In my work with startups and young entrepreneurs, one thing that I have noticed is tenacity is not always a valued skill or even well understood. I got to see a screening of a new movie produced by Penn and Teller (yes, those guys again) a few weeks ago and it got me thinking about this.
The movie is “Tim’s Vermeer” and documents the many years that Tim Jenison spent trying to learn to paint Vermeer’s The Music Lesson, an oil painting that sits in Buckingham Palace. Tim is an interesting guy: he has made tons of money in the tech biz, so he can afford to take these excursions into odd places and learn new skills.
Now, why would anyone want to spend years of his life to do this? We see Tim learn how to do basic oil painting c. 2010, then learn how Vermeer mixed his pigments using materials from the 1660’s when it was painted. But wait, there is more: Tim also constructs an optical device that he uses to reproduce the painting, and by constructs I mean he also learns how to grind and polish his own glass lenses using materials available from that era. He then puts together a replica of Vermeer’s studio, getting objects that appear in the painting, including wallpaper and floor tiles, as precisely as possible.
Along the way, he teaches himself Dutch, visits Delft where Vermeer worked, and gets an audience with the actual painting itself after convincing the British monarchy. Clearly, this is a guy who is driven.
You would think that watching someone go through all this is as exciting as, well, watching paint dry, but you would be wrong. Tim is tenacious beyond belief. It takes him years to complete his version of The Music Lesson, but when he does you can see that he has done a credible job. He takes the painting to David Hockney for vetting, who gives his approval.
Apart from being a very entertaining movie, why should entrepreneurs see it? Mainly because it shows what lengths Tim goes through to get to his ultimate goal, and how he is just a dog with a bone about it. I don’t think many people would have stuck with the project as long as he did. The movie offers a message of hope here, although highlighting how insanely difficult the challenge is. Startups need to hear this message often.
Second, because it shows, probably to a fault, how entrepreneurs have to create their infrastructure from scratch sometimes because they are breaking ground so new. Many of the firms that I mentor find this out the hard way, and get into a detour (as Tim did with his pigments, mirrors, and so forth) that consumes valuable time. Tim didn’t actually start the actual painting part of his project for many years, while he worked out the other details. Many startups have trouble with putting together their servers, or setting up the right cloud configurations, or understanding their data security models, or knowing how to setup payment processing. These details aren’t things that you necessarily know going into a project until you get into the weeds and see them first-hand.
Finally, it gives another lesson to startups: how to disassemble a project into more bite-sized chunks and tackle them one at a time until you can make some small victories with each task. Sometimes a startup can try to move on several fronts all at once, rather than managing a more sequential workflow.
Go see the movie if you can.