22 Takeaways from 99u NYC to Inspire Your Inner Creative.

In this post, Kenny covers key takeaways from his attendance of 99u, Bēhance’s premiere design conference in New York City.

IMG_2501An artist trying to paint, ironically, 99 paintings in three hours at the 99u pre-party.

Last week, I had the craziest dose of creative inspiration at the 99u conference in New York City. For those unfamiliar with 99u, it’s basically comprised of two things: a large conference by Adobe’s Bēhance program, and a website that provides daily inspiration to creatives, entrepreneurs, and life-hackers.

While I always read 99u’s articles, this year I had the opportunity to visit the conference. It was a conference that would immerse attendees in a two-day-long marathon of creative inspiration with world-class speakers, studio tours of successful companies, and after-hour get-togethers. I had the chance to meet numerous extraordinary individuals (I somehow met the guy who invented the Tide Pods) and learned new ways to better our creative processes at Big Fish. Firstborn, a nationally recognized digital agency, taught us how to sell better to skeptics by having audience members cold-sell tea to their staff.

And despite having over seven pages of notes, I managed to narrow down my top takeaways into 22 points that can help inspire anyone’s inner creative, whether they attended the conference or not.

IMG_2507Firstborn on how to sell your idea to a skeptic:
Identify them, persuade them, and convince them to act.

Rational skeptics are moved by evidence, where emotional skeptics are moved by stories. Just remember your idea is perceived higher to you than your audience, so make sure you tailor your pitch based on their personality. You can find what makes your skeptics tick by digging through social media or press reports. It also doesn’t hurt to see if you have any mutual friends on LinkedIn to give you a recommendation or more information.

Identify if your skeptic is an approver or a seeker based on their skeptic’s personality and decision-making process. An approver will need to see the entire picture, and is more concerned with the end result than the process. Think Donald Trump when he does a large real estate project: He cares more about the end result and delegates as much as possible. A seeker will be more comfortable with incomplete information, and more concerned with the journey than the destination. Think how Steve Jobs cared about every little process that would make the end product great.

Depending on the skeptic, you’ll need different types of evidence. If your skeptic is rational, empirical data and statistics will come in handy. However, if your skeptic is emotional, go the case study and story route.

Rapport begins as soon as the first interaction. It’s important to remember the actual sale doesn’t begin with the pitch, and, as cheesy as it sounds, it begins with, “Hello.” People buy from people they like, so don’t come off as a salesperson – become a friend.

Heidi Grant Halvorson’s ways to win people over:

Project warmth. Build trust by projecting warmth through positive body language and actually listening to what they’re trying to say.

Be instrumental to those with power. When wanting to work with powerful people, don’t flatter them – instead find out what their goals are and help them.

Manage your ego. Instead of focusing on your individual successes, create a “sense of us” with those you’re trying to build trust with – aka, make your audience feel like they’re not alone.


View from the 99u Master Class, Scott Belsky.

The secret to growing big ideas is avoiding project plateaus. Ideas fail when there’s a lack of accountability, leadership capability, feedback exchange, disorganized priorities, minimal attribution, and creative transparency. There needs to be constant momentum behind ideas to keep them alive.

Organization & Execution + Communal Focus + Leadership Capability = Making Ideas Happen. Improve your organization & execution by prioritizing projects individually, measuring the value of your meetings in actionable steps taken and completed, and saving distracting tasks for the end of the day. Basically, constantly refine and optimize your own practices. Communal focus is identifying the dreamers (loves creating new things), doers (loves keeping things on track), and incrementalists (loves to create, but creates too many things that don’t scale). Leadership capability is measured by seeking and keeping the best talent. The best talent seeks work that is first and foremost interesting, so it’s important to never make them feel underutilized. Also, with great creative talent, there is little tolerance for the friction of bureaucracy.   

Seek competition. It’s important to seek competition, because it can help you fight your way to breakthroughs. Just be careful to never let yourself become burdened by what everyone else is doing.

Chris Anderson, CEO of 3D Robotics, on asking questions: 

Ask dumb questions. By asking seemingly “dumb” questions, it can help other people think about their own dumb questions. Sometimes the answers to those questions can cause a creative breakthrough.

Choose the best community, not the best technology. Sometimes the best technology is out of reach for the people you need to surround yourself with to grow. This means you should always pick the technology that has the biggest community, so you can adapt and evolve with.

Franklin Leonard, founder of The Blacklist, on changing the world:

Don’t try to change the world by yourself. You’re only one person, and the world is too big to be changed by yourself. Position yourself so your work can affect others’ work. Build, or find, communities that allow you to do your best work, and then let it impact others. It might not be today, tomorrow, or next year, but things will eventually change.

Christoph Niemann, illustrator + artist + author, on doing what you love:

Not worrying about money will allow you to do your best work. Knowing you can break free from what you’re doing now, without worrying financially for a period of time, will allow you to do better work. You’re not money-driven, but purpose-driven.

Kelly Sue DeConnick, comic book author, on how to make people uncomfortable:

In order to grow yourself and others, you need to be uncomfortable by:
1) Leading with your heart, by being open and vulnerable.
2) Finding people and becoming uncomfortable together.
3) Fostering a community by finding what brings you and others together.
4) Truly listening to what others have to say.
5) In order to motivate others to be uncomfortable, lead by example and become uncomfortable yourself.

Heroes don’t limit themselves to fights they can’t win. If you’re always picking the fights you can win, you’ll never be able to grow.

Casey Gerald, MBAs Across America, on innovation:

Innovation is a short-term loss for long-term gain. You have to put a stake upfront (financially or timely) to get a big reward.

Find out your “why” by finding something so broken it bothers you. What truly bothers you so much that makes you compelled to fix it? That‘s your purpose. That’s your “why.”


A fireside chat with Stewart Butterfield of Slack. 

Stewart Butterfield, CEO of Slack, on how to scale teams:

Help develop a system to make faster decisions. The slower the decision making process is, the harder it will be to grow and adjust to where you need to be.

Constantly look for feedback. People should be motivated to do their job and need constant feedback on how they’re doing in order to improve. Number one way to show employees you care is to show empathy and criticism in a positive way.

Other key takeaways:

Your last creation is your competition. Never settle. Your last creation is the benchmark of what you need to beat next.

Decisions are a start, not a finish. When making a decision, own it. Keep moving forward and stick with that decision.

Ambition is at war with hesitation. The more hesitation, the less risks; the less risks, the less rewards.

So, yeah, a lot of lessons learned above – convenient to be read, but even better to be witnessed. If you’re interested in learning the lessons above firsthand, yet disappointed you missed your opportunity to attend 99u NYC this year, there’s good news coming.

This year, 99u is holding its first ever Ambassador Program in 30 respective cities across the world. Basically, 30 cities with the theme of “Idea Execution” similar to the NYC conference, will host a night of speakers, food, networking, and fun. Check back often on the above link to see if your city is selected.

Anyway, as a frequent conference attendee to creative and entrepreneurship conferences, here’s a bit of parting advice I have for those that say they’re too busy to travel, or it’s too expensive to even consider:

Find a way to make it happen.

There’s no better way to avoid creative burnout than discussing your challenges with peers that fight similar battles, while also learning firsthand from your heroes. Not to mention the frequent relationships you’ll build at the conference can become good friends and mentors (or even business deals).

If you can make things work financially, and delegate your time wisely to attend the conference you’ve always wanted to go to, know this:

You are truly investing in the best creative project you’ll have impact on:


And that project is worth every penny.

Note: If you’re reading this, and from Louisiana, you’re in luck. Our very own Baton Rouge has been selected as one of the 99u Ambassador sites and yours truly, along with several other amazing individuals, have the honor of putting on the show. More info will be out soon, but for now email us at 99ubatonrouge@gmail.com or follow us on Twitter at @99uBatonRouge for future updates and formal announcements.


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