On this week’s episode, we’re joined by Bill Kenney. Bill is the co-founder and creative director of Focus Lab, and has developed the design acumen and business knowledge necessary for success.
Note: This episode originally aired November 2, 2016.
In this episode Brian Gardner, Lauren Mancke, and Bill Kenney discuss:
- Bill Kenney’s path as a creative
- Running a creative agency
- The importance of team
- Using Dribbble to create a creative following
- Repurposing content across platforms
- Complementing a service based business with products
- Finding your tribe
The Show Notes
- Follow Bill Kenney on Twitter
- Follow Focus Lab, LLC on Twitter
- Follow Made by Sidecar on Twitter
- Visit Focus Lab’s Website
- Made by Sidecar
- Follow Focus Lab on Dribbble
Leveraging Social Media to Build a Creative Brand, with Bill Kenney
Lauren Mancke: On this week’s episode, we are joined by Bill Kenney, the co-founder and creative director of Focus Lab to discuss leveraging social media to build a creative brand.
Brian Gardner: Hey, everyone. Welcome to StudioPress FM. I am your host, Brian Gardner, and always joined by vice president of StudioPress, Lauren Mancke.
Lauren Mancke: Welcome back, everyone. Thank you for joining us. We are starting a new series on talking to members of the design community.
Brian Gardner: Today, we’re joined by Bill Kenney of Focus Lab. His unyielding passion for design began at a young age, but has developed, and he’s honed that in over the last decade in his industry. As a business owner, Bill has developed both the design acumen and business knowledge necessary for success. Like I said, he’s the co-founder of Focus Lab. He’s also the creative director.
Bill, it’s a huge pleasure to have you on StudioPress FM.
Bill Kenney: Thank you. I’m excited to be here and talk to you guys.
Brian Gardner: Yeah, this’ll be good. Lauren and I are huge fans of you and what you guys do there, so it’s always fun to have people that we really look up to on the show. I’m going to get started here. I’m trying to think back. From what I remember, I’m pretty sure the first time I ever came across your work was on Dribbble.
Rafal and I have always had a back-and-forth chat session where we show each other things that are cool and really neat design stuff. I’m pretty sure he sent me a link back to the day and said something to the effect of, “Check out this Bill Kenney guy. I think you’re going to like what he does.” That was probably three, four years ago maybe. Can’t believe it’s been that long, but I know it’s been a while.
Here’s the thing. You got to love getting to interview people who you look up to. For me, that’s something for sure we’re doing here. I don’t know. It’s kind of crazy, a little bit humbling to talk to you. I know we’re good friends. We’ve hung out before down at Circles Conference and so on. So for you, it might not be a big thing, but for me, it sure is. Anyway, funny how things work out.
Let’s talk about Bill. Who is Bill? How did he become the creative director of what I call, arguably, the best creative agency on the planet?
Bill Kenney’s Path As a Creative
Bill Kenney: So much buildup. I need to live up to this now. I appreciate that. Oh boy. Who is Bill? At what point would you like me to start?
Brian Gardner: What was Bill doing when he was three that was creative, and how did that just ultimately go through school and into where you’re at right now?
Bill Kenney: Oh boy. At three, I can remember … this is going to sound like I was prepared for this question. I was not, and that was my own fault. I can remember distinctly what I would now describe as the beginning of my creative endeavors, kind of like scratching my own itch but not knowing it.
I would go to my grandmother’s house. She would always have colored construction paper. I think that was so much fun to me. I would cut out all these shapes. I would make animals out of them. I would layer it. I would cut out the green stuff first because that was the background. That was the skin. Then I’d cut out maybe yellow for the eyes. You cut that a little bit smaller so that you can still have green trim around the sides of it. You glue it on.
I don’t really remember much from my young childhood, and that’s not because I did a lot of crazy things in high school and college. That’s just because my memory doesn’t go back that far, but I can still remember things like that. Honestly, if I had to pick where it began, I think I would say all the way back then.
All kids play with coloring pencils, and they like to doodle and stuff. But I always was drawn to that more than anything. That just stayed true forever. That stayed true through high school, through college. I wouldn’t consider myself an academic by any means. It was always creative stuff that really struck the chord with me.
Brian Gardner: At what point, though, do you think you acknowledged the fact, “I am a creative,” and understood what that meant and really thought for the first time maybe, “Hey, this is something I want to either pursue further in school or actually want to become when I grow up,” that kind of thing?
Bill Kenney: Yeah, I think when it got real for me, that would have been college. I still really enjoyed art class even in high school and such, and was sending things away — as the school does, not on my own — to competitions and stuff. One of them got into this Air Force art show. I thought that that was really cool. That wasn’t a career at that point. I wasn’t even thinking career at that point in high school. I just wasn’t one of those types of high school students.
But in college, when I learned after two years of a liberal arts degree that I didn’t want to do math, I didn’t want to do science, I didn’t want to do history, and didn’t want to do any of those other things, I went, “Wow, I can become an art major. That’d be pretty flipping awesome. I could draw all day. I’d love that. I could take printing classes. That would be awesome. I could paint.”
In a way, it was a little bit of the easy way out, I think at that moment. Subliminally, I was drawn to that, so I followed the path I was supposed to follow. At that point, once I became an art major, school became awesome for me. I really enjoyed it, and I wanted to go to class. I wanted to go early. I wanted to stay late, all those types of things. That’s really when it opened up for me. That’s when it became real.
Brian Gardner: I wish I would have had that experience in college.
Bill Kenney: It was late in college, mind you. Again, I did liberal arts for a while, still trying to figure out, “What the heck am I going to do here?” When that changed, then I flipped the script. It was that much better.
Lauren Mancke: I had that kind of experience in college, except I took all those classes that you want to take right away because I really wanted to take them, all my art classes. Then my last semester, I was left with all the terrible, boring stuff.
Brian Gardner: Like the black jelly beans, right?
Bill Kenney: With my degree … I went to University of Tampa in Florida. It’s not a big school in general. The art program is not big as well, but thank goodness, they had one. Who knows what I would have gotten into because I don’t know that I would have been just transferring around. I don’t know that it was that clear to me that, that was my calling.
To get your BFA — which is a Bachelor of Fine Arts, which is what my degree is — you had to at least pass college algebra, and math was always my sticking point. I kind of fumbled along through all the other classes. I wanted to keep my GPA high, and that one was the one that was always going to derail me.
So you wait till that last day before you can get a W, you can withdraw, and it doesn’t work against you. It’s very clear that there’s nothing you’re going to be able to do to bring that grade for the rest of the quarter, the semester. I actually botched that one all the way until my final semester of school. Then it was very clear to me, like, “Okay, here it is. I need to take it. My GPA is skyrocketing now because of all these art classes. I’m really excelling. I can’t let this one class bring it down.” I just really buckled down, and I ended up — this is not to pat myself on my back — getting an A in college Algebra 101.
Brian Gardner: Outstanding.
Bill Kenney: Yeah, is not outstanding by any means, but for me, for the class that I had always dodged and ducked, I was like, “I will conquer you.” I did save that one until the absolute end, and I won, thankfully.
Brian Gardner: Yep, good job.
Lauren Mancke: Let’s talk about Focus Lab for a bit. As you know, I used to run my own creative agency, so I bet we can relate a little bit on what you’re doing and how things are going. It’s been fun to watch you guys evolve over the years through social media, especially on Dribbble, which we mentioned, and we’ll talk about a little bit more. But fill us in. What’s the status of the company these days?
Running a Creative Agency
Bill Kenney: Focus Lab is going great. It’s the normal ups and downs of any business. It’s not always sunshine every day. We have the best team that we’ve ever had. We are the biggest we’ve ever been. Revenue is the highest it’s ever been. All these simple metrics, if you want to look at those, we’re doing really great. I couldn’t be happier with what we’ve been able to achieve, honestly, in the past six years now. I don’t know that I ever thought that we would get this far, honestly.
We started in a little tiny town, Savannah, Georgia. Honestly, the only reason people probably know about it, that it gets its name, is just the big tourism and the history of it all, but it is a small town with not much going on besides the history. That’s really what roots it and gives it its name.
We started this little design development shop there with aspirations to do great things, but I don’t know that six years ago I could have told you, “Hey, we’ll be 16 people, and we’ll be doing this. We’ll be doing that,” just all the other things that come with it. I think I would have been shocked, honestly, so I couldn’t be happier with where we are.
We’ve always kept a clear mind on the idea that we want to grow slowly. Growth is not the long-term goal. A success for us is not determined by, “Oh, we’ve reached 40 team members, and we make this much money.” That’s not success for us. I would say that we’ve already succeeded, and we just want to continue to build on that, which is having the team that we’ve built, honestly.
Being around the people that we get to be around, working with the clients that we get to work with, and the way of life and culture that we’ve created — that’s success for us. We’re in a wonderful spot, and it’s just constantly learning, iterating, and growing on top of that.
Brian Gardner: That’s really good to hear and very encouraging.
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Lauren Mancke: I was going to just jump in.
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Brian Gardner: All right. Back to Bill. One thing I’ve seen from the outside is that people are important to you and Focus Lab as a whole. Your team matters to you. It’s clear to me that you value camaraderie in the workplace. You guys have Focus Lab retreats. You’re always sharing each other’s work on social media, attending conferences together, and whatnot.
In fact, Lauren and I got to witness this team thing firsthand last year when we saw you guys down at Circles Conference in Texas. How accurate is this diagnosis that Focus Lab and the ethos in which you operate is really built around a team?
The Importance of Team
Bill Kenney: Team is 100 percent number one. To be fair, even to myself and the recognition that I get when people see, “Oh, he has a huge following on Dribbble.” They see these things, and that’s not just because of me. We all benefit from each other. We’re all growing. Even that metric, which is Dribbble following, I really have a good amount of that because of the team, because of the work that we all do.
It’s not like I turn out all this stuff myself, and I don’t grow by myself. People don’t grow in a chamber. I’m surrounded by all these great people, and I grow in other ways, personally and all that, from the team. We all recognize that, so team is hugely important to us at Focus Lab. It’s very clear internally, and it’s nice to hear that it’s clear externally.
Lauren Mancke: I think running a creative agency is really interesting. I know as creative director you have to wear many different hats. You get to take part in so many different aspects of the company, especially when you are the one producing creative work as well as running the business as an owner.
My question is, what is your favorite part of running a creative agency? I know it doesn’t always come without challenges, but as I’ve had my fair share to deal with, I know. What is the most rewarding part of your day or week, and what makes you wake up each morning and say, “I love what I do”?
Bill Kenney: Yeah, I guess that changes year to year. As you grow a business, early on what excites you most is new projects, bigger clients, revenue increases, and all those things early on in business. That is still all so new to you, and you’re trying to go from zero to something. That could be your biggest reward metric.
At this point, it’s back to team. Team wins and team success for me is the most rewarding, so no longer am I most excited about, “Wow, I got such a great response from a client on a deliverable I sent or something I’ve posted online has been received really well.”
I get my biggest reward — and this is going to sound a little bit weird — in a way that parents would feel happier for their kids when they’re playing sports if they won a championship, their kid hits a home run, or whatever it is, that same level of proud moment, I get that. That’s what I want now. That is when I’m at my happiest. I love team member success and when they get put up on the pedestal, if you will.
A lot of what I do is to lift them up. I’m sharing all of our work through social media. I’m speaking about them. I’m shining light on them and making sure that clients know that this is not about me. Just because you happen to maybe find us or me on Dribbble first, we’re a team. That’s where my happiness comes from at this point and most of my joy.
Brian Gardner: Yeah, I can certainly relate to that. On some levels, and it kind of comes and goes a little bit, people recognize me as the face of StudioPress because I founded it back in the day. Just yesterday, I had a Tweet exchange with somebody who made a comment about the newsletter we sent out, where we had sent him a bunch of traffic.
He said, “Well, I knew Brian Gardner had something to do with it.” I kind of wrote back, and I was like, “Yeah, the old Brian would have said, ‘Yup. That’s right. It was exactly me,'” but sort of like what you were just talking about, I wrote him back. I said, “You know, no, it’s not me. It’s StudioPress as a whole,” because Lauren’s there. We’ve got an entire team from a support standpoint, from a development standpoint, a design standpoint, QA, all of that stuff.
As you know, as you grow from one person to small company to bigger company with lots of customers and so forth, it does become so much more than just the person. I almost look for opportunities like that Tweet where I can kind of back myself out of it and say, like you said, just put the emphasis on the team. At this point, I sometimes feel the team does a better job at doing all of this than I do personally.
Bill Kenney: Exactly right. Yeah, that’s 100 percent. We’re in the same exact boat. We’d have past clients that say, “I don’t want to work with anybody else but you.” I think they’re persuaded by what they see, so that’s like the social following is a little bit of a double-edged sword in that regard. But now, that is not the case. Thankfully now, [inaudible 00:16:16] works to make sure that that was not the case. No one can ever come in and just say, “I want to work with you because I think you’re the best.” That’s baloney. The team at this point is so strong. They are stronger than me in a lot of things, if not most things at this point.
We’re constantly having that conversation internally. They know that. We all speak that way — to the point where, even when deliverables are sent out, even if only I, or Summer, or Alex worked on it that week, the signature at the bottom of Basecamp is still ‘Bill and the Focus Lab team’ or ‘Alex and the Focus Lab team.’ It’s pulling in that team all the time. That is where we get our strength. Regardless of whether I did 90 percent of the lifting in a given week or 10, it’s still the formula is team.
Brian Gardner: I think Dribbble, and that’s where this next question is going, they really did us all kind of a service in this regard by opening up the idea of teams on that social media platform where you could take individual accounts and put that shot up underneath the team. When I look at the home page of Dribbble, and it’s always filled with Focus Lab things, I see Focus Lab posted thumbnails and not specifically from Bill Kenney.
Bill Kenney: Yup.
Brian Gardner: Yeah, Dribbble. That’s the big thing that especially with you guys, you personally have 33,000 followers, have posted over 1,200 shots, and each one of them, no doubt, makes its way to that front page. You’ve got that following, and people just always love your stuff. What’s the deal? How do you own them in the sense of … maybe it was just you guys got started early on, on top of just always creating awesome stuff.
What’s the back story to Dribbble? More so than probably any other person or group of people that I know through the design community, Dribbble is really your sweet spot. I know that it drives a ton of leads — sometimes good, sometimes bad — but that’s where a lot of your stuff comes through, right?
Using Dribbble to Create a Creative Following
Bill Kenney: Yeah. Dribbble kind of broke us through the ice, if you will. Again, back to Savannah, this is not a knock to Savannah. Savannah’s a great city. Our headquarters are still there. Twelve of the team members live there, but it is not a thriving, West Coast, tech boom city, you know what I mean? The marketplace for growth and work for a design agency is going to be limited. What Dribbble allowed us to do was quickly bust into a world market instead of just a little local market. We relate a huge amount of our success to Dribbble, just for what it did.
It was very clear, even if you look at the numbers year over year, from the year before we were on Dribbble, and then you look at revenue numbers the year after Dribbble. You’re talking about a spike that you could have never guessed at. To be fair, it may have been the following year because it takes you time to grow the following, to get the recognition, to drive those numbers up.
But we can find that data to see like, “Wow, this is huge for us. Okay, let’s continue putting energy and muscle into this.” Basically we’ve never stopped. The game has stayed the same.
To speak to the teams thing, the teams thing was a long time coming. I’m not an early bird to Dribbble, although I was in there earlier maybe than some, but not the earliest, earliest. I was in there, and we were building a following before team accounts existed. I remember that whole transition.
Basically what happened is, we were having internal conversations about, “Okay, well, I’m posting stuff, but it would be nice to have a team feed,” so we talked about it internally, tried to figure it out how to hack the system in a way and say, “Look, okay, if we tag them all Focus Lab, people can search by tag. Therefore, we get a URL by tag. Okay, we can use that URL as the thing that we link to. Now we have a hacked team page in a way.” Then we would put that at the bottom of every shot, “Made with the Focus Lab team.” That was a link basically to just the tag that would show all of our shots.
I’m not saying that we started this, but we were early in that game of people doing that, if not the first. I don’t know. Then a lot of people started to see like, “Oh, that works, and that works well,” so then a variety of people were doing that. Then eventually the teams accounts came around, which was nice. At that point, we had been doing it so long. It was like, “Oh, this is refreshing actually to have this now and not have to do it the other way.” That was a great addition, and Dribbble’s been doing great lately with all their new updates and stuff.
Lauren Mancke: Yeah, it was really cool to see the team thing. My company, Northbound, got invited to do a beta test of the team aspect by Dan and Rich, and it was fun to be one of the first teams on there.
Bill Kenney: Yeah, we were happy when that finally opened, opened up. We knew it was out there. We actually knew that people were testing it. We’re like, “Okay, we’re just waiting for this door to open,” because we’ve obviously been ready. We got this link thing here, and we’re faking teams, like a team account.
Brian Gardner: Did you have to go back and update all those links, though, when the team thing came out?
Bill Kenney: You know, that’s a good question. We put up so much content on Dribbble that any time you have to backtrack and change anything, that is so much work. I don’t know if we did. I kind of feel like we did, or maybe we didn’t. Again, we have so much volume that we’re going to push all that content so far back and down that it doesn’t really matter.
Brian Gardner: Yeah, that’s true.
Bill Kenney: It’ll just follow the new structure.
Brian Gardner: All right, so you guys started out with Dribbble. It’s obviously done very well for you, but over the last year or two, I’ve seen you guys venture out into other social media platforms in what I think is a deliberate play at leveraging those as well. I’ve seen you guys do stuff more so on Twitter than you have in the past, but also you’ve made your way into Facebook and even have written some things and published them over on Medium.
Now, you and I have had some conversations about content strategy. This led up to the whole Sidecar deal, so I had a little bit of inside information there. But how has that been going for you? I know that at Copyblogger and Rainmaker Digital as a company, we talk a lot about not digital sharecropping and investing your assets and resources in places that could potentially go down.
Let’s just say Dribbble closed the doors and completely vanished. Your efforts, especially like on Sidecar with the educational pieces and whatnot, how has that piece of strategy gone since you guys started implementing that?
Repurposing Content Across Platforms
Bill Kenney: Yeah, that’s a great question. That’s funny you talk about Dribbble as the example because that’s real. If we think about that right now, what would happen if Dribbble was wiped off the face of the earth, that would be not great for us in some ways. It’s not as if we’d lose all that content. We still have it all. We still created it all.
But the exposure, the eyeballs, the following, all of that stuff disappears, and then we have to populate it somewhere else and build all that back up — which is why when I talked to Dan three weeks ago in my podcast with him, I told him, “Don’t mess it up, Dan. We got a good thing going.” Yeah, we’re aware of that to the point we’re hyper-aware.
To be clear, so Focus Lab, we have what we call ‘Quarterlies.’ What that means is we all get together as a team onsite for an entire week each quarter, hence the name, and we don’t work on any client work. We just work on internal projects. Each one of those has a focus. In the one that was Focus Lab specific focused, which was our site and how we’re marketing ourselves, if you will, we talked about what are the new platforms, like what’s the new frontier look like for us. Dribbble is basically stay the course, if not get more aggressive. You can always post more.
The new frontiers would be basically Twitter, picking up volume there. We were already doing that, so that’s not really new. Medium would be a big new one. We don’t post a ton there yet, and when and if we do, and we will, that content will still come out first on our own platforms. So that content, if you will, to get back to the question, it is safe. It’s not like it would just disappear, but we would post it again basically through a channel like Medium for the added exposure.
I’ve already seen that work personally when I took a couple of posts that I wrote for Sidecar that got picked up, 600 recommends, and just so much traffic that they still get the traffic, that it is just so fruitful to post out there. We learned that because Dribbble’s the perfect example. It is the example of we can post whatever we want on our own website, but that doesn’t do us any good. We need to basically go where the people are. Like you read in a lot of these books, you got to go where the people are, and then bring them back to what you want to bring them back to.
Instagram has been another one. There’s been a very intentional plan for Instagram this year. We’ve gone from 1,000 followers to, I don’t know, today I think there’s like 16,000 or something. The team that focused on it, that’s been working on the Instagram account specifically, has done an amazing job with that. That will be more of a peer-facing platform, though. I don’t expect that really to drive a lot of work.
We’re talking about that. We’re making plans in and around that, but Dribbble still carries the weight. We’re on Behance. Behance is a little bit of a different beast. It’s a lot of eyeballs, but it’s not the same as Dribbble. It doesn’t really drive work.
Brian Gardner: Really, what you’re talking about is producing original content, putting it out on your own site, and then using some of these other social media outlets, kind of like in a syndication play, which is what Medium’s really known for, which is getting something that’s out there.
I think Medium itself has even embraced the fact that that’s how they know they’re being used. They’ve allowed for canonical tags to go back to the original source and whatnot. That’s where the people are. You can take the awesome work that you’ve done originally, put it out where the people are, and then just drive them back to your site. It works almost in a symbiotic relationship there as well.
Bill Kenney: For sure. We are organically creating so much content at Focus Lab that … you hate to use the word ‘repurpose’ because it sounds like we’re just spamming everything, but when you think about like a Dribbble shot, we can use that other places. That can then become an Instagram shot. It’s not as if we have to create original content every day for every platform.
We have so much artwork that we’re creating in a weekly basis, and then Alicja capturing it, us screenshotting stuff, us building presentations for clients, we’re basically already creating all this content. Then it’s up to us to decide when, how, and where we want to post it. We still have it all. It’s still ours.
Brian Gardner: Speaking of the content, and we’ve alluded to this thing called Sidecar, or Made by Sidecar a couple of times. Explain.
Lauren Mancke: I think what Brian is trying to say is, what is Made by Sidecar? Why did you guys create it? I know we talked a little bit at Circles Conference last year, which was a few months after it launched, but can you elaborate on the mission of Made by Sidecar? Has the focus of it changed at all since you first launched?
Complementing a Service-Based Business with Products
Bill Kenney: Great question. There’s two reasons here. There’s a business aspect, and then there’s also the bigger mission. Running a creative agency and a services-based company, you are reliant on client work. That can be taxing year over year over year. You are totally at the hands of, “Did we get leads, or did we not get leads? Do we need to go out and drum more up?” whatever that looks like for a company.
For us, we are blessed with the fact that we have a platform like Dribbble, and it drives a bunch through. It’s a lot more of just sifting through what’s coming through, but you’re still relying on that to live. That’s your revenue stream. We want to create a variety of revenue streams for Focus Lab.
Sidecar is an easy first step to that, but the bigger mission is not really about us and just making money. It is very much about giving back to the design community and building a community within Sidecar, a tribe if you will, that does a couple of things.
On one angle of Sidecar, we’re saying, “Here are the things we build for our clients that take us a ton of time, and our clients pay us a lot of money for. We can actually modify this, create it, and make it a template for you, and we can charge you X, which is nothing compared to the time and energy that we’ve put into it over the years to say that this works for us. Here’s your template.”
Yes, $56 or $76 might be a lot of money in a template world for a younger designer out there looking for things. How much are they gaining? How much time and experience are they gaining from that one deliverable that they can now reformat and use for their own client work? That’s the simple, high level, what we’re putting in there and what we’re selling, whether it be photography icon sets, all that stuff.
Really, the bigger greater mission for Sidecar, which will take years to play out, and it is in motion, which is the, how do we share knowledge? How do we teach? How does the community come in and help each other on a daily basis? We can build this really tight network of people that are willing to share information with each other, that are willing to encourage each other, that are happy to lift each other up, and do all of these things within the Sidecar tribe, if you will.
The goal is to build a tribe there that is that close, that has a variety of skillsets, perspectives on life, and all of these things. Right now, we have our Slack channel, which is our private Slack channel, that we invite people to. We’re starting to build up that tribe behind the scenes, if you will, that doesn’t exist on the site.
Right now on the site, we sell the products, and then we do all this free writing basically. We’re putting all this content in the journal of all the things that we know to be true, client experiences, and this is how we do this, this is how we do that. That’s our form of giving back right now, but really we want to blow those doors open and make it more of this community-driven, we’re all here for the greater good of design, if you will, to educate, to inform, to make us all better.
That’s basically seeping through from Focus Lab. That’s how we interact with each other. We all want to grow. Even today at lunch, one of our team members gave a lunch and learn on one of the books she read. It has nothing to do with design. It has to do with conversations and how to get through. The name of the book is Crucial Conversations. Just that type of stuff, doesn’t have to be design-specific.
I guess what I’m saying is Sidecar is now the outlet to do all of those things. Focus Lab still has to be what it is, which is a design agency. We can’t do all of the things that Sidecar will be able to do, so we’ve basically opened that up so that we can do that with Sidecar. I think that answers your question. I said a lot there.
Brian Gardner: Yeah, it’s great stuff. The way I see it is that Focus Lab is the creative agency that drives the revenue. Social media is the outlet in which you do things like build authority, get leads, and so on, but Sidecar seems to be that middle piece, which may have been lacking up until it was created, where you can take some of the stuff that, as you say, learn and have figured out through your experiences at Focus Lab. Sidecar is kind of the distribution channel for sending that out to social media.
Most of the stuff that you guys do on social media, that’s not necessarily just visual posting pictures, but more like the content side of it is actually through Sidecar and these, what you call, free writings, lessons, or tutorials where you’re really trying to help teach people. Not necessarily in a way that you hope that they come back and become clients, but just equip them as being tribe members of Focus Lab as a whole and all that.
Bill Kenney: Yeah. Focus Lab is very much the client-facing. We have this give back part of who we are, all of us in the team, like in our DNA, but we can’t be so peer-facing as a design agency. We have to be appealing to the clients, so there’s a little bit of a conundrum there when you’re like, “We’re writing for the Focus Lab blog, but really it’s purely peer-facing.” It’s a little bit silly. As your company continues to grow, the company has a focus, and it’s driven by what it’s trying to achieve.
Sidecar now becomes the peer outlet. In the Slack room, I’m in there interacting with all these people, and they’re saying, “Hey, can I call you up and just ask you this question about what to do?” Now they have direct access to us and to the team, which is awesome, because we want to be able to do that, but Focus Lab can’t function that way. Sidecar opens that door.
Lauren Mancke: Fun question. If you had to pick one, just one social media platform, to build a creative business around, what would it be, and why?
Bill’s Favorite Social Media Platform Is …
Bill Kenney: Well, I think the entire world knows what my answer is going to be to that.
Brian Gardner: Okay, you can’t answer Dribbble.
Bill Kenney: Oh okay, all right. We’ll take that out of it then [00:33:48].
Brian Gardner: This is not you as Bill. This is you, like what advice would you give to somebody who’s starting up? Aside from your own plot of land, what would be the most fruitful opportunity for someone to help spread their own word?
Bill Kenney: I don’t know how it could be something else, honestly, and here’s why. I can say Twitter. That’s not a niche demographic there, so you’re going to have to fight your way through crowds, which is fine. I think you still want to be on there as well. You want to play amongst the different fields, but Dribbble gives you such a unique opportunity to the fact that it’s super-low cost. You have no price barrier coming in as a younger creative or someone that’s looking to start an agency.
You have immediate exposure to both huge players and small players, people that you’re going to be immediately able to interact with on a peer level to say like, “Okay, I feel equal to you. You will interact with me. I don’t know if I can go interact with that person yet. Maybe I feel too shy. Maybe they’d be totally chill,” like I am, and I’ll talk to anybody. It doesn’t matter, but you don’t see that when you first come in. It couldn’t be anything else.
I guess here’s the other thing. I am a little bit biased, and that’s fair. I can recognize that. You could do really well on other platforms, like Instagram proves itself really well for type designers. You see a lot of people get really far in type on that, and they actually get client leads and stuff.
It’s just a little bit harder for me to speak to because that’s not been our path. Therefore, I don’t know that I could give that advice, but I guess if I knew if they were in a specific realm, I could point them in a different direction. As an overall creative, and if they wanted to follow a similar path as us, I paved the way. Basically just do what we did. We’re not magic makers. I didn’t come in with some secret sauce. I didn’t start with a ton of money and was able to get ahead and all these other things. We just got in and got our hands dirty, and Dribbble is the platform to do it.
I do think that some people get ahead on Behance. I have a massive following on Behance. I have a couple hundred thousand followers on Behance, significantly larger than I have on Dribbble. I can tell you that it doesn’t even touch the return as far as revenue, and it doesn’t touch the connections I make on a peer level from all walks of life, junior designer all the way through to people that I would look up to and respect.
I could try to break away from Dribbble and say like, “Okay, let me try to think of something else.” I think that would be bad information. I tell everybody, “As a younger creative, just get on Dribbble. Put some energy into it and make it work,” because we did, and I know it works.
Brian Gardner: You know what, though? That’s kind of an unfair question, though, now that I think about it. We used the word ‘creative.’ We didn’t ask you specifically, what would you tell a designer, right? Because a creative is more than just a designer. It’s a guy who’s a photographer. He’s a videographer or a writer, and in that case, Medium is a much better place for a writer to go.
Bill Kenney: Right.
Brian Gardner: Backing up and letting you take the easy route with Dribbble, for sure, as a designer, that’s absolutely the place. I wouldn’t have even asked you to say something other than Dribbble just to answer the question because, yeah, designers need to go to Dribbble. If you’re another type of creative, obviously there’s different types of outlets like that that are probably better suited for you. Let’s not see a copywriter try to use Dribbble to expand their platform.
Finding Your Tribe
Bill Kenney: Yeah, for sure. When I am posed with that question, which is from anybody, “How should I get out there?” and even if we’re thinking about new angles or new things that we want to release, new products, or whatever, it’s still following the same model, which is go find where your tribe is basically. Focus Lab’s tribe just happened to be on Dribbble. It continues to be there for now.
But depending on what industry you’re in, you’re basically going to go out and find your tribe, hang out amongst them, make yourself a name within that group, and then bring that tribe back to where you need them to come back to — whether it’s your personal site, whether it’s a book you’re releasing, or whatever. Yeah, you want to go out there and find your tribe, so whether that be Dribbble, Medium, whatever photography site, community. It’s just about the community. You got to find your own community.
Brian Gardner: Yeah, let’s talk about that. Alicja, who works with you guys a lot, is a photographer. Let’s just use an example. Ironically, I think you guys did their logo design, the photography site that just recently you guys launched a design for. It’s sort of the photography version of Dribbble, right?
Bill Kenney: Yes and no. To be clear, yes, we did do the branding work for 500px. They’re an amazing client, such a great team, and they are a really large community. It is interesting, though. I don’t have much experience on that platform in the sense of how we use Dribbble, so I don’t know if each community, if the result is the same. I don’t know that there are Hire Me buttons, CTAs, and stuff that really help to drive that type of action that come from Dribbble.
But yes, I would always tell people in other industries to at least do what you can to find your Dribbble. I’ve said that many times to many people in different industries, even to developers. “I don’t know where it is. I don’t know what to tell you, but you need to find your Dribbble. You need to find your version of what I did.” That’s the easy first step as far as I’m concerned. All it takes is time and energy. If you don’t have time and energy, you obviously don’t care enough about whatever you’re trying to start or what you’re trying to accomplish.
For every industry, it’s going to be different. I think that design is one that Dribbble specifically just worked out great. I don’t know that there is one for every industry. I think that’s really tough for other industries to figure out. Like, “Oh, I don’t know where the tribe is,” and there could be other huge barriers even if you figure out where it is. How the hell do you get into it, and how do you interact?
Brian Gardner: It always seems like an opportunity, if those don’t exist for certain media, to actually be the person like … is it Dan Cederholm? He’s the one who did Dribbble, right? He’s got his co-founder, Rich?
Bill Kenney: Yeah, but I think Dan seems to get the crown the most. I don’t know if that’s just because he has the most exposure. He’s actually on Dribbble with the big following up on the first page. But yes, it’s both of them.
Brian Gardner: My point, though, is that even if you’re a creative, and we do this with our software at our company a lot, if it’s not out there and we need it, we build it. To the really, really savvy entrepreneur who’s a creative, if that medium or that Dribbble doesn’t exist within their niche, that’s an opportunity. It’s just an opportunity to go try to create that thing, be the next Dribbble founder or the next whatever founder.
Bill Kenney: Yeah, absolutely. I agree with that 100 percent. If you’re a developer and you say, “I wish there was a …” Well, I think there have been some small attempts, but yes, I agree 100 percent. If you remember Forrst, Forrst was before Dribbble, right around the same time, but that was a play to designers and developers. You could actually post code and stuff on there. That was a little bit earlier.
I don’t know that people were searching around and hiring as much as they are now from a client perspective. The community was smaller, just because that was a while ago, just like Dribbble’s community was smaller, but there seemed to be other kind of platforms that poke around, but yeah, if you had the opportunity to create one in whatever your space is, it works.
That’s the only thing I can ever say to the path we’ve taken is it works. I don’t think I did anything magical. I think I set a course, and I said, “This is what I’m going to achieve, and I’m going to achieve that by doing A, B, and C.” I did A, B, and C, and it worked out. Everybody’s path is different, but it wasn’t rocket science, I can tell you that. Look, it took me until the end of my college career to get the college algebra thing crossed off.
Lauren Mancke: Speaking of that, who are some of your heroes or people that you look up to, respect, and say, “I wish I could do X like X”?
Who Bill Looks Up To
Bill Kenney: Oh, that’s a great question. My answer is not going to contain names I would have read about in art school. The reason is simple. It’s not because I don’t respect what they’ve done and basically the foundation that they laid for design and art in general, and the history of the world, if you will. When I was a sponge and I was coming into the who am I looking up to when I was fresh into, deeper into the design world, if you will, it would have been all of a sudden the bigger names that I would have seen on Dribbble.
I hate to go back to Dribbble, but that is such a big part of my evolution over the past six years. When I think about the people that I look up to or that I respect, those are the people I’ve been around the most and have seen the most volume from, week over week. They would just pop out in my mind to be the people that I would look up to. I can tell you typically what I look up to most, whether it be a big name or a small name, would be people that do things that I don’t do or that I can’t do.
I love it when I see really great motion work come out of the variety of people that do motion work now. Motion’s really blowing up. When I see that stuff, and we have now a motion designer on our team, Will Kesling. He is awesome. That’s the stuff when you want to get down on your hands and knees and just say, “I am not worthy.” It’s like when I look at people that do the things that don’t cross my plate typically, which are going to be just amazing typography.
I just started following these two girls on Dribbble. They do really awesome felt fabric figurines. It’s so obscure. I would never even known that I would have found that. I was just kind of trolling around on Dribbble, not to say that I’m a troll. I just found these accounts. I’m like, “Wow, people make little people, but purely out of felt.” They make little mini Pepsi cans, but the scale of it is like a fingertip. It’s all felt. That’s the stuff. That’s what inspires me. I’m like, “Holy crap. That is amazing. What is that thing?”
To say that I look up to somebody, and this is in the most humble voice ever, in the branding space or even a web space, there are people that I’m like, “Wow, you do really great work, and I respect you,” but that’s not really what kind of tickles my feathers, if you will. It’s when I see the really funky stuff that’s completely unexpected. It seems like type illustration, motion work, new mediums, three-dimensional stuff, and blending platforms doing three-dimensional stuff with flat stuff and motion — all that stuff paired together. It’s crazy to me, and that’s what I really love. I think what you were looking for is for me to name drop somebody, but I haven’t done that yet [00:45:09].
Brian Gardner: Give me two or three names. Come on, two or three designers that you want to emulate, not copy, but you know what I mean? A lot of these people are on a much higher pedestal on my level than they are your level. For you, these might be peers, but I want to know two or three people that you say, “Man, that guy or that gal has just killed it in design.”
Bill Kenney: Oh, man, that’s so tough. I’m such a people pleaser. It’s like, “Oh, I got to make sure I name the right people.” Let me think about the people that I know that constantly do great work, and let me also make sure that it’s clear that I would consider these people very good people, too. That is important to who we are and who I am.
I would say Kerem is somebody that I’ve looked up to for a long time. Kerem can be found on Dribbble. He’s out of San Francisco as well. He’s West Coast at least. Kerem’s last name is Suer, I believe. He does really, really solid work, really great person. He was one when I first started on Dribbble, you’d look up and you’d go like, “Oh my God, I can never touch that level.” Then you finally get to meet them in person, and you have grown as well. Now they’re aware of you, and you’re interacting on a peer level. You’re like, “Wow, this is amazing.” I would definitely say that Kerem is one.
You know who jumps out lately who’s totally crushing stuff is Bethany Heck. She just moved on from the IBM team, or I’m sorry, sorry, the Microsoft team. She’s moving on to her new position. I actually forget where it is, but the type stuff that she’s putting out. She just did this thing with Fonts.com when she put out all these baseball card posters using all this new type that they have for sale.
That’s the kind of stuff. I saw that poster. I was like, “OMG! I need to have that. That’s amazing.” I would say that she is somebody that I’d look up to, for sure, to this day. Right now when I look at her stuff, I’m like, “Wow, this is really great.”
That covers two platforms. That covers basically UI because Kerem’s more of a UI product guy. She does a lot, but a lot of type. What other funk do you want? I could throw out the cliché names, like Draplin. Draplin’s awesome. I love hearing him talk. He does rad work, but like everybody says Draplin. I don’t need to say Draplin. Who else? Who is on your list, Brian? I’m curious to know who you [crosstalk 00:47:38].
Brian Gardner: Well, there was one person, and I don’t know, I kind of assumed that … maybe it’s just too obvious. I know that you not saying him isn’t in any way a form of disrespect. Maybe you just didn’t want to say it, but I was thinking GoPro.
Bill Kenney: Were you thinking Charlie Waite?
Brian Gardner: I was thinking Charlie Waite.
Bill Kenney: Mr. Charlie Waite. Let’s talk about Charlie Waite for a minute. Charlie Waite will love this. He listens to all my stuff. Right, Charlie? You’re going to listen to this. Charlie Waite is a great person. That’s easy. You can say that. You can call me biased, but that is the truth.
Brian Gardner: And full disclosure, Charlie used to work at Focus Lab. Let’s put that out there, so everyone who’s listening knows that this is all [crosstalk 00:48:17].
Bill Kenney: Right, which is why I’m biased. Yes, Charlie Waite, so Charlie Waite worked at Focus Lab for three years. You can call him number three in command. You have me, my business partner Erik Reagan, and then Charlie Waite was next in line. Charlie is an amazing, well-rounded designer. He’s amazing in two ways. I’m glad you put me on to Charlie because this is just good design discussion. We have this talk now all the time with like, “Should designers be able to code and design it all?” and all of a sudden, it’s like we’re supposed to be everything.
Charlie, from a design perspective, taking code out, but from a design perspective, was extremely well-rounded. Projects come in, and they need all this illustration work. Charlie just whips it up. I’m like, “Wow, sh*t, I didn’t think you’d be able to do that much that good that fast. Okay.” UI work, he did branding projects. The well-roundedness of Charlie, and to be really strong basically … when I worked with Charlie and Charlie got a project, and although I was his boss — we don’t even like to use that word — I had no fear. I didn’t even feel like I had to check in. Charlie just knocked stuff out.
Charlie now works at GoPro, and he leads design over there. I actually just had dinner with Charlie and his wife in the city this weekend because they were on the East Coast. They came in. It was the first time I had actually seen him in a year since Circles, like we were just talking about. Such a good time to see him. Me and Charlie Waite are still the greatest of friends. Leaving a company is always tricky in any regard, especially when there’s friendship, too.
Brian Gardner: You understood, though. You sent him off well because I know that he’s always been sort of a California, West Coast boy. You really embraced that, understood that, and knew that he was growing into a bigger position. That’s kind of important, though, right?
Letting Your Staff Grow into Bigger Positions … Even When It’s Not with Your Company
Bill Kenney: Absolutely. Yes. That is important to us at Focus Lab in general. It’s easier said than done, but Charlie spent an amazing three years with us. He helped us achieve a lot as well. When it was time for him to leave … it wasn’t as if he just said, “Oh, hey, I got this new gig. Thanks for helping my exposure grow on Dribbble, and I’m out of here. Good luck.”
He hit me up all along the way as people … here’s the interesting dynamic that happens at Focus Lab. People join Focus Lab, they’re strong. I can see that they’re strong. They’re not at the level where all of a sudden Apple’s going to go out and hire them because their portfolio is not there yet. It’s not been proven to those types of companies.
I can see they’re great people. They come into Focus Lab, they turn into even better people, not because I’m there for any reason. It’s just because the Focus Lab ecosystem is such an environment for growth because of all of us that are there. We all encourage it. We all want it. Followings grow. Exposure grows. Here comes the poachers, everybody. That’s fair. It is what it is. You can’t stop that. All of a sudden, all the team members get job requests from everybody because they see all the work all the time, the Instagrams, the Googles, the Pinterests, the Microsofts, everybody.
Charlie was very transparent with that. He said, “Listen, I’m getting approached by a lot of people, blah, blah, blah. I don’t plan on doing anything.” As time went by, GoPro was the perfect storm for him. It was a great opportunity for a lot of reasons.
He got to move back to the West Coast where he grew up. He actually lives in the town that he grew up in. His daughters now are going to the school that he went to school at. He’s a surfer. He was living in Alabama — time to get out of Alabama, time to go back to the West Coast, and take the great new job. Yeah, let’s put Charlie on the list. I wouldn’t have thought that initially just because it wouldn’t have crossed my mind. Honestly, right now, I would have been looking for the big names, if you will. Charlie is great all around.
Lauren Mancke: Do you have any parting words for creative entrepreneurs or just entrepreneurs in general? Any secret tips or recipes for killing it online?
Bill’s Secret Tip for Success
Bill Kenney: Oh gosh. The secret tip is you got to put your hard hat on, go out there every single day, and bang it against the wall. Some days are amazing, and some months, some quarters, and some years are amazing. Some days, some months, quarters, and years are really a grind. I think the thing for me, and the thing for us at Focus Lab, it’s the longevity. It’s the stay the course. Course correct as needed. Motivate as needed. It looks all sunshine and like it’s all easy every day from the outside perspective.
To be fair, it is 90 percent of that, but there are the days where you’re like, “Oh, can I post another thing here? Can I grind out another amazing deliverable on top of the one I just spit out?” That becomes quite a challenge. It’s being a creative on top of running a business and all of these things.
It’s not necessarily easy. I think it’s the, can you weather the length of time that you may be doing it — whether it’s three years or 30 years — and can you also weather the storms when they come? Because they’re going to come for sure. When you get on the flip side of it, you’re a bigger, better, stronger person. But can you weather that?
That would be my only advice. For me, it’s a time, energy, and intention game. If you put in the right amount of time, the right amount of energy, and the right amount of intention, you should be moving forward. That ball should be moving forward, and it should be growing for you. Just keep doing it. It’s the old ‘don’t give up’ speech, but it’s so the truth. Year after year, that starts to become pretty hard. Where do you find your motivation?
Brian Gardner: Yup. Words of wisdom from little Bill Kenney of the big ship, Focus Lab.
Bill Kenney: Thanks.