Once a Minnesotan, always a Minnesotan. Every issue, Starting Up North interviews someone in the startup world who grew up, attended college, or lived in Minnesota but no longer calls it home.
Will Allen’s varied and successful career has included building partnerships and monetization strategies for TED, serving as the COO of startup Behance and is now a VP at Adobe where he still oversees Behance and other major initiatives at the creative tech giant. During his journey, Allen spent several years in Minnesota and quickly got involved with the local startup scene—he remains connected today even though he’s out on the west coast.
Allen spoke with Starting Up North about his experience as part of an acquired startup, the innovative work he’s focused on now and how he maintains connection to the Twin Cities entrepreneurial ecosystem.
How did you wind up at Behance?
I had known Scott Belsky (the founder of Behance and the current Chief Product Officer for Creative Cloud at Adobe) for years. I actually met him through TED, and when I was looking to do something new, I connected with Scott. He was running Behance at the time, I think there were 12-ish people, sort of a small team and I was looking for a role. He said, why don’t you come join me and help me run Behance. I knew right away that it was going to be a great fit.
As the COO of a company that size you touch so many different things. Had you had experience doing all of the things that end up being required from cap table management, product management, 409A valuations? And if not, how did you go about learning that?
I think the great thing about being in startups is that you’re thrown into the deep end and it’s really sink or swim and you have to learn. I remember, before I joined Behance, I went on a vacation and I was sitting on the beach reading these financial textbooks to try to learn everything I could about accounting and balance sheets and how those things would operate because I had a rough understanding, but I didn’t know it to the depth that I needed to.
I have always been a believer that initiative and the desire to learn goes a really, really long way. I was relentless in trying to learn what I needed to learn. It’s about asking the right questions, surrounding yourself with people who know more than you, and then just pushing forward and being sort of being brave about it. When I launched my first start up, I had no concept of what I was doing, but I knew that I could figure it out. I knew that if I put the effort in, I would be able to, to really learn it. It’s actually a lesson that I took from undergrad when I studied philosophy in college.
What it taught me was that when you’re reading sort of a text that makes absolutely no sense to you at first brush, if you just keep trying and keep reading, you can decipher anything and you can pull out the interesting ideas and concepts from even something like Hegel that is incredibly hard to read.
I figured if I could learn something like that, I can learn anything. Just being confident that if I put in the effort, I’d be able to get through it, that’s been a huge lesson that has taken me through the day.
You joined Behance and it was, for startups, acquired rather quickly. What do you think was so attractive about the company at that point?
You know, it’s one of those things where all of the stars aligned. It’s interesting now that I’ve been at Adobe for seven years after the acquisition that, so I’ve seen it sort of from both sides. But for us on the startup side, it was about the stars aligning. Was it the right thing for the users, for the creative community, would users be better served if we were part of Adobe? We thought that was true then, and I unequivocally know it’s true now. Seven years later it’s the best thing we possibly could have done for those users. Was it the right thing for the team? Would we be better off all these years later as sort of individuals working together? Again, I know we thought it was true at the time, and I know all these years later that’s also unequivocally true.
I’m still here, Scott’s still here. One of our heads of design for Creative Cloud, Eric Snowden was part of that team. The head of product for Behance was part of that original team. So we have this core group of talent that’s still part of the company all these years later. To me, that is another sign that we were right in the sort of initial calculations and then it was sort of just the right timing. It was a really exciting time in Creative Cloud’s history at the time, it was back in 2012. It was an exciting time for us at Behance we felt like we were getting real traction with growing the community and understanding how we could best serve the creative community, and we just felt that by joining forces with Adobe, we’d be able to really multiply that effort. I’ve been working on Behance ever since. It’s been a constant thing that I feel really lucky I get to work on. And it’s just been amazing to see that carry through all these years later.
The story that you’re telling of having this great acquisition experience is not always true. What do you think that other startups and corporations can kind of learn from your team’s experience going through the acquisition—are there any lessons that people can take from that?
I wish I had like a really great concise answer for that. I would mostly say that it felt right and it felt like the right thing for all parties involved at the time. What’s been true about my time at Adobe and what I learned very quickly was that the people here are fantastic. Just the kindest, nicest, most genuine people that I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with. That was true in the acquisition process as well. When we were going through the acquisition process, we got to know many, many folks across the company and every person we met was great. To me that carried a lot of weight. We sort of were thinking, do we want to spend our professional lives working with these folks? And the answer was a resounding yes. They’re great, they have the right mission, they have the right values. That was a real signal to us at the time. And as I’ve been here since then it’s just become even more true. I feel really lucky to work at a place with such great people.
Speaking of that, what are you really focused on today? Now seven years into the acquisition.
I get to oversee a lot of really fun things, I feel. There’s the core part of Behance, which is our social network and portfolio platform for Creative that’s growing—it’s bigger than ever. We keep hitting new records on every possible metric, which is exciting to see for a product like that. I oversee Adobe Portfolio, which is our website builder for Creative; if you want to build a portfolio website if you’re a designer, photographer, illustrator, graphic designer, we make a really dead simple way to build a portfolio website. Our 99U brand and conference, which is once a year in New York City, allows you to sort of take a peek behind the scenes of creative professionals to learn not just how they do their craft, but sort of how they work, how they build their creative careers.
There are two new initiatives that I’m just really passionate about and are in the early days. One is user live streaming and live streaming in general. So, think of building the food network for creativity. We now have a small beta program of users we’re able to live stream directly from one of our apps called Adobe Fresco. That gets broadcast out to Behance. You can watch somebody create in real time and I think it’s one of the best ways to go from inspiration from great content, to learning, taking it to that next level. The response for that’s just been phenomenal and it’s been really exciting to see that and we’re going full throttle for that initiative for next year.
The other one that we just announced at MAX, our big conference, is the Content Authenticity Initiative. We’re working towards giving users and viewers of consumers of media sort of images, videos, photos, the easiest way to know what to trust in order to bring transparency to what is currently an opaque process. You can know who created an asset, where that asset came from and what happened to that asset. We’re in the early days of doing this. We announced the collaboration with Twitter in the New York Times. We’re hosting a summit early next year to bring a lot of these partners together to really flush this out. But it’s something I really believe in and I’m really excited about.
There’s a ton of room here for us to do great work that I think will benefit the creative community. Creatives want to get credit for their work whether you’re an illustrator or a photographer or graphic designer. Finding a way to allow that attribution to stay with their assets as the travel throughout the web is a big challenge, but one we’re excited about tackling.
Do you see that as more of a technical challenge or an adoption challenge?
It’s all of the above. It is an industry wide challenge. That’s why we’re really excited to partner with different companies and sort of initiatives around this because it’s not something that Adobe cannot solve alone and no single company can solve it alone. It’s going to take a real collaboration between, you know, tech companies, publishers, manufacturers, consumers, platforms. It’s going to take a big industry wide effort. But just the response that we’ve gotten since we launched and announced this has been overwhelming and it makes me even more confident we’ll be able to do something.
Allen and his family were living in New York when in 2015 they decided they wanted a change of pace. Allen’s wife is a native Minnesotan, so they decided to move with their kids back to her home state for several years.
How did you end up getting plugged into the startup scene here in MN?
When I was coming there, I wanted to just meet other entrepreneurs and, I had done a little bit of angel investing throughout the years and wanted to see what was happening across the twin cities in particular. I ended up getting connected with Ryan Broshar who connected me with Brett Brohl and it kind of went from there. One thing I loved about the Minnesota tech scene was that it was very inviting and open. I got to meet a lot of different folks and just hear about all the interesting innovations that were happening there.
You did some angel investing here in town. When you’re out in San Francisco, are people ever surprised to hear that you’ve got these companies in Minnesota that you’re working with?
You know, they might’ve in the past. I think in the world of startups there’s just broader and broader recognition that great talent can come from anywhere. People are seeing companies that are doing really amazing work and they’re from all over the United States and then all over the world as well. I think of some of the companies that I’ve met in Minnesota in particular; I think of Learn to Live, which I think is just a fantastic company and has a really important mission, and Alchemy 365 which is a really fun health and wellness company. Those are great and those are world-class entrepreneurs running them and making a real dent in the universe.
Are you able to stay up at all of what’s happening here or even what’s happening now to New York now that you’re back in San Fran?
Through friends like Brett, I get to stay pretty connected with what’s happening. I try to read the news and follow folks on Twitter and get all the updates from both New York and Minnesota. I feel like what’s happening there, and has been happening there, is just so fascinating and sort of tackles so many different elements of things from the agricultural work that Brett has been doing to more of the health and wellness space that’s happening there—just really interesting companies. I do try to keep abreast of things and it’s actually relatively straightforward too. You get on a couple of key newsletters from folks and make sure you set up a couple of good recurring meetings with friends and you stay informed.
To go back to Adobe, what do you think the startup community both here and as a greater startup community doesn’t know about the tools that Adobe provides or doesn’t know about ways to get involved more with Adobe?
I would say probably two things. One is this live streaming work that we’re doing. It’s really fun. If you’re looking to learn how to be a better designer, to be a better illustrator, to be a better photographer, our live stream content is amazing. It’s a really engaging community of folks that you can learn from and chat with and connect with directly. It’s a powerful resource and we’re just getting started. It’s going to get so much bigger and have a much broader reach. I would highly recommend people check that out. And two is to think about Behance as a resource to find and connect with designers both locally in Minnesota as well as globally. It’s in aggregate a thriving community and if you’re looking to hire and find great design talent it’s hard to beat.
You’re seven years into the acquisition, do you miss the startup world?
I love my job and I love it because I feel very mission driven. When I think about the work that I’ve done, what I loved about building at TED was that we were sort of centered around this core mission of spreading great ideas and how do we get more people access to these great thinkers and leaders. That shaped everything we did. My work here at Adobe is similar. We’ve got this core mission of empowering creatives, giving them the tools and the tips and the resources they need to be successful. And I love that, and I love operating at the scale that we get to operate at. To me it means we get to help more people be successful in their careers. So, I loved my startup days, it was a fantastic part of my life, but I’m really thrilled to be where I am today.
Now that you’ve been part of the startup world and you’ve had large company experience, is there any particular advice around having both of those experiences that you would give?
I would say the core of it is a bit of what I was just talking about, that you have to believe in what you’re doing and if you believe in it, it doesn’t feel as much like work. You know what I mean, there are hard days and tough days and you’re definitely grinding through a lot of stuff. But if you believe in the mission of what you’re working on, whether you’re at the smallest of startups or the biggest of large companies it makes it that much more powerful.
*Edited for length and clarity