I launched verynice in 2008 from an apartment while attending UCLA, but the origins were actually a few years before that and can actually be traced back to when I was 16 years old, in 2005, which is when I started my freelance design career. I had started taking this class on “digital art.” I was learning Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign… a lot of the basics of the kind of mediums I work in today. I got really into it, and a lot of my family members could really tell that I was getting into it. Eventually, in order to support this newfound passion, my godmother who was studying art in Australia at the time, decided to send me a CD Rom disk with a pirated copy of Photoshop. Shortly before receiving this disc, I had bought my first apple computer. I had everything I needed to kick off a career in design. Luckily, being a high school student, I also had a lot of free time. Working late into the night, each night, I taught myself things here and there in order to expand upon my understanding of the software. I found, however, that I was spending most of my time manipulating photographs to make it so that my friends would have crazy eyes and hair. Needless to say, I was hungry for some meaningful work, and was eager to make something that someone could actually use. This idea of usefulness, something at the core of design, was a real inspiring concept to me. As a result, I kept my eyes open for a project that could help me fulfill that need.
Back then, and still to this day, I spent a lot of time skateboarding. Every weekend, I would go to the skate park with my dad in Sunnyvale, California. Something really interesting happened one day when I was sitting on one of the ledges taking a break. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a man in a wheelchair jump into the bowl. Needless to say, this was a pretty unusual sighting, especially upon realizing that he was actually more talented then the rest of us. Out of curiosity, I decided to move a little closer to him. Upon doing so, I realized that we was not alone, but instead with a bunch of little kids who were also in wheelchairs. I couldn’t just sit there any more, so I decided to approach the man and spark up a conversation. I learned that he was the founder of a non-profit organization, which at the time, was known as Wheelchair Skater. The organization had a simple mission – help kids that are disabled get around a skate park. That was a really simple concept that he had, but it was the first time that I ever met the founder of a non-profit organization, and I immediately became overwhelmed by the passion that radiated from him. I realized, at that moment, that there really is something to a non-profit’s founder… they have a passion that is so pure and so authentic that they would die for the cause they serve. The light bulb went off, and I quickly determined that this was the type of person that I wanted to work with for the rest of my life. Even more immediately, I knew that this was the guy that I wanted to help by utilizing my newly acquired Photoshop “skills” and I volunteered to design a few promotional stickers for him, thus marking the beginning of my freelance design career. To be honest, I never would have imagined how pivotal a moment the creation of those silly stickers would have had on my life at the time.
After high school, I got into the Design Media Arts program at UCLA. The moment I arrived, I decided similarly that I did not want to just be doing class assignments, but instead wanted to be doing more work for real people, organizations, businesses, etc. As a result, I found myself doing a lot of volunteer design work for student groups. Over the course of my first three years on campus, I had worked with over 30 groups. Those groups, along with Wheelchair Skater, served as the basis of verynice’s clientele today as well as the connections that we continue to work with. My sophomore year of college, specifically, I began doing this work at a much higher volume than ever before, and began to take on many clients simultaneously. It was then that really felt the need to put a name to all of this. That is when there was this year where I began to reflect on what it was that I wanted to do in order to paint a picture for what this all could look like. In the same timeframe, I was taking on a lot of internships. I realized, through those experiences, that there was a huge need to rethink the way that the design industry operated, especially in its treatment of non-profit organizations. This realization came, specifically, from seeing first hand how much these studios were charging for non-profit work or, the flip side, how little an appreciation there was for pro-bono work. It became clear to me that the design industry was one that favored profit over purpose. Around this time, I began to ask myself: “what would a very nice design studio look like?” I wanted to know what a studio that is actually very nice in both its intentions and its offerings would look like, and that planted the seed of our business today: verynice.
In the early days, the business started as a side project with a model that was 100% pro-bono. At night, on the weekends, and even during class, I would help organizations at no cost. At that point in my life, I was not trying to think of this as a career, but instead as something that was fun that I wanted to do. I always sort of assumed that I would continue to do this type of volunteer work and would just go get some job at an ad agency to pay the bills. During my senior year of college, I remember reflecting on the possibilities that I could take and thinking to myself… God, I don’t want to do that. I really don’t want a day job. I really don’t want this to be something that I just do at night because I knew that I would never be able to have the “impact” that I wanted to have if I did not make this a full-time effort. It was that entire year that the business model began to really evolve. It went from 80% pro-bono to 70%, to 60%, and then by the time we hit year 2 in 2010, I finally landed on this “50% pro-bono model” that we continue to use to this day. What I realized was that that percentage, and that whole idea of spending over half your time giving back, philosophically, was something that I was really proud of, and was something that I really wanted to share with the world. I believe that if we make giving an extracurricular activity (something that takes up less than half our time on a daily basis), there is no way we can have the impact that we need to have. The idea of giving over half of my work away for free is something that inspires and challenges me every day.
verynice has now grown to become a global design and innovation consultancy based in Los Angeles that gives over half of its work away for free to non-profit organizations. What we actually do is quite a range of things because we work with a wide variety of clients. On the for-profit side we work with large corporations, small businesses, individuals, and startups. On the pro-bono side, we work with global non-profits, small community-based organizations, grassroots initiatives, and even student groups. Because of this diversity, we have been able to gain a lot of skills that have not only helped one sector or the other, but have actually transcended both. For example, when we’re helping a non-profit organization, we are taking a lot of the skills we have learned in helping larger for-profit companies and applying them in the same way. As a result, we have been able to help non-profits think more like for-profits do in order to operate more effectively and vice versa, we help for-profit companies think more like non-profits organizations do in terms of having a social impact or a cause-driven mission.
verynice’s mission has two components to it. The first component is to prove that small businesses, especially design studios and consultancies can do a lot of philanthropy. I think that very often in society, we will hold big businesses very accountable to giving back to their community at some level, but when a small business does nothing, we don’t even do a double take. We want to show that small businesses should be held accountable to contributing to the same level of impact. The second component is to alleviate expenses from non-profit organizations. According to Harvard Business Review, every single year, non-profit organizations collectively, in the United States alone, will allocate close to 8 billion dollars toward marketing and design expenditures… toward people like me. That is the amount of money that they literally set aside for these kinds of services. Part of our mission by showing that a model like ours is possible is to inspire other marketing and design agencies to stop charging non-profit organizations for their services because if those expenses didn’t exist, and there was just a spare 8 billion dollars laying around, imagine the impact that could be made with that money if it were going towards the cause itself.
At time of writing (2014), verynice is currently comprised of three offices spanning Los Angeles, New York, and Austin. There are about 15 of us that work out of our offices, but something that is unique about the way we work is that we leverage a staffing model that can be referred to as “social production.” Similar to crowdsourcing, we have a large group of people that we can tap into, but the key difference is that these are all personal connections of ours. We have over 350 people, worldwide, that help us out on pro-bono services for our non-profit work as well as paid contractors for our for-profit work. We have now worked with over 500 clients, over 300 of which were done on a pro-bono or discounted basis. All of the pro-bono services that we have donated have now added up to just over $1,500,000. The work that we’ve done spans 40 countries and 6 continents.
While all of these accomplishments are impressive, they are simply not enough. The moment we realized that non-profit organizations are spending close to 8 billion U.S. dollars per year on marketing and design expenses, while knowing we have only been able to save these organizations over 1 Million US Dollars over the course of half a decade, we began to understand that we could no longer tackle this issue alone. That realization, largely, is the reason you are reading this book right now – it is the first of many new initiatives from the studio that will aim to open-source our 50% pro-bono business model in order to replicate our impact across the world and come several steps closer to eradicating non-profit expenses. Will you join us?