Today we’re featuring a guest post by JS Tan (hackNY ’14). Along with two classmates, he founded Hello Velocity, a creative agency in New York. In this post he shares the story of Hello Velocity’s founding, some of their strangest and most exciting work, and what he’s learned about art, viral marketing, and working on a team.
My name is JS and I was part of hackNY 2014, where I interned with Buzzfeed! I graduated this past May from the Brown+RISD Dual Degree program where I studied Computer Science at Brown and Furniture Design at RISD. After graduating, I founded Hello Velocity, a digital marketing agency X creative studio, with my classmates, Lukas and Kevin. We’ve been working out of NewInc, the New Museum’s incubator since September.
Being a part of hackNY was an invaluable experience. It not only provided me with the technical competency and confidence to take on any of our projects, but also exposed me to a community of talented and incredibly generous people. Coming into hackNY, I didn’t expect the community to interested in the kind of work I, as part of Hello Velocity, was doing – making marketing campaigns for celebrity meat (bitelabs.org), trying to buy McDonald franchises to put in churches (mcmass.com), making fake Chinese artists for political commentary (godplayground.com). But my hackNY class flipped those expectations; throughout that summer, I ended up having many fun and useful conversations about each project.
Hello Velocity began in 2014 with the creation of a project: Bitelabs, a satirical marketing campaign advertising meat grown from celebrity tissue samples and made into artisanal salami. At that time, the three of us, Lukas Bentel, Kevin Wiesner and I were still 4th year students in the Brown | RISD Dual Degree Program. Having already collaborated on many art projects, from making large scale installations to building in-browser art games, we already had years of experience working with each other. But unlike those other projects, we knew Bitelabs was different.
Within 2 weeks of launching the campaign, we were tweeted about tens of thousands of times and had been picked up by Wired, Vice, LA Times, Huffington Post, USA Today and many other international publications. We even got written about in the hardcopy of Time Magazine. Shortly after the campaign, we created “Hi Sorry We Died”, an anonymous art collective who would claim Bitelabs, which would eventually grow up to become Hello Velocity.
What began as an art project about celebrity culture in the social age led us to larger question that we spent our final year of school trying to answer: how do ideas spread in the social age? After Bitelabs, we went on to create The McMass Project, an indiegogo campaign with the goal of raising 1 million dollars to buy a McDonalds franchise to put into a church, as well as Genecoin, a startup that wanted to store customer DNA into the bitcoin blockchain. Like Bitelabs, both these projects went viral.
In the midst of these projects, I had joined hackNY 2014 and been paired with Buzzfeed. Aside from having a wonderful experience as a software engineer and a fantastic mentor at Buzzfeed, I was also immersed in an environment obsessed with the mechanics of sharability, and discovered that it was a great space for me to explore how ideas spread in the social age. By the end of that summer, the hacker-centric environment of hackNY had given me the confidence to be the technical spine for Hello Velocity, and Buzzfeed’s sensibility for sharable content had became part of Hello Velocity’s everyday practice.
Today Hello Velocity works out of NEWINC on 231 Bowery, an art incubator hosted by the New Museum. We spend half our time doing client work, creating brand identities and marketing campaigns for customers. And we spend the rest of our time developing our own research projects, where our topic of research has shifted from how ideas spread in the social age to more specifically how do brands command identity in the social age.
In February of 2015, we were invited to Brigham Young University, Utah, to give a lecture in a bio-tech entrepreneurial seminar series about bringing emerging technologies into the media’s attention and the power of the speculative image.
Having only graduated 6 months ago, we’re still trying to figure out what it means to run our own digital marketing agency / creative studio. We’ve grown from a small group of 3, to a slightly bigger team of 5, and do projects that range anywhere from developing toilet seats to web services. In the coming year, we plan on working with bigger and more exciting clients, as well as working more closely with startups.
Five years down the road, I think Hello Velocity will be completely different. I think that my founding partners and I will continue to challenge what it means to be working as a creative business, and will continue to explore how brands exist an increasingly social world. I’ve also been thinking about what it means for Hello Velocity to scale – but unlike software startups that typically have a user base, there isn’t a clear model for how digital marketing startups or creative studios should grow. Do we scale out by get more customers and hiring more people? Or do we scale up by becoming more selective and charging higher premiums? No matter which it is, I’m sure Hello Velocity will continue to grow.