The Malcolm Gladwell Guide to Starting a Business: Lessons From Impressionists, IKEA, and Goldman Sachs


Malcolm Gladwell’s most recent book is called David and Goliath, published last October.

It features the roundup of interesting stories and psychology research that we’ve come to expect from Gladwell. David and Goliath gives plenty of examples of how qualities we perceive as strengths may actually be vulnerabilities, and vice versa.

Though Gladwell rarely gives concrete advice for running a business, his books are often categorized as Business books. But even if you can’t really use his books to understand how to calculate discounted cash flows or how to register for incorporation, you might use his books to think about operations at a high level.

And so if The Tipping Point can be used as a business strategy guide, David and Goliath might be used as a guide to figure out the type of business you want to start.

Gladwell writes about a dozen stories in David and Goliath around a theme of “deceptive strengths.” We pick out three of these stories because we think that they’re particularly useful for learning about the type of entrepreneur you can and want to be.

First, the story of the French Impressionists

Who are the French Impressionists? You’ve heard at least some of these names: Monet, Cézanne, Renoir. And you’ve seen their paintings, hanging either in a museum or above a couch in a living room.

First, the story of the French Impressionists

(Impressionism, Sunrise, by Claude Monet, at the Musée Marmottan Monet)

But they haven't always been famous. In fact, most of them spent the prime years of their lives in obscurity and poverty before becoming the best-known artists in the world.

Before they were known as the Impressionists, they were a bunch of artists who spent most of their non-painting time discussing art in a Parisian café. None of them had been particularly well-known, and could barely find anyone to buy their works.

That’s because the market for painting was regulated, and the official taste was set by the Académie des Beaux-Arts, which ran an annual exhibition called the Salon. The Salon had very rigorous standards for what it considered to be good art: “Works were expected to be microscopically accurate, properly ‘finished’ and formally framed, with proper perspective and all the familiar artistic conventions.”

Translation: Paint huge scenes of battle or portraits of beautiful ladies, in realistic detail and set in an ornate frame.

The Impressionists didn’t like that. They wanted to paint differently, and of different types of scenes. Their brushstrokes were short and broken; they used unblended colors; and they rendered shadows and highlights in color. Gladwell describes their paintings this way: “They painted everyday life. Their brushstrokes were visible. Their figures were indistinct.”

First, the story of the French Impressionists

(Avenue de l'Opéra, by Camille Pissarro, at the Pushkin Museum)

The Salon didn’t like that. Unfortunately for the group, the whole world paid attention to the painters who were selected to exhibit at the Salon. Those who were selected saw their reputations and the value of their paintings soar. The rest found their works and themselves ignored.

The Impressionists could not get their paintings into the Salon. That meant that they could not sell their paintings. They leaned on each other for more than emotional support. Monet was so broke that Renoir once had to bring him bread so that he would not starve.

Then things changed, suddenly.

After years of trying and trying to get placed into the Salon, the group changed tack. Instead of trying so hard to get into the Salon, they held their own exhibition in a few small rooms of the top floor of an office building.

It was nearly an instant hit. The Impressionists found that they were no longer shackled by bureaucratic taste, and their creativity let several art movements flourish. Each one of the original group is famous now. If you wanted to buy the paintings in that exhibition today, it would cost more than a billion dollars.

First, the story of the French Impressionists

(The Rehearsal, by Edgar Degas, at the Fogg Art Museum)

Here's what you can learn from the Impressionists

Gladwell tells the story of the Impressionists to make the point that it’s better to be a big fish in a small pond than to be a small fish in the ocean.

When everybody wants the same thing, think perhaps an award, or a degree from a particular school, or a position of power, the race gets insanely competitive.

And that race is potentially destructive. Sure, the prestige is nice if you’re one of the winners, but few people win when there are so many players. What's worse than competing yourself to exhaustion and then winning nothing at the end?

Try to apply the lesson of the Impressionists: Question the race, and don’t be caught up trying to get the same things that everybody else wants.

So how does that apply to your business? Well, perhaps you should avoid the trends that are big and established now. If you’re a small business, then maybe you want to look beyond running a coffee shop or a yoga studio. Or if you’re selling online, maybe the fashion space is overplayed.

Of course, this may not apply if you feel that you’ve discovered a big secret that no one else is capitalizing on. But most of the time, people start these businesses because they believe that the public is more familiar with them, so that it’s easier to get customers or interest from investors.

In practice, because you have so many competitors, it’s hard to distinguish yourself. Are you really sure you want to start the business that every day a few dozen other people are starting?

Take the story of the Impressionists and try to see if you can find your own niche. Imitating others is not always a winning strategy. Find a space that’s underplayed, where you have some expertise, get in there, and try to dominate it. And if you discover something that can grow, it may be a big pond one day.

Besides, you can take solace in the fact that artists have a great number of places to display and sell their works. They no longer need the stamp of approval from an official authority to get the public’s attention.

So, if you’re an entrepreneur, don’t go into fields that are popular by consensus. Figure out fundamentals and try to get into a space that people haven’t yet discovered.

Here's what you can learn from the Impressionists

(Mont Sainte-Victoire by Paul Cézanne, at the Philadelphia Museum of Art)

Next, IKEA’s Ingvar Kamprad

Ingvar Kamprad founded IKEA at the age of 17 in a small village in Sweden. He decided at an early age to be an entrepreneur after selling matches.

With roots in dropshipping, his business grew quickly. He thought that rural Swedes were paying too much for their goods, and wanted to outdo the bigger businesses in delivering goods to customers. Soon he was established in multiple countries.

In the mid-1950’s, though, Kamprad got into trouble. His fellow furniture manufacturers were angry at his low prices and flat shipping, so they stopped making products for IKEA. Kamprad faced ruin.

How did Kamprad respond? By outsourcing significant parts of product across the Baltic sea, to the Communist-ruled Poland.

It was then the peak of the Cold War, and Kamprad was roundly condemned for the act. Even now Kamprad faces criticism for the move. But he stuck through it, and continued to build IKEA. We all know how very distinctive the store is today.

Next, IKEA’s Ingvar Kamprad

Gary Cohn, President and COO of Goldman Sachs

Gary Cohn grew up in the suburbs of Cleveland. He had dyslexia, and struggled in class. It was hard for him to catch up to other students, and his parents took him from school to school. Cohn says that his mother cried a fountain of tears when he managed to graduate from high school.

When he was 22 he found a job selling aluminum siding and window frames for U.S. Steel in Cleveland. One day he got a day off so that he could wander down Wall Street.

He was by the entrance of the World Trade Center when he saw that someone well-dressed needed a cab to LaGuardia Airport. The well-dressed man looked important. Cohn went on a whim and decided to talk to him; he didn’t need to go to LaGuardia, but asked whether they could share a cab.

The stranger happened to be high up on Wall Street, and was that week hiring people to buy and sell options. Cohn had no idea what options were, but neither did the well-dressed man, really. Somehow Cohn managed to talk his way into a job offer to be an options trader.

When he got home he studied options like he never studied before. And when he finished several books on option theory, he went on to trade. And he was good at it. Cohn rose through the ranks and today he’s the president of a company that now manages $912 billion in assets.

Gary Cohn, President and COO of Goldman Sachs

Lesson: Don’t be afraid

Why are we putting together the stories of Gary Cohn and Ingvar Kamprad? They demonstrate Gladwell’s lesson of “disagreeableness.”

Disagreeableness is not often thought of as a virtue. But this book revolves around the idea that strengths may not be what they seem.

Gladwell explains:

“Crucially, innovators need to be disagreeable. By disagreeable, I don’t mean obnoxious or unpleasant… They are people willing to take social risks – to do things that others might disapprove of.

This is not easy. Society frowns on disagreeableness. As human beings we are wired to seek the approval of those around us. Yet a radical and transformative idea goes nowhere without the willingness to challenge convention.”

Most people would not think of moving production to an enemy country during the Cold War. Not many can face the social disapproval that would result. But Kamprad didn’t mind. He was a pioneer in shipping furniture flat, didn’t mind being ostracized by his associates in the furniture industry and dared to face public opinion in shipping production overseas.

And c’mon, how many people could jump in the cab with a stranger and emerge out of it with a job offer to work as an options trader?

These are difficult tasks for any of us. It’s not just courage at work here. It’s courage and the ability to disregard conventional opinion.

If you want to start a new business, don’t be constrained by conventional opinions. Think about how you can make your own mark.

For example, ask yourself what kinds of ideas no one wants to build a business around. Consider that no one wanted computers in the home before Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs started building personal computers. And ask whether certain ideas may have been abandoned because previous attempts were just too early. Facebook is not the first social media site: Friendster was earlier, and before Reid Hoffman joined PayPal and founded LinkedIn, he started a failed dating site in 1997.

Lesson: Don’t be afraid

(Young Girls on the Riverbank, by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, private collection)


The Impressionists defied the officially-defined boundaries of good taste, went against the crowd, and founded whole new movements in art. Ingvar Kamprad defied public opinion and built one of the largest and most distinctively branded companies in the world. And Gary Cohn totally ignored social conventions to get a start to rise to the top of a huge investment bank on Wall Street.

These are all forms of entrepreneurialism. Take a close look at your assumptions and beliefs, and maybe you’ll find a few that are out of date. See what new type of business that you can plunge in to. Remember, it’s often much better to be a big fish in a small pond than a small fish in a big pond.

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About The Author

Dan Wang is a Shopify Content Specialist studying economics and philosophy at the University of Rochester. Talk to Dan on Twitter.