Ben Grant, creator of Daily Overview, featured in The New York Times, The Economist, WIRED, and Amazon’s Best Books of 2016.
– Okay. Alright hey everyone, this is Ann Rea coming to you from San Francisco, California. This is my puppy Rebel. She’ll be joining us for an interview with Ben Grant who is a creator of Daily Overview. I met Ben at General Assembly which is a school in San Francisco’s financial district. He gave a presentation about his art, photography. And what Ben didn’t know is that he actually cracked the four part code. Ben tell us for those who don’t know, what’s Daily Overview?
– Yeah, thank you Ann. Daily Overview is a photography _ that I started in 2013. That uses satellite to show places where humans have most impacted the planet. It started as a blog I guess you would call it with Instagram and Facebook pages. It has since grown to be a poster store and a book, a coffee table book that was published last year. Again, just an idea that grew into a large following and is now a business if you wanna call it that.
– Well you’re making money right?
– I am making money so it is a business.
– You’re making art, if you’re making art and you’re making money with it whether you believe it or not, the IRS says you’re in business right?
– Certainly, the IRS certainly would call it a business.
– Yeah. We have an odd reluctance to like call it business or art, but I don’t have that reluctance. I think it’s great. I think it’s great that you’re doing such a creative project and you’re making money. It means that you’re providing value.
– Yeah, absolutely. I think my reluctance comes from the fact that I was doing it for a while where I didn’t make money. It was purely from a place of passion and then when I decided to do it full time, that’s when you need to start making money. It’s definitely a business for sure.
– Right ’cause if you don’t believe it, the IRS will send you a bill.
– Interestingly enough so when I asked my mentor Wayne Thiebaud, who’s a very famous painter, you can look him up if you don’t now who he is everybody. He’s in every major art collection. I asked him, he encouraged me to pursue painting and I asked him how I could make a living and his words to me were I don’t know, I’m not a business man. Which was an incredibly strange disconnect given the fact that at that point his paintings were starting to sell for over one million dollars. More than that now. Yeah, I think you’re in business if you’re- Yeah. What I noticed is that you unwittingly crack what I refer to, what I have dubbed the four part code and I’ll explain to you what that is. Then maybe you can tell me if my assumptions were correct.
– Yeah I’d love to hear the code.
– The first question that most artists want to answer is what is my niche or who is it who will buy my art? I’m talking about art now, Ben is a photographer, I’m talking about art in the general sense. That’s the first question everyone asks, artists ask but it’s actually the last question you should be asking yourself as an artist. The first question or number one of the four part code is the first question you have to ask yourself is who are you as a person? What do you stand for and what do you stand against? That’s got nothing to do with your art. Once you understand that, kind of your big why, your creative purpose, then you can ask the next question, number two, which is based on my why, my creative purpose, what is the one problem in the world I believe is really worth solving? That also has got nothing to do with you art and it’s got nothing to do with you. It has to do with how you intend to be of greater service to the others. It’s your mission that is much bigger than you and much bigger than your art. Once you’ve asked those two questions, then you can ask yourself number three. How can I solve this problem that’s worth solving using my art and, and a big and, other resources or skills? Finally, you can ask who has this problem that they believe is worth solving? And that who is your target market. Also known as your niche. So what I heard you talking about was you had a conversation with a friend’s father. He had, he’s a generous philanthropist. He had a real concern about the global, our environment, the state of the globe. The state of our environment.
– [Ben] Absolutely.
– And he specifically asked you how are we gonna solve this problem? And you said I can’t answer this question, I’m gonna go and think about it. What you came back with was this idea that what if people had a different view of the world and the environment and the impact, and changing environments having, if they had a different view, just a factual view, just a different view, maybe they would come to a different understanding or appreciation. That is all about you, who you are, and who you stand for and what you stand against.
– My assumption, and again it’s an assumption, is that if you looked at the three most painful moments in your life and the three most joyful moments in your life, they would link to that primary why. Which is if you can look at a situation from a different point of view, you can gain a different understanding and appreciation for it. Or acceptance.
– Yeah absolutely.
– Is that about right, am I hitting your-
– Absolutely, you’re hitting it very much so. And I think to what you said before, I didn’t necessarily understand this is what I was doing or I was forming these ideas. But in retrospect, it is absolutely right. And even the dedication of my book is to my parents which says for the importance of teaching me to keep things in perspective. So that’s kind of always what it’s been for me with this project. I think you’re kind of moving through the four step parts but I see where you’re going with this in regards to kind of then finding the tools to kind of convey this purpose or this larger idea.
– Yeah and your work Daily Overview, you guys should check it out, is completely about perspective. It’s literally about perspective. Satellite perspective.
– Which gives you a completely different understanding of our environment and the changes the world is going through. Anyway, so that’s the why. Then you have to determine based on your why, which is what your parents taught you, being able to keep things in perspective or look at things from different perspectives, then what is the one problem that you believe is worth solving? By the way, you didn’t go to photography school or art school. What I really want to point out to all of you art students is it’s not about what school you go to. I’m not saying that going to art school or studying photography will hurt you, but it’s not going to get you to a place where you’re making art and making money. Because you have to provide value. Or you’re not getting paid no matter what you do.
– Yeah, that’s certainly true.
– Then the why is the what is the one problem that you believe is really worth solving? And it seems like you’re very connected with your friend’s father’s concern about the problem of our environment. Is that your mission? How would you state, or you actually did state your mission, how would you state your mission?
– It’s to change the way that people see the world and to inspire new perspectives of what human impact looks like. I think very much in line with what you are saying, I connected with that idea but didn’t necessarily understand how to act on it besides just having this hypothesis.
– You started with the right question in the right order.
– Right and to keep an open mind to hoping to solve that problem. So that when you come in contact with technologies or new mediums that enable you to do so to embrace them and say this might be what I’ve been looking for the whole time.
– Right. Now the second most frequently asked question for artists is if they’re not asking who their target market is, their who, they’re asking number three, how. How am I going to do this. Again, out of order, it’s not going work out well. But you asked in the right order. How do you solve this problem that’s really worth solving for those who are not familiar with what you do. Really you should check out, they’re stunningly beautiful, fascinating series of satellite photography. But how do you solve the problem.
– I started doing research to find these places where we are actually changing the planet. And discovered through satellite technology that you can take raw satellite images or raw data if you will and artistically manipulate it, clean it up and enhance it to make it look like abstract painting or photography. Or these kind of 2D flat images. The unique combination of providing this education and awareness but also bringing the art into it as a means to inspire this interest and this new understanding is what I over time, not at first necessarily, but over time realized this medium is uniquely suited to do so. And provide kind of engagement and immersiveness on both of those spectrums.
– Right. And so who has this problem, the next question is number four, who. Who has this problem that’s really worth solving? It’s other people who are also concerned about the environment, the situation in the environment right? It’s that simple.
– I think a lot of people don’t even consider that to be one of their main causes or concerns. But these images I think are alluring enough or mesmerizing enough that is has the potential to start a conversation with someone who usually would look away from that topic or theme and engage.
– I’m so glad you said that because one of the things I teach artists is they do not need to sell them their art and they do not need to sell themselves. All they need to do is to share their mission and it might inspire guided conversations which is exactly what you do. If images cause you to think and question the situation, so no matter what your level of concern or recycling is, you all of a sudden get pretty fascinated about how the earth is changing. And particularly that thing you did on your square space site where you show kind of a slide before and after of the- So cool.
– Yeah and that’s something that I didn’t know how to do at first either. But as you kind of build and build on your ideas, you’re introduced to these new forms of technology that can continually expand it and take it in different directions. But kind of staying true to the core idea but always kind of evolving and making it dynamic and seeing where else it can go.
– I’m glad you said that, staying true to the core idea. ‘Cause there’s so many shiny balls to get distracted by. When you’re clear on your mission, you just stay focused on that and you can always test what you’re doing, is this supporting my mission, yes or no?
– Even writing out your mission and having it something that you can refer back to to kind of check against always I think as you’re saying is very critical and important. It kind of keeps you inline.
– Right and I always tell artists don’t wordsmith this thing and try to make it sound snappy. It needs to be your soul’s truth.
– Right, absolutely.
– Alright, it kind of falls flat otherwise. If you wouldn’t mind, I would like you to tell me what you’re biggest most fucked up failure has been in business so far. What pops into your head, what was the worst thing so far? Or has it just been easy sailing and you never-
– It has been easy sailing at all. A couple things come to mind. The first is, and someone asked me this actually at the talk where we met, about how did I figure our pricing? How do you set value for something? At first I thought these had a certain value based on other galleries I’d been to or other photographers I’d seen. And I simply set them way too high. And I didn’t sell anything for awhile. I had to be open to the idea that maybe they’re just not that valuable. Maybe you just need to kind of set the value maybe a little bit lower at first and be open to kind of entering low and potentially raising them over time. That’s what I did after a few months of not selling anything, I kind of re-calibrated and changed it and let everyone know I changed it.
– What did you learn from that? Like did it-
– I think it’s again kind of just like learning to agile and learning that everything is not set in stone and if you mess up at first, it’s not necessarily a mess up, you just have to kind of re-calibrate.
– I think, again something like that where it’s a mess up when I first started shipping posters around the world, they kept getting damaged and they kept getting damaged and it wasn’t this is over, I need to stop shipping them. It was an opportunity to figure out what is the best solution to do it and figure out new shipping containers and new other logistics to consider. I wasn’t a logistics person but you figure out the right way to get it done.
– All of a sudden you become one right?
– You become many different things when you start running your own business for sure. That’s another example of something that was getting messed up for awhile. You learn from the mistakes and you figure out the right way to kind of figure out the best solution.
– Shipping was that your second failure that comes to mind?
– Definitely, there were a lot of failures there. Something I don’t know if it’s necessarily a failure, but I’m figuring out now is there a way to do something like limited editions. And figuring out what the right market is for art like this and if it’s at a point where I could do something like that or if it still needs to be accessible to everyone.
– You would go back to your mission right? Because you have a big story to tell, so maybe it’s not appropriate. Limited editions, just an FYI everybody, they have a legal definition, you can’t call it a limited edition, at least in the state of California, unless you limit it to a certain number. And that was when we didn’t have digital printing and it was expensive. It’s sort of an artificial construct at this point. You’re welcome to do it. Understand how does this really, why did it exist in the first place and how does that align with your current mission? Those are the questions.
– I think with me it doesn’t necessarily align with my mission because this is for everyone and I’m trying to bring this perspective to as many people as possible.
– So _ in any way probably make the most sense.
– Maybe we just solved that problem.
– Yeah, maybe we solved that problem live.
– That’s so awesome. Alright, so if you could give people, artists listening, photographers, jewelry designers, glass blowers, whatever your creative medium, if you could give them since you did move into making art into making money, if you could give them one piece of parting advice or if you could travel back into your time machine and talk to yourself when you’re first starting, what’s one thing that you would say?
– Yeah, I think a reason that I have had success or was able to create a book even is that you can gain a lot by having a following first and then selling something later. If you’re able to support yourself up to a point where you’re able to get an audience who is interested in your work and engaged in your work and knows your work, and then you provide a service later or then you provide a product later, I think you’re more likely to get buy in from people because they know what to expect or they know you so well. Rather than starting a business on day one with a product that also has kind of a marketing advertising to it. I think if you’re able to kind of flip the normal model on its head and do audience, idea, blog first and then product later, it’s kind of less pressure and easier to do.
– I agree, provide value. And get into the heart and soul of your private market. That’s excellent advice, that’s really good advice.
– Yeah, I think there have been a number of projects that have kind of taken hold like that with something like Humans of New York for example. Who had a huge following and recognization all over the news and media and then did books later. Other artists who grew from something like Instagram and started created works that were for sale.
– With the internet and the democratization of art through the internet I think that’s easier now than ever before to do if you have an idea.
– It’s easy to do if you have a four part code. If you know-
– If you watch this video.
– If you watch this video, but also really if you don’t create clear value above and beyond your art, you’re gonna get tossed into the ocean of other amazing talents. And you’re not gonna be found. The reason you were found is because, well you weren’t just found. Let me just retract that statement because you created value. The reason you are recognized is because you created clear value above and beyond your art. You’re not competing with other photographers. The mindset a lot of artists destroy creativity by taking their precious time and life force and competing against other artists. You don’t do any of that. It’s another reason why it’s not surprise to me that you’ve got this book, you’ve got a deal with who is it CBC. You know, that’s _ doing well.
– Yeah, absolutely. It shouldn’t be a competition, I think everyone can work together and collaborate and ultimately we’ll all be better off in the long run because of it.
– Yeah, yeah. It’s a rare earth so check our Daily Overview. See I have your card. He has a cool business card by the way. It’s got one of his images on the back. See. And there’s that cool logo.
– Another part of it for sure.
– I like that logo. Nice.
– Fleet Design Company.
– Fleet Design Company everybody. If you wanna a good logo, that’s a pretty damn good one. Thank you Ben, I really appreciate your time.
– Thank you Ann.
– And your honestly. I wish you the best, stay in touch.
– [Ben] Absolutely, will do.
– Okay, alright, I’ll let you know when this is ready for viewing, your viewing pleasure.
– Perfect, can’t wait to see it. Thank you, have a good day.
– Thanks bye.