Andrea and I flew out a couple days early to Los Angeles for some downtime before her Jeopardy experience. We would need to recover from the stress (for Andrea) and pain (for me) of traveling, plus get adapted to the time difference.
During the downtime, we decided to take a short trip to see my old stomping ground in North Hollywood, CA. Before the age of 30, I had sold a company and moved west. Today that seems like ancient history, and I wanted to show her my early life.
Before I get to Southern California, I have to share the story of how I ended up there. It is a bigger story than I expected, which is why I am dividing this into two posts.
I was not blessed with a college benefactor or scholarships, so I spent my early twenties working full-time at low-paying jobs while going to school part-time. The jobs may not have been ideal, but I made the best of them. This is where I developed work ethic, and had proudly been promoted in some way, shape or form, in all jobs after the age of 18.
Going even further back to the 1980s, at a young age, I had delved into computers. When we lived in San Francisco, my father was an early member of the Berkeley Mac Users Group, frequented by Steve Jobs and other early Apple figures. My first computer was an Apple II, which had a floppy and tape drive. Yes, that is tape as in cassette. I remember that if we wanted to play a game, we had to load tape after tape into the computer for a couple hours before it would be ready for play. Those were the days! My father also had a MacIntosh, one of the early ones, but he rarely let me touch it. He also had me learn some limited Basic Programming language when I was a teen. The language became outdated and I forgot most of it, but it would become the building blocks for my later career.
By my mid-20s, when I was working as an Assistant Manager at a gas station and living with a roommate a dodgy apartment outside Atlanta, I got back into computers. By this time PCs had taken over, but I had never shed my Mac roots.
This was in the early days of the PC explosion, and there weren’t exactly a lot of options for formal training. I took a break from my part-time college duties and did odd computer jobs on the side. These were mostly small projects. I became an official computer reseller, and would work with local distributors that would build them for me. My clients were generally older people who were trying to get a grasp on the new technology. I was a conduit for them, as I would get them a computer, install the operating system and software, and teach them how to use it. These were not the wealthy elite I was working with, so I hardly got rich, but it was good experience for me as an entrepreneur.
My next dead-end job would be Kinko’s copies, where I met someone named Paul and later, Amanda. I started as a copy clerk, which did not work with me. After a time, I was transferred over to the Computer Services department where I would help people with computer rentals, something I had was already doing on the side. Later I got promoted to Document Creation Specialist. I would create all sorts of things for customers, such as flyers, business cards, invitations, brochures, and the like. Even though we had both PCs and Macs for rent, I did all of my work on a Mac using either Adobe PageMaker or Quark Xpress. Even though the job didn’t pay much, the experience was invaluable. I learned a ton about desktop publishing while there.
As the Internet started becoming a global revolution, it inspired a personal revolution in me. I was intrigued, looking at all of these glorious web pages where you could learn so much. Many of the web pages looked spectacular. Many, or should I say most, looked like absolute junk. It was in the days at Kinkos that I started indirectly learning the building blocks about Web Development, although even then, most of this renaissance occurred on my own time.
I bought a couple of books, learned HTML, Photoshop and some other tricks, and started to become pretty decent at creating pages. Even though I had a little bit of a creative streak, I would hardly call myself an artist. That’s where Paul and Amanda came in. Paul was a genius at illustration and graphics. I never had that artistic flair. He started dating Amanda, and she also had that same talent, and she also had video and graphics experience from her job at CNN. They got into Flash website creation, and had amazing talent. The stuff they were doing then was miles beyond what was on the Web at the time.
We partnered and started building websites for people. The catalyst was that I got fired from the Kinko’s job for a dumb reason (and that’s another story). Needing to do something and not wanting to dive into a dead-end job again, I focused on my company, which was filed as a sole proprietorship. At first it was just me, and eventually Paul and Amanda worked with me on a consultant basis. We were basically kids and I had little experience running a business, so it was tough sledding most of the time. It seemed that everyone and their mother were trying to build websites for people. It was not easy finding clients, and the quality gap was monumental. We built good websites and charged a fair price, but others did shoddy, cheaper work. Most of my time was spent trying to figure out how to find new clients.
We obtained a handful of good clients. I remember one was a company that manufactured a product that could detect moisture in buildings. They were terrific people, one of my favorite clients. We got another great client that was a trade association. We built their website, and they offered our services as a benefit to their member base to build websites. That didn’t really pan out. The largest project was for Ford Motor Company, where we worked with a local architect firm to build an internal website where dealerships could buy add-ons. That one turned out to be a disaster because the backend were Windows-based engineers with no design talent, and we were strictly design people. You would think we could have worked together and forged a partnership, but they never understood us. We built some amazing graphics for them (Paul especially!), and they ended up chopping our work into something monstrous. Fortunately the world could not see that site. And we got paid. That always mattered.
There was another client who was an absolute nightmare. She was a local artist who was pleasant when we first met her, but turned out to be a psychotic harpy. Paul and Amanda did the majority of the work on a custom Flash-based website, which for the mid-90s was revolutionary. Paul spent an inordinate amount of time putting it together. We had quoted our per-hour rate, but the artist had no idea how long it would take to do what she asked. We tried to tell her, and she simply didn’t listen. I remember when we unveiled the final site to her, which was without question amazing, groundbreaking work. When she saw it, she was unimpressed and said “Can you make a chirping bird fly through it?” That became an inside joke with us for years. Thanks to Paul, we did fly a bird through it, and it made a beautiful site look like a joke. But that’s what she wanted. The final bill ended up being a whopping $30,000. The bird probably cost $5,000. Her jaw fell to the floor when we tried to invoice her. We ended up getting paid $3,000 and were happy to get that. We could have sued, but we just wanted to move along and forget this lady.
Because it was a struggle to obtain enough clients to generate a regular income, I took a job as Web Design Manager for a startup eCommerce company. Eventually I was able to hire Paul and Amanda as employees. That was a fun job and the salary was more than double my Kinko’s salary, plus I had some income from the side business.
Around this time, frustrated from some of our more difficult client experiences, we decided to build websites of our own. What did we have that we could offer the world? Well, we were Web Developers in a world that barely knew how the Internet worked. Paul and I developed a complex design that had a news feed with rounded corners, something that was cutting edge back then and is cliché now.
I created page after page of content, and that’s where I honed my writing skills. I spent days, months, years even, putting together pages that taught people how to make Web pages. The most popular was a lengthy HTML tutorial I wrote. There were other tutorials about programming, software, and design skills. Eventually we started doing product reviews and news alerts. A couple times we broke some news, and it was really something else watching the traffic flow in. It grew gradually and steadily, which was simply exciting. Later we added onto it, creating a network of sites including a forum community. All of a sudden, we had a miniature web empire, and people loved it.
We learned how to monetize the traffic, but even though we had high numbers, it was not quite enough to live on. My full-time job was lucrative and giving me useful experience, but I was growing antsy. It was stagnant while my own properties were growing exponentially. I was spending my evenings and weekends doing nothing but work on the site. I grew unhappy with some of the office politics at the job, and made what was probably a bad decision. I quit. Sometimes you have to be bold. Sometimes you have to be stupid. I was both, and it worked out.
A few months later, I learned that my friend Michael’s website about Internet Marketing and Search Engine Optimization had sold to a company in North Hollywood, California. He moved from the UK to live there. They gave him freedom to work on his site as a full-time employee, and he seemed to be happy. The entire network was in the top 200 web properties, which is impressive even for back then. I didn’t know the amount that he sold for, but I was intrigued. It seemed to be large enough for him to be happy.
I remember calling them out of blue one day, and asking the receptionist who I would talk to about selling my company. He paused a long time, and transferred me to a 19-year old kid. That was the beginning of the end of my web career.
Paul, Amanda and I flew back and forth to California to discuss the acquisition. It seemed like a wonderful gig. I met with other webmasters who had sold their company and worked in the offices. They were all completely happy. They encouraged me to do it.
I got the offer. It was for a good sum of money that I will not disclose, a bunch of stock in the company, and a full-time job with the same salary I had made at the eCommerce company. The problem was there was no job for Paul or Amanda. We thought about it, and with their blessing, I signed the deal. I gave them some of the money from the acquisition and they bought a nice car with it. I bought a car and some other things.
So, like the Beverly Hillbillies, I had struck oil and moved to Southern California. The next chapter of my life would be living the dream in North Hollywood.
And that’s where Andrea and I visited earlier this year.
To be continued …