Scott Belsky on Behance's pivotal acquisition
How Adobe acquired Behance right in the middle of a monumental pivot.
Written by Meghna Rao
Photography by Tonje Thilesen
Scott Belsky joined Adobe right at the heart of the software company’s largest pivot, roughly 30 years into its inception. On April 22nd, 2012, the company announced the launch of CreativeCloud, its subscription-based offering — the plan was to shift from its long-time strategy of selling licensed software for a one-time fee to lower-cost, recurring charges. By the end of 2012, Adobe acquired Belsky’s company Behance, a platform to showcase and discover creative work, for $150M. Belsky served as Adobe’s chief product officer and EVP of Creative Cloud for more than five years. As of March 2023, he takes responsibility for company-wide strategy, corporate development, design, and emerging products.
Much has been written about the impact of Adobe’s pivot to services, although nearly all analyses have marked it a success. Adobe’s 2012 revenue was $4.4B; its 2022 revenue was $17.6B. The shift to subscriptions changed Adobe’s relationship with its customers. It could no longer focus on one-time sales and spend 18-24 months between new launches. Instead, it needed to engage with customers enough to keep them around month-to-month. And it needed to ship (and test and receive feedback on) features fast.
This is where Behance’s acquisition comes in.
I grew up just outside of Boston, Massachusetts in the 80s. I am an introvert. Many of my best memories were creating concoctions in my basement. I discovered Photoshop when I was 13, but my interests were always numerous. I remember teachers complaining to my parents about my lack of focus.
So you were an Adobe fan for a long time.
Yes, totally. For me, Adobe was synonymous with creative possibility. Their products amazed and empowered me. I envied anyone who really knew how to use them.
What did you study in college?
I went to Cornell. I took classes in environmental science, economics, business, and design. I graduated with a “General Studies” major, which is this awkward distinction for students who don’t complete the core curriculum of any one major in particular. At least I was consistent — I didn’t want to focus on any one topic.
That’s a common theme you hear among creative people.
Yeah, and I got into “Behance” with some thread of this. I wanted to enhance the careers of creative people — a community that wants to be themselves and provide for themselves. Over time, our mission evolved to help organize the creative world at work. The creative community makes the world interesting, but they struggle to get credit for their work. They navigate their careers at the mercy of circumstance.
How did you get started with Behance?
Behance really started with a line of notebooks called the “Action Method.” We wanted to help creative people get organized. This product also helped us bootstrap the company, so we could wait to raise venture capital. Then, while I was searching for a design partner, I was introduced to Matias. Our freelance work arrangement became a great friendship and partnership, and Matias became a co-founder of Behance.
You launched in 2007. Tell us about those early days.
We started out helping creative professionals that we admired get their portfolio set up on the platform. Nobody really wanted to set things up themselves on a platform without any traffic, so we did a lot of it ourselves, writing blog posts about great designers and offering to manually set up their portfolio for them.
The structure of Behance broke down a portfolio into “projects,” so the search results and galleries on Behance presented projects. This strategy was really helpful. The network looked “full” of great work pretty quickly, because an average portfolio had 5-10 projects. We got hundreds of amazing projects set up — these served as examples for visitors when they came to Behance.
That’s why I tell founders to invest in things that don’t scale in the early stages of their growth. Big companies forget the value of these activities, and it gives small companies a competitive advantage.
I’m sure those early products struck an emotional chord with a lot of people.
Yeah. One of the best feelings of my professional life was coming into work late 2007 and seeing dozens of new projects posted. The sensation of seeing your product used by complete strangers somewhere else in the world while you are sleeping is the first hint of product-market fit.
Soon, it was hundreds, then thousands of new projects published every day. And now we have tens of thousands of new members joining daily. Behance’s membership now exceeds forty million people.
How did you get in touch with Adobe?
We were partners. In the old days of boxed software, some leaders at Adobe viewed Behance as more of a marketing channel. There wasn’t an obvious way to work together aside from the occasional sponsorship. But then 2011-12 came around, and Adobe evolved into a services business. They launched the Creative Cloud subscription. A lot of things changed after that.
First, Adobe’s software became far more affordable and accessible. The shift to subscriptions meant that the price changed from $800+ to as little as $10/month. Second, Adobe could now integrate services into their products — fonts, stock, inspiration tools, mobile apps that complemented desktop workflows, collaborative tools like Libraries.
Lastly, Adobe needed to build a stronger relationship with its customers. Their “community” became important. Behance was growing on all cylinders. We were the go-to for so many creatives to connect with their communities and display their work.
Not a lot has been said about this move that you made, from partners to acquisition.
It was exciting for Adobe to integrate Behance’s tools. At a minimum, we wanted to enable project publishing right from within the tools that people used. We were also excited about what we’d learn from watching the creative world at work, and wanted these learnings to inform the next generation of creative tools that were developed.
Creativity is the world’s greatest recycling program, which means that as we follow artists and creative professionals of all kinds, we get ideas and inspiration (and occasionally add things to our own mood boards). On Behance, when members add a project to their portfolio, they share a lot of information alongside the work — like who the client was, the brief, the tools they used to create the work.
That must have been an intense time — to be at Adobe during and after one of the most seismic pivots of all time.
It was a fun learning experience. Soon after our acquisition in late 2012, I was asked to lead a few other parts of the business, including our nascent mobile strategy and Creative Cloud services (also mostly non-existent at the time). I enjoyed developing a product strategy for Creative Cloud that wouldn’t have been possible without Adobe’s pivot to services.
These experiences led to my broader role as Chief Product Officer and now overseeing company-wide strategy, design, and emerging products. Adobe is unique. It changes through acquisitions and welcomes new ideas and empowers leaders from acquired companies to take on great responsibilities.
I was able to bring some of Behance’s best practices and people into other parts of the company — whether it’s how we do product and design reviews in certain parts of the organization, how much we pay attention to community feedback, how our product leaders engage directly with our customers on social media, how we are launching modern web apps in private beta. We’ve helped the team get closer to the creative community we serve. A number of Behance’s leaders and key contributors remain at Adobe over ten years later.
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I feel like that might have been difficult, to have Behance change as a product too once it was inside Adobe.
It was definitely a positive. After the acquisition, the Behance team was able to focus on the core product and not just our adjacent experiments.
One of our happiest days was ripping out all of the ad units in Behance in 2013. This made it a far more elegant and respectful experience for our members. Another favorite — over the years, Behance has improved dramatically because of Adobe’s search capabilities, artificial intelligence for ranking and recommendation algorithms, and integrating some key features from other teams.
What were the challenges in executing on Adobe’s new product strategy? Did you have to change your mindset, learned behaviors, ways of working with people?
For starters, we had to consider our existing customers despite our excitement about new modalities. How do you modernize a product like Photoshop or Premiere Pro to accommodate new customers without changing workflows and alienating existing customers?
There are some great examples of improvements we’ve made that have helped new customers succeed (and the numbers show it). But they annoyed customers when they happened, because they had been doing something “the old way” for many years.
This is a delicate balance. It’s liable to slow any company down if mismanaged. Sometimes, the answer is to “fork” a product into two versions, like we did with Lightroom and Lightroom Classic, two powerful photo editing products that cater to two demographics: cloud-native photographers (the former) and photographers that store and manage all of their images locally (the latter).
We don’t get this balance right all of the time, but our teams are good at quickly fixing things when we get something wrong. Overall, I am proud of the team’s progress. Photoshop and Illustrator can now generate cloud documents and work on both iPad and web. We’ve launched new products for new segments of customers as well, like our 3D & Immersive franchise, Adobe Express, and our “Firefly” GenerativeAI offering, while finding meaningful integrations with our core legacy products. And our core products have all sorts of new and helpful cloud-based services for sharing assets and accessing capabilities powered by artificial intelligence.
Back to this being a rare sort of acquisition. You’re also one of a few teams where a lot of the original members stayed back despite the acquisition. What do you think you did right?
My advice is to find ways to add value to the larger company without compromising what matters most to you and your product. Make sure you spend time “telling the story” of your customer and product to the broader company. You can’t assume people understand what you’re building and why. Also, for leaders with great judgment, “ask for forgiveness, not permission” is a best practice for keeping the agility and boldness of a startup in a big company.
Would you have done anything differently?
It’s a tough question, because my mindset has always valued lessons learned more than things that worked. Every stumble made me a better leader, and I am far more engaged by struggle than by ease. The product efforts that failed over the years have outfitted me with more product and design intuition and also a lot of new “do’s and don’ts.” I wouldn’t want to surrender these learnings (even if i could!).
How do you keep it all up?
I love running, and I have become obsessed with the lessons and realizations from running that are applicable to life. For example, pushing yourself to sprint to an arbitrary marker on the road is an effective way of improving your average pace over time. I now do this in other parts of my life.
Another example: Never judge someone you pass or who stops while you’re still running, because you have no idea when they started, their pace, or their circumstances. Ultimately you learn, don’t judge anyone at a single point in their journey.
And one last example, the time and distance between when you have an idea and feel tempted to stop running and capture it (but don’t), and when you finish your run is a golden period of polish that doesn’t exist in the normal world. These periods of sustained thinking between ideas and actions taken have changed me as a leader.
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