Chris Do and his family were refugees who moved from Vietnam to the United States in 1975, when Do was a little boy. Do was born with an entrepreneurial spirit and tried many kid businesses that failed. He had a car-washing business. He tried selling crayfish he caught from the creek. He sold popsicles to his classmates on a hot day at the elementary school, despite a tight selling window that literally melted away his profits if he didn't succeed. These desires to be independent and enterprising would prove to be a foreshadowing of big things to come.
Do also grew up loving classic comic books. He dreamed about being an artist. "I wanted to be a comic book artist because comics are magical. I love the stories ... the smell of the paper ... the typography, and whole thing," he said. Do was inspired by books like Stan Lee's How to Draw Comics and spent countless hours trying to hone his skills. But it turns out that being a great comic book artist is really hard and the dream drifted out of reach in his mind. "I put that dream away for a long time. As I got older and things got real, I thought I had to be responsible," he said. "Art is not responsible." Do decided to try something with more stability, like engineering or computer science.
Do was a good student but didn't have the dedication and motivation in high school. "It was often a struggle because I felt like I didn't fit in," he said. He preferred riding his skateboard, playing video games, and doodling comic book art. The result of his lackluster effort was a rejection to every school he applied to, including UCLA, UC San Diego, and Cal Poly. He ended up at community college to figure things out.
It was the early 1990s. No mobile phones or internet. Limited channels on cable TV. No Netflix or social media. No one had a website. The tools to create were limited and barriers to entry were high. There was no Adobe Suite or video editing tools like what artists have at their fingertips today. And being an entrepreneur or freelancer wasn't cool or buzzy; it was like saying you were unemployed. While working part time at a t-shirt silk screening shop, Do got access to a Macintosh 512K personal computer. When he saw the typography and art being done on the t-shirt designs, Do was blown away and he was hooked. He took a couple of graphic design classes and quickly got hired as an entry-level designer.
His hard work paid off. He applied and received a scholarship to the ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena, California where he found his people. These were other creative misfits like him. Transportation designers came up with amazing car designs. Film majors who cared deeply about every scene from a Scorsese movie. Fashion designers who knew all about fabrics and wanted to become the next big name. There were painters and other artists like Do. For the first time in his life, he was thriving at the top of his class.
One of the most profound lessons in art class came from professor Roland Young, who walked up to a bunch of student sketches, looked through all the scribbles, and found the truth. He then made two marks on the paper to bring it to life and connect it to a big idea. "I was blown away at his genius but also angry at myself for not seeing the obvious design solution," said Do. Art is sometimes about seeing the white space or using what's not there. This is a great metaphor for building a company, especially in tough economic times.
Do learned many lessons at ArtCenter that helped him become the prolific in-demand designer and talented teacher he is today. One of the manifestations of his love for the creative arts is his company, The Futur, which he invented with the goal of teaching one billion people how to make a living doing what they love. The Futur is a community of creatives who exchange ideas; it has creative courses and modules to help artists learn business skills like negotiation, pitching, and much more.
I highly recommend watching this video episode of Behind the Brand, with Do, packed with a ton of value. Here's a top-line summary of how creatives can earn what they're really worth:
1. Learn to Say No.
The biggest mistake creative people make is when someone reaches out, they feel like they can't say no. They do mental gymnastics to try and close the sale. The pressure to sell is intense, especially if you need the money. But don't compromise your worth or standards. You may know the project or client is not a fit, so be an asset and help them find someone else. You'll be happier and make more money when you choose your clients.
2. Drop Anchor Points.
Do told a great story in the video about getting a call from a couple of famous founders who wanted him to do some work for them. (Side note: The best book I know on anchors and the psychology of price is Dan Ariely's Predictably Irrational. It's a book that illustrates the hidden forces that shape our buying decisions.)
Do said, "If you get a call from the founders, you can probably assume they can't afford you. They are there in person to try and get a better price. If it weren't about price, they would have sent the marketing director or had the AOR call." So drop a big anchor price and say something like, "If you can't spend $30,000 with me just to start talking and explore your project, I'm not the right person." Then wait and watch what happens.
The founders will play this fantasy like they are in the game--even though $30,000 was probably three-times what they planned to pay. But it's during this time that Do tries to help them find someone else or find creative ways to get paid what he's worth. By leading them to someone else, Do is confirming a technique taught by negotiator Chris Voss: Finding out whether he's the "favorite" or the "fool." If he's the favorite, the founders will try to find every way to work with Do because he's their first and only choice. If Do can't find more budget, he suggests trying to create revenue opportunities on the back end of the sale, or bartering for equity. There are many ways to get a return on your work and investment that don't involve money. So get creative!
3. Being Small Has Advantages.
When you're a solo freelancer or small company, you have leverage. There is no B team. The client gets to work with the CEO, creative director, and more directly to do the work.
Another story is the time Do was building his small company in a sketchy area of Venice Beach. He was freelancing, doing storyboards for main movie titles and working with one of the best in the business: Kyle Cooper, who has directed and produced more than 150 film title and VFX sequences, including Se7en, Spider-Man, The Mummy, and The Walking Dead.
Unbeknownst to Cooper, Do had assembled his own small team of artists to handle the increasingly heavy and demanding workload, and naturally kept increasing his fees. After receiving what he thought was an overcharge, Cooper's producer finally pushed back and complained that, "He didn't pay anyone that amount," especially not a young freelancer like Do. Do's confidence withered under the heat of his best client's pressure and he couldn't admit that he had an entire team working on Cooper's stuff. However, Do defended his prices by saying, "Ask Kyle, if he doesn't think we're doing that level of work, we'll adjust the bill." Cooper didn't ask for a price reduction and Do learned a few valuable lessons.
Namely, don't put a price on your time that's attached to a timeline. Charge based on the output. The reason for this is obvious: You might be able to do stellar work really fast. Even if you charge $300 per hour, you might make a masterpiece in two hours and leave $24,400 on the table for a job where you deserved $25,000. A focus on time incentivizes the artist to sometimes take longer than necessary to finish a product so that they can earn what they are really worth. Client and artist both lose in this case.
Finally, Do quoted one of his mentors, design icon Marty Neumeier (who is inspired by Herbert Simon): "The definition of design is devising a course of action to improve or change an existing condition to a preferred one. So if anyone takes something the way it is and changes it to make it better, they are a designer. Design is something people typically think about as posters and toasters. But design is so much more than that."