mark Essel

      As I read your comment I thought Model T, vs Tesla Sport and now cars that drive themselves. Maturing tech leads to more imaginative branches and eventually nonlinear jumps in new tech.

      1. JLM

        I don’t mean to place too much emphasis on the issue of whether new advances are linear or revolutionary but I would note that there is huge convergence at work here.The basic building knowledge of the automobile converging with the almost unlimited possibilities of technology simply guiding that otherwise brain dead piece of iron.I think we are going to see more and more of this — but why not we already have experienced a huge amount of this type of convergence.The other day I was buying a washing machine and I came away convinced it could do my taxes while steaming my jogging shorts.


      Brilliant JLM! “This is why we no longer have 20 years of experience but one year of experience 20 times.” The wheel spinning I see which could be avoided if the knowledge of past experience could be learned and applied to the future.K—

  33. giffc

    There is an amazing amalgam happening, and for my own bias, I like companies good at both. I had someone say to me recently that the tech part of startups was now easy, it is now all about UX. There are more examples of that than ever, but sweeping statements like that are silly.Non-engineering folks commonly underestimate how much effort it takes to build more than a crude prototype. I have worked for an engineering-dominant company where design/ux was not respected, which is foolish, and on the other side, in New York I think there are teams that have to learn not just how to recruit awesome engineers but how to retain them, integrate them, and inspire them.More non-engineers need to realize how incredibly creative engineers can be, and more engineers need to realize that non-engineers are more than just bullshit and fluff.Practically everyone is a tech company now, and the best approach is to have tech, ux, marketing, support, etc all feeding off of each other in the pursuit of awesome.

    1. angoodkind

      I don’t think the opening statement is “silly” in the slightest. 10 years ago, there was a real technical barrier if you wanted to start a blog. Today, there is close to zero technical know-how required to keep a blog. Google App Inventor now let’s a user design an Android app without knowing one line of code…and this is just the beginning. While the apps a user can design are still relatively simple, it’s only a matter of time until a user can design a complex program using only diagrams and natural language.

      1. giffc

        Examples like blogs, simple web 2.0 apps, or awesome tools like jquery do not make the statement true as a general rule for our industry in the slightest. Even if a layperson could graphically put an application together, there is still a lot of complexity in making something *fast* and *scalable* once you need to move beyond the prototype stage. But even beyond that, there is a constantly moving bar – there are always complex new problems to solve that require serious technical skill — look at all the exciting stuff happening around “big data” for example.

  34. hud

    But obstructing this phase is the ever present conflict between form and function. Obviously, tech startups are heavily biased towards function, which downplays the type of creativity you describe. it’s evident in the jobs they offer, the pay they award, the roadmap they chart, thinking along the lines of “we’ll do a proper design once we get to a million users.” But beyond simply design, this utility-bias often squeezes out important elements of branding and storytelling that the best startups have done from the start, e.g. tumblr, etsy, vimeo. And more often than not, the typical startup is very slow to define their user, to engage or entertain, or connect through stories. I’m an advertising creative and while I adore and celebrate startups, there’s typically no place for me in them unless its my own.

    1. Dave W Baldwin

      your own…that’s the idea.

  35. vruz

    Open Source/Free Software and the Internet that gave birth to them are the fuel.It’s an invisible revolution, but it’s there.

  36. Startup Happiness

    Instead of the word “creativity”, I would be tempted to reframe this as “deeper collaboration”. Yes, the products that are resulting are more creative, but in fact, it’s the teams that are changing dramatically, and those changes in how teams are structured are in turn producing more creative, richer products than would otherwise be possible.I see three areas where big changes are occurring that contribute to this change from engineering/tech focus to something like “creativity” or “deeper collaboration”:(1) Agile dev’t & cross-functional teams(2) Higher level dev’t tools & cloud computing allow engineers to do the same amount of work in less time(3) More engineers who are using Lean Startup methodology are thinking about the big pictureHere is a bit more about each of those:(1)The Agile development movement is helping to push forward the “de-silo-ing” of development teams, which means that more engineers are either playing a design/creative role, or working side-by-side with someone who is. 20 years ago, even a small company had marketing, engineering, product design, and even sales as distinct teams who “battled it out” to get more of what they wanted in the product, often at the perceived expense of other teams. Agile creates true cross-functional teams who work side by side, which means engineering exposure to design isn’t receiving a set of wireframes to implement, but rather discussing design from the perspective of a user, from the perspective of the data model, implementation, and so on. The UX community is still struggling to figure out how exactly they “fit” into Agile projects exactly, but that work is in progress, and will result in something far more collaborative than handing over wireframes for implementation.Resources:…(2)With the high-level frameworks and cloud computing, engineers can build things more quickly, and thus have more *potential* mindshare to care about other parts of the business. What they learn to pay attention to will influence how this “extra” mindshare might be directed.(3)The Lean Startup methodology requires engineers to pay attention to what users are actually doing with their software (and giving them tons of info in real time) and also about what customers purchase, and why. This rapid design/development process is highly customer-centric and business centric, which is giving more engineers hands-on experience learning about UX and business. They are forced to think about the big picture in a way that they weren’t when they were just handed a spec and asked to implement it. By measuring what path users take through software, and how changes in software actually affect user behavior and purchasing behavior, they have access to far more information. So what we are breeding is actually a hybrid engineer/designer/businessperson, rather than what we had 15 years ago, which was an engineer who was great at writing code, but didn’t get very much information about exactly how it got used by people, or how the business would make money.Is anyone else seeing these changes, and does it feel like the teams that are producing more “creativity” are also collaborating in deeper ways?

    1. femmebot

      ITP’s creative formula isn’t quite the same as what Pivotal practices. (I went to ITP and have also worked with Pivotal). At ITP, it’s not unlikely that you’ll find a dancer who is also the designer and developer/prototyper/hacker. The opportunities that collaboration tends to open up at ITP tend more toward connecting dots outside of commonly-held assumptions rather than just distributing labor across team members with specialized skills.

      1. Startup Happiness

        Femmebot, thanks for taking the time to explain; I’m not familiar with ITP, but that paints a much clearer picture. So it’s more taking inspiration from disciplines that would not normally be associated with engineering or technology at all, and injecting *that* into the development process. Does that teach team members to be able to hold/understand multiple perspectives better?

        1. femmebot

          Often, it involves more of actually undertaking another discipline rather than simply taking inspiration. While students don’t necessarily deviate from their natural strengths, what does often happen is that it opens up possibilities. As Clay put it, the students create “misfit toys”—they weren’t necessarily created with a business goal in mind yet their imaginativeness often expands possibilities.

      2. ShanaC

        I keep wondering if that is because it is part of an art school or because of the types of people they take in. Part of a good art program is that it will try to broaden the way one thinks about the creative process.

        1. femmebot

          Definitely the student make-up is a good part of it. Red Burns is a firm believer in making sure there’s a good proportion of different cultures, international students, artists and technologists entering the program each year.

    2. touchyourdream

      Good points! In a networking world, your points may be more important than any other thing.

  37. Andy Rosenberg

    Great post. In addition to ITP, NYU offers many opportunities to pursue interdisciplinary studies and merge the creative with the technical. The Gallatin School of Individualized Study allowed me to pursue undergrad coursework at any one of NYU’s schools – including the Tisch School of the Arts and the Stern School of Business. NYU will continue to play a critical role in the development of the New York tech entrepreneurial community. With the absence of college football, our homecomings will soon celebrate the many successful startups that are rising to prominence from academia!

    1. fredwilson

      yup, I’m very bullish on NYU

  38. paramendra

    Fred. I think this is what you are getting at. It goes past engineering a-n-d creativity. You are going to have to start talking sectors soon enough. The “iconic” tech companies you long for will be sector companies.

  39. LukeG

    Does it make sense to say that the higher up the stack you go, the closer to the human you get?The original venture-backed engineering companies clearly affected human behavior, but mostly indirectly – behavior on the web was (and still is) largely emergent, not directed. Scientists hooked up some computers to talk to each other so they could share research data; decades later we have the web, and we still say “follow your users,” don’t we?As we get better at understanding behavior and motivation and how to influence these via a composed user experience, though, the more we’re attempting to directly shape the way people live their lives. Our web services aren’t just ‘technology’ anymore. They’re teachers and coaches and doctors and financial advisers, and ways of discovering and connecting with all of the above.So what’s higher up the stack than a person? A household, a peer group, a niche, a culture, a society. It seems like the things we’re building now are specifically focused on changing the way not just individuals but groups of people behave. Identifying emergent behavior is still a critical part of startups – if I want to enable craftmakers to connect with their distributed global markets I’m still going to start with *something* and watch how the community evolves, and tailor my product to support that growth – but we’re directing the domains in which that behavior first coalesces.It seems like the origin of that direction is a desire to change the way the world works, often a specific goal for how a founder/builder thinks people should play or date or meet or build or take out their garbage.The engineers who built silicon valley were immensely creative – they had to be, to overcome the specific challenges they faced. Our collective focus now, though, is increasingly on influencing the most complex system of all: 6.9 billion people trying to live together on one little planet. I suspect that figuring out large groups of people is messier now than directing large groups of atoms (or at least that it takes a different type of intuition to understand what atoms will “adopt”, as opposed to tricksy humans).Some of what we build will be junk, and some will be art, and some rare few will affect culture in a significant way. Maybe that’s why “mission” seems to be an increasingly common part of the conversation: because we actually have the ability (or think we do) to guide meaningful social change.

  40. Venturatis

    massive internet creativity was captive until very recently due to a lack of bandwith, to the same extent mobile internet creativity has been captive as a consequence of carrier´s lack of openess in their networks.Creativity has always been there, remember all those “crazy” business plans of the internet bubble. Removing barriers to creativity is the techies work (using their own)

  41. andyidsinga

    I know a bunch engineers / hackers who really do like to be creative and dislike simply “translating” someone else’s vision or idea into code. I think the best bosses often inspire their engineers to be creative vs simply translating.

    1. muratcannoyan

      I bet thats true for a ton of them. Taking the time to help engineers understand the philosophy of what is trying to be accomplished is time well spent.

    2. Mark Essel

      Self expression is essential to work satisfaction and success. Right on!

  42. riemannzeta

    Just to name drop on a few other cultures that seem to me to represent the leading edge of the “creative phase” that Fred is describing:MIT Media Lab (for example, the computing culture group http://compcult.wordpress.c…Anything that Paul Graham gets his hands on (Hackers and Painters could be a manifesto for this kind of creativity)Steve Jobs was the first and still the leading exampleLooking over this list, I see minimalism as a key theme — these folks are into doing more with less. New technology is born baroque. It takes an ascetic sensibility to transform it into something with the warmth of humanity.

    1. fredwilson

      yup those are all good examples

  43. howardlindzon

    i hope u are right. early days of creativity. on the low bandwith end, twitter is the perfect platform for news and humor so far. on the high bandwith end we have a long way to go. i think the key is creativity is fine but you better make sure you have the runway or match the bandwith needed with the creativity you plan on deploying/making your business

  44. Clyde Smith

    Whatever accidents were involved, ITP was part of a larger movement in art departments and at art related institutions that were developing tech-related art programs in the 70s.I recall the School of the Art Institute of Chicago’s catalogs from that time period (one of which I altered and turned into an art book inspired by how cool that catalog was) listing a variety of tech courses involving computers, video, etc. and at least one tech focused department beyond the obvious choice of video.As we push for creativity in business yet put more and more education funds into science and technology, looking back at some of this history might tell us that our funding priorities are a bit skewed, even if all we value is the business outcome!Thanks for pointing to that paragraph. I considered applying to that program at one point due to my art interests but it’s nice to see that the department has had an acknowledged affect on the business community as well.

  45. Daniel Kraft

    Very good point. There is no need to reinvent the wheel but to make use of it. Over the last decade we have invested in “wheel makers”, now we see a shift towards “car makers”. What do we like with cars to day: design, feeling … yet, based on solid engineering. Could you share some ideas what you consider “creative” and what “engineering”. E.g. is the app economy the first or the second?

    1. fredwilson

      well Etsy comes to mind when you think about a creative led effortit’s interesting that they’ve hired 40 engineers this year and not many creatives

  46. Umberto Righetti

    Great post. We are a company built on engineer heavy/creative light foundations so your post resonated with me. We’ve had many conversations internally on this topic.In the last few years we’ve seen many competitors come and go that were creative heavy/engineer light. We were successful through the first phase of the digital technology revolution because we got the back end/front end mix right.If we had remained true to our foundations, I’m sure we would eventually have been overtaken in the second phase of the digital technology revolution. We changed the mix and continued to grow and leave competitors in our wake.I’m pretty sure that if we stopped at this phase we would still be trying to differentiate ourselves against competitors with very deep pockets. Instead I think we prepared for the third phase – creating a new and innovative business model that worked for all stakeholders.A rock solid back-end build by an engineering genius, complimented by a creative front-end and supported by a unique business model are all critical to success in the digital technology revolution. If companies are missing one of these or don’t address them sequentially success will not be sustainable.

  47. ShanaC

    I keep thinking that the number one and two things I ever learned in an art program:1) Art and creativity are a practice. You get better when you practice the basics. It allows you to “see differently over time” I wish I could explain that better (it also is my number 1 failing when it comes to the practice of drawing. I miss it)2) It’s not an either/or proposition. One of the benefits of practicing creativity is you see how all sorts of different fields link together. You get to experiment. You get to ask important questions, which only come out of practicing.

  48. Harry DeMott

    Again – I’m so late to the party that the guests have all gone home for the evening but -I’m going to go back to one of your earlier pieces:…Just my opinion, but after reading through some 100 plus comments – the word that comes to mind for me is ergonomics.All this talk about user interface and design is really a fancy term for the ergonomics of a website or service. It is the place where the user meets the back end engineering – and if both are great – then the service survives and maybe even thrives.To me – what you are trying to get at is the description of a classic piece of design – like an Eames Chair or a Hinckley Picnic Boat. You can sit in any seat and it will hold you up, and a Boston Whaler will get you across the lake – but a great chair will look better, feel better and last longer – it has value far beyond the utilitarian. Same with the boat. Everything you want or need has been thought out for you – and laid out in a simple – easy to use manner – so that the function is seamless to the user – what you get is simply results.

    1. karen_e

      Right. Good design is sometimes revealed after you’ve removed all the excess. Edit, edit, edit.

      1. JLM

        Knowing that you are intimately familiar with the high end landscape design business really makes your comment resonate.One of my favorite cars — I wanted to say “possession” but actually that car possesses me, I think — is a ’66 Impala convertible — the Big Red Car — and the driving experience has never been improved since then.I drive that car — top down, windows up — late at night on cool nights w/ the heat blasting and Pat Green howling — it doesn’t get better than that.It is the most elegantly simple pleasure one can imagine.I think in the end, we are all looking for elegantly simple truly utilitarian pleasurable experiences everywhere.

    2. JLM

      It is very hard to ignore any comment which incudes an allusion to a Hinckney Picnic Boat.I love the Hinckley Picnic Boat — almost as much as Catherinie Deneuve in her prime — but I am going to have a Maine boatyard knock one off for me rather than buying the original.The design is transportable and I am into the function not the brand.Funny thing is that Hinckney stole the design, fair and square, from earlier versions made by local Maine boatyards for years.I do not have the cojones to have it made in wood though.The joystick steering is a thing of beauty.

    3. fredwilson

      love this comment Harry

      1. Harry DeMott

        Thanks.I went to bed thinking about the topic – and woke up thinking about it.To some degree it is a shame that the discussion even needs to be had. There are certainly no lack of incredibly talented engineers out there in the world solving all sorts of interesting problems. And likewise, there are tons of great design and creative types out there.I think it should almost be incumbent of investors to make sure if they are funding a company that the two sides get together on a project.Without good engineering – no amount of gloss will make a service useful – and without the gloss it is very hard to go mainstream and wide.I’ve started to use Gist – which I got from a blog post that Brad Feld wrote. It is a great service as far as I can tell, but to my mind and eye – the UI is not all that great. It looks like it was written by a Microsoft engineer – for other engineers working in the bowels of the Redmond coal mines.Now what is interesting about the product is that it was written by a Microsoft engineer – who worked on Outlook for years. His name is TA McCann and he is a serial founder and he is also a professional sailor who has been on a winning America’s cup team.Now contrast the UI at Gist (which I suggest everyone who reads this checks out as I believe it could become an enormously successful service) with the UI that TA faced on his winning America’s Cup boat. The boat is arguably far more complex – and infinitely more costly – but it has been stripped of absolutely everything that would prevent it from doing its job efficiently – i.e. converting wind power to water speed. Nothing extraneous is on deck – sure there are extra sails hidden away, and yes there are computers and navigational aids for the power user – but to the average user of that boat – it is the bare minimum.Now contrast this with the design of Google (one box and two buttons) – or Pandora (I can’t tell you how many discussions I have had with Tom Conrad the CTO of Pandora about the UI – he is a purist – Apple old school who wants to keep it as unfussy and simple as humanly possible).So why can’t everything be reduced, through great design, distilled – and ever increasing ergonomoics – to its simplest form. These days – there’s really no excuse.

        1. Bernhard Mehl

          Great posts… Some comments on your thought that it should be investors who make sure that the two sides get together on a project. From my experience as Designer I can tell the following:First tech-start-ups in an early stage mostly don´t see the need for a creative to be part of the founding team because they see no strategic value in it. To raise seed money they need a good looking excel sheet and a working prototype or a whiteboard – not an execution of a good user experience.So then the VC comes in and tells them to get their UI right. What do they do? I guess mostly they will buy one from the VC´s money, since they think the Design is only needed once. Optimizing the UI is then mostly the Coder´s job. I have never heard of a pure Designer/Creative being a Product Manager of a successful web-start-up.So question: Which role does a creative designer play in a start-up?Make sure that the Brand and UI is good? Well, an agency can do that faster and with less risk. Optimize the UI? A good Coder can do that too.I would say: Either a designer has to be able to code a lot (like Fred said) or the Designer has to be the Marketing guy to reason his/her strategic importance. Otherwise there is just no space for a creative on board of a start-up team. Unfortunately.

          1. Harry DeMott

            I can see your point – but I figure that leaving out the creative part ofthe equation is a major mistake. Sure you want the founders to solve someproblem – a large problem that tons of users will find useful – but unlessyou have creative types that can translate that problem into a highlyuseable UI you are never going to scale quickly or effectively.I think if you look at some of Fred’s companies that have scaled quickly -part of that success, I would argue is the simplicity of the UI.So something like Twitter never suffered from a clunky UI – quick andefficient. The engineering might have failed from time to time, but not theUI.Google has also won the UI game.Consider the difference between searching on or If yougo to yahoo – you have to suffer through all sorts of visual clutter to getto the search – thus, you go to google.The way I figure it, no one at a start-up is particularly expensive -everyone sort of works for equity – so why not bring in a key member of theteam that you are probably going to need sooner or later anyway. Sure, ifyou can get a designer who codes – or does sales etc…, that’s great – butif you can’t still get the design right!

  49. Mike Abundo

    I’ve seen Web projects with great artists and horrible engineers fail miserably.You’re absolutely right that creativity is becoming more and more important on today’s Web. It’s a great insight to keep in mind, especially for entrepreneurs who tend to get bogged down in technical minutiae.People shouldn’t forget, however, that engineering supports creativity.

    1. fredwilson


  50. Gary Sharma

    great post.a few points …1) I wonder if this is cyclical? In 1984 building desktop software was hard. In 1994 building internet websites was hard. In 2004 building web / mobile apps was hard. So maybe in 2014 a new paradigm emerges that will again swing the pendulum the other way?2) Creativity of course is equated with ui / ux / design aesthetics, but I’m assuming it could also be more than that – eg. creativity in new business models, creativity in new approaches to marketing, creativity in distribution, creativity in applying domain expertise etc3) In a startup’s early stages when its searching for that elusive product market fit, it makes sense to be creative heavy but doesn’t that balance shift a bit as they have to start tackling scaling / performance issues and hiring great engineering talent becomes as important to the startup’s success?

    1. fredwilson

      yup, once things start to scale, engineers are the required solution, and often a bunch of them

  51. Carl Rahn Griffith

    Great topic.All too often the importance of the end-user experience – whether a tactile interactive sensation of delightful ergonomics with a piece of hardware, or a more visceral experience with an application – is forgotten about, or an after-thought.Even Apple doesn’t get it right – the iPod set new standards in physical interaction with a device via a beautifully simple and intuitive design, yet iTunes remains one of most appalling end user application experiences around.

    1. JLM

      Brilliant comment and observation.

    2. Kenyan

      Great comment about Apple and iTunes.I feel this is symptomatic of the industry that iTunes catered for initially….which is the terminally ill music industry. They tried to fit the new technology and services into the old paradigm for consumption of music. Years later it is obviously not a fit and the service/website is obviously not working well.I’m keen to see where iTunes goes in the future and how they can improve/change the function (be it through engineering or artfulness!)

  52. Aaron Klein

    I’m sure there is more complexity to this issue, but if I try to find the most simplistic way of implementing what you wrote, it’s something I learned in the last six months: you’ve got to find engineers who are primarily user interface artists to be a key part of your team.Writing the underlying code is critical and you need the “Sheldon Coopers” (aka theoretical physicists) of the web engineering world to do that.But users often find it difficult to interact with their creations.If you have a creative leading the UI piece of the project, you’ll get the best of both worlds.I used to think that’s what product dev people were for. And they can play a key role. But they’ll be doing a lot of fixing and rework not required if a great UX person exists in engineering.


    Fred, If you are wondering if there are any existing models for creative business, there are, but no one ever documented them for others to learn from.I worked in the business for over a decade until it imploded in the late 1980’s and had a glimpse of what made it work so brilliantly. A “model” company in the creative business during this era may be characterized by the principle of “challenge”. In other words, creativity flourished because the organization was designed to be challenged by the seemingly impossible.The strategic planning function “owned” the challenge of achieving ambiguous objectives in order to be the bridge between the business side of satisfying the customers (and more than one, by the way) and inspiring the creative side.The creative function was designed to “own” the challenge of being fresh, icon-building, touching the nerve that moves people to act – during a time when the supply of original ideas was abundant. (I recently grieved with a former colleague the great, original ideas we saw in conference rooms that never were produced for frivolous reasons)The execution function was designed to “own” the challenge of achieving impeccable quality and being the fiduciary.The critical flaw or weakness of this model was simple. Pricing. No one took on the challenge of how to price, rationalize, and sell the value of this creative process. They didn’t have to, because during the days of mass media there was so much money to go around. But when the market finally crashed due to audience fragmentation, it was too late to rationalize the process, companies went public, were re-organized to optimize returns for investors and no one ever documented what it was, why it worked and how to replicate it.Katherine Warman Kern@comradity

  54. JLM

    Fred, this blog post has evoked the best discussion ever. The fact that the issue remains essentially unresolved proves the point. Well done.It also highlights that your audience is clearly the most intelligent, civil and thoughtful bunch of folks one could hope to assemble.I am happy to listen and learn.Fair play to you!

    1. fredwilson

      any discussion which includes mention of Catherine Deneuve is a greatdiscussion!

  55. rich caccappolo

    Building on this theme, I think about what this means in terms of the priority of hires at startups (or when pulling together a team for a project) and I am reminded of an article that Charlie O’Donnell wrote a couple weeks ago

  56. Doug Kersten

    About a year ago I was at a conference and was talking about how developers are really artists but most don’t realize it because we make our own brushes and paint. Now other people make the brushes and paint for us (frameworks, apis, etc.) and, as a result, developers are starting to realize that they really are artists. With this change in mindset comes a change in how you work and think about what you are creating.

  57. knowledgenotebook

    “half engineer, half artist.”, exactly! And I’d venture to say, to make the start-up to take off, effective communication holds key too (here’s the value to you, and here’s how you can realize it…)

  58. Peter Glasten

    I would disagree that “creative heavy and engineer light” teams (will) do well in the technology space. If we list most successful tech products/services of the last several years (iPhone, Android, Facebook), most of them are both “creative heavy” and “engineer heavy”. Twitter is probably “engineer light”, they are also somewhat “creative light” as well…

  59. car hire alicante

    Great post. Technologies develop very fast and full with creativity.

  60. Jason Lorimer

    I love that article by Steven Johnson if for no other reason then it profiles East Coast entrepreneurs as progressive. The interesting thing I see mostly coming out of NY as opposed to Silicon Valley is a keen understanding of how to leverage the internet to get people to participate in their experiences in a passive way. I wrote about this a while back in a post called – The Rise of the Creator Economy -

  61. Pascal de Kwalys

    impossible de passer a travers !