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The Maker vs. The Manager

April 25, 2022 | By John Warrillow

How much time are you getting for creative work these days? If you don’t have time to think, it may be worth understanding the framework of the maker vs. the manager.

Paul Graham first introduced the distinction between a maker and a manager in a 2009 blog post.

The basic theory is simple. We do our most creative work, solving the most intellectually challenging problems when we have long, uninterrupted time to think. If we schedule other tasks and meetings during these precious windows, it is impossible to get much creative work done.

Psychologists chalk up the problem to something called “task switching costs.” Gloria Mark, a professor at The University of California, estimates that if you’re working on something creative and get interrupted, it takes about 25 minutes to return to the same concentration level you experienced before the intrusion. If your day is an assortment of maker and manager tasks, you never really let your brain get to the concentration required to conceive of great ideas.

The bigger your company gets, the more time you need to manage tasks and the less time you have to create.

Ben Tossell: Maker, not a Manager

Let’s look at Ben Tossell, who started Makerpad to teach non-technical founders how to create online businesses – even if they have no idea how to code.

In 2019, Tossell created a suite of videos to teach new entrepreneurs the basics of how-to stitch together various applications required for an online business. Tossell put his content behind a paywall, and by 2020, he was employing a dozen people and grossing more than $400,000 a year.

His fast start caught the attention of several investors who approached Tossell about buying in. They made the case that Tossell could grow his business with their money and expertise. However, Tossell didn’t want to become a manager. He already felt out of his depth managing a dozen people, and the idea of leading hundreds of employees made him uneasy.

That’s because Tossell is a maker, not a manager. Tossell is good at producing ideas and the creative part of building a business. He doesn’t have much interest or experience running a company, so he jumped at the opportunity when Zapier approached Tossell about acquiring Makerpad. Zapier wanted Tossell to focus on making new things, not managing employees. Tossell turned down the venture capitalists’ offer to invest and agreed to be acquired outright by Zapier in a life-changing deal in 2021.

As you think about applying the maker vs. manager concept to your own life, consider the following:

  1. Protect your Maker time. Regularly carve out long blocks of time (think 3-4 hours uninterrupted) for maker projects.
  2. Turn off notifications during your maker hours. Remember that every interruption comes at a steep cost. It may take 25 minutes to get back to the same level of concentration you were at before you were interrupted, so sequester yourself away from chimes, beeps, or buzzes that might catch your attention.
  3. Consider hiring a full-time manager. Whether you call them a Chief Operating Officer, General Manager, or a Second-in-Command, a full-time operations person, who can take most of the management tasks off your plate, can help you carve out more time to create.
  4. Consider a partner. The bigger your company gets, the more time you will need to manage it. Like Tossell, you may want to sell all or part of your business to a company that has management resources. If your deal is structured well, you may be able to continue to make things while someone else worries about the managing.

Building a business involves the left and right sides of your brain. The bigger your company becomes, the less time you will have to create, which means you must work extra hard to protect your time to make great things.