Just Managing: The Poetry of Business
Objects are nothing. There is only the light, the light!
So concludes "The Annihilation of Matter," a poem by the late
William Bronk, one of my favorite poets. In my opinion, his work
is transcendent, beautiful and inspiring. But more to the point,
it's also surprisingly relevant to the Internet Economy. Bronk's
poetry is an urgent reminder that the world of the Internet is synthetic,
a flickering, man-made replica of what we call the world. In fact,
my favorite book of Bronk's is titled The World, The Worldless.
There's an important, albeit indirect, link between proficiency
in poetry and mastery in entrepreneurship, one that is instructive
to anyone founding a company in the digital world. Essentially,
entrepreneurs are people who are creating value by inventing or
discovering new ways to connect people, ideas and organizations
to one another - in much the same way that poets surprise and inspire
us with their ability to make the world new through language. While
it would be misguided to search too hard for a causal connection
between being proficient at poetry and being successful at growing
a business, there is a connection that's more than coincidental.
The art of trusting the intuitive leap and of creating meaning in
a place where it didn't exist before - and then communicating that
to an audience - are fundamental to both.
Take the case of David Levine, the founder and now chairman of
Ultraprise, an online exchange for the secondary mortgage marketplace
that has raised more than $30 million from backers such as GE, Citigroup,
First Union and others. Levine says he first became interested
in the Internet for its potential to transform the publishing industry
- by enabling people who care passionately about something to share
their interests. After purchasing his first computer with money
from an NEA fellowship, Levine discovered the MOO group at Xerox
Parc, a multiuser virtual environment, and was immediately hooked.
One of his early passions was cutting and pasting poetry to share
with the online group, and as he learned about the commercial promise
of the Web, he eventually enlisted some of his fellow online poetry
lovers as colleagues.
Levine believes that practicing poetry can help cultivate entrepreneurial
skills. "Business requires vision, and vision requires perspective,"
he says. "The further you can push the focal point of your vision,
the better you'll do in business." His favorite poet is French romantic
Arthur Rimbaud, who Levine calls the ultimate "poetic entrepreneur."
Rimbaud's poems, Levin says, all reflect a deep entrepreneurial/experiential
nature of attempting to engage the world in a new way.
"There is a violence in his poetry, as there is a violence inherent
in entrepreneurialism," Levine says. "Like it or not, as an entrepreneur,
you effect your environment. You bend people to your will. You come
up with ideas and make them real, whatever it takes. You beg patrons
for money and believe in the bottom of your heart that you deserve
it because you are bringing something new into the world. You feel
Levine continues: "Just as Rimbaud took history and the world
that was at hand and put himself in the middle as king, the entrepreneur
has to do that if he is to succeed. You can be nice, friendly, etc.,
but beneath it you have to be a vain, egomaniacal shark."
Interestingly, Rimbaud dropped poetry to become an entrepreneur,
dealing guns in North Africa. Levine argues that this makes a certain
kind of sense (poetic justice, if you will), because language is
a coin of trade. Both poetry and business, he says, are focused
on a willing audience, and both are ultimately about communicating
with people. "The stuff of business is product," he adds. "The stuff
of poetry is discourse."
Levine also believes that mentors are needed by both poets and
entrepreneurs. "There is definitely a culture in business, as in
poetry, to make yourself available to entrepreneurs," he says. "Now,
I'm actually coaching two former employees who are launching new
businesses. One is about to close on a $1 million investment, and
I'm feeling very proud of him. When I used to read [poetry] a lot,
I would help other people with their poems. It's just the nature
Levine has moved away from the day-to-day title of CEO at Ultraprise
and now is working on a new startup, Butterfly.net. The aim of the
venture is to create a new gaming platform, something he believes
will transition him from the more technical world of Ultraprise
to a more creative world.
The lessons he learned in that process translate to digital entrepreneurs
everywhere: Go out and find your poetry, and let it inform the choices
you make with your business. A business without poetry can't thrive
in our dynamic economy.
Read or print the Intro
and Chapter 1.
Read the book reviews at Inc
Read the publisher's press
this book from Amazon.com.
the companies that Tom discusses in the book
Hear a recent lecture by Tom on the Startup Garden
Buy my book and I will send you a worksheet and list of local
and industry resources for your startup. Simply send me an email
with your zip code and type of company and I will email you the free kit. Thanks!
Managing – articles that Tom wrote for The Industry Standard and some
written for Inc., Fortune Small Business, Harvard Management Update, and other
Read about other
books and web sites about starting your own business.