Contributed by Grant Wenzlau
Art provided by Bryan Dale
With offices in Los Angeles, New York, and Austin, verynice has built a successful sustainable design agency by donating half of its work and time to nonprofit clients. verynice is reinventing the business of design by rethinking the model, busting myths, and merging business and philanthropy. Matthew Manos is the founder and global strategist for verynice. He sat down with us to tell us about his beginnings, how the model developed, and what’s next. His “give half” model helped him build a great business, craft an ethical culture, and pick up some good karma along the way.
How did you get your first client?
When I was 16 years old I was skateboarding competitively. I was training in skateparks all over the Bay Area all the time. I would find myself at the skateparks for six hours every weekend. There was one weekend where I met a man in a wheelchair who was ripping around the park far better than I or anyone else. I literally saw him do a flip over one of the channels. And this is obviously something you don’t see every day. And I was at the skatepark all the time and I’d never seen anything like this. I got intrigued enough to approach him and try to understand what was going on. And then I learned he was the founder of a nonprofit that at the time was called Wheelchair Skater that taught children in wheelchairs how to participate in extreme sports. Growing up in the Bay Area everyone is sort of the founder of something but I had never actually met the founder of a nonprofit organization.
So this really was sort of a turning point for me. Being 16, I didn’t have any money; I couldn’t really volunteer because I didn’t know how to do flips in a wheelchair—but I wanted to do something. And about a week prior I had gotten my first copy of Photoshop from my godmother who was going to art school in Australia. So I decided to try to put these “skills” to better use and I offered to design him some stickers. And that became my first pro-bono client and first client in general.
How did that lead to what you’re doing today?
From that experience, really early on, there was just this click confirming that I do like doing design for people. And more than anything, it showed me the kind of industries I might want to work with. So then flash-forward to a few years, I was starting to build my freelance career. I was going to Design Media Arts at UCLA and just had this constant desire to keep doing freelance work outside of the classroom because I felt like I needed to apply what I was learning. And it just kept landing on nonprofits or social cause stuff. I started to build a network of people that I would collaborate with. Collaboration is a big part of who I am as a designer.
How did you come up with the name verynice?
I was thinking, “What is it that I want to accomplish? What kind of design studio would I want to start?” And I just wanted to start a studio that was very nice—like really nice to people and did good work and had good ethics and attitude.
When did the “Give Half” Model Start to Work?
From the outset I was getting referrals from the pro-bono work for paid work. And I started to see this hint that there was some reciprocity. Then there was an entire year that I spent kind of dabbling in different percentages of paid to pro-bono work to find something sustainable. As time went on I learned that 50% worked logistically, but also symbolically it worked. I think the moment you do something for more than half of your time you leave the world of extracurricular activity and it becomes more of an integral part of your life.
The reason we’ve seen success with clients is because of our pro-bono work. Not a lot of people know this but in the early days, I worked with so many people that I would find on Craigslist just trying to build my portfolio and client list. And all of those I see as little seeds that now are out in the wild growing into trees.
The synergistic relationship between working with pro-bono clients and how we get paying clients is quite strong. Many of the nonprofit organizations we work with have board members who are executives at large companies. That’s how we’ve gotten to work with people like Disney. Also pro bono gives you good karma.
Want more from Matthew Manos? You can see him at HOW Design Live 2016. In his session, you will be empowered to shift your perspective on business to imagine it as a design medium. How can we use design principles to invent a business model? How can business-design principles enhance a client engagement for a designer? Participants will be introduced to the entire business-design process, and will learn how to leverage verynice’s Models of Impact framework in order to uncover innovative opportunities in the global market.