Rembrandt painted about forty self-portraits during his lifetime. The first, painted in his early twenties as his career began to take off. The last, at 63, just months before his death.
The cadence of these self-portraits is pretty regular. No matter what else he was working on, how grand the commission, he kept the practice up.
And when everything fell apart in his later years - insolvency, ridicule, commissions rejected - he returned to his self-portraits.
Because without anything else to paint, he fell back on the one subject he’d always be able to rely on: himself.
I was thinking about Rembrandt when I saw Elon Musk share a video of Rick Rubin, declaring “this is how we create tesla products.”
Here’s what Rubin said: “I’m not making it for them. I’m making it for me, and it turns out that when you make something truly for yourself, you’re making the best thing you possibly can.”
It’s an adage so common it’s almost trite in startup world. Build things you yourself want, and you’re more likely to succeed.
But is it really true? Is it - as Rubin suggests - a fact that something you make for yourself is innately better? When it comes to music and art, I defer to Rick.
But when it comes to startups - dependent on users coming and paying them a chunk of whatever finite money - I’m sceptical that singular vision alone wins out.
Yet I still think things are a lot easier if you’re building something you yourself want.
The first reason is motivation. The sheer difficulty of starting something means that to not give up, you need to become obsessed.
Michael Moritz tells the story of Bill Gates removing the radio from his car so that when he drove to work, there was no chance he’d stop thinking about Microsoft.
That’s the level of full body experience you need.
If you don’t feel the problem personally, and that the world is screaming out for your solution, it can be difficult to keep the faith.
But for the second - and most important - reason, we have to go back to Rembrandt.
Every day in building a startup you’re making hundreds of different tiny decisions. About product, about copy, about tweaks to the user journey.
And if you’re building for yourself, you don’t need to second guess what someone else would think about feature x or product y.
You can just do what Rembrandt did: and fall back on yourself. Would I buy this? Would I like this feature? Would I think this image is cool?
This means you can move both faster and smarter.
Faster because on 99% of things you can then trust your gut.
And smarter because you’re able to actively channel the information you get from users through our own lens: meaning you can ignore bum steers; and lean into the signals you hear that make you yourself light up.
It also means you can be more forceful in trusting your intuitions from the get-go - remembering with confidence Steve Jobs’ dictum: “a lot of times, people don't know what they want until you show it to them.”
I think this was where Musk was coming from in his tweet.
Less about the innate power of a singular vision, more about simply the need to build products that have a point of view, and doing so with confidence.
This is the Tesla edge he was referring to. Instead of traditional car-makers, who are probably now too dependent on building to market trends, rather than what they think is a truly great car - Tesla build cars with personality.
This doesn’t mean they’re not flawed - they are - but if you take something like the Cybertruck, no one would have come up with that in a focus group.
And we should probably celebrate building things like that.
And so it’s that factor - you as your number one customer - that allows you to navigate between the two rocks that can crush all startups: building beautiful things that people simply don’t want; and twisting and turning in response to whatever the last user said to them.
So if you’re building something you want to see in the world, and aren’t quite sure where to go next, turn inwards.
Your insight is the best user insight you have.
Think Rembrandt, and get painting.