Busting Drug Dealers to Building Design Education

My guest this episode is Ben Burns – an award winning designer, strategist and Chief Operating Officer at The Futur.

The Futur is a group of creative professionals and educators that teach practical design and business education to a fast-growing global audience.

If you work in the creative industry there is a very strong chance that you’ve come across their excellent content.

Here Ben talks about starting his career in design, and then becoming a police officer in Savannah GA – working in narcotics, going undercover – before coming back to being a creative and ultimately changing the world of design education with The Futur.

Marketing Helsinki | Episode 27
➤ When you meet someone new right now and they ask, ‘What do you do for work?’ how do you answer?

Well first, I’m like, ‘What are you doing in my house?’ 

➤ [Laughs] Yeah let’s assume this is you know in the normal world.

Yeah so typically I just say that I’m the COO of a remote education company and usually that’s followed up with ‘Oh my gosh, that’s amazing. What do you teach?’ and I say, ‘We teach creatives how to make money,’ because that’s what it boils down to whether we’re helping you improve your design skills or your business stuff and everything relating to money. We focus on helping you make money doing what you love. 

➤ Awesome! [Prior to this] you worked in a slightly more intense job, right?

Yeah, I spent a couple years at an agency, worked my way from design intern, to graphic designer and then I landed a senior designer title which didn’t mean anything but it’s cool to say.

Then I just felt like there was something missing and didn’t know if I wanted to start my own business or if I wanted to pursue a different career. In order to help my decision making, I just quit my job. Turns out that was in 2008 when the global economy crashed.

➤ Did you quit in the middle of a recession or right before?

Right smack dab in the middle of the recession! 

➤ Wow! And did you quit without having anything to go to?

Yeah pretty much. You know, I’ve always been really confident in my ability to figure things out. That one was tough but it led me down this path; I’d been working as a quasi designer for 3 years at that point and didn’t like the fact that I would come to the office and sit down at a desk and just stay there for the entire day.

And I felt this calling to give back or you know, serve in some way. The clients I was working for were DreamWorks and Paramount Pictures and all these big names but I wasn’t having fun and the work didn’t mean anything to me. So I was searching for that meaning and I was like, ‘You know what? Let’s just do a complete 180 and put down the mouse and the Pantone book and pick up a badge and gun.’

And that’s what I did, so I started applying all the way up at the CIA and then worked my way down through the Federal Government and into the State level investigation agency and finally wound up with a job as a police officer in Savannah. 

➤ Still, I want to understand. You’re sitting there designing for Paramount or whoever – were you thinking like, ‘I want something different?’ or were you thinking specifically, ‘I want to be a cop?’ 

I think it was a little bit of both. So as far as the design stuff goes, there are really cool clients to work for and I absolutely would love another crack at jobs like that but at the same time we were working on stuff that was really low on the totem pole. So by the time the projects got put in our lap, everything was decided. We were the receivers of the style guide not the creators.

I can remember one of my dream projects was working on a piece of promotional merchandise for ‘Coraline.’ I absolutely loved the look and the feel that they came up with but it wasn’t my work and so because the decisions that mattered were already made, I felt like I was just a logo resizer.

At the same time, I had asthma as a kid and even though as a big dude I didn’t want to play football in high school, there was that seed that gets planted in the back of your mind. I talked to a couple of other big dudes that are in the creative space and this is the same for them, like ‘What if? What if I pursued something like that?’

So you know the bridge between football and policing is pretty far but I was looking for something physical. In the same year, I also joined the military. I was in the National Guard. So I was just trying to see if I could push myself into a place that was totally uncomfortable. Something that was totally new, totally foreign, to see if I could succeed.

➤ How long did you stay in your second adventurous career? 

I was a police officer for five years, I was in the military for four and a half. The policing career was rewarding and terrifying kind of all wrapped up into one ugly box. I was only in uniform for about a year. I was, you know, on the street doing police things: making sure that people weren’t fighting after the bars let out, pulling people over for speeding, writing up traffic accident reports, domestic violence, the kind of things that society needs to move forward.

And I became obsessed with trying to get guns off the street because Savannah was really known for its high murder rate and so right alongside guns especially in those days were drugs. So that’s what I focused on and I got picked up by a special operations unit about a year in. So I did that for about a year and then a multi-jurisdictional narcotics agency out of that special operations unit and so for the last three years I was a narcotics agent: everything from helping run wiretaps working with the DEA, doing undercover work…

➤ Whoa! You have to share some stories from that time because I know you have this one blog post where the first sentence is like you talking about your ballistic vest and you have the mask and you’re about to break into some door. I found that a thrilling read. What’s the most memorable case during your narcotics period? 

So a lot of stuff, obviously I can’t share details but I would say that the most memorable case was the most rewarding for me. It was this whirlwind of a case where we started off with a small buy. It was a marijuana and cocaine case –  marijuana in the state of Georgia was illegal and still is illegal.

We started off with a very small purchase and worked our way up the chain over the course of 48 to 72 hours. I was the case agent on that, meaning I ran everything and we worked in teams. You know we had a team of 6 to 8 people that helped us with surveillance and undercover work and stuff like that. And we followed the trail of narcotics all the way up to the person who was importing it from outside the country and so we were able to make an arrest at such a high level there.

It may not have made a dent on the trafficking of drugs in the country but it was one of those things where, at that level you could tell that this person may have been involved in some other more nefarious things and sending this person to jail meant more than just drugs.

That was probably the longest stretch of time that I’ve ever not slept, aside from some of the training that I had in the military, because we were just rolling, rolling, rolling and doing operation after operation. That was probably the most memorable.

➤ How much did you think about your previous design career during those times? 

Oh man, probably not very much. You know, when I commit to something I usually go all in. I was really knee-deep in that world and to be promoted that quickly you know it kind of showed a dedication. 

➤ Yeah, you must have been good at it.

I mean I don’t want to brag but yeah. [Laughs] 

➤ So that begs the question: what brought you back? What took you out of there?

Well, somewhere in there I got married and we bought a house and the crazy thing is that when you’re a police officer, a lot of times you have to live in the same area in which you patrol. I was toying around with the idea of starting a side hustle in design and I was like, you know, police officers don’t make much money even narcotics agents – I think I was making like $38,000 a year which is pretty low.

➤ And this was like 2010?

Yeah we’re talking like 2010 / 2011. So I was like, you know, ‘Maybe if I start taking on some clients on the side, I could do a logo here, a brochure there,’ you know, pull in some extra cash. So that’s what I started doing. [Also] I realized, out of all my friends who had been in the business for a long time, something broke: either their marriage or their body or their mind, one of those things would break as a police officer. The human that’s wearing the uniform is eventually broken. So I started analyzing this and I was like, ‘Am I making a huge difference?’

And honestly the answer is no because we were arresting basically businessmen. I mean, these guys were trafficking illegal narcotics but you know the motivation behind this was not to be some gangster, it was just to make money. And then the final trigger, the thing that sent me over the edge was, I was in my front yard raking leaves in totally plain clothes. There was nothing police on me. And somebody was walking down the street and he said, ‘Hey officer!’ 

➤ Oh no. Yeah, that would freak me out.

When you’re undercover, that is the worst. There were no markings on my vehicles, I never showed up to my house in tactical gear, I was not living there when I was in uniform, you know, the list goes on. There was no reason that person should have known that I was a police officer.

➤ Who the heck was it? 

I don’t know. I’m assuming they were homeless just by the way that they looked. But just the fact that this person recognized me from the undercover world – I had a full beard at this point which I didn’t have on the street in uniform – that was eye opening for me and I realized, ‘You know, nothing’s broken so far and I now have things that I want to preserve,’ and so then that was like, ‘Okay maybe we need to start packing up and making some decisions.’ 

The other thing is that, in the last year that I was a narcotics agent, I spent a lot of time in the wiretap room. At that point, I was on the major case unit with kilos of cocaine coming through a small county like Chatham county, dealing with millions of dollars in illicit revenues and stuff like that, [but] I was sitting in the wiretap room waiting for the phone to ring. And these guys would make maybe a phone call or two every single day and so there would be these long stretches of time that I’d just do nothing. So my buddies would fill the time with like you know watching movies or going to the gym and what I did was I worked. So I took on clients and I freelanced from the wiretap room. 

➤ Wow! 

And it got to the point where I was doing so much work working two jobs at once that the side hustle became the primary income and I was actually making more money doing that than I was risking my life on a daily basis. And so that was kind of the natural progression. It was like, ‘I’m going to make the jump,’ and so that’s what I did. 

➤ Amazing! So then let’s jump right to California. What brought you to LA? Did you get the job with The Futur first or did you move to LA first?

There was a step in between. So the freelance business that I started in the wiretap room kind of grew to the point where I couldn’t handle all of the business myself.

At that point we had already moved from Savannah, GA to Richmond, VA. I set up shop, hired employees. At our largest, we had a team of five and we were doing client work – the name of that agency was Burnt Creative.

It was in that process where I found Chris. This is like 2013 / 2014 and Chris had just started putting YouTube videos out there with his business partner Jose. And for those of you guys who don’t know Chris, I’m speaking of Chris Do – he’s the founder of The Futur where I now work.

And so he was putting this content out and I was like man, ‘You are speaking directly to me!’ Like, he’s talking about how to grow an agency, he’s talking about how to find clients and he was giving this advice that just blew my mind. You know, because I had taught myself design, I had taught myself entrepreneurship, i just kind of learned by getting punched in the face. I learned by bumps and bruises and here’s this guy that was just giving out this information for free, it was amazing. Even though in those days he was pretty nervous, which is kind of fun to go back and see.

And so I reached out to him and I said, ‘Hey look, thank you. Just please don’t stop,’ like, ‘Keep it going!’

And he wrote me back and offered to jump on a phone call with me to kind of understand his audience better. And from there, a mentorship was born. And so I was, for him, kind of the guinea pig on a lot of the beginning material that he was putting out for the channel. At that point, it was known as The Skool and as he evolved, his business evolved. He was putting content out on YouTube but he also had an agency called Blind that was transitioning away from doing motion design for other agencies to the branding space and he saw some of the work that we were doing in branding but more specifically in web and he was like, ‘You know, I could use someone like you to run all of our digital stuff here at Blind.’

So at that point we entered into discussions and eventually we landed on kind of an acquisition, an acqui-hire deal where he brought me and my family and one of my employees out to LA to work for Blind. And – I don’t want to say as a condition the deal – he asked me to help him grow The Futur and so that’s really where I kind of got in on the ground floor and started working both jobs at once.

➤ Amazing! And the rest is history. You guys are changing the world of design today. I would say if you’re in design anywhere in the world, you are familiar with what The Futur is doing. 

Oh thanks, I appreciate that. We’re trying.

➤ In today’s world, the more you give out, the more you share, the more you actually gain, right? Because speaking to old school people, they’re talking about, ‘I don’t want to give away my secrets,’ and ‘This is my thing, this is my technique. Why would I share that?’ Do you see the mindset changing?

I think that people are still hung up on that. There’s a group of people that are really guarded about their process and the way they think about projects and that’s fine but I think that the fear in and of itself is unfounded.

Because I’m a firm believer in that there’s really nothing new. Anything that’s created has probably been created [before] and really, the only novel things that come out are when someone combines two things that are already out there and then something fresh is born. But [even that’s] not really new because you can go back and look at the sources and see a direct attribution. So I think it’s fine that people don’t want to share. I also think that the fear is not grounded in reality. Like, they’re not going to diminish their value simply because they let people in. 

➤ I know and I feel like they’re not looking at the bigger picture, which is: on a humanity scale that’s how we grew and developed. It’s about sharing collective knowledge, right? The reason we invented language was so that I could share information with you. That’s why I love people like you guys who are actually sharing. What you’re trying to do is educate and give everything away for free. So with that in mind, we still have to make revenue, we still have to make an income. How do we combine free education and making money? 

That’s a good question. I think it’s different for everybody in their own industry and in their own niche. But as general service providers, I think that being able to combine free education or being able to share what you do and how you do it, you can still make money because like, you can write all the books in the world, there’s always going to be people out there that are not going to want to do it themselves they’re going to want to hire somebody. 

➤ I love that. The thing that I’ve noticed: you can be as explicit as you like with telling somebody but people love to consume content without actually following it. People will sit there and get all the explicit information, the step-by-step information from you or from Chris or from Seth Godin or whoever and then they won’t do it. There’s a large percentage of people who just won’t do it. 

Sure, but I think that the people who are scared to share are always going to look at the other side of that, ‘Well what about those guys?’

And I think there’s two fronts to this. So the first thing is, we have to recognize that even if we teach somebody how to do something, they’re always going to have their own spin on it. So even if we give somebody the exact step-by-step way to do something, there’s two points that the things shift. It’s when the words leave our mouth and enter their ears – so there’s a perception shift: the way that they perceive the information is one thing. And then, in the way that they understand and put things out, that’s another point of change.

Everybody’s going to have their own jazz like, everybody’s going to have their own way of improvising the process or their own tweaks that they add. So I don’t think the secret sauce is going to be spoiled because you’re educating.

Then here’s the other side of it. There is definitely value in sharing what you do and producing content online but one thing that we have to ask ourselves is, ‘Who are we producing this content for? What’s our goal?’ At The Futur, we produce content for designers and creative people who are running a business because we want them to come buy our products. We’re advancing the industry. There’s a lot of well-meaning behind what we do but the goal is to create a successful profitable business so that we can continue providing the most education that we can to the most amount of people and impact the most lives. But there’s a commercial goal and so we’re speaking to our customers. I think that the biggest mistake a lot of service providers make when they create content is they create content that other designers and other creative professionals will consume and they completely miss speaking to their customers.

And so if I were going to start over, completely ground up, let’s say I wanted to start a design agency that focused on alcohol packaging or alcohol branding – I wanted to brand breweries and distilleries and all that kind of stuff. Making the same content that we’re producing at The Futur, like how to present logos and how to design a website and how to wire frame things, that will never speak to my desired customer which is the brewery.

So I think it’s essential to share things but also have a reason for that. Have a purpose because if you’re putting out content in the world and you’re expecting that to bring revenue for you or to bring customers in, you got to make sure that you’re speaking to your customers.

So in this example, if I’m starting from scratch, what I’m going to do is I’m going to pull down the top five logos from breweries across the world and I’m going to write a blog article about those and why they’re effective. Or maybe I’ll take a look at the UX of four distilleries websites and critique that and that’s the content. It still revolves around my craft but at the same time it’s speaking to my desired customer and my desired audience. 

➤ That’s an awesome tip. Okay on your personal website, you have like four blog posts. Do you plan to continue writing?

Those blogs are so old, dude.

➤ They are old, but they’re still relevant.

Well it’s interesting that you asked because I just wrote up a log line and a script plan to completely reboot my website so we’re going to be producing a series pretty soon so it’s wonderful that you’re asking those kind of questions.

As far as my philosophy about life, I’m a firm believer in just remaining open to possibilities which is kind of what that blog post is about. It’s just about saying yes even if you’re afraid. And what I’ve realized over time is that – and this might be different for some people who are just not inherently fearful of things – if i’m not scared of something I’m gonna get bored really quick and it’s also probably not worth pursuing. 

➤ So embrace the fear. Take it as a good sign.

You have to. Because a lot of it is the fear of the unknown. It’s like, ‘If I do this, will it net something?’ And so inherently if you’re afraid of something that’s like writing a book or starting a business or you know one of those big life things, if you’re fearful of that, it should tell you that it’s a risk and a risk is often worth taking. I think being afraid or feeling that fear is a really good flag, it’s a good indicator that you’re on the precipice of something amazing.

➤ And my blog is called Noticing the Obvious because I think the truth, when you hear it, is obvious. So when you say you had a year of saying yes to everything and you grew so much from that, as soon as I hear it, I go, ‘Oh man that’s noticing the obvious!’ And when you say ‘Embrace the fear’ and you know, ‘Use fear as a motivator,’ that’s obvious. That’s a great thing to notice but a lot of us don’t notice the obvious things because of daily distractions and the noise. So I want to end with: can you give me one obvious thing that maybe we walk around and we forget to notice?

Oh man. Honestly, right now I’m investing a lot of time and energy in getting to know myself and kind of connecting with my body. I’ve struggled with my weight over the years for a long time and I think that hunger and eating is a way to numb things for me and so I’m really working on that right now.

And one of the things that I notice is that my body actually responds to my emotional state very very quickly. And I may be experiencing emotions that I don’t even feel until I feel the physicality that’s happening.

So I may be scared of something or nervous and I don’t even realize until I realize that my stomach is kind of knotted up or my shoulders are really tense. I think that it could be a masculine thing, it could be just my upbringing, it could be military but somewhere along the lines I’ve disconnected from my emotions.

We make so many decisions based on our emotions so one of the things that I’m using as an indicator of that is kind of getting back in touch with the way that my body is feeling at any given moment. 

➤ I think that’s the most obvious thing to notice: notice what the heck your body’s doing! So yeah, that totally counts as noticing something obvious. Thanks Ben!