08/22/2013 05:33 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

When Art and Business Collide: A Raw Interview with Freak'n Genius' Kyle Kesterson

Kyle Kesterson: Startup junkie. Drop-out. Miracle worker. Brilliantly sarcastic.
Kyle has been a lot of things, but it's been his dedication to never stop creating, and especially co-creating, that has catapulted him to the cutting edge of the design and entrepreneur communities.

At what point must a creative step into the business world? 

An artist steps into the business world the first time they sell a piece, or when they look to sell a piece, or when they sell their talents to create that piece. When you make or seek the transaction that commercializes your creative effort, you have done business with your customer or audience. If you want to get good creating a business of selling your work, you start to think beyond just what drives you internally. Some artists really hold onto this idea that if they just create what fuels them, in their own way, with no regard for anyone else, it may end up finding an audience/customer. But that kind of artist has no idea how big that audience or potential business is, and they don't pay attention to what resonates. The artists that pay attention to what drives excitement and interest and finds a way to expand upon that kind of work, generally leads to a better commercial artist.

A fine artist is generally driven by something internal; they create to express inner turmoil, or capture they beauty they perceive, or spread the message screaming in their head. 

A commercial artist generally takes on a project that sells another person or company's dream or product. 

The combination of the two usually has an artist thinking of ways to maximize the reach of each piece they create, including reproduction and extending into other mediums (toys, prints, apparel, stickers, skate decks, iPhone cases, apps, giclee prints, etc)

When I first really started digging in and embracing being a "creative person" or artist, I was completely against the idea of doing it for money. My mother would see each piece and come up with 50 ways on how I should use it to make money, and I always said, "I don't care about that, let me just make stuff" At some point I started to realize that even if I were interested in making money with my work, I knew I needed an enormous amount of work already created, and I needed to sharpen my skills further and further.

At Cornish, as special guest designers and illustrators came into speak, I always asked them the same questions - "do you still enjoy what you do?" - "do you still feel creative?" - "how do you continue to find creative ideas when you're doing it for money?" - "do you feel like you're selling your soul?". It was always interesting to hear the responses. The one that stuck with me the most was, "I always doodle. Whether or not I'm working on a project, I just love doodling for no reason. Because I doodle so much, I have a mountain of sketchbooks. When a client comes in and has a proposal, I start to think 'oh wait, I remember doodling something that might fit well here', and I go back to my sketchbooks and flip through until I either find what I'm looking for, or something in there just strikes the inspiration. I feel that I manage to stay creative and excited about a project when the seed of the idea stemmed from a time when I just doodled freely and happily in my sketchbook. The energy still exists and resurfaces." 

That answer was profound for me and was the first time I started to transition to thinking about selling my work and/or skills. And since, I have racked up a mountain of sketchbooks.

The source of needing to ask those questions and to being so opposed to commercializing my work was based out of fear. Fear that I would end up empty, no more creativity, passion, or drive. Take a minute and watch this music video, it is the absolute epitome of my biggest fear around my creativity. I saw it when I was 17 and it has haunted me since.

Kenna - Hell Bent by Kenna

Can creatives exist and thrive in today's world without business? 

This is entirely dependent on the kind of person the artist is. Some feed off of natural resources and minimalism, they certainly can. Looking at Maslow's hierarchy of needs, as long as some of those base needs are met, an artist can find the fuel to work. Depending on the work, or the desired impact, we can get by with very little and really hone our craft. An artist can be a big fish in a small pond.

When you're an artist that has an appetite for large scale productions, whether it's something that can be handled independently, or collaboratively, some sort of support is certainly needed. If you have a vision for global impact, wanting to be that big fish that can make a dent in the ocean, it's a long road with many steps and resources needed. I'm not quite sure I'd know how much a single artist without some growing business and community could thrive on that level.

When did you realize that to do what you love most "full-time", you would need to create a company?

I've known since I was a child that I wanted to do something that was larger than anything I could wrap my brain around. Even when I worked at the toy company and had access to resources beyond my means, I knew it was still a stepping stone. I also knew from my dozen+ jobs and inability to fit properly within a pre-existing system, that I could only thrive in an environment I had freedom to grow in and resources to tap. Even as a janitor for eight years, most of my time was spent fantasizing about the environment I'd create that would allow for creative freedom. No matter the idea, we'd have the ability to realize it. 

My journey is something like this:

  1. From very young until now: "I'm going to do something huge, and I have an enormous amount of energy" 
  2. 17-25: I found art and creative expression as the means of focusing that energy (feels very much like Cyclops from X-Men) (also see image below)
  3. 19-25: I became so absorbed in the process of creation that it was more unlocking the ability to create efficiently in any medium I could think of, not necessarily needing to master any specific one.
  4. 22-27: With each project, I've maintained an open and inviting attitude to taking on just about anything that approached me, not caring if it was for money. Any excuse to create was a good one, and I loved planting seeds.
  5. 22-27: My creative jobs and skills kept getting better, then stumbled into my first startup. I started because I enjoyed who I was working with, it was new and inspiring. As we were approached with the idea of TechStars and "creating our own company", thought back to what I had naturally been attracted to and what kind of company I'd want to build. This was me trying to gain perspective on my puzzle pieces to gain clarity on the large picture of what I'm being drawn (pun) towards applying myself to.
  6. Now: I've still found myself working intuitively on projects but wanting to gain more clarity on my purpose and intention. A turning point for me was recently when I put in an enormous amount of energy into reflecting and digging to do my TEDx talk. I wasn't sure what the benefit of the talk was going to be, outside of the normal ego boost, but I was hopeful that it'd open up a door to something. What I found is that it helped connect me with what I'm truly truly passionate about and how all of my skill sets have been building towards applying them. As the very obvious lightbulb went off, I now know what I want to accomplish and I know the best way to open those doors and have the impact I'm going for is to lead my organization to it. 
Do you feel like your company is your art? Or is your art simply a part of your company? 

I've had a difficult time balancing and switching gears between wearing the creative hat and the business hat. Creative art today comes in the form of the app's user interface, icons, marketing materials, swag and so forth. That is where art is simply a part of Freak'n Genius, but it is heavily baked into the brand and the essence of the product, so the perception of the company is that it is very art-centric, despite the quantity of output of creative work is very limited. Perception is a weird thing. 

On the larger scale, I do feel like Freak'n Genius is a work of art. It's an art production of many moving parts. I look at it and reflect on all of my time spent crafting skills with every medium I could think of, and how that helped me make the transition. Being able to think and understand with many moving parts, makes creating feel more like being a concert conductor. It feels like it's a true convergence of an artist running a business. 

Freak'n Genius builds creative tools for kids of all ages, removing friction to creativity and self-expression. They recently released YAKiT, a free video-making iOS app. YAKiT, available today here in the iTunes App Store, is a quick, simple, and fun tool for kids of all ages to create short video messages that bring hilarity, laughter and creativity to any conversation.