Luboš Volkov’s photo narratives on Exposure look like the career portfolio of a professional travel photographer. Yet, during a Skype interview he says that photography is only a “hobby” for him.
Luboš is the Lead Visual Designer at Toptal and founder of Othericons, yet my eyes resist these facts and insist that Luboš is a professional photographer. How else could he produce the photos he does?
In fact, Luboš only picked up photography two years ago as a way to document his travels. He travels constantly every two months or so for weeks at a time, before returning to his home in Pardubice, Czech Republic. Luboš is able to travel so frequently because Toptal, where Lubos leads the design team, is a completely distributed company, allowing him to work from anywhere in the world, as long as he has a stable Internet connection.
“I only have one rule: get the work done. It doesn’t matter if it’s 12pm or 5am, if I’m at home or in Marrakesh. If it’s done, it’s done. I have the same rule for my design team at Toptal. I don’t care when or where they work as long as they finish their task by the deadline.”
This structural freedom is one of the elements that makes Toptal such a unique company. Toptal is a network that connects the top 3% of software developers with great clients. Toptal doesn’t have an office and doesn’t track hours. The company gives unprecedented freedom to its employees.
Not only does this freedom allow Luboš to travel as often as he does, but he is also able to maintain a very unusual schedule, one that is very nearly nocturnal. Lubos wakes up around noon and works until 5am, though he is quick to point out that he doesn’t think of it as “work” so much as doing something he loves.
“I transitioned to this schedule very naturally. I stayed up later to keep on working on projects I was interested in and slept later to compensate, and eventually my whole cycle shifted. I like it because they are no distractions late at night.”
As uncommon as this schedule is, it fits in well with the arc of his career. After graduating high school, Luboš attended CVUT in Prague, the best university in the Czech Republic. But after only six months, Luboš dropped out, much to the consternation of his parents, one of whom is a teacher.
“Education is a positive thing, nobody can dispute that, but I think the institutional approach to education is wrong. It’s outdated, and I didn’t want to leave university in 4 years and already be behind in my field. In a way, I wanted to be responsible and see if I could find a faster and more efficient way to learn.”
Luboš moved back into his parent’s house with no money, no job, and no idea what he was going to do. Depressed and unsure if he had just made a huge mistake, Luboš recalls this period as one of the most difficult in his life. Yet he soon bounced back and rediscovered his interest in design, something he had dabbled with in his youth but never pursued seriously.
“I locked myself in a room for an entire year and worked on my design skills. I learned from Youtube and online tutorials, but keep in mind that back then there were no services like Treehouse, so a lot of my learning was piecing together different ideas and experimenting on my own. After posting a few of my projects onto Twitter, I got an invite to Dribbble, which is a popular design site where designers can post their work.”
After a few months of posting to Dribbble, Luboš was noticed by Reachli, a social marketing startup in San Francisco, who hired him to work remotely and design a mobile interface. Not bad for a previously unemployed college dropout, and Luboš is grateful to Dribbble for the opportunities it provided to him.
“Dribbble changed my life. I wouldn’t have gotten my first job or be where I am today without it. Dribbble provided me with an opportunity to express myself while simultaneously allowing others to explore my work.”
It was also through Dribbble that Luboš first became interested in icons. As a side project, Luboš made an icon set and released it for free through the site. The set has been since been viewed over 65,000 times and downloaded more than 500,000 times. Luboš realized the popularity and need for good icons and was struck with the inspiration to create Othericons, a platform for high quality icons.
“There’s a huge amount of icons on the internet, and a huge number of people that produce them. IconFinder and The Noun Project are the two big icon services online, but the problem with these services is that they have no quality control. If you are looking for high quality icons, maybe every tenth or fifteenth icon is good. The other problem is that the icons are sold individually, so the designer makes very little money through these platforms.
“Othericons is taking a different approach. We screen icon designers manually and allow only the best to join. Visitors to our platform know they are going to find high quality. The icons will be perfect, and the designers are awesome. To benefit the designer, the icons have to be bought in a set, so the designer can make a more substantial sum than pocket change.”
Othericons is Luboš’s personal project, personally funded and driven by his passion for design. The project is gaining traction and has designers on board that have previously produced icons for clients like Airbnb, Medium, and Zendesk. With one other full-time employee, Luboš is working hard on a new version of the company’s platform and website to be released this fall, and his excitement about the project is palpable.
Othericons is Luboš’ latest and most successful side project, but he has done others in the past that have had surprising success. When Apple removed the YouTube app from iOS a few years ago, Luboš saw the potential for a replacement and created Ytube, a YouTube streaming app. While it never took off because Google and Apple soon reconciled their differences, Ytube was noticed by Taso Du Val, the CEO of Toptal, who liked what Luboš had done with the app and approached him with a job opportunity in 2012.
“I had overgrown my current job and was looking for something else, so I was in a position where I had nothing to lose. Taso’s call came at the right time. It was one of those opportunities that come in your life that you know you should take because it is a step forward. I didn’t know how I would do when I joined Toptal because it was the most demanding job I’d ever taken on. I didn’t know how to swim, but I knew I would be swimming anyway.”
Luboš was truly thrown into the deep end when he first started. After accepting the job, Taso told Luboš that the Toptal team was in Phuket, Thailand for a several-week retreat at a rented villa and that he wanted Luboš to join them. Luboš asked him when he should come, and Taso told him, ‘tomorrow.’ So the very next day, Luboš found himself on a twelve hour flight to Thailand.
“I couldn’t really believe it on my flight out. It all seemed too good to be true, but I arrived and the villa was real. The team was real. It was one of the best experiences of my life, and that’s because of the people I was working with. I didn’t have much experience when I joined, so I had to work hard to keep up with this super talented team. I was the guy sitting in the office long after everyone left, trying to get up to speed.”
Luboš joined Toptal when you could still count the number of employees on your fingers and has seen the company scale dramatically in the few years since he joined. He’s watched thousands of developers apply and pass Toptal’s screening process, forming a formidably large community of talent. At first he did all the design work by himself and reworked the first generation of Toptal’s design into a form much closer to what it is today. Now, to handle the company’s scale, Luboš oversees a small design team.
Despite the beautiful cutting-edge designs that Luboš creates, his methods are surprisingly old fashioned. He tends to sketch his initial ideas for layouts and illustrations by hand onto paper in order to flesh them out, and his inspiration is the same as the Romantic poets of old: nature.
“I think nature is the best designer. It can solve any problem placed before it. If a road is built in the middle of a wood, the trees will grow over the road, the roots will buckle the pavement and emerge. Nature always finds a solution, and you know, natural things are built out of nothing. They are utterly non-human. There’s a lot to learn from what nature can come up with.”
While Luboš cites nature as his inspiration, his actual process is all about communication with people. Luboš meets with his stakeholders and learns everything he can about what he is designing. He then does multiple iterations of the design, getting feedback every time. While Luboš’s first forays may have been about aesthetics, recently with designing on a larger scale and the ensuing increase in collaboration, his design priorities have evolved with his work to focus on more elements than just the design’s appearance.
“My design aesthetics change from product to product. I keep an eye on what looks are trending, sure, but these days I find myself caring far more about two things: how the user will feel interacting with my design, and how that design will help the business. I’ve realized that it isn’t enough to just build something cool. It has to do something too. A lot of designers need to realize that. The stuff they build isn’t about how it looks. It’s about how it works, and how it affects the company’s goals. It’s more helpful to think about what you are trying to achieve than it is to think about the look of a thing. In the grand scheme, the color of a button doesn’t change much about a business.”
In just a handful of years, Luboš has become one of the tech industry’s fastest rising designers, his skill both innate and self-taught, and his success is due to that drive that pushed himself to hide away for a year and teach himself a new field.
“I try to focus on the things that matter to me. I played floorball, a variation of indoor hockey, in the best Czech professional league for 10 years before I quit a few years ago. Now I invest all my time in design and my girlfriend because I know it’s my future. You have to cut things down or out entirely if you want to achieve meaningful things. So that’s what I’ve done.”
In just a few short years, that dedication to achievement is paying off, and he has been able to translate his passion into an extremely high design output. Luboš’ work has garnered him attention from some of the biggest companies in the industry, like Google among others, but Luboš hasn’t really considered working for them, instead pursuing success on his own terms.
“I’ve never worked in an office, and I don’t want to spend my life in one. I once went to an interview in an office and had to wear a suit, and I didn’t like the experience. There was something constricting about it. It’s not good for creative people. There are pros and cons with it, like everything, but the office isn’t for me. I’ve only worked remotely, and I think I’ll keep it that way.”