Thank you Dribbble
So, it was mid-2012. I had been designing for something like 15 years but for a number of reasons I never really saw it as a career. It was something I did while I was figuring out what else I should be doing.
But that “else” never took off so I figured I might as well try doing design as a full-time career, at least for a few years. To that end I decided to work harder than before, stay more focused, set goals, get better work and overall aim higher.
Aside from all the actual work that needed to be done I knew I also needed to get better at managing my personal marketing. To do that I started with two things. One was to make a decent portfolio. And two, I decided to build up a professional social media presence, something I had deliberately not done in the past since I thought it was a bit silly.
After going through the options I decided to focus my social media energy on a design community called Dribbble.
For those that don’t know, Dribbble is a community where designers post their work publicly. It then gets liked by the community and the most liked shots (all their lingo is basketball-themed) are shown at any given moment on the popular page.
I quickly realised that joining as late as I did (at that time Dribbble had been around for about 3,5 years) I had a disadvantage. You see, the more followers you have, the more likely you are to get a lot of likes. And the more likes you get the more likely you are to get on the popular page, which in turn gets you more followers.
So, while there is a somewhat understandable internal logic at play (i.e. the more followers someone has, the more likely they are to be good) there is also a significant barrier to entry for late-comers.
But even though I had joined late I also quickly realized that Dribbble had been the right choice for me. It’s by no means perfect but it does have a lot of fantastic designers that post great work. And on the flip side, it gets used by recruiters and others looking for people to work with.
The second part was what mainly drew me in. Because even though I had been designing for a long time my professional network was very limited.
A new years resolution
Anyway, long story short (warning: that’s just a saying, this isn’t a short story, not by a mile) I decided to take Dribbble seriously, I’d use it to build a following that I could then use to get more clients.
My first big try was in June 2012. I had worked with an agency to design a marketing site for Google Drive, then a newly launched service. I created a case study page and posted the shot. The next day I woke up and the shot was #1 on the popular page! I had also picked up something like 350 new followers in one day, which doubled the follower count I had built up in the months before.
I also got a few new project requests. Woot! The plan was working.
Now, one thing I haven’t mentioned before. When you search for a designer/agency on Dribbble, the results are filtered by the number of followers. The more followers you have, the higher up on the list you are, and therefore obviously more likely to be seen by someone looking to hire.
End of year 2012 I had about 1600 followers, which was a big improvement from earlier in the year. But even so, I still ranked #660 of all the people on the network. That meant that if someone searched for a designer, they would see #559 designers before they found me. (it’s worth noting that you can also search by skill type and geography which would narrow your search but in the interest of keeping this relatively simple lets just stick to the overall results.)
As a new years resolution I set myself a goal to get from 1600 followers to 5k in year.
The obsessive designers guide to success
This was an aggressive goal and I knew it wouldn’t happen on it’s own. Climbing a ladder of 660 steps can seem daunting but by breaking the steps up, setting a semi-reachable goal and having daily tasks helped me stay the course.
On the way the first big side task was to learn more about the system, how it worked and how to use it effectively. So like any normal crazy person I created a spreadsheet.
I had one line in the spreadsheet for every day of 2013. It marked the number of followers I had, the number of followers I gained that day, my overall ranking and the spots I moved up/down per day. And I filled it in every, single day. I wrote down when I posted, what I posted, where the post peaked etc.
I soon picked up on some basic rules.
- Post often. Don’t wait for the perfect post, just keep posting (but keep it good). The more exposure the more likely you are to be seen. In my case I only posted real examples of client work that had launched.
- Post small. Don’t post once per project, post multiple times. Break the project up and spread it out over time.
- Post early morning NYC time. Posts live on the popular page for about 8–12 hours on a weekday. If you post around 6am in New York, that gives Europe time to see it and like it, NYC people will kick in a little later and the post will be in an optimal place when San Francisco starts browsing. Keep in mind that this schedule was optimized for me. I was looking for clients in the USA (specifically SF) and Europe.
- Only post on weekdays. Most people are on Dribbble on weekdays. So I would post Mon-Friday mornings to maximize exposure. Note that Dribbble shots that are added off-hours live longer so that helps to balance things out, but I still stick to the weekday only posts.
- Only post once a day. When you post multiple times a day (especially from the same project) people will be less likely to like your individual posts. Try and spread out your posts and maximize your likes.
I posted about 60 shots in 2013. On average I would add about 19 new followers any day I didn’t post, and about 58 followers when I did post.
As you might remember, the goal was to reach 5k followers by the end of 2013. I hit that number on March 28th 2013. And in those three months I had gone from being #660 to #131.
By the end of the year I had 12870 followers and I was #34 overall in the amount of followers.
Social media can become blinding. A never ending quest for recognition from strangers for the eternally self obsessed ego-maniac that somehow also has low self esteem. That was obviously a big part of it for me, but I kept reminding myself that those likes and followers weren’t the goal, they were the means. The goal was to get more work. And that part started to happen, I got flooded with requests.
If you know Dribbble, you know that a lot of the requests are so-so but here and there there are some very real requests. I got pinged by Facebook, Apple, Google, The Economist, Fitbit, Dropbox, etc all through Dribbble.
In early 2014 I started a digital agency. It’s called Ueno (and no, you still aren’t pronouncing that correctly, but that’s ok).
I don’t want the takeaway to be that social media did all the work for me/us, it didn’t, not by a longshot. I know a lot of designers with large numbers of social media followers that have not been able to translate their popularity into a steady business.
But, there is however absolutely no doubt in my mind that without Dribbble I would not have been able to make the jump to Ueno. The work I got through Dribbble made it possible for me to have something to build on.
My old personal account is now the Ueno team account. We have about 45 people on our team, a lot of whom we found and recruited through Dribbble. Our followers are about to hit 50k, we are currently #11 overall and we still post about 2–3 shots a week.
Dribbble is not our main source for new work any more. We still get quality work through the platform but as we’ve grown we’ve added other channels and pipelines. But it will always be a core part of how we got where we are and for that I am eternally grateful to the Dribbble team and community.
Founder / Design Director at Ueno.
Ueno is a digital agency with offices in San Francisco, New York and Reykjavik, Iceland. Find out more about us on www.ueno.co.