SCOTT BELSKY is an entrepreneur, author, and investor. He is a venture partner at Benchmark, a venture capital firm based in San Francisco. Scott co- founded Behance in 2006 and served as CEO until Adobe acquired Behance in 2012. Millions of people use Behance to display their portfolios, as well as track and find top talent across the creative industries. He is an early investor and advisor in Pinterest, Uber, and Periscope, among many other fast-growing startups.
If you could have a gigantic billboard anywhere with anything on it, what would it say and why?
The billboard would say, “Great opportunities never have ‘great opportunity’ in the subject line.”
Whether you’re looking for the best new job, client, partner, or new business opportunity, it is unlikely to lure you when you first see it. In fact, the best opportunities may not even catch your attention at first. More often than not, great opportunities look unattractive on the surface. What makes an opportunity great is upside. If the potential upside were explicitly clear, the opportunity would have already been taken.
Don’t call yourself a visionary, or aspire to make a disproportionate impact, if you anchor all your decisions with what you see and know now. I am always surprised by how lazy people are when making serious decisions about their careers. Join a team not for what it is, but for what you think you can help it become. Be a “founder” in the sense that you’re willing to make something rather than just join something.
You must seize opportunities when they present themselves, not when they are convenient or obvious. The only way to cultivate your own luck is to be more flexible (you’ll need to give up something for the right opportunity), humble (timing is out of your control), and gracious (when you see it, seize it!). Life’s greatest opportunities run on their own schedule, not yours.
What is an unusual habit or an absurd thing that you love?
As my life has gotten busier and more demanding, I have chosen certain songs and snacks that I love and preserved them for when I am doing certain kinds of work. For example, there is a “writing” playlist of music on my computer that I only allow myself to listen to while writing, because time for writing can be particularly painful to plan and adhere to. In some ways, I have otherwise cut out things I like and take for granted and turned them into highly coveted rewards. My playlist reserved for writing/deep work periods includes:
“Everyday” by Carly Comando
“The Aviators” by Helen Jane Long
“Divenire” by Ludovico Einaudi
“Mad World” by Michael Andrews and Gary Jules “Festival” by Sigur Rós
Snacks that I keep for extended writing and work periods (though less important than the sacred playlist) include:
Parmesan crisps from Eli Zabar in NYC White chocolate–covered pretzels
I don’t enjoy these snacks at the beginning—only when it has clearly become a legitimate deep work period. Other than that hurdle, there are no other rules. “Deep work” for me means no interruptions or jumping around casually between tasks. Deep work is the three-plus-hour focus-on-one-problem stuff that I find especially hard to do in the constantly connected era we live in . . . hence the rewards and incentives I reserve for such work.
What advice would you give to a smart, driven college student about to enter the “real world”? What advice should they ignore?
Don’t hold out for the perfect job or title. Don’t optimize for the slightly higher salary. Instead, focus on the only two things that actually matter.
Number one: Every step in your early career must get you incrementally closer to whatever genuinely interests you. The most promising path to success is pursuing genuine interests and setting yourself up for the circumstantial relationships, collaborations, and experiences that will make all the difference in your life. A labor of love always pays off, just not how and when you expect. Set yourself up to succeed by taking new jobs and roles that get you closer to your interests.
Number two: The greatest lessons you learn in the beginning of a career are about people—how to work with people, be managed by people, manage expectations with people, and lead other people. As such, the team you choose to join, and your boss, are huge factors in the value of a professional experience early in your career. Choose opportunities based on the quality of people you will get to work with.
What are bad recommendations you hear in your profession or area of expertise?
“Industries are led by experts.”
While we idolize the experts in our industry, we often forget that industries are often transformed by neophytes. The boldest transformations, like Uber disrupting transportation or Airbnb disrupting hospitality, are led by outsiders. Perhaps the playbook to change an industry is to be naive enough at the start to question basic assumptions and then stay alive long enough to employ skills that are unique and advantageous in the space you seek to change. Perhaps naive excitement and pragmatic expertise are equally important traits at different times.
“Customers know best.”
The only focus group I ever ran at Behance was in the very beginning, in 2007, when we were debating a number of different approaches toward our mission “to organize the creative world.” We presented the focus group participants with five or six different ideas and then asked them to complete a survey. Universally, participants said the last thing they wanted was “yet another social network to connect with creative peers.” They figured Myspace was sufficient for this purpose. But when they were asked about their greatest struggles, participants talked about the expense and inefficiencies of maintaining an online portfolio and how difficult it was to get attribution for the creative work they had made.
We were faced with a classic example of “don’t ask customers what they want, figure out what they need.” We ultimately built a social network for creative professionals that is now the world’s leading creative professional community, with more than 12 million members, and was, six years later, acquired by Adobe.
When you feel overwhelmed or unfocused, what do you do?
I whisper to myself, “Scott, do your fucking job.” With all the drama around us and inside of us, it is too easy to get distracted or overthink a situation. It is too easy to rationalize why you’re too busy, or why you should wait to do something that just needs to get done. I opt for the no-bullshit approach. When I need to do something mundane, or when I need to do something especially difficult like deliver bad news or fire an employee, I just tell myself to stop screwing around and “do your fucking job.” I find that self-directive hard to argue with.