You probably know Jeff Cole from the amazing illustrations he creates. Melding pop culture icons with motivational quotes and combining seminal sneakers with famous faces, he depicts vivid scenes that are distinctive but familiar. Yes, Cole is an illustrator first. But he’s also that rare artist who’s mastered the business side of things. In 2016, Cole and his partner Mark Brazil co-founded Ikonick, a Los Angeles-based company that creates and sells inspirational art canvases. At Ikonick, Cole’s imagination isn’t limited to making art. Instead, he’s built his company and massive social following by balancing inspiration and administration, using unique hiring processes and finding an equilibrium between inventiveness and structure.
On the day of this interview, Cole’s busy working with his Ikonick team to perfect an upcoming social media plan and the challenges of being both boss and creator are at the forefront of his mind. “Let me tell you, the hardest part of my job is to feel like you're still an artist, but maintaining this almost analytical structure to your life,” he explains.
While finding that counterpoise may be difficult, it’s hardly the toughest challenge Cole’s faced in his life. The Chicago-native says he had a good childhood, but things changed for his family when he went away to school at the University of Arizona. “I grew up comfortable,” he shares. “Things were fine and I didn't have to worry about money, but my freshman year of college, my family got turned upside down.” Though he won't get in to specifics, Cole says he was devastated and had to leave school.
Still, Cole responded with resilience, locking himself in his basement for six months to focus on ways he might transform his talents into money. He downloaded all the necessary design software. He practiced his craft and he reached out to companies searching for gigs.
At first, Cole came up short, often rejected due to his lack of experience. But persistence got him a freelance job designing mixtape covers for Def Jam in 2011, which then led to a full-time gig with elevated hatmaker Melin.
To work for Melin, Cole uprooted his Midwestern life and relocated to Los Angeles. There, he found more than full-time work. At Melin, Cole forged a friendship with future business partner Brazil that would forever change his life. In fact, it was Brazil who first had inklings that Cole’s artwork could be the centerpiece for a good business. Soon after he told Cole, “You've been putting your art on canvases just decorating my apartment, let's try to sell some on social media,” the duo quit their jobs at Melin to launch Ikonick.
That gamble has paid off. With its unique blend of meaningful quotes, accessible art printed on high-quality canvases, and valuable pop culture licences, Ikonick has proven successful and shown steady growth. Now, Cole and Brazil have a 10-person team to help handle everything, including digital marketing, production, online retail, and copywriting.
But at Ikonick, it takes more than hard work or a flashy resume to get hired. “For us, you need to be curious. You need to have integrity,” Cole says about prospective employees. “There are core values that we look for before we even figure out what you can do. And if you pass that test then we triple down on your strengths.”
For Cole and Brazil, those principles are far more valuable than finely-tuned skills. “We don't hire on what you can do,” Cole continues. “We hire on who you are and then we'll figure out what you can do later.”
Innovative as it is, this unique approach to team building isn’t something Cole and Brazil can take sole credit for creating. That honor goes to Cole’s mentor, entrepreneur and motivational Internet personality Gary Vaynerchuk, who has helped mold he and his partner’s leadership style. According to Cole, Vaynerchuk lives by a certain set of values, and that if a potential hire appears to, “live and die by his morals, there’s a good chance we vibe.”
For example, Cole says an applicant who DMs him on social media or one who sends a personal email expressing appreciation for Ikonick has a better chance of getting a gig than someone who applies through traditional channels. “We kind of set this message in the DNA of Ikonick that we're hustlers, we're grinders,” he explains. “With all of the things that happened in my life, I combated that with just hard work and no excuses.”
Once Cole hires someone, that emphasis on raw hustle and unfiltered communication becomes even more important. “I want to know what you're like at home,” he says. “Because I know that's how you open up and communicate the best.”
To that end, the Ikonick office, which is housed in Cole’s own 2,000 square foot apartment, is set up to maximize organic communication channels, right down to the layout of company workspaces. Cole says no one on his Ikonick team works more than 10 feet away from other employees, which helps facilitate dialogue, camaraderie, and teamwork.
Of course, for Cole, that emphasis on synergy extends beyond his employees to his relationship with Brazil. Cole notes that constant communication with his business partner allows each of them to maximize each other's strengths while offering backup on any areas where the other may have shortcomings. “Anything I'm weak at, he's world class. And anything he's world class in, I'm terrible at,” Cole says of Brazil. “Having a partner that's fifty-fifty can literally cover all your weaknesses.”
The strength of his partnership with Brazil also allows Cole to set aside a couple of days to recharge his inspiration each week. Thursdays and Fridays are Cole’s creative time, dedicated days where he can get in a zone without being distracted by business-related questions. As an understanding boss, Cole also allows his team their own space to stoke personal creativity, noting that giving them, “time to think and regroup,” is crucial to keeping his business competitive.
Ultimately, maintaining Ikonick’s creative edge while inspiring people is what Cole is all about. He even closes the interview with some advice for young artists who hope to turn their crafts into businesses. “Pretend like you're already the CEO and you'll start to work like a CEO,” he says. “It's pretending you have the job and not asking for permission.” And with all of Ikonick’s success, it’s hard to argue with that.