Art Versus Science: The legend, the myth, and our foundation.
Updated: Sep 1, 2022
Early in my career, I was exposed to a philosophy about startups that raised a few red flags: early-stage startups are more art than science. Although my transition from science to startups is relatively recent, I think this topic is worth exploring because its implications have a powerful impact on how founders approach their businesses and how funding sources evaluate a startup’s potential.
● What does it mean for founders and investors to generate and evaluate ideas?
● How long does the “art” last before the “science” begins?
● Why does a “scientific” approach represent a taboo in the entrepreneurial space?
Outside of a laundry list of philosophical questions that the statement produces regarding best practices for early-stage company design and how investors conduct due diligence, it creates a sequential ordering between being creative and being methodical at an early-stage company. In this approach, “art” comes first because it generates ideas, and science comes second because it iterates upon them, implying that the two processes can’t coexist and produce a successful company.
It’s time to dispel the myth that the creative side of company building can’t benefit from a bit of science. In this work, I discuss how incorporating a bit of “science” at the early stage can minimize launch risks of early-stage companies and set founders up for success with future venture creation.
Art versus Science
As a scientist who pursued doctoral research on human cognition, language storage, and memory architecture, all things that the naked eye can’t observe and required some serious creativity to test, the “art before science” philosophy raises a massive question for me. Why do people believe that scientific approaches limit creativity?
I believe that the lack of understanding primarily boils down to the fact that science is often portrayed as a slow, methodological, and abstract “thing” that intellectuals pursue within the academic ivory tower. Besides dramatized portrayals of lab coats and experiments, very few people know what happens inside a research lab or how scientists gather the inspiration to begin their research agendas. Many people don’t realize that science isn’t limited to test tubes and equations. Instead, it is an act of pursuing knowledge that requires a mix of methodology, critical thinking, and creativity. Outsiders only see the results and accolades from years of research, with no visibility into how science operates and innovates, the constantly made pivots, and the creativity behind the work that led to the published results. While scientists must uphold a high degree of fidelity in their work, it takes a lot of “art” to figure out how to design tests around things that you can’t touch, feel, or explain without some unique experiments.
Other sources of misinformation about using scientific approaches in a creative process are the various misconceptions surrounding science fields. If you were to ask someone on the street to name a field of science, you’d likely hear things like physics, biology, and chemistry—the “hard” sciences. What surprises people, however, is that several other forms of fields of scientific studies, such as psychology, anthropology, and linguistics, are often overlooked when people think of science as a category. It may be strange to think that the study of the human genome of the laws of physics has similarities to the study of human language or behavior. Still, all fields of science have a similar core: the use of the scientific method to identify, analyze and evaluate observable phenomena.
Science, as a category, does not mean that progress can only occur inside of a vacuum and move too slowly to keep up with the functional needs of a business. Instead, science uses empirical information collected through various experiments to test our assumptions (hypotheses) about the world around us. Eventually, with enough hypothesis testing and robust data, scientists can make supported claims about how something works or why it happens.
But here is the question I pose: how is this any different than a startup? From the outsider’s perspective, your company launches seemingly out of thin air. It appears that you transitioned from a stealth founder to a successful CEO, solving a problem and capitalizing on its resolution from one way to the next. Did the public see what went into this? The years of labor, the pivots, the failures, and the successes? For science and startups, “the grind” is hidden from the public. For both, producing results requires rigor, grit, and flexibility.
Surprising nobody, I believe startups and science have much more in common than people might think. While there is a fair bit of division between the two regarding the desired outcome, scientists and entrepreneurs have the same starting point but distinct missions. A scientist observes a phenomenon and tests it to understand it, whereas an entrepreneur observes a phenomenon and tests it to try to find a solution. In this work, I apply a new lens to how early-stage companies can begin using the power of the scientific method at several fundamental stages of business development.
Welcome to the Scientific Startup.