My guest today is the perfect example of a self-employed creative. He’s had a lucrative career as an illustrator, animator, creative director, scenic designer, and more. You’ve seen his creations on TV, film, YouTube, live shows, and maybe even on your feet. I’m excited to welcome John Masse.
Amanda: John, you’ve done a lot of interesting work over the years. And I don’t want to dwell too much about the past, because the present is so much more exciting. And people can Google to learn about all that you’ve done. What I am curious about is how you’ve been able to turn your many creative talents into a career.
John: Oh, well, now that’s the $50,000 question. I guess the right way to think about it, at least in my mind, is that I had enough of an education and an experience in things I was interested in, to figure out rather quickly that I could make a living from the things that I was good at, that I was great at. And the things that I was good at, I could learn to become great at over time. I’m naturally, I think we’ve talked about this before the podcast, I’m a bit more introverted than extroverted. I’m also gregarious to an extent that I’m not afraid to introduce myself. And curiosity and personality goes so much further in this creative life and in this business, and that has really helped me get started on a career that’s lasted, I want to say 32 years.
Amanda: Just a few. Just a few years.
John: I’m a babe in the woods. I started when I was negative three.
Amanda: Me too. That’s when we met, I believe, in that negative universe.
John: I was so little.
Amanda: Oh, way back when.
John: I know, I know. But my career can be traced sort of in a linear progression. So one job, or one account, or one relationship, always begets the next thing. I could draw a path from the first job I got when I arrived in Las Vegas as a T-shirt designer… I could draw a direct correlation line all the way up to meeting Franco Dragone and Sting in a restaurant in La Louvière, Belgium working on something. I went from there to there. But everything about this is line of sight when you’re steering your own ship. Does that make sense?
I like the fact that every day is different.
Amanda: It makes perfect sense. And it’s funny that you say steering your ship, because one of the things I wanted to talk to you about is that. Because you’ve spent a lot of time working for big brands, and also for yourself. We all know that one of my favorite things about being self-employed is the freedom, and you’ve said that you love steering your own ship. So why is that so important to you?
John: Well, I’ve seen it from both sides. So I’ll back up a teeny bit. Most people know me as… I was the principal at my own company, Masse Graphics. And then when I was invited to be the Executive Creative Director at Skechers, everybody was like, “John, you’re doing what we dream of, owning our own business. Why do you want to become a company man?” And then many years later, when I decided it was time to leave and steer my own ship again, everyone was like, “John, you’ve got it made! You’re a company man. Why do you want to do it?” So I catch them coming in the door, and catch them coming out the door.
And my father… and again, I’m going to derail my train of thought, so you can stop me anytime you want… my father was a graphic designer. So I had the benefit of having both parents my whole life. He worked for New York City, Milton Glaser, J. Walter Thompson, all the biggest. He won a Clio award, it’s on my shelf, for the Moosehead Beer logo. But he always drew out of the back of the house. So I had both my parents. And I think that was one of the best educations that I could ever get in my entire life. And I have two small daughters now, and so I want to have that flexibility. I don’t want to be in an office. I want to be close by. I want to take a break and play Legos. I like the idea that when you’re your own boss… and when you’re a hyphenate, which is the new word for what we are, you know? Oh, we can write copy, we can do voiceovers, we can do animation… I like the fact that every day is different. Every day is unique. You’re not… it’s not Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, then you have two days to give to yourself. Then you start that slog again. And on your calendar, you might be able to take a vacation. And that’s no life. You’re racing your way to the grave doing that. So not for me.
Amanda: I feel like this interview is happening in reverse order, where you’re answering my questions before I ask them. We didn’t talk about anything specifically that I was going to ask, but I always have a bit of an outline, just in case. And so far, it’s like okay, well, yeah, you’re just answering that.
Amanda: No, it’s great. It’s a wavelength thing. See? After all these years.
John: Wait. Ready? Ready?
John: Blue, right? You were thinking blue?
You have to be able to call it a day.
Amanda: Exactly. But I’m not going to reveal the question on that one. What I’ve noticed is that you are clearly dedicated to your work, but you also prioritize your family. It seems that you may have found that elusive unicorn that is work-life balance. So I know that is important to you, but how do you make sure you’re giving enough of yourself to both?
John: That’s the challenge of a lifetime. I know, for sure, that when you’re working for a company, and the higher up you are in that position, the less time you give to your family. It’s just that five days a week, you’re not there. I think the paradigm shift of Coronavirus, everybody pivoted and now they’re enjoying this home work-life, or they’re suffering with it. I think the jury’s still out on that one. But for me, I love being a dad. So I want to capture those little teeny moments, and I also can compartmentalize my life. And that’s the biggest trick for being a self-employed creative is that you have to know your hours. You have to know your time. There has to be a familial understanding. And I know, for sure, from years of experience, you work way more than 40 hours when you work for yourself. So you have to, you have to be able to call it a day. And that is a discipline, especially if you are geared towards steering your own ship for the rest of your life. If you find yourself goofing off and playing with your kids and going to the store, and oh, I’m gonna, you know, I feel like binge watching TV all day long, then being an entrepreneur is kind of not for you then, so you have to understand. If you’re having trouble getting away from your desk, then you’ve got the right problem. You’ve got the right affliction. You’re going to steer your own ship. You just have to know when it’s time to call it a day and leave.
One of the things you do… not “you” do. The royal “we.” How’s that sound?… One of the things the royal “we” does is we don’t keep track of our hours. So we think we’re billing hourly, we think we’re billing for value, or project base. And you know, you wound up putting in 12-hour days, and if you put in 6 12-hour days in a row, watch it. You got to be careful with that. So it is a balance. But I’ve done this for a long, long time. And again, everything I know I learned from my dad. And he told me something, a little anecdotal, but it’s sweet. He saw me very busy when I was 30 years old, living by myself in Las Vegas in a house I had bought, and I was drawing morning, noon and night. He flew down to visit me for the week, and he said, “John, you got to know when to walk away from the desk, because you are going to close the door, open it up, and you’re going to be 40 years old. 10 years is going to slip by you just like that. So know when to say ‘this is done,’ because it’s waiting there for you. You can always come back.” Make sense?
I know my nut.
Amanda: It makes perfect sense. And I love hearing you say all of this because what you do is very creative. And that is the one biggest issue that the creatives I work with in general want… they don’t want to fight me on it, but they don’t want to do it… time tracking is a huge one. Being able to know where your time is going, so you know how you can budget it better. It’s very similar to finances. You can’t make smart money decisions if you don’t know where your money is going. It’s very much the case with time. And I’ve found that the number one problem that people complain about is time management. “I don’t know how to do it all.” Well, how much time are you wasting watching YouTube videos and doing little things that aren’t helping you or your business? And structure, and the time. Like, I have my dedicated office, and I live by myself so I don’t have any distractions other than the cat. And, I mean, she she’s a little bit demanding, so there are concessions that are made. But I make sure that when I’m done working what I consider my office hours, the computers are all shut off. I don’t come back into this room. I also don’t come into this room on the weekends, because this is the work room. And sometimes people get excited. They’re like, “I can work from home now. I can go sit on the couch and watch TV while I have my laptop on.” But then it starts to blend together, and you don’t really know where that delineation is, and your personal life starts to feel like work, and your work life is your private time, and it gets all confusing. So I love hearing you say, as a creative, that even though I’m sure you could get lost in your drawing or anything else for hours and lose a whole day, you’re mindful about your time and you decide when to stop, and you can continue the next day if there’s time.
John: Absolutely. Most creatives get into an Alpha wave, and that is when you look out the window and the sun has set and you’re like wow, I was just, I was in it. But your workspace should be your church. This is your temple. This is a sacred space. This is where I focus on something that I’m passionate about. I’m making, creating, being, doing. I call it making one out of zero. I always joke, there’s like three types of people in a corporation. There’s the guys that make one out of zero. There’s the people that make a million out of one – those are the CEOs. And then there’s the people that are really, really good at not getting fired, and they’re also good at getting promoted. They’re in that group, too. But yeah, you have to dedicate the focus to this thing so that it is your work, and your work is your love, and your job is your employment.
And again, you’re going to hear these bromides, but these are things, these are words that I live by, the things that my father taught me. So you always want to work for a living. You always want to have that passion. I don’t sit on the couch with a sketchpad. When I’m in here, and the girls knock on the door, if I’m not in an Alpha wave, I wave them in. I give him a kiss. I go, “Daddy loves you. You got to head back out again.” But I take things very seriously when it comes to what I’m doing. So I don’t panic. I don’t panic on the slow days. I know my nut. And that’s just slang for knowing what the house costs, what the Target bill is going to be, what all these pay subscriptions are going to run up, what my health insurance costs. I know what I need to make every month, and everybody should know that. You should always, always know that. And that’s your baseline. From there, I can handle my billing, I can handle my goals, my wants, my needs, my desires. I know how to sell myself. I know how to keep the ship running.
And, again, going back to my dad, what he told me was, he said, “Listen, most creatives are terrible businessmen, and most businessmen are terrible creatives. So you better learn a little bit of both. If you can do both, you’re in great, great shape. But if you’re a whole lot of one, and none of the other, you’re in trouble.” And I think that’s probably the biggest problem is that the creativity comes so freely to so many of us that we suffer from imposter syndrome, that we’re like, “I shouldn’t be getting paid for this. It doesn’t cost me anything to draw. I can draw anything in a second. I can think up of a name and a story. I could write a book. Why would I get paid for that? Is that worth anything to anybody?” And they’re having these existential crises in their own head, and I’m like, think about business. Business first. What are you doing? Pay attention to those things.
Know when to bill for it.
Amanda: Most businesses don’t give away their talents for free. People, and people who run companies, have spent years cultivating their talents and figuring out what to charge for what they do. I don’t like it when people get caught in that, like, “Oh, it’s just gonna take me a couple minutes, I’ll just do this.” And then they’re giving away a few minutes here, and they’re going to let somebody pick their brain for an hour here and there. And then suddenly they’ve given away a whole day. That was valuable information that they could charge for. But then they feel guilty, like, “I just, I want to help. I don’t want to charge.” It’s a big mindset thing to get yourself into the habit of accepting that what you have is valuable, and you’re not taking advantage of people by charging for it. You’ve made your investment in yourself so that you’re able to provide this information to others and then help them do the same.
John: Yes. You have to do a little of both. I think it’s important to be liked before you can sell anybody anything. And I have this principle of abundance, too… which is actually from a friend of mine, Andrew Tobe Agency talks about this… and that’s the principle of abundance versus scarcity. And sometimes there is that initial conversation. You have to be liked. Like, “I like John. John makes me laugh. I like listening to his voice. I think I’m going to work with John.” So there is that balance of being liked before you can bill for it, but know when to bill for it. So all of these things, right? This isn’t a black and white world. You’re gonna find out really quick, there’s little rules, you know? I can do one favor for a friend, because you’re my friend. You know, “How much is that? Can you draw something for my daughter’s birthday party? How much would that cost?” I’m like, for you? Nothing, nothing. Because I know, end of the day, I’ll sneak that out. Right? “Can you draw something for my son’s birthday party? It’s next month?” I’ll be like, I can. It’s $1,000. You can do one. That’s it. That’s it.
Amanda: Well, I think it’s interesting that you mentioned the two sides of that. Because while I do think that people need to be able to charge for their time. And it’s something that… sometimes people don’t want to do that because they want to be helpful. But then, on the other side, I will run into people that get so defensive about their time, that they get mad because an accounting department wants to change their process. And I’ll see it in these business groups on Facebook, somebody will jump in and they’ll say something like, “Well, I’m running my business. I’m able to set my own rules.” And it’s almost like… they’ve probably been taken advantage of in the past and now they’re overly correcting about that. And then it becomes this thing where they want to set all these boundaries – and boundaries are very important in business – but they take it to that extreme, and then they become difficult to work with. And one of my rules is always make it easy for your client to pay you. So if their accounting department wants to set up an ACH payment for you, let them do that. It’s going to get you paid faster, and you don’t want to make enemies with the accounting department. That’s one area where you never want to.
John: No. No, you don’t. No, you don’t.
I always finish off with “I can’t wait for the next one!”
Amanda: And it kind of ties in… of course, you answered one of my questions before I asked it again… but that concept of being liked as a person before you can sell your services to the right people. I say this all the time, there are humans working for that other company. Whether it’s a big business, or it’s a solo-run company, we’re all people and we want to work with people who we like. And if you are likable, they’re going to come to you first. But if everything is met with resistance and some kind of ego, you end up on that list – and I’ve had a lot of those lists in my career – and you’re not going to get called for anything. Because you might be the most talented at what you do. You might be the best in all of the land. But if you’re difficult to work with, it doesn’t matter.
John: No. You’re absolutely right. Yeah, this is… even though we’re talking business, I’m very philosophical. Spiritual, but not in a woo woo kind of way. Just spiritual that we’re alive, this is my moment on this earth. You know, from before I was born, was infinity. From after I passed, that’s oblivion. In this little sliver, here I am living this life. And we’re in a socioeconomic existence, which means we exchange services and goods for money, and we use that money to stay alive, to feed ourselves, to clothe ourselves. But this is our existence, this is what we do. If I was a trust fund baby, we wouldn’t be having this conversation, right? I’d just be getting drunk and loud and doing whatever. But this is a necessary thing that we do, and therefore we have created purpose and meaning to our lives in doing something creative, and being entrepreneurs, and being our own bosses. So there is this, there’s a joy in it. And again, I’m not trying to be spiritual and goofy, but bring that joy with you, that enthusiasm and that pride.
And you’re always going to learn. I always go with an open mind because I’m going to learn something with every business account that I have, or every little venture that I have. And then that’s fun. And I always finish off with “I can’t wait for the next one! I had so much fun on this, guys.” And I’m not making that up. I enjoy it. And people are like, “Well, we’re gonna call you right away.” I mean, I’ve won bids by being funny.
I’ll tell you, It’s anecdotal, but I’ll tell you one that’s pretty hilarious. Someone referred me. Steve Wynn was about to open his casino. And I do it pretty mean Steve Wynn. And he said, “Could someone find me somebody in Las Vegas that can draw, but also write storyboards? Is there anyone like that? Let me know.” I think Mike Levy at Century goes, “I think there’s only one person in town, and that’s this crazy kid, John Masse.” So I got the call and the lady that was handling… oh, I don’t know what. It must’ve been a human resources or accounting or handling the bid for the project, which was to create the graphics for the Wynn wall that was going up and down. She wanted to talk to me, I threw out a number, we were kibitzing a little bit. I was sketching while I was talking to her. And she said, “Just to let you know,” she said, “because of the size of this job, we are bidding out two other clients for this job.” And I said, “Well, you better get on it because I’m already starting. Let’s go! Come on, call him in. Listen, I’ll sit in here with you if you want.” And she’s going, “Oh my God, you’re so funny.” And she called me before the end of the day and said, “You got it.” And I guarantee that was because I was drawing, I was engaged, and I was having a good time. So it wasn’t, I wasn’t being a court jester, but I was being myself, which is a little goofy anyways, right? It works.
Amanda: You have to be.
Amanda: If you’re trying to be somebody else, then you’re not going to connect with the right people because they’re expecting something out of you that you can’t deliver. And it’s one of those things I say quite a bit, I own my awkwardness. I’m not the most polished person. I’ve been called quirky my whole life, and I don’t take that as an insult. I embrace that because it’s all part of who I am. I might make some random comments. That’s how I ended up with the name Aardvark Girl, is just some random comment about an aardvark that didn’t mean anything, and I don’t even remember. But somebody picked up on that and called me the Aardvark Girl, and that’s who I’ve been now for many, many years.
John: It’s perfect. It’s perfect.
You have to carve out that little piece of your talent, and your skill, and whatever you bring to the creative world.
Amanda: It’s who I am. And all of these things are repeating topics on this podcast because everyone I’ve talked to feels the same way. You have to love what you do, and you have to be who you are. There’s a reason that personal branding has become such an important thing, which is relatively new even though it’s always been around. The younger generations have really embraced that, about getting to know the individual. And that then leads to the working relationship. Not so much, “I’m going to go on a website and see a list of services and work with this company.” They want to know who specifically they will be working with. Like, who are you? What values do you have? Are we going to get along? Do we have the same sarcastic sense of humor?
Amanda: These things are all… even though they seem like they don’t have anything to do with business. It’s very valid to embrace all of that, that you are.
John: It means absolutely everything. I remember sitting on my dad’s lap. I was such a little kid, and we were looking at a book on Picasso. And it was this one painting, and it was a black squiggle with a purple dot and a yellow dot. And I looked at it and I said, “Dad, I could paint just as good as that.” And he said, “Yes, John.” He said, “but you should only say things like that in front of me, because everyone else is going to think you’re a jerk. The most important thing that you can do with your life…” and I’m a little kid… “is to have people say nobody can do John Masse like John Masse.” There are better artists. There are funnier people. There are taller people. There are younger people. There are people that are all charisma. There are people that are just perfectionists at what they do. But you have to carve out that little piece of your talent, and your skill, and whatever you bring to the creative world. And they say nobody does Aardvark Girl like Aardvark Girl. There’s no way, you can’t get it. For my money, it’s her, right? That’s the kind of thing that you want.
Reach out to your clan. They’re the most vital people. That’s where that magic expands.
And again, we’re in a very strange pivot. There are more people than ever working from home right now. And working from home does not mean running your own business, so don’t confuse the two. There are people that are working from home. There are people that are on Fiverr that are doing logos for 10 bucks. And if I would be guilty of a crime, I would blow up Fiverr at night when no one’s around, because that type of disruption is decimating the value of creativity. Because creativity does have a dollar sign to it. So, you know, if anyone’s listening, don’t… Shut down your Fiverr account. You’re way better than that. Don’t even waste your time with that. But that is in the market right now.
So that’s why I prefer to lean on my clan. Your clan is your Facebook friends, your Instagram friends, the people who you grew up with, the people that you worked with forever. The hardest thing to do during these COVID years where everyone is home is to cold call somebody and say, “Hi. Um, so I draw pictures. I make storyboards. I can do logos. I make funny voices. I can write music. I could compose. I could do scenic. I could do theater, and I can do finished illustrations. I would just like to maybe show you my portfolio.” And, you know, the phone’s gonna hang up. No one cares. But if you call you know, “Hey, Phil. What are you up to? You want to get? Yeah, well, listen, I’m doing this again. I’m on my own, so I’m not that busy. I can fit you in next week, maybe next month. Just kidding. I can fit you in any time. Just give me a call. Let me know. But I’m around.” And, you know, 8 times out of 10 you’re gonna get a phone call back from your clan. And that’s how that thing percolates.
I don’t believe in the cold calls. I believe that part of the gregariousness is how you expand your business. And then you’re going to get people that… you know, it’s six degrees of separation, and there’ll be complete strangers that have contacted you. “I knew someone that worked with you, that worked with you, that knew someone in Tampa, and you come highly recommended.” And then it’s like, oh, all right. Now the sails are up on my ship. Now I’m really steering. I’m getting business from people, I don’t know who. But early out, you get nervous. You get nervous that, you know, maybe I shouldn’t have quit my job. Maybe I shouldn’t have done this. Yeah, yeah, no, no. You’re on the right path. You’re doing the right thing. Reach out to your clan. They’re the most vital people. That’s where that magic expands.
Amanda: I love that you talk about that, because utilizing your own network is the only form of sales I know how to do. It’s the only one that I’m comfortable with. And that’s what’s worked for me, where almost 100% of my business has been referral-based. And it comes in the weirdest times because I may not have seen somebody for years, or even interacted with them outside of social media, but somehow a job comes up and they ask somebody else and they’re like, “Oh, I think Amanda is doing that. Why don’t you reach out to her?” And that’s why when I was talking to you yesterday in preparation for this, I started thinking about all the connections that you and I have in common and work with in different ways, but I probably haven’t seen you or worked with you since 2004.
John: Yeah, it’s been a long time. It’s been a hot minute. Yeah.
Amanda: Now it’s 2021. But I see your name everywhere. It’s this weird thing that social media does, where I feel like we’re still connected because we have mutual friends, and I see your name pop up here and there, and I see your work on Instagram or wherever else and it’s like, oh, John’s still doing the John thing.
It’s because I picked one thing that I was very good at.
Amanda: Which, by the way, you do come up anecdotally with me sometimes. Because anytime that I’ve said the phrase, “nobody can be good at everything,” I always use you as the exception. I’m like, “well, but there is John Masse.” Because even from back in the day, you could draw and you could voice act, and you were funny, and you… everything. You can play piano and you have all this stuff, and it’s like, man, he is that exception. He can do everything well. Apparently you run a business well, too.
John: I attribute a lot of that to natural curiosity. And I keep on mentioning my father, and that’s really… I feel like I’ve been so blessed to be raised by someone like him, because I was always encouraged to try things, and to do things. And, truth be told, before I moved out to Vegas. my hair was longer than yours and I was the lead singer in a rock band. And that’s all I wanted to do. I just want “Yeah! Baby!” I was, all the time. And I was taking art jobs to pay for keyboards and equipment and studio time and having a blast. And, you know, my dad sat me down and he really said, “John, you know, I have to have a talk you’re not gonna like.” And he said, “You enjoy doing so many things. You’re funny, and you’re talkative, and you’re outgoing, and you make up stories. And you can sing, and you can play the piano, and you can draw pictures, and da da.” He goes, “You are going to spin your wheels in the mud, and you are going to do nothing with your life. And I’m sorry to tell you that. Many are called, few are chosen. For now, think you should pick one thing that brings you the most joy and get really, really good at it. And I promise you, later in life, all those other things that you enjoy will come into play.” And I wish he was alive so I could tell him he’s absolutely right. Because all the funny things that I did, all the experimental things that I did, all the goofy things have worked their way into this creative life of mine collectively, but it’s because I picked one thing that I was very good at. And this is a good segue to something that I think is very important, that I spoke to you yesterday, about seagulls and sandwiches.
Amanda: Which is next on my list to ask you about.
John: Wait, blue, blue, it’s still blue.
Amanda: It’s still blue.
Look for something that you do that no one else does.
John: Yeah. Seagulls and sandwiches. So let me explain what seagulls and sandwiches is. Literally, you can go to a beach with a sandwich and throw it, and 80 sons of bitches are gonna come down there and tear that thing apart, right? Now bring 100 of your friends, and each of them have 100 sandwiches. Spread yourself out across a quarter mile and let those things go. There are more sandwiches than seagulls. Nobody’s fighting with each other. Anecdotally, when I was in Vegas, I was getting so much design work because, at the time, there was only one other illustrator that I knew. His name was Bruce Sereta, and I’ve never met him, but I referred my clients to him when I was booked, and he would refer clients to me when he was booked. And if we were on the beach, all I saw was sandwiches, and he would be so far away and so small that I couldn’t ever see him. So seagulls and sandwiches goes with that concept of abundance, which is there’s so much work out there. We’re always like, you know, fighting for a job, or panicking, or nervous for a job. And it’s like, no, no, the work is there. You’ve got to find the spot on the beach where there are no seagulls because the sandwiches are there. Some of them are under the sand. Some of them are everywhere, but you’re going to find the place. And the trick is to look for a void. Look for a specialty. Look for something that you do that no one else does. Now I was in, we were in Vegas. You’re still in Vegas right now?
Amanda: I am still in Vegas.
John: Yeah. Well, do you remember when everybody was in real estate? Everybody got their real estate license. Do you remember that?
Amanda: Yeah, I know several people who are realtors and two other things at least.
John: Right? It was like 2005, 2006, right before the big old crash. And it was like everyone was in real estate. And before that, everyone was in pharmaceutical sales. They all got their speed degrees. They were doing pharmaceutical sales reps. That is one sandwich on the beach with a ton of seagulls. So that’s an example of when you don’t specialize your offering, because then you’re competing to be a better realtor than your friend who’s a realtor and your other friend who’s also a realtor. And there’s only one person that’s looking for a house at the time.
So when you’re in that creative world, you want to find that specialty. Start there. Start with that one thing that you’re better at than anyone else is that gives you the most passion and that is your starting spot. That’s your place in the beach where you can sit down, relax, and have a sandwich and no one’s competing with you. I call it a void. It’s just, there’s nothing here. It’s kind of the reason why I started Muffalo Potato. And for those who don’t know what that is, pause this and hop onto YouTube and check out Muffalo Potato. We’ll wait.
Muffalo Potato filled the void of teaching kids how to draw.
Hi, welcome back to Aardvark Girl show. Hopefully you’ve enjoyed Muffalo Potato. I created Muffalo Potato because I remember how amazing Mr. Rogers was when I was a kid. And I remember Captain Kangaroo. And I remember step-by-step drawing shows that I saw as a little, little kid, which I thought were fascinating. I just, you watch someone draw, make something happen out of nothing. You have to watch it. It’s absolutely infectious. And I didn’t see that anywhere in the market. I didn’t see it anywhere in the world. And I was like, you know, since Mr. Rogers passed, there’s no one else that’s sort of taken his mantle as, you know, talking to kids. And I can’t teach morality because I’m an amoral person at best, but I can teach kids how to draw, you know? And tell them that, look, it doesn’t have to be perfect. It just needs to be fun. Because I had the benefit of having a father, who was an artist, teach me how to draw. I didn’t go to college. I learned it from him. And I read all the books he gave me, but… So I was like, I’m gonna pay this forward in an interesting way. And I looked and I realized there’s a void. There’s a little spot in the YouTuber/influencer/social media world where nobody is teaching kids how to draw, and certainly not in the kind of weird way that I could figure it out. And that’s been a wild success. 400 million views. 169,000 subscribers. I get mail from kids all over the world. And that’s just my side hustle. I just do it for the fun of it. But that’s a void.
So, you know, whatever you do… if you’re a voiceover artist, if you’re a copywriter…and if you’re a copywriter, if you specialize in quirky comedy, then that’s your thing. If you’re a voiceover artist, and you’re great at saying, “Hey, come on down to Louis Shelt’s this Friday night.” If you can do that, but you’re much better doing a Scottish accent, than sell yourself as the Scottish accent because maybe there’s not a lot of those guys out there. So look for the void. That, to me, is huge. Does that make sense?
Amanda: Everything you say makes perfect sense. I get excited about all of it, too, because these are the types of ideas that I love to hear about. Like Muffalo Potato – you teach kids to draw using numbers and letters. That is… and I’ve watched some of the videos. I don’t have kids, I’m not a kid, but I was fascinated by that because that’s such a simple idea that nobody else had thought about. Because also, we forget about those who are younger than us. We might not have a ton to learn from a young kid, although we can because they’re still loving life and doing what they want to do and having fun, and I think that’s something that we need to hang on to as adults. But also, even the younger generations who are into what’s current. And kids are huge on YouTube. I don’t know how many friends I have who have kids who are five or six and they will spend hours watching YouTube videos of other kids reviewing products.
Amanda: And I don’t understand it because I don’t have kids. But paying attention to that, and also recognizing that families are so important, and people need things to do together. Where if an adult and the kid can draw something together, because they know the alphabet and they know the numbers, then it’s an activity they can do together. That is probably building that parental/child relationship even stronger, because they’re actually doing something together and not saying, “Here’s the iPad. Go watch something over there. Leave me alone.”
John: Oh, sure. It’s massively engaging. And it also solves a bigger problem, which is a lot of people… not a lot of people, but a lot of musicians… raised funding for the arts for music in schools, and no one did it for artwork. Again, anecdotally, I was asked by an executive producer at Technicolor, who knew about Muffalo Potato, “Can you come to my kid’s school in Silverlake and do your Muffalo Potato bit? They’re a big fan of yours. And, you know, it can be an art day.” So I got in my car, I put the tie and the glasses on. I went down there. And it was a week before holiday break, Christmas break, and I was the first art class they had since school started that fall. So the one kid raised his hand and says, “Can we break out our markers and our crayons?” And the teacher was like, “Yes, of course.” And I watched these kids unwrap markers and crayons that were never opened since August, September, October, November, December. Five months later, I’m the first art teacher because art is not in schools anymore. So talk about a noble idea. That’s a void that’s a mile wide and a mile deep. These kids aren’t getting that art education, and that’s the spark that creates the creative life as an adult.
What did Picasso say? “The artist is the child that survived into adulthood?” Yeah, I’m gonna misquote it and ruin it, but you have to be opened up to this type of expression. And just to circle back, the reason why I went with numbers and letters is because I watched other drawing instructional videos, and they just, and then they say, they talk like this and they draw like this like, “and then just do this curve over here and then bring it back around like this. And then what you want to do is you want to bring that over here, and then do a curve like this, and do like two curves under here, and then just like this straight sort of thing like here, and then, you know, do this shape here, and like here.” Even adults can’t follow that. Because I’m like, well, what shape is that? Well, in my mind, that’s an S. So if you know how to draw an S, I want you to draw skinny S, right? Yeah, right. Now a lowercase a at the bottom. There you go. Because they’re learning those already. So, to me it was, I had to deconstruct what a picture was and then look at that picture with fresh eyes and go, Okay, I see a zero, I see two C’s, I see a couple G’s. Okay, I can teach this, I can figure this out. So my goal is to do a TED talk. And you know I’m going to do it. I’m going to do it. I’d love to do it.
Amanda: I can’t wait to watch that. I’m going to add that to the list of things I’m going to keep encouraging you to do now.
John: Yes! Yes! I need a reminder. How are you coming along with that TED Talk, John?
Know how much time you could dedicate to your curiosity.
Amanda: Well, it’s one of those things where you do have a long list of things that you like to do, and that ties in with what you’re talking about, about choosing one thing and focusing on that first. A lot of people, especially in the creative fields, usually have a bunch of different ideas. And each one gets a little bit of focus. And they never really… I shouldn’t say never, but they often don’t progress on any of them, because there’s not enough time to dedicate to all these things that are going on. So it’s important to start with one. Follow through on that. Get yourself whatever expertise you need to make sure this one is working. And then, as it’s working, now you have extra time, and you can start working towards those other ones. I know you think it’s important to also diversify your skill set. So how does that tie in with picking one thing and then diversifying?
John: I guess it’s… it’s really, know your strengths and know how much time you could dedicate to your curiosity. And because creative fields tend to serve as adjuncts to other creative fields. You know, for example, I started in apparel design, which involves drawing, which involves copy and typeface. So it was very easy for me to get into advertising from there. Because I was good at drawing, I could get into storyboards. Because I was good at setting up storyboards, I could get into scenic, right? So now I’ve got scenic and design, then that gets theatrical. But I’m also drawing, and so I can get cartoony, so I can create characters, right? But because I am a character, I could come up with an imaginative story of how that character came to be. And now I’m a writer. So the flow-through almost occurs, it almost incurs invisibly. It’s in the background. The value for what you do, don’t lose sight of that one thing that you have that you can do. And sometimes there are things that are a little too far left, or too far right, of what you can do. And that’s where you lean back on the clan. But that clan is also what you can lean on as you get business. And that also ties in with abundance.
I’m not trying to wrap this thing up. I’m just trying to, I’m trying to circle back to things I’ve talked about before. Because the important thing about abundance is, I wouldn’t hesitate to refer you to my client. I wouldn’t. I’ve worked with you for years. I know you know what you’re doing. You need this? Oh, call her. I don’t need to get paid for it. I don’t need any, I don’t need anything for that. That’s part of the abundance of the clan, right? That’s where my business comes from. And then someone might pitch something that would be a little out of my wheelhouse, but I know people that can help me. So I would, that’s where I staff up. That’s where I go, alright, I need you. I need Adam Lawrence. I need Phil Nobert. I need, you know, and I’ll just list these people. And then I can go back to that client. So I don’t necessarily turn down work. I immediately start processing in my clan. You know, who do I have that can help me with this? And in doing that job, not only do I get paid, but I learned something. I picked up a skill set. So the next time someone says, “Hey, do you know how to do web series?” And I’d be like, “I actually do. I know how to do a web series. Yes.”
There’s no room for procrastination in this world.
So. I don’t know if that answers your question, but I think something comes from that. You know, if you would have told me 15 years ago that I would be designing sneakers, that I would know what ethylene vinyl acetate is, that I know how to build molds off of lasts, that I would go to China and watch them being built, and that a million pairs would be built. I would think you were just absolutely crazy. But it turned out, I learned that skill set. And again, you can trace the line from the T-shirt guy in 1994 to that exact job that happened. So it occurs almost in spite of you willing or wanting it. The only thing, the only requirement, is that you have to succeed. There’s no “I’m not going to try it.” I just do it. You can’t fail at anything. Don’t approach things… you can fail at things. Don’t approach it like you’re going to fail.
I get that from my very good friend of mine, my old CEO buddy, and he tells me all the time, “If you’re gonna do it, do it. You’re gonna start this thing, you got to finish this thing. You got to finish it. There’s no failure in this. You got to do it.” He’s an old Boston guy, so he’s got this great accent. But that’s absolutely true. There’s no failure in this, not in your mind and not your heart. The moment you waver a little bit, or the moment you procrastinate, or the moment you put it off…
One of the best things I did was agree to a comic book, making a comic book, which is 16 pages of you’re writing it, you pencil it, you ink it, you color it, you get it set up, and you send it out to the printer, and then it comes back. And you know, you get half your money up front, half on delivery. But you know, that’s a three-to-four-week gig right there. You have to sit there and go, alright, if I draw, if I pencil one page a day, and I ink and color another page on day two, then I can get this thing done in 21 days. And if I bid this much, then it looks like, alright, this might be $750 a day. If I take a day off, or if I take a month, then it’s $500 a day. And if it takes me two months, it’s $400 a day. And if I never finish it, then I’m only living off a half the deposit and my rep’s shot. So, you know, you have to process those things, and you finish what you start. And once I finished that comic book, then I took this bigger projects from that day on forwards with everything. I was like oh, you want to do a theater show? Something that takes three, four months to build? Long projects, or an animation, which is even longer. It’s about completion. It’s about finishing what you start. There’s no room for procrastination in this world, especially because you do want bigger projects, you know? It’s nice to have a day rate. It’s nice to have four days’ worth of work. It’s nice to have two days’ worth of work. It’s really good to permalance, or to be, you know, as soon as this project is finished, they call you right for the next one. And that’s where you build that security, and that experience, and you really get some momentum behind you. Did I babble?
Amanda: You didn’t. Well, no, I don’t consider it babbling because it’s all valuable. And as you’re talking, of course, I’m like, yep, yep, yep. And it’s all so important. What I love about that is you say there’s a straight line from point A to point B, and there is in retrospect. But if you created that line looking forward, and said, “I’m going to start here and end up over there,” you’re not going to end up over there now. And if you do, you’re probably being shortsighted and missing out on all the things happening on the periphery, which is where my career has taken me. It’s all been accepting an opportunity, or creating an opportunity, and saying, well, this isn’t what I thought I was going to be doing, but it sounds like fun. And I’m going to learn something, and I’ll work with some people that I like, or will probably like, and why not? Why not try something new? Because that might not be my existing skill set. It might not be something I’ve done before. But I never managed a presidential debate before. And I have now. And I was never a project manager on a rocket launch. And I have been now. I never followed U2 on tour for three months and interviewed people about their relationship with the band. I’ve done that now. And all of that was because, “why not?”
And I think that… and it ties in, too, where all the things that I do, from the outside, I confuse people. I’ve been told many times, like, “we just don’t understand what you do.” I get that, because it seems like they’re not connected, but they all are. Even though my main career has been as a producer in TV and film, being a producer is like managing a company.
Amanda: The company is the production. But I have to be in charge of all of that, and make sure everything is running smoothly. I’ve also been a manager of a company for many, many years before I started my own. And in doing that, I learned a lot of these things – how to run a business, how to work with creatives, how to communicate with creatives the financial side and the things they don’t want to really deal with, and the opposite of that. And that was a big skill set. And then things like, I don’t advertise myself as a bookkeeper, but I do bookkeeping for a lot of creatives because that gives me the insight into how their business is running. Then, on the consulting side, I can help them improve that. So it is all tied together even though from the outside it’s “she just does a lot of weird stuff.”
Amanda: I like doing a lot of weird stuff. It’s fine.
How did I wind up here?
John: But that’s part of being a hyphenate. Did you notice that everything that you’ve done in your career has informed the next thing you’ve done? And I think we’re talking about that theme over and over again. It’s funny because you when you mentioned U2, I was like that’s right! That’s right! U2. I forgot to ask you! I love Bono. I was this close to him once. So how was it? How was it?
Amanda: For being the lifelong U2 fan that I’ve been, and I mean that literally because my mom and my older brother were fans, so their music has been in my life for its entirety. They’ve been a band longer than I’ve been here. And my first U2 show, I was 11, so I’ve been seeing them since then. I think I’m almost at 40 U2 shows at this point.
Amanda: But all of it ties together. And this is why I don’t think in terms of regret, ever, because even situations that seemed bad at the time led me to where I am now. If I hadn’t have moved to LA in 2003, then I wouldn’t have gotten into production. If I hadn’t come back to Vegas in 2004 and worked where I worked, I wouldn’t have met David Barry, who is the director, and we became friends by talking about U2. That was a long time ago, but ever since then, David stayed in my world because we had formed that friendship. But also because, as a producer, and he was on the crew, I took care of him. I made sure that he, and the rest of the crew, were taken care of, if they knew what was going on, they had everything they needed. So it was developing those relationships for work. But it always ties in, then, to my personal life. And then if I wouldn’t have left the company that I was at for 10 years when I did, I never would have been able to just up and go somewhere for three months, and follow U2 on tour, and go to 25 cities in three months, and interview 200 people.
Amanda: And getting Bono to say yes to that was about a year’s worth of asking him. At one point, I actually scolded him a little bit, which entertained some people. Later, when we were doing the interview, he actually said that their fans were feisty. And then he looked over at me and then looked back over to Dave. I mean, yeah, I’m a little bit feisty. Because I know what I want, and until you tell me no… and even sometimes if you tell me no… I’m not going to give up because it’s important. And so when everybody said, “You’ll never get Bono to do the interview.” Well, he did. They said, “You’ll never get U2 to allow you to license their music.” Well, I did. It’s all of those things, because I’m determined, but because I believed in it. And the ability to read people and understand how to express things in a way of not “you owe this to me,” because it’s not about that. But “here’s how this helps you” and looking outside of my own ego and say, “Well, this is about you,” which is how I work with all my clients. It’s about making their lives easier, which in turn makes my life better.
John: For sure. And not only that, you don’t need anyone’s permission to be you are to follow your dreams. I listened to everything you said, but I was also thinking about that weird thought that sometimes people delude themselves into thinking that they’re just a moment away from being discovered. It’s that great American crisis, that all Americans are temporarily embarrassed millionaires. We’re just not millionaires right now, but it’s coming. I’ve met so many people that think it’s just a matter of time before your doorbell rings, you know? “Are you John Masse at 123 Bleecker Street? Well, I’ve been looking for you because I’m going to make you a star!” That’s never ever going to happen. That’s not going to happen. You have to go out and do it yourself. And your story with U2 is that exact example of… there’s some type of closure. There’s some type of cathartic arc that occurs. And it’s not just Shakespearean fiction, you know?
Star Wars is what changed my life when I was seven years old. The movie came out, and I saw it, and it flipped me out. And I was upset over the years that, oh, they were making the prequels and now they’re making the sequels. And I thought at this point, I would have been one of those storyboard artists that would have sat on George Lucas’s lap and drawn. “Is it good, daddy? Is that?” You know, I thought that was gonna happen. But lo and behold, you know, Skechers got the Star Wars account. And the entire company said, you know, “Alright, John. You’re heading to Lucasfilm in San Francisco, and you’re going to talk to him about the new movie, ‘The Force Awakens,’ and you’re going to build the apparel line.” And there it was. It was that arc that happened. So you always sit there and go, just like you probably thought, like, wow, U2 has been in my life my entire life, and now I’m actually, I’m at the game. How did I wind up here? How did I wind up here?
But going back to my original point, there is the starting point. There is the through line, the mistakes, everything that’s happened. And there’s Bono saying “yes.” There’s the point. The connection is there. If I had done one thing differently. I have zero regrets. If I did one thing differently, at a split second, just a different flap of the butterfly’s wings, I wouldn’t have my two daughters. I wouldn’t have Shiya and Akira, just the greatest joys of my life. So that’s sort of where I don’t ever cringe for a second and go, oh, I wish I didn’t do that. No, I had to do that. All that had to happen, or else, you know, I’d have a completely different life than I have right now. And I love being present. I love being here right now. And this is fun. We could do this all day long.
The most amazing thing that you’re going to do is the next thing.
Amanda: One thing about that is everything that you just said, mixed with intention. And I fully believe that my intention of doing all of these things is why they worked out. I didn’t make that film because I was seeking fame. I didn’t do it because I was seeking money. I’ve never made any decision about a job based entirely on the financial outcome of it. I select work that I’m passionate about. I pick clients who I’m excited to work with. I don’t ever look at it in terms of the starting point of well, how much money am I going to make? And am I going to get recognized for this? With that film, that documentary, the story was always the star of that. It wasn’t about is U2 going to participate in it, or can I meet them? I’d already actually met Bono and Edge on a previous occasion. That wasn’t the goal. It would have been great if that worked out, obviously. But it was all about telling the story from the point of view of these 200 other people that we interviewed, making sure that the heart of the film was portrayed. And I feel that that’s what happened with it. That’s how it succeeded. When people are coming out of the movie theater crying, and coming over to us and hugging us, and saying, “thank you” and “I need my friends and family to see this so they understand why I do this all the time.” That, to me… it doesn’t matter how much money I invested into that project. It wasn’t about that. It was about that experience. And that period of time, for me, is one of the greatest things I’ve ever done. I was doing what I wanted to do, on my own terms, and that was the reward in itself. And now, of course, that has led to other opportunities. But that wasn’t… I wasn’t chasing anything other than delivering good work for something I believed in.
John: Well said. And also, you weren’t suffering from the Dunning-Kruger effect. This wasn’t like, “I could do this. I got this.” You had the skill set. You had the chops. So you had the vision, and you had the passion, and you had the experience. So that’s the reason why. You know, all those things, those just occur. You don’t just roll out of bed and go, “I’m going to make a movie about U2.” Right? Because that’s not going to happen. That’s just, you know what I mean? It’s like, there’s some time that you put into this. You’ve invested time in yourself. All the work that you had done to get you to that point, it gives you that added confidence because you could see it finished. You knew the reason why it needed to exist. You knew the benefits of it. You had the contacts. You were in the right position, the right place. It’s one of those things, and you just feel it. And more often than not, those things come to fruition because it goes back to personality and passion. You know, it goes back to who you are, because people like to work with you first, and then what you do second, right? And they’re like, “Well, you sold me on the idea. Let’s give it a shot.” You know what I mean? It’s like, how many times does that happen? And that’s going to happen again. But you know, the most amazing thing that you’re going to do, Amanda, is the next thing. Always remember that. That’s the way I feel, you know? What’s the best thing you ever did, John? The next thing. The next thing is the best thing I ever did. But really, it’s the kids. It’s the two kids.
Earn a life away from your work.
Amanda: That’s perfect. And this one might be tricky, but if you had one piece of advice for other self-employed creatives, what would it be? And it doesn’t have to be just one because I know you have a lot.
John: Oh, I do have a lot. I can recap. And I think that because one piece of advice just doesn’t cut it. You’ve got to sell yourself first. Remember that. Not what you do, but who you are. You’ve got to lean on your clan. You have to know your nut. You have to know what you need to make. If you build it, and you break it, you can rebuild it again. So don’t be afraid of stuff blowing up in your face, because you got there in the first place. Every little success is proof of concept. So take that, add value to everything you do, and earn a life away from your work. That’s all you need to do. So many people are caught up in fame, and tons of money, and watches, and it has to be a certain level of this because we’re in that socio economic grow, grow, grow, grow, grow. And my father told me, “John, make enough money to buy a life away from your work.” That’s it. That’s all there is to it. You’re not chasing anything. Just start there. You might hit a homerun. You might come up with the next Flowbee, or the next… you know, and you might be a multi-millionaire, and hey, more power to you. But, you know, work. And work to buy a life away from your work. And that’s, to me, that’s my secret.
Amanda: And the next Flowbee.
John: And the next Flowbee. By the way…
Amanda: That was my takeaway from all this is go create the next Flowbee.
John: Brought to you by Flowbee! I’m kidding.
Amanda: Where can people find you out in social media land and elsewhere?
John: They can’t. Don’t even think about it.
John: If you type up Muffalo Potato – that’s M-U-F-F-A-L-O Potato – you will see me on YouTube. Masse Creative has an Instagram. You can message me there. I’ve got a Gmail. Odds are they can contact you, and then you could give my phone number. I don’t even have my own website. I really… Someone was like, “Do you want to send, like, a CV? Could you send us, like, a portfolio of some stuff you’ve done?” And I was like, “I can’t, really. I don’t know. It’s probably on a thumb drive over there somewhere.” But hunt me down if you can. I think there’s a Wikipedia page. But, really, I don’t care. But listen, let’s do this again. There’s more we have to talk about, unless you had a horrible time, in which case we don’t have to do this again.
Amanda: Oh, no. I can’t wait for part two. There’s so much that we didn’t cover here. So thank you so much for your time and your expertise today.
John: Oh, it was so good to see you, Amanda. Hi to everybody. And hi to you. And you got to come, next time you’re up in Portland, hang out. My wife cooks great. The kids are adorable. And I can play some U2 songs on the piano. So…
Amanda: Sounds like a plan.
Connect with John @massecreative
Muffalo Potato: https://www.youtube.com/user/muffalopotato