I have long believed that life isn’t complete until you’ve taken at least one audacious, open-ended road trip. After talking with Zach McNair, photographer and founder of DBLN (a design, development, and branding company), I believe that more than ever. Early on, Zach took a cross-country road trip that changed everything. Now, not only is he one of the most talented creatives in the business, but he’s also one of the most generous. We recently chatted with Zach about that road trip, his career, and the value of meeting as many people as you can.
I’m in Houston, actually. I go to Nashville about once a year, maybe a bit more. A lot of folks that I work with either live out there or work out there. ￼
It was kind of a crazy scenario. Long story short: I met my future wife in 2008; we dated for five months; then we separated for five months, and for three of the five, we weren’t even talking. I think it was right at the end of the silent period, which would’ve been March of 2009, when I was like, “Man, screw this. I hate Houston. I’m getting out of here. I’m just going to drive and stay with whoever.”
I sent off a series of tweets and found people I wanted to connect with, and I said, “Hey, I’m going to be in town. Do you want to meet up? Oh, also, can I stay with you?” I guess that whole thing was about breaking boundaries. Breaking down any kind of fear that I had.
I drove from Houston to Nashville, arrived at 1:30 in the morning, and stayed with a couple folks I’d never met in person. The next night, they were like, “Hey, you should go stay with our buddy,” which eventually led to conversations with somebody else. Nashville is such a special city like that. I’ve never seen a city that’s so communal. I feel like they live and breathe it.
The whole trip was going to be a month long, but I cut it short, headed home, and asked for my girlfriend’s hand in marriage. It was kind of a crazy trip, and there was no real purpose to it other than I didn’t like Houston and I wanted to get out. But that trip allowed me to make some solid connections, both personally and with work. There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t talk to somebody I interacted with or stayed with during that trip. That hospitality is something I want to echo not just in my work life, but life in general. ￼
Yeah, man. It was really, really great. I’m thankful I was able to do it. I think trips like that are absolutely important—even if you’re married with a kid, which is where I am now. Still, being able to take trips—even with your family—is massive. Always being open to your surroundings is huge.
I was born and raised in Houston, and I grew up on a farm. There’s not a ton of stuff to do on a farm unless you want to ride horses all day long. My dad had an Apple computer, and that got me interested in this whole world of cool things you can do on a computer. At that time I didn’t know too much about it. I just had the AOL install disks and chess games.
I guess my first experience with any kind of creative work was actually web development, which sounds super lame. I think I was 10 when I discovered GeoCities, and that got me into building websites. It seemed cool. It was a lot different back then because you had to hand code everything. You couldn’t use a template.
Over time, I started getting more into design. I was probably 16 when I started working with a couple of local agencies and helped them with some website stuff for bands. That got me into more web stuff, but it also got me connected with bands. Then one thing just led to another. Bands need album art, and good album art usually has photography, so that got me into photography. It’s been this process, and I eventually added video onto that too. I never want to stop learning. I’ve always said, “Yeah, man, I’ll do that,” even if I don’t know how to do it. ￼
I’ve done that from the very beginning. When I was probably 12 or 13, my buddy Robbie called and said, “Hey, man, my band needs a website.” I said, “Sure, I’ll do it.” That was when Flash websites were the big deal. I signed on to do it, and I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into. But that kind of got me started into all of this. Or another buddy of mine called and said, “Hey, we need a sound engineer for our tour. I know you’ve done it in the past, but could you do it on a tour?” I said, “Uh, sure?” The same thing happened with photography: a buddy who was putting out a record said, “I need a really killer album cover, and I need some cool photos. Could you do that?” I borrowed a friend’s camera and shot it. It worked out really well, and it ended up leading to other gigs.
It’s like this constant process of jumping into scenarios and trusting that, for one, the Lord’s going to help me through this; and two, I have a good vision and I just need to learn how to use the tools. The best way to do that is to get experience with them. That said, if I knew I definitely couldn’t walk into a situation and produce something that I’d be proud of, I’d tell the client, “I’m going to bring on a friend of mine to do this,” or “You should get somebody else.” ￼
Yeah, absolutely. Even signing on to situations where you may not know what you’re doing, but you have an opportunity to work with someone who does—that’s awesome too. As freelancers and entrepreneurs, I feel like we’re constantly in this state of having to run our own shop while at the same time needing to grow creatively. I think it’s about being willing to open yourself up, expose your flaws, and let people see that you need help with something.
Even this year I’ve done that. I took on the design of a website, and I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. But the creative director was like, “I need a designer, and I would love to show you the ropes.” Always being on the lookout for those kinds of opportunities really helps you out.
Knowing your boundaries is huge, but also recognizing when you need help and when you can reach out. It’s being okay with saying, “Hey, I don’t know what I’m doing. Can you help me?” ￼
Even from the very early days when I was learning how to build websites through GeoCities, I knew I needed help, and I knew I needed to make connections with someone who knew more than I did. Growing up, I didn’t have a local community of people who knew anything about what I wanted to do. Like I said, I grew up on a farm.
For the first five or six years, it was all the people online who really helped me. It’s kind of crazy, man. There are so many people I know now and that I have good relationships with, but I’ve never met them in person. I think in the last four or five years, the Lord has allowed me to do some really cool stuff with people. Early on, I started connecting with anyone and everyone, just asking for help and guidance. It kind of broke down all the fear and boundaries that I had.
Nine times out of ten, it started with me sending an instant message or a tweet or posting on Facebook or whatever. Then later on, I’d get to travel to the cities where those people live, and I got to network. This may be weird, but I try and do little meetups whenever I’m visiting a city. ￼
I even do these in Houston. Every few months I’ll send a text that says, “Hey, let’s have a Houston creative meetup. We’ll meet here at this time,” and it’s usually within 48 hours. Generally, 10 to 15 and sometimes even 20 people from all walks of life—photographers, designers, writers, whoever—will show up. ￼ More than anything, I want people to connect with each other, and I want to get out of their way. As much as I love the work I do, I know I’m not the absolute best. And because of that, I want people to connect with others who I believe are the absolute best. I have a huge heart for that. Community is so necessary.
I’m so thankful for all of the people I’ve met along the way. Even from the time I was 10, I had people in their 20s helping me out. It feels like every day I have to ask somebody for help on something. I’m just so thankful for people who are willing give me an ear. It’s helped me grow and given me a passion to help others do the same.
All Photos by Zach McNair.