Is it More Difficult to be a Creative Entrepreneur than a Creative Employee?

A recent study in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin by Evan Polman of New York University and Kyle Emich of Cornell University made me wonder if it’s more difficult to be a creative entrepreneur than a creative employee. For those of you who didn’t read the study, the punch line is this: In a series of four lab experiments conducted on college students, the authors found “that people are more creative for others than for themselves.”

This is one of those studies that are too indirect to provide specific answers about entrepreneurship. After all, the researchers were conducting experiments on undergraduate students and were examining creativity in exercises that have nothing to do with starting or running a business – drawing pictures of an alien and solving a brain teaser. Therefore, it’s quite possible that the authors’ findings wouldn’t hold for the kind of creativity that real business people employ in running their own or others’ businesses.

On the other hand, the study raises very interesting questions about the creativity of business owners and employees. If the pattern found by the authors – that people are more creative when acting on behalf of others than themselves – extended to business activities, it would have important implications small business management. For instance, the pattern might mean it is easier to be creative when you’re an employee than when you run your own business. It also might mean that business owners should frame their efforts to come up with new and better ideas as something they do on behalf of their employees and customers rather than for themselves.

Obviously, I’m in the realm of speculation here triggered by an interesting, but distantly related article. But since the questions it raises are so interesting, I’m wondering what most of you think of the study’s main finding. Do you think it would hold true for small business owners? And if it did, what do you that the findings would mean for how small business owners should go about being creative? Finally, if you don’t think the main finding would hold, why wouldn’t work in small businesses the same way it worked in the lab?


Scott Shane Scott Shane is A. Malachi Mixon III, Professor of Entrepreneurial Studies at Case Western Reserve University. He is the author of nine books, including Fool's Gold: The Truth Behind Angel Investing in America ; Illusions of Entrepreneurship: and The Costly Myths that Entrepreneurs, Investors, and Policy Makers Live By.

10 Reactions
  1. I think it’d be far more difficult to be a creative entrepeneur. As an employee, you’ve got extra space to flex those creative muscles, knowing that someone down the line will be able to pick up the slack for a short while if things go wrong.

    As an entrepeneur, your safety net is gone completely, there’s more pressure, and that stifles creativity.

  2. I totally agree with you Andy. There is a lot more pressure and things to think about when you own/run your own company. I think this is were an owner should turn to it’s employees for creative inspiration. The company I work for, turns to it’s employees to come up with new idea on how to reach new clients.

  3. It’s more difficult to be a creative entrepreneur hands down! However, I think those employees that are the most creative turn out to be the best entrepreneurs because of their creativity for finding and creating new products.

  4. I defiantly agree that it’s harder to be creative when your the entrepreneur. When you work for someone else, you are not ultimately responsible for the success or failure for the idea so there is less pressure involved. As an entrepreneur, trying to be creative and think freely can be difficult when you are thinking about payroll, cash flow and the dozen other responsibilities you have running around your head. The best success I have had is to work in a collaborative environment with my team and get as many ideas on the table as possible, then cross them out one by one until we have a few clear contenders. Cheers,Gary Shouldis

  5. You pose some interesting questions about who comes up with creative ideas. I think initially the entrepreneur because at one time they were an employee. Who knows maybe dissatisfaction with one’s job helps the creative juices flow a little better because you want something better than what you have.

    Now once you are the entrepreneur you may not be as creative because you have created the business you wanted. I think dissatisfaction helps creativity more than comfort. Maybe another study to look at.

  6. Fascinating, though in each startup I’ve worked for, I’ve found the entrepreneur far more creative than any of us working for them. It was always startling to hear the new ideas, and we always wondered at how they came up with yet another winner. On the flip side of that however, is the fact that the entrepreneurs frequently decide which ideas are winners….self fulfilling?? Hmmm

  7. Thought provoking for sure. Many small business owners, especially those who have their business running have little time to think, much less be creative; all of the details of managing and running a business get in the way.
    Not so sure that dissatisfaction goes away, though.

  8. I think the entrepreneur is the more creative one. When running your own business, you will be forced to have to think outside-the-box when faced with difficult situations. Also, it’s the creativity of the entrepreneur that broke the person away from the “safe & secure” workplace as an employee. But I think ultimately, true creativity has to do with the person and not whether s/he is an entrepreneur.

  9. I’m a creative entrepreneur running a company that supports other creative entrepreneurs. I think the key is in being creative per se – of course it is hard to run a business as well but you only do it when you are driven by an absolute passion for what you do – your belief in your capacity to do something new, something different, to have your voice heard, overrides everything else. That passion influences everything you do, there is no option. That’s why, as soon as they can, most creative entrepreneurs get a business partner or general manager or whatever to handle the ‘business’side. So the notion of ‘being creative for others’, in one sense, is irrelevant because you have your own passionate drive; on the other hand, you might say that the ‘others’ for whom you need to be creative are the audiences/customers of your work -so the need never goes away! The impetus for creativity among employees will vary according to the culture of the company but generally creative people will think creatively by instinct – you can’t usually shut it down and obviously you should nurture it since collaboration is an essential tool for catalysing creativity, but of course you as employer can still ignore it!

  10. I do not think that being creative (whether as an entrepreneur or employee) is difficult at all. To me, what’s truly complex is if the execution of your creativity is making a difference to your business or at your work place. Maybe what can be compared is the effectiveness of creative employees vs creative entrepreneurs. For example, creative employees achieve a higher average of task completeness than entrepreneurs simply because they specialize on specific areas. On the other hand, entrepreneurs’flow of ideas is higher as they cope with more tasks/challenges than creative employees, that’s why business owners have better solution-solving approaches. So what’s the point of comparing two types of creativity that complement to each other?