Design Matters with SCOTT BELSKY

Published on 2019-01-19
photography of Scott Belsky by Emily Weiland
photography of Scott Belsky by Emily Weiland


Perhaps there are two types of people in life: Those who build LEGO projects using the instructions from the kit … and those who go rogue and build whatever the hell they want. 

Scott Belsky is of the latter breed. 

It seems to run in his blood. Belsky’s grandfather, Stanley Kaplan, the son of a Jewish immigrant plumber, got turned away from medical school because of a cap on his ethnicity. So he began tutoring—and eventually turned the seeds of his small operation into the massive Kaplan test prep education company, which would dominate its field and help untold scores better themselves and their futures.

Belsky grew up around Boston, and thrived on self-reliance. He embraced making and his own sense of creativity, and in retrospect, has written on social media that “traditional schooling first failed us when we were taught to ‘stay within the lines’ and ‘finish work before you play.’” Thus the LEGO projects that emerged not from kits, but his mind. 

Given what was to come, it’s prescient that he toyed with Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop as a teen. He designed his own T-shirts and other creations in high school. When he got to college at Cornell, where he studied economics, entrepreneurship, and design and environmental analysis, he turned in a rather unique thesis: a redesigned résumé tailored to creatives who were not best served by the bland basics of Microsoft Word. 

A theme was beginning to arise. Yet as he walked the line between his creative urges and the business acumen he had accumulated, he soon found himself falling to the side of corporate America, as an associate at Goldman Sachs. And as he went about his work, he realized how much design and design thinking could benefit numerous aspects of the business world and boost productivity.

And then, the flipside, the symbiosis of his duality: He had a catharsis about the state of the creative world, perhaps as a result of operating beyond it: It desperately needed a dose of expertise and wisdom from the strategic business realm. There was mismanagement. Intense and widespread disorganization. And as he told Forbes, at the most basic level, “There is no transparency in the creative industry. No one knows who [does] what. So you can’t get opportunity based on what you create if no one knows you did it. The one thing creative careers need more than anything else is more attribution and opportunity.”

So, Belsky, not one to wait around for the instructions, decided he’d do something about it. In 2006, he left Goldman Sachs to start the portfolio hosting site Behance (derived from enhance) with Matias Corea. It was an audacious move, one that, coupled with the fact that he was simultaneously enrolling at Harvard Business School to work toward his MBA, likely left many in his life perplexed. But Belsky couldn’t stop thinking about the universe of possibility in the site. With Behance, more creative people could get exposure, and jobs. Moreover, they could be fairly compensated when getting new gigs if their body of work was readily identifiable and available. 

Creatives responded. A testament to a genuine gap in the market, the site blossomed. And Belsky and co. rode no high horses nor did they maintain the more obnoxious airs found in tech today. They focused on engagement; if a new feature didn’t net solid interaction and feedback, they sacrificed their darlings and killed it off. Meanwhile, they launched the 99U blog and conference, and continued their creative evangelism as Behance became the gold standard portfolio site for creatives. 

Of course the journey was not without suffering; while the outside world may have seen Belsky and Behance as an impenetrable force with a brilliant and bold output, he would reveal later in his book The Messy Middle that he had to take anti-nausea medication to even eat; there was intense anxiety, there was suffering and there was a very real chance of failure—and in that knowledge today, there is power for the rest of the creative world. 

In 2012, as an affirmation of how far Belsky and his team had come, something amazing happened to the site—a site that had begun humbly enough to deal with the disorganization of the creative world—Adobe, perhaps the king of the creative world, bought Behance for a reported sum of $150 million. Belsky joined as VP of product, and stayed for four years before leaving to head to a venture capital firm full time. Of the many risks Belsky has taken throughout his life and career, many have paid off—but as he has admitted, his move to VC did not. And soon enough, he was back at Adobe as chief product officer and executive vice president of the Creative Cloud. 

Perhaps the following thoughts, drawn from an interview discussing philanthropy with Fast Company, shine a light on his decision-making philosophy these days: “People do a lot of due diligence when they make investments with their money, and I think that people need to do the same thing with time. In fact, time is the truly limited commodity. I mean, money you can make more and more in your life, so there’s not necessarily a limit to that. But there is a limit to time, and so I think we should all be very serious with doing due diligence with the time we allocate to something.”

When reading about Scott Belsky, one tends to wonder: Given that he is neither a fine artist nor a graphic designer per se, why does he feel so intimately tied to the creative world? Why does he want to help creatives achieve their dreams? This episode of Design Matters explores that. 

Regardless of his motivations, one gift that he brings is this: perspective. It’s crucial in any field. But it’s perhaps exceedingly crucial in the creative world, which many isolationists so often seek to protect by barring its doors, leaving those outside squinting as they try to gaze into its murky, mysterious confines, hesitant to dip a toe into something that seems so foreign, uncertain, unstable. 

But like the contemporary merging of silos within the design realms, perhaps that paradigm is something that, soon, will also be a principle of the past—and we’ll all see with greater clarity brought about by fresh, collaborative minds that both corroborate and clash. 

There are those who operate with manuals. And there are those who discard them for the world of intense possibility that lies beyond. 

—Zachary Petit, Design Matters Media Editor-in-Chief


Debbie Millman: In business and design, a good idea is necessarily, but it's never enough. You have to have the skills, the tools, the support and the grit to turn ideas into reality. Inevitably, things do not go according to plan. And this is when many good ideas founder Scott Belsky thinks he can help. His new book is called, The Messy Middle: Finding Your Way Through the Hardest and Most Crucial Part of Any Bold Venture. And Scott Belsky knows from whence he speaks. He co-created Behance, the online portfolio platform. When Behance was acquired by Adobe, he became Adobe's vice president of products, mobile, and community. He left Adobe in 2016 to join the investment firm Benchmark, but is now back as the company's chief product officer and executive vice president. He's here today to talk about his life, his work and his career. Scott Belsky welcome to Design Matters.

Scott Belsky: Well thank you, Debbie.

Debbie: Scott, is it true that above your desk you have a sign that reads, "What if the Hokey Pokey is really what it's all about?"

Scott: That is true.

Debbie: So give us some backstory.

Scott: I mean, what if the Hokey Pokey is really what it's all about? But sometimes you do have to, as serious as moments get. When you start to add so much drama into every moment and every decision, it is helpful sometimes to look up at that sign and be like, "Oh."

Debbie: Keeps some perspective.

Scott: It does.

Debbie: I saw another one on Sukey Novogratz's Instagram feed. She has one that says, "Surely not everybody was kung-fu fighting."

Scott: I love it.

Debbie: Scott, your dad was an orthopedic surgeon, your mother was an educator. And in reading your new book, I learned that you grandfather, Stanley Kaplan, who was the son of an immigrant plumber got rejected from medical school because there was a quota for how many Jewish students could enroll. So, instead he became a tutor. Overtime his business evolved into the massive Kaplan test prep education company. Which he nurtured throughout his life, and eventually sold to the Washington Post.

Debbie: Would it be true to say that his penchant for founding his own enterprise found its way into your blood?

Scott: Well, there's definitely a lot of my grandfather that I looked up to, and a lot that I learned from him, on things that I wanted to emulate and not emulate, as well.

Debbie: Like what?

Scott: He was his business. And at the end of the book I talk about this notion of, you are not your work. And trying to severe the connection between the work you do and, it's a tough realization for someone who is creative. Because of course like, their work is an extension of who they are. And yet, it can't be. Because first of all, someday it will no longer be yours. It will be out in the world. And also, if you keep focusing on it and defining yourself by it, you can't do something new.

Scott: He actually sold his business when it was relatively small to the Washington Post company, and then it became kind of the Kaplan we know today. And I think he struggled after the loss of that company.

Debbie: Yeah, I read that he was quite depressed.

Scott: He became depressed, and it became something that I really thought about when I was selling Behance to Adobe after a seven plus year journey. Where I was so identified with the company, I went through a similar question of, "How do I make sure this isn't me?"

Debbie: I actually was warned after the firm that I was a partner at, the Brandy Consultancy, after we were acquired by Omnicom, I was told by my former partner at another company to ween myself out. Not to just go cold turkey. Because that sudden change in identity would be really difficult to manage. I weened for three years.

Scott: Well, I did as well. I was at Adobe for three years before I left for the first time.

Debbie: It's probably not weening, so much as procrastinating. But for me, in any case.

Scott: If it felt right, it worked.

Debbie: Yes. You stated that your interest in making can be traced back to your childhood. What kinds of things were you making back then, and why?

Scott: Yeah, I mean we're starting off heavy here, but let's go.

Debbie: Yes, we are.

Scott: I had an area in the basement that I called, "Scott's creativity area."

Debbie: I love that. Did it have a logo?

Scott: It had a logo.

Debbie: Oh, of course it did.

Scott: We had a children's museum in Boston at the time that had a place called the recycle shop. Where you would go and pay five dollars for a big grocery bag that you could fill up with anything you wanted from all of these big barrels of excess pieces from all these factories outside of Boston. And so you would have little kind of rubber circles. They once had these like extra pieces from a Monopoly set, 'cause the company made these pieces.

Debbie: How fabulous.

Scott: It was awesome. And you could just take as many as you wanted. And so I would recreate this sort of zone of different buckets of things in my creativity area that I would play with. I also think I spent a lot of time alone down in the basement.

Debbie: Yeah, I read that you a sense of being isolated, or wanting to feel isolated.

Scott: I did.

Debbie: Why?

Scott: I've always been an introvert. And also, I have two sisters. My middle sister was born with disabilities, and she is a few years younger than I. And I think she just consumed, rightly so, the gravity of the family. And I think I just kind of managed it by just going and having my space, and making things.

Debbie: Do you think that it impacted your sense of self-reliance?

Scott: I think it did. In good ways and in bad. Sometimes I ask myself, and my wife asks me, if I still retreat to the basement. Metaphorically.

Debbie: I was gonna ask, you have a nice basement?

Scott: We don't have a basement in New York City. But I definitely get my energy from being on my own. And I think that there's a loneliness of creativity that I love, and I'm not sure why.

Debbie: I know you also had a particular penchant for mixing various boxes and sets together of Lego to create your own custom creations. And I got really excited, because my nephew is doing the same thing. He's making his own, custom Lego's. And my brother's been a little bit nervous about how satisfied Jackson seems to be with just playing Lego all the time. Just making his own Lego. And he's really worried. And I said, "No, Larry. Scott Belsky used to do that, and he sold his company to Adobe for millions and millions of dollars. I think he's gonna be fine." So, thank you for that. Absolutely.

Scott: And it's all because of those Legos, let me tell you. Isn't Lego just one of the greatest inventions ever? I just think-

Debbie: I do think so, yes.

Scott: I mean they're so empowering.

Debbie: Several years ago, you tweeted this. You said, "Traditional schooling first failed us when we were taught to stay within the lines and finish work before you play." Was this the education system in which you were raised? How did you manage through that?

Scott: Well, I was very much influenced by what I learned in the first few years of Behance, and the team that I built. And how antithetical some of the decisions that we made were that were important. For example, I had no business running a technology company. I wasn't an engineer by background. I hired Matias, who became my co-founder, who was a typographer by background and was only focused on graphic design. Had never designed a website. And we hired our first engineer named Dave, who sort of built little websites in his dorm room to help pay for college. But had never built a database driven, scalable technology ecosystem. And none of us really knew what we were doing. And Matias had never graduated college, he went to design school and then he kind of did his own thing. It made me question all the conventions of what makes a great team. Everyone's looking for what schools people went to, and what experience they have, and here we built a team that shared a tremendous amount of initiative that overcompensated for our lack of experience. But actually ended up serving us.

Scott: And we actually hired many other people who didn't graduate a traditional college, ended up being some of the greatest performers of our team. So we actually stopped even looking at that part of the resume. We realized that it didn't matter at all, to us.

Scott: What should the education system be today to prepare us for a world where labor is being increasingly commoditized and automated? We are creativity the most uniquely human trait is what ultimately will make us stand out and do something that computers can't do. And why aren't classes geared towards this? Especially in the earlier part of education.

Debbie: I know that when you were in high school, you applied to a program in Vermont wherein you lived on a farm for six months, and you were there with 45 other kids on a self-sustaining farm. It's very progressive of your parents to allow you to do something like that.

Scott: Yeah. My parents would support these whims and interests that I had. And they never questioned like, "Is this smart?" Or, "Will this help or hurt you for college?" They just kind of went with my interests. And that was an example. This was a great experience for me. It was 45 students on a farm, and actually, the lessons I took from that were less about farming and they were more about an interdependent community. And how we made decisions, and what it meant if someone didn't collect the eggs in the morning, we just didn't have bread. And understanding why that was. And that fostered a sense of what it means to be in a community and to build a culture, and that influenced the way I ran a company I believe, as well.

Debbie: I understand that you first started designing T-shirts in high school. Why? What were you designing them for?

Scott: I always had the entrepreneurial bug. And I also always liked making things. And I remember with my Apple IIGS, there was a program called Ultra Paint. I don't know who made it. But it was one of my first kind of painting programs. And then eventually it was Photoshop, when I was in my early teens.

Debbie: What version?

Scott: I can't imagine that I actually paid for it, I must admit. But it was an early, early version of Photoshop. And I always was making stuff. And a friend of mine, whose initials were B.I.G, came to me and said, "Would you make me a logo?"

Debbie: Not Notorious?

Scott: No. But his name was Ben. And I said, "Sure. Let's make a logo for you." And we were playing with this idea of "Live Big." And we said, "Well that would make a great T-shirt." It was already at the time where No Fear was another big T-shirt brand. And so we decided to make corporate apparel with "Live Big" on it, and local sort of city apparel and stuff like that. Went to trade shows and it was our first business. The crazy thing is, we ran this business, it was not really a big business. It was a small high school thing. And we ran it down and forget about it. In college, I get this call from someone who works at an RV company. You know those big things you live in?

Debbie: Yeah, yeah.

Scott: They said, "We would like to buy the trademark for Live Big." And the domain name "Live Big." And we're like, "Well, it's an operating T-shirt company." And they're like, "Well, you know." And they made us an offer and it was like wow, from a college students perspective it was like, that's great. We sold the company.

Debbie: You have the Midas touch, Scott. You really do. You really do. So I have to ask you about one more high school endeavor. Talk about that prank, in which you and your friends filled thousands of tiny Dixie cups with water and arranged them all precariously around a switchboard? Can this possibly be true?

Scott: This was in no books. Now I'm like, amazed by your research Debbie. But this was a high school prank, that I gathered a group of people to help me execute.

Debbie: I'm surprised you didn't get kicked out.

Scott: It was beautiful. It was actually around April Fool's, so.

Debbie: What was it for?

Scott: What we did is, we were seniors, so what is anything for? But it was April Fool's, and we got thousands of Dixie cups and we put two in each, 'cause the water would seep through we figured out in our experiment, before we actually did this.

Debbie: Of course.

Scott: And then we took the switch board foam, we put it in, we circled it with all these Dixie cups filled to the brim with water. And then we used food coloring to put in "April Fool's, Class of '98." And if you could take a picture from the balcony, it was just an amazing array. And the school loved it. And we didn't get in trouble.

Debbie: I think Sagmeister&Walsh did something like that for Adobe, if I remember correctly. There was this aerial shot with coffee cups, in any case.

Scott: If they did then they stole it. That's awesome.

Debbie: In 2002, you got your Bachelor's of Science in economics, entrepreneurship, and design and environmental analysis from Cornell University. What were you planning on doing professionally?

Scott: Right. The truth is is really a general studies. I think I graduated officially with a general studies major, which is what they give you when you do so many different things, they don't know which school to give you a degree in, or which major. And so that's what happened there. I entered with an interest in science of earth systems. And after the mountain school experience, I actually did an internship at the Biosphere two center in Oracle, Arizona, where you kind of do field research in this big bio dome. And I got really interested in how systems work. And how one little thing can throw off an entire systems piece, if you will.

Scott: I entered and started to take a lot of these classes in engineering and in meteorology, and earth systems. Realized that I was missing kind of the business side of it. Like how pollution permits and traded. I got interested in the environmental economics side of it. So I kind of twisted towards the environmental economics side. And then I took a [inaudible 00:17:08] my sophomore year under a professor named Sheila Danko, in the design and environmental analysis major. And it was about design. It was like a very entry level course for design. And fell in love with the cirriculum as I learned more about it. And then took some graduate level courses towards the end of my time at Cornell.

Debbie: For your thesis, you redesigned a resume for creative people in response to recruiters asking students to submit a simple, boring one page word document showcasing their skills. What motivated you to do that?

Scott: I always felt that the academic transcript and the scores didn't represent, at least my talents. And I assumed that was true for many others as well. And it was around the time where the internet was being used for many different things. And I figured, well why is a resume a black and white paper document? Now obviously a creative, and someone from the school has a portfolio. Still, it's sort of silly that we're representing these rich experiences with words.

Scott: And so the idea of what I called the Resu B was before Behance.

Debbie: I was gonna say, Resu Behance?

Scott: But the Resu B was intended to graphically and interactively express what you're capable of, and what your experiences involved.

Debbie: And I understand that you took that resume and used it to apply to business school. But they wanted you to have practical experience first, and you got turned down. So you then went to work and became an associate at Goldman Sachs. You spent four years there, two in European markets, and two in the Pine Street leadership development initiate, which you helped grow. Did you feel at home in corporate America? You don't seem like a real Goldman Sachs kind of guy to me.

Scott: Well, listen. A year into I said, I'm not. I shouldn't be here.

Debbie: But you stayed three more.

Scott: Well, I went to my manager at the time. And I said to her, "I want to leave." And she said, "Well, if you could have one job here, what would it be?" And I said, "Well, I'd love to learn how a company's run. Just to be a fly on the wall and sort of understand when they move organizations and they make all these interesting changes." I was always fascinated by organizational design, although I didn't use that word at the time. And then she suggested I interview under a man who had just been hired from Crotonville at GE. Crotonville was GE's leadership development institute. And this guy named Steve Cur was hired to be the chief learning officer, and was building a small team in the executive office, and they needed an analyst.

Scott: So I went and interviewed there. And I had the most amazing experience working in this team for about three years. Of executive coach's, of learning professionals, and of people who had been in the business, and who were now more interested in building culture and succession planning and developing the future leaders. It was a fascinating experience of leadership development. And I took so much from that, and for everything else that I ever did going forward.

Debbie: At Goldman Sachs I understand you also began to utilize some of your design skills, and realized, first realized I guess, that designs potential in corporate America was really undervalued. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Scott: Sure. Well I remember being in my group, requesting Adobe Illustrator, and they were like, "What? That doesn't, that's not typical of someone in the Goldman Sachs group to request." And it got pushed back, but I got it. And the reason I got it is because I was tasked on this project that Hank Paulson, the CEO at the time was working on. And he called it his "leadership compass." And he had made like a sketch of the questions he wanted leaders to ask themselves when they were making decisions. And it was made as a compass. And I thought it would be a shame for this to be, again, a Microsoft Word document that represented this interesting thing he thought of.

Scott: And so I took Illustrator and I designed this compass that he ended up using with every partner in the firm, in these sort of sessions to train decision making. And it was one of those examples of, design in some ways. I always saw it as like the cheat. Because you could make a two page document, you could make a long, convoluted discussion. Or you could just kind of show, rather than tell what this meant. And to me, design was almost like a cheat for getting something done better.

Debbie: You stated that for a company and an industry that had no value for design and organization, you found design to be the solution to many of the problems that they were facing. Did they realize that too?

Scott: It's funny, I mean I don't think a lot of people see, I guess they say great design is invisible, and maybe that's why. But I don't think anyone would have seen it as design solving a problem. I think they would have seen it as, "Oh, he reformatted it." Or, "Oh, he took this out and just made it simpler." Even the first job that I despised having at Goldman, in a more traditional finance function, one of my jobs was to prepare the morning packets for everyone of the information that they would have to digest. And I had a lot of fun kind of creatively designing it. What would go where and whatever.

Scott: Quick fast forward. I remember years later, after my first book, I was asked by the CIA to come in and do this lecture.

Debbie: The CIA?

Scott: The CIA.

Debbie: The Central Intelligence Agency?

Scott: Yes. And I didn't really know what group I was going to talk to. They wanted me to talk about my book, I thought. And so they don't even let you bring in a computer, of course. So I had to like send my PDF in advance and they had to scan it or whatever. But I go in, I realize that the team I was asked to speak with is the team that merchandises the information to people in the field. And what they realized is that they have so much information that they want people to pay attention to. But if they don't use design practices, no one's going to look at it.

Scott: It was almost like they were realizing, "Oh, maybe newspapers are onto something?" You know? And they wanted to hire someone-

Debbie: 150 years later.

Scott: Right? It's funny though, they didn't see it that way.

Debbie: While working in the corporate world, you had a realization that the creative world was one of the most disorganized communities on the planet.

Scott: Yes.

Debbie: That's a big statement. What made you feel that way?

Scott: Well this was the frustration that inspired Behance. And because I had a lot of friends who were either designers or architects or people who had decided to become photographers. Most of them as freelancers or working in agencies. I found them to be perpetually frustrating when they were navigating the careers, always at the mercy of circumstance. You're never getting credit for the work that they were doing. Always kind of ... Almost shoot by shoot putting food on the table type of behavior. And I found these people to be so talented. It was frustrating to me. They would spend time on their online portfolio sometimes. It was usually always out of date. And no one would find it. If you type in photographer New York, you're not going to find my friends photography websites.

Scott: And so it didn't make sense to me. I figured, these are the people that make life interesting. These are the people that compel us to take action on things around us. These are the people that move us. These are the people that should have such incredible careers. And yet, creatives are always taken advantage of. Head hunters were marking them up, 60% to 80% on average and trading them around. You know, they'd place them in one place and then try to pull them and place them somewhere. It just felt icky.

Scott: And the idea was, what if there was a company that didn't focus on helping creative be creative, but helped them become organized.

Debbie: So you decided to start this company. In 2005 you met Matias Corea who become your future co-founder. And you left Goldman Sachs to start Behance in 2006. You started Behance as a blog. I could not believe that when I read it. Why?

Scott: We were inching our way into a world that none of us knew. And I felt like the best way to build credibility and to lean was to profile those that we admired. Those that we wanted everyone else to be more like. And so we would go to different creative professionals that we admired and we would say, "We don't want to know where your ideas come from, that's what everyone else asks you. We're not going to ask you about your best project in your portfolio. How do you organize? Like how do you manage people? How do you hire people?"

Scott: Instantly I realized, that was a question they didn't ordinarily get. And I also realized that there were some themes in their answers. And I felt like this was super interesting. Every creative person needs to better manage themselves, better organize, become a better leader. And maybe these are the obstacles to getting in the way of ideas happening.

Debbie: So you left your cushy well-paying job at Goldman Sachs to start a company helping creative people organize their work and portfolio's.

Scott: Yeah. And people were like, "Yeah, good luck with that."

Debbie: And what did your parents think?

Scott: Again, they were also supportive, and they always felt like, "Scott has his interests, we're gonna support him." They never really questioned me so much. And also, they helped support me financially during this transition as well.

Debbie: Because you self-funded the entire enterprise?

Scott: We did. And we boot strapped it, mostly by selling the paper products which I'm sure we'll get to. But they were my greatest advocates. And they made a small investment in Behance, which was big for them, and certainly big for me at the time. And I remember feeling really uncomfortable about it. 'Cause that was the first time where I felt like, "Oh." And the way they said it to me was, "This is money we might give to you someday anyways, in the future. So we're gonna give it to you now."

Debbie: Did you give it back?

Scott: They got equity for it, so they did quite well.

Debbie: Now, were you nervous? How strongly did you feel about this idea? That you were willing to quit this job at Goldman Sachs and put your own money and your parents money into something that had absolutely no guarantee of success? None.

Scott: It's funny. I really believed we were onto something. And now I never, and Matias and I kind of joked about this year after starting Behance. That we never even talked about where it would go. We never talked about, "Maybe we'll sell this company one day or go public." It was the exit scenario, literally for years, never came up. We loved what we were doing. We wanted to figure out a way to make this a real business, and we figured, someone's got to organize the creative world. This just has to exist.

Debbie: So talk about the paper products that you were just referencing.

Scott: Well, at the very beginning with this blog, what I realized is that, our mission is to organize the creative world. And that we would do it anyway we possibly could. And I admittedly wasn't sure which way would work. It was either, we would become the foremost resource of knowledge for how to be organized as a creative professional. Maybe it would be the books that we write. Maybe it would be this paper product.

Scott: We designed a paper product, and actually I had designed this for myself at Goldman, using Illustrator. It was the way I took notes when I was working at Goldman. I would write notes, and anything actionable I would write in the right hand side. And I also had a back burner area for things that I wanted to kind of stew every now and again, but weren't actionable yet, but may someday be. And I would use Goldman's color copier, and I'd make al to of them. And I would, yeah people would always say, "What are you using there?" And I'd say, "Oh yeah, here's a few sheets."

Scott: So when we started Behance I decided, let's make this one of our first products. And Matias of course redesigned the whole thing beautifully, and we got a small paper stationary printing company near my home in Boston to do this, first round for us. And they sold really well, actually. We started getting carried in all these different stores. I remember Cool Hunting was like the first blog that ever covered this, and they were selling like crazy. So that was our bootstrapping mechanism for Behance.

Debbie: You described the first five years of the business on Tim Ferris's podcast in the following way. "Five years of bootstrapping as a small team, valuing resourcefulness over the resources we didn't have. A few near death experiences in that process." I wasn't sure if you were being literal or-

Scott: It was more figurative, I guess.

Debbie: So if you can tell us about those near death experiences.

Scott: For the company. The company definitely almost died a few times. I mean first of all, this was through 2008, which was a very difficult time. No one was spending money on anything for a little bit of time there. Also, we were hand to mouth. So we were selling paper products, we were doing conferences that we started relatively early in the business and sessions. Like anything that would basically pay the bills. And there were times when I would sit down with our office manager Brittany at the time, and we would go over the books. And we would realize that we're basically two months away from not making payroll. And that would just give me so much angst, but also motivation. I was like, "Okay, what am I gonna do to make sure that that becomes three months, in one week?"

Debbie: And you gamified it? I read that you and Matias and your team made bets all the time about things that people would have to do if you all got to a certain milestone. Any of those that you can remember?

Scott: Yeah, there're a number of them. And this was us short circuiting our reward system, giving us some semblance of progress when there wasn't much. One of them, I've been a lifelong vegetarian, and they all wanted me to eat meat. So, that was a big motivating factor for the team, strangely enough.

Debbie: Did you ever have to eat the meat?

Scott: I ended up two years later in Christmas dinner having to eat a piece of chicken off of one of our developer's forks.

Debbie: How'd you recover?

Scott: Anything for the team. I also, we had lots of fun things. We would make bets for certain milestones and then say we'll all have, you know go out for beers after. I mean, lots of fun things. But it was important for the culture. And it was also important because, people can get motivated to do something over the longterm, enough to like quit their job and come join you. That's the kind of stuff that gets people to sign up. But on a day by day basis, month by month, year by year. You need other things. You need other things. And you need to kind of hack the system to find them.

Debbie: I'm wondering if you can tell us about the word "meritocracy." I know that you learned that word from your grandfather, and that was something that you were seeking to embed in the company.

Scott: The philosophy of Behance, ultimately was creative meritocracy. Was this idea that what if the best talent got the best opportunity? As opposed to the talent that happened to go to the right agency, or know the right person, or have the right headhunter, have the right agent? What if it was actually more of meritocracy? And we figured that if the community curates itself and the best work rises to the surface, we can get closer to this notion of creative meritocracy.

Scott: And inside the company, because we didn't hire people based on their previous experience, titles, or schools they went to or whatever else, but really based on the initiative that they had, and our belief that they could easily develop the skills they would have to have to be successful. I always had a voluntary staffing model, where we would ask people what projects they wanted to be on, as opposed to saying, "You do this and you do that." And I always felt like, if you give credit to the right people, they'll have more influence. And there a number of mechanics that I felt we did to make it more of a meritocracy, than maybe an ordinary company.

Debbie: Where did you learn these skills?

Scott: I think of lot of them were inspired by the experiences I had at Pine Street, for sure. I mean I had three years. Where there were people like Malcolm Gladwell, or executive coaches, or famous writes to share their best practices and I was always there listening, taking notes, hearing often times the same talk many times. So that probably was part of it.

Scott: And then part of it was also just, I always liked tinkering with organizational design. I always liked thinking about, "Maybe we should make a new chart. And a new system." Or a new this, or a new that. And also always welcomed the team to poo poo it and say, "This isn't working for us." So it was part of the fun. It was part of the art of management for me, was tinkering with these systems.

Debbie: You've said that entrepreneurs must devote a portion of their minds to constantly processing uncertainty. So you sacrifice a design of being present. This has been a struggle to balance, especially in the early days. Scott, can you tell us a bit more about that struggle, and how that impacted your life? It would seem that it's not the kind of struggle you are pushing against actually having, it's something you need to embrace to be able to succeed.

Scott: Well, I think that when you're embarking on certain types of projects that are guttural. That you feel deeply invested in that are creative, that are bold over the longterm, there is ultimately tons of uncertainty, ambiguity, anxiety. It's tempting to say, "Well I'm just gonna leave it in the office. I don't have to carry this around with me. I'm gonna shut off and shut on."

Debbie: Show me one person successful who does that, please?

Scott: I don't think it's possible. And so rather than like suffering from it and having this weird relationship with it. What I found helpful was just to accept this part of my brain, like RAM in a computer that I was allocating to this process that would run forever. And it was just chronicling through, like how is this world changing, what should we be doing, what are the [inaudible 00:34:07] unknowns. Like this back of my head part.

Scott: But it wasn't easy. I mean, I remember on my honeymoon, having this part of me still on. And I didn't feel ever truly present there. And I remember struggling with that. Probably, hopefully only going to do this once in my life. I mean, why is that part of me still churning? And it is part of the price, I believe, that you pay for embarking on a journey like this. And I don't think it's reasonable to say that one can just turn it off. Because it's like a child. You're responsible for a child, it's always gonna be on your mind.

Debbie: It's interesting, using child framework. People don't think about a work life balance when it comes to having to take care of their children. It's something you just have to do all the time. And a lot of people ask me about work life balance. How do I manage that? And I don't know what that is. Because if you really love what you're doing, and you're really committed to it, it's just part of your overall life.

Debbie: Now I could be absolutely delusional and I've been asking myself a question that Jocelyn Glei talks about, who are you without the doing? And I am not entirely sure. But it is hard to delineate between what you consider work and what you consider life.

Scott: And I think, more recently, I've started to believe that, for me at least, happiness is about feeling fully utilized. And being utilized requires both professional and personal aspects of my life to be active. I want to feel utilized in relationships, in the sense that I'm engaging in them. I want to feel utilized at work and with my skills. And I actually, when I took the deviation to become a full-time venture capitalist, I actually felt like part of me died. There was an atrophy. I felt like I had hung up my spurs a little too soon, and I struggled with that.

Debbie: And that was in the years after the acquisition. We'll get to that. It's worth noting that in the same year that you launched Behance, you went to Harvard business school. And you went to study with Teresa Amabile and worked towards your MBA. What possessed you to do both at the same time? And get married, I guess too.

Scott: Those were tough years. Back to like the near company death experiences. I felt overwhelmed. I started taking these anti-nausea medication, and I wasn't sure why I was always nauseated. I was like, do I have Celiac disease? Like what is this? And it was probably just the fact that I had signed up for a lot, way too much too quickly at the same time, kind of a theme for me.

Scott: But business school to some extent was a hedge. I wasn't sure if this Behance thing would work. And I felt like, "Okay, well I can keep running this and see if it's enough to keep going." Or maybe business will help me figure out how to morph it into a real business. In some ways, it was partly that. But then about a year into it, I went to my team. Which was now Matias, Dave and Chris who joined our engineering team. And I said, "Listen, I'm prepared to dropout now. Like, I'm all in. What do you think I should do? Like what's most helpful to the team? Should I complete this MBA, in year two I'll be able to only be in Boston about two days a week and I'll be here the rest. Do you think the net value to the team is better, or should I just quit, because you need me full-time?" And they actually said to me, "You know what? We have a good plan, we have a good operating cadence. We think you being our business leader and maybe having this MBA is going to help." They were almost investing in me and giving me permission, and pushing me to finish. So it was an interesting decision we made together.

Debbie: I find it interesting that, and a bit ironic I think, that you had bad standardized test scores. Which, you know, your grandfather helped create. And yet you still got into Harvard business school.

Scott: I was always a really bad Spanish student, and my mother was a Spanish teacher. And I really was bad at standardized tests, which is hard as Stanley Kaplan's grandson. Go figure.

Debbie: It's just, there's nuance in the answers and sometimes you don't know which one to pick, because there's nuance in all of them.

Scott: Yes, it's the nuances that throw us off. At least for me.

Debbie: Absolutely. In 2012, all of your teams intense efforts paid off. Adobe purchase Behance for a reporter 150 million dollars, and you joined the company as vice president of product. How did Adobe first approach you about acquiring your company?

Scott: Obviously it was a natural partner for us. We were trying to build the largest platform of creative professionals in the world.

Debbie: Did you have the sense that this is who you want to sell the company to?

Scott: No. Our first contact with Adobe was actually around 2009, and they reached out. And they were thinking of, "Maybe we should use this little community thing as like a marketing channel." They wanted to acquire us. And I remember going to meet with them in California, and for whatever reason, after the meeting, I like pulled to the side of the road and I got physically sick. And I realized, it was very emotional for me. This idea of quitting before we had even started. I saw it as quitting because it wasn't a big number and it also wasn't clear we would be even an important part of the company. And that visceral reaction made me say, "You know what? I don't want to do this. We're gonna stop these conversations, I'm just gonna focus and build this business."

Scott: And then a couple years later, there was a partnership opportunity on the table that got interesting for both parties. I was very willing to have Adobe pay us for something and have a partnership. And then that fizzled. And then yet again, it happened another year later. And then it became clear that we would become so important to the company that they weren't willing to do it as a partnership. And so that fizzled. And then finally, Adobe made this very historic decision to turn their business from a software business into a services business. Which meant that suddenly, instead of buying Adobe Creative Suite and Adobe not really worrying about how much you're actually using the products. Suddenly, they needed to know that you were using it on a month by month basis, because they wanted to retain you as a customer, as a subscription business.

Scott: And I think that was a very healthy move for the company. Because suddenly, the ongoing service to the customer became a priority. And I think the company realized, "We need to build a community. We need to get to know our customers and what tools they're using and why, and build that level of engagement." And so suddenly, Behance became a core part of the strategy. And I really, really resonate with the management team and their vision for what we could do.

Scott: For me, the three factors for the acquisition were, is it a great return for the team and for investors from a financial perspective? Is it great for the customers? Meaning, the way we want to go on our road map, will this help us as opposed to hurt us? And will it allow us to continue what we're doing as a team? Because none of us wanted to stop. And those three boxes were checked.

Debbie: You've said that entrepreneurship is about identifying edges that will someday become the center. And building and leading teams over the long haul to turn such a vision into a reality despite the odds. What is the key to identifying those edges?

Scott: The key to identifying those edges are people that think differently than you, and [inaudible 00:41:09] diversity. You're sitting with a group of people, and imagine that most of them you went to similar schools of, and you have similar backgrounds and whatever else, and you're thinking about where your product should go. It's likely that everyone's going to think something in the similar design space of possibility.

Scott: And then if you have a few people who have just a different upbringing, speak different languages, have a different background. They might say things that at first seem unreasonable to the rest of the group, because they're like, "What? Didn't think of that." But if you have a lot of mutual respect and value for what this could mean for the product, then what you start to do is sort of socialize the edges of this unreasonable idea. And suddenly the teams like, "Well wait a second. Maybe that's the future, and maybe that's the edge that will someday become the center."

Scott: And so I like to say that innovation and entrepreneurship happens at the edge of reason, because it is finding something that is unreasonable to most. Otherwise it would have been done. And it's becoming more familiar with it in some strange way and then doubling down.

Debbie: In a Reddit Ask Me Anything, you were asked, "What would stop someone from entering the space you are operating in and doing the same thing?" And I loved your response. You said, "It matters not what you do, but how you do it. In almost all cases, the stuff we use and love every day existed previously, but in a less superior form. And of course, the novelty of any idea is short lived. Only the execution endures." When you were able to create this partnership and have this acquisition with Adobe, did you worry that the quality of the product would in any way suffer?

Scott: Well, we certainly worried about it before we joined the company. And during the acquisition process, my job was to make sure that we were setup to succeed. And part of that was making some agreements with the person who I reported to at the time. Also, agreeing to take on more responsibility as a leader in the company was a key part of it. 'Cause I was inserting myself as opposed to isolating us. And catching people when they would say "us" and "them and us," no no no. It's we. And there was a lot of that in the first year.

Scott: So, in order to successfully integrate, you have to have shared objectives, and you have to have a shared vision. But there was never a moment in that acquisition where they deviated. I mean really, people talk about unicorns in the tech world as- The true unicorn to me is a company, and is an acquisition that goes swimmingly. It usually doesn't. And in this case, all of our leaders, a lot of them actually are still there today, 10 years plus later.

Debbie: It's incredible.

Scott: And many of them have escalated to different roles in the company.

Debbie: Did you suffer from that depression that your grandfather had?

Scott: The hardest part for me was when I left Adobe after my three years there.

Debbie: Why did you decide to do that? I know you went to work for a venture capital firm, but what made you decide to go?

Scott: I think I took for granted the fact that everything I had done in my career always was the right thing for me. And so I was at a point three years in, where everyone was telling me, "You should be an investor." I had done some investments as seed investments in friends' companies that I was a product and design advisor for. Like Pinterest, that had become successful companies. And then there was this thought of, "Oh, maybe I should be an investor. If everyone's telling me this is what I should be, that's what I should be." And I learned one of those painful lessons that just because everyone says you should do something, it doesn't mean they know you better than you know you.

Scott: And I figured, "Okay. Well I am meant to move on." In part because I didn't want to be too defined by what I had done. I figured it would be healthy to move on. And so I did. And it was hard. I remember kind of being cut off of my email address and being like "Oh my goodness. This was me. I can't imagine this as no longer my email."

Debbie: But, you left the VC firm after seven months. And in late 2017, after two years away, you rejoined Adobe as chief product officer and executive vice president of the Creative Cloud. So the design world was elated to see you back. What was at the heart of your return? What gave you the sense that it was the right thing to do?

Scott: Yeah, well it's funny because I became fascinated over my three years at Adobe with making tools for creative people. Making creative tools. And also the possibilities of creativity becoming more collaborative. For so long it had been an isolated discipline. You basically sat in front of a computer screen on your own. And the thought of two people being in the same document was crazy, and most designers would say, "That's the worst idea ever."

Scott: However, I was starting to see evidence of different intersections, or different fields intersecting to make great things. I started to see experienced designers using animation products. I started to see other stakeholders in the company becoming key parts of the design process, other than designers. And I started to think, "Gosh, this is an opportunity for a service like Creative Cloud to really get right."

Scott: I also felt like Adobe was the right company to figure it out. And I felt like I was the right candidate, or a good candidate to help bracket it. So I kept in touch with Shantanu who's our CEO. And we had had a few dinners and discussions. And he would always say, "If you're ever interested." And I was always thinking in my head, "There's no way I'm gonna come back. I already detached myself. I already cut the cord."

Scott: But it became more interesting after I had the experience being an investor, feeling like some part of me was not being utilized anymore, and then I wasn't happy. And I realized what it was was, I wasn't building teams anymore. I wasn't building products anymore, and I missed looking at creativity every day.

Debbie: Making things.

Scott: Yeah. And thinking about how I can be a contributor.

Debbie: I think I'm happiest when I'm making things. It could be anything. It could be in bed, it could be a meal, it could be a podcast, to lesson plans. But that making.

Scott: It's as simple as that. And how did I not know that about myself until I stopped doing it? I don't know.

Debbie: I guess that's when you learn.

Scott: Yeah.

Debbie: I want to talk a little bit about your design philosophies. You've said that for you, how you define design is always changing. So what is it for you right now?

Scott: What is design? It's one of those questions that I feel is always hard to define. Because it's always about context to me. But a big part of design to me these days is about helping drive alignment. I mean, in my current role, I'll start there. A big part of my job is to get big, different organizations of people with different objectives aligned around a vision. And I find that notion of a mock up is worth a thousand meetings. I mean, it's really true. You get people in and you start to debate what a product should be, and what the problem is for the customer, whatever else. But if you just start to show. [inaudible 00:47:50] will show the friction, and then show the solution. Everyone just maps to it quickly. And suddenly, people align.

Scott: Now the beauty of alignment is it's an alternative to process. Big companies, the reason we hate big companies is 'cause they throw process at every problem they have. But sometimes instead of throwing more process at a problem, if you just use design to get people more aligned, you don't even need process. And that's when people become more efficient and better work gets done.

Debbie: I have a real issue with the whole notion of a process. Because it makes things very systematic, and I don't think creativity is like that. I wish that there was a way we could just go through A and then B and then C, and then woohoo, we get to Z and it's amazing every time. It doesn't work that way. I can't answer the question, what kind of process do I have?

Scott: And that's the competitive advantage of startups. You got a group of people sitting around a table. Everyone knows what you want to achieve, everyone's working hard. Everyone is therefor able to ambiently prioritize. And there is very little process. And as a result, they can switch it up as they go and get to a great solution.

Debbie: Your first book Making Ideas Happen: Overcoming the Obstacles Between Vision and Reality. The book you penned in coffee shops by night and released in 2010, it's been described as a reality check that execution is essential to ideation. But what I really loved about it is that it profiles a wide array of people that are approaching things in entirely different ways. So it's not a systematic guidebook like you do this and this. It's showing the myriad ways we create and make.

Debbie: I read that it began as research you were conducting in business school. Is that correct?

Scott: Yeah.

Debbie: So, what made you decide to turn that research into a book?

Scott: I was interested in the practices of the most productive, creative people in teams in the world. That was always my question was, why is it that some people just keep churning it out? Whether it is someone like Stefan Sagmeister, whether it is certain photographers or illustrators and authors. You look at someone like James Patterson, he claims he works on seven novels at once. He's written more best-selling books than Random House has published books combined. And in terms of volume. And what is the story here?

Scott: Now there's the complete other end of the spectrum, like Thomas Kinkade, kind of a factory production approach. And then there's the other side of the spectrum of, completely non-scalable, non-organized, never ships anything. But what are the practices that the best creative individuals and teams use? And the book was my own sort of research expiation.

Scott: Teresa Amabile, who's the professor I worked with at HBS, she's a professor that focuses on creativity and organizations. And she did a number of studies, including this massive journaling project. Where she tried to get people to journal how creative and productive they felt every day. And one of the learnings from that was the fact that progress begets progress. And you have to merchandise progress to the team to help them continue to make progress. There's a number of learnings from that.

Debbie: Building momentum.

Scott: Yeah. She agreed to be my advisor for this sort of study. That ultimately became the book.

Debbie: We discussed how Behance grew out of your frustration with the creative world. Your new book The Messy Middle was also born out of frustration. Can you tell us how?

Scott: Yeah. Well the frustration that inspired The Messy Middle was our collective obsession with starts and finishes. We love these piffy summaries of stories. The press is very guilty of just drawing so much attention. To whether it's a wonderful, extraordinary finish, or a horrible, going bankrupt. And people love the romanticism of the start, but like, why aren't people talking about the volatility of the middle? The two steps forward, one step back. Endless ambiguity, uncertainty and anxiety, and that needs to be overcome.

Scott: And I think it's especially important, because in this volatile middle of every bold, creative project, we are not our best selves at the highs or the lows. At the lows, we're not our best selves because we make decisions out of fear. And there are a lot of examples in Behance of things we did out of fear of competition that we had to undo.

Scott: We're also not our best selves at the highs, because we falsely attribute the things that we did to the things that worked. The ego gets the better of us, and we start to lose self-awareness, and then make fatal mistakes. And so, why aren't we talking more about navigating this volatility? And that's what the book is about.

Debbie: You discuss how the middle is fundamentally misunderstood. How the process is not linear, but rather a series of staggered steps. And in a sense, simply knowing that in and of itself is valuable advice for anybody embarking on a project. Though it might be hard to believe. Have you been able to enjoy the middle of your endeavors? Have you been more cognizant now of what it means to be in the middle?

Scott: I have been. And I think, to me, the middle now is about building muscle that you can use towards something. None of the middle seems wasted to me, it's sort of like, the middle is meant to be mind. Mind for what? Mind for insights around how you're going to endure the next challenge. How you're going to optimize the next project, or the next team. It's almost like one of these old video games where you're running around collecting coins. And to me, like the middle is you're running around collecting these coins and gems and tools, and you're throwing them in your toolkit. And some people are focused on, "Oh, we're not there yet." But how about like all this stuff you're collecting?

Debbie: I also think that the middle is where you begin to see the tangible efforts of resilience and grit. These two words that people are very high on. Now what does it mean to be resilient and what does it mean to have grit? And I think that's where it happens. Because that's where you have to keep going when you don't know what the possible outcome is going to be. Just every day becomes a step into resilience.

Scott: And we talk a lot in creativity how constraints field creativity. Constraints also fuel survival, because in some weird way, it gives you that muscle of resourcefulness. As opposed to relying on the resources that could just be expended and gone in any moment. So, the more you survive, the better fit you are. And that's I think why a lot of companies that raise way too much money out of the gate and always can throw resources at any problem they encounter along the way fail to build that level of resourcefulness and resilience.

Debbie: And ingenuity, when you don't have enough.

Scott: 100%.

Debbie: I love how you begin the book by writing about how you wanted to start it with the story of your own middle at Behance. And you couldn't remember it, and that it was a blur, and they were lost years for you. And you write in the book how when retelling Behance's history, you usually skip over the middle. Bypassing things like how anti-nausea medication was the only way you could eat, which you talked about here. Was this book in any way a reaction to telling the nice, safe story so many times?

Scott: I think it was. Because we had an exceptionally difficult story, in the sense that we were bootstrapped for five years.

Debbie: Near death experiences.

Scott: And a lot of fits and starts along the way, and venture back after that for another year and a half or so, and think that it's easy to tie a bow around this story. And I just found it so interesting that it was anything but. And in the process of writing this book, I figured how could I not start with my own middle? I tried to get into the tangibility of what it actually was. And I mention in the book the only way I was actually able to trigger my memory was going back on my iPhone, to all these weird screenshots and photos I had taken in those middle years to just remind myself what was going on.

Debbie: You write that the dirty little secret that entrepreneurs hate to admit is just how fine the line is between their success and failure. I love that. In the book you address the interesting notion of how teams can make bad decisions. Not only at low points, but at high points as well. And you just mentioned the whole notion of the ego and how that impacts the decision making. Those bad decisions that come from ego, how is it possible to prevent them?

Scott: Well, I think the team around you often times sees your faults, and they see your weaknesses, and they see your blind spots. And the first question is, is the team, and is the culture permissible for the questioning and the process of just people talking to you and raising their hand and saying, "I disagree."

Debbie: So asking for that, or hoping for that outside information.

Scott: We had a lot of fighting at Behance, in a good way. We actually would always be proud of the fact that we could go in a room and really duke it out. And I think it was a very healthy process, 'cause we were exposing each other's blind spots, we were challenging our assumptions, and it was influencing. And we had so much respect for each other that we would always share conviction when we resolved it. But we would have a lot of fights about priorities and about what we should do with products and everything else.

Debbie: How do you resolve those fights without walking away?

Scott: Well, I think first we have to fight apathy ruthlessly. So when people do walk away, you have to pull them back in. And the quiet people in the room, you have to make sure that they're voicing their view. Sometimes the answer is, "Okay let's all make our case and sleep on it," if you feel it's too charged, and that will make you make the wrong decision for no reason. Just the drama. But I think to me it's always coming back to visuals and like, "Let's go back. Okay, so what are we talking about again? Let's draw it out, let's do it again, let's do it again until we are all aligned with what we are looking at."

Scott: 'Cause most of the disagreements are really about misalignment as opposed to truly different beliefs.

Debbie: There was a term that I learned in your book that you quoted your mentor John Maeda who says, "A good team does a lot of friendly front-stabbing instead of back-stabbing." Can you talk a little bit more about that?

Scott: Well, I think that wisdom of John, of which there's much wisdom of John that I always think about in my life. But for that one, you have to have an environment where people do confront each other. When there is a sense of permissible fighting and disagreement. I've always, with my teams, kept what I called an elephant list. And the elephant list is the things, the elephants in the room for whatever third rail reasons, no one wants to talk about, or will offend someone else or whatever. And I try to, as a leader, interject one or two elephants whenever we're together, to try to just make progress. And also, sometimes we even have fun making a period where we just talk about the elephants. And it builds this culture of it's almost like, funny that we're talking about the things that make us uncomfortable. And that's a key part of kind of eliminating the organizational debt that accrues in any organization. Organizational debt is the accumulation of decisions that leaders should have made but didn't.

Debbie: You actually talked about, over the course of building Behance, you didn't listen to the advice of outside people enough. How would you encourage people to do that and also be able to make the decisions about what is good advice, or what isn't? Is there some sort of an internal meter that you can point to? Or some way of being able to understand when to take that advice?

Scott: A few thoughts on advice. For one, I've always tried to discern the difference between cynicism and criticism.

Debbie: And how do you see them as different?

Scott: I mean, the cynics it's like, you're not helping me. And I really just discard it. People who are like, "Well that will never work." Well, you know. To hell with you. But the critics, I love people who look at what I'm doing and say, "You're missing this, you're missing that. This is off." I was going through the product, and of course now in my role at Adobe, all of my friends are always inundating me with what Lightroom is doing wrong and what Photoshop is doing wrong.

Debbie: That must be fun.

Scott: I love it.

Debbie: Oh, okay.

Scott: It's helpful. Sometimes I don't feel it's so scalable for me, but it's helpful. But I also think that it's important to have, and to be able to manage and reconcile two opposite pieces of advice. In fact, I would even say that it's dangerous to get one piece of advice without trying to get the opposite. So you can sit with it and figure out what your institution is.

Debbie: You believe that hard work is the single greatest competitive advantage in anything. Even more than talent?

Scott: I actually think that hard work is more important than talent. Because I think that, you can work around failures, right? If you figure something out, if it takes you a few tries that someone else who's smarter than you would figure out once. If you are persistent, persistence just seems to outperform smarts any day of the week. I've benefited from that many times.

Debbie: How are you able to imbue that in others? It seems as if, especially young people really want that insta-fame now. Where they want it to happen very quickly. And I've found that it's not just working hard, it tends to be working hard over a long period of time.

Scott: Yeah, well I think. I mean the way I would really frame the competitive advantage by the way, is the competitive advantage is doing work that no one else wants to do. I mean, literally, you're doing something that no one else wants to do. And often times the work that no one else wants to do is the hardest work, is the most redundant work, is the most mundane work. And so, I always would push myself to do like the stuff that is annoying me the most, because I figure, "You know what, this is the stuff that no one else wants to do." The competitive side of me-

Debbie: What would be an example of that?

Scott: Like sending one more sales email, or something like that. Doing one more readthrough of this talk. 'Cause you know, I'm so freaking tired of it. And no one would do this again? I'm gonna do it one more time. I think that that's the competitive side of me, that would play up the ability to just work harder. But listen, I'm not saying that I'm a workaholic. I try to really spend my time and energy wisely. But I think it's important to think about. Like, how are you gonna outperform? The competitive advantage is to outwork, and also to stick together long enough to figure it out.

Debbie: Scott, the last thing I want to talk with you about is something that you wrote on your Instagram feed. You declared that you learned more from your two kids than you ever expected. So, like what?

Scott: One of the things that was fascinating to me when you see a new child come to the world, in some ways, they're a blank slate. And then you start to see, almost like a laboratory environment at first, what anything they're exposed to ends up doing to them. You know, whatever they happen to see becomes their lexicon. Whatever makes them laugh becomes their sense of humor. It's a fascinating, I found that really interesting. And it taught me a lot about the sources of ideas, and the sources of instinct, and also like how biased we are by just what we've experienced and how limited we are in our imagination, based on whatever circumstances we had around us. So I think I've learned a lot in that sense.

Scott: I've also learned a lot in terms of patience. And the fact that, you just have to kind of slow down and remember what's important. Obviously those lessons as well.

Debbie: What kinds of things are your kids making?

Scott: Well, we're currently making gummy bears.

Debbie: Custom gummy bears?

Scott: Which is a more intricate process than you might think, yes. They wanted to do that. We are building the Statue of Liberty out of Lego's. And hopefully not following directions to the T. And a lot of drawing, painting, that sort of thing. And also they're also using some of the drawing applications on the iPad that Adobe makes. Which is always fun to see them use a product that you make.

Debbie: Scott Belsky, thank you so much for making the world a better place for creative people, and thank you for joining me today on Design Matters.

Scott: Likewise, and thanks for having me. It's an honor.

Debbie: Scott Belsky's new book is The Messy Middle: Finding Your Way Through the Hardest and Most Crucial Part of Any Bold Venture. You can find out more about Scott on his website at, and you can find him on Instagram @scottbelsky. This is the 14th year I've been doing Design Matters, and I'd like to thank you for listening. And remember, we can talk about making a difference, we can make a difference, or we can do both. I'm Debbie Millman, and I look forward to talking with you again soon.