When Scott Belsky and Matias Corea talk about Behance, the business they co-founded, they sound a lot more like they are describing a social movement.
"We are a mission-centric, medium-agnostic company," says Belsky. "Our core mission is to organize and empower creatives--the artists, designers, photographers of the world."
But Behance is also a for-profit venture. Launched in 2006, Behance, which now has 30 employees, has three distinct but complementary lines of business. The Behance Network, a website where creatives can showcase their portfolios for potential employers (freelance or full-time), now boasts around a million users and is the biggest. (A new site design, with enhanced search features, for instance, was introduced yesterday.) The company also runs the 99%, a research arm, think tank, and annual spring networking conference in New York, and sells a suite of Action Method notebooks, all graphically laid out to help a disorganized artist prioritize her to-do's.
If that sounds like an unrelated hodgepodge, well, it is. But rather than a particular product or service, it's that mission—to organize creatives—that ties them all together, and that the founders believe has led the company to take off.
"Its easy to become enamored with a product that you dream of building," says Belsky. "We wanted to change an industry. And let's be honest, we couldn't conceive of the best way to do that if we were already set on building one thing or another."
It all started seven years ago when Belsky and Corea met through a mutual friend in New York. At the time, Corea was a freelance graphic designer, and Belsky had just gotten his MBA at Harvard. The two immediately bonded over their passion for "organizing" the sprawling, inefficient, chaotic creative industry.
"Creatives are the most disorganized people on the planet, but they're the people that make our lives interesting," says Belsky. "They struggle to have efficient careers."
Belsky and Corea spent a year ("lots of late nights, Chinese food, and wine," says Corea) crafting the best way to solve that problem and respond to a legitimate need in the market. Their first answer: the Action Method notebooks.
"Interestingly, the Action books were our first line of business. They were simple to get produced, and we sold them at a 50% margin. Then we were able to bootstrap the company, including the Behance Network, and the 99% Conference, which we launched about a year later," says Belsky.
"Some people might think it's strange to jump from selling notebooks to hosting a conference, but to us, it was just another excellent avenue to bring structure to this world," he says. "Four years later, we sell out of the conference tickets; there's a 1,200 person waiting list."
Aside from an initial "friends and family" round of financing at the start, the company hasn't raised third-party investment. While the founders won't divulge annual revenue, they say Behance became profitable in 2011.
Today the Behance Network, the duo says, is by far the company's biggest business. The site has grown to include not only job listings for creatives, but also custom design portfolio tools, and creative exposure through prominent placements. A majority of the network revenue comes from premium services like a Behance online portfolio (that displays all of an individual's Behance projects, which are each posted free), fees from recruiters looking to enlist new talent, and advertising.
And they add, what gives the network a competitive edge, is that it's in line—like everything else—with their overarching mission.
"It's not a social network. It's not about friends, inspiration, or creativity. In fact, we never use those words here," says Belsky. "It's about execution, empowerment, and organization." And getting more struggling freelance artists hired.
00:07 Scott Belsky: We realized, early on, that a lot of creative careers relied on old fashioned, and to create old-boy networks basically, of people who would happened to know someone else who would recommend them for this and for that. There was no real efficient way of being discovered. We also imagined that in the future the creative industry, creators would be working on their own terms. They'd be doing work on literally the way they wanted to for the clients they wanted to work with, and that would be, sort of, the holy grail of the creative career. In order to get anywhere close to that, all this work needs to be organized. So the first real problem we were trying to solve is, let's figure out how to organize the creative world's work in many different places on one central platform.
00:53 Belsky: We built a platform that's not about the upload of static images that sits up there in the ether. It's a very different approach than pretty much everyone else in the space. We're saying, "Put it up there," and then you sync with as many different networks as possible. You have other sites that showcase your work, you sync it with your own personal website and it's always in control at one central place. So this notion of post here, publish everywhere is a great competitive advantage from the other offerings for creative professions.
01:22 Belsky: We're not trying to be about creativity, and inspiration and friends. In fact, we never use any of those words in anything that we do. It's all about the execution, the organization and empowerment of the creative world. That is a top level statement, but it also permeates every tool that we have, every little functionality works across the site; the copy, the language, the usability, everything. I also think that we're very tied to like getting people the most exposure for their work possible and the most opportunity.
01:54 Matias Corea: I like coming to sit down at the computer and read emails about how we're helping other people and knowing that we will change the industry but it's pretty messed up right now, in a sense. Did we talk about anything else?
02:12 Belsky: We often talk about is... We also talk about... To me that's really motivating, as oftentimes I feel like philosophically what drives us is to always make this better and be more serious and be more focused and the amount of stuff we're learning still, some of these ideas that we'll just talk about like, just gosh, we're still learning so much every day.