Behance’s Scott Belsky on productivity tools for the creative community

Action is the substance of excellence. Far too often our ideas distract us from what we need to do because we focus on what we could do.

The tech industry is fueled by novel ideas. But its preoccupation with measurable results often means that the only difference between a good idea and a great idea is that one gets put into action. In this occasionally cutthroat environment, the Behance Network has emerged to bring organization to the creative community, and turn its ideas into actions that deliver results.

The Behance team, led by founder Scott Belsky, created a symbiotic ecosystem based around its Action Method project management software, the Behance Network, and Behance paper products, all geared to serve creative professional and organize their work.

At face value, it provides creative professionals with a free, centralized hub to post their portfolios, interact with their peers, and comment on the work of others. But it also offers its own project management software, Action Method, to help them make progress through logical steps. Alternatively, companies looking to hire freelancers can search the site for the highest ranked designers and producers by a variety of criteria and connect directly, potentially saving thousands of dollars in headhunting fees. And Behance itself has already made a name for itself as a consultant to agencies and production teams, including recent clients GOOD Magazine and marketing firm R/GA.

VentureBeat spoke with Behance Founder, Scott Belsky about his company’s mission and how to make great ideas happen.

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VentureBeat: Can you talk a little bit about your background and how you got involved with Behance?

Scott Belsky: I studied design as an undergrad, as well as environmental economics. I was always interested in the design world, and then, somehow, I ended up at Goldman Sachs for about five years. While I was there, I was very focused on organizational development and helping the firm and key clients of the firm get more organized. I was thinking “Wow, if I could just apply these best practices and a lot of these tools and research back to the creative world, I could maybe make a difference.”

Especially in creative industries, [designers] are probably some of the most disorganized teams and individuals on the planet. The nature of idea generation often runs at odds with managing processes and maintaining productivity. When you’re in a brainstorming session, the last thing you really want to be thinking about is “How am I actually capturing these action steps?” So the thought was, let’s try to organize the creative world and develop products and services that work for the creative world. I would argue that if you can organize the creative world, you have a good way of helping anybody.

VB: Can you talk about the research you did?

SB: We would do a lot of interviews with people that used Microsoft Product Manager, or Basecamp, and a lot of other project management tools like that. First of all, we found a lot of people used them, but didn’t use them. They had them, but they never really logged in. We also found teams where they would actually have to draw straws to see who would have to update the system.

The other thing we found is that they would use the system, but they would never use the task functionality within the system. If making progress on a project comes down to capturing and executing action steps, and people aren’t even using the task part of the system, something is really wrong. They were using post-it notes and putting them all around their screens and their desks.

First of all, none of these are collaborative. They’re all personal. So if you have an action step written down that you need someone else to do, you can’t just forward them a post-it note. And if you do send them a post-it note, you have no way of knowing when it’s done or not. If they complete it and throw it away, you still don’t know. And you’ll never know to follow up with them — so there’s zero accountability in terms of taking action.

VB: Let’s switch gears here — you were talking about the savings generated by Behance. What kind of savings are your clients realizing from the Action Method and from using Behance?

SB: We have some teams that have fully adopted the Action Method, and their email goes down by a significant volume — probably 30+ percent, because after meetings, no one is sending around next-step emails. There is a significant boost in productivity because email becomes an external communication tool rather than a project management tool.

VB: You said you have a lot of people jumping ship from Basecamp and other project management tools. What are the reasons they cite for choosing you guys over other tools?

SB: The biggest thing we hear is that the Action Method is a tool with a bias toward action. Action Method starts with action. When you log in, you see all the actions that you need to do and when they are due. It’s an action-centric tool.

VB: You went to Harvard Business School after working in banking and before entering the creative field. Do any lessons you took from HBS help with what you do now?

SB: I would have to say that business school is not a very actionable place. And I think that in spite of all the business planning strategy discussions that one might have, sometimes the best practice is to act without conviction and see where that takes you. One of two things will happen: You’ll either act too quickly and realize it was a bad judgement, and you’ll have to take a new direction. Or, you’ll act too quickly and take the right direction, and you’ll be one step ahead of where you might be.

There is a lot that gets in the way of making progress when you spend too much time developing a business plan and less time taking action. I don’t think we all have the luxury of developing these very thoughtful, time-intensive business plans. I think in this economy, we should be taking action more readily and more quickly. You have to be agile and turn on a dime.

VB: What kinds of traffic growth and subscriber growth have you been seeing in this economy?

SB: For Action Method, we just launched the online system probably three and a half months ago, and it has increased over 100 percent [in usership] each month.

VB: What kind of funding have you received and who are your investors?

SB: Until this day, we’ve turned down any opportunity for third-party financing. We actually funded the business through the sale of our action pads and action books. If you go to actionmethod.com, you’ll see we have all these paper products, and we have been selling those online and in stores around the U.S. for the past few years.

Also, the advertising revenues for the Behance Network have really helped because the traffic has grown so steadily that we have been able to capitalize on the value of those pageviews. The question has always been, do we raise a round of $3 million? of $5 million? The thought has been “Let’s wait to get more data,” and the answer has always been “Let’s also wait until we really need it.” We’re at the point right now where we’re approaching break-even. We’re not there yet, but we’re really close, and that’s without any third-party financing.

VB: So what would it look like if you were to raise a round of $3 to $5 million?

SB: I don’t know if we really want to change the chemistry of our team right now. The products we have in development — we really feel good about. I would say that if we really raised a big round of third-party financing, we would focus on the APIs for our products. I think there is a lot of really interesting stuff that people could be doing with our technology that we haven’t gotten to yet.

VB: It’s fascinating that you guys have a “freemium” model [a model that offers seemingly premium services for free] going quite well. You have the Behance Network — where people put their portfolios up — then you sell consulting services and actual, physical products. You say you haven’t broken even yet, but it doesn’t seem to be slowing you guys down in terms of user growth.

SB: I don’t think there were any cases I remember from business school that in any way resemble the way we are running this business. We need to help organize creative individuals and teams, but we also need to organize the creative world’s work. The reason we’re in the Behance Network business as well as Action Method is that we really believe that both businesses are core to our mission.

The beautiful thing is that if you are one of the people on the Behance Network that uses our platform for your portfolio or for professional networking purposes, you’re likely to subscribe to our online project management tool. And if you subscribe to Action Method, you’re also likely to buy the products. If you buy the products and you need to hire somebody, you’re also likely to post a job on the network. If you post a job in the network, you’re also likely to surf it and find other things to inspire you while you are there. It hopefully becomes an ecosystem for any creative entrepreneur.

VB: Outside of the Behance Network, where do you go for inspiration?

SB: When I meet with creative teams, I always say you need to generate fewer ideas, not more. Creative people are not short on ideas, they are short on taking action on them. So I typically avoid conferences that are all about idea generation. Let’s find fewer sources of inspiration and find more ways of making our ideas happen.

VB: How is the economy affecting you guys?

SB: With Action Method, the sales continue to go up with the products as well as the online services. Our long-term strategy is really to build the Behance Network to be the biggest online network of creative professionals. So for us, those people are not paying to join, they are joining for free. The fact that we are growing so much is really what’s important to us. We’ll see, I don’t know. I’ve learned so much with this team about navigating starting a business in these times. Keeping our budget lean and being action-oriented helps us practice what we preach.

On April 16 and 17, Behance will host its 99% Conference in New York, named for a maxim of inventor Thomas Edison, who famously quipped, “Genius is one percent ipsiration and 99 percent perspiration.” Speakers at the event will include Jeff Kalmikoff and Jake Nickell of Threadless Tees, Squidoo founder Seth Godin and Echoing Green president Cheryl Dorsey. See the full Behance team below: