Scott Belsky reveals how creatives can survive the ‘Messy Middle’ of any meaningful endeavor—and how he endured his own while co-founding the portfolio site Behance.

Wheat Field

Scott Belsky

ENTREPRENEUR / AUTHOR / ADOBE EXEC

2019

ADOBE / BEHANCE / CREATIVITY / THE MESSY MIDDLE / MAKING IDEAS HAPPEN / MATIAS COREA / CORNELL / HARVARD / PHOTOSHOP / ILLUSTRATOR / CREATIVE CLOUD / JOCELYN K. GLEI / JOHN MAEDA / STEFAN SAGMEISTER / TIM FERRISS / MALCOLM GLADWELL / KAPLAN / GOLDMAN SACHS / CIA

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
 

And remember, we can talk about making a difference, we can make a difference, or we can do both.  — Debbie Millman