Why the best entrepreneurs are not as visionary as people think

Steve Jobs, Elon Musk and other illustrious entrepreneurs may not be as visionary and creative as we have been led to believe.

Last week I was walking through the mall with my family and a clothing store had a big sign on the front that said:

Leap Day Sale: Everything in the store 29% off!

As you’ve probably guessed from the contextual clues, it was the week of February 29th – Leap Day – and the owners of this particular store were trying to take advantage of it. But the cynical businessman in me rolled his eyes and thought: «What a stupid reason for a reduction. Could a company be less creative?.

Then I heard a woman from the group walking behind me say: «Oooh… 29% off sales. “Let’s take a look.”

It was a humbling reminder that entrepreneurs don’t have to be creative visionaries. Without a doubt, all entrepreneurs seem to exist in the shadow of highly successful people like Steve Jobs, Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, entrepreneurs who have been described as visionaries who change the world by doing things that no one in history had imagined. But the “visionary” brand is not entirely true. At least it isn’t from a tactical perspective.

From a tactical perspective, successful entrepreneurs are not creative geniuses who constantly invent new ways of doing business. In fact, the best entrepreneurs stick with what has already been proven to work.

It’s a lesson that I, like most entrepreneurs, have struggled with throughout my entire business career.

Twenty years earlier, in my first startup experience out of college, I briefly accepted a job helping launch a new magazine.

It was the mid-2000s and physical magazines were still relatively popular. I had just graduated with a degree in English Literature, which made me practically unemployable. However, for some reason, I had caught the attention of a successful web entrepreneur who was hoping to launch a hybrid digital/physical publication, and he brought me onto his team as the magazine’s editorial director.

I hadn’t been on the job for more than a week when the draft of our July issue arrived on my desk, and it was filled with content related to summer barbecues and Independence Day celebrations. “Could there be anything less creative?”, I thought. «We look like all the magazines on the market. We are a startup. “We have to be visionary, creative and different.”

I made the radical decision to remove all Christmas-themed content. Our October issue was not going to reference pumpkins. Our November issue would not include a single mention of turkey. And the color red was strictly prohibited for the cover of our December issue.

«We are going to be another type of magazine»I told the team. “We are going to be a magazine that focuses on what is interesting and valuable, not on the month of the year.”

Six months later, the magazine was in a death spiral and I had reversed my “no platitudes” policy just in time for our February “love” issue, hoping that a greater emphasis on Romance would save us.

Spoiler alert: it didn’t.

I probably shouldn’t blame the failure of that startup magazine on my foolish decision to stop referencing turkey at Thanksgiving.

It was the mid-2000s, Facebook was taking the world by storm, Digg was one of the most popular websites on the planet, and Twitter was this weird new “microblogging” service that only allowed users to post 140 characters. In other words, physical magazines were already doomed, and publishing a few more Christmas dessert recipes probably wouldn’t have saved anything.

But I often find myself blaming my stupid decision to eliminate Christmas themes. It wasn’t the only reason we failed, but it certainly didn’t help. After all, a magazine theme is not a useless cliché that hinders creativity. The theme of a magazine is a valuable anchor that gives it a familiar directionality. Theme gives magazines a cohesion that is good for both creators and consumers.

The same fundamental principle applies to most other sectors as well. Strategies that seem cliché and uncreative are so for good reason: because they work!

Let’s think, for example, of the Super Bowl.

There’s a reason companies paid $7 million for a Super Bowl ad in 2024. It’s not that marketing executives were lazy and uncreative in buying the same ad space everyone wants to buy. It’s because they knew 120 million people would watch the Super Bowl.

In fact, if your target audience is the type of audience that is likely to watch the Super Bowl, the only reason not to pay $7 million for a Super Bowl ad is if you can’t afford it. But if you can afford that $7 million, it’s the best marketing money you can spend, even if everyone else is spending it too.

Great entrepreneurs understand this. They don’t shy away from proven strategies just because others are already using them and they seem uncreative. Instead, the best entrepreneurs avoid being creative when possible and rely on what works. Of course it is not as “sexy” as being called visionaries, but it is a simple and effective strategy, two attributes that are the true basis of business success.