Although I can’t seem to find it in my brief internet search, I recall hearing a quote along the lines of “most people think they have a book inside them.” Perhaps it is a total misquote. But I remember thinking in my late 20′s that I would one day like to write a book. It only took a decade to figure out what subject matter I would use to embark on this adventure.
I started my own design agency in 2002. During the first couple years I slaved away in my basement, scared to death. “How am I going to feed my kids like this? Will I ever get another project?” These were some of my regular thoughts. I found myself working 80-100 per week with no vacations. Sure I went on a couple trips to the beach. I’d play with my kids in the sand and then I’d work at night at the hotel, using crappy AOL dial-up connection to send files to my clients. Many nights I would emerge from the basement for a quick bite of dinner, help my wife put the kids to bed, and then head back down the basement until the wee hours of the morning.
The money was good, but even that didn’t seem to instill the confidence I needed to hire my first employee. My wife got to a breaking point first.
One afternoon my wife came to my dungeon studio and said, “I found someone for you to hire.” She had been speaking with our neighbor who had a son in high school. He is “really good at computers” according to our neighbor. You could hire him to come over after school and he wouldn’t cost much. I relented. He came in for an interview. I offered him $7 per hour and about 20 hours per week of work.
It turned out that he really was “good at computers” and in a short amount of time I was able to teach him a little HTML, a little Flash, and a little Photoshop. It was definitely for him to earn his keep and I had finally jumped over the hurdle to hire someone. By the end of that year, I had five employees and had leased an office space down the street from my home.
I quickly realized that my $7-$10 per hour junior employees often had skills in design and programming, but they were lacking real world experience that enabled them to effectively work with clients. I had read Michael Gerber’s “E-myth” and I realized that I had to create processes to attempt to replicate my own successful client and project management skills.
“Jandacotocol” was born. (You know… “Janda” plus “protocol” equals “Jandacotocol.”) This was a simple HTML site were I posted things like: How to Answer the Phone, File Structure and Naming Conventions, Canned Email Messages, Client and Project Management Strategies, Proofing Processes and so forth. The objective was to create standards so that clients had the same experience working with our company regardless of the people with whom they interacted. Did it work? Yep. We were able to continue to hire younger employees and have them perform at a level that exceeded their experience.
Fast forward about five years. In 2008 a good friend of mine, John Thomas, from days of living in Los Angeles was now running his own little agency in Nashville. He had been involved with the AIGA chapter in Nashville and they were gearing up for their annual “Think Tank” event for the design community. He threw my hat in the ring as a speaker and we firmed up the travel plans. The topic of my lecture was left up to me. Knowing that I would be speaking to a few hundred design students (along with agency people) I chose to speak on “Nuggets from the Trenches: Real world advice from a successful digital agency.”
I cracked open Jandacotocol for the 100th time and began extracting some of these tips and processes into a lecture outline. The presentation consisted of 24 Nuggets, each of which was eloquently titled: Polishing Turds, Design Like the Wind, Drama is for Soap Operas, Beware the Red Dot, Don’t Work in a Vacuum, The Venus Initiative, Shock and Awe, and of course my own personal mantra OCD is an Attribute made the list.
My life and career has been filled with speaking opportunities, so I wasn’t concerned about my ability to instruct and entrain the attendees. What I was concerned about was the content. “Was this stuff any good? Or are they going to run me out of town?”
I finished my lecture and sat back down. Leaned over to my buddy and said, “How was it?” He replied, “Amazing. You need to send those Nuggets to me. I want to make posters out of them and hang them in my office.” (This was light bulb number one.)
Light bulb number two came a couple hours later after the other speakers finished. I was standing next to Rich Roach of the unbelievable font design company, House Industries. He had lectured about typography and font creation and given away one of his books. A design student came up to him sign the book. And… I’m sure in a moment of awkward sympathy turned to me and asked me for my autograph. What was I going to sign? I didn’t have a book. I signed this students notepad.
The third lightbulb came over the next couple days. Streaming into my inbox came several congratulatory email messages.
“Well, I’m sure you’ve been thrown 37,592,374 kudos since your presentation… but you can never hear too many good things about yourself. So, lemme say that I have truly never benefited from a speaker as I did/will from you. I graduated from Savannah College of Art & Design and feel certain that I have had more opportunities to take advantage of guest speakers than most… so when I say that your’s was by far the best – that says a whole lot!”
“I greatly appreciate you & really hope you publish your nuggets some day. They really are incredibly inspirational, insightful, helpful and DEAD ON! I wish I had them on a poster or card in my wallet to re-read 10 times a day!”
“I attended the Think Tank conference in Nashville over the weekend. I wanted to thank you for offering up your “Nuggets” of advice. Your presentation was very helpful to a full time freelance web designer/developer who works in a vacuum. It helped to see what I am doing right, and what I can do better. Again thank you for taking the time to do the presentation.”
“Uh oh! I just gave away a handful of my success secrets with no copyright protection and no monetary compensation! I might just be onto something.” Light bulb number four went off and I knew at that moment I had to start expanding the Nuggets lecture into a book. Over the course of the next three years I managed to expand the thoughts from my 24 Nuggets and 40 minutes in lecture format into 111 Chapters and 400 pages in book format. Burn Your Portfolio: Stuff they don’t teach you in design school, but should is published by Peachpit Press and available at all your favorite booksellers.