Nick shares his circuitous path, from editor to motion graphics artist to photographer, which then progressed to selling photography, developing tutorials, creating phone apps, and building plugins for Cinema 4D. Now he's an entrepreneur and businessperson. He strongly believes that the standard path is not always the right path, and advocates for being self-aware: knowing what you love doing the most and building your life around that.
- So how did you make the transition then to business? I mean, that's the great leap, I think, that a lot of folks either want to make or fail to make at some point. - The transition from working at Digital Kitchen to kind of running Greyscalegorilla full-time was a series of little accidents. So during this whole time, 2005 to 2008, I also was experimenting with stock photography, and it started with stock photography, just straight up there.
I was shooting literally hundreds of photos a day to get to my one good photo a day on my website, and I saw this istock website and they go, hey, we sell stock photos. I'm like, oh, I know what stock photos are, it's like people shaking hands and on the phone, whatever, but they also sold textures, they sold all this stuff that wasn't necessarily artistic, but was practically or technically a good photograph. And what didn't mean a lot to me emotionally, I started to upload to istock. And I realized that there was a different way to make money.
There was a different way to support yourself other than getting paid per hour at a job, and it was just a little shift in my brain but it ended up turning into a big shift when I looked at all these tutorials and training and people really were into this. And that's when I had an idea for a plug-in for CINEMA 4D that would help make lighting a lot easier. I knew about lighting from college, I knew about lighting from photography, and I was always struggling with lighting in 3D until my buddy, Chad, said, "You know how to light, you know studio lighting, "you know how light falls off, "bigger lights have softer shadows, "smaller have harder shadows, all these things.
"You know where to set up a light in a studio. "Just do that in 3D and the software does the rest," right? Dang, I never thought about it that way. So I started building this plug-in, and I realized I should try to sell this plug-in. I think it's worth it. It helps me, I use it all the time, and I started using it in all my renders and I'm like, I'm going to give this a go. And that was kind of all those things combined allowed me to look at it and go, I'm going to try this.
I guess the main things are, I wanted to see if I could trade my energy for money instead of my hours for money. I wanted to see if I could do what I wanted to do all day which was just play in CINEMA 4D and how I can make a living out of it. - And get paid for it, yeah - Yup. And I wanted to see if could make a product because I always loved plug-ins and track code. I was just obsessed with cool plug-ins when they come out and I'm like, well if this works and people find as much value out of it as I do and I could sell it for, at the time it was like 65 bucks or wherever, if I could do that and make a living out of it and continue to do free tutorials for everybody and it's kind of paid for by the plug-ins, then I could do everything you want, which is never have to talk to a client again and also be able to just play with these tools and come up with cool ways.
So that's kind of how it started. The jump was, I should say, the jump was after I knew it worked, not before I knew it worked, there's a lot of people like, oh, I'm going to quit my job and then I'm going to go try this thing and do it, I'm like, woah, woah, woah, woah. Just come home, don't play Xbox, don't watch a movie and start working on whatever you're trying to do separately. And then if there's traction, then move into it. I'm not like... - You're not a cliff jumper? - Not a cliff jumper. I'm like, all right, once my rent is paid by either istock, because that was an interesting experiment as well, let's upload more photos, let's upload more video and see if this is valuable for other people.
So once I had enough income from istock and Greyscalegorilla separately, I said, hey guys, I love Digital Kitchen, I love working here, I learned so much from you guys, if I left for like six months or a year, would you have me back? And they go, you always have a place here. Like, just that alone, I'm like I love you, I'll let you know and that was it. That's how it started. And luckily, it worked out. (laughing) We're still making shiny spheres look good six years later.
- And a lot of folks don't realize also that you have iOS applications. So that's a really big jump from doing shiny spheres to making apps for phones. - Yeah, that one surprised me too. (chuckles) I don't know. I try to tie all these things together into one cohesive story, but there is none. It's a separate thing in my life. - Well, it's a photography app, so there's-- - Yeah, there's a photography background to it. I was always obsessed with looking at film. There was a photographer called Quarlo and he shot on film and he shot slide film, and then he'd cross processed the film to get these really saturated colors.
Shot in New York where there's just gorgeous stuff, and I was obsessed. And I thought to myself, there has to be a way to make my digital photo look that good. There has to be a way, it's just pixels. And there's a chemical in there that's making this cross process stuff looks so good, and I'm going to figure it out. So in my spare time, constantly, I was always trying to figure out the way to fake film with digital, and a lot of people have tackled this problem but for me, it was just looking at the Quarlo website and going man, I can't afford to process slide film every time I want to take 24 photos, and I'm not as good of a photographer.
I have to take 400 photos to get one, and he takes half his rolls probably, amazing. So I was always on the lookout for formulas and trying to make stuff look that way. So when the iPhone came out, I got the first iPhone, I started playing with it and I realized that taking photos was the thing that everybody was going to do on a camera or on this thing. It's in their pocket. I had to spend $1200 to get a digital camera and now here's this thing, it's in my pocket, it's one megapixel and it's not a great camera, but it's also right there.
- Yeah, the camera you need is the one that you have-- - Exactly, and I found myself using it, and I had this expensive camera gear at home and I found myself using this crappy one megapixel camera. I'm just thinking like, man, this is nuts. I wonder if there's a way we could take this crappy lens, really, the first version was not a great camera, but it was there, and it was like, well, I don't want to make a fancy, you know, good-looking camera app. What I really need is to kind of emulate a crappy camera to begin with.
And there were some other emulation stuff when the App Store came out. There was Vint Green, I think it was, and I went to his website and figured out who made Vint Green. I'm like, hey man, this iPhone stuff is kind of new to me, I was wondering if you could point me in the right place and kind of help me learn some of this code or whatever. He's like, "Nah, screw off, good luck." (laughing) So I'm like, man, Vint Green, I loved you man. All right, so what do I do? So I had this concept.
There are people out there that already know how to make stuff on the iPhone. I have a big enough following with this Greyscalegorilla photo website. It was before the 3D stuff. And I want to just put it out there and say anybody know how to make iPhone apps? I got a cool idea for a photography app, and a guy got back to me, we made a deal and we just made it. - Wow. - And he did such a great job. We made ShakeItPhoto that allows you to take a photo, it looks like a Polaroid when it comes out, (imitates polaroid printing) makes the noise and then it's gray when it comes out.
And I know it doesn't work, don't write in, but you shake your photo, you shake your camera and then the gray turn into your photo. It did great, like people loved it, people, still to this day, shoot photos of their kids every month with it, and they have these ongoing projects like it's such a great community, but it was a hit. I think it was one of the earlier apps in the store. - Mmhmm, Editor's Pick. - Yeah, Editor's Pick, it picked up, and we were just in there.
It just ended up being kind of a side thing. It's still out there, it's still doing okay. It's not like top of the charts anymore, but we keep it updated, we try to put a couple of new features in it here and there, but we have that one and CrossProcess too. So eventually, I did figure out kind of a cross process formula and put that in there. That was always a hobby for me. I think that's what got me thinking that I could make software when I got into Greyscalegorilla and plug-ins. I thought maybe I am okay at this. Maybe I could at least try to get better at this, try to make plug-ins and try to kind of make stuff look better for people, you know? That's always been the goal.
- So somewhere along the line, you really have sort of transcended the idea of artist in a way that, I think, a lot of artist envy and would like to emulate. But it seems like it was also a very circuitous, I guess would be a good way to put it, path? But you've gone from an editor and kid just out of school to a motion graphics artist, then a person making photography and then a person selling photography and then a person selling tutorials and then a person making iPhone apps, and now you're doing plug-ins as well for CINEMA 4D.
So somewhere along the way, you became a businessperson. - Well, talk to me in a few years maybe. That's the new one, right? - Yeah. - Yeah, for sure. - I would say, a few years, you're a businessperson now whether you like it or not. - Well, yeah, that's true. - You've got employees. - But don't tell my employees that. Wait, can you cut that part out? (laughing) - So how is that? Like, I mean, do you ever hit a point where you're like, oh my God, I'm a businessperson.
- Yeah, yeah, that's a scary one. I've never been responsible for anybody but myself professionally and the way that I do things. I love to talk, but I'm kind of a loner sometimes and kind of stick to myself and just work on a project until it's done kind of thing. But to have a team and to have people around was a necessity really that turned into a bigger opportunity.
So what happened was it was just me in a bedroom for Greyscalegorilla, left DK, started selling plug-ins, trying to figure out how to use Xpresso to learn more stuff. And I bumped into Chris Schmidt, who is like a long-time CINEMA 4D, used it longer than I have. He was to CINEMA what I was to After Effects. He knew everyone, he knew how to do it and he'll say the same thing: he didn't know the design stuff, right? I bumped into him and it was like chocolate peanut butter, boom! (laughter) Because he knew so much about the program, he was so technical and the key was, he was a good teacher.
He could show up and explain what he knew to people that didn't know it. It's not an easy skill. I know you know this. I'm like, Chris, we should work together. Like, I need your help because the site will be nothing but shiny spheres unless you come help me. And he's like, "This will be great," so we started working on that, we started working on a plug-in. We started working on City Kit, just kind of a brainstorm idea and he knew some ways to do it.
But anyway, so that kind of graduated into... And it worked, right? So my brain was like, well, that worked, like one more person. We're getting more done. It's more diverse. We have two trainers now instead of just me, and we have like a more technical side and me, I'm doing more of the design lighting side, and this is working great. So as things expanded, it kind of expanded by accident, employee by employee. But then, I realized, because I had this Midwest problem, it's a Midwest problem which is when something goes wrong, it's on you and you'd fix it.
And that's a great problem in most circumstances, but when it comes to business, it's not a good way to look at things. When it comes to business, you look at it like, okay, there's a problem, who can we hire to solve that problem, that would do a better job than I would do it? And that wasn't in my head. And every time I accidentally made the right decision, puling Chris in and getting his brothers in and hiring a studio manager that can like go through customer support, like every time I did one of these things, it was like I had to do it because there was no other way it would get done, but I was reluctant because it's not my personality.
My personality is, like, let me help, I got this, come here. That's how I was raised. So the business side has been a big learning experience actually for me to step back away. People ask all the time why I don't call myself the gorilla anymore, right? I stopped saying it a couple of years ago and I realize if I'm going to name myself after a website, that it doesn't work when there's more than one person running the site, you know? And it was out of respect for the employees, it's out of respect for everybody.
It's still a catchy catchphrase, let me tell you. (laughing) But it really turned into a bunch of accidents where every time the business got to a place where I literally could not contain it myself, I had to reach out for help or somebody happened to be there that I let control a little bit, and it worked luckily. Great team, great group of people that help me do that. So that experience, I mean, honestly, this is what I'm going through this week, like if this is turning into a therapy session, (laughing) let's get into it.
This is the hard part because when it was me and I was responsible for myself, and it was just this, if it fails-- - It's okay. - What happened? I got my job back. - Right, right. - Now, if it fails, right, what, we got seven jobs on the line. So it's a different way. I'm trying to expand like an owner, as a business person. I'm trying to expand as somebody that wants to help all the time and just say, okay, now my helping is not helping actually because I'm just in the way.
- Now you're meddling. - Yeah, exactly. Like, it was working until you showed up, now you have all these, like, but, that should be orange, to like, we like the blue one, get out of here. And they're right, right? So for me, I just like learning stuff. I see a problem like that, and I guess that's maybe why it's so scattered all the way down the line from photography, from 3D, from istock, all these, and apps, right? I see something and I'm just interested in how it works.
I think when I think of all those things, the thing that rings true to me is I look at something and I go, how do they do that? right? And then I just go on the hunt to figure out how they do that. So my current hunt is learning how to be a good boss, you know Learning how to be a good manager. It's not built into me at all, but I got to learn it, right? So my tutorials that I'm watching are those tutorials. How to be a good, you have those tutorials by the way? - We actually have those tutorials on lynda.com. - All right! I'll be searching.
- You can learn it. So there's an interesting thing you said earlier, which was you have this tendency to not let things go and to want to do it yourself and to want to help and solve that problem. Most business people, like most people that started business are in that same boat as you, where they have this thing they do they love, they started a business around it, and they can never let go enough to cross that threshold.
Like, that letting go part is not natural. So was there a person that taught you or smacked you over the head and said let go? - Yeah, luckily. There's been a lot of kind of accidental mentors too over the course, I guess (mumbles) I'll stop saying accidental because that's just me. - That's life. - That's how life is. But a lot of mentors and people I looked up to that I eventually have met, that I have either heard them say things like this or they told me directly.
So my thing about sharing and training and all of our free tutorials and everything is because when other people made videos that I just accidentally got to see because somebody recorded it, put it online and I watched a talk by Jim (mumbles) from Chicago, who at the time I just knew him as a website name and eventually became buddies with him. But at the time, didn't really know him but he started saying things out loud that were in this vein.
Like, if you put help around and you allow people to do a job better than you could do it you're better off, right? Jason Fried was the same, another Chicago, runs 37signals, was sharing all this knowledge and doing all these videos about it. And then I met Andrew Little, who runs Red Giant. - Oh yeah. - And he was great because I came to him, and Red Giant is such a great example because whenever I had a question about software, on how to price things or what customers support should be or should be do a 60-day or a 90-day guarantee or whatever, I just looked at Red Giant and I just say, I'm just doing what they're doing because we didn't cross any customers.
- I wasn't-- - You're complementary. - It was complementary. They're for After Effects and I'm like okay, got it, I'm going to be the Red Giant for CINEMA 4D. And so anytime I had a question I kind of looked at that, so I've had a lot of mentors, whether they know that they were mentors or not. (chuckles) I kind of, like, emulate. I've always learned by emulating. Like, it's working for them, so let's see if it works for me. Their plug-ins are around 60 to 150 dollars, that's what ours are.
It just went down the line. So when I finally got to meat Andrew, he was super helpful because he was so open on the struggles he did. He went through from hiring people and he's that mentor for me. I really believe this. Everybody has this person they can look up to, to learn from, to move up for, and the key part is everybody could also be that for somebody else, no matter where you are in your learning.
So I know a little bit more about business as somebody just starting, maybe I can help them move to where I am while I'm also reaching up and grabbing under them, and it's just this chain of learning, whether through video, whether through like meeting people directly. There are just so many ways to learn things. - So is there a... For someone coming up, just getting started, what's the magic piece of advice, the Nick Campbell magic-- - Oh, God.
- That you could impart on someone? - Man, I feel like in the shower where I'm like, you know what everybody should do? (laughter) That's hard. For me, I would say that... The big one for me is that what society places on you and what family places on you and what friends place on you as the standard path does not have to be the standard path. Whether that's who you are dating or what your job is, there's always another angle to everything.
So you know, the easy example is that I loved, just a personal example, is I got into this because I saw MK12 and moving stuff around. Then when I started working with clients, I realized this is not why I got into this, right? They're paying well, but this is not what got me excited about motion graphics and all this stuff. What got me excited about this is all the software and all the tools and all the little buttons and plug-ins.
Like, that's the part. So how do I design my life to do the part of this job that I liked the most? And if you are stuck in a place, everyone's got to pay their dues, everyone's got to learn, you can't do this right away, but I think that being self aware, I think it's being self-aware. So if it all boils down to one thing, it's being self-aware for what you like doing the most and trying to design your life around that.
And I'll add one more thing. It doesn't mean you have to get paid for doing that thing that you like the most. Maybe the thing you like the most is surfing, which... A lot of my friends just like to surf. Kind of hard to get paid to surf, but if you can design the rest of your career and where you live, that's a big one if you want to surf, and what your free time is, maybe you work at night instead of during the day, there are always ways around this. Not always ways around this. There's another angle to look at it.
So be self-aware and realize that there are other angles in the world. I mean, man, I can try to give advice to any specific thing but I think that key alone is realizing that there are hundreds of different paths was eye-opening to me and very helpful for everyone that I see that is trying to be more happy. (chuckles) - Nice.
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Watch for fresh insights into the careers and creative processes of these working professionals.