A Conversation with Renoir

I’ve been hearing a lot about Michael Gerber recently. For those of you who aren’t familiar with him, he’s the author of The E-Myth and the newer E-Myth Revisited. His fans are fond of quoting phrases like “move out of your comfort zone” and “work on your business, not in your business”. His books contain a number of useful ideas and distinctions. However, I’m troubled by what lies behind those ideas.

Gerber’s basic premise is that most of us start small businesses not as budding entrepreneurs but as regular working people who for one reason or another have had an “entrepreneurial seizure”, a sudden desire to work for ourselves. According to Gerber, because we lack business skills, we end up merely creating a job for ourselves instead of a true business. We’re trapped in the tyranny of a business that depends solely on our own daily efforts. It’s a fair observation, and certainly highlights one of the challenges of being a soloist.

However, Gerber’s solution to this problem is to show us how to turn our “job” into a real turn-key business enterprise by adopting the entrepreneurial mindset. For Gerber, the one person business model represents “business infancy” and is ”doomed to fail” unless we make the transition to a “mature” entrepreneurial business with employees, operational systems, etc. Gerber talks about the “lost opportunities and wasted lives” facing those who don’t make the transition. The general attitude seems to be that soloists either don’t have the skills to run a larger business or are afraid to. The idea is that if we weren’t an entrepreneur when we started, we should learn to become one. He suggests that if we don’t want to be an entrepreneur, we should go back to working for someone else.

From Gerber’s perspective, it’s not the work itself that is important. What’s important is the business. Gerber’s ideal is the franchise model, a business that you as an owner can “replicate 5000 times” and have “operated by people with the lowest possible level of skill”.

Let’s see how we might use this entrepreneurial approach to coach an artist friend of mine, a dedicated soloist. His name is Pierre Auguste Renoir. Let’s listen in.

Coach: Pierre, you’ve been painting for a long time now. You’ve made quite a name for yourself. I’d like to challenge you to play an even bigger game. You need to stretch yourself and move out of your comfort zone.

Renoir: What do you mean?

Coach: Take it to the next level. Create a real business.

Renoir: Well, I’m finally making some pretty good money from my work, if that’s what you mean.

Coach: But think of what you could do if you weren’t trapped in the tyranny of having to paint day in and day out?

Renoir: Actually, I quite enjoy it. I paint pretty much whenever I want. I’ve done a lot of traveling and studying. These days, I get together every afternoon at the Café Guerbois with my fellow painters.

Coach: That’s what I mean. You think of yourself as a painter. If you want to take things to the next level, you need to begin thinking of yourself as a businessman first. You could open a studio. Hire painters to work under your direction and paint in your style. You could sell lots of paintings without being tied to the actual work. Eventually, you could sell the business and embark on some new venture. You could open a gallery. Eventually, you could have someone managing your studio and someone else managing the gallery while you sat on the beach and drank wine.  You’d never have to paint again!

Renoir: But I love painting. I would get no satisfaction from managing a bunch of employees. For me, it would bring no joy. Painting is an expression of who I am. I began my career working for the Levy brothers, painting China plates in their factory. It was a great learning experience, but I prefer the independence and freedom of my life now. Besides, there is still so much to learn. I’ve hardly begun to scratch the surface of this art.

Coach: But your business doesn’t exist without you. If you become ill or die, what will become of your business? Where are the assets? Where is the legacy? What about your son Jean? Wouldn’t you like to leave a thriving business behind for him? What about retirement?

Renoir: I’m not sure I’m every going to retire. Painting is my passion. Painting is my life!

In his later years, Renoir’s hands became so arthritic that he couldn’t hold a paint brush. His passion and commitment to his work were so strong that he continued painting right up until his death… his brushes tightly lashed to his forearms.

I don’t mean to pick on Michael Gerber. There are a lot of good ideas in the book. But it represents an attitude that is all too prevalent among those who offer business advice to soloists. It’s the attitude that a one person business is something “less”. That we’re not playing a big enough game.

I disagree! A one person business can be a viable and fulfilling business and lifestyle choice. To be sure, there are challenges. The answer is not to abandon what makes you special, but to leverage it. For most soloists, choosing to create a one person business is about freedom, choice, control, personal values, contribution, and the work. The problem is that we buy into the entrepreneurial model and everything that comes with it …then beat ourselves up because it doesn’t fit us.

I have great respect for the path of the entrepreneur! It takes courage, creativity, skill, and passion. Entrepreneurs are responsible for most of the job creation and innovation that happens in business today. However, it’s not a path for everyone.

We need a greater recognition of the uniqueness and the value of the one person business lifestyle… as well as the uniqueness of those who choose to pursue it.