Dollar Shave Club’s Creative Director & His Google-Shattering Side Project
This article originally appeared in my weekly newsletter, Damn the Best Practices. Get one new story every Monday morning to be better than best practices. Subscribe here.
Alec Brownstein was miserable. He was working his butt off at a lesser-known creative agency in New York City. At night, he’d dream of working for one of the biggest firms on Madison Avenue. Perhaps you’ve felt that same yearning in your work, like a magnet strapped to your chest, pulling you towards … something … away in the distance.
Only you feel anchored to where you’re at now, and so that pulling is getting really freaking obnoxious.
Alec, however, couldn’t help but move. In fact, he’d built his career on moving — not that you or I would have noticed any of that at first glance. You see, at first glance, his resume looked pretty average: a few stops along the way doing what most of us assume “creatives” do for a career. He’d done some freelance. He’d worked for a company nobody had heard about, and now, he was stuck in an agency job he wish he could forget. That’s what you and I would have noticed if we’d looked at Alec’s resume.
But if we looked at his side projects, his story would seem different. His side project told the story of someone who just couldn’t stop shipping his work into the world. His personal site showed an endless list of stuff — some good, some bad, some quite ugly — that Alec felt he had to launch.
There was “Leave It On the Printer,” a website that let you create a fake but official-looking letter from a nudist colony “accepting” one of your colleagues into their camp. Simply fill in their name, print it out, and leave it on the printer for others to find.
There was “Mitt Flops,” a pair of flip-flops with then-presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s face printed onto both shoes with two opposing quotes on the same issue.
There were literally dozens of small projects that Alec had launched, some that he stopped working on just minutes after sharing the first version into the world.
From serious columns to hilarious pranks, static graphics to interactive websites, Alec Brownstein just kept moving. He’s a serial tinkerer — but you’d never know his creative powers if you just looked for some kind of huge, day-job-based success. Because his real power is in taking constant small steps forward.
As a result, when Alec finally decided it was time to reach out to those big, sexy agencies on Madison Avenue, he didn’t try to do anything huge. Instead, he found a little time to himself. He did something on the side.
He knew that creative directors at big agencies are tough to reach. They’re busy, and they’re constantly bombarded with resumes and portfolios. Furthermore, everyone tries to impress them with the same story: “Look at my big successes!”
Not Alec. Alec did something small. He created a few Google AdWords search ads that addressed the creative directors he hoped to reach by name. When they searched for themselves (and who hasn’t?), the ads read, “Googling yourself is fun. Know what else is fun? Hiring me.” Then he linked to that hidden work — that mountain of small things that, yanno, now that I look at it, is starting to resemble something rather big…
Alec targeted five creative directors.
He got interviews with four.
He got job offers from two.
And he accepted a gig at Y&R.
The firm then took Alec on the road. They got tons of press from this project, reaching an estimated audience of over 4 billion people through online, TV, and radio coverage.
Later, when the CPG upstart Dollar Shave Club began to grow, they hired Alec to become their creative director. Then they got acquired for more than a billion smackeroos. And I know: This story smacks of “overnight success.” It seems that Alec is one of those rare few who successfully “went big” with his work.
And that’s the problem. Alec didn’t go big. Instead, he went home. And there, he tinkered. Endlessly. He continually created small amounts of work that would later become the only truly “big” thing in his career: his body of work.
Like Alec, we need to stop focusing on a single project or moment and instead focus on our body of work. When we long to push past all the commodity crap of our industry and instead do something exceptional, we often think we need some truly big idea or single moment of permission or success. But we don’t. We need to find a small moment and a tiny place to START.
Alec’s body of work — a lifetime of small steps and short moments of trying — led to what we dub as a massively successful career. But with each step he took, his success wasn’t some faraway destination. It was actually taking each step.
What if we used our next coffee break, our next lunch, our next moment alone at home or in the car, on the train, in the plane, in a mutha-flippin’ submarine for all I care … what if we found small ways and short moments to create better work? If we did that enough, looking back, it would seem like we did something big. But the only truly “big” thing would be our body of work, a sum total of lots of little moments of trying.
The truth, if we’re willing to embrace it: “Creativity” doesn’t mean “big.”
“Exceptional” doesn’t mean “viral.”
“Fulfilling” doesn’t mean “fast.”
It turns out you can’t physically go from 0 to 60 in anything. It’s literally impossible. You have to hit every number along the way. So instead, why not try to go from 12 to 13? Make THAT the goal, and make sure that goal never goes away. Careers aren’t a race to a destination. They’re a lifetime of motion — ideally forward, but not always. But that’s how you build your body of work. That’s how you break from all the average junk of your space. It can be on the side. It can be a tiny piece of a larger project in your day job. It can be a whole lot of different but small things or moments. It just has to be.
Stop trying to go big. And start.
Listen to the full story of Alec’s side project, plus visit with an executive coach who works with high-powered women leaders (and get her clever trick learned from pro golfers) in this episode of Unthinkable:
Founder of Marketing Showrunners, author of Break the Wheel, and host/producer of docuseries about creative work. I’m a believer that exceptional work happens when you find and follow what makes you an exception. Previously in content marketing and digital strategy at Google and HubSpot and VP of brand and community at the VC firm NextView. I write, tinker, and speak on stages and into microphones for a living. It’s weird but wonderful.
Get in touch anytime: email@example.com // Speaking inquiries: firstname.lastname@example.org