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Big Ideas

A Solo Show on No Salary?! How DKNG Launched with One Big Leap of Faith  

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

DKNG duo Dan Kuhlken and Nathan Goldman, started out with rock-n-roll aspirations. Now, their otherworldly dreamscapes grace the posters of Dave Matthews Band, The Black Keys, and The National. DKNG will be hosting a breakout session at the 10th Annual 99U Conference taking place May 9-11 in New York City. Since our 2018 conference is all about overcoming creative challenges, we asked Kuhlken and Goldman to reflect on a creative hurdle and share how they navigated it.

“The most daunting challenge we have faced in our career was our first independent solo show. The concept was 50 different screen printed designs, each paying homage to a favorite TV show or film. We called the show ICON, which represented the iconic nature of the properties we were celebrating and the iconic style each illustration would encapsulate.

“Prior to this project, the largest series of prints we had ever tackled was… three. Creating 50 designs for a single event? That was completely new to us. Each design was as a limited edition of 100 prints. That meant 5,000 prints would have to be produced and ready to sell.

“We thought, ‘With enough time, creating the entire series will be manageable.’

“We allowed ourselves two years to create everything. But time went on, and we gave priority to more and more unrelated projects. When push came to shove, we realized we had six months remaining until the opening. And we only had a handful of designs completed. We had to create 45+ designs, including printing and shipping time. When we did the math, we realized that we needed to create three to four designs a week to get this done.

“That meant we had to shut our doors to client work. We knew that the potential success of the solo show could bring us enough income to sustain our business, but in order to get to that point we needed to buckle down and execute. We made the conscious decision to forgo our salaries for four to five months.

“This was the first time that we had ever used a credit card for credit, meaning not able to pay off the balance in full. It’s ironic that, when we probably needed a vacation the most, or a reward in the form of a fancy dinner, we didn’t indulge in order to stay within a reasonable budget. It wasn’t really until after the posters were being sold online, a month after the show opening, that we splurged.

“It was the strangest fiscal year we’ve ever experienced. From a yearly stand point, anyone could say we did great. But if you looked at the year in detail, our company made nearly no income for four to five months. The work we created was some of the most fulfilling work we’ve ever done, but it came with the price of delayed gratification and uncertainty. Long story short, the solo show was a huge success and truly paid off. Our ICON work has landed us jobs from several large clients, including Nickelodeon, USA Today, Lowes, and Marvel.

“Some of our biggest successes still come from our biggest project to date. In order to make big changes in our career, it took an even bigger leap of faith. For anyone facing a similar challenge, create a schedule, and hold yourself accountable to it!”


See DKNG 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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