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 entitled."

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 of it."

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.

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Just Managing – articles that Tom wrote for The Industry Standard and some Business Articles written for Inc., Fortune Small Business, Harvard Management Update, and other places.


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