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I’ve been a computer programmer since I was 11 years old. I picked it up from my father, a career software developer. I started with BASIC and coded simple games on an old Pre-Computer 1000 toy.
It was a natural progression to study computer science in college, and I am forever grateful to have done so on the U.S. Air Force’s dime. Speaking of the Air Force, I graduated and earned my commission, then promptly began training for a job that had absolutely nothing to do with computer programming.
After studying leadership for four years in college, then living it as a nuclear missile officer for another four, we packed our bags and headed home. I was finally beginning a career as a professional software developer!
In fact, I also rekindled a client relationship in the legal industry that had paid a few bills during college. It went so well that just two years after coming home, I landed a second client in manufacturing and replaced my income at my big-biz software job.
I started my company in 2011 and haven’t looked back since (more than once or twice, anyway).
Life was great: I was plying my trade, I had two clients, and I decided I was ready to begin growing my business and earning more.
I had absolutely no idea what was coming.
Disaster Strikes (For the First Time)
As I began trying to figure out how to grow my fledgling business, I took a fairly natural step for freelancers: I looked for contracts posted on freelance sites around the web.
I never actually got one that way for a couple of reasons:
- I wanted a great deal more money than the contracts I was capable of taking offered.
- I was no longer current enough on new languages, frameworks, and processes to take the jobs that paid what I figured I was worth.
Ah, my first existential dilemma: do I stay current on tech, serve my clients to the best of my ability, or grow the business. I could only pick two.
For some reason, I’d only chosen the second.
The First Steps on a New Path
A friend of the family sent me another new client, and he and my very first client remain two of my best friends and business partners today.
I took the opportunity with this new client to begin shifting my focus from being the “hero” doing all the work to being the “wizard” coordinating and guiding things. I found a great software developer to subcontract the work to and set to work.
Things went so well, in fact, that this new client referred me yet another client, and then “it” happened.
The Double Whammy
So I was into six figures and feeling great. New clients on board, business was growing, all was well in the world.
With one of those clients, I was responsible for designing and developing the entire tracking system for a network of vending machines. The whole selling point of the business depended on my design and code.
This client also happened to have been one my father worked with early in his career. There’d been some bad blood the first go around, and so I did something I still can’t believe I stooped to.
If you’re a freelancer, you probably know all about the idea of “work for hire.” The short version is that, unless a contract explicitly states it, a freelancer owns the work he creates for a client, even though the client pays for it.
With my attorney’s disappointed guidance, I attempted to leverage this fact – since we had no such clause in our agreement – to secure a better deal for my company.
In short, I tried to make a buck and “get back” at the client. I remain disgusted with myself to this day for it.
But was I done? Oh no, my friend.
The last client I mentioned was definitely not a tech savvy client (note that I am not, in any way, saying that he was not a smart client, just not tech savvy because he didn’t need to be).
I drove to the client to meet with him and begin discussing and designing the software we’d be building for him.
I ran a profitable, growing software firm at this point. Product-wise, everything I’d delivered so far had been right on point, solving the business needs of my clients.
I had this stuff figured out, right?
Nope. I rushed the planning and quote, then immediately started my developer writing code. It was the longest, most harrowing software development project I’ve ever dealt with.
The client and his representative knew their business, but they were simply not equipped to describe it in the way I needed them to. I should have recognized this. Instead, I powered through, assuming I knew what they needed and having my developer implement it.
Then fix it.
Then fix the fix.
Then add the other feature they forgot that I should have asked about.
The six week project ended up turning into six months and more than double the cost, and my client actually threatened legal action before it was over. There was blame on both sides, however, and we managed to wrap it up and hand the project over without need for attorneys.
So what happened?
It started with arrogance.
In the first situation, I was arrogant and I compromised my integrity. I haven’t done so since, and I remain hyper-aware of any situations that could become compromising.
After just a few days of wrangling with the client and getting lawyers involved, I came to my senses. I signed over full ownership of the product to the client, and we parted ways on speaking terms.
I made it “right,” but I was and am tarnished by it.
In the second situation, I was arrogant and incompetent. I assumed I knew best. I was wrong.
In the end, I elected to eat more than $10,000 of development cost (which I still had to pay my programmer, of course) and made sure the client was at least satisfied with the project. Major lesson learned.
As I set about recovering from these fairly devastating scenarios to my psyche and to my bottom line, I began looking for a better path. I found it.
The first step in my new direction was finding my first real teacher, coach, and mentor in business.
I scraped up the money to purchase his training program on the basics of consulting the right way. From sales training to productizing my services to new kinds of services to offer, the technical side of this education was astoundingly good for me.
More importantly, though, he also taught me about the right mindset for an entrepreneur. I’m not talking about “imagining myself rich” or any other kind of nonsense, but how to think more effectively in both business and in my personal life. It was amazing.
A little later, I began listening to the WDW Radio Disney podcast by Lou Mongello.
I am a life-long, certified Disney nut, by the way. It’s kinda my thing.
One of the first episodes I listened to was during a drive for a business trip, and it was all about the “Disney Decade” instituted by Michael Eisner and Frank Wells.
The two saved the Walt Disney Company from the brink of disaster and began the process that led to Disney becoming one of the most recognized brands in history.
This episode of the show inspired me something fierce. In my business, I was beginning to shift my focus away from software development and towards marketing services, and so I ran a simple Google search for books on Disney and marketing.
I found Inside the Disney Marketing Machine by Lorraine Santoli, a marketer who worked for Disney during “the Decade.” In the book I began discovering real, actionable lessons that I could use in my business.
To go along with the Disney inspiration, I also found and became certified in the “inbound” approach to marketing and sales. Inbound is all about creating relationships that attract the right people to your brand to begin with, and this could not have fit more perfectly.
All of my success in business can be attributed to the relationships I nurtured, and all of my failures to the relationships I abused or took for granted.
Inbound was the gap closer that showed me the kind of business I wanted to own.
Combining the two – inbound and my love for Disney – resulted in a framework for running my business that seemed, well, magical.
But more important than learning about marketing and better consulting and mindset as individual pieces was the synergy – yes, the “s” word – they created together.
My new-found approach to business caught my very first client’s attention, and he ended up selling me a franchise of his business and deepening our working relationship.
On top of that, I found myself freed (well, mostly) from the constant need to chase the “next big idea” that was going to make me rich. I was able – and inspired – to focus on nurturing my existing relationships.
My revenue doubled that year, it continues to rise, and there are some big years still to come.
Life and business were good again, and they remain so today.
But they weren’t perfect….
The Final Ingredient
First, life and business will never be perfect for anyone.
But there was a glaring problem that was keeping me a few steps from the best I could be, and it was an insidious one.
I began to feel very much alone. Then I began to worry about how I was going to reach the next level in my business. With these two issues at play, my mental health began to suffer tremendously, and I felt paralyzed.
Then I found my first dedicated mastermind and community. One that was perfectly suited to my needs at the time, from the guidance I received from my mentors to my fellow masterminders and students who each had new insights and help to offer me, and I was able to help them, too.
I’d found the last piece of my entrepreneurial puzzle.
I discovered that my perfect “recipe” was having not only the raw skills to operate my business, but also a story-driven framework to help me understand it, the tools to help me “tell” my business story, and finally the support of a community of like-minded entrepreneurs who’d been there and were going through it all with me.
It is my mission in business now to help you find your perfect story-driven recipe, too.