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Big Ideas

From Copy Center Clerk to Bankrolled Artist: How Adam J. Kurtz Overcame His First Big Creative Hurdle

The 2018 99U Conference conference theme is about overcoming creative challenges, so we're asking our speakers to reflect on a pivotal pressure-cooker moment and share how they navigated it. 

The often humorous, sometimes dark work of the artist known as @adamjk can be seen everywhere from tote bags at New York’s iconic Strand Bookstore to enamel pins on the shelves of Urban Outfitters. Kurtz will be speaking at the 10th Annual 99U Conference taking place May 9-11 in New York City. Our 2018 conference is all about overcoming creative challenges, so we’ve asked Kurtz to reflect on a pressure-cooker moment and how he navigated it. 

“The earlier years of my creative life were about making the most with what I had. Just five years ago, money was extremely tight. My rent was very low in a pretty grimy house with five roommates, but I still had trouble scraping it together sometimes. The first edition of my Unsolicited Advice planner was born out of necessity: I had zero money for holiday gifts. Instead, I looked toward my resources and skillset to make something to gift friends and family. I didn’t have money, but I did have access to free printing from a copy center job.

“After a small run of that 2012 Unsolicited Advice weekly planner, I decided to try Kickstarter for a 2013 edition. I wanted to take a risk and see if the project could grow into something more. Turning to Kickstarter was about establishing my own legitimacy on a platform that had more brand name value than I did.

“Telling the story, creating a video, and essentially selling myself as an independent creative and trustworthy person felt much more daunting than just printing 25 books at a time. The ‘all or nothing’ goal was intimidating. Even low fundraising goals are sometimes not met, and I was worried and embarrassed about what could potentially happen.

“I ended up hitting my goal of $1,600 on day one, and exceeding it several times over ($7,598 total). It was more money than I’d ever had in my bank account at once. I was overwhelmed by the responsibility. I was used to doing small batches of zines, but this was the first time I thought, Wow, I do something that people really like. This might be a future. It seems silly now, but it was a formative moment in my life and career. Taking on some financial, and definitely emotional risk with that first Kickstarter project opened up a new chapter.

“My big OMG am I an artist? freakout wasn’t entirely pre-emptive. The next month, I signed a book deal with Penguin Random House. And I created a personal manifesto that’s helped me set my intention and goals for the future. It’s given me something to reflect on whenever I’ve lost my way over the last few years. Knowing what actually matters to you, whether it feels important or a little silly (which is still valid!) enables you to focus on the work and keep you on track.”

See Adam J. Kurtz along with more creative leaders, entrepreneurs, and artists, at the 10th Annual 99U Conference.


Emily Ludolph

Emily Ludolph writes about business, history, and culture. She has published in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Artsy, Airmail, Eye on Design, JSTOR Daily, Quartz, Narratively, TED Online and Design Observer. She is the host of a live show and podcast called Dedicate It

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