Finding The Art In Building A Business

Executives from app powerhouse PicsArt share their viewpoint on how thinking like artists helps businesses thrive.

I never completed a full day of high school. At 12:30, while my friends were heading for lunch rooms and an afternoon of classes, I would board a bus to the Education Center for the Arts (ECA) to study painting, sculpture and photography. There, I’d join a couple hundred other artists--musicians, actors, visual artists--to practice.

Approach building a business like creating art. You will find more fulfillment, enjoy more creativity, and have a better chance of success.

The founders of PicsArt drove this home again to me recently. Their app, available on Android and now iOS, allows you to create artwork from photos with a functionality close to what you get on expensive professional tools like Photoshop. But PicsArt is free and requires no instructions or training.

From its launch, PicsArt has consistently maintained a position as one of the top 50 apps on Google Play. In its first year it logged 35 million downloads. It is now approaching 50 million installations, a mark less than 50 apps have ever reached on Google’s app store.
I recently got a chance to speak to the Armenia-based leadership team of PicsArt (cofounder and CTO Arto Mehrabyan and head of marketing Matt Bartelsian) to talk in depth about how they did it. Their success lies in that they approach the business-building challenge with the same creative approach they use to help millions of users create artwork from pictures.

If we also start viewing our businesses, careers, social movements as pieces of art in which life, instead of oil paint, is the medium, I believe we can find greater success while enjoying the intrinsic value of creativity along our journey. Here are some takeaways about the intersection of art and business:

Create pieces, then connect patterns: At the ECA, we did two types of art: studies and explorations. In studies we sketched out exactly what we were going to create and tried to execute it. This helped us develop our technique. But when we were good enough, we worked on explorations. We sat down with some clay and paint and charcoal and started creating. Each new element revealed something we could not see before until a macro-pattern or image emerged. The final product looked thought through in detail, but this was an illusion. The details just happened to fit together. Similarly, investors and business school professors want you to build out a full plan for your venture. Yet business artists approach the work differently.

PicsArt, for example, didn’t start out planning to build a full-feature app. They built a little stand-alone tool to help people alter a photo image on their phone, then they built another, then another. As Arto explained, “We knew we were heading toward something like a full-featured something. But it’s really been [guided by] letting consumers tell us what they want.” The final masterpiece emerged from small details that came together. Read how the founders of Amazon.com, RIM/BlackBerry, or Google created their masterpieces, and you will see the same approach.

Be happy not getting “there”: This artistic approach to business building means that you are not filling in a master blueprint and so must be OK not getting to where you thought you might go. As Arto said, “Where we are now is not where we thought we would be.” You have to be OK forgoing the psychological payoff of having done what you said you were going to do; you have to enjoy the journey, be comfortable going to your investors and saying, “We thought we’d do this, but instead we did that.” This is not unlike PicsArt users who, in Matt’s words, see that “Play is enjoying; there is intrinsic value in playing.” Your play is business building. You get intrinsic value from that act.

Find your North Star: If you are creating small pieces without executing a pre-defined master plan, how do you know you are on the right path? The key is to follow a compelling purpose. For PicsArt, what wakes them up every morning is the question, "How can we inspire people to be more creative?” and the belief that “Everyone can become a creative artist." If you find this lofty, consider that PicsArt has been profitable from day one, using a freemium model supported by advertising. Has your favorite app achieved that?

On our trip to Puerto Rico for our family vacation this week, I pulled out my Android and started snapping pictures using PicsArt. I lack the verbal dexterity to adequately describe the experience--I studied visual arts, not literary--so you will have to try it yourself. But I can tell you that during every minute of the 45-minute taxi ride to the airport with my wife and three kids, we snapped and played and laughed without stop. THAT is what intrinsic value feels like.

[Image: Flickr user Nathan O'Nions]

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