The art of entrepreneurship: from Van Gogh, to Kyffin Williams to Beeple

Last week Mike Winklemann’s (aka ‘Beeple’) encrypted jpeg digital artwork The First 500 Days sold for $69m, with the Non-fungible tokens (‘NFT’) revolution and blockchain technology digitalising the art domain. That’s a lot of money for a piece of art that does not exist as a physical thing. It’s following the path of iTunes and the Kindle into the digital formatting of our lives.

It reminded me that when lockdown is over, I’m heading back to my favourite art galleries – The Whitworth in Manchester, The Lowry in Salford and Oriel Ynys Môn. Many people think galleries are ‘hoity toity’ places where they’re not welcome, but nothing could be further from truth. A gallery is not a place of artefacts, it’s a place of ideas. For me, nothing carries you away and clears your mind more than visiting a gallery.

Artists see things that we don’t, and if you want to unleash your own creative spark, visit a gallery. I’m not sure how it works, but it feels like osmosis, just being around art makes you more inventive. Each of us has our own singularity and we don’t all find the works in a gallery equally appealing. What prompts a visitor to go from one place to another? Why do we stop there for 15 minutes?

Art engages the brain in a way that day to day business does not, it’s a counterweight as creating art and creating a company are extensions of the same trait: seeing an idea in your head and then making it come to life. Creativity is the essence of entrepreneurship.

Oriel Ynys Môn will be my first visit out of lockdown, and the Kyffin Williams collection is my destination, with 400 of his original works there. Williams is considered to be Wales’s foremost artist, known and admired as a painter of the mountains, the seas and the coast of Anglesey. However, of all his works I’d select two paintings – a farmer and his dog in snow battling and Trearddur Bay, as my favourites.

Kyffin Williams was born at Tanygraig, Anglesey, on 9 May 1918. On his discharge from the army in 1940 due to epilepsy, the advice which Kyffin was given by the military doctor was: Williams, as you are in fact abnormal, I think it would be a good idea if you took up art, words which Kyffin took great delight in repeating when he was the grand old man of the arts in Wales.

One of Kyffin Williams’s gifts was the ability to ‘set’ a scene on canvas, which he did using a pallet knife rather than a brush, a technique quite different to that of his contemporaries. He liked to paint in the open air in all weathers, and he continued to do so until health considerations forced him into the studio. He worked very quickly, finishing a portrait in a day. It was said of him that when he painted a mountain, he knew what was on the other side of the slope which faced him – he saw the full picture. Oriel Ynys Môn established the Kyffin Williams memorial gallery in 2008.

Williams showed that artists and entrepreneurs have so much in common. Each discipline requires creativity and vision to bring an idea to life, and whether you’re a musician or a technologist, without passion you’ve got nothing. Even the underlying strategies and satisfaction felt from a dream realised are similar – as their art starts gaining traction, artists begin looking for a way to support themselves financially, which is the beginning of the journey into the world of scalability and entrepreneurship.

While not all entrepreneurs are artists, all artists are entrepreneurs. Artists have a product or idea to sell, and they need to get out into the marketplace. In order to do this, artists need basic business awareness and a willingness to approach selling art as any entrepreneur would. Entrepreneurs seek outlier success, which comes from them going out of their way to be disruptive, to make people think differently. Likewise artists, thinking in pictures and images, using their imagination to navigate the human experience to present new ideas. Entrepreneurs know the value of being innovative and memorable like Kyffin, unlocking new conversations and possibilities. The art of entrepreneurship was alive in Kyffin Williams. He painted as an act of self-discovery, every artist paints what he is.

People become entrepreneurs for many different reasons, some to do what they love, others to help serve people, and others just to pay their bills. Regardless of their motivation for starting, the most successful entrepreneurs are really artists. When a painter begins their masterpiece, they are looking at a blank canvas. What separates the master painter from the crowd is that they see opportunity from that blank canvas. When an entrepreneur envisions their masterpiece, they are looking at nothing other than opportunity – the same opportunity that the master painter sees.

So, what we can learn from Kyffin’s entrepreneurial attitude and approach to his art that will guide us in our startup thinking? Here are my thoughts, with quotes from Van Gogh – the artist most admired by Williams – illustrating his entrepreneurial mindset too.

Open mindedness One must spoil as many canvases as one succeeds with.William’s work was always drawn from a huge range of influences. His uniqueness was often the product of combining existing elements in new ways, with a prowess for producing something entirely his own, throwing ideas together randomly to discover new combinations and possibilities. This ability to create genuine uniqueness is a key trait of entrepreneurs.

Restlessness For my part I know nothing with any certainty, but the sight of the stars makes me dream. Williams never succumbed to the stick-to-a-formula mantra. At the height of his success he re-emerged with something completely new and unexpected. Not all of his experiments worked, but this willingness to try out new ideas, knowing that not all will triumph, is a trait every innovator needs.

Reality leaves a lot to the imagination I dream of painting, and then I paint my dream. That’s my favourite Van Gogh quote. Reality, plus a sprinkle of imagination and intuition, turns that which seems impossible into something that is possible. If you can imagine it, and you can believe it, you can achieve it by asking yourself the question, ‘What if?’ Then go do. The ability to follow your gut instincts as an entrepreneur is vital to the creation process and carving out your own niche. Steve Jobs followed his instincts to create the iPhone as much as Michelangelo painting the Sistine Chapel.

You don’t need anybody to tell you who you are or what you are What would life be if we had no courage to attempt anything?Ignore the naysayers, your startup is your road of self-discovery. Listen to your inner voice and stand up tall knowing who you are. Like Williams, have ambition that reaches way beyond your current horizon.

If you do what everyone else has done, you will have what everyone else has. It is entrepreneurs who are willing to do what no one else is willing to do so they can have what no one else has. The true masterpieces from creators like Kyffin are built around a passion, so that every day you can wake up doing what you love and generate a living doing it.

Your audience or customers are craving the unexpected – give it to them. I hope to make something good one day. I haven’t yet, but I am pursuing it and fighting for it.They want to be wowed. Why not come up with some novel, out of the box ideas like Van Gogh did, and give them a little clue about the depth of your uniqueness? The artist can easily be pulled into copying what is ‘trendy’, but the best artist and entrepreneurs don’t copy, they produce outside of the norm. The most successful aren’t trying to think outside the proverbial box, they no longer see ‘the box’ as they aren’t trying to copy, they are interested in creating something new and improving upon what has already been done.

Experiment to find your signature style (brand) If you hear a voice within you say ‘you cannot paint,’ then by all means paint, and that voice will be silencedWhen a canvas (or any startup venture) starts, the learning and journey are as important as the end result. You should always experiment, prototype and be thoughtful about the whole process. Look to the future, but start with the small steps today. Williams left many unfinished canvases, which may not have been true reflections of his intended meaning, but they added to his thinking.

Your idea or your approach to your work is ultimately what you will be putting out in the market. By determining what it is you do, how you do it, and the content, you will be defining your signature style . Once you have developed a style, you can then present it seamlessly to your audience. By defining your brand or style, you determine your audience.

Obsess on making it happen For the great doesn’t happen through impulse alone, and is a succession of little things that are brought together Both artists and entrepreneurs are both obsessed to the point of being called crazy about what they are doing. They are well known for getting lost in their art or business and getting totally consumed by it. They love their work to degrees others can’t even understand.

It’s not uncommon to hear about the artist working in the studio until the wee hours of the morning. The same is true of the entrepreneur who works the weekend missing out on what others call ’normal’ life. It’s getting up every day and doing the work, taking thousands of fresh touches and refreshes alongside the productive mornings. It’s the same for your startup, it’s a combination of inspiration and sheer hard work.

Abolish perfectionism You can’t be successful in art or in business if you are a slave to perfectionism. While both the crazy entrepreneur and artist seek perfectionism in their work, they are not stymied by it knowing they must produce with speed in order to one day get it right. Don’t worry about mistakes. Making things out of mistakes, that’s creativity.

As Pablo Picasso said, Art washes away from the soul, the dust of everyday life. This is the heart of the matter for both artist and entrepreneur. It takes a true artist to see something out of nothing and an even greater artist to begin the process to shape the situation to match that which they envision. Sometimes no one can see what you see and sometimes people may even tell you that you are crazy for thinking you can see some kind of opportunity. Well you may be crazy, or maybe you are just crazy enough to believe what you see is possible.

Which brings me back to Beeple. When Covid struck and Mike Winklemann’s design bwork slowed, he started to explore the world of cryptocurrency, blockchain and NFT, which are basically digital certificates of ownership. He discovered that there were some serious players in the virtual art game who would pay serious money for a piece of digital art that came with an NFT that authenticated it as unique. So he changed his focus from Winkelmann the designer to Beeple the artist. And then he had an idea…

He created a collage of all the ‘everyday’ images he had produced over the years and called it: Everydays: The First 5000 Days. He partnered with the auction house Christie’s, which had never sold a purely digital work before, an artwork that didn’t exist in the real life but belongs in the virtual world. They created an online auction for the work that lasted for two weeks and started the bidding at $100. The price slowly started to creep up, then began to accelerate, before going stratospheric in the final minutes, increasing in increments of $1m+. The winning bid was $69m.

That’s the art of entrepreneurship, from Van Gogh, to Kyffin Williams to Beeple. They figured out what they loved to do and then began making a plan into how they could do more of it. They followed the path of any entrepreneur. As Van Gogh said, dream of painting and then paint your dream, and make a success from your entrepreneurial endeavours.

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