Unexpected startup success: creatives leading the way

Do artists work alone? When we think of the artist, we often think of the “solitary genius” figure that’s been implanted in our brains over the years. Well, that’s not really true! And if it’s not true about artists, it’s especially not true about creative entrepreneurs.

Like all entrepreneurs, creative entrepreneurs are highly collaborative and driven to scaling their success. In Creative Economy Entrepreneurs: From Startup to Success, we discuss many creative entrepreneurs who cleverly scaled ideas into economic engines. Take Magnús Scheving, whose Icelandic children’s show, LazyTown, won over skeptical investors by building a brand that would eventually outgrow the TV show. Or Mafalda Milhões, whose bookstore O Bichinho do Conto—Portugal’s first children-dedicated bookstore—helped launch a creative revival in the fairytale coastal town of Óbidos.

But creative entrepreneurs—and the creative economy—gets even bigger. You don’t get to be a $2 trillion industry without big players, and big creative companies are more likely to offer local economies a bridge to the benefits of their global impact. What’s more, they do this better than other behemoths who are intent on maintaining autonomy, to the detriment of the communities where they operate.

Take Electronic Arts, for example. Wait, aren’t they tech? They make games, sure, but isn’t software tech? Let’s ask EA’s founder, Trip Hawkins. In an interview with Forbes, Hawkins explains:

"I had experience working with prima donna software development geniuses and realized these are really creative people … I began to realize I could work with them as independent artists, and treat them as artists.”

This realization formed the DNA of EA’s employment strategies. What Hawkins understood is that engineers who make software are tech workers, but engineers who make experiences are creative.  

Drs. Charles Geschke and John Warnock, founders of Adobe, have a similar story. When they worked for Xerox in the 1970s, they were two 40+ year-old scientists with backgrounds in mathematics—one might not have pegged them as “creatives.” But they had vision Xerox lacked. When Xerox wouldn’t go public with the graphical output language they designed—PostScript, which standardized how computers printed vector graphics such as fonts—they decided to start their own company. First they made a programming language, then desktop publishing software, then Web design suites. All along, they were democratizing the tools that allowed for professional-level art and design.

EA and Adobe are now huge companies, employing 8,500 and 15,000 people respectively. Their products are used (and played!) on billions of devices in every country. They each generate over $5 billion in revenue and play major roles in their local communities, even when they’re “located” at sites across the world. In Baton Rouge, Louisiana, for example, EA took advantage of a state incentive program to build a new center for video game testing. Today, they’ve more than paid back what they received in tax incentives, with an annual payroll of $5.7 million and 400 employees at their Baton Rouge site. EA’s ideas to nurture “software artists” and function similar to a music label, negotiating directly with retailers, were both unprecedented for a game studio, and they’ve retained these entrepreneurial concepts of salon-like work environments that hook regional workforces into the global creative economy.

Likewise, Adobe broke the mold for software companies with their vision of a “paperless office” and their efforts to make publishing tools that didn’t so much respond to existing needs as oracle future needs. Many communities try to golden-slipper tech companies into building satellite campuses, but it’s creative technology like Adobe’s that originally made the idea of these satellites possible.

And this culture of creativity continues with Adobe’s own satellites. In Utah, for example, construction of a new Adobe campus contributed $5 million a month to the local economy, and once they were established, the praise was considerable—not a given for tech companies moving to non-tech towns. Adobe was the largest publicly traded company to feature in UtahValley360’s 2016 list of “companies driving the local economy,” and 50% of their 1500 Utah employees are “regularly engaged in corporate giving/charitable service projects.”

That kind of bottom-up engagement in local communities is far more nourishing than a corporate pat on the head. Just like Trip Hawkins’s artist-engineer culture at Electronic Arts creates jobs that meaningfully connect regional employees to exciting global markets, the culture of innovation that Drs. Charles Geschke and John Warnock built at Adobe has resulted in ambassadorial outposts that help their localities both economically and socially.

If you want to find out more about how creative entrepreneurs scale their companies to help globalize local economies, check out the stories in Creative Economy Entrepreneurs: From Startup to Success!