Entrepreneur / investor / author
Scott Belsky co-founded Behance, a prominent platform built to remove barriers between talent and opportunity. After Behance’s acquisition in 2012, Scott served as Adobe’s Vice President of Products until 2016. He is now a Venture Partner at Benchmark — a venture capital firm based in San Francisco, an early-stage investor, a Product Strategy Advisor to Adobe and Twitter’s video efforts, and is co-founder and Executive Chairman of Prefer, his latest project that empowers the careers of service professionals.
As one of the earliest pioneers of the online creative world, Scott is remarkably well spoken about the respective industries that span across it.
In the following chat, Scott does a wonderful job articulating many of my thoughts about creativity and sheds a great amount of light on what’s to be expected at the intersection of creativity, technology, and entrepreneurship in the coming years.
He also has a newsletter that focuses on the middle of entrepreneurial journeys. You should sign up, it’s always a pleasant surprise in my inbox.
Would you mind quickly sharing your backstory with us? Yeah. Sure. I guess it all started back in 2005, tinkering with this idea of helping the creative world get organized. I always felt like creative people are ultimately the people that make life interesting. They help us engage with the world around us. These are folks who compel us to take action on things, to have empathy for things, to be moved by things. And as an undergrad, I studied both business and design, so I always had a side of me that was super interested in design. Then after a couple years in the real kind of business, Wall Street type world, I was like, oh, this is not me. And then I started to think, what do I really want to do with my life? And I just felt like serving the creative community in some way was really where my heart was.
So I started paying attention to the things that my friends were suffering from. A lot of them were creative professionals of various kinds working as freelancers or at agencies. And I just found that so many suffered from some degree of disorganization — they’re feeling like their career was at the mercy of circumstance, struggling to make ends meet despite how talented they were. And then I started to understand better why this was. And it’s because a lot of the sites online for creatives were made by creatives. They were more about being inspired than they were about efficiency, productivity, and connection to career opportunities. And I didn’t feel like MySpace cut it.
So that was the genesis of Behance. It was five years of bootstrapping, and then two years as a venture-backed company. And then long story short, the team was acquired by Adobe. We came in, and I had a whole other great experience for three years helping to innovate some of Adobe’s products on mobile. There was really no existence of the service on mobile products at all. So having that experience, and all the while, being an investor at other companies that I would say are design driven, and often times, design founded. So always playing at an intersection of creativity and technology and entrepreneurship, which is your sort of focus of the intersection as well.
The most recent project includes co-founding a business with a few folks. I’m not the leader of this one. You actually know who one of my co-founders is. It’s a company called Prefer. It’s training and developing independent service professionals to build their career through referrals. And it’s the same theme: empowering independent, talented people who want to have thriving careers. And then I’ve also been working on a new book, and the book is all about the middle of a journey.
So, even the description I just gave you about my own path: I talked about like five years of bootstrapping and what happens between the founding and getting financed and getting acquired. It’s like, well wait a second, whoa, whoa, whoa, like five years? Well, how do your teams stay together? How do you not lose hope? And better understanding what great entrepreneurs and leaders do in the middle of their journeys we can learn from.
“I always felt like creative people are ultimately the people that make life interesting. They help us engage with the world around us. These are folks who compel us to take action on things, to have empathy for things, to be moved by things.
Such an empowering backstory. And I’m really excited to dive deeper into Prefer. I think it’s a brilliant concept — it’s super simple and that’s kind of what I want to get into. You’re essentially helping people find work through what’s always worked best, which is word-of-mouth, and you’re leveraging design and technology as a means to achieve this on a much, much larger scale. Yeah. I believe that great products go with the grain rather than against the grain. Great products help a few things we would naturally want to do, but just better and faster and cheaper and with less friction. However, most products get us to change behavior. I really do feel most products that are pushed every day into the world are trying to get us to do something in a new way, rather than accelerating our natural tendencies.
Like with Prefer, if you ask any service professional — a massage therapist, an accountant, a personal trainer, a chef, any of these people — if you ask them where their greatest clients came from, they’ll say it was from a referral. Then, if you ask a client where or how they find people that they need to hire, you find that they don’t go to Angie’s List, or Thumbtack, or Yelp, and all these other places online to find people with three-to-five stars from strangers. Rather, people prefer to find professionals through their friends.
And so much of it happens by circumstance. You know, you’re just sitting down for lunch with a friend and you’re like, “yeah, we’re looking for a baby nurse.” Or, “you know I’m having a birthday party and I’m looking for a person to come over to make cocktails” or whatever, and your friend happens to say “oh my gosh, I have this person who’s great.” For example, there’s this massage therapist I’ve worked with before who I met because I happened to be complaining to a friend of mine, Dave, that my back was killing me from all this airplane travel, and he was like “oh I know who you should meet”, and now she has met all of my friends and I’ve worked with her and it all happened by referral. So, in this instance, I love finding the tendency and then trying to build a product that can accelerate what’s happening naturally.
“I believe that great products go with the grain rather than against the grain … So, in this instance, I love finding the tendency and then trying to build a product that can accelerate what’s happening naturally.
Again, I think it’s brilliant, and I cannot wait to see what you have in store for Prefer in the coming years — I think you’re a remarkable entrepreneur. Which is why I’m wanting to backtrack a little bit to those earlier years in your career. Clearly, you and I both gravitate towards exploring a very similar sector of the world. For me and what I’m building here at The Modern Block, I’ve chosen to produce content in this space not only because I’m particularly that interested in design and all of its trends, but rather because I believe there is no foreseeable future — in any industry — without creativity in some capacity. As an entrepreneur, why were you personally so intrigued with the creative world instead of the Wall Street world? Yeah, that’s a great question and I think there are a few different things I would say. So, the first thing I would say is design and creativity are now a competitive advantage across every industry. Whereas before, it used to be about the technology, now it’s about the end user’s experience of the technology, and that means it’s all about the interface, and that means it’s all about the creative people that are crafting the interface. You know, everyone uses the term “end-to-end experience”, but what they’re really saying is that copy, marketing, branding and everything else should be born alongside the product itself. Separate organizations — disconnected or maybe even third party agencies — a lot of teams are bringing those creative departments in-house. That’s the first thing I would say.
“Everyone uses the term ‘end-to-end experience’, but what they’re really saying is that copy, marketing, branding and everything else should be born alongside the product itself.
The second thing I would say, alongside that, is that creativity is no longer just in the creative department. There are stakeholders all across the organization who want to interact with prototypes, they wanna have a say, they wanna share ideas, they wanna be a part of the process and there is all sorts of opportunities and challenges that come along with that.
The third thing I would say is that there are just more and new mediums than ever before. Right? There’s AR, there’s VR, there’s VoIP, there’s mobile, there’s touch, there’s non-touch, there’s desktop and then all the old school mediums. And so there’s this need to now think about how you spread methods and how you move people across so many different mediums. And, while the mediums change, the creatives stay the same, like the creative stays in the center. And there’s no better evidence of that than when something like Game of Thrones becomes super popular or Jay-Z launches his new album. And, suddenly, you see HBO or Title at the number one or two spots in the App store. Because these are not two popular apps per se, but they are that day because you know what? The creativity — it doesn’t matter what the medium is — people want it.
“There’s this need to now think about how you spread methods and how you move people across so many different mediums. And, while the mediums change, the creatives stay the same … The creativity — it doesn’t matter what the medium is — people want it.
And, the last thing I would say, which I think really you alluded to, is that in this era of increased commoditization of labor and automation, I feel like creativity is humanity’s hope. I mean at the end of the day, when more and more is done, and pay is less and less and less, we stop focusing on the humans. Like, creativity is still what drives the world. And it sounds cliché, but my goodness, there will be more creative professionals ten years from now than ever before, no doubt about that. There will probably be fewer professionals in many other industries while we’re growing. And I think the stat is by 2020, forty percent of the American economy will be independent service professionals, and a good portion of those folks will be doing creative things.
You’ve summarized all the thoughts I’ve had trouble articulating, thanks so much for sharing! I love what you said about how creativity is still what drives the world, and I agree wholeheartedly. I suspect many of these thoughts will be written about in your new book? Yeah, I think that my last year and a half, very much my last six months, have been dedicated to making my way through a very long running creative project that I’ve been working on, which is of course, writing this new book. And it’s very meta, because I’m in the middle of a project to write a book about being in the middle. And it’s been, you know, when you lose hope, you feel like you’re battling endless uncertainty, ambiguity, self doubt, wondering is this any good. All the normal kind of doubts we have and feeling lost without no end in sight. And I think the way you work towards an end is you just optimize whatever seems to be working at any given moment in time. Whether it’s the way that you’re working, the way that you are holding yourself accountable. If you have a team, it might be how your team functions and how your team works. And then of course, there is the product as well right? So you do anything that seems to be working and therefore, do less of things that aren’t working. And in some ways, it’s just optimization and endurance. And I like to say that the journey from start to finish, is not this sort of up-and-to-the-right curve, it’s more of a very volatile ups-and-downs and ups-and-downs. And, the term “positive slope” is what I use to describe what I aspire to have in this process, which is maybe every valley is a little less steep and every peak is a little incrementally higher.