What I've Learned Through My Jobs (So Far)
The path I've taken has been meandering and circuitous. It's not what I'd imagined, but it's been an incredible ride thus far, and I've learned a lot about myself along the way.
When I was a teenager, my dad (who owned his own business, an Internet Service Provider called StarNET) encouraged me to get in to web development and design. I worked for StarNET in high school and through college, building sites for local businesses. I loved it and it's because of that early intro that I'm doing what I do today (thanks, Dad). In school, I gravitated toward the design side of things, so I explored graphic design in college, and ended up majoring in art education.
I wasn't able to find a teaching job right away, so my first full-time job out of college was designing hats for an apparel licensing company in Dallas.
I worked mostly in the beer and Looney Tunes categories starting in Feb 2004.
I was a good employee because I was dependable, I showed up, worked hard, and didn’t cause any drama. But, I wasn’t exactly adding a ton of value to the company.
If, for example, the Design lead wanted a suite of Coors Light hats for Target, that’s not the sort of thing he could have handed off to me with any sort of confidence that I would run with it to the end. I would get an overview of the requirements, create an initial round of designs, and then I would need (too) many rounds of critique and tweak before my work was suitable to send off to the factory for samples.
I look back on it now and think about all the creative designs I could’ve made by experimenting with combinations of materials, colors, and cap structures; but I never even got close to doing anything original because I was too timid to think big.
Navy, low-profile, six panel, unstructured.
Fitted, structured, brushed cotton in primary brand color.
Brown, high-profile, foam structured trucker, white mesh.
Boring. Safe. Average.
I didn’t realize yet that I should be thinking creatively on behalf of the business. A smart company doesn’t want employees who are sitting around, waiting to be told what to do.
For a lot of reasons, I didn’t have the confidence to act boldly and take the risks required to make outsized contributions. It was my first job outside of my hometown and I just didn’t see myself as a peer to the other designers. I showed up, but I was timid, and I was waiting to be told what to do.
I undershot my upside potential in that job by miles because I was afraid to Think Bigger.
Ted Polk Middle School
“Be Organized to Be Effective”
While at Bioworld, I continued to look for teaching jobs. I was fortunate enough to find a great position as the Art Teacher at Ted Polk MS in Carrollton, Texas from 2004–2008.
It’s hard to give individual attention to every student in a class of thirty when the class is only fifty minutes long. It’s actually impossible if you waste half of that time looking for misplaced materials, re-explaining unclear instructions, and redirecting misbehaving students.
Unfortunately, I spent way too much time during my first couple of years doing those very things (and more). That’s time that I could have spent getting to know my kids better, answering questions, and offering personal instruction.
What’s more, is that for me, my disorganization lead to a vicious downward cycle of almost zero effectiveness at times. Because after thirty minutes of corralling off-task students, finding everyone’s in-progress work, I didn’t have the energy to spend the time I had left to do what was actually most important to me – investing in one-on-one relationships.
Instead, I’d often retreat back to my desk to grade assignments or write lesson plans – work that could easily be done during my planning period. But as an introvert, I wouldn’t feel like I had the energy to invest in instruction or conversation. It’s terrible, I know.
Being disorganized absolutely exhausted me.
Finally, I managed to start getting my shit together by using bulldog clips that were color-coded by class period and numbered by table (my kids sat in pods of four) to collect and pass out student work. This way, at the beginning of each class I was quickly passing out just eight items sequentially, rather than 30-something individual items and making a dozen trips back and forth across the room.
If I was really on my game, I’d have a laminated example of the assignment along with guidelines on every table to help add clarity and reduce the number of times I had to repeat myself.
That's just one small example of many, but the point is that when the logistics of transitioning from one class to another began to happen in just a minute or two, it felt good and helped me preserve the mental energy I needed to be present for my kids.
I’m at my best when I’m organized, that’s not a much of an insight. But what I need to remind myself is that the systems that help me be organized always decay over time. Always. They need attention, care, and revision; but I should remember that the effort to keep them up-to-date is a fraction of what’s needed to reign in utter chaos, and everything wants to move in the direction of chaos.
The Miller Company (not the beer)
“You Can’t Sell What You Don't Know”
I loved my students, but I wanted control over my destiny in a way that I just didn't see happening as a public school teacher. So, I brushed up on business fundamentals (many of which I'd learned through osmosis by watching and working for my dad), sharpened my design chops, and landed a job in sales & marketing with a company who designed and operated employee engagement systems.
DISH. Qualcomm.T-Mobile. Payless. Xcel Energy. Dolex. HEB. Luminant. The Scooter Store. The list of whiffs is even longer than that, but the point is that in sales role at TMC I was 0-fer. I batted an (im)perfect .000 in closing deals for which I was the lead account executive.
Not a one. Ever.
I played an important part in some very interesting F500 accounts in a communication design role, but always for deals that another account exec had closed and won. I learned a lot in those years and it was time well spent. The .000 avg doesn’t mean that time was wasted, but I was definitely learning some lessons.
The fundamental problem is the fact that I hadn't fully internalized what I was pitching. I think my contacts could smell that, and I guess I’m glad they did. I bet during their deliberations as they were narrowing down vendors, the conversation was something like:
“The Miller Company. Hm. Yeah, I like Brian, he seems like a really nice guy for sure. He’s sharp enough and we’ve seen him work hard to get to the table. But ... do I feel good about putting our program in his hands? At the end of the day, no.”
We were selling employee recognition programs as value-add consultants, and looking back now, I wasn't qualified enough in that position at the time to have considered myself able to add value at the price we were quoting.
Without a knowledgable person to guide the design and implementation of a recognition program, it’s just a utility. Utilities trade at commodity prices, and my utility was priced as if it were a premium. That’s not a formula for closing deals.
“Preparation Trumps Passion”
While at TMC, my wife and I decided that we wanted her to quit her job and stay home with the kids. To bridge the gap, I started doing freelance web development on the side. It was a giant breath of fresh air and I fell back in love with the web. Over time, projects became more frequent, then they overlapped, then they stacked up on top of one another, until finally it was its own business and I struck out on my own on Independence Day, 2011.
I wanted to quit TMC long before I actually left, but laying the foundation for Viscos for a little over a year drastically reduced the risk. By growing it slowly over time (rather than carelessly “following my passion”) there was never a three month rolling average that saw a stagnation or reduction in revenue.
Staying committed and confident is going to be difficult no matter what. But the slow and steady march of earnings up and to the right let me know I was on the right track. This allowed me to spend my energy working on the business, rather than second guessing myself and waffling on what to do next.
Passion is easy because it requires exactly zero actual work, so there’s a lot of it in the market. Preparation is hard because it requires patience and determination spread out over time, so there’s much less of it to be found. It’s basic supply and demand that preparation is almost always more valuable than passion.
“Know Your Audience and Be Yourself”
We had wanted to move to Colorado for years, but it had never really come together. But in May of 2012, my wife and I said to each other, "Sooo ... Colorado?" So, I built a resume site and to our great surprise, it went viral.
Maybe the single-most successful thing I’ve done in my career was conceiving of and executing hirebrianrhea.com. It’s kind of weird to think about how that might be true, because it was relatively easy to do.
Well, “easy” in the “overnight success five years in the making” sense. Laura and I were spending hours on my resume, and cover letters tailored specifically to the companies I was applying to when it hit me: “You know what? I should buy hirebrianrhea.com and just build a resume site. In the end, I bet that’s what will get the job, not my resume.”
I wrote all of the copy for the site in one night, spent a couple weeks developing and tweaking the site, emailed Brad Feld, and then our world turned upside down when he tweeted it to his followers and sent it to a mailing list of Boulder CEOs.
Because I’d been following startups and dev shops in Boulder for years, I knew exactly who I wanted to talk to. I understood their language, their tolerance (preference, really) for candor, personality, and humor. It came naturally and simply to write the copy in a way that would appeal to them. Not because I was born knowing how to or because it was simple, but because I didn’t have to fake or overthink anything.
If any part of the site was too cheeky or informal, then the sort of person who would be put off by that represented exactly the sort of company I didn’t want to work with anyway.
I can’t remember the first time I ever heard the name “Brad Feld”, but you don’t have to be interested in the Boulder startup community for very long before you learn that he’s the guy. The. Guy.
I had been following Brad (and many other Boulder influencers) on Twitter for years, reading their blogs, and just generally stalking the Boulder start-up community from Dallas. So, I sent Brad this email:
This is a long shot. There is no bigger voice in the Boulder tech community than yours, and that is exactly why I would be grateful for your help.
I'm currently in Dallas and I would love to get my ass to Colorado. I present those reasons with a (hopefully) entertaining narrative at:
What I hope to have done is to present not only my creative and technical skills, but also demonstrate my ability to tell a story, to understand my audience, and to capture their attention.
In short, I hope to present myself as someone Colorado's entrepreneurial community would love to add its fold. There is not a doubt in my mind that a simple mention from @bfeld: "Someone in Boulder should hirebrianrhea.com" will get my work in front of the leaders and teams I would love to join. I want to help Boulder continue to grow its reputation and I'm asking if you'll help me do just that.
Thanks for your time; I know it's valuable.
Cheers, Brian Rhea
I also don’t remember where I heard that when you’re asking for a favor, don’t be cute, don’t be timid, and never, ever be vague. Influential people are too busy for fluff, so cut the crap.
This is who I am. Here is what I want. This is how you can help me. So, will you help me?
I think I may have learned that from Shark Tank. Seriously.
Anyway, that email was also easy to write because I’d been passively learning how to write it for about an hour a week over the previous five years. Two hundred and sixty hours of context doled out over two hundred and sixty weeks.
And then Brad tweeted:
“Someone in Boulder should hirebrianrhea.com – the dude is seriously creative.”
When the site went viral and the job offers started coming in from San Francisco, Toronto, and most importantly, Boulder, I found myself in the very strange position of interviewing the companies who wanted me to join them, rather than the other way around. It was ridiculous. But it also felt like the culmination of years of reading, studying, and practicing. When the initial shock faded away and it was time to perform, I felt like I was in The Zone.
I should have been overwhelmed and scared that I was going to drop the ball and waste this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Instead, I felt prepared and completely in my element, because all I had to do was keep being myself. After all, that’s exactly what I’d done to be in this position to begin with.
When you’re full of shit or trying to be who you think “they” want you to be, interviews are hard. When you’re just being yourself, pitching is cake.
Through the hirebrianrhea madness, I connected with Mocavo. They were a Boulder-based startup, a Techstars alum, and were backed by the Foundry Group. I was crazy impressed by the team and I knew it was the sort of place that I could grow because I could tell I'd always be the dumbest person in the room.
Just ship it. It isn't perfect and it never will be. You're not Steve Jobs. Quit being precious about #333 vs #222. Ship.
Defeat the resistance.
Ship often. Ship lousy stuff, but ship. Ship constantly.
Skip meetings. Often. Skip them with impunity. Ship.
– Seth Godin, "The Truth About Shipping"
I had read and reminded myself of this article many times over the years before joining Mocavo, but I had never practiced the mantra of "Ship." so relentlessly as we did here.
What is "the resistance"? It's people who say "you can't do that." It's yourself when you wonder, "What if I'm wrong? Won't I look dumb?" It's "Meeting over Making." It's excuses and the status quo.
It's your prehistoric lizard brain that is only good at being afraid. Kill it with fire.
Since becoming of Chief of Product, I've heard objections like, "That feature isn't ready." "People will complain." "The reviews will be awful."
To which my response would be, "Define ready." "Maybe so." and "Well, then we'll take the feedback and make it better."
Now, did we ship too early more than once? Absolutely. But erring on the side of "Ship." creates a momentum over time that usually outweighs whatever snafus might have been avoided by being cautious.
"Ship." is a little too flippant for some. They might argue it's disrespectful to deliver anything less than the very best to your customers or that it sets too low a bar for yourself and your craft.
That's fair, and there are detail-oriented leaders and teams who find success in obsessing over the edges. If you're one of them, high-five, yo.
But when it comes to web-based software, the ability to ship and iterate is one of our biggest advantages (over hardware, traditional publishing, and brain surgery). It's ok if it isn't perfect the first time (or ever). Your product is more likely to fail if nobody ever uses it than if their first use is something less than a flawless experience. Accept that it's flawed, that it will be flawed, and just get on with it.
Shipping relentlessly is exposure therapy against fear-based indecisiveness and inaction.
The more you ship (even when you're scared or less than proud) the more you realize, "Oh ok. The sky didn't fall down on top of us." And all that time you might have spent fixing edge cases, writing tests for 100% coverage, or moving that button 3 pixels to the right ... no 1 back to the left ... is time that you can spend working on Big Rocks.
So, those are the major themes I've come away with so far.
Think Bigger, Get Organized, Believe or Leave, Preparation Trumps Passion, Be Yourself, and Ship.
What about you? If you had to identify one thing you've learned from each of the stops on your career, what might they be?