While attending Harvard, Scott Belsky started Behance which he later sold to Adobe for $150 million. Today he is a best-selling author, the Chief Product Officer at Adobe and an early stage investor in Uber, Warby Parker, Periscope and Pinterest.
During today’s podcast, Scott shares:
The Person, the Product, and the Problem
ACTION ITEM: Rate your “P’s”. When you have good People, offer a good Product, have great Processes, and solve a Problem, you win.
On today’s show, we’re interviewing the author, entrepreneur, and early stage investor Scott Belsky. Andrew, tell us more about this incredible guest on today’s show. Scott Belsky shares how he started and grew the be hance company while attending Harvard before selling it to Adobe for $150 million and he still found the time to be an early stage investor in big time companies including Pinterest, Uber, periscope, Warby Parker, and many more. Today, Scott now serves as the chief product officer for Adobe and is the best selling author of the messy middle, fighting your way through the hardest and most crucial part of any bolt venture and making ideas happen, overcoming the obstacles between the vision and reality. And did I mention that he sold his company for $150 million to a dopey? Andrew, tell us more. So during today’s podcast, Scott shares what he did with the money after selling be hands for $150 million.
Andrew, if you gave me $150 million, my world would probably slow down Hordern fruits, $2 million, and I’d probably take myself out to eat. Horter drift your million dollars. Now I get myself something nice and fancy someplace with organic, healthy products that my wife could trust and I’d probably order myself 78 ounces of premium frozen yogurt with unlimited toppings, hoarder proof to drawl. And on today’s show, Scott shares how he and his partners saved money from their previous jobs and worked for nothing during the startup phase of be hands. And on today’s show, Scott Belsky explains how they brought in cash by adopting a new product when starting pants. Andrew Scott explains how to inspire your team when you don’t have obvious financial awards to shower them with it. On today’s show, Scott explains why you should not be distracted by the headlines and the highlights of an entrepreneurship swimming all around you. Back to you Andrew. And on today’s show, Scott explains why a prototype is worth 1000 meetings. And on today’s show, Scott explains why you must learn to make decisions quickly once you have gathered all of the facts. And on today’s show, Scott explains why he believes that we should stop obsessing about the beginning and ending of all successful entrepreneurial stories and why we should shift our focus to learning more about the messy middle. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.
Yes, yes, yes and yes. Thrive nation on today’s show, we are going to have a blast blast with the incredible Scott Belsky. Scott, how are you my friend?
I’m doing well. Thank you for having me.
Hey, thank you. I’m sorry you made the poor life choice and agree to be on the show, but we’ll have some fun here today. I say, Oh, I know you’ve had a lot of success and I wanted to kind of start off at the bottom. I love to do that. To hear you know about your childhood and cause now you’re at this level where I think a lot of people look at it and go, wow. So Scott Belsky, walk us through your childhood. How did it all start for you?
Childhood? Well, let’s see. Depends how far back you want to go and how many, uh, how many tissue boxes do you want to get through eighth grade and start there? It’s crazy. No, I mean, listen, I, I um, I’ve always had a, uh, a non traditional kind of student side to me. I was always interested in the things more outside the class and then the class, I always had kind of a creative bent and I also always had kind of an enterprising business spent and I was always sort of looking for the overlaps of these things. So, uh, you know, make you growing up, making stores as a kid, doing a lot of art. Um, you know, having like a creativity zone in my base. And Bri had all sorts of concoctions. And uh, and then of course, you know, in, in, uh, in college thinking about how do I, how do I combine an interest in design and a wait with interest in, uh, and technology with interest in business and you’ll be hands, which was a company I started back in 2005. My first real company, the purpose was to literally organize the creative world using technology. And uh, and that was one of those examples in my life where I felt like the overlap of interest was perfect.
No. You, you, uh, you know, you, you went to some pretty prestigious schools, you went to Cornell and you received your Mba from Harvard. What was your experience like attending Harvard Business School?
Well, that was probably one of the worst students there. A holy cause. I was a simultaneously starting my company that I started about, I don’t know about, uh, the same month that I started at business school. And the whole time I was there I was thinking, Gosh, you know, should I drop out or should I stick with it? In retrospect, I think the story of dropping out of Harvard is way better and more interesting in the story of finishing. But listen, I mean, I, uh, I had, uh, I had a good experience. All right, need some great friends that have been great advisors and collaborators to me ever since. So I can’t regret it, but I, um, but I do think that when you’re, when you’re building things, when you’re building new things, uh, an MBA is less useful than if you’re kind of going into a big company trying to, uh, you know, have more management experience experience behind you. It’s a different, different, it’s a, it’s a bridge to a question mark. And at the time when I was at business school, I kind of knew what I wanted to do.
So when did you actually start be hands for you in the we were you in your dorm room or when did you start it?
Well, I started, um, right before, right before business school. The idea was I’m really inspired by frustration. I couldn’t believe how just organize the creative world was at that point. True. People would put their portfolio sites online on their own websites and their own domain name and no one would ever find them unless they knew them already. And I figured there should really be a linkedin for the creative world. There should be a interconnected, um, portfolio platform where the stuff that’s in people’s portfolios also thrives and get into it as discovered outside of their portfolios. Sort of circulates online is it’s great creative work and also helps people find it without going through the person’s name. You know, if got to talk to any creative professional in the world, they’ll say that they’re more defined by their work, then their brand or even what, you know, what, uh, what company they happened to have worked for. And that was the insight for be hints.
So how did you go about starting it? I mean, did you, uh, uh, sell a kidney? Did you give blood? Did you have a second job? How did you raise the money and tell us how you built that initial team?
Sure. Well, it’s a, um, it was a bootstrapping story, so it was, it was rough at times. Uh, I had saved some money up for my previous job working at an investment bank, so I had some money to commit. And then, uh, but also I hired two other people to join me that, and we were all kind of willing to work for nothing for a period of time to figure this out. And then quite quickly, we actually had, our first product was a totally analog product. It was a paper product, it was a notebook for creative people to be more organized. And we sold these paper products literally at trade shows and other places to pay the bills in the beginning and also to build our brand as a company that organized creative people. So it was one of those first insights, which was let’s be a mission centric, medium agnostic business. You know, let’s make sure we organize creative people in whatever possible way we can.
So when did you start to gain some traction where you move beyond selling tangible notebooks? When, when did you start to get some be hands traction?
Well, I would say, uh, maybe two or so years into the company is when we started to actually see people post portfolios that we didn’t know ourselves. And one of the things we did at bootstrap the network, cause we actually would go and interview great creatives we admired, we take the hundred great creatives and designers that we admired. And we went to them and said, hey, would you put a portfolio on our platform? And they said, no, what the hell? Who are you? And then we would say, oh, well can we interview you for our blog? Can we write about how great your work is? They’re like, oh, well, okay, sure. And then we say, oh, and by the way, when we post this blog posts about you, we want to link to your portfolio that we’re willing to put together for you. Can we just take your imagery online and make a portfolio for you? And they would say, oh, okay. And so we actually, you know, got a hundred great portfolios that we made for the members ourselves. And then when people would find those, they’d be like, oh, you know, so and so’s there, I should be there. And that’s how we got the flywheel going as they call it.
And how, how did, for the listeners out there who aren’t familiar with be hands, how did the Bee Hansa make revenue? What was the, was it a membership model? Can you can educate our listeners about the [inaudible] business model?
Sure. Well, in the beginning of course you’re bootstrapping every witch lady we could. And so I had a book, we had a conference, we’ve sold notebooks, whatever else. But the real driver of revenue for behalf ultimately became two things. One, which was a premium level offering for people to have the contents of their behinds portfolio on their own personal website, always in sync because everyone needs their own website also. And so we figured, Hey, if you can have the two combined in one solution and managed in one place, people would pay a monthly fee for that. And they did in droves. And then the second was a job posting service and ultimately a talent search product for companies to get access to all of the data in the platform to find the exact right designer or creative professional for the job that they were hiring for.
So you grew this thing, I mean, uh, [inaudible] took off. How big was it before the good folks at Adobe reached out to acquire you?
Let’s see. Around that time we were a little over a million members. Wow. You know, fast forward today we have over 16 million members, so it’s grown quite a bit since the acquisition. But we were in a very high growth rate at the moment where that happened.
So now since the acquisition you serve as Adobe Adobe’s chief product officer Fonte I’m correct. Um, yeah, I love the creative cloud. My man, I was, whose idea was that? I loved the creative cloud.
Well the creative cloud was really the creative suite of products, but then deliver it in a new way and with new services integrated for route. And so I would say that the creative cloud journey is still well underway. And the idea also was, hey, instead of paying $1,000 for all of these creative tools, you can pick like a plan as low as nine bucks a month and get access to the ones that you want. And it was a very empowering thing for creatives out there, many of whom Burt previously didn’t really properly pay for their products. You know, now they could say, hey, I can get them illegally. I can also have all these services like font management and be hands and all these are the things integrated throughout my tools and a, and then I can have, you know, increasingly high, better ways to collaborate with others because that’s the one thing that the creative world is actually still awakening to how to work together.
Uh, Scott Belsky, how, how old are you at last count?
So I actually just turned 39 last week.
Okay. So you and I are about the same age. So you’ll read, you can maybe vouch for me on this. When I started my first company DJ connection out of my oral Roberts University dorm in 1999 I had to buy Adobe and I got like the student version, I think it was, you know, for Photoshop, right? For like I want to see, it was like $600. I know I had a micron with 333 megahertz of Ram and this is the impersonation of my computer, Eh. And it would just like mock me. You’ll take forever to render. And it was, and then when I became an adult business owner, I paid $1,000 for Adobe’s version of what is now called a premiere and then a thousand for audition. And I love the creative cloud, my friend. What is your, what is your role now at adult as Adobe’s chief officer, what kind of stuff are you involved with the creative cloud or what all do you do?
Yeah, so I’m looking for all of the creative products. So all of the products in creative cloud, you know, of course there’s video products, imaging, photography, experience design, um, animation, all of these products, how they inter operate. So how they work together and how they have roadmaps ahead that, you know, bring them to another level. Always thinking also about new mediums like voice interfaces and ar and Vr and, and so it’s a, it’s the challenge is always making sure that we’re pushing every segment forward, allowing photographers and video editors and others to do the greatest work of their lives while also making sure that they adopt new technologies and create for new, new problems. You know, it’s always, you gotta always stay on the edge.
I don’t know if you can make this as a feature. This is my one feature request. If you could make mandatory spellcheck on all Adobe products and then forbid people spelling things wrong anymore, that’d be great because we’re in a culture that’s kind of posts spelling prom. They no longer know how to spell because of all the spell checks, you know? So once it gets into Photoshop, sometimes people don’t catch that little thing. You mandatory. Stay tuned. All Right, nice. Yes, yes. Okay. There we go. Now, um, you have invested since, since, uh, what’d you call it? Selling stuff to be acquired by Adobe or since merging with Adobe, how do you, how do you describe that? Merging or selling her?
Yeah, no, we were acquired by Adobe and I started investing right before that happened.
And you’ve been invested in Pinterest, I believe in, in Uber and brands. People know. What do you look for in the companies you invest in?
Well, I look for, you know, different things in the person and also the product, um, and, and the problems. So, uh, on the, on the people side, you know, I love people that want to shake something up that listen and learn as much as they speak. Um, I love to work with teams at value design and product experience above everything else, not just exploiting some opportunity. Um, I really, uh, I really enjoy products that take in like human psychology into account and you know, how, you know, what, what, what do we really care about when we start using a product? Initially, not much. It turns out we’re all very lazy, vain and selfish in the beginning and it better really appeal to near term needs before it kind of delivers that longterm values. I think about things like that. I also look for teams that really have empathy with the people suffering the problem they’re trying to solve as opposed to just being passionate about a solution, but people really like get, you know the problem they’re solving and and have empathy or I find entrepreneurs that end up with an incredible product market fit as they call it.
For the listeners out there that maybe don’t know the history of these things with Uber, how, how big was Uber when you first invested in it? Was it, was it a small little baby business or was it a big business or, or was it w w what stage did you invest in with amber?
I got involved with everyone. It was still an idea. So before they had actually launched their first product.
Well, so hopefully that turned out well for you, my friend. We shall see right now. You all have decided to write some books because apparently you have a nothing going on other than making the coolest products in the world. Uh, so you wrote this one book here, making things happen. What first inspired you to write this book and, and what’s, what’s that book called out?
Oh, making ideas happen. Although in some countries it might be called things here and there we go. Fair, fair enough. Making ideas happen came out in 2010 and this is a book about why most creative individuals and teams get nothing done. There are always going from idea to idea to idea, but some creative people in teams to five the eyes and are so productive and just churn it out and make ideas happen again and again and again. And so making ideas happen is a book all about what it is that those people in teams do that we can learn from.
And uh, I like to buy books on. Well, what while we’re interviewing you, I like our, our show observer to buy the books. We’re going to buy a book right now. We’re going to get it shipped right now, making ideas happen. And I think after all the royalties, you probably $2 right there. So there we go
for me, 2 cents to 2 cents there. That
mega point for you. Okay, so now your next book, I believe, let me see if I get this title wrong as well. Yeah, she got it through the messy middle.
Tom. Got It. Talk to me about this book, the messy middle, the messy middle was inspired also by frustration in this case, by everyone’s obsession with the starts and finishes of everything and why we don’t talk about the middle of volatility. The stuff that actually matters is wild to me. And so the messy middle is all about navigating volatility. How do you endure those lows? How do you optimize the heck out of everything that works and how you work, how your team works, or what your product’s doing and how your product’s working. And finally, how do you not screw it up in the final mile?
Can you share with us about the lowest point when you were building be hands or, or maybe any business endeavor you’ve been involved in or maybe something you’ve invested in that it’s far enough in the past where you can talk about it, you know, but one where you are at the bottom. Just the worst possible scenario because I think some of our listeners out there need, need, need, need a little pep talk, a little empathy.
Sure. Well, where do I begin? I mean the answer is five year bootstrap journey. We get a lot of very, you know, great volatile times. I would say just a general challenge I had was we had a, uh, a small office in Union Square and we’re off of union square. And whenever I would walk out of the building, I would see the fruit guy at the corner or the guy is selling fruit and his cart. And I would realize that at the end of the day, he had a far better business than we did. And, um, and it just was very humbling to realize, gosh, like we think we’re smart. We’re working so hard, we’re spending years, you know, just working ourselves to the bone and losing money and yet like we still don’t have a great business or any business for that matter. We’re working at ms complete anonymity, ambiguity, uncertainty and anxiety.
And it was during those periods of time where without any rewards to keep the team motivated and we had to be very creative and coming up with our own reward systems, uh, like you know, just literally things to work towards in the near term that would keep us engaged. I mean what are those things by the way was we would type the hands into Google and it would always say, do you mean enhance? Do you mean enhance? Like can we just not be a mistake anymore? So that was like one of those goals. So we were like, in six months we are no longer going to be a mistake. And that was one of those little hacks we use to keep ourselves engaged even though we had no real short term rewards to measure ourselves with. And Lo and behold, six months later, after all these portfolios we put up for the creatives that I talked about at the beginning, the hands came up as a legitimate search result early or late middle 2007.
Boom. That right there deserves the megabots
and then beyond say became, become super hot, popular, and we lose our se all over again. No. Yeah.
Oh Man. What do you can say? What do you do at those moments? Do you ascend to Beyonce a complaint letter? Do you write a big picture? Do you make a big Facebook posted a picture of like a dark esoteric cloud and, right. I just feel terrible. Or what do you do? How do, how do you get reinvigorated?
Um, well, uh, you know, you just make another goal and you just keep working towards it. And I think that’s, you know, that’s what we’ve always done is just a, you know, make up, make up another goal, another milestone, and you can just keep, keep churning. I feel like one of the most, you know, greatest competitive advantages of a, of startups is just sticking together long enough to figure it out.
Um, okay. The, the new book just came out the trillion dollar coach, the book about the life and Times of Bill Campbell that the coach of, you know, Steve Jobs and Eric Schmidt and all these legendary silicone valley icons on. And a lot of that book is about dealing with the messy middle of managing, you know, conflicting personalities that are all trying to win. And there’s a little bit of pride, a little bit of greed. How did you keep the team engaged? Not In fighting?
Well I think you always have to keep people aligned and there’s two ways of forcing alignment. One is you just, you know, you convince people of where we’re going and why you use design to show a prototype as opposed to discuss it. You know, there’s a lot of ways of getting alignment. The other way of getting alignment is to impose process on people. And I find that process is the easy solution, but it’s also the one that screws you over the longterm because the more and more process you add, the more burdensome and bureaucratic the pro the the, the system becomes and the less engaged people are. So some process is really important and you have to have process, but at the same time, you know the work that you do to keep people aligned to show rather than tell is is really important. Are you merchandising to your team? These milestones, like we’re going to be a legitimate search result in Google. Are you doing those things and merchandising and rallying the troops and and also are you treating your team like an immune system? Are you really sensing when there’s something off and are you addressing it as opposed to assuming everything will get better on its own.
You, you, you just said a knowledge bomb. I just want to marinate on, you said you want to show a design rather I got loose show like a mockup rather than to discuss it. Why is that?
Yeah. Well listen, a prototype is worth a thousand meetings. You didn’t, we can sit around forever and talk about how something should work and why someone should see this and that and this and that. And why are they not engaged at this point? Why do we lose the customer here or there? But if you can actually show the design of what it could be and should be and what’s wrong, if you can just show rather than tell, I actually find that meetings are a lot more productive.
Oh, that is good. Right there. I designed a prototype. A prototype is worth a thousand meetings. That’s good. Now with your, with your schedule, now I know you’re a busy guy, a lot of demands on your time. Uh, you know, people like me reaching out to you. How do you organize the first four hours out of every day? And what time do you typically wake up?
It varies, but I, um, what I try to do is I have a few hours every day where I am not focused on email or to do lists or anything else. It’s like coming in, but rather on two or three things that I think are most important over the long term. It’s the only trick that I have found to be able to focus sufficient energy on longer term pursuits, slow baking type of things that otherwise you would never get to because you’re always reacting to someone’s email or living someone else’s to do list.
Uh, I know you’re a humble guy and you don’t, you don’t like to talk about it a lot, but when you had your business purchase for $150 million, did you go out and immediately buy some frozen yogurt or do yourself a new haircut? It’s sports clips or what? What did you do with the money? I mean, were you, were you, did you run away just gutting splurge? You get a bunch of ice cream?
Oh Man. Well, I mean, you know, we, I think the whole team, we had a few things we just kind of took care of quickly. Like some of us had student debt we had to pay off. Some of us had a parent that needed some help. Some of it, you know, we all had some sort of situation like that. And then beyond that, you know, my advice that I always got from and mentors of mine was trying not to change your life for a year. So I actually didn’t do much different for a year. I just tried to kind of keep my head down and do work for the right reasons. And then, um, and you know, but it’s, it’s, uh, w I interestingly enough, you know, you, when you’re no longer doing the work because you hope to have an exit some day, you have an opportunity to do the work just because you like doing the work and it’s actually a good test because some people at that point are like, oh, I’m out of here. Right. Because they never really liked the work they were doing. They were doing it for an end. Um, in my case, in most of my team, we sit, we sat together for years because we just liked for creative people. I mean, we just thought that was interesting and uh, you know, and that’s why I think we, uh, a lot of it stuck with it for a long time.
One final question I would have for you is this, you know, there’s a lot of people that I’m sure they’ve heard you speak at a conference or a podcast like this where you’ve given advice, you probably had Q and a sessions at different things and I’m just like to ask you, what is the number one advice that you give people that they almost never actually implemented?
Um, let’s see. I mean, I think, I think one of the, one of the pieces of advice that I try to give, um, is to just make decisions more quickly. And the fact that like, you know, the most frequent decision made is to not make a decision yet I think is true. And we all get some sort of analysis paralysis right when it comes to digesting data. And I just find that whenever you make a decision, you are, um, you’re learning. Whereas if you’re not making a decision, you’re likely not learning. And if you are nimble and often instrumented in the right way as a team, if you make a decision that’s wrong, you can quickly revert and get it right. Um, I w and a lot of, anyway, I say that, but then a lot of, you know, folks still struggle I think with decisiveness. And another thing is when it’s early stage entrepreneurs just founding something, I will always tell them, and I sort of mentioned this earlier, but don’t, don’t just be passionate about a solution for a problem. Seek empathy with those suffering. The problem and empathy matters more than passion, which is the direct opposite of what you typically find, which is most people say, oh, I’m so passionate about this problem and this is the solution. I’m just going to go off and spent three years making it happen. And that’s, that’s oftentimes a mistake.
Scott, I give you the floor of the opportunity to end the show with a cherry on top. What’s the message you want to get out there to the thrive nation? Most of which who are huge Adobe cloud fans?
Well, I mean keep the feedback coming because every, every team, every company that makes products that you use thrives off of the feedback. And I’m trying to make it, we feel like a little more of a small company these days. That’s one of my big goals as chief product officer. So we are trying to engage in direct connect directly and get the feedback. So that’s my ask. My last message I would say is, uh, you know, is to, is to not get distracted by the headlines, by the assumption that everyone else around you is getting more traction than you. Because the truth is, is that the greatest company is just are so misunderstood. I mean, talk about Pinterest. We recently went public just a couple of weeks ago, notoriously underestimated company that was never written about. People always discounted it as this weird imaging scrapbooking site, you know, but it was a team that just really felt like they were on a long haul journey and um, and tried to build a culture such that people didn’t need to have the constant stimuli, you know, dopamine driven headlines and accolades, but rather could just like put their heads down and stick together long enough to figure it out.
Which to me is, as I said earlier, the competitive advantage I think in the startup,
no Scott and all sincerity. If you could create a taser feature that would taser all graphic designers that refuse to spell check, we could just tase her them in a way that won’t kill somebody, but they kind of hurts for an hour or two. That’d be great. Scott, thank you for your time, my friend. I realize you have things to go do, but thank you very much. Thank you for having me. All right. You take care. No, Andrew, we like to end each and every show with a boom and so are you ready? I’m so ready. Here’s the deal. I want you to bring the craziest room, but the craziest boom you’ve ever brought to the show. You Ready? I’m so ready. Here we go. Three, two, one. Hello.