Member News March 21, 2014
Can you imagine a business that spends over half of its resources on work that won’t make it a single penny? Matt Manos and Bora Shin, the daring minds behind verynice, can and did imagine such a model with their global design, business, and innovation consultancy.
At verynice, over 50% of the work is pro bono, helping nonprofit organizations all over the world to communicate their message without having to take away badly needed funding from their immediate causes. Matt and Bora met as graduate students in Media Design at the Art Center College of Design and were collaborating on this innovative concept before their second semester was over. Now, they are sharing it with the world in the new book How to Give Half of Your Work Away for Free so that independent freelancers and small businesses alike can implement the 50/50 model to make pro bono work an essential part of their careers instead of an afterthought, fostering a new era in design.Can you imagine a business that spends over half of its resources on work that won’t make it a single penny? Matt Manos and Bora Shin, the daring minds behind verynice, can and did imagine such a model with their global design, business, and innovation consultancy.
We talked to Matt and Bora about why this #givehalf idea isn’t actually as crazy as it sounds.
ADC: When you were first forming verynice, what were the kinds of books, blogs, and people that gave you inspiration?
Matt: When I started verynice, it was in 2008,when I was a college student. I really was starting it based off of my freelance career. So the first book was, funnily enough, Non-profits for Dummies, which just gave me insight into how non-profits operate in and out. When the studio was first launching, one of the initial intentions was for us to actually be a non-profit organization ourselves. I also read Social Business by Muhammad Yunus, which opened my eyes to the concept that we don’t have to be a non-profit because there’s this new blurred sector called social enterprise, or what he calls social business. This was before TOMS really became mainstream with their one-for-one model.
ADC: So, why now? Why not develop more experience as part of an established studio or continue down an academic path? Why share your model for success at all?
Matt: Part of it for me is that I’ve realized that I would be a really stubborn employee and I don’t think anybody would ever want to hire me! I’ve only had to work for myself. I decided that very early on. And it just seemed like this was right at the cusp of the whole social enterprise movement that’s just blown up now.
I kept noticing in the early days of tinkering with this model that there are so many really great, really innovative solutions in the product space, but there’s really no thought at all in the service space. When you’re selling not products but time, it’s just a whole different game. There was no better moment to try and stir stuff up a little bit.
Bora: Considering the growth of interest in what social innovation is and how quickly the industry is engaging designers, I don’t think there are a lot of opportunities for designers with that interest. I think that’s what’s interesting about us: we have already tapped into this model of facilitating volunteers to generate work and providing opportunities for designers to create social impact through their vocational training.
ADC: Your model for attracting volunteers in intentionally open-ended, placing the responsibility on designers to reach out to you with their interests rather than offering them a form to fill out or a database to become a part of. Why does that strategy work?
Matt: When you think about traditional volunteerism with non-profits or traditional recruitment, you think a lot about canvasing. You’re trying to walk down the street and somebody with a clip board in a green T-shirt is telling you that if you don’t sign your name on the dotted line, you don’t care about the world. There’s something really messed up about that because why would you ever say no? There’s so much pressure to get involved, whereas when you let people just organically flock to you because they truly want to, that’s when it becomes something authentic.
That’s what Bora and I really love about all the people we work with: they’re helping us and helping these causes because they actually want to, not because we forced them to. The first volunteer we ever had was somebody that just sent me an email after we launched our first website. That was a shock that someone would want to do that, so we’ve kept this open door policy.
Bora: The New York office has been focusing on matching volunteers to projects and bringing them into the heart of the creative team, fostering their altruistic goals. We’re being strategic about cultivating transitional types of opportunities, engaging master level students or people who have just graduated, too
when people used to ask us ‘How do you give half your work away for free?’ the answer was, ‘We just do.’ It wasn’t really completely written down because it just worked at some level. The book forced me personally at least to really think about how this thing is working
ADC: How did the experience of putting together your book How to Give Half of Your Work Away for Free further your ideas or change your thinking?
Matt: It took a year to put together, but there was a clear need to write this thing just based on how many people were getting in touch asking how can I give half of my work away for free? There was this need to open source it so that could be more proactive leaders in that movement, and that’s what the book does. It’s actually helped us a lot as a company because when people used to ask us ‘How do you give half your work away for free?’ the answer was, ‘We just do.’ It wasn’t really completely written down because it just worked at some level. The book forced me personally at least to really think about how this thing is working. Putting that all on paper is just such a huge endeavor. It was quite eye opening. It’s also really accelerated the movement of people doing this. There’s definitely dozens of companies now that are giving half their work away for free.
ADC: What kinds of businesses or individuals will benefit most from the book?
Matt: The ideal is somebody that’s a freelancer right now that wants to turn that into a small business, or a small business that doesn’t have a huge staff quite yet. The reason being, although it’s been done, it’s going to be difficult for a large company to do this with an overhead of $100,000 a month. So it really is catering towards small businesses. That’s really intentional because there are already a lot of great ways for large businesses to give back: when you’re making billions of dollars every year, I would say it’s pretty simple to throw a million towards a non-profit. In fact, you really should; shame on you if you’re not. But if you’re pushing six figures, you can’t really donate money that will have more of an impact than some new office supplies. How can somebody like that really contribute to the world beyond themself? That’s really who this is for.
ADC: Have you experienced any push-back from large corporations that aren’t quite ready to accept that message?
Matt: Definitely. I address every single naysay comment because I think this a new type of philosophy towards business and it can be a bit controversial sometimes. We take it to the extreme a lot just based on our own beliefs. I’m preaching that the moment any service provider charges for their work, their social impact is void. Obviously, that’s a really, really unpopular statement amongst a lot of people, but it’s something I genuinely believe. That’s why we do pro bono. We really see the value in that, and so that’s something that’s important to us to really stick to our guns on.
It really comes down to making it into more of a lifestyle.
Bora: On the other hand, we are presenting this business model at a very interesting time, where a lot of people are really open to the idea. That’s something that I really enjoy seeing: people are very attracted to and want to be challenged by adapting to such a model. It really comes down to making it into more of a lifestyle. A lot of our volunteers have replicated the model on an individual level. It’s great to see them gaining the experience to do that with us because those pro bono projects really pay off for them in obtaining actual paid work in for-profit fields. Seeing those creatives actually building their practices in this unique and interesting way is really valuable for us. We hope to see a lot more freelancers who are able to adapt this unique lifestyle into their practices, but make it their own.
ADC: Why was establishing an office in New York important at this stage for the business?
Matt: The East Coast has huge connections to non-profit world. I also think we’ve been seeing the whole Silicon Valley scene slowly replicating itself in New York.
Bora: Plus, it’s really within our DNA to work very remotely and globally, with the facilities, volunteers, and various non-profit organizations we work with coming from different countries. We just see the New York office as an extension of the L.A. office. Being able to facilitate a very diverse culture while taking on the challenge of how to cultivate the workflow in different time zones. That type of effort itself can bring a lot of value the work in the social impact context, where we can scale up for things beyond the US and include field research.
ADC: Is there anything that you use every day that’s an analog instrument that you couldn’t work without, or are you really just doing everything online?
Matt: I’m 25 years old but my brain and my soul is probably about 85. I’m so stubborn and have a hard time with technology sometimes, so I’m always in my notebook. That’s how I originally did all our accounting — even up until last year, it was all handwritten. The studio’s roots are very analogue, that’s for sure. We’re definitely changing that because everyone’s telling me that doesn’t work!
ADC: Notebook accounting does sound a bit tedious…
Matt: It’s not too scalable.
The craftsmanship of that production process is now just in expertise and engagement with the technology — really knowing the technology.
ADC: With the kind of growth that verynice is experiencing, how are you maintaining that level of craft on every project, knowing that when something goes out, it’s going to be beautifully made?
Bora: I think coming from a very traditional print design background and seeing how meticulous everything has to be from a project management perspective helps. Making sure the end product of the print going into production really reflects the original design itself is really a challenge especially in the digital context now. It really comes down to very detailed communications back and forth with designers, tweaking until we get to the point where we can really hold it to that standard of craftsmanship, even if it’s a digital product. The craftsmanship of that production process is now just in expertise and engagement with the technology — really knowing the technology.
Matt: A lot of the time when people hear we have almost 300 different volunteers or contractors that we leverage, it can be really quickly assumed that we have a crowd-sourcing type of model, where it’s just, “Oh, here is a project. Who wants it? Have fun.” But we’re totally against that type of model. With any project, as Creative Directors, we’re both very hands-on in doing upfront research and homework to make sure that there is a set strategy and success criteria before getting anyone else involved.
We’re lucky to have a lot of other great managers here in the L.A. office and building more in the New York office, too, to be able to help coordinate all of that as well. That’s something that really sets us apart: we do have this large crowd of sorts that’s proprietary to us, but we handle things in a very traditional way in terms of process.