Lessons

How 90s skateboarding taught me that business is art

By April 26, 2016 No Comments

As a kid, if you asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would have told you “an artist. Why? Because I was “creative,” and “creative” people should be artists because “creativity” means drawing pictures, taking photographs, or maybe if you’re little more pragmatic, being a graphic designer… right? But the truth is, that’s bullshit. Certainly visual art is one facet of creativity, but it’s only one– and it’s sometimes a pretty limiting one (as anyone who has designed for a client will tell you).

We need to think bigger about what “creativity” means. To be super literal, “creativity” is the act of bringing something into existence: where there was nothing, now there is something. And the highest form of creativity is entrepreneurship– it’s the ultimate medium, where the only limits are how big you can dream and how hard you can work to make the dream come true. It’s the only medium that encompasses all other forms of creativity.

Probably the best illustration of this idea is the 90s skateboard company World Industries and its iconoclastic co-founder Steve Rocco:

How Steve Rocco and World Industries went from a halfassed garage operation to a juggernaut that sold for $29 million. If you can’t watch this, the next best thing is this 2002 interview with Rocco which touches on most of it.

A little history lesson for those who don’t know or whose memories are foggy: In the early 90s, the skateboarding world went through a revolution, largely spearheaded by an upstart company called World Industries founded by Steve Rocco and Rodney Mullen, a couple of pro skateboarders who by their own admission had no business running a company. But obviously they were doing something right: to make a very long story very short, in the span of just a few years World Industries basically demolished the titans of the 80s “skate establishment” (Vision, Powell-Peralta, etc) and built their own empire in it’s place– the central concept being that skate brands should be owned and operated by skateboarders, and they should do whatever the fuck they wanted with their company.

This seems obvious today, but it was revolutionary at the time. Skateboarding went from a highly consolidated industry controlled by a few big companies run by non-skaters to one made up of a million small brands, each founded by one or two pros who decided they wanted to do things THEIR way, and that the best way to do that was to start their own company.

90s decks

A few early 90s graphics that illustrate the insane diversity of brands, everything from the twisted cartoon graphics coming out of World to the clean modernism of Alien Workshop to the straight up weird artsiness of Ed Templeton’s Toy Machine graphics to the grainy, hip-hop influenced direction of New Deal.

The result was an explosion of creativity: it seemed like there was a new company every month, each one with a wildly different point of view that mirrored their founders’ personality. Although these were businesses, they acted and felt more like art projects whose medium was a company. For better or worse, I don’t think anyone really had the goal of making a lot of money (although some did, probably by accident), the real goal was simply to have complete creative control.

world vs powell

Old school Powell (left) vs new school World Industries (right). Don’t get me wrong, I will always love the nostalgic charm of the 80s Powell stuff, but compared to World’s marketing that just dripped with sarcastic personality, they felt straight-up sterile and corny. When I read the ad copy I totally hear it in Steve Rocco’s voice– it really shows how Rocco viewed World as a vehicle for his own creative expression as much (or maybe more) than he viewed it as a profit-seeking business venture.

While I wasn’t an active skateboarder for long (due to sucking badly at it), World Industries and the other brands like New Deal that were part of this explosion of skateboarding entrepreneurship were a big part of what made me interested in business. I don’t think I knew what “entrepreneurship” meant at the time, but I knew that I had a burning desire to do the kind of shit that Rocco and his crew were doing. To this day, when I look at their old ads I get fired up and start thinking about how I should start a brand and take over the world!

WHAT BUSINESS CAN LEARN FROM THIS

First of all, everybody in business should think of themselves as creative– an artist, even. We need to stop the bizarre and ridiculous idea that some people are “the creatives” and the other people are “on the business side” and presumably aren’t creative.

Everybody in business is creative, and we should all think of ourselves that way. Accounting, finance and operations are every bit as creative as any artist, in their own way. Read a bit about the Toyota Production System and tell me that it’s not a breathtaking work of art. The packaging engineers at Procter & Gamble who find a way to squeeze a few cents of cost out of the Tide bottle are crazy creative (consider that Tide sells 100s of millions of units a year, and you can see why a few cents matter a lot). The point is, artists and designers do not have a monopoly on creativity.

Second, if you’re one of those kids like me who thinks you want to be “an artist,” you might want to consider starting a business instead. As a “creative,” you often don’t get a whole lot of creativity, as anyone who has worked as a designer, photographer, etc will tell you (“Do you think we should move the corn flake on the front of the box 2mm to the left, or would that be too much for our consumer to handle??”).

But as an entrepreneur, it’s wide open: you don’t just get to decide what the logo looks like, you get to decide what the company is called, what it sells and how much it costs, what the ads say, where you place the ads, who you hire, what those people say when they answer the phone, what kind of carpet you have in the office… you get to put your fingerprint on literally everything. The only limits are your imagination and work ethic.

To me, it’s the ultimate form of creative expression.

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