William Allen on the future of Adobe, Behance and 99U, idea execution and what it takes to succeed

William Allen is Senior Director of Adobe, where he oversees Behance, Adobe Portfolio and 99U. He acted as Behance's COO prior to their acquisition by Adobe. Previously he created strategic partnerships with global brands at TED and was the co-founder of the consultancy Industry Digital Media.

With a recently relaunched 99U shifting its focus to "Empowering the Creative Community", rather than its original "Insights on Making Ideas Happen" strapline, and another exciting 99U Conference on the horizon – which this year talks more about idea execution than idea generation – we spoke to Will about this new approach and what we can expect to see in future. We also grabbed the opportunity to quiz Will on his own amazing career and how he believes other creatives can become successful.

You've had a rich and varied career. Tell us how you got to Senior Director at Adobe.

I came to Adobe through the acquisition of Behance. I joined the Behance team when they were quite young, before they raised any outside capital. I joined as the COO. In a little over a year we did a complete transformation – closing products that weren’t key for us, raising venture capital from Union Square Ventures and other investors, and rapidly expanding the team. A little while later we starting having great conversations with Adobe – ended up selling the company to them in December of 2012. I’ve been with Adobe ever since.

My experience at Adobe has been amazing. Our team has more than doubled, and Behance gets more traffic and users than ever before. We’ve refocused the strategy of 99U, and launched two new products: Adobe Talent (connecting recruiters to top talent) and Adobe Portfolio (a powerful website builder for a creative’s portfolio). And we have so much in store.

What did you study and where? Has it helped shape your career?

I graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and had an absolutely amazing experience there. It’s a diverse university – racially, socio-economically, politically – and you learn so much by being exposed to a variety of people from all sorts of backgrounds.

I graduated with a double major in Philosophy and Political Science. Which of course did nothing specifically to prepare me for the world of business and building products. But it did something even more critical: it taught me how to think. Learning how to learn means that no matter how rapidly technology evolves or how quickly the world changes, you can always keep up.

Was there a moment in your career when you took a big risk to move forward?

There are three that stand out for me: quitting my first job out of college to start my own company, leaving the company I co-founded to join what was at the time a tiny, little-known organisation called TED, and then joining a disorganised, fledgling startup that had no money but a big vision, Behance. Each of those was a huge risk in retrospect, but didn’t feel like it at the time: I believed so strongly in what I was doing that it felt like the real risk would have been not to act.

So you now work across Behance, 99U, and Adobe. What's the vision for these ventures? Where are you heading?

One of the greatest leaders I’ve worked for – Chris Anderson of TED – has a phrase that I love: we don’t have a map of the future since it hasn’t been invented yet, but we do have a compass. That’s how I feel about the two of the products I lead – Behance and 99U – and Adobe in general. What will Behance look like in two, five, ten years? I can honestly say I don’t know. But what I do know is our mission is unwavering: to provide creatives across the world exposure and attribution for who they are and what they do. They deserve to have the world know the beautiful works they create and get the opportunities for jobs and collaboration that come along with that.

What specific tools and services will Adobe be creating in the future? What is going to be the next version of Photoshop or Illustrator or XD? I could give you specifics on what we’re thinking about – but those change as the world changes around us. What’s more important is Adobe’s overarching mission: to make great products and services that help people – from the novice to the expert – create. Our compass is clear.

"Our mission is unwavering: to provide creatives across the world exposure and attribution for who they are and what they do. They deserve to have the world know the beautiful works they create and get the opportunities for jobs and collaboration that come along with that."

So much seems to be progressing at Adobe – what challenges have you faced since your time there, and how are you overcoming them?

One of the main challenges (and blessings, of course) is that we have this storied legacy – Photoshop is a verb, after all – and an incredibly massive user base. How do we continue to improve products that are used by so many? How do you make sure your products don’t age with your audience – by which I mean, how are you constantly improving and simplifying your core offering to bring in the users who are just starting out today?

There are no easy answers to this.

But as they say, if it’s easy, everyone would be doing it. Building products used by millions of people is hard! Every person who runs a product isn’t happy with the current version of what they have out in market – they know its flaws intimately and have lots of plans and designs to fix those.

That means you live in a perpetual state of dissatisfaction – but that’s exactly what it takes to constantly improve.

You've recently launched the refreshed 99U design with a new strapline "Empowering the Creative Community". This moves on from the previous: "Insights on making ideas happen". What has changed? Has the audience evolved? What's its revised mission, if any?

Sean Blanda, on my team, leads 99U, and he said it best in his announcement blog post: 'The new 99U isn’t a departure from before—it’s a refocusing, and renewal of our dedication to you. We believe that the creative soul is different than others and requires a much more focused publication. As a result, we are refreshing the ways in which we provide the “missing curriculum” for building an incredible creative career'.

There are lots of resources in the world on making ideas happen – productivity blogs, etc. But we believe we can offer the world something unique: dedicated insights into the creative’s world and what they need to build their career. This had always been the undertone of what we do – but with the redesign, we wanted to make it more explicit. You’ll notice the editorial vision is matching this new focus – we’re creating these wonderful articles now that really dig deep into the creative insights of some remarkable artists.

"You live in a perpetual state of dissatisfaction – but that’s exactly what it takes to constantly improve."

Tell us more about the thought process and strategy behind the redesign.

Sean again captures this with an extensive behind-the-scenes view of the editorial process. But I can give you a bit of context on how we got started in this process. I believe that your past can either be the foundation upon which you build your future or the chains that hold you back. So I came to our team and asked them: is our past at 99U holding us back, or allowing us to build out what we should be?

I pulled the core team together – Sean, our brand lead Mark Brooks, and our design lead Zach McCullough – and we locked ourselves in a room to debate. Importantly, I made sure the team knew every option was on the table. And I mean every option.

Out of these meetings came the renewed focus on the creative world and their careers. I couldn’t be more proud of where we are today and where we’re going.

The theme for this year's 99U Conference is to shift from idea generation to idea execution. You say this is different from most other conferences. Tell us more...

The conference is less about what you created, and more about how you created it. There are plenty of places to go to hear about the outcomes, but few show you the behind the scenes. How did they get their creative teams to work together? Is following your passion really the best advice? How did they turn their mistakes into assets?

What experience do you hope attendees will have? What do you hope they'll get out of it?

As always, I want attendees to walk away with insights they didn’t have before. Something actionable they can put into practice that very day – something concrete to help improve their craft or the business of their craft. To build connections with others across all sorts of creative industries. And of course to have a lot of fun.

Behance focuses on self-promotion – how would you choose to promote yourself based on today's technology?

Obviously, we’re trying to do everything we can to make Behance itself the best vehicle for promoting your work, and we have a lot of exciting updates there.

But even as fast as the technology changes, the key paradigm stays the same: you want to tell a story. In this case, you want to tell your story. Who are you? What motivates you? What are you capable of? What inspires you? I often find seeing the thought-process behind work generates a lot of interest. But that’s just one way to go. I know plenty of other people who are quite successful who take a completely different approach – no backstory, just showcasing their work.

At the end of the day, there is no advice that would be sufficient for everyone. You’ve got to chart your own path using all the tools you have at your disposal.

What business advice would you give to those starting out in the creative industries today?

To remember that it is a business! Treating our craft like a business is quite hard – it can feel like it degrades the work in some way. But if you want to make a career out of it, it’s an incredibly important perspective to have. Why would someone hire you? Why do they need what you are capable of doing? What will people need in the future?

Invoices, contracts, taxes, business development, scheduling, client engagement – these are all important for building a business or career. You don’t have to be good at them, and you certainly don’t have to enjoy them. And you don’t even have to do them yourself… in a lot of cases, you should bring on someone to do them for you. But do them you must.

What mistakes do you think creatives are making that could be stopping them from being successful, and how can they overcome them?

This isn’t applicable to everyone – but I do see it happening: chronically undercharging. You have a lot of power to establish how much your time and work is worth. Sometimes the market will agree with you and pay it, other times they won’t. Pricing your time is a strange phenomenon… the only way to make more money is to ask for it.

When I was running my consultancy, we used to price jobs using this very informal rule: take what we think the job could cost, then double it. The client would always come back and negotiate down – but they’d never cut it back in half. So we’d end up making more than we originally thought. And you know – we were worth it! We did great work! But it took those initial high bids to get us to where we wanted to go.

"You have a lot of power to establish how much your time and work is worth… the only way to make more money is to ask for it."

What's the one business tool you can't live without?

Slack. Our entire team uses it to communicate constantly.

What's a typical day look like for you?

I’ve moved entirely from a 'makers' schedule, to a ‘managers’ schedule, so I’m in meetings all day, everyday. But not the bored-to-tears type meetings that most people think of – get rid of those at all costs.

These meetings I attend are great – I do one-to-ones with my team, brainstorm new features, catch up on progress on different initiatives, work through problems. I can honestly say I love attending them.

Would you say you're creatively satisfied?

Despite running a site for creatives, I’m not a visual creative. But I’m a musician, and I get an enormous amount of satisfaction out of that.

And I think of the work I do here as organisational and systems design... I constantly try to find the right way to engage and interact with this amazing group of colleagues. How do we work towards the same goals? How do we build great products? How do we resolve the inevitable conflicts that come with working with a large group of talented individuals? These questions don’t have definitive answers – and that’s where creativity comes into play.

Tell us about three books that have changed your life, and tell us why

The Rational Optimist – a fantastic book that shows the power that sharing ideas has on improving our prosperity.

Team of Rivals – remarkable for many reasons. The lessons I draw from it is how to bring in those you disagree with in order to make you stronger.

The Grapes of Wrath – it’s beautiful, sad and hopeful all in one.

What kind of legacy do you hope to leave?

First, that I’m a good father, husband, brother, and son. After that – that I was able to build teams that did great things together. For me, it’s about building a team first. Everything else – building products, creating a business – happens because of that.


To discover more about William, you can visit his website at williamallen.com or follow him on Twitter @williamallen.

The 99U Conference takes place in New York City between 5 - 6 May 2016. All tickets are now sold out but you can sign up to the waiting list on any cancellations.