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Post by Mark Mason 8.16.16

Why I Started Shellshock Inc.

I’ve been a designer my entire life.

As a kid in class, I doodled. Working in retail as a teenager, I kept a notebook handy for artistic inspiration. When my skills developed to the point of taking freelance projects, I charged next to nothing — $50 here, $100 there.

When I was about 15, I saw something emblazoned with the word “Shellshock” and was attracted to the word. Despite the dark origins of the word, I loved the idea of an experience so powerful that its impression lingers long after exposure. What if that force could be creative, positive, beautiful? This is what Shellshock means to me, and it’s an ethos that guides my work every today.

It was years later that I finally realized I could make a career in the design industry. I remember stumbling across design magazines in a Borders book store and being inspired by what I saw, which led me back to school for a degree in the field.

Getting Started

Despite what I do now, the design focus of my degree was actually print design, not digital. I was fortunate enough to be hired by Greg Segall (founder of Boston agency One Pica, acquired in 2012) for web design on the strength of my print work. The rest I learned through trial by fire. Regular contact with developers taught me a lot and helped me identify one of the principal challenges in our business: bridging the gap between developers and designers.

Even when I got a “real” design job, I never stopped freelancing. I would work all day at my job, then throw myself into freelance work at night. Before long, it spilled over into my weekends. Design became like a drug to me — but one that paid me back, and that society rewarded.

Eventually, I realized I was making more money through freelancing than I was through my day job. It wasn’t hard at that point to take the leap of faith and make Shellshock a full-time venture. I knew that I had nothing to lose — not to mention the confidence that I could get another job if things didn’t work out.

That was in 2012, and I haven’t looked back since.

Running on Fear

Initially, I was sure a time would come that the work would simply run out. Frankly, that fear has never gone away, but it’s never happened.

In my experience, fear can be a healthy emotion. I know many motivated people whose difficult upbringings gave them something visceral to fear if they did not succeed. There’s no substitute for an underlying sense that “if I fail, I have to go back to that.”

As a kid, I was born in Germany, lived in other countries in Europe and Egypt for several years, then England, and finally moved to the United States in my teens. Being a young immigrant meant there was no choice but to adapt to constant and dramatic change. Things were not always easy for my family in those years, and while we always persevered, the experiences gave me my own healthy sense of fear and the motivation to build something for myself.

Evolving the Company

From the very beginning of my freelance practice, clients would ask questions like, “do you know a developer/animator/marketer?” It was natural for me to build a network of people to lend skills to different projects.
As time went on, I saw the potential to bring other people into Shellshock — to build the capacity to take on larger projects aligned with the values and aesthetic that I loved.

I was also motivated to build something for the long-term. I see many designers working solo, only to be pushed out 5 or 10 years later by younger, more competitive talent. In our industry, you have to be immersed in your craft to maintain a competitive advantage or you become obsolete.

My goal is for the people I collaborate with to be happy and comfortable in their work. If you look after your team, I believe they will look after your clients. Instead of a strict pyramid hierarchy, I’d rather create a more even playing field where everyone is empowered to be unconventional.

The Grand Experiment

At the end of the day, Shellshock is one big experiment. From the ways we push the work, to the tools we use for the job, it never ends. We aren’t following some enshrined blueprint brought down from the mountainside. I believe that sense of experimentation is the source of our strength. Without it, we would not be walking the path that leads to our best work.

As Shellshock evolves, my mission is to keep this sense of experimentation alive. It’s essential if we hope to perform work worthy of that name. And after all, creating memorable work that delights and inspires is why I started Shellshock in the first place.

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