Brian Shaler

Occasionally Interesting

Gravity is for chumps

Archive for November, 2011

“We want you to move to SF.”

In 2008, I decided to change jobs. I reached out to employers I had deflected while happily working away on exciting projects. I don’t remember what made me choose the company I ended up working for, but it very well could have been the opportunity to travel.

They wanted me to move to SF and work in their headquarters (they had a satellite office in Santa Cruz), but they ended up giving me two job offers. One included a high salary, a signing bonus, and required I live in SF and work on-site full-time. The second offer had about $40,000 chopped off the salary, no signing bonus, and allowed me to work from home, while visiting the office for at least 2 days per month.

For almost 3 years, I was in SF every calendar month, and for the last of those years, I subletted an apartment there.

The brilliant thing, though, is this: my reduced salary was still very competitive against local Phoenix salaries, and the yearly travel cost was less then the difference. It was a win-win. My employer saved money while paying me fairly well and covering my travel expenses.

While in Phoenix, I got to live the work-at-home freelance lifestyle (i.e. flexible hours and no work/life balance), which helped me get actively involved in the Phoenix tech community.

Oh, how I miss direct deposit..

“Finally, a REAL Hungarian man”

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I was hanging out with a new friend I made in Budapest, via Twitter no less. A homeless guy approached us, stood in front of me and started speaking in Hungarian. My friend stepped in, speaking Hungarian to the man, gave him some change, and then the man left. My friend translated what the man had said to me. “Finally, a REAL Hungarian man!” My friend set him straight. Just a funny looking American.

In Hungary, almost every person on their paper currency features some sort of facial hair. Most of the statues, too, don mustaches and beards.

My handlebar mustache was uncommon among the people there,but it seemed to fit right in with their money and art. Their history.

I was a blast from the past.

The beginning of a journey

Today is Thanksgiving, and people are saying what they are thankful for, including life-changing, path-altering things. If there was one moment in time, a single realization, or a crucial decision which set me off on this path I have taken, I think I know what it is. When I stopped to think about it, I was surprised by the answer.

I’ve seen this type of instant occur for other people—in some cases, I’ve been told I was there for it. Something happens, and opens a new door for you or gives you an all new perspective. You walk through this door, even though it feels strange, like uncharted territory. That leads to something else happening, and then something else. It’s a chain reaction that, once set in place, will continue to move you in new directions, even if you don’t realize your new life can be traced back to on event, person, conversation, book, or whatever.

This chain reaction, in a less combustive term, is the path of your life. Is your life stuck in traffic on the highway with everyone else, going to a 9-5 cube farm job? Sometimes it’s not your decision to get kicked off that highway and into the woods, as you can see in the Lemonade documentary. In most cases, if you really want to keep that comfortable, consistent life, you can fight your way back on it. So whether or not it’s your choice to get off the beaten path, it’s up to you to stay on it and see where it’ll take you. This decision is the beginning of a journey.

Setting off on a new path doesn’t necessarily require quitting your job or getting laid off.

After my path-altering realization, I kept my job for a couple of years, and then I got a new job and worked there for almost three years. So for me, entrepreneurship only came after many other things happened and I achieved what I referred to as exit velocity. At some point, it did become inevitable.

In 2005, I realized that even if I reached the peak of my career, having a good portfolio doesn’t make you an industry leader. At the same time, I was starting to wonder how Digg was taking off, even though it was the same content as Slashdot. I realized digg was primarily successful because of Kevin Rose, who had spent years on one of the only nationally broadcasted TV channels that focused exclusively on technology. That gave him an incredible amount of exposure within the tech industry. If you or I had launched Digg at the same time he did, it very well may have floundered, as the first 10,000 users of a User Generated Content site are the most crucial when going up against an incubant like Slashdot. When people heard Kevin Rose had founded Digg, many surely signed up simply because his name was attached to it.

That realization in 2005 set off a series of reactions that eventually led to my change in jobs, starting my business, and my world-wide couch surfing adventures. Digg was where I started getting my name out in the tech industry, which is how my next employer found me. I built simple applications that crawled Digg’s data and allowed Digg users to explore and interact with it. My name was plastered all over it, in hopes that it would start to look familiar among people in the tech industry.

When I signed up for Twitter, it seemed very similar to Digg, except more personal and more interactive. Twitter was primarily made up of people in technology, and thus people I wanted to get my name out to. I did the same thing I did on Digg. I ran experiments and developed simple applications, such as twitter-based games and crappygraphs.com. Next thing you know, I was the second most-followed user on the site! Twitter, then, indirectly led to many more things happening in my life.

But would any of this have happened if I hadn’t made that realization in 2005?

The magic of human flight

One of the topics I touched upon in my botched Ignite Phoenix presentation was the magic of human flight. The theme of the talk was The View from the Window Seat, which was mostly about perspective. One of the perspectives I described was the magic of human flight. I had a wonderful slide to illustrate the feeling. It showed a young boy staring out an airplane window in awe. I didn’t need to show a photo of a typical perspective. Just imagine a business traveler, checking his email on his blackberry one last time before take-off while wondering why the hell the flight is 7 minutes late. Louis CK had a popular rant about this. Instead of being amazed at the fact that we’re flying through the sky at up to 500 miles per hour, we’re often fretting about how little our seats recline or how much the seat in front of us is reclined.

I always try to get a window seat when I fly. I always stare out the window during take-off and landing. I try to force myself to maintain the perspective of someone who is flying for the first time. I try to be that kid. I try to see the magic of it all, even though I’ve seen it hundreds of times.

This perspective can be applied elsewhere. In a way, your daily happiness can be proportional to how easily amazed you are. I envy people who say “wow” to things I take for granted.

Human flight truly is a magical thing. Just one hundred years ago, the richest and most powerful people in the world—kings and emperors—couldn’t do with all their spoils or slaves what I can do for the cost of a day or two of work.

I was reminded of this today while reading a book recommended to me by my friend John Murch. It’s called, “Eat People: And Other Unapologetic Rules for Game-Changing Entrepreneurs.” I’m only a few pages in, but the author starts by saying these rich and successful entrepreneurs actually got rich by making everyone and society richer. While walking through a museum, “some wealthy dead French guy’s house,” the author remarks that he would never trade places with that rich guy, adding, “this guy was one of the richest in the world, but he’d be considered living under the poverty line in our day.”

While the book will surely go on to make a different point, I couldn’t help but reflect on the idea that we cannot and should not take for granted the magic and wonder of the world around us.

It’s all about perspective.

A Job’s Return on Investment

While I absolutely loved working in the advertising field, where you constantly experiment and create new things for name-brand clients, there was a downside. It’s a cutthroat industry, where all agencies are trying to do at least one project with any major brand so they can have a more impressive portfolio. This leads to super aggressive promises to “get your foot in the door” with a new client. By the time you’re done breaking your back on your first project with a new client, they’re shopping around for the next agency to out-low-ball you.

As a developer, you’re a resource. A cog in the machine. The more work they put on your plate, the later you work and the more you get done. But with all this undercutting going on, you end up working too hard for too little.

It was well worth it for me, at least at first. My life changed once I had completed that project for Mazda & Quiksilver. My portfolio went from having nothing to having a cool looking project for major brands. The difference between 0 and 1 was immeasurable. They could have paid me nothing and it would’ve been worth it to me.

But what’s the difference between having 10 and 11 name-droppable clients in your portfolio? The value of that 11th client, I realized, was miniscule compared to the 1st.

When you’re listing the clients you’ve worked with, people stop paying attention after about 4 names. By the 7th, they start thinking about how pompous you are. By the 9th, they start thinking about how to ditch you.

When I had this realization, I started to think about what I was getting in return for all the hours and and sweat I dumped into my work. That’s when I realized my days in the ad world were numbered.

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