Interview: Will Hudson & Alex Beck of It's Nice That
As cloying as it may sound, It’s Nice That has in some small way contributed to who I am as a person. It has introduced me to an array of designers, artists, photographers, publishers and ideas that have shaped my consciousness and have driven me to explore various facets of creativity over the years. It was a constant source of inspiration while I was studying design at university and later became a tool that helped me discover the direction I wanted to take.
It’s Nice That’s ability to curate, promote and showcase the most exciting forward-thinking creative talent is why the website could be, no fuck it…is, the most important platform in recent history. It plants a small seed in the mind of it’s audience and patiently sits back to watch it grow into something beautiful.
After leaving their jobs to focus on the site in 2009 Will Hudson and Alex Bec have turned It’s Nice That into one of the most respected and popular online destinations for contemporary creative culture. They have also created a symbiotic ecosystem of platforms that include their creative agency INT Works, a bi-annual magazine Printed Pages, the incredible annual symposium Here and a monthly series of Nicer Tuesdays talks. We spoke over Skype with the boys about their growth, the importance of maintaining quality content and what the years ahead might hold.
"It’s Nice That is inherently positive, we exist to showcase and champion content in a very positive way."
So Will, you started It’s Nice That as a blog during your university days in Brighton. It’s now a hugely popular platform with an independent print offshoot, a multi-faceted creative agency and you’re hosting some incredible events. When you both quit your jobs in 2009 to focus on the project did you have any idea of what the scope would be six years later?
Will Hudson: Definitely not, when we quit our jobs we were very open to the fact there was an opportunity but we didn't know how big that opportunity was. We were very honest in saying to ourselves that if it didn't work we would look for other jobs. A lot of the time we kind of underplay how lucky our timing was, trying to start a platform now is tough, there’s just so many people doing it.
Yeah, it’s quite saturated.
Will: Totally, but back when we started it wasn’t like that. We were on the crest of a wave where people had just started to create websites like ours. It’s interesting to look at who those people were and where they are now, a lot dropped by the wayside. I think we’re still here because we take opportunities when they’re presented. We’ve grown very organically and conservatively, we’ve not taken investment, we haven't taken huge risks along the way and we’ve always tried to work with the best people we can. Paul Smith, who we were lucky enough to meet and spend time with, always talked about only spending money when it’s in the jar. Other people have looked for financial investment and have been hugely successful but we’ve taken calculated risks because it’s our own money. We tend to think about big decisions more carefully and make sure we both agree. Because there’s two of us we’ve always had a nice interplaying dialogue about what the logical next steps are.
Alex Bec: The fact we never really had much of a plan has become a bit of a selling point for us now. There are so many tech startups with complicated business plans and lots of investors so the notion of saying: "Hey, we’re just going to see what happens and grow slowly" is very unusual now, but we didn't even know there was an alternative when we started. We just did it the only way we knew how.
"Speaking to the right people is as important as speaking to ten gazillion people."
I suppose going into business with friends is not always easy. How have you guys managed to create a balance between your personal friendship and your relationship as business partners?
Will: You just get rid of the personal friendship…
Alex: (Laughs) No…. I think it’s just about openness. If something is great we celebrate it and if it’s not we discuss how to fix it. There’s never been any drama, I don't know wether that’s come from being mates first or if it’s just the way we are. We spend so much time together day in and day out so the last thing we want to do is go to the pub and talk about it some more.
How do you guys find you compliment each other?
Alex: I think we’ve always had different skills so we never wanted to do each others job. Will’s much better with attention to detail, he’s a better designer and he’s better technically. I guess I’m better at getting the most out of something that already exists, that’s why I came to INT in 2009, to see how we could actually turn it into a business. I really enjoy the client facing and new business side of things so it’s always felt very natural focusing on that. It’s difficult when founders or directors want to work on the same aspects of a business. You learn quite quickly that you can’t do everything.
Why do you think creative audiences have forged such a strong connection to It’s Nice That?
Will: It’s Nice That is inherently positive, we exist to showcase and champion content in a very positive way. The name It’s Nice That is such an open, accessible, friendly and unpretentious thing. The fact that it is so positive has it’s challenges though when you want to develop more opinion and critique driven pieces, which we want to work on over the next year or so. At the end of the day though we’re trying to make it accessible. We don’t want to put content on a massive pedestal and say: "You can only visit the website if you know what this stuff is and who these people are."
Alex: I think it’s down to tone and having such a breadth of different creative work on the site.
You guys mentioned in a 2013 interview that "The problem with It’s Nice That is that we’ll always been talking to a niche audience - if we can find something more universal and be nimble about trying new things then that would be great." Do you guys feel that you’ve made progress with that recently?
Alex: Well the site has grown and we definitely we reach more people but I think there’s a bigger question: will the creative world always be a niche? I don't think it always will be but the corner that we’re speaking to is definitely still niche. Even reaching four hundred thousand people a month is considered quite niche compared to a big publisher. I don't think that’s a problem though, speaking to the right people is as important as speaking to ten gazillion people.
Will: There’s a really interesting conversation happening at the moment about when an audience is the size you want it to be. We used to talk about reaching one hundred thousand views and then immediately, within a week, we'd hit that and started looking for the next two hundred or three hundred thousand. We know a publisher who reaches about two million people and it’s interesting to think about what you then might create to attract more views. We have ambitious audience targets in place but I really hope that when we reach them we maintain the quality of our content. The danger with online media is that there’s always more people to reach.
I suppose when you've got a much larger audience base the engagement drops off a little bit doesn't it? You’re reaching out to a lot of people who base their viewing on the recommendation of others so you're not really getting the quality of readers you’d like.
Will: Exactly. A client was speaking with us a few moths ago about conflicting reactions when you talk about the size of your audience. Some people are absolutely amazed by the numbers and others consider it tiny. All I want is the quality of the audience. If you run a campaign that attracts a lot of one-visit people it makes the bigger picture look better but it lacks the engagement, loyalty and everything that comes with it.
What does time outside of work look like for you guys?
Will: This feels like I'm on a date…(Laughs) Well, I have a girlfriend of ten years, two kids and I live down in Brighton which is about an hour and a half commute from London. I spend a lot of time with my two boys who are three and nine months. I really like that I have a work life and through having a family I’ve managed to carve out my home life, which doesn't involve sitting in front of the tv or having a laptop out, there’s a balance.
Alex: We’ve always been about that work life balance. As soon as we hired staff we left on Friday’s and encouraged people to go home at six o’clock if they'd finished. If people are working on weekends then they've planned it badly or haven't asked for help early enough. We don't sign up for that culture of working all night on the big pitch, if a pitch is forcing us to work at night then why are we doing it? For us there’s a start and an end to work.
What do you guys hope to do more of in the coming years?
Will: I think the focus is on getting the two businesses working really well. On the editorial side that means growing our audience realistically and then figuring out how to best monetise that platform in order to sustain a profitable media company in the future. On the agency side there is a kind of maturing happening at the moment, it feels like were coming out of the adolescent mindset of saying yes to everything and are now creating a more measured analysis of the work we’re doing, why we’re doing it and who's managing it. We’re making sure the team is robust, they feel supported and there’s opportunities for them to grow and develop.
Alex: In the last couple of years we’ve focused a lot on the impact we have on our audience and clients. The coming years are about making sure that impact is very direct. Wether it’s inspiring people, helping our staff to do their jobs better, putting on amazing talks or increasing our client’s marketing and sales targets it’s all about being needed rather than just being a nice little corner of the internet that makes you smile from time to time.
That’s great. So, in your opinion, what is beauty?
Alex: (Laughs) What is beauty?… Beauty to me is something that works properly and is functional. I’m more interested in function than aesthetics.
Will: Is this something you ask everyone? Or just us?
Yeah, most people.
Will: I should have read more of your interviews (Laughs) — To be totally cliche, beauty is in the eye of the beholder and it can mean different things at different times. The name It’s Nice That is something we kind of lucked out with because "nice" is a word that is quite nondescript and can mean different things to different people, and that’s why it works. I think beauty has the same connotations. We used to run a feature on the last page of Printed Pages called The Ugliest Thing I Love and it was about the idea that different people find different things beautiful even though some of those things are aesthetically horrible…I think I’ve kind of skirted the question haven't I?
No, that was a great answer.
Will: Thanks very much.
Thank you for you're time guys, I really appreciate it.
Will: No Worries.
This story was originally published as part of our ongoing interview series exploring the work and lives of inspiring creatives.
Photography: Mikael Gregorsky
Words: Nick Smith