Garrett Murray has been designing and developing web and mobile applications for more than 10 years. In March 2010, Garrett founded Karbon, an iOS design/development agency, where he and his compatriots are building fun and useful new applications and products. Away from the office, Garrett is an award-winning filmmaker. You can follow his adventures on his personal site, Maniacal Rage. Since he and his lovely wife moved from New York to Los Angeles a few weeks ago, he no longer complains about the weather on Twitter.
We didn’t know designers were so funny. Garrett had us in an uproar throughout the interview. It was like a private stand-up comedy show just for us (that’s a compliment). We laughed a lot, but there were also serious moments where we knew that what he was saying was deeply insightful and we’d better take note. Garrett is one funny, smart, talented, and personable guy who can make you laugh and cry in the same breath. We can’t say enough good things about this man. So thanks Garrett, er… should we say, Commish?
Interview date: September 2, 2011
We’re gonna split up this first question since you’re pursuing a couple different things at the moment… Describe your path to becoming a designer/developer.
I was a nerd as a kid. I loved computers and wanted to be around them all the time. When I was in high school, computers got affordable for most people and I finally got one. My friend’s father had a copy of Photoshop, which I had never seen before, so I started to play around with it and got really into the idea of building my own website (this was around 1995 or so). I built my first website on Geocities and it was horrible, so horrible, but it got me interested in learning how to make it better. I kept playing with Photoshop and learned HTML and then CSS. Later, in college, a lot of my friends were getting into PHP, so I started learning that because it seemed like everyone who had a cool blog was either using Movable Type or writing their own in PHP. I thought, I’ll write a blog app, so that’s what I did. That led to a curiosity about different programming languages and building better stuff. Eventually I realized that I could actually make money doing this.
I got my first job in a tiny design studio in New Jersey. They asked me in the interview if I knew ASP, which I didn’t, and I said yes. They hired me and I went out right away, bought a few books on ASP, and spent the weekend learning it. And ASP is not a language you should claim to know if you don’t.
I then went from job to job, learning as I went along. I was able to pay the bills and I’m a nerd at heart, so it allowed me to spend all my time playing around with new technology. Now it’s been 12 years and I can’t remember at what point I decided to start doing it on my own. I knew that eventually that was the goal, to run my own company in order to do really fun projects.
Very cool. Now, what about film-making?
Film was my original passion. I remember being 3 years old and watching television and telling my mother that I wanted to be an actor. I wanted to be on television. When I was a kid, one of my favorite shows was The Commish. I wanted to BE the Commish... and it makes no sense because it wasn’t even that great of a character. It was a boring, local town and he was the police commissioner. But there was something about that show that made me think, I’d love to play like that, to get paid to play someone that’s not me. I got really into comedy and spent a lot of time trying to make everybody laugh when I was a kid.
I actually went to college for film and studied digital film-making. That’s where I met Shawn Morrison who I made Forever’s Not So Long1 and other shorts with. Long-term, film was always my primary interest. It was just that somewhere along the way, I realized that I would never make money until I was many years into it. I realized I could make money doing this other really big hobby of mine (design). I got really lucky that one hobby could pay me to live while I was pursuing the other one.
Where did you go to school and did you get a degree?
I went to Fairleigh Dickinson University in Madison, New Jersey and I dropped out of college… which is really fun to tell people. I went for 2 years and took all of my available film classes. It was a liberal arts school so there was biology, chemistry, English, and all these other subjects, but I was really excited about the idea of making movies. I spent my second year of college acting in other people’s senior thesis films. It made it clear to me that all I really wanted to do was focus on movie-making. So when I finished all my film classes and I couldn’t take any more until my senior year and saw ahead of me years of biology and other subjects, I decided, “I don’t want to do this.” I left school and got a job working IT at a big company right before 9/11. When 9/11 happened, I lost my job and then bounced around a bit. That’s when I started working for the small design company in NJ and it went from there.
How long have you had your own business?
Karbon started last March (2010). Wow, time flies. Before Karbon, I started a company with my friend, Brian Fling, called pinch/zoom.
Was creativity a part of your childhood?
Yeah. That’s an interesting question. I feel like everyone would probably say yes. It would be sad if you said no.
Anyway, yes, I would say creativity was part of my childhood only because everyone in my family is kind of funny. None of them have pursued it. I’m the first to really pursue anything with it. My parents were always funny when I was a kid and my sister, who is 3 years younger than me, is really funny. We were always trying to make each other laugh. We were the kind of family where every kid wanted to do little skits and sketches at holidays and everybody loved drawing, although I’m not particularly good at it. I think everybody was creative, more than normal, but I always felt like maybe I was the one in the family that could take that creativity and do something with it that nobody else had considered. I thought, “If I try hard enough, maybe I can take funny and do something real with it.”
How big is your family?
I have one younger sister. My parents divorced when I was younger so I have a huge web of family all over the place. But my direct family is actually very small… My mother, step-father, my sister and her husband, and my wife and in-laws. When I was a kid, I spent a lot of time with cousins on my father’s side of the family. There were eight of us around the same age so I felt like I had a lot of brothers and sisters even though I didn’t.
Where were you born?
I was born outside of Seattle, Washington. I lived in Seattle until I was about 16 and then we moved to New Jersey where I lived for the rest of high school and college. Then I lived in New York for almost 10 years, and now I’m in Los Angeles, finally back on the West Coast.
“I never wanted to be a starving artist, so I took an entire decade of my life and dedicated it to working for others and building my own company.”
Was there an “aha” moment with any of your creative endeavors where you knew, “This is what I want to do for the rest of my life?”
Yeah, there have been several. In high school, when I was in my first play and nobody laughed or said it was ridiculous, that was an aha moment where I thought that maybe I wasn’t crazy and could potentially keep acting. Another moment was in college when people sought me out for their senior thesis films. I must have been doing a good enough job that people were okay with basing their senior project on my acting abilities. Also, and this is so ridiculous, but I remember hosting a date auction in college. I was the emcee and I just made jokes for an hour and a half. It went over well and they auctioned me off at the end of the night. I was auctioned for the highest price even though I had just barely grown into my full size. That was a moment where I thought, if I can make people laugh for 2 hours and at the end of the night convince all these girls that I’m worth more than all these far more attractive guys, there’s gotta be something there.
On the business side, the moment came a few years ago. Just before starting Karbon, I realized that after 12 years I had made so many friends and so many connections that I could actually find work without doing any marketing. Friends of mine would send me referrals out of the blue because people knew I was trustworthy and they were willing to stake their reputations on my work. I think that made a huge difference. In the last year and a half with Karbon, I have never actively sought out projects. They’ve all been direct referrals from friends or past clients.
I give a lot of people advice for starting their own business because I’ve went through it twice. People ask me about risk and reward and how they should do it. It’s very common for me to recommend that people try, if they can, to run their own business. At the end of the day, if you run your own business, you’re in the best position to control your life. One of the things that I had to realize is that it takes a really long time. That was an aha moment for me. I had never considered, until recently, that it took me about a decade of doing work for me to be in a position where I didn’t have to scramble for work or take on work that I wasn’t interested in because I had to pay payroll.
That’s really good. Did you or do you have a mentor? If so, who was it and how did they inspire you?
I never had an actual mentor…
I would say that Brian Fling comes pretty close. We used to travel and do workshops together and I learned a lot from him about how to talk to new clients and how to talk to clients when things don’t go well, which is an inevitable reality. On the business side, I learned a lot from Brian.
There have been a lot of mentors in my life whom I’ve never met. I think Conan O’Brien is a good mentor in the sense that he’s very successful at what he does because he works very hard at it. If you’d seen a picture of Conan in high school, you never would have thought that he would be one of the most sought after late night hosts. He goes against all television stereotypes. He’s tall, he’s lanky, he describes himself as unattractive. He’s all these things that stereotypically have never been on television. But the reality is that at the end of the day, he works really, really hard.
I think that confidence and the ability to put in the effort have been the strongest factors in any of the success that I have in my life. Obviously not false confidence, because that’s not going to help you. But if you do a good job, know what you’re doing, and are respectful of others, you can be successful.
Is there a point in your life where you decided you had to take a big risk to move forward?
Yeah, I’m in it right now. I’ve been in this apartment for 4 weeks. I should’ve moved to Los Angeles when I was 20, because I want to make television and movies, but I was too scared to do it. I never wanted to be a starving artist, so I took an entire decade of my life and dedicated it to working for others and building my own company. Thankfully, I’m in a position now where we’re doing good work and I can afford to take risks.
Do you want to share about your plans now that you’re in L.A.?
I don’t have a direct plan. I’m preparing to make another short film and write stuff for television. I feel like I just got out of college and everybody is asking me what the first step is and I’m saying, “You tell me what the first step is and I’ll just do it.” I’ve made a lot of connections and my goal is to start to put myself out there and build some momentum. I would also really like to get back into comedy. I used to do a lot of sketches. I’ve never done stand-up but it’s one of those things I think I should try. I’m gonna try everything. I’m acting like I’m 21.
Are your friends and family supportive of what you’re doing?
Yeah, too much (chuckling). They’re the kind of people who have always said, “If this is what you’re interested in, you should go do it.” Now that I’m finally doing it, they’ve been checking in with me regularly to ask what I’m doing and what’s next. I think that moving away from family has also strengthened our relationship. My mother said to me at one point, “Hurry up and be successful so that you can come back,” which is hilarious, because that’s probably the opposite of what would happen if I was successful. But I do appreciate the push… You know, just hurry up and make all your dreams come true so you can move back and live near me.
Who has encouraged you the most over the years?
Oh man, how do you answer that question without offending one family member? I will be honest and say I think my sister has. My mother definitely has given me a lot of encouragement, but my sister has been almost belligerent with the encouragement, in a good way. We’re a lot alike, we even look alike, it’s very odd. When we stand next to each other, people think we’re twins. We have similar senses of humor. She is really smart and very driven. She has a psychology degree and all that, but at the same time, when we get together we’re both just, you know, jackasses. Because she is similar to me, I think she has a similar drive to also be creative and funny and I think she would love to be an actor. It’s just not something she’s pursuing. She’s always joked about the John and Joan Cusack thing because John is more famous, but Joan is in all of his movies. I think she thinks that if I ever become famous, I’ll just put her in everything… which, hey, if I’m ever that successful, I’m all for it.
It sounds like over the years you’ve tried to find the balance between doing what you are passionate about and making a living and you’ve now reached the point where you can jump head first into risk.
Yeah, it’s hard. I think that growing up in a divorced family and living a lot of different places, you come from a place where you don’t want to struggle to pay the bills. You want things to be very solidified and sure. It’s in your blood. You do the opposite of what you saw as a kid that you felt was negative. My sister and I are both very hard workers and interested in saving money and building secure lives. I think the negative side of that is that it’s harder to take risks. I didn’t want to work as a waiter when I was in Los Angeles in my early 20s because I was afraid and thought, “What if I don’t become successful and I’m just a waiter for 10 years and I never try anything else?” There are pros and cons. Now I’m much more stable and can take risks, but I’m also 30.
[Ryan] It’s interesting to hear you say that because I grew up in a divorced family. My parents separated when I was really young. You do need to feel secure in different ways. You want to make sure you can take care of yourself and you tend to grow up much faster than you should.
Yeah, definitely. I always felt like the oldest kid in the room. Everywhere I went, I felt way more mature than everybody else. And I wasn’t, but I felt like I was because I had seen this version of family that no one else had seen. To everyone who was the single kid in a perfect marriage situation, it was like, “You don’t know anything about life, you’re just a young kid.” If anything, it probably made me too serious in certain moments, but it did drive me to work really hard at making sure I was never in a position where I had to worry about money. I think it probably affected everything, you just don’t realize it until you sit and think about it.
That’s really interesting.
I’m blowing your mind.
Yeah, it’s intriguing to see the similarities, even in small ways, among creative individuals.
It’s amazing how quickly you discover that people in this field are similar. It’s almost creepy that we all got into the same line of work. It’s not surprising to me when people say, “Oh, my parents are divorced.” I think, really, you’re the twelfth person who has said that. I never put it together that that might have somehow pushed you into sitting alone using computers more than somebody else. It’s very strange. You never realize until you get into a room with a hundred other creatives and they all say, oh yeah, me too, I also do this… It’s fascinating.
Do you feel a responsibility to contribute to something bigger than yourself?
I don’t know that I’ve found that thing yet. I’ve donated to various causes in the past and I’m very into environmental stuff like many people in this field. I own a hybrid car and I carbon offset. I would love to do a lot more and I’m hoping that down the road, I’ll have a better avenue to do that. Hopefully when my workload isn’t 7 days a week all the time, I can spend more time doing something. I don’t know what it is, that’s the weird thing, but I do feel like I want to spend more time helping other people.
In the past I’ve done a fair amount of helping other people related directly to this profession, like speaking about entrepreneurship and development. I haven’t spoken in a long time and would like to do that more.
What do you hope to contribute through your work? Do you have any long-term goals?
On the development side, the best possible thing I can do is build useful, nice applications that make people’s lives easier. Everybody likes making money and I am definitely in that camp, but at the end of the day, I really hope that the time I’m spending is worthwhile and that I’m building something that will enrich someone’s life.
On the other side (filmmaking), I think I can impact people more directly by making people laugh or cry. I’m like a robot in that I’m not good at emoting in real life. Here is a perfect example: When we were driving away from New Jersey, my mother and my sister were crying. As I hugged them, I said, “Eh, you’ll be fine,” and then I left. So I’m not good at emoting, however, television, books and movies have an amazing ability to help me express emotion that I don’t normally express. If I can help other people feel emotions, I think that would be huge.
That’s good. Are you satisfied creatively?
On the development/design side I am pretty satisfied creatively. I get to work on really cool projects for companies I’m a fan of and these days I spend more time designing than developing.
On the film end, I am not at all satisfied. Every time I come across an old sketch or listen to an old podcast2 it immediately makes me realize how unsatisfied I am and how much I want to do more. Shawn Morrison, my good friend (who also works at Karbon), has also moved to L.A. Now that we’re both settled, we want to create some new content. We both have that drive to create.
Where do you see yourself in 5 to 10 years? Doing more film stuff?
Yeah. Karbon is in a really good place. We’re growing and hopefully in 5 years we’ll be making a lot more creative content. I would love to do television. That’s been my dream since I was a kid. But I have no interest in slowing down with my business either. No matter how successful I am on the creative side, I still love computers and spend a lot of time thinking about design and usability.
How does where you live impact your creativity?
New York was odd for me because, for the longest time, I didn’t know anyone else who lived there that was in the same field. I travelled often to hang out with other designers outside of New York. So a lot of my creativity in New York was based around film. Over time, more and more people moved to New York and the design community grew until I actually had people to hang out with there.
Los Angeles is great on the film side because there are people making movies on every corner, but there aren’t as many designers here (that I know). The benefit is that I’m very close to San Francisco and can visit friends there and L.A. has a large feeling of creativity in general.
If you could go back and do one thing differently what would it be?
Um, wow… geez. That’s such a hard question because I could easily make a list of 10 mistakes right now, but they all led here. If I had moved to L.A. when I was 20, I probably wouldn’t have met my wife or my friends. I don’t know if I would change anything. I feel like that’s a cheap answer, but I can’t pick one thing because I feel like it might undo a lot of other things that have happened in my life.
If you could give one piece of advice to another aspiring designer/developer/filmmaker what would it be?
Work really hard. You have to work really hard at everything. You have to take pride in what you do and you have to do it a lot, because it’s going to suck for a long time before you get good. I don’t know anyone who has found a shortcut.
What does a typical day look like for you?
I tend to… (laughing) Oh, man. Telling people what I do in a day is going to be so sad. I wake up around 10:00am, which is great because I’m not an early riser. I go right to my desk and spend the first hour or two catching up on email, browsing the internet, tweeting, editing photos. Shawn, Bill, and I (the Karbon team) use HipChat to interact everyday so I jump on that and catch up on anything I’ve missed. I do project management, company management, billing, stuff for the business. Then I eat and try to run or get some exercise. Then I do real work. Design is what I’ve been doing most recently. I also provide support for the other guys during the day and test products. My wife and I will hang for a little bit and then I go back to work for a few hours in the evening. I’m trying not to work really late into the night. I’m much better at delegating now. I have really skilled, smart guys who work for me so I can leave things to them and they do a great job.
Current album on repeat?
The last few weeks, the most played stuff has been Matt and Kim, The Sidewalks album, Marina and the Diamonds, Florence and the Machine, and the Daft Punk Tron Legacy album, which is really good for working into the night. I feel bad for my neighbors here because they’ve already heard it 30 or 40 times (chuckling). It takes me a long time to get off one album. When I’m working, I hear the music but I’m not actually listening to it. It’s almost like it’s scratching some itch in my brain, so I don’t notice I’ve heard the same song 20 times in a row. Certain songs have a particular melody, note pattern, or lyrics that get stuck to a creative element for me sometimes.
Or for you, television shows. [Tina] I’ve already written down The Commish.3
I watch so much television. True Blood, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Seinfeld. I’ve seen the entire Seinfeld series back-to-back over 30 times. I can relate just about everything in my life to an episode. When someone says, “I’ve never seen Seinfeld,” I can’t handle it.
As far as movies, I’m a huge Christopher Nolan fan. I like everything he’s ever touched. Let’s look at my top-rated movies on Netflix: Se7en, Tommy Boy, Ferris Beuller’s Day Off, and Groundhog Day. That’s one of Bill Murray’s best performances. I remember when I saw the movie as a kid, I wanted that to happen to me. It’s really messed up because when you see it as an adult, it’s the most horrible thing that could happen to you. As an adult, you feel so sad for him. I hope someone reading this hasn’t seen it so they will go watch it.
I haven’t read anything for so many months. I read The Time Traveler’s Wife a few years ago and it destroyed me. People mock me until they read the book. It’s so sad. I’m a huge fan of the Odd Thomas series by Dean Koontz. I really like The Host by Stephanie Meyer. I have so many books sitting on my Kindle. I really need to get back into reading so thanks for making me feel really guilty.
What’s your favorite food?
I’ll give you a genre. I love Mexican food, so I moved to the right place.
What kind of legacy do you hope to leave?
Aw, man. Did you ask Rubin that question? I don’t remember seeing that in his interview.
No, actually, we didn’t. We did ask Francesca Tallone, though. It was a fun add-on to ask at the end.
Okay, I’ll try to answer. I think, if anything, the only real legacy you could hope to leave is that people thought you were a good person and they enjoyed being around you. I think that’s the ideal. I would like to hope that people thought the work I did was good and that I made them laugh. That’s the one I wouldn’t want to say right away, but honestly, it’s probably at the top of the list. Everyday I think about being funny. That’s such an awful answer… Uh, I hope that people get my face tattooed on their chests.
That is funny.