Nicholas Stahl

How to Find Startup Ideas … As Told By Paintings

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Convergence by Jackson Pollock in 1952

“You want to know how to paint a perfect painting? It’s easy. Make yourself perfect and then just paint naturally.”

This quote by Robert Pirsig utilized in an article about startup ideas by Paul Graham beautifully exemplifies the complexity, confusion, and curiosity enveloped in finding a great startup idea. Much like a masterwork painting, startup ideas need to come naturally. Having a fond appreciation for painting and paintings, I will analyze how Graham’s ideas on startups relate to painting masterworks.


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The Death of  Socrates by Jacques Louis David in 1787

Graham describes a great startup idea as a “well.” The audience for the idea needs to begin with depth. It needs to have a lot of people excited about it initially. People will need it, even if it is a “crappy” version of it.

In relation to the painting above, The Death of Socrates, the foreground is bright containing the anguish of the mourners (on the right), the complacency of Socrates (in the middle in white), and guilt felt by Plato (on the left in white).

Yes, the foreground is compelling, but the depth in the painting is where it really shines. The depth of the hallway displayed next to Plato creates a balance between the present and the future. The hallway, with its depth, exhibits the significance of time and reality within a scene.

Without the depth in this painting, there would be no future and nothing to look forward to in the piece. If a startup has no depth, it has no future and, therefore, nothing to look forward to and no ability to grow broad as a company.


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Las Meninas by Diego Velázquez in 1656

Graham also describes the ability to “notice” the world around us–to look for significant problems that need to be solved. He emphasizes the ability to see things that are obvious, and yet you had not seen.

In relation to the painting above, Las Meninas, the first thing you might notice are the six characters within the photo looking beyond the picture plane. It is as if the characters are noticing the person that is watching them. It is spontaneous and immediate– sort of like a moment in time.

Velázquez knew the significance of noticing. Startups need to be spontaneous. They need to look towards the future, passed the picture plane, and build what is incredibly interesting.


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Bridge by Robert Ryman in 1930

Graham describes a great startup idea as one that is organic. An idea the develops naturally. He states that there is no clear-cut recipe for a startup idea.

Much like this painting, Bridge, there is no recipe to success. This practically white painting sold for $20.6 million.

When this painting was introduced in 1930, abstract expressionism (emotional paintings with lots of movement and colors) was dominant in the art-world. What did the market need? A simplistic and harmonious take on art.

Graham describes figuring out what you need, and what you need will likely match what the market needs.


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Guardians of the Secret by Jackson Pollock in 1943


If there is one takeaway from Graham in his article on startups, it is that, the idea has to be organic.

The painting above, Guardians of the Secret, is my favorite painting. It flows. It is natural. It comes with a lot of thought, and none at all at the same time. It is the apotheosis of abstract expression and a new perspective.

Painting naturally and thinking naturally bear many similarities. They both capture the complexity, confusion, and curiosity within our new ideas. That is how Graham wants us to think and that is how we should think in startups.

One thought on “How to Find Startup Ideas … As Told By Paintings

  1. I know we’re not supposed to comment by just saying “good job” but I loved this blog post! Using paintings as a way to tell everyone about startups was a very clever idea. Speaking of ideas, you talk a lot about Graham’s idea of thinking naturally, while I read this in the article too I didn’t much understand it. How is one supposed to think naturally? Isn’t all thinking naturally? I’m slightly confused by this, but nevertheless loved this post!


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