Scott Belsky: Ideas in the cloud, feet on the ground

Scott Belsky: Ideas in the cloud, feet on the ground

Scott Belsky

Founder of Behance, CPO Creative Cloud at Adobe

Best selling author. Serial entrepreneur. Venture partner at Benchmark. Mobile product strategy lead at Adobe. All part and parcel of Scott Belsky’s track record of entrepreneurial achievement. If Belsky doesn’t ring a bell, he soon will. 

Scott’s self-proclaimed passion is making the creative world more productive, connected, and adaptive to new technologies. There’s no better proof of this than the projects he’s lead and pursued. Behance is perhaps the best known. Acquired by Adobe in 2012 for upwards of $150M, today millions of creatives use the platform to display their portfolios, and it has become a tool to track and find top talent across the creative industry. After acquiring Scott’s company, Adobe asked him to help reboot their mobile product strategy, a role he held until 2016. 

Above and beyond his work as an entrepreneur, Scott’s side hustles include work as a Venture Partner at Benchmark, one of the world’s leading San Francisco based venture capital firms. Not content to simply invest, he supports his teams as an active advisor, with personal stakes in consumer driven companies such as Uber, Pinterest, or Warby Parker.

And although he’s turn Behance over to Adobe, Scott remains active in creative fields, organising and empowering the creative class through 99U, an annual think tank and conference devoted to the industry. 

A relentless advocate for technology, creative potential, and an entrepreneurial powerhouse, Scott has also authored an international bestselling tome, Making Ideas Happen and a second book is slated for release at the end of the year. 

Swenson caught a slot of time with this serial entrepreneur to talk about their shared values and vision.

Scott, you have a longstanding relationship with Adobe. In 2012, you sold Behance to the firm. In 2016, you helped reboot their mobile product strategy. And since December 2017, you have returned to Adobe as Chief Product Office and Executive Vice President for Creative Cloud. Can you tell us more about this new chapter at Adobe and the new position?

Well, sure! For many years, my passion has been imagining products for creative people. In a day and age where labor is commoditized and automated, people need to capitalise on creativity. So building tools and services for creatives, or anyone, to express that creativity is extremely important to me. From a gut perspective, and specifically for Adobe. Adobe acquired my business, so a lot of my own vision has been blended into the company. A lot of my team is still there. And I’m just so very passionate about helping the company’s and product strategy evolve, so when I was given the opportunity to return, you know, I just felt like it was one of those opportunities I couldn’t pass up.

Fostering creativity is what drives you and everything you do. Behance was your vision for “organizing the creative world”. How would you define the creative world today and how has it evolved since you founded Behance in 2006?

I think that when I started Behance, most creatives worked at agencies or were freelancers, so they always felt like they were at the mercy of circumstance. They would try to get gigs whenever they could, and there was very little attribution to who did what in the creative world. I think that Behance, along with other sites too, has helped match great talents to great opportunities. Rather than feeling like their career is compromise if they go solo, Behance helps them get credit for the work they do, so they can go off on their own and have a thriving career. I’d say that’s the biggest change. Nowadays, people recognize that they can’t just have their work on their own portfolio sites, they need to have it in a network so it can get found and they can build a network amongst their peers. It’s also exciting to think about the fact that Behance has been integrated into the creative tools people use, and that’s another point of progress we’ve made in the last ten plus years. 

What do you think the creative industry’s next challenges are? How are Adobe and Behance addressing these challenges? How are the tools you’re developing playing a part?

When I close my eyes and think about what the creative world should look like in three to five years from now, it’s very different. I see a suite of cloud-first tools, so we’re not chained to the desktop anymore. They will help us to work whenever we want. Just imagine the power of tools like Photoshop working on phones and your iPad. You’ll really be able to pick up your work wherever you left off, regardless of what device you’re using or where you happen to be inspired. I also see less middlemen, such as headhunters or agencies. Imagine a world where creatives have more access to opportunities so companies can hire them directly, on their own terms, and pay them directly. Finally, I see a world where creatives lead their own careers better. They’re more equipped in terms of managing and hiring people. They’ll be more efficient on the business side of their work.

Another big thing I’m focusing on throughout all the product teams at Adobe is driving efficiency and productivity. Making sure that people can accomplish more with less effort. If you look at the creative workflow today in a product like Photoshop, or any creative tool for that matter, there’s so much mundane, repetitive work. It’s the kind of stuff you’d rather hand off to someone else to do for you. It’s not creative work. This is the type of stuff we should be automating thanks to technologies like Artificial Intelligence and better product design, so it just makes you more productive. 

How do you see AI and VR technologies changing creative workflow?

One of our big focuses as a company is experience design. That’s not just screen design for web, mobile, or tablet, but it’s designing for new mediums like voice and augmented reality. I’m challenging our teams to think about where experience design will be tomorrow, not where it is today. I want to be sure we help equip all kinds of creative professionals to succeed in these new mediums. That doesn’t necessarily mean building new tools, it means improving our current tools by adding new functionalities. For example, if you’re making an interface in Adobe XD, our experience design product, and you want to plug that interface into augmented reality, what can we do to automatically render that as a 3D interface? Those are the types of questions we’re trying to figure out. It’s hard to learn a new tool, it takes a long time. But if you’re a designer and your client comes to you and says, “Hey, I also want you to make a voice version of this app for Alexa” or “I want to make this as an interface that works in augmented reality,” you as a designer need to be able to do that without much trouble. I think that’s one of the opportunities and responsibilities we have as a company: to help designers do that sort of thing. We’re building workflow to help creatives do that. As one example, we’ve done that for Photoshop. You can take something out of Photoshop into a new product we call Dimension and it can automatically map it onto any 3D object. Instead of having to spend all that time thinking what a logo might look like on a soda can, or some other 3D object, this product does it for you, perfectly. 

Let’s circle back to your experience as an entrepreneur for a moment. At Behance, your growth strategy was medium-agnostic. Your mission was to “organize the creative world”, so to speak, through digital platforms, events, conferences, or even books you authored. When you’re a startup trying to focus on one product, this may appear unusual. Why did you adopt a holistic strategy, much closer to a brand development strategy? 

I have a saying, which is that Behance is mission-centric but medium-agnostic. We never diverged from our mission, but we were willing to use any medium possible to accomplish it. That’s how modern brands are built, particularly when people talk about their content strategy or when they hold events to build relationships with their customers in the physical world. For instance, more and more digital brands are opening brick and mortar stores to establish a physical footprint. It’s all about building a brand that hits all the senses. I wouldn’t advise every startup to make paper products, host a conference, and build technology. I think that can kill you. But if you can pull it off, whether it’s through outsourcing or partnerships or third-party services, delivering your mission through different mediums and building what I like to call a “holistic brand”, that’s differentiating. It helps to distinguish you from all the other competitors in the space. It also makes you a lot more than just the primary product you’re selling, and it builds relationships in ways I can’t even describe. It’s a powerful thing.

You bootstrapped Behance for several years before raising money. Do you think that founders focus too much on raising money these days? Rather than finding creative solutions to stand out in the market and build competitive advantage?

Another saying of mine is that “Resourcefulness is more important than the resources.” With too many resources, you won’t develop the resourcefulness that makes you a great leader and a great company that can endure any sort of hardship. As an entrepreneur, I had to bootstrap Behance and I learned about the granularity of our business, how it works and what the pace was. There was so much that I learned having to do that, so I think there’s something to be said for that. 

Since 2010, you’ve been a seed-stage investor, putting money into companies such as Uber, Pinterest, Warby Parker, Outdoor Voices and more. You’ve also met a lot of entrepreneurs thanks to your work as a venture partner at Benchmark. How do you define entrepreneurship today?

It’s hard to generalize. A lot of people are jumping in before they’ve had the experience of learning how a business is built, and that’s fine! It just means it takes longer to figure it out. Much of entrepreneurship is about sticking together long enough to figure it out. The hardest part is keeping a team together, because you may feel like you’re struggling while everyone else looks like they’re succeeding. It a team sticks together long enough, they may become experts and be very successful in what they're doing. But it takes time and patience and that's rare. The more experience an entrepreneur is, the more they know. I always get excited when I meet people who are taking the plunge, and obviously I think that entrepreneurship is one of the greatest sources of making the world a better place.

Building something from nothing is, I think, one of the most rewarding things you can do. A mistake a lot of entrepreneurs make is building something because they’re passionate about it, not because they have empathy for the customer’s pain point. I always encourage entrepreneurs to focus on developing empath for the pain points before jumping in and creating a solution. 

I recently watched one of your videos, “What are you willing to be better at?” on YouTube.  I was intrigued by your idea of considering oneself a product, too, and thinking about how you have to improve yourself, whether you’re a founder, a manager, or a creative. How would you coach an entrepreneur to think about himself and not just on the product he’s developing?

Well, I think it’s really about understanding your strengths and weaknesses. It’s about knowing what you’re really good at and doing it more, and making sure you put yourself in a position within your company where you're doing what your best at. But it’s also recognising your weaknesses. What are you willing to be bad at? What areas aren’t your strong suit? For example, me, I’m not very tolerant of process. I’m not the best person to ensure that a process is followed and I need to surround myself with really great operations and program management type folks. They really keep me on track and can help force the process when I might let it flip. And that's something I've figured out myself and that sort of knowledge is gold. Because that really helps you build a great team around you and make up for whatever you're missing.

Can you share a few words about the book you’re finishing?

Sure! The book is my big focus right now and it’s slated for release in early October. The title is The Messy Middle, and is all about the middle of adventures and bold projects. It’s about having endurance and getting through the difficult parts of building a business or creative project. The middle stretch of any endeavour is the most important, but often the most ignored and misunderstood. We love to talk about starts and finishes, but not that in-between. Every business or creative project is "going great" until it fails. The bumps along the road are endured in isolation. We don't talk about the middle because we're not proud of the turbulence. This book sets out to change that.

Aside from the book, I am of course working at Adobe, trying to help develop and improve product strategy. It’s a fun mix leading the creative team at adobe and then writing about how creative teams stay together and persevere long enough to achieve something. That's a very good combination.