“Me and my friends would be sharing memes every day along with the rest of the world, but they came and went,” Jeff Cole tells What We Seee. “You would look at them and laugh and move on with your day. I wanted them to last longer.”

And that’s exactly what he’s been able to do. While many accomplished artists shy away from pop culture – or only use it in art as a form of subversion or commentary – Cole is unique in his ability to totally embrace pop culture in earnest. In doing so, his company IKONICK has not only become the fastest-growing digital art company in the world, it’s helping millennials discover art like never before.

This blend of art, pop and business might seem unusual, but it’s deeply rooted in Cole’s ethos and unique perspective. His artistic talents were clear from a young age, and but he was determined to do something with them – and was always looking for new experiments, new opportunities.

To say IKONICK has been a huge success would undoubtedly be an understatement. Cole partnered with Mark Mastrandea and soon their motivational pieces were in thousands of offices and households around the world. They became hugely popular among celebrities and working millennials alike. Eventually, they teamed up with heavy-hitters Scooter Braun and Gary Vaynerchuck and grew their brand even bigger.

But it all started with Cole’s inquisitive mind, rigorous work ethic, and, of course, sneakers.

Barely Anyone Would See

In 2014, Cole’s Instagram account featuring his art had around 5,000 followers, but he hadn’t yet broken through to the mainstream. Then he found an unusual source of inspiration – and a totally new medium to work with.

“Kanye had just rereleased the Red October shoes and I had the idea to turn the shoes into his face as a way for me to learn how to use Photoshop”, Cole explains. “Until then, I had only used Illustrator to create digitally. I was taken back by how easy it came to me and the capabilities Photoshop had to offer. My learning curve was pretty instant.”

Although at first it was just experimentation, this unusual medium – sneakers and digital – proved fertile ground for inspiration. And his consistent efforts paid off, when one Instagram post catapulted him into the public eye.

“After I put it out, nothing really happened, but I always was drawn to the concept,” he says. “Two years later, Kanye dropped the first-ever images of the Adidas 350 Boost – which was the most talked about thing in pop culture, so I knew this was the time to bring that concept back. Still having around 5k followers, I posted the new face mashup and a ton of big accounts picked it up via hashtags. After that, it was a snowball effect and I was posting a new shoe mashup every day. The key to having these big accounts – like @hypebeast, @complex, @highsnobiety – post it was that it was unique content that made you stop scrolling. Before I started the sneakerart trend, all these accounts could only repost the same studio images provided by the press releases … so this was a way to get free distribution. Basically, I found white space in a thriving marketplace dying for something new. Shoes have a vast variety of colours and patterns, contrast in materials, storylines and hype. It was a perfect medium to experiment and deconstruct. “

Living What We Were Creating

Jeff Cole

Off the back of Jeff Cole’s Instagram success and newfound press, he and Mastrandea founded IKONICK. The canvas art brand makes motivational wall art that reflects the millennial mindset: hustle, grind and enjoy the ride. And it resonates – Cole stayed true to what speaks to him and that authenticity rings through in everything IKONICK creates.

“I was a terrible student but I was very well behaved. I hated school … Learning and entrepreneurship weren’t cool or cultural when I was a kid like they are now”, he explains.

But on Instagram, it was clear that people were responding to motivational content.

“The challenge was how do I make motivation look cool”, Cole says. “When I analyzed the content on Instagram, which harnessed all the attention, I noticed three buckets of content being shared and created. Photography, memes, and motivational quotes. Photography wasn’t being mixed with any emotion, memes were crudely made and the quotes were on boring templates.” He saw how these could be brought together and improved. “That is how the idea of IKONICK art was made.”

The resulting pieces are not only aesthetically beautiful, but they’re also a reminder to break out of the habit of mindless scrolling and to live. It’s easy to see why so many millennials feel that IKONICK’s pieces speak to them.

“As we started to realize what we had created — from all the DMs and comments from people who were saying we had changed their lives — it became clear to us that we were living what we were creating and that the art was a constant reminder for people to follow their passion.”

Confidence That Never Faded

Balancing a successful and evergrowing business with a passion isn’t always easy – but it’s clear that Jeff Cole is still, first and foremost, an artist. You can tell when someone’s art is the bedrock of who they are, rather than a vehicle for success. With Cole, it’s obvious that his art is in his bones.

“My career for me is an escape from life’s challenges”, he explains. “I grew up failing classes, not making sports teams, chasing girls… and during my freshman year of college, my family lost our house and money, my dad went to prison and is still there. As crazy as that all may seem, for me the answer to my problems was always easy. Art was the only thing I had in my back pocket to save me. So the pain and challenges that came with my early career were exciting to me. I knew I could overcome them and enjoy the process of figuring it all out. It was confidence that never faded.”

So though he’s had to adjust to life in business, coming back to art as a foundation has been an incredibly grounding experience and source of support. His life has become a constant balance between business and art, flowing from one to the other. But even in these states of flux, he’s been able to keep his center.

“Going from being an art student to running a company has completely changed my priorities. Before IKONICK, I listened to music while creating art and rarely cared about the business side, but now I only listen to business and psychology podcasts. I think that studying art my whole life gave me the ability to go deeper into new skill sets as I became hungrier and more ambitious. Art was like walking to me, so it didn’t need as much practice anymore. There is no average day. That’s part of why I wake up excited. As the company got bigger, the structure had to be put in place. I now wake up at 6 a.m. and we have morning debrief. But recently, we implemented art days where no one talks to me and I just create… which I had to start pushing into the weekends.”

If Cole seems natural in his new habitat, at ease as both a successful businessman and prolific artist, it may be because he’s always been sure that this – or some version of this – is where he was always heading.

“One thing that always worked for me was pretending I already had the job I wanted to be in”, he says. “I thought like a decision-maker … I conceptualized like I already had full autonomy. This way, you’ll soon start to manifest that mindset in everything you do. But to stand out, you have to find the white space in that specific job. Find what is missing and fill it with unique value.”

You can see more of Jeff Cole’s work on his Instagram and on the IKONICK website.