Brian Shaler

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Gravity is for chumps

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Dropout

I dropped out of college twice. I used to say it was to make it count.

Where I stand on education is complicated. I did what was best for me and my career, and it’s by no means the right answer for people in different positions.

My decision to drop out was based on a number of factors.

First, I’m not a scholar. I always despised homework my D in high school Trigonometry was due to scoring the highest in my class on tests while not turning in any homework assignments. In high school Algebra and Algebra II, I was constantly scorned for not showing my work (or enough work). Where we clashed was that I valued the result and they valued the process. If I understand something, it feels like a waste of time to walk through elementary steps over and over. My educational career was doomed.

While in high school, I got a computer. It sucked me in. I didn’t go to parties. Instead I was at home, on the computer, learning. With a strong background in logic and math growing up, I was well suited to do visual programming. Code-driven animation, interaction, complex effects, physics, video games, etc. I taught myself Flash, with the help of online tutorials and forums.

I decided to get a degree that would help ready me for a career in video games or special effects in video.

Here’s where I lucked out. Because I had become proficient with Flash, I could jump into a lucrative field that flexed similar brain muscles: interactive web development. I had no experience and no degree, but I had years of code samples. I sent my experiments to a local interactive advertising agency, and they decided to give me a shot. They put me on a project that they could assign to someone else if I couldn’t pull my weight. My first commercial software development project? A co-branded microsite for Mazda & Quiksilver.

People who had the degree I had yet to earn would be lucky to land a job like that. The piece of paper doesn’t mean much in some circumstances. Instead, where I was also very fortunate, I was good at something visual. I could *show* my abilities. Then, once I started lining my portfolio with major brands, I realized I had a stronger job-seeking arsenal than any degree could provide.

It was quite a profound realization to have at the age of nineteen.

Spaghetti on the Wall

“Brian, I’ve known you long enough to know that if you stick with something, it’ll be awesome. The problem is you don’t.

That came from someone who knows me fairly well. The quote may sound rather blunt, so I’ll explain why I feel it’s hitting the nail on the head.

First, let’s anonymize the first part, to get to the point that matters: “If you stick with something, it’ll be awesome.” Maybe it’s not true for everyone, but I feel like most people have the capacity to take an idea they’re passionate about, bring it to life, and make it awesome.

Take a hobby, an interest, or an idea you have, and make it your full-time focus for a week. Talk to at least a dozen people about it. Work on it all day and all night. At the end of that week, you’ll feel like a new person. Your passion for whatever it is will be ignited. I know this, because it happens to me from time to time.

That leads me to the second part of the original quote and the title of this article. I’m a tinkerer and an explorer. I come up with ideas and challenges, imagine how they’ll work, and then try to prove it to myself. I could very easily build 50 prototypes for 50 different ideas in one year. But that wouldn’t get me anywhere. In a way, it’s a weakness. Any talent would be squandered. Five years ago, I started making changes to how I tinkered.

Normally, the figure of speech, “throwing spaghetti on the wall,” means you throw the spaghetti and see if it sticks. I, on the other hand, usually don’t wait to see what sticks. It’s the act of throwing that excites me.

During high school and college, while I was teaching myself how to write software, I would spend hours working on experiments. If I got them to work, they would get tucked away in a directory on my computer. Squandered talent.

In 2006, I decided to turn the weekend projects into tech-world publicity. Still, I was just throwing spaghetti. At least I started doing it in public.

While my data visualization consulting scratches my spaghetti-throwing itch (no two projects are the same), what will I have in 5 to 10 years? Just a list of dozens of things I’ve made for other people. People like my friend Francine would probably agree that I should take at least a fraction of my time to work on projects for me. And more specifically, fewer projects taken much more seriously.

My plan? Two more months of client work, followed by X months working on my own project. I’m going to make it my full-time focus. I’m going to talk to hundreds of people about it. I’m going to work on it all day and all night. I’m going to ignite my passion for something that’s been kindling for several years.

Act 3: The Landing

ShalerJump

To catch you up on what the last couple months have been like for me, I cut loose and quit my job in June (Act 1). During July, I was in a state of free fall (Act 2), as I lined up meetings across the country and went to 6 cities in 4 weeks. Now (Act 3), I would like to talk about the landing.

What I did was radical. Perhaps even crazy. I couldn’t help but wonder while I was putting myself through this, “Am I crazy? Or brilliant? … Or both?”

What I did was crazy. I quit an excellent job, working for an awesome company in the bay area (they’re hiring!). I got to work from home. I reported to people who were results-oriented, not micro-managing. Flexible, fun, paid monthly travel, reasonable pay. I quit an excellent job.

The day after putting in my notice, I was driving to the office, listening to NPR. They were doing a segment on long-term unemployment—people who got laid off and have been looking for a job for over a year.

Gob: \

I had reached the point of no return and was confident I was moving in the right direction. Still, I felt a tremendous amount of doubt.

Crazy. I’ve never been good at saving money. I have always lived paycheck-to-paycheck. (I love direct deposit!)

I quit my job with minimal savings—a little bit of cash—and no customers lined up. I could have waiting until I had some money saved up (probably wouldn’t happen) or until I had a customer lined up (I turned down 2 offers before I was ready to take the plunge). What was the first thing I decided to do? Travel.

Crazy. I burned most of my runway capital on a three and a half week trip, hitting 6 cities coast-to-coast. I bought a netbook and my full-time job for my first month of un-/self-employment (I called it unemployment until I landed a paying gig) was emailing, scheduling, calling, and meeting. No code. I’m a programmer, and I didn’t write a single line of code for a month.

Or was I brilliant?

During my travels, I met up with a ton of people. Literally. Actually, “literally” would mean at least 20 tons. I was talking about data visualization all day every day for weeks. I met over coffee, food, drinks, and boardroom tables. I traveled in cars, taxis, buses, trains, planes, elevators, and escalators to see people.

By the numbers: I talked about data visualization with about 200 people. Those people were associated with at least 60 companies that would either be customers, partners, or simply providing referrals. Of those 60, I considered 40 to be prospects. From those 40 prospects, I could see 10-15 of them converting into paying customers. Of those 10-15 hot leads, I needed to find 1-3 that would ready to start work within a month. I was going broke. Fast.

Brilliant? I got home almost 6 weeks after I left to go to work (and put in my 2 weeks notice). After 4 full days at home, I was on a plane to Washington DC to start working on-site with my first client.

The numbers make sense. Given enough prospects, a certain percentage should convert into customers. So I guess the question is, “How was I able to meet with so many prospects?” My work is pretty specific. Data visualization. It’s a very tight niche. What does data visualization mean to companies? To some, it’s marketing. To others, it’s business intelligence or analytics. Most companies can benefit from it, but not many are in a position to invest in it.

“So how was I able to get so many prospects in such a tight niche?”

The full answer would require a series of blog posts. In summary, it’s about paying it forward, doing good for no reason, and investing time in meeting and helping people. It’s about ROI, and the return being indirectly linked to the investment. I spent years going to conferences, making friends with people in my industry. I spent years being involved with local tech community events. I spent years couch-surfing and developing strong friendships with people around the country I rarely see.

When I was in my state of free fall, my friends across the country were my parachute. I spent a month traveling across the country pulling the ripcord.

Thanks to my network of friends, I didn’t land on my face. I hit the ground running.

Progress Report: The Free Fall

free fall

I’ve cut loose and made the jump. Now it’s time to see if I hit the ground running or fall flat on my face.

The moment in between jumping and landing is the fall. It’s the weightlessness you feel as you no longer have control of your trajectory. I’ve carved out a tight niche in a young field. I’m simultaneously turning away work (general Flash development, for which there is always demand) and hunting to find work (data visualization, specifically).

I quit my awesome job at BitGravity on June 28, effective July 9. My last 2 weeks were spent on-site in Burlingame, CA & Santa Cruz, CA. On Monday, July 12, I hit the ground running, meeting with prospective clients in the Bay Area. Before my flight from SFO to LGA (NYC), I made a quick trip down to LA then San Diego, for potential leads and to meet up with friends.

After a week and a half of independence, I was on my way to NYC. I had a mostly open schedule after the first few days. I was planning to stay 2-3 weeks. It ended up being 2 weeks, with a day trip to Philadelphia as well as a day and a half in Washington DC. Three and a half weeks of cross-country business development in 6 cities.

Now that I’m back in Phoenix, recovering from a trip that spanned almost 6 weeks, I’m wondering if what I just did was crazy or brilliant.

You quit an awesome job with pretty cool perks to take a flying leap of faith into a young market without any customers lined up, and you start off by blowing a bunch of money on a coast-to-coast road (well, mostly air) trip? Are you nuts? Maybe.

I’m going to write about this trip, because the concept is intriguing to me. I have a hunch the plan was mostly brilliant and partly crazy. Being a little bit of both can go a long way.

UPDATE: Act 3: The Landing

Cutting Loose

photo by pcgn7

This is how I feel right now.

I’m taking a leap of faith, and I don’t have much runway. I’m in that pivotal moment where everything needs to be executed just right to avoid falling on my face.

I’m shedding a pair of golden handcuffs. I have a good job with fun work and good people, plus some paid travel. There are few things I could complain about during these last few years of employment. I love direct deposit. You have no idea. I love not having to worry about money. It just shows up. Magically and predictably.

Golden handcuffs are handcuffs nonetheless. It’s human nature to want to grow. Stagnation is the enemy of ambition. A plateau, no matter how high, is terrifying. It’s a ceiling. I could continue being content, or I could strive for more.

Generally, you can only go so far working for someone else. I’ve resisted entrepreneurship and justified my decision to remain a full-time employee, much to the dismay of my entrepreneur friends. I know my strengths and my weaknesses. I’m a builder. I make prototypes. I’m not a manager or an accountant or a salesman (well, I used to be, but I didn’t enjoy it). The force of inevitability, however, can eventually catch up with you. It can push you forward.

Seven months ago, I realized the path I needed to go down. Everything was pushing in the same direction. I needed to specialize the work I do, instead of just being a guy who makes stuff move with code. I needed to branch out, and work with more clients and more visible clients. I needed to establish myself within my industry. I wanted to travel more and farther. What I needed and wanted was looking less and less like a full-time job.

I am extremely fortunate to have a rare and valuable skill set. By blending visual and technical thinking, I can create compelling interactive visual experiences. Not only is there money in what I am good at, but I enjoy doing it. However, I need to be very tactful about where I apply my abilities. I could easily tie up all my waking hours building interactive web sites for people, but that won’t make the type of impact I want.

My goal right now is to ride a wave.

Five years ago, I became interested in data visualization as a hobby. Since then, I’ve followed the industry and have noticed a wave coming. More developers are getting involved, more tools are being built, and more people and businesses are learning what data visualization is. I don’t have to be the first, and I don’t have to be the best. But if I’m one of the first and one of the best, I’ll get on top early and ride the wave. After a year of conceptualizing and building various data visualizations professionally, I know what I should be focusing on exclusively.

To a worm in horseradish, the world is horseradish. Data visualization has become my horseradish.

I’m starting my own business. I’m specializing in data visualization. And for lack of a better term, I’m going to “Crush It”.

More information and announcements soon!

UPDATE: Progress Report: The Free Fall

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