How Jack Butcher went from advertising industry burnout to building a $1 million business "visualizing value"View transcript
Visualize Value founder Jack Butcher worked as a creative director in advertising for years, building a name for some of the largest brands in the world. But before long, he grew tired of the red tape that came hand-in-hand with the prestigious clients he worked for and agencies he worked under. Eager to find creative freedom and try his hand at being an entrepreneur, he tried running an agency of own, but still didn't find it satisfying.
After realizing leading an agency wasn't for him, he took a different approach, creating a startup called Visualize Value. Butcher envisions it as a service empowering entrepreneurs and the forward-thinking to take their visions into their own hands, providing courses on everything from building products to learning design for startups. In 18 months, Butcher has grown Visualize Value into a successful business with an online audience of thousands using his courses to better themselves.
Butcher spoke about the story behind Visualize Value, where it's going next, and what he learned from his journey.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
From ad agencies to Visualize Value00:00:00
The Business of Business: So I was wondering for the audience, if you could introduce yourself and just talk about what you do?
Sure. So my background is in graphic design. I moved to New York in 2010 to work at a small boutique graphic design agency, and hopped around a bunch of different agency jobs over the course of about eight years. [At the] end of 2017, start of 2018, I'd started my own agency and was shooting car commercials, doing basically full stack creative work for about six to nine months, and burned out pretty badly serving corporate clients.
So it was a really tough thing to do with a small team of one at a time, and then just drastically pivoted the agency business in one very specific direction, which was essentially the pitch decks that I was using to win agency work. That isn't something that you typically get paid for, that’s something that you do to get an introduction and win a job. But I just spent so much time working on refining that process that I built an agency around that as a deliverable.
So how can I help people visualize a message, get a concept across, and this idea of Visualized Value was how I would describe that service. And then to win business for that service, I started a front-end Twitter and Instagram account called Visualize Value where I take ideas, visualize them, and put them out there. For a period of time, that was an inbound marketing system for agency jobs. And then over time, it just grew and grew to the point where the agency work was — the amount of inbound requests I was getting was impossible to fulfill by myself. So I started building education products. And I've since just been experimenting with all sorts of different stuff. But Visualize Value is now kind of a different beast than it began life as.
You talked about how with your course business, you make over $100,000 per month. So that's pretty huge. So you started working on your own agency.
Yes. In 2017.
When did you do the pivots to just focus on essentially Visualize Value as consulting?
Probably about nine months into doing it full time. So I was running an agency, while I had a full time job as an art director for a different agency I was sort of doing on the side. And then, at a certain point, the amount of work I was doing for my own agency eclipsed the amount of time I had in the day with my full time job, so I just went full time on my own thing. And then after, it's probably six to nine months that I got to the stage where I was burned out, or just at the point where there's this fork in the road where you either hire people and get an office and do all the things that you need to do to serve corporate clients as an ad agency.
I'd get messages from my clients, like, “We're going to be in New York for two days, let's meet up, like, we'll come to your office.” And I was like, “Ah, okay, I have to hire a space to get people to come and sit and nothing wrong with that.” But it was definitely a different model.
And to get that to scale, you need a team of project managers, and all of the things that a corporate-sized business expects when they interact with an agency, was not something that I was particularly interested in building. So I was like, “Okay, let's go back to something that is very focused, and at the very least, the best use of my time,” because video and all of the things that I was doing, I certainly had an interest in, but I wasn't like, “There would be no reason, I don't think, to hire me over at an agency that specializes in X.”
“I'm a competitive person. So if you have five teams competing internally to win the chance to pitch something, I'm going to be the last in the office working on that because I want to.”
I didn't have the level of focus that people weren't necessarily coming to me for what I did, I was operating on a bunch of relationships that I'd built up in my previous agency career. So you just try and win the work at any cost, and then just do what you're told until basically, your margin is completely erased. That was my experience of it. So changing the way the business worked and changing the way I promoted the business, so people would come to me and ask, “Hey, I like the way you visualize that thing. Can you do it for my business?” And that completely changes the dynamic of the service business from, “Hey, do what you're told,” to “Tell me what to do.” That was a much better iteration of the service business. And then from there, there's a product iteration that can happen from that level of focus.
How old were you at this point? What was your mind state?
So in 2017 I was 29, 32 now. I was married, had a place in New York. No kids at that point, we had a baby three months ago. There was definitely a leap of faith that happened in 2017. I did wait until we wanted a piece of work that was sizable enough to create some runway on the business side of things. So the stuff I was doing part time for the corporate clients was good supplementary income, but it wasn't like it wouldn't replace my salary that I was making.
So just holding out for bidding on a job that was big enough to give you three months of runway if no more work came in, for example. So that allowed for the complete leap of faith to happen like, “Okay, we won this decent-sized pitch, we’re going to go and do that. And then we'll have X amount of time to figure things out if another piece of work doesn't come in at that scale.” But I was definitely naive at the time and thinking, “Oh, these will just keep coming back to huge commissioned agency jobs.” And obviously, that's not the way the world works.
So if Visualize Value didn't work, let's just look at the other side. What you probably just have come back to work in an agency?
Yeah. Nothing crazy. I think the agency world is fairly well networked. If you have a decent reputation in an agency in New York, like the network that I built over eight years, people go to different agencies and people that managed you at the start of your career have a different spot in a different place now. And there's a lot of hired gun behavior in the agency world where I say we need a designer for a week to come in and do it. And I even did a few of those while I was running the agency just in case.
So it was definitely stressful and loaded up the plate with a little bit too much stuff. But if you're in a city like New York, and you have a bit of a network, and you have a portfolio of work that you can just point to the worst case scenario, in my mind it was not significant enough for me to not take the risk.
The practicality of being your own boss00:08:30
I think it's the dream for many creative people to not have to work a nine to five, to have their own job and have their own income. But how practical is it? What percentage of people do you think work for themselves?
I think last year really made me think about this at a much greater level of depth, with people being forced to work online and build up a body of work in public, and leveraging personal relationships and office politics and things of that nature waned. You can rely on that just as much. Such an interesting question.
I think the advantage I had was, I always worked in an environment where you produce things that you could point to as proof of what you can do. So I think people who work in fields like that have much more of a shot at getting traction early. So if you can design something, if you can make things, if you can write things, if you can code and build things, it's very easy for you to put work out into whatever digital environment you operate in. And people can look at that and be like, “I want that, help me build that.”
So my gut answer would be whatever percentage of people can demonstrate their working ability on their own. That to me offers you a huge advantage. But there's also people that I've worked with, just incredible practitioners that would never ever want to be in the position of running a business or doing any of the administrative side of commercial creative work. I think their appetite is changing. And I think the systems that are being built makes it a lot easier and removes friction in some cases. I would be dishonest if I didn't acknowledge some of the power laws that are a part of this, too, like the winners win.
And that's why this ridiculous level of specificity is becoming so much more of a requirement in gaining traction for any sustained period of time or any sustained level of result. You almost have to be unhealthily obsessed with something very specific to make that happen. So I don't know the percentages, but hopefully that offers some clarity into how I think about it.
How did you become good? You had this journey from 2010 to even in college, you studied design? Do you think that journey was required? How did you become so good at what you do?
Yeah, I think there's definitely reps, right? There's a natural process to everything, where you pick something up, you put it down enough times, you get stronger. I also definitely credit some of the people I've worked around early in my career. There's a few people that have made throwaway comments to me that I don't think they would now remember but they really stuck with me.
My first guy that gave me a job in New York owned a tiny six-person agency in West Chelsea, and he was a director of a big Madison Avenue agency, and just had an incredible body of work and had written some of the biggest campaigns, like the HSBC airport campaigns, he did all of that stuff. So being around people that have achieved that stuff is obviously — by osmosis, you learn that it's possible.
One thing he said to me once, at this little table in the middle of the agency, and was like, “Okay, time to review the work, walk over there with this print out." And I'm like, “This is not quite good enough.” But he's like, “Let me stop you there. If it's not good enough, don't show it to me. I don't want to see it. Like, just tell me you're not ready. And we'll come back to it when it's good enough.” So that comment really stuck with me to the point where it influences how I operate to this day, and how I operated from that day on.
I think that that can be misconstrued as he didn't want to help me, but I think the opposite was true, right? It was like empathy at a macro level, he's trying to teach me a lesson that's going to echo for a long time. Can't get feedback on something that isn't really — if you haven't taken it as far as you can take it, then don't bring it to me. So that was huge. Definitely credit that.
And then the agency environment is pretty nuts, right? So late nights, last-minute revisions. Five clients at a time. So there's some element of baptism of fire in there, there's a competitive environment, like I'm a competitive person. So if you have five teams competing internally to win the chance to pitch something, I'm going to be the last in the office working on that because I want to.
“Ask yourself, ‘Why am I doing this? Am I doing it so I can make decent money and spend more time with my family? Or am I doing it so my name is going to echo in the halls of history?’”
Even going back to college, I lived in a house with eight guys that did the same course as me. And we're all working on the same assignments all the time. And when you submit work, you put it on the wall and stand in the room. So that was a huge feedback loop. Like, “What's he doing? I’ve got to put a little bit more time, man, it's got to be better.” So yeah, there's definitely pieces of that experience, where maybe you wait too long in an environment where you can't learn anything else. But I was [learning].
If you average out the amount of time I spent in any job, it's probably less than a year. I had about 10 jobs. And most people would just think that that's like, completely nuts. I took it for granted in the moment. But now I look back on it as an exposure to so many different people, circumstances, problems. Then when I started my own agency, just saying yes to stuff that was just ridiculously — some of the things I agreed to do, I had no idea how to do and then I just figured it out, right? So a combination of all those experiences, I think, definitely wouldn't happen without that, could have happened faster.
Maybe I think some of the ideas I discovered when Visualize Value was growing would have been an accelerant to my earlier career, or maybe I wouldn't have stayed in agency environments after I'd extracted everything I needed to learn, but it's hard to give a definitive answer. But hopefully that speaks to all the different experiences that made it up.
Work-life balance and misconceptions of being a founder00:16:30
When you work for yourself, like you do now, you have a lot of freedom. How do you balance that? If you want to build something super complex, like a fighter jet or an iPhone, you want to build something great. So if you sometimes feel like there's a trade off — imagine if you're working in Apple and designing. So do you feel some trade off there? Like to work on something that's ambitious?
That's a great question. I think you absolutely have to recognize that trade-off on what's important to you. And I think, by way of just my career experience, working in teams of a few dozen people to build things very inefficiently, has maybe given me an experience of working in teams that other people don't have. I never worked at Tesla or NASA — like, working with a couple dozen people to try and make an advertising campaign is not the most inspiring calling in the world. But yeah, I definitely think that's a legitimate trade-off of like, if you want to be part of something much, much bigger than yourself, then working with people is oftentimes the only way you're going to be able to do that. It definitely crosses my mind on occasion.
But it's not what drives me in the same way that I know other people can't get out of bed unless there's some really massive thing that they're pursuing over a massive, long timeframe. But it's a great question. That's some introspective thing that you need to think about before you take leaps into doing something by yourself, because you have to purposefully drastically reduce what you're going to create, if you want to do a great job of it. Because, yeah, there are resource constraints involved.
So not to be a hater, but I have another way I think about it. So when you start a course, like you're working for yourself, there's also the element of you know, it goes fast. But how durable do you think it is? If you talk about like Tesla, like, all you can think of big brands, like it's supposed to last for 50 years, that's where most of the value comes from. So even just monetarily, if you do great work now just for yourself, just the fact that he doesn't have that. I don't know how you think of it. But do you think it's doable? Because that's when usually cooperation, most of the value comes from 20 years from now?
Yeah, that's a great point. I think there's like two sides to it, it feels like a bit of a barbell economy. You're going to have the Amazons of the world, and then you're going to have the one-off creators of the world, like the brand of one and then the mega brand. And there's going to be a lot lost in the middle of that. I definitely tried to make a point of calling that out, too. There's just the way the economy is fracturing is just driving things in both of those directions, right? You have to commit to the artisan angle and try to be just incredible at one thing and be known for something. And I think the most profound examples of that are like recording artists — like actual artists, athletes, people that just can stand on their own.
And then on the other side, they're not as resilient as an Apple or Tesla, they have a career, they have a couple of bad movies. And it's game over. But it depends on your skill set, like what the floor is, too. I think about if all my social accounts got shut down tomorrow, and I only had an email list, for example, it's like I could go back to a decent sized consulting business overnight. So there's tiers to it. And there's an anti-fragility, I think, to build another network. But you're absolutely right, that the power laws involved in only a select few and to the rarefied atmosphere of like, they're going to be remembered in 20 years, for example.
That's another question to ask yourself, like, “Why am I doing this? Am I doing it so I can make decent money and spend more time with my family? Or am I doing it so my name is going to echo in the halls of history?” If you don't know that about yourself, that's the thing that you have to figure out before you make the decision.
So why are you doing it? It's more like you want to have balance with your family?
Yeah, I think so. I think it's definitely been influenced by my experience in environments where I feel like I'm unable to do my best work. I completely recognize that might be just by chance. I've never been in a place where I'm just pumped to get up and work with 20 people on a daily basis. I'd rather be introverted in that sense, or I'd rather just sit in and make something. Getting your own time back is definitely huge.
But there's no perfect scenario there either, because you have to be incredibly disciplined when you're building your own business to not overcommit. Because there's no ceiling to how much time you can spend on something, especially in an internet business, because you can always be doing something a bit better, right? The number can always go higher, versus maybe in a job, depending on what you do, there's expected hours of work and there's deadlines to hit, and things of that nature. But when you have to control all of that yourself instead, it becomes a skill that you have to hone on top of building the business, enforcing that balance.
I think it definitely also comes back to that competitive angle. Like, how much can I do without any help? Which is probably a twisted thing to think, too. It's a little bit — not self-sabotage, but it's definitely masochistic at some level. Right now, I can't imagine going back to work in some way. I would never take it off the table and never not listen to an offer, but I'm enjoying it. And that's really like, if I can maximize the amount of fun I'm having, that's really where I'm going to decide the direction.
You come off as very chill. When you listen to Gary Vee, like, I like Gary Vee, but it's like, “Oh my god, give me a break.” But do you think that there's some misconception in how much work goes into what you do?
Yeah, probably, there are some people that I think are not a direct comparison to what I do. But there are some people that I think do things just so incredibly effortlessly, and they are masters of their craft to the point where it's like... David Brown wrote this statement once, I'll try and get it word for word. But he said, “People will take for granted great writing, because it looks so simple that they could have done it. And it's a product of endless repetition and a lot of self scrutiny.”
And I totally agree with you. There are people that glorify how difficult something is or how hard it was to push something through. I just don't feel comfortable making it about me to that extent, where it's like, “Yeah, I'm making this stuff, I put a lot of effort into it.” But that's not really what I'm trying to share. I'm just trying to share the work.
A lot of the stress is front-loaded. Like when I started my career, I didn't have a Twitter account or Instagram account. I didn't have this level of distraction that people starting out now or trying to pivot now have. So I was just sitting in the office chair, rep after rep after rep of whatever it might be, a brand new book, just intense repetition of graphic design, and not sharing any of it, not putting any of it out into the world, just like internally. And that to me is an advantage in this day and age. How do you get out of looking at what everyone else is doing and put your head down and get good at something? And somebody's looking at work like that? I think in an environment where they're distracted all the time it feels like: How could you spend enough time to hone a skill? Or how could you stay undistracted for long enough to hone a skill to produce that? I think that's the reaction people have a lot of the time.
The future of NFTs00:27:16
So let's go to the NFTs. You've had a lot of success with NFTs. So is there a reason why you think your stuff has specifically resonated with that new medium?
I think that even among the NFT pieces that I've launched, there is a huge difference in outcome based on how conceptually relevant they are to the medium of NFTs, which makes total sense. Like there's a few pieces that have really resonated, at the time when this technology was just like everybody was hysterically obsessed with this stuff.
So I think putting something out into a market that, in one instance, explained what an NFT was, when everybody's going crazy about NFTs that really resonated. And the other pieces that did well, what kind of conceptual commentary on what an NF T is or what it means to like, own a piece of art or what fungibility is. And I'd been building, essentially publishing digital art for two and a half years before selling anything directly. There's just a nice synergy there where it doesn't feel like you come out of somewhere, and start to just adopt the technology, because there's a lot of commercial interests. I think this is completely anecdotal. That's my perception of why they did reasonably well.
So to some extent I think there is a limit, I guess it's a new medium. Do you think NFTs can be — right now it seems very internal. Do you think it's possible that it will make that transition to be mainstream?
I think it will. When it becomes the fabric of the interaction, I think [NBA] Top Shot is maybe the closest thing that you can see that masks the underlying infrastructure, right? You have this technology that underlies this platform, or this transaction that is very necessary to facilitate the value of the thing, to say that there's only one of these that exists. So this verifies it. So I think in instances where that is important, we're definitely gonna see more of it.
And to your point, NFT will maybe be an acronym that will slowly fade away, right? It's either legit, or it isn't the SLA security badge in your browser, where you have the low lock up the top. I think it's going to take a hell of a long time to get there. This is kind of like “dot com” style, like attaching it, in the same way that it's like, if a company has a website is valuable in the dot com boom. Two or three months ago, if a company lists an NFT, they're going to sell it. Try that like even two months later, and it's not true anymore.
If it was leveraged in a genuine way to actually make the experience better or facilitate a higher fidelity transaction — and I think we're still gonna see a lot of room to run there. But there's a ton of cognitive dissonance to overcome. I read an article in The New York Times today about digital real estate, and people buying furniture and real estate online. And there's a certain irony to it. I know it's culturally extreme, right? It's a new behavior. But this is from somebody who's publishing a newspaper article on our website and charging a subscription to access it.
I know I'm being a little facetious by making a one-to-one comparison, but they're not conceptually in different universes. So that to me is just an example of how early we are right? In the same way that somebody showed me this headline recently, The New York Times posted a headline in 1908 saying man will not fly for a million years and nine days later, the Wright brothers fly.
Taking creative risks and the future of Visualize Value00:32:40
You write a lot. You did this visualizing stuff on tweetstorms, for example, and I like larger meta concepts important to work. But you're also a craftsman, you actually draw stuff. How important is it to have these meta ideas about how the world works and take risks, be creative, versus learning to do something that's useful. How important do you think that is?
Yeah, you can get stuck in that loop. And I think there's a lot of people stuck in that loop. Assuming that information will transform your circumstances, it may transform the way you think. But I still believe this to be true, like your ability to create something that other people want, for one reason or another, whether that's going to help me fix a problem, or it's going to entertain me for half an hour, or whatever else.
I think the interesting thing I was seeing is that the regurgitation of information is almost becoming an industry in itself, right? So you can get rich giving people bad advice on how to be successful. And there's just a huge swath of that. I have introspective think about this. Sometimes it's like, I never ever want to be put in that category of giving out irresponsible advice or saying things that are just categorically untrue or misleading. And I think that means, the differences in tension, I think it shows up in like, “Don't show me, don't tell me what you think, show me what's in your portfolio.” And I think it's very easy, and we're like mimetic creatures, right? We just start copying other people. And when we don't see the same result that they got from copying them we’re like, “Wow, this must be a scam. Right? This can't be that.”
So I do think that the meta principles are interesting for that reason, right? Because they allow you to put your own experience through these things that are universally true and come up with something new. But you can definitely overdose on that stuff and get to a place where you're just regurgitating ideas, and to look back at things that I think have given me any type of advantage, it's been getting your face rubbed in the dirt when something goes wrong. So I think people underestimate the amount of time these ideas can serve you.
Whatever you do, like you don't necessarily need to go and start a YouTube empire, or whatever it is anybody wants to be these days. Like, if I had discovered novels, tweetstorms, for example, while I was working at an agency, my agency work would have been five times better. Maybe the way I would have approached the pitch process would have been like, “Okay, guys, we should think about building a product that we could pitch to 10 of our clients,” instead of just burning 1,000 hours on this one pitch and then throwing it in the bin when it doesn't go to where it's supposed to go. So those are definitely useful ideas, but they're so sexy that they can just pull you into a world of like, “If I just understand this stuff, then something's gonna happen.” And there's never a replacement for just making stuff and putting it in front of people, building relationships that way.
I know you hinted at Visualized Value, you have a course. But now you're building more of a media entity, like what are your plans?
So, great question. When I started, it was an advantage to not think too far ahead. The feedback loops are pretty short. At the beginning. I was like, “Publish stuff, like speak to people. Set up a one-on-one consulting arrangement. Do that again, loop loop.” And then as you grow your reach as you have more leverage and a lot of senses, that's not an intelligent way to spend time. If that's what you like doing, then it's always an intelligent way to spend time. But a lot of the things that I've started to realize, the ideas that I've put together in some of the education products are 10 years of experience compressed, and I'm not going to get another 10 years of experience between now and next month.
So making education product after education product is not the direction that this thing is going to go in. If I built relationships with authors, for example, where they're bringing a new book out, or they're taking a set of ideas and distilling them, work with them and set up arrangements where we share the upside of a book being published, for example. Or there are companies or platforms that are launching that are in need of visuals that better explain what they do.
There's also something I'm building out now, which is Visualized Valley, which has been this great magnet for curious people, and builders of all different types, like practitioners of different creative skills, whether they're designers or developers or your planners. And I think being able to put two sides of that marketplace together. So there's startups that want to hire talent out of the Visualize Value alumni or out of our community. So we are building resources and connecting people that way, which is something that I'm playing around with now, as well, but I don't have a take over the world situation.
To come back to the thing that we talked about earlier in the podcast is, I think if you want to do something like that, you're building towards it. It's all or nothing, “I'm gonna raise money and I see the moon or the depths of hell.” I guess my brain doesn't work that way, in some ways. And like the level of stress that comes with that is just something that is not necessary to take on. I wouldn't say not necessary, I'd say I haven't come across an idea that is worth that level of sacrifice. Maybe that will change but right now it's slow and steady. Like, “Let's try this. Let's have a look at how we can add value to this person, all while trying not to take on too much and burn out agency style.”