thumbnail image

Design entrepreneur Scott Belsky took time out of his packed schedule to answer Dominic Rodgers’ questions and tell him where it all started

9 min read

“Focus is the priority right now.” Scott Belsky is busy. Very busy. He’s travelling a lot, continuously working on bringing the company he co-founded, Behance, further into the Adobe fold since they were acquired nine months ago for $150 million. He’s now vice president of community at Adobe and head of Behance.

It seems to be going well. “There is a strong desire to better understand the creative community’s needs, take a more design-centric approach to product and support the creative process in new ways,” he says. “Adobe reaches millions of creative people around the world every day and our team at Behance has the opportunity to help connect the creative world throughout the creative process. We feel at home and now we’ve got a lot of work to do.”

Behance is an online platform where designers can curate their portfolios and share them with the wider community. Artworks’ own design team use it and say how amazing it is. When you “post” a new piece of work, you get instant feedback from the design community giving encouragement, opinions, wider exposure, and this helps build a tangible reputation. It’s giving a voice to some designers who wouldn’t typically focus on self-promotion, but are happy to share their work and listen to feedback from creative people who genuinely care about what they do.

There are other services as well that revolve around the central idea of “making ideas happen.” This really is social media.

How important is the social impact of business to you?

Very. And when you’re building something long-term, you need the right people joining for the right reasons – a desire to make social impact drives you more than anything else.

Were the arts and business part of your childhood?

I was always creating things and then trying to find a way to sell them. Entrepreneurs are artists, with a non-existent company as their canvas. I was always interested in design and business, and always playing in the intersection.

Who are your greatest role models?

I admire people who are extremely competent. I’ve worked for one or two folks in the past who I really looked up to. My father also fits this description; he’s a doctor with a tireless work ethic and a deep devotion to his patients. He loves what he does and I’ve always admired his competence and the hard work it takes to sustain.

Which three people in the arts and business have inspired you the most?

There are many people that have inspired me over the years, but I’ll share a few recent folks: designer and artist James Victore; author Seth Godin; and RISD [Rhode Island School of Design] president John Maeda. All three of these people have had a major impact on my thinking in the last six months.

Which arts institutions would you most like to help and how can business enrich the arts?

I believe that design museums, such as the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, should move into the digital age more aggressively. They also need to be more real-time. Curating a show that is displayed 18 months later is the old way of doing things. Art institutions need to change the way we think about the future, rather than simply inform us of the past. Businesses, especially those in the technology and education spaces, can provide new ways for art institutions to fulfil their mission.

What do you do outside work?

I read and write. I swim a lot. And I am now a father, so I spend as much time as I can with my baby daughter. When I go out, as a vegetarian who lives in New York City, I’ll go to places like Candle Cafe and Candle 79. Highly recommended, even if you’re not a vegetarian.

If you weren’t living where you are today, which cities or countries would you most like to live in and why?

Italy. The food, culture and the winding hills that make for fantastic biking. Oh, and the annual chocolate festival in Perugia. Amazing.

How have different cultures inspired you throughout your life?

Like art, culture helps you make sense of the world around you. When something happens in life, good or bad, culture helps carry you through. I have different cultures represented in my family and at work. My co-founder, Matias Corea, is from Barcelona; his culture has had a huge impact on Behance over the years – the design and language we use – and on me personally.

How do you inspire people who don’t see the connection between culture, design and the arts, and business?

I remind them that everything is art and design. Everything we do or buy is influenced by design. And art is not some relic of culture. On the contrary, art influences culture because it helps us understand and connect with what happens in the world. Once you’re humbled by the importance of art and design, you appreciate it.

How could business further benefit from the arts aside from by great design?

Businesses should leverage their brand and reach as a platform for artists to get exposure for their work. The modern-day equivalent of sponsorship of a gallery, or being a benefactor of an artist, is leveraging your reach in social media to support creative work. Just like we have more “paid-for” content, where writers are hired by companies to express ideas, why not engage artists in a similar way? Nothing wrong with being commissioned to do what you love. 

How important is creativity to you in a business environment and how do you encourage more of it?

Creativity is important, but that’s not a problem when you hire creative people who share a genuine interest in the work you’re doing. The problem is execution and accountability. How do you ensure a productive creative environment? The answer is valuing organisation, community forces around feedback exchange and accountability, and leading a process that allows risks and mistakes so long as we learn from them. This very question prompted me to start researching and ultimately led to my book, Making Ideas Happen, in 2010.

Why did you start a company to help creative people?

The idea behind Behance was inspired by the frustration expressed to me by so many friends in the creative world. They complained about the endless obstacles, both external and internal, that inhibited their progress.

In the early days, we were just trying to solve a problem. Creative careers suffer from inefficiency, disorganisation and a lack of attribution for their work. Behance was a series of experiments to solve this problem. Of course, over the years certain efforts have thrived and the business has become more focused. Our team is now most focused on building out the capacity to showcase and discover creative work on Behance.

$150m price tag for Behance

Did you ever dream that Behance would be as successful as it has been?

Most of my dreams were about the team feeling satisfied with the risk they took joining Behance and our community feeling like we’ve transformed their careers. I certainly had many dreams and continue to dream.

Every morning, when I log into Behance and browse my activity feed, I am blown away (and humbled) by the caliber of stuff our members create. When you take a step back and just observe people using a product that your team labored over – and debated endlessly – it is truly rewarding. My favourite moments at Behance are when we get stories from folks in the community who found a new partner/collaborator/client or got discovered by a journalist on Behance. It makes six-plus years of self-doubt and long nights feel worthwhile.

Having revolutionised the design industry, what other sectors would you most like to help/ disrupt?

I think we’re still just getting started. There isn’t enough transparency in the creative industry; designers, architects, artists – it’s still hard to figure out who created what. We want to change that and we have a lot of work to do. If we figure it out, Behance will empower the careers of many millions of creative people and perhaps have a profound impact on the creative world at work.

How did you feel when you first realised that Behance was the target for acquisition, by anyone, let alone Adobe?

We’ve had a great relationship with Adobe for many years and it was clear that we wanted to work together in some way. Ultimately, the vision for what we could do together became very compelling. Of course, many stars had to align to make this rewarding for the entire team and provide a degree of independence that we felt was important for the Behance community and product vision, as well as an opportunity to play a leadership role at Adobe.
What does the future hold for you, Behance and Adobe?

In the year ahead, the Behance platform is going to get a lot better, faster and offer even more exposure for creative people’s work. We have a full roadmap of improvements and features that help people connect with their peers and with career opportunity. We also have grand plans for ProSite – and other “Pro” features – that will make Behance a more powerful utility for creative careers. 

So Belsky is clearly more than career-focused, he’s actually making his own way by helping others. While most companies would claim to have the purpose of helping their customers, Behance seems to be built entirely around this goal. Following its acquisition by Adobe, it is clear there is massive value in this, as well as integrating creativity, the arts and business. Linking artists and entrepreneurs is becoming increasingly common, and with entrepreneurs disrupting big businesses, it’s time for the old guard to look to the arts for new tricks.