Craft & Invention

How the best startup teams combine the discipline of craft with the mindset of invention

John Zeratsky
4 min readOct 24, 2022


A few months ago, I read The Wright Brothers for the second time.

It’s such a fun book, but what really struck me was the relationship between craft and invention in Wilbur and Orville’s story. To succeed as an innovator, like the Wright Brothers did so dramatically, you need to combine the discipline of craft with the mindset of invention. This is true whether you’re making software or flying machines. But craft and invention are not the same thing, and for startups, I think there are important lessons we can learn from understanding the differences.

Cycle Craft

Before flying machines, Wilbur and Orville Wright made bicycles. They weren’t bicycle innovators, but they made high-quality bikes, one at a time, to the highest standards of the industry. Their bikes were expensive, ranging from $30 to $100 — in 1890s dollars. If you wanted a great bike and you weren’t afraid of paying for it, the Wrights were your guys.

In other words, they were craftsmen. Buying a bike from The Wright Brothers was like hiring a furniture maker, calligrapher, or graphic designer — you’re paying for quality and reliability, but you probably don’t expect radically new ideas.

Everything changed when they focused on flying machines. They tried to build on the work of others (famously writing to The Smithsonian to ask for records), but found that most of it was theoretical pseudo-science—so they had to come up with their own solutions for everything from wing shape to lightweight construction to engine and propeller design.

When Wilbur and Orville flight started working on airplanes, they became inventors.

The Mindset of Invention

Invention is totally different from craft. You learn from others, but create your own solutions when necessary. You build lots of prototypes, expecting that most will fail to work but succeed in teaching you something anyway. You’re not building to the existing standards of an industry, so most people won’t understand you—and they might think you’re crazy.

The Wright Brothers embraced the mindset of invention when they created the first airplane, but they needed their skills as craftsmen to make it work. They needed technical skills and a well-equipped workshop. They needed to actually build things. But most importantly, they needed resilience — the dogged determination that comes from practicing your craft day after day.

For startup founders, investors, and early employees, there’s a lot we can learn from The Wright Brothers’ relationship with craft and invention.

Craft & Invention in Startups

First, I think we should remember that startups are in the business of invention. They take risks in the pursuit of innovation, with the goal of creating value by making things better for their customers.

But the best startups are full of people who have mastered their craft. Just like The Wright Brothers, honing their craft as bicycle builders before inventing the airplane, the best startup teams spend years building technology as craftspeople before starting a company.

This combination is essential. It’s why we look for complete teams when we invest in startups at Character — people who bring ideas and insights, of course, but also the hard skills needed to build the product and bring it to market. It’s why I’m wary of “idea founders” and innovation projects that separate the thinking from the doing. (Yes I’m looking at you, design thinking 😒)

Most important, remember that—especially if you come from a “craft” background as a builder—you need to deliberately shift into an invention mindset if you want to succeed at a startup. It can be painful, but it’s the only way.

From Craft → Invention

The best startup teams I’ve worked with (like Flatiron Health, Slack, Phaidra, etc) have demonstrated these shifts:

  • From building → learning
  • From shipping → prototyping and testing
  • From feature roadmaps → risk roadmaps
  • From perfect → good enough to learn
  • From slow → fast

It can help to have a framework or method for making these new defaults stick. That’s why we run Design Sprints with the companies we invest in at Character, and why so many other startups have embraced the process.

The real magic comes from embracing the connection between craft and invention. If you’re a software startup founder but don’t know how to make software, you won’t find that magic. If the Wright Brothers tried to build an airplane before learning the craft of making machines by hand, they would have failed like everyone who came before them.

Once your startup gets airborne, you’ll gradually shift your focus back to the craft of optimizing a growth engine, scaling operations, and improving margins. But until then, be like the Wrights—be an inventor.

— JZ



John Zeratsky

Supporting startups with capital and sprints. Co-founder and general partner at Character. Author of Sprint and Make Time. Former partner at GV.