Community Series | Adobe’s Scott Belsky on Leading With Conviction
When you’re committed to building a better product, and a better community, conviction is paramount. Especially in the face of opposition. If you don’t believe in the product and the needs it can address for the community you’ve identified, how can you truly lead?
We talked with Scott Belsky, creator of Behance and the Chief Product Officer and Executive Vice President of Creative Cloud at Adobe. Scott is an executive, author, investor, and most importantly, a product obsessive. Scott shares how Behance found its footing by building the product around their ideal customers, even when they couldn’t get them to buy in from the start.
As a Chief Product Officer, Scott also shares insights into what conviction looks like when you’re the leader of multiple products across a vast community, and how empowering others to make decisions has been vital to product success at Adobe. Take a listen!
Past Episodes Mentioned:
- Building an Audience Before Your Digital Product Launches with Dave Gerhardt
- Creating a Better Product Starts by Solving a Real Problem with Peter Omvlee
Products Mentioned:LISTEN NOW
Scott Belsky: Behance doesn't belong to Adobe, Behance belongs to the community. It took a lot to educate my colleagues around this idea that a community cannot become the best that you can be as a steward of a community. And at the end of the day, if creatives in Behance all go in and delete their portfolio tomorrow, then there's nothing there.
Anna: Better Product. The only show that takes a behind the scenes look into how digital products are created.
Christian: The business is built around them and how you, too, can innovate better product. I'm Christian.
Anna: I'm Anna.
Christian: Welcome to today's show.
Anna: For those of us committed to making a better product, conviction is paramount. If you don't believe in the product and its need to exist, how can you truly lead? Today's guest is driven by conviction. It's something that has been at the center of each step of his product journey.
Christian: Today's conversation is with Scott Belsky, Chief Product Officer and Executive Vice President of Creative Cloud at Adobe. Scott is an executive and author and investor, and most importantly, a product obsessive.
Anna: Scott's story ties well into this concept of community that we've been exploring over the past several episodes. In 2006, he created Behance, an online platform to discover creative work. The idea was born out of a frustration and how disconnected the creative world was, and how hard it was to get ideas off the ground. So Scott set out to build a place where talent could come together to showcase their work.
Scott Belsky: One thing that did not make any sense to me was that we all had portfolio sites that were on our own domain names that lived out in the ether. And unless someone searched for a designer by name, they would never find it. It just goes counter to the whole point of discovering talent you didn't know existed. I was looking at LinkedIn and all these other social networks that were all about discovery and finding talent through other threads. And I figured, well, why wouldn't every portfolio site in the world also be aggregated in some ways so that the projects that live in the portfolios can be sorted by genre, by tool used, by client worked for, by agency affiliation? Because then suddenly, talent would be discoverable in an entirely new way.
Christian: Well, Behance now showcases the work of over 17 million creatives around the world. It wasn't easy to get people to buy in. In fact, Scott had to find his own creative ways to get people involved. In the early days, that meant focusing on quality over quantity. In fact, Behance started out by building the portfolios for just the top creatives they wanted to feature in order to get others to join and participate.
Scott Belsky: What was really interesting about the early version of the site, before the world of universal scroll, was that it was about 12 projects visible per page. So whenever you search for something, you've got about 12 projects per page, and you would go page by page to find more work. And so if we had a 100 portfolios, on average five projects each, 500 projects, that actually was a very rich site. So people who would come to Behance would just see seemingly endless great work from creatives they admired, and that was what would get them to join and participate.
Anna: While this seems like a lot of work, it turned out to be the best thing that could have happened. It allowed Scott and his team to evolve Behance around their ideal customers, the ones they initially chose to feature. They had an idea in mind for the ideal community for Behance, and then did the leg work to bring the right people in and lay the foundation for that exact community.
Scott Belsky: You want to actually pick the customers that you want to evolve the product, as opposed to just evolving the product for whatever customers come in the door. And I think there are many examples of companies that are trying to pick the right first cohort of customers that will end up evolving the product in the direction that is really aspirational, as opposed to lowest common denominator.
Anna: Isn't it a cool to think that something aspirational can actually become real and not just, you know, aspirational?
Christian: Well, that comment was inspirational. And none of this would've happened had Scott listened to all the people who told him no when he asked them to create their portfolios on Behance and join the community. And that's where the conviction comes in. For Scott, if you truly believe the community you're creating is valuable to people, you have to push through, and that's exactly what he did.
Scott Belsky: When you encounter the nos along the way, or your conviction is as strong, if not stronger, than when you started, you just have to stick with it. You're just in the messy middle and this is just par for the course. However, when you start to lose conviction as a result of your interaction with customers and the feedback they're giving you and the reasons why they're telling you they don't want to use your product, then you should quit. You should do something else. There's no pride in doing something the world doesn't need.
Anna: And guess what, Christian? Scott's conviction paid off. In 2012, Behance was acquired by Adobe, where Scott became the VP of Products, Mobile, and Community, before later becoming Chief Product Officer. So after all this, what does conviction look like for Scott as a leader of multiple products in a community that is so vast?
Christian: Well, that's the crux of today's conversation. We're going to hear what it was like for Scott to transition from one product to a whole lot of products that are constantly evolving. He shares how community and conviction still informs his leadership decisions, but in a lot of ways that you might not expect. Let's take a listen.
Christian: I'm curious to know what you saw in getting Behance acquired by Adobe, and how your vision translated between Behance into Adobe's?
Scott Belsky: Well, from a product perspective, we really wanted to nail the attribution opportunity. We wanted to know who was doing what. And we felt like getting into the creative tools themselves was the ultimate way to do this. We always really wanted to work with Adobe and we wanted to integrate into their products. We actually had four years of various versions of the discussion around partnerships, and they always failed because it was all or nothing. It was very clear that it was just a little bit too deep of a relationship to have as a third party. And so that was always what was stopping us from working with Adobe in a meaningful way.
Scott Belsky: And then when Adobe decided to make this transition from software to service, decided to deliver its products with fonts embedded so you could replace missing fonts, and library is connecting so people could use the same assets across teams and across apps, it became clear that community was also one of those services that could integrate into the products and really strengthen the offering. Once that transition happened, the Behance opportunity became more clear, not only to Adobe, but also the us, and I started getting excited about it. I was like, wow, I think these tools can be a lot better and I think that the service opportunity's pretty exciting.
Scott Belsky: We had a lot of experience building a service and a lot of our future colleagues at Adobe did it. And so that was the opportunity. And of course after an acquisition, there was the integration, there's was a kind of indigestion of how a company integrates a new entity. The cool thing about Adobe is it actually, it's grown through acquisitions in the past. Photoshop was an acquisition originally. So the company has a DNA that is very open to new DNA. I think that's why a lot of our team has stuck around and I think that's why it's succeeded as acquisition.
Anna: So I would assume that that from the beginning, the acquisition was something that was always potentially on the radar, or maybe the ideal outcome. What did you think that acquisition process would be like? And then how is it actually different?
Scott Belsky: The crazy thing is that we were a bootstrap company for five years, and then we raised some money from venture capital. But for that five year period, Matias and I, my co-founder and I, strangely enough, actually never talked about acquisition. Because we set up the company as an LLC, and we had this vision of it being a really great cash flowing business for our team, we didn't like the idea of having a board, having bosses, per se. And so we never really talked about it until we raised that venture round and thought, well, would we ever want to go through something like that?
Scott Belsky: So it took a while, but once we went through it, I think it was really about the sum of the parts being greater than the whole. Or the whole being greater than the sum of the parts, I guess, is a better way of saying it. We were thinking about where do we want this part to go? What tools do we need to get there? What resources do we need? One of the biggest factors for me was a lot of my team felt like their potential was held back without having the resources of a larger company. We wanted to hire some of the best people. We had all these ideas about integrating into creative tools. There's so much stuff we wanted to do, and I felt like in order for us to do the best work of our lives, this was something we really needed to consider.
Anna: Were you worried at all that your product, Behance, would go away or get shelved? Or was there any fear of what this acquisition could look like?
Scott Belsky: There's always the fear of the unknown. What I was hearing from Adobe at the time was a declaration of what our role would be in the company, how central we would be, the autonomy we would have, the strategy we would be able to follow. I believed that, and fortunately, that came to be. But yeah, I was definitely very protective, and still am, by the way, of some core tenants of Behance that I think can never change. One of those, the most important one, is that Behance doesn't belong to Adobe. Behance belongs to the community. It took a lot to educate my colleagues around this idea that a community cannot become the best that you can be as a steward of a community. And at the end of the day, if creatives in Behance all go in and delete their portfolio tomorrow, then there's nothing there. So that was an important realization. And that means there was a lot of implications for how Behance is managed, how the brand stays intact in order to follow through on that value.
Christian: You mentioned these core tenants. How do you maintain adhering to those now that you're part of a much larger company?
Scott Belsky: Well, at the end of the day, a company is just people, right? I always like to remind anyone who says, oh, big companies, can't do that. It like, hey, it's just people. Every startup is people, every big company is people, and either you have people aligned around a vision or you don't. I've seen startups that have really crappy alignment and people don't share the same values, and I've seen big companies that are great at it. So what my challenge is now in my role at Adobe is to get alignment across all of our products and to allow them to practice their values. It's easier with a new product like Behance, but it's hard with a product that's 30 years old sometimes, like Photoshop. And that's part of the challenge.
Christian: That's a good segue way, then, because we're both really interested to understand how... Well, we want to understand what a CPO does. I think you may be our very first CPO we've ever had on the show, so I want to explore that. But leading into that, I think handling the transition from overseeing Behance into now overseeing the product line of Adobe, which is massive, it seems like that was a much bigger task on your plate. So how did you handle that transition?
Scott Belsky: I love product problems. I love getting my hands deep into problem after problem after problem. And the idea of being able to jump around from a problem that Photoshop is facing to a problem that our video products are facing to the font service to Behance, it's just so fun for me. I was very excited about that challenge. Of course, it requires me to compartmentalize my focus, to constantly prioritize, and whatever else. And so there's a lot of change I had to go through as a leader over the years to take on many products as opposed to one. But I personally happen to like that. Some people are like, oh, that would be a nightmare to have so many, I want to just focus on one thing. And I get it. Different people have different desires around those lines.
Anna: So you mentioned having to change as a leader. What do you mean by that?
Scott Belsky: Well, when you are the steward of one product, you can think all night and day about it, you can make every decision. I think a lot of great product leaders are very controlling about every aspect of the product, and the polish and the methodical way that things are evolved and whatever else. But when you are in charge of many products, you have to let a lot of things go. You have to really empower other people to make decisions.
Scott Belsky: The hardest part is you have to let them make decisions that are different than what you would have decided. That's very hard. And the reason you do that is because the benefits of empowering another product leader are greater than the cost of a few things being different than how you had envisioned. And so the challenge of, these are the few things that I am going to stay in control of and insists are my way, and the rest of it, I'm going to empower so and so to make those decisions. I'm going to support her or his decisions because that's how we're going to have a scalable product organization. I think that takes a lot of development as a leader.
Christian: Focusing on this transition, when did this happen where you transitioned from still being a steward just Behance inside of Adobe into overseeing Adobe's line? Where was that in your timeline?
Scott Belsky: Well, we came in late 2012, and for a year I was just responsible for Behance. And then I would say sometime in early 2013, I took over mobile, which was all the creative cloud mobile products and the strategy, for which there really wasn't one. And that led into services, which eventually included type kit. When I was there, I created with our team the Creative Cloud Libraries construct, which was the first incarnation of Design Systems, back in 2014. And then I took over as Chief Product Officer of all products in, I guess, late 2016, maybe.
Christian: So what was the difference between what you were doing up until that point and then shifting over to overseeing all the products? What were the things that you were challenged with initially?
Scott Belsky: Well, I think it was largely what we just talked about. It was figuring out how to build a collaborization, how to make sure that you have a top level strategy that everyone is aligned around. A lot of folks probably listening to our discussion are designers, and I have to say, especially in a big company, a prototype is worth a 1,000 meetings. It's just unbelievable, the power of design to get alignment. If you have a big company and you're trying to really change products and make the business better, there's two ways to do it. Either you can throw more process to get people aligned, or you can use a vision like a prototype or a design to get people aligned. Process just slows everyone down. But design just speeds everyone, I find, when it comes to alignment. And so what I've tried to do a lot in my role is just try to find creative ways to get people on the same page.
Christian: What I'm curious to understand, you first had a vision with Behance, and you execute it, and I think by all definition were successful at doing that. But when you take over a product line of products that are more mature, how do you even figure out what a new vision's going to look like for something like that?
Scott Belsky: Well, obviously, it starts with customers, and spending lot of time with customers and understanding what it is that they're struggling with and where the world's going in terms of creative work. And so some of the big insights we've had, for example, we know that creativity is becoming more collaborative. It used to be that when someone would go into Photoshop or any product like that, they would work on their own. And in fact, the idea of even sharing a file with somebody and worrying about versions getting screwed up was like, no one wanted to even work together at that level. Fast forward to today, in the world of Google Docs, everyone wants to be able to work together. And so we have to get to a world where our products allow people to collaborate in real time. That means that the products need to be cloud-first products, which means instead of saving a PSD, you need to save a cloud PSD. What does that mean? It means that you could work across devices or work with other people, work on iPad and desktop, maybe work on web some day. There's a lot of implications to that.
Scott Belsky: But that's just one example of many theses we have for the future of the world of creativity. And then that boils into a strategy plan, of what do we want to accomplish for our products across the board? If you're on the Photoshop team, how do you chart the course to make that happen? And then how do we do the order of operations? What do we do first? How do we validate this? And another tricky part is, how do we make sure we're always adding value to customers even when we are doing something that will ultimately only manifest value in three years from now? And not you have to be multi-threaded as a team because you have to deliver features that add value tomorrow, and performance, quality improvements, and stuff like that. You also have to have a longer term roadmap for some of these bigger picture changes.
Christian: Amongst all the work you're doing at Adobe, Behance, and the books you're writing, you wrote an article on LinkedIn not long ago, earlier this year, where you talk about forecasting, the longer term outlook of products. One of the things that stood out to me on this topic of large scale trends is you said the new era of personalization that antiquates generalized products and services. Now, people can go read your article on LinkedIn, but I'd love to hear your thoughts on how that pertains to what you're doing at Adobe right now.
Scott Belsky: Well, you think how crazy it is that someone goes into Photoshop, for example, and then they see every tool you could possibly use by default displayed to you. It is completely overwhelming for almost everyone. You have to spend years in the product, understand how they all work. Compare that to a different approach that a modern product would take of progressive disclosure, where you reveal, come to the basic tools that everyone needs at first. And then depending on what you're doing and who you are from an expertise perspective, additional functionality is disclosed to you. That's like one example of how I feel products are becoming more personalized, through progressive disclosure. Some of the web applications that are emerging these days work that way. You come in, you use a basic functionality, and then they reveal more functionality, and they train you as you go based on who you are and what you need to do.
Scott Belsky: I also think that experiences are becoming highly personalized. The web, obviously to some extent, with sites knowing who we are and that kind of thing. But when you think about the next medium, think about augmented reality for a moment. We're going to walk around and we're going to see a world around us that is augmented. And based on who we are, it's going to look entirely different based on our preferences, and that's an extremely exciting thing. But there's a lot of implications for creatives. One of the biggest ones is the sheer velocity of content that's going to be created. You're going to have to create versions of a store experience for a male, for a female, for young, for old, for a first time visitor versus a frequent visitor. It's going to increase the volume of content creation so much, and that's a product problem that we have to, for Adobe at least, we have to solve.
Christian: But how do you mobilize these trends or these things, the AI personalization or AR, across your product lines? Or do you have teams that work on these or is it something that you disseminate amongst all the product teams and have them go execute on?
Scott Belsky: Yeah. I think that when you run a big product organization, it's always an active debate about what you centralize versus what you allocate to all teams to figure out on their own. A lot of the artificial intelligence, machine learning type stuff, is a centralized function. And then a lot of the feature development is decentralized, in the sense that each team owns their own customer experience. It's probably a mix of both.
Anna: So I'm curious, with new roles, and I think product roles too are evolving and changing and growing over the years, what do you think is one of the most valuable skills for a product person is today? And maybe even what you think that would be in the future?
Scott Belsky: Well, one of the things I've benefited the most from is the number of products I've been involved in. I feel like when you're involved with many different types of products, you just start to see many different types of problems from many vantage points, and you start to develop more intuition. I'm still learning. Every time I'm involved with a new team or a new product or something that totally blows my mind or is very humbling, and like, oh my goodness, I can't believe I didn't think of that or I didn't know that or whatever else. That's great. You want to expand your surface area as much as possible.
Scott Belsky: Unfortunately, a lot of product people want to do the opposite. They want to stick with one thing, they want to... It's all about focus. And as a result, you're not seeing everything from the balcony. You're only seeing it from the dance floor. You're only exposed to what's immediately around you as opposed to get a really broad landscape sensibility. I've learned a lot from being an investor and advisor to a lot of companies and their products. Whether it's sitting down with a team like Pinterest and thinking about their customer and their product problems, or the onboarding for a loan platform where people get loans, and then a enterprise product, doing enterprise wifi. Every time I have a conversation with other product leaders, I feel like I get another glimpse at some other perspective. I think that's how you develop intuition and make better decisions. So I think that people who want to lead a big workflow of products in the future should try and get as much exposure as possible.
Anna: So I have one final question for you. What does better product mean to you?
Scott Belsky: Well, I think a better products is more empowering to its customer. At the end of the day, when we come and use a product, we're a little bit lost. We are trying to figure out how to use it, how to make ourselves more successful. A great product empowers the user to take full advantage of its capabilities, to be able to not be intimidated to fulfill objectives.
Anna: Our thanks to Scott Belsky for chatting with us and sharing his story from Behance to Adobe, and how the principles of conviction and community have helped create a better experience for creative minds everywhere.
Anna: Over the past four episodes, we've had the opportunity to explore many facets of community and learn how product leaders are building communities that become valuable resources when it comes to product growth and innovation. But how can you ensure that your community remains healthy? And how do you know when to put feedback from your community into practice? In our final episode of this series, we're going to hear how product leaders are learning to navigate their communities with care, leading to a positive, healthy environment that benefits both the users and the product.
Anna: Thanks so much for listening to the show this week. If you haven't yet, be sure to subscribe, rate, and review this podcast. Until then, visit innovatemap.staging.wpengine.com/podcast and subscribe to learn how you can take your product to the next level. As always, we're curious, what does better product mean to you? Hit us up on twitter @innovatemap, or shoot us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Christian: I'm Christian.
Anna: And I'm Anna, and you've been listening to Better Product.
Christian: Better Product.
Anna: Drop mic.