Imagine you’re trying to start a non-profit. What’s the first thing you do? Well, if you think can afford it, you might enlist the services of a firm like verynice to build your brand. Founded by Matt Manos, whom The Huffington Post dubbed “one of the seven millennials changing the world,” verynice is a design, strategy and consulting firm that’s helped build over 500 brands in every industry there is.
Yeah, you say, but there’s no way I can afford that kind of shine. Well lucky for you, there’s a very good chance that verynice will help you for free.
That’s because verynice dedicates 50 percent of its time to pro bono projects for non-profits. To date, the firm has donated the equivalent of $3.75 million in consulting services – services that are not reduced in any way from their for-profit business. Now, you may be saying that’s crazy. But Mr. Manos has been doing this crazy thing since before he graduated high school – and he’s heard it all before.
In an interview with Planet Experts, Manos explained that the 50 percent profit / 50 percent free model he envisioned for verynice was initially met with (tremendous) skepticism.
“When we finally came to that 50/50 model, there was a lot of negative feedback,” he explained. “Most of my teachers thought it was a terrible idea. A lot of the companies I was interested in when I would seek mentorship from the founders of studios, they were sort of offended by the idea.”
It was understandable, said Manos. “Not charging for services…that’s a very threatening statement to a lot of creative people, because it’s threatening their livelihood.”
But Manos didn’t set out to threaten anyone’s livelihood. He wanted to change the way business did business. And after years of doing pro bono work as a freelancer and having that work lead to bigger, better and paid opportunities, he decided to take that system to the next level. Verynice has since made a significant impact on both the non- and for-profit space, and a lot of that has to do with the cyclical nature of the work speaking for itself. Ready or not, the business of doing business has evolved.
From ‘Pretty Good’ to Verynice
Manos landed his first freelance assignment when he was still in high school. A competitive skateboarder, he would spend long hours at the local skate park. It was there that he met the founder of the now-defunct Wheelchair Skater, a nonprofit that taught children in wheelchairs how to participate in extreme sports. Manos helped the man with sticker designs for his organization, and the experience led Manos to do more design and strategy work with different student groups and local organizations.
“It kind of just snowballed into helping people launch organizations and initiatives on a pro bono basis,” said Manos.
The snowball picked up momentum after Manos enrolled at UCLA. There, the young Media Design Major carved out a “pretty good” niche for himself doing pro bono designs for student chapters of larger non-profits. “I ended up doing work for something like 30 different student groups, something ridiculous like that,” said Manos. As his reputation grew and his clients graduated into the professional world, the work itself evolved. “And as they would graduate, they would refer me for projects at their new workplace or for their new business that they may have started,” he said.
That was Manos’ first glimpse at how pro bono work can lead to a “cycle of reciprocity.” Giving can lead to getting, he realized. “That, to be honest, is what made it possible to shift verynice from a side project that I loved doing to this thing that could actually be a business.”
How It Works
Initially, Manos considered offering 100 percent of his non-profit design services for free. That, as you might imagine, proved to be an unsustainable business model. Moreover, no matter what percentage of free service verynice was willing to provide, there was always the danger that the work would be valued at less than that of a paid service. It was an obstacle that Manos and his team had to innovate around.
“A lot of my early pro bono work, I didn’t really have any restrictions around [clients],” said Manos, “so a lot of the things you hear people complain about pro bono happened – getting taken advantage of, having projects go on forever, the work not being valued.”
The solution, Manos realized, was approaching pro bono projects with the same mindset as paid projects, and informing clients of the value and parameters of the work. “When we take on a pro bono engagement now, we have a timeline, a scope, and a line that says what the value of the project would be, next to one saying ‘100 percent discounted.’ All of a sudden, what happens is you avoid that scope creep of someone asking for more than you’re willing to give. Also, they understand the value of the work and the commitment behind it as well.”
Verynice has since built up over 500 brands in every sector and at every level – from kitchen table operations to Fortune 500 companies. And the pro bono assignments don’t discriminate between the two. “We offer pro bono to any 501(c)(3) non-profit organization,” said Manos.
But why offer free services to those organizations that can afford it? It’s simple, said Manos. “If we offset some of their cost and they take that saved money and reinvest it into their cause, hopefully it goes to more good stuff in the world.” What’s been inspiring, he added, was that large organizations have been extremely supportive of verynice. “[They] actually decline our offer for pro bono work. We’ve had that happen several times. It shows how kind this world is. They’ll say, ‘Hey, we want to pay you so that you can help these smaller organizations.’”
Is It a Millennial Thing?
Last year, The Huffington Post named Matt Manos one of seven millennials “too busy changing the world to take selfies.” As a fellow millennial, I asked Manos how he felt about being singled out that way.
“Well it’s kind of terrifying,” he laughed. “But it’s an incredible honor to be able to represent my generation – especially because I’m representing this pro bono and social enterprise ethos.”
At the same time, it has also led to Manos being treated somewhat as a “token millennial,” with his finger on the pulse of millennial interests, behavior, etc. I asked if he believed millennials have any greater insight into how modern business works and how it can evolve, and his answer surprised me.
“I think we actually do,” he said. “While we may have the same opportunities as everybody else in history, we’ve been born into this comfort zone that includes an extreme platform of self-promotion and self-documentation.” And while this has often prompted critics to label millennials the “entitled” generation, Manos said the effect of treating every member of Generation Y as a super special snowflake has had an unanticipated impact on their ambition.
“We’re sort of the first generation to get a trophy for coming in last place,” said Manos, chuckling, “and I think…maybe it’s because we were rewarded for failure that we’re actually the generation that’s able to think completely differently about new economies, and think completely naively that we can change the world. Prior to our generation and prior to this idea of being rewarded for being really bad at something, other generations have just been too afraid to try something really different. So that, to me, could be one of the reasons why we’ve seen such an explosion in this social entrepreneurship world among millennials. Most of these kind of thriving businesses are people in their mid-20s, early-30s.”
Models of Impact and BillionActs
Manos’ success has inspired him to figuratively “pay it forward” with other social and entrepreneurial projects. Currently, verynice is working on its own research project called “Models of Impact.” Started at the tail end of 2014, Manos described it as “basically just this ambition to document all these models that exist in the social enterprise space. We created a map…[and] we’ve been doing a lot of interesting training sessions that advocate for these models and help people learn about them.”
Verynice has also partnered with Google to help create an app called BillionActs, which aims to help people engage in acts of peace. Still in development (though it may launch by the end of this year), the goal is to make it a living project that will help people discover and explore different opportunities to volunteer their time and effort across a range of sectors.