I don’t know art, but I know what I like

Let’s face it, there’s a lot of bad renaissance art. I remember strolling through the exhibits at the Getty one afternoon, astounded at the quantity of generic paintings of naked Jesuses getting stabbed in the abdomen. After an hour of this, I was more interested in what was in the snack bar than what awaited me in the next hall.

Many painters of the renaissance worked on the patronage system. These artists were talented, but needed money to practice their art. The solution was to find a rich person to provide the funds–a patron. Often these were merchants, criminals, businessmen, religious leaders or a combination of these who would commission paintings to be done for a fee.

Once funding was secured, the artist was free to do his work. Well, except he had to paint what the patron wanted. And what these patrons demanded were an infinite array of pictures of naked Jesuses getting stabbed up. There’s no denying the talent involved–but a lot of these works are really boring to look at.

In a lot of ways, this is how the world of start-ups works. Unless you have created a business where you can immediately sell your product or service directly to customers, you probably need to raise money. And this money comes from investors that are often cut from the same cloth as the patrons of yore.

Investors are increasingly risk averse and travel in herds. Which means, they are a little uneasy with the concept of speculation. This is probably a big reason why the venture capital industry has a negative return over the past decade. Certainly, if you spend enough time among the herd, you may come to the conclusion that the “wisdom of crowds” is a myth.

Regardless–you have to convince the investor of the upside. Which means, in reality, your first customer in these sorts of businesses is the VC, not the actual end user. If you can convince your investor that your business is valid…well, then you can worry about that whole earning money thing once the check clears and you’ve burnt through most of it. This whole process is very anti-Lean Startup, despite the adherence to all the jargon about pivoting and MVPs.

This means you are appealing to an echo chamber of like-minded investor types. So you’re going to see a lot of similar businesses come out of the Sand Hill grist mill. The current crop of, say, photo sharing start-ups, may be the 2011 equivalent of naked Jesus getting stabbed up in an oil painting.

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