Scott Belsky on Making Ideas Happen

Apr 19, 2011

Scott Belsky's mission is to organize and empower creative professionals. "There's so much talk about how to be more creative, but there isn't enough discussion about the execution side of the equation--how can individuals and teams better execute and follow through on their ideas."

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: Welcome to Just Business, a series of interviews about global business practices. I am Julia Taylor Kennedy, and today we're talking about bringing a little business discipline to creative professionals. Here to explain why that's necessary is Scott Belsky, founder and CEO of Behance, and author of Making Ideas Happen.

Scott, welcome to Just Business.

SCOTT BELSKY: Thanks for having me.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: It's wonderful to have you.

We're sitting here with this gorgeous view of SoHo. This a wonderful creative space. How did you end up here in SoHo?

Our team really wanted to be in the heart of the community that we're serving.

Certainly there are creative communities all over the world, but SoHo, New York is a vibrant area, with advertising, marketing, fashion, design, and all sorts of creative industries intersecting. It just seemed like the logical place to be.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: Tell me what kind of gap you're addressing here at Behance.

We're focused on organizing and empowering creative professionals. We feel like there has been so much talk in the creative world and beyond about where ideas come from and how to be more creative, but there isn't enough discussion about the execution side of the equation—how can creative individuals and teams better execute and follow through on their ideas. The mission of our company is to organize and empower creative professionals. We develop all sorts of knowledge, products, and services to serve that mission.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: What are the key steps to developing that kind of a discipline?

If there is a framework for making ideas actually happen and seeing the light of day, certainly creativity is part of it. But that's not what we focus on.

We focus on the other three parts:

  • One would be organization and execution, really how people manage their energy, their time, their schedule—how you manage meetings, how you manage brainstorms and making sure that they're actually worth the time that you're spending in them; and that you have action steps coming out of them.
  • The second piece would be the communal forces, the role of community in helping us stay accountable to our ideas, to giving us the feedback and refinements that we need to make our ideas last the test of time.
  • The third piece would be leading the creative pursuit or the creative team. There are a lot of nuances to leadership in the creative world. Creativity comes out of a passionate interest for something. It's really a double-edge sword in that sense. We found a lot of best practices for leadership as well.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: When you're talking about leading a creative team, how do you balance getting the job done with leaving space for innovation?

There are a lot of tensions that need to be carefully balanced.

One, for example, that we see very commonly in the corporate world is the need to measure and to set goals for people, and to reward people in their careers based on attaining those goals while also allowing for severe risk taking and the rapid iteration and prototyping that is innovation.

We often see a lot of teams and leaders of those teams say to their folks, "Listen, it's a corporate priority that we're innovative. But at the same time we're going to measure you based on meeting these goals and milestones and not screwing up and not wasting resources." It's really a mixed message we're giving.

There are a lot of nuances around making sure that that tension is carefully balanced, and that innovation conundrum is just one of them.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: So many people who are in the creative industries enter them to get away from restrictions, to be in a field where they can let their mind wander and be creative. How do you get these creative professionals to take their own medicine?

There is a controversial proposal that I am making these days, which is premised on the equation that creativity times organization equals the impact that you actually make with your ideas.

If you look at that equation, you start to realize: "Wait a second. If I have 100 on creativity and zero organization, I'm going to make zero impact as a product, not a sum. But if I can maybe lower my emphasis on finding the best-best ideas and increase my emphasis on how to stay organized and how to execute while setting up the parameters within which I work, then I'm going to have more of an impact, which is ultimately what matters most to me."

That is the truth. For the most productive, creative individuals and teams that we've met over the past five years, the theme is that they spend energy and time on how they organize and how they lead. And, dare I say, they sometimes spend a little less energy and time focusing on the best idea. They're just trying to make their ideas actually see the light of day. They're iterating over time.

That is what we're trying to make clear in the creative world—dispel this myth that we should be searching for the best-best ideas. The fact is ideas don't happen because they're great or by accident. There are other forces at play.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: All of us have to work harder on what doesn't come naturally, right?

Yes. That's the pursuit of the productive, creative individual or team.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: It seems that lately with the introduction of higher technology that there has been a proliferation of ways to profit through grassroots efforts. Think of Etsy and bloggers that can sell advertising space on their blog and get it to a book contract. I'm wondering if this innovation that you see represents new opportunities for creative professionals, or is it just moving to a different tool to get their ideas across?

This is a really exciting time that we're entering right now. I call it the distributed creative production era, where all of the stuff that used to be done in cubes within large companies is now going to be done by people dispersed around the world, working on their own terms, and thus having a better output.

In order for that to happen, we as people who think of ideas and as creative individuals, we need to really treat ourselves as businesses. That is the turning point that I see happening.

One of the things that is helping to facilitate that turning point is the fact that we are now facing less and less friction in working alone than we've ever faced before.

Think about ten years ago. We needed to be a part of a large company or to have access to great accounting software, human resources, and health benefits.

Fast-forward to today. A lot of this stuff is available through free online applications, through things like the Freelancers Union, and other sorts of phenomena that allow us to independently pursue ourselves as businesses.

This is a major turning point. I don't think anyone has begun to even taste the potential here for what this means for the new age of a work force. We're really excited about it.

In order for it to happen, there needs to be a company focused on organizing and empowering these creative people to take the reins on their own careers.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: If this is all available, what's the remaining obstacle? Why aren't people already just immediately enormously profitable with their great ideas?

All of this talent needs to be organized. That's one of the first challenges.

The second challenge is that our world is not really set up to be a meritocracy. The greatest talent is oftentimes not matched with the best opportunity. Oftentimes it's either nepotism, who represents whom, or who knows what. Geographic barriers—"I'm just going to hire someone who's in this area or that area."—really needs to be transcended.

In order to do that, we need systems that facilitate creative meritocracy, that match the best talent with the best opportunity. There are algorithmic and technology solutions for that. There are also mindsets that change.

There are also industries that need to be disintermediated. There are entire industries that their purpose is to capitalize on the disorganization of creative people.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: Give me an example.

One example is headhunting. I'm not suggesting that it's a bad industry. I'm just saying that it is there because there is a need because of disorganization among the creative class. Oftentimes there are many headhunting firms who represent freelancers who mark them up on average 60-80 percent on an hourly basis.

If I'm an illustrator and I charge $20 an hour, the headhunter is asking for $35 and pocketing the difference, and oftentimes is showing my work without proper attribution to me, because their business is based on you seeing my work without knowing who I am. There's a conflict of interest there when it comes to giving me the best opportunity to pursue my work.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: How is Behance addressing some of those issues with cutting out the middleman?

SCOTT BELSKY: The Behance network has become the largest online platform of creative professionals. We built it structurally different than any other portfolio site out there.

Creative professionals all around the world are publishing projects every single minute. All of this work that they are publishing to their portfolios is also able to be showcased on LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook, and also on their own personal websites through a new service we're launching now, called ProSite.

The trick is that we're tracking all the metadata around all of this workso which client was it for, what tools were used to create it, who liked it, who did you work with on it, the copyright information—and we're allowing gradually more and more companies to sort through it all.

So if you're looking for someone who did a particular campaign in a particular part of the world, we can directly connect you with those folks. We don't hide the contact information of people on the site. It's a system that fosters meritocracy in that sense. That's just one example.

As a company we're really focused on the research around the execution of ideas and the empowerment of individuals as creative people and as businesses.

The 99 Percent, which is now an annual conference and a think-tank devoted to this cause, is really taking off. Our conference this year in New York sold out five months in advance. It's just a conversation about the execution of ideas.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: How did you come up with the idea for this network and this conference?

We were inspired by frustration. We were inspired by the fact that so many creative individuals and teams struggle to ever get their ideas off the ground.

We saw so many teams who just never really reached their potential. It didn't seem that it was a lack of quality with their talent. It was more along the lines of the organizational and the other issues that we're discussing today. We just felt we needed to be a company that focused solely on that.

Two words we never use in our company are "inspiration" or "creativity," because that's not what we're about. We're about the execution, the organization, and the professionalism. We are trying to build the conversation, tools, and services that push it forward.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: You started at Goldman Sachs, which everyone thinks of as financial services and corporate. How did you get to this small enterprise that you started?

SCOTT BELSKY: As an undergrad, I was focused on environmental economics and information design. I did a case study project in my senior year on the information design about a résumé and how to better present someone's creative potential.

I then found myself at Goldman Sachs for almost five years. Most of that time while at the firm I was focused in the executive office on an initiative called Pine Street, which was all around leadership development and organizational improvement for the firm and for key clients.

It was there, as I was leveraging the firm's vast resources to help people become more organized and better leaders, I started to think: Gosh, if only some of this thought could be tapped for the community that needs it most. The creative community probably is the most disorganized community on the planet but it is the community responsible for everything that makes our lives interesting. So could this be leveraged for that purpose?

That's when I started to think about the notion of Behance. I found Matias Corea, who is my co-founder of the business and the chief designer. That's when we started working together.

I left Goldman Sachs, officially to go to business school but unofficially to get Behance off the ground. I almost dropped out of business school probably six or seven times just because of the excitement we had with getting this off the ground.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: What's the difference between approaching someone on a leadership initiative like Pine Street to work on leadership techniques, organization, and team building, and someone who's in a creative field?

It's really, at the end of the day, about what drives us. I've always had a desire personally to work with people that are working in the intersection of three things: their genuine interest; the skills that they possess or have learned and developed in their craft; and the intersection of opportunities that they are facing. That's the sweet spot, or what I like to call the zone of maximum impact, where so few people in this world really are able to work.

The creative class is most prone to be able to work in that area, because they, for whatever reason, over the course of their lives decided to pursue a genuine interest they're really passionate about. It's usually tied to their creativity. Then they have taken the time and effort to develop the skills, whether through apprenticeship or formal education, and now they're just trying to put themselves in the stream of opportunities and trying to find the overlap of the three.

In that zone of maximum impact is where great things happen in this world. It's also a perilous zone, because of the overwhelming opportunity but also the distraction and just how much goes on in that zone. It's a crazy place.

It's a totally different thing to work with people in that zone versus people who are just doing a job because it's an opportunity to make the most money but it's not really their genuine interest, or they're leveraging their skills but they're sort of middle managers. It's just a different career altogether for myself.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: The way you describe this, it sounds a lot like the U.S. myth of the self-made man, to talk about someone who's passionate and then can use it for profit and work in that sweet spot that you've described.

I was wondering how the U.S. compares at actually incentivizing that kind of success in that sweet spot to other places in the globe. Is that something that you've thought about too?

It is something I think about. The Behance Network itself is 65 percent international. A lot of the greatest work in terms of the community's creation is coming out of central and eastern Europe, Asia, and other places, and not as much in the U.S.

I don't know if it's the education curriculum that we have, which is always relegating art class to that thing that we do that's sort of like recess, rather than a craft that we're encouraged to build and be proud of over time in our education.

I also think that formal education is often not incentivizing and rewarding us for thinking outside the box, quite literally. It's just we're always on this track.

Something about the short-term reward system of the classic American education and career track is troubling. The notion that in school it's all about getting the grade on the test and then the grade in the course, and then, when we graduate, it's about getting the paycheck every two weeks and the bonus at the end of the year. When you're in a situation somewhere in the world where you're not exposed to that trickling system of short-term rewards that keep you on this safe and narrow track, that's when you start to deviate, and frankly that's where great things come up.

It's great when people can deviate from that track. Other countries probably have it more socially acceptable than others. I don't think in the U.S. it's very socially acceptable to do so.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: Give me an example of a client that comes to you and has some great ideas but needs to
set up a structure and a discipline for executing them. What are the basic pieces of advice and structure that you set up?

SCOTT BELSKY: At Behance our advisory business falls under The 99 Percent. The companies that we typically work with fall into two camps:

Either they are creative teams and creative companies that are suffering the "idea to idea" syndrome—one idea leads to another, leads to another—and they don't feel like they ever push one to completion, and they want to sort of re-jig their structure to change that.

The other camp is large companies, whether it's the Proctor & Gambles of the world or other large businesses, where they have great ideas; however, the gravitational force of operations on a daily basis is so strong that it always pulls them away from the pursuit of their ideas over the long term. They have these great brainstorm and strategy sessions and they know what their track is for innovation for the next two to three years, but then three months pass and no progress has been made, because day-to-day stuff overwhelms us.

With both of those situations the insights are very much the same. It's about tricking ourselves into keeping our ideas pursued over the long term, on surviving the "project plateau," when the excitement and energy from a new idea subsides and you just have to keep the long-term pursuits in sync with the short-term things you need to do every day.

And then, literally, the practical things we need to change in our work flow and process. Those are the things we work on with clients.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: Then you also have this network of freelancers and individuals that are trading tips online. How have you watched that progress? Do you ever see some feedback and think: Oh man, that's not what I want?

SCOTT BELSKY: The peer-to-peer feedback exchange is exciting, unfiltered, and uncensored. You can see all kinds of stuff and you can take what you hear from the masses with a grain of salt.

However, the private feedback exchange that happens in the Behance Network, with creative professionals creating what we call inner circles of other peers that they can share their work with privately, is really interesting. It's the opportunity to publish something that you may be working on for a client in some big agency or company out there that you can't show the world, but you can show 12 people that you know and get feedback and then improve upon it. That's really exciting.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: How many of these conversations are happening between people who are global versus those who can actually meet in real time?

There are thousands of conversations and collaborations. The other day we came across a photographer based in Brooklyn, named Parris Whittingham, who had taken a photograph set of a wedding that he had been the wedding photographer at, he posted them to his Behance Network portfolio, and then a photo illustrator based in India, named Archan Nair, discovered these photographs and asked Parris if he could illustrate them.

Then Parris said "Okay." Then they published a jointly owned project that had these photos with illustrations on them. Then Kanye West came along and discovered these photographs and put them on his blog. This created so much traffic, attention, and new work for both Archan in India and Parris in Brooklyn, New York, and it was solely based on the connection over the platform. It's really exciting to see that sort of stuff happen.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: Do you ever have to sit down and say to yourself, "It's time for me to take this idea and make it happen," and then enforce those kinds of rules on yourself as well?

Absolutely. I suffer from the player/coach problem sometimes.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: Well, I don't know. It looks like you've made a lot of ideas live on the Web.

We try to practice what we preach here at Behance. But every now and then we certainly catch ourselves.

I try to have a few, two to three, roll-up-your-sleeves moments every day, where I just jump down into the granularity and I'm like: "What am I going to just tackle and complete at this moment?" I just try to force myself to do that. It's so easy to get existential, to focus on big-picture priorities, or to tune into what I call kind of the "insecurity work," the stuff that we do repeatedly every day that doesn't really move the ball forward and we just do to make sure everything's okay. We do more and more of that these days.

I really try to just get stuff done. That's what it comes down to.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: It seems like you put a lot of value into discipline and making ideas happen, the title of your book. Where does that come from? Why is that such an important value for you?

I get frustrated with just how many great insights are born and die in isolation.

Forgetting the creative world for a moment, let's just think about the absentminded scientist tucked away in some lab in some large pharmaceutical company who is just playing with his craft, which is cures for major diseases, and is happening upon little things or inklings and intuitions from his or her 30-year career, but then gets distracted by another idea and another idea. Then, as a result of not being the steward of his or her ideas and seeing them through, we have potentially hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people die that could have been cured maybe three or four years earlier.

It sounds crazy, but the reality is that every insight is an idea in someone's mind. The truth is that the more likely you are to have those ideas and insights, the more likely you are to have too many of them and never push any of them to fruition. That's the conundrum of the creative mind across any industry. That's frustrating. It's really bad for everyone.

I don't think that creativity is just an opportunity. It's a responsibility. Creative people need to take themselves seriously, and they do it for themselves and for the rest of us. That's something that we need to all think more about.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: So what's next? You have another 99 Percent conference coming up. What else is in the hopper for you?

SCOTT BELSKY: The network right now at Behance is exploding. We just passed 42 million pages in the past month. It's really exciting to see that. We're iterating on that. We're building new services to help empower the creative professionals that are part of the platform and making new alliances or partnerships with other organizations out there.

The 99 Percent is right around the corner, in May. The website continues to have all the videos, articles, and stuff that we produce out of this research. The 99 Percent is just a real kind of hobby and passion for our team. It keeps us in check as well.

We're also really trying to build a team at this point, trying to find other like-minded folks who want to help bring Behance to the next level.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: Scott Belsky, thank you so much for sitting down with me. This is a fascinating conversation.

I enjoyed it. Thanks for having me again and thanks for coming to the office.

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