When it comes to career paths, it’s easy to imagine that people who go into business are driven by money and those who go into creative fields are after personal fulfillment. That’s a simplistic division, and mostly false. Not only does it overlook how many businesses fail and the fact that plenty of millionaires have made big bucks through creative enterprises, it also obscures the kinds of experiences and skills that entrepreneurs and creative types share.
Running a self-publishing platform, I work with writers every day whose skills and business savvy rival and often outperform many of the business pros I know. These are a few of the habits that set them apart—and that many entrepreneurs might consider adopting.
That’s right, “pitches” plural. Most writers don’t start out by waltzing into a major publishing house or magazine and getting handed a plum gig. They spend years pitching stories and ideas to editors and publishers, only to be rejected or ignored time and again.
Of course, so do startup founders in search of funding. But one thing writers tend to pick up quickly is the need to adapt a pitch. Instead of pitching the exact same idea in multiple places, they tailor it to the specific needs of their new targets. Too often, we think our idea is perfect as it is and miss out on opportunities to see it in a new light. Entrepreneurs who’ve worked really hard on their business model may be more willing to hold out for funders who grasp their “vision” than writers who welcome and thrive with a great editor who isn’t afraid to meddle.
Sometimes a pitch improves when it’s shortened or expanded upon. Other times, a minor point needs much more emphasis. If your business pitch isn’t opening doors, chances are it needs some revision. Reconsider what you’re emphasizing and whom you’re emphasizing it to. Then do the hard work of editing—abandoning parts of a business plan that simply won’t work, so you can move on to focus on the parts that do.
You’ve almost certainly heard William Faulkner’s adage, “In writing, you must kill all your darlings.” But while it’s often trotted out in business contexts, it’s worth getting back to what that idea means to novelists—in a narrative sense.
Faulkner was referring to the characters, scenes, plot points, and turns of phrase that a writer is deeply attached to but that ultimately weigh down the story; if it doesn’t add enough value, there’s no point hanging onto it. Likewise, entrepreneurs often clutch too tightly and for too long to a technology product that simply isn’t catching on but that took years to build, to a brand logo that’s adorable but just isn’t resonating, or to a business model that seemed so brilliant in theory but simply isn’t showing returns.
The “kill your darlings” advice is a handy way to remember to give these things up, but it’s writers who really know what that suggestion amounts to once they do. As editors (good ones, at least) hack away at their beloved, cleverest work, they make room for more coherent storytelling. For entrepreneurs, the point is that scrapping their darlings doesn’t mean giving up and going back to the drawing board, it’s about iterating—letting the process of revision and fine-tuning form the basis of a business that works better because it’s more compelling, poetic, coherent, and finished.
This is some of the earliest advice novelists get, and it’s often repeated throughout their careers—generally for good reason. To build a dynamic narrative world, writers need to immerse their readers in the settings and in characters’ experiences. That often means presentation trumps description.
So instead of calling a building “tall,” writers will describe the length of the shadow it casts across a certain swath of city. Instead of describing a woman as smugly suspicious of others, Flannery O’Connor wrote, in her short story “Good Country People,” “She looked at nice young men as if she could smell their stupidity.” Instead of saying that a building is full of memories, Charles Blow writes in his book Fire Shut Up in My Bones, “It was the kind of building that remembered things, deep-down things, things that rode tears into the world, telling them back to anyone old enough or wise enough to know how to listen with their eyes.”
As an entrepreneur, you won’t get too far just by telling investors and customers that your product is superior and revolutionary. You’ll need to prove it—demonstrating how it outperforms competitors, showing why early adopters got on board and stayed there, using multimedia and offering demos to let prospective users see how it actually functions.
“If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking,” Haruki Murakami wrote in Norwegian Wood. Read interviews and stories from the most prolific writers, and you’ll find that they draw inspiration not only from authors who preceded them but from sources much further afield as well—everything from visual art to their FedEx delivery person to a nightmare they heard recounted somewhere.
It’s often having a small field of vision (both in business and in creative fields) that leads otherwise competent people to recycle the same ideas over and over again. Too often, entrepreneurs set their sights on being “the next Amazon” or “like Uber but for ______” because they’re fixated on the end product: a massively successful global brand.
But by looking beyond the business world and modeling your ideas on something bigger and bolder, you’ll build something that doesn’t try to replicate a success story in the same field, but to revolutionize the field itself. That’s just about every ambitious novelist’s dream—to push literature itself forward, not just to write their own riff on Middlemarch or White Teeth.
“Between the wish and the thing the world lies waiting,” Cormac McCarthy in All The Pretty Horses. Fiction writers often speak of a story that needed to be told, compelled either by some internal desire of their own or by a gap in the literature that needed to be filled.
It’s the job of every entrepreneur to do the same. When surveying the business landscape, don’t just look for success stories, listen for silences. You could spend a lifetime looking at what needs are already being fulfilled by certain businesses, but it takes a more discerning and creative eye to discover what needs are going unmet, which new ones are being created, and whether certain desires could be fulfilled better than they are. By heeding these absences, you might discover just what the world has been waiting for.
The imaginary divide between “creative” skills and “business” skills hinders both their practitioners, preventing countless worthy enterprises from reaching their full creative potential. Entrepreneurs are told often to think “outside the box,” but they would do just as well to begin looking inside a great book.
Emmanuel Nataf is the founder of Reedsy, a publishing startup that connects authors with the world’s best editors, designers, and marketers to create high-quality books.