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A month ago it started. I would have about 5 weeks to myself and thought about how much I could get done while my wife and three kids were in Argentina traveling and visiting with family during summer vacation.
An entire month of extra ‘me time.’
That time is now almost over. I pick them up from the airport next week. My time alone didn’t go as planned, but I did learn a couple things from reflecting on how I spent it.
To start the 5 weeks, I reviewed my Honey-Do List and made several lists of my own. I like lists. They give me focus. They give me an outline of steps to take. It feels good to check items off the list and say “Done.”
Lists are also a source of great anxiety and a misleading tool if used improperly.
My to-do lists usually contain a mix of items that fall into opposing camps: creative vs. maintenance, recharging vs. charging ahead, big and time-consuming vs. quick hits.
Taking a breath and thinking back on the past four weeks, here are some observations.
Maintenance items and quick hits lure me away from the more important things. With every check off the list, I feel like I’m getting a lot done in a short period of time. I gain momentum which leads me to the next quick hit. I go through the day thinking I’m getting a lot done, but at the end of the day it ends up being the trivial many versus the vital few.
Lists focusing on Doing rather than Purpose are like a big helping of empty calories. Short-lived satisfaction without any long-term sustenance. The day ends with regret from just spinning my wheels and not really getting anywhere meaningful. The negative effect of shifting my focus on what’s past — regretting a day lost — also distracts me from being at peace and appreciating the present moment. This perpetuates a vicious cycle.
With the one week I have left, here are the changes I’m committing to.
First Things First, as Stephen Covey would say. Or if I can only get one thing done, making the priority my “One Thing” as Gary Keller wrote. The maintenance work still needs to get done, but I’ll put the big rocks in my jar first and then let the sandy maintenance items fill in the remaining space.
Follow some advice from James Altucher and time-block my day based on balanced themes instead of to-do lists. By aligning daily choices to address what’s important for my spiritual, emotional, mental and physical needs, I’ll be more likely to make healthy decisions on how I spend the time. These are the four big rocks (themes) for me.
Put Into Practice
All fine in theory. But what would this look like from day to day?
This post is one example. In the beginning of “Me Time” I had planned to use the extra time to write about and publish several ideas piling up in my drafts folder. Four weeks later my list of ideas is even bigger, but I didn’t complete a single post. Today, I traded-off a few hours of maintenance items to sit down and follow-through on something that simultaneously feeds my spiritual, emotional and mental needs. As I wind down this article, I not only feel good about checking something off my original list, I also feel nourished. I made time to recharge my energy and be creative.
For all the other scenarios out there — for whatever you might be personally experiencing — the one take-away is this. Shift your focus from simply doing, to doing the right things.
As Greg McKeown says in Essentialism, narrow your focus to what’s essentially important to you and be willing to trade-off the trivial many (e.g. checking my phone every other minute, staying up late binge watching Netflix, etc. in my case.)
In The One Thing, Gary Keller recommends we ask ourselves some variation of the following question, “What’s the one thing I can do today/this week/this month to [insert context for family, career, exercise, whatever applies to you] such that by doing it everything will be easier or unnecessary?”
Using my personal example, I asked “What’s the one thing I can do today for my peace of mind, body and soul such that by doing it everything will be easier or unnecessary?” My answer: Block out a couple of hours to reflect, collect my thoughts, then write about them.
As I close, I already feel the nourishment kicking in. I still have a lot of necessary chores to do, but I’ll get to them in between more important things. Instead of rushing back to attack my to-do list, I’m going to take the dog for a nice leisurely walk (without my phone) to enjoy the sun, the warm breeze and the simple pleasure of pausing to sniff the roses.
When I was much younger, I had many lofty goals. Each one was accompanied by dreams about what life would be like if that goal were accomplished. Sometimes I would get sucked in by people who claimed to have a shortcut. No regrets though. I learned to fail quickly and to move on, learning what didn’t work. There are smarter ways than trial and error, and I’m sure some people actually do get lucky, but rarely have I seen anything meaningful happen overnight, even when it appears that way.
I’ve adjusted my expectations accordingly. For example, I’ve always wanted to become a writer and publish a book. I used to think it would happen after some whirlwind of inspiration poured over blank pages while I retreated to some remote cabin by a lake. Now, instead of hoping to be a published author with my first book becoming an instant bestseller, I just write a little every day. Baby steps. I don’t even write with a book as the final product in mind. I write just to write, and to use my words to document experiences and thoughts that inspire me. One day, I shifted from private morning pages to public blog posts. That was scary for me. Then I took a chance and submitted an article for consideration on LinkedIn Pulse. (I was scared to hit submit and my mouse hovered over the button for what seemed like forever.) As I read and re-read that first draft submitted, I was embarrassed to think that anyone could now actually read my raw writing. I continued to edit, tweak and refine until I couldn’t think of anything else to improve. Then I walked away knowing I put forth my best. It was good enough to know that I did it despite being scared. (It did get featured by the way. Beginner’s luck.)
Not sure what the next steps will be. I’ll take it one step at a time, one article at a time. I’ll continue to learn what I can from each step. Confidence builds with each stride and it feels good. Regardless of whether or not I eventually author and publish a book, I’m having fun learning from doing.
“A day at a time, a page a time, my daily three pages have unknotted career, life, and love. They’ve shown me a path where there was no path, and I follow it now, trusting that if I do, the path will continue.”
— Julia Cameron regarding Morning Pages in her book Walking Around the World
In the business world, I learned about the concept of kaizen— continuous improvement. Translated from Japanese and in general terms, it simply means change for the better. The aspect of ‘continuous’ is important to me though. It aligns with my step by step approach. And I think smaller steps might actually be more effective in the long run.
I like how James Altucher describes his daily practice and his balanced way of striving to be just 1% better each day. The idea of taking larger goals and breaking them down into very bite-size chunks has resonated with me.
Putting this approach into practice has transformed my loftier goals from daunting to do-able. As one Chinese Proverb puts it, “To get through the hardest journey we need take only one step at a time, but we must keep on stepping.” Taking smaller steps not only helps you get started but also helps you keep going.
The Benefits of Breaking It Down
easier to get started
less stressful and no longer overwhelming
flexible by design
encouraging to make progress even gradually
more focus on the present than the future
“The secret of getting ahead is getting started. The secret to getting started is breaking your complex overwhelming tasks into small manageable tasks and then starting on the first one.”
— Mark Twain
Breaking Things Down by Context
Whether it’s getting in shape, starting a new job, or learning any new skill, I break it down and find that I accomplish a lot more in a lot less time than I expected.
step by step
brick by brick
line by line
layer by layer
repetition by rep
one task at a time
one lesson at a time
one breath at a time
one day at a time
Things won are done; joy’s soul lies in the doing. – William Shakespeare
Success, achievement and accomplishment are all great things, but the pleasure is usually short-lived. There’s something more lasting about the time and effort spent getting there. Perhaps there’s magic in the anticipation as you work. (Or maybe because you get a natural hit of dopamine with every step you take towards your goals. So I’ve read.) I agree with Gary Keller who—in his bestseller The One Thing—says, “Happiness happens on the way to fulfillment.”
“…when you can see mastery as a path you go down instead of a destination you arrive at, it starts to feel accessible and attainable. Most assume mastery is an end result, but at its core, mastery is a way of thinking, a way of acting, and a journey you experience.”
— Gary Keller, The One Thing
Over time, I’ve learned to appreciate the journey more than the destination. I find joy in the process towards something. No need to wait until you get there. It’s just as important to enjoy the experience along the way. What takes away from that enjoyment is the temptation to hurry up and arrive already. While I strive for better, I remind myself to be thankful for what I’ve already accomplished and the good fortune I already have.
Read the chapter on “Effort Counts Twice” from Grit by Angela Duckworth and wanted to add some relevant quotes and notes.
“…the most dazzling human achievements are, in fact, the aggregate of countless individual elements, each of which is, in a sense, ordinary.” — Angela Duckworth
“Superlative performance is really a confluence of dozens of small skills or activities, each one learned or stumbled upon, which have been carefully drilled into habit and then are fitted together in a synthesized whole. There is nothing extraordinary or superhuman in any one of those actions; only the fact that they are done consistently and correctly, and all together produce excellence.” — Dan Chambliss
“So what is the reality of greatness? Nietzsche came to the same conclusion Dan Chambliss did. Great things are accomplished by those ‘people whose thinking is active in one direction, who employ everything as material, who always zealously observe their own inner life and that of others, who perceive everywhere models and incentives, who never tire of combining together the means available to them.” — Angela Duckworth
For a while I believed I was exempt. I had already survived several mergers and acquisitions over the years but then it happened. Where and why doesn’t matter here. This is about the process that followed. Some career breaks are planned. This one was not.
“It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.”
First, there’s the shock. For some it’s expected, but as I mentioned, I thought I was immune. Like falling off a ladder, it hurt. My ego was bruised.
“The fall from low to lower hardly hurts; the fall from middle to low is devastating.”
– Adam Grant, Originals (p.83)
Insecurity set in. Questions about the future felt overwhelming. Looking back, how I decided to respond made the difference. I put my psychology studies into use and self-administered some therapy…
Get Over It
Easier said than done, I know. My first reaction was to immediately get back in the game and lock in the next gig quickly. I decided to be methodical in my approach. To measure my efforts, I kept a log of everything related to the job search and the results of every interaction. Every call with recruiters, every interview, every resume submission…all of it. Months of calculated effort were only leading to wrong turns and dead ends.
Depression eventually caught up with me. Anxiety prevented any restful sleep, no matter how exhausted I felt. I was spiraling downward and couldn’t break the funk. Then I made a concerted effort to slow down and pause.
What you choose to pay attention to can dramatically alter your experience (the whole “perception is reality” thing), so I chose to focus on right now instead of dwelling in the past or worrying about the future. Some days were easier than others, but I kept exercising a skill that had atrophied in recent years – my ability to choose rather than fly on autopilot. It wasn’t long before I crawled out of my hole.
Time heals all wounds. I just didn’t want it to take too long. Sitting around feeling sorry for myself wasn’t doing anybody any good. It was time to move on, ready or not.
Look in the Mirror and Then Out the Window
Looking in the rearview mirror, I took a good chunk of time to reassess how far I’ve come and the road that got me here. Then looking at myself, I was no longer sure that I was happy with what I saw in the mirror. Who had I become? What would I have done differently? How could I correct course? Where am I headed now? Is it time to go in a different direction?
At least, I felt I was asking the right questions.
I had become a workaholic. Developing the discipline to work long and hard hours was a badge of honor for me. Getting up every morning at 4:30am, working 12-14 hour days, and not sleeping until after midnight eventually led to burnout. Promotions and financial rewards fueled that fire for many years but towards the end, I burned up any remaining mojo and was only running on fumes. All the while, I failed to realize―or maybe I was denying that―I was trading off important things for all those work hours…time with my family and time for myself.
Now was my chance to slow down before I ran myself off a cliff. To find balance instead of working all the time. To remember what was really important to me. As I looked ahead, the fog began to clear and I hit a fork in the road.
To the right, was the continuation of the road I had already been traveling. I could get back into life as a corporate executive and continue my climb up the proverbial ladder. It was a toll road, and at what cost, I could only imagine. To the left, looked like it might take me back home but I could see the route might be a bit bumpy.
…Two roads diverged in a wood, and I, I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.
If you’ve already read the post about my colorful career path, you know I chose the road less traveled. Once I made that conscious decision, I simply started by making a few promises to myself:
Remain true to who you are
Live in the present and use good judgment
Leave it better than you found it
“To thine own self be true.“
Over the past few years, I got a little lost and lost myself in the process. I became increasingly insecure about who I was and found myself trying too hard to be what others wanted me to be. For example, although I’m an introvert, I pretended to be an extrovert. I thought that was the only way you could be successful as an executive. I do believe it’s possible to “fake it until you become it.” That said, I just didn’t like it. It wasn’t me. I wanted to be myself. Being myself also meant doing things at my own pace. As an executive, I often felt rushed and pressured to deliver results quickly. In most cases I was able to adjust as needed, but lately I saw more and more that quality was being sacrificed for the sake of speed.
After reading Quiet by Susan Cain, I began looking at introversion in a new light. I became comfortable in my own skin again. Another book, In Praise of Slowness by Carl Honoré, helped me slow down and appreciate ‘tempo giusto’ – what musicians use to refer to the “right speed.” (Used in reference to living life with balance…fast when needed and slow when called for.) Moreover, this respect for time translated to better appreciation for the present. The gift of now.
“If you presence doesn’t make an impact, your absence won’t make a difference.”
Ever since childhood, I’ve found it difficult to live in the moment. The exceptions were times when I was absorbed in activities such as blending vinyl music with 2 turntables, choreographing a hip-hop dance routine, or pushing out one more rep in the gym. My usual MO was to dream about the future or worry about the past. I found it hard to enjoy the present because my mind was always elsewhere. If there were only one important change I could make to my approach from here on out, it would be to live in the here and now.
(This usually requires an inside-out approach which begins with yourself. To some, this is misconstrued as selfish behavior. Important to get past that stage. I’ve learned that living in the present is much easier when what you focus on is self-less rather than self-centered.)
Here’s how I see it: The past is past so no sense lingering there. No one knows what the future holds and life is rarely linear. The best way to set yourself up for a good future is to do the best you can with what you’ve got today. You don’t have to be perfect. You just need to use good judgment and make every effort to leave everything better than before you found it. That includes every action and every word spoken (or unspoken). At the end of the day, you’d be surprised how big of a difference you made to the people and world around you. All those thoughtful actions, no matter how small, add up.
Oh, I promised myself one more thing. Never take for granted the blessings you already have.
There’s really not much more to say about this. I just realized that more is not necessarily better. By appreciating all the good things already in my life, I’m learning to be happy with less. I drive a Prius and I’m cool with that. I live in a modest home, have great neighbors and live comfortably. It’s almost 20 years later and I think my wife still loves me ;). Honey, I’m good. Three beautiful children to kiss goodnight. I am blessed.
I believe that everything happens for a reason. In the moment, it may not make sense, but it often does in retrospect. What felt like an imposition turned out to be a blessing. I was forced to reassess my life to date and what was truly important to me. This was what I needed. I was so obsessed with achievement and accomplishment that I was taking for granted my family and losing myself in the process. The break in my career gave me time to realize that, before it was too late.
“Slow down and enjoy life. It’s not only the scenery you miss by going too fast―you also miss the sense of where you are going and why” – Eddie Cantor
In Praise of Slowness: How a Worldwide Movement Is Challenging the Cult of Speed by Carl Honoré
Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain
Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown
I Don’t Have a Degree I get e-mails every day. “I’d like to work at Google but I don’t have a degree,” Or, “I’d like to be a success but I don’t have an MBA.” And it’s not just degrees. I get e-mails from people who think they need yoga teacher certification. Or a medical degree (you can be a healer without writing prescriptions). Or any flimsy piece of paper that ultimately is no indicator of value. Google’s head of HR has even announced that graduates’ GPAs are a waste to look at. And that more and more of their hires have no college degrees at all! It’s just another way the world is changing, and you have to grasp it now. It used to be that a stranger knew he could cooperate with you if you had that stupid piece of paper. Come up with ten ideas on how you can escape the trap of the degree and demonstrate you still have value. Ideas for the company you want to work for, or the person you want to work with. Or just go get a camera and start making movies without a film degree.
When actor Andy Samberg was starting at Saturday Night Live he didn’t just huddle in the writers’ room with everyone else and try to come up with jokes. There was too much competition! Instead, he took a camera and with his buddies Jorm and Akiva went out and shot “Lazy Sunday,” which was the first YouTube video to get over 100 million views and became his first SNL digital short. He didn’t wait to rise through the ranks and hopefully get a joke or a sketch produced. He went out and produced it himself.
Before Macklemore’s “Thrift Shop” got a billion views on YouTube, the rapper turned down every record label. He realized he didn’t need the validation they have provided to generations of artists. The distribution is there to reach the world no matter what your field is. You validate yourself now through your work.
Apologies to Mr. Altucher for taking that much verbatim from his book. I just read those pages this morning and it hit home.
The Trip Full Circle
I fall in the category of those who dropped out of college. While I had many an opportunity to finish, life went on and I eventually decided not to. When I’m having an insecure moment, I like to remind myself that I only had two classes to finish (and they were both freshman level electives!) so really, I earned pretty much everything I needed for that Liberal Arts degree in Psychology. I guess I just didn’t cross the finish line which could be perceived as inability to follow through. I understand and respect other perspectives. I just don’t personally see it that way. It doesn’t have to be a negative. I have worked very hard since then to show that it doesn’t have to matter if you don’t let it.
The Road Not Taken
…Two roads diverged in a wood, and I, I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.
– Robert Frost
It was 1991 and I was scheduled to graduate at the end of Spring semester. This was all the JET Programme (Japanese Exchange and Teaching Program) needed to know at the time I applied and interviewed. They didn’t actually ask to see my degree before it was time for me to board the plane that summer. By the time the University of Illinois notified me that I failed two classes (English 101 Introduction to Poetry and Classic Civilization 115 Mythology of Greece and Rome), I was already all set to leave for Japan. Although becoming an Assistant English Teacher (AET) had nothing to do with my major, it was a 1 year adventure abroad with all expenses paid as well as a monthly salary. I wasn’t about to pass on the opportunity unless absolutely necessary. That degree would have to wait.
I had lady luck on my side. After the year was over, I had the option to extend for another year and I definitely wanted to. The only catch – I had to renew my work visa and I was told they required a copy of my college degree in the process. I figured I had better start packing my bags but then again…why not just go through the motions and see what happens? Even if they sent me home, I already had my adventure. For some unknown reason, the Japanese government renewed my visa without any questions. One year turned into two and next thing you know 3 years later I was still in Japan. That was the maximum length that anyone could stay with the Jet Programme. As the third year winded down, a Japanese friend referred me to the CEO of a private language school under the Terakoya Group. They offered me a job and I had to go through the process of renewing my work visa for another year. Again, nobody asked to see my college degree. Surprising enough, the person in front of me in line was asked for his. To this day I can’t figure out how I got away with it year after year, but my luck lasted long enough for me to meet my future wife. Caro was on a 9 month work-study program and just happened to be assigned to Matsuyama City where I also lived. After 6 years in Japan, instead of calling it luck, I’d like to think it was serendipity.
Unlike I did in college, note that I wasn’t just sliding by while I worked in Matsuyama. Knowing that I didn’t finish school, I felt like I had to prove something and make my mark anyway. My second year, I was elected as the Ehime Prefectural Representative for AJET (The Association of Japanese Exchange and Teaching) and after 1 year at Terakoya, I was promoted to Head Teacher at the private language school.
Ok. The story goes on, but I need to pause here for now. The kids are awake and I’ve been writing since 5am.
[2/16/2016 4:38am] Picking up where I left off…
When I returned to the States in the summer of 1997, it was like “Oh sh*t, what do I do for work now? I don’t have a degree.” I was going on 28 years old and still didn’t have any solid plans for my career. I was back with my parents and when my Dad asked me what I was planning to do next, I told him I was thinking about starting a DJ business. I could sense his disappointment. When your parents go against all odds to earn their college degrees in the Philippines and then move the entire family to the Unites States so we can have a better life in the Land of Opportunity, I can understand why being a DJ might not be what they had in mind for their son. When I was still at the University majoring in Electrical Engineering, I think I was living up to expectations. We all imagined my future becoming an engineer like Dad and having a secure and well-paid profession for life…I guess I’d be disappointed with my DJ ambition too.
Got to get ready for work. I’ll continue later.
[2/16/2016 7:45pm continuation]
While I worked to put things in place for the DJ startup, I took a commissioned sales associate position in retail. Retail store positions don’t often require a college degree. I chose Bachrach, a men’s clothing retailer founded in Decatur, IL with locations all around the Chicago area. I’d always been into fashion so this would be aligned with my interests. Sales was not my strength, but it paid the bills and helped fund the DJ equipment and music I would need. For years, I tried to work both paths in parallel without any breakthrough success. I knew very little about operating a profitable business and everything I learned was from trial and error.
The DJ business wasn’t growing fast enough and we were getting deeper and deeper into debt. Thousands of dollars spent on music, lighting and other gear without enough gigs to pay for it all. When I found out that Caro was pregnant with León, I knew I needed to change my approach if I had any chance of providing for my growing family. I decided to focus on Bachrach and work my way up the ladder. We could stabilize our finances and buy me time to figure out what to do as an entrepreneur. Looking back, that was a pivotal point. After my motivation shifted from selfish ambitions to providing for the family, my career started to take off.
Within a few years, I went from Sales Associate to Store Manager to Director of E-commerce. (I’ll save my success strategy for a different post.) I worked in several locations and eventually had my own office at the downtown Chicago corporate headquarters. There were several rungs in between and along the way, but I won’t get into those details now. What happened with the DJ business? One thing led to another and it eventually led to the launch of ChicagoWeddingServices.com. Although small potatoes compared to other dot coms, it was a business model that made money while I slept and the site could often run on autopilot. It supplemented my income at Bachrach quite nicely. (For more details, see my post on Website Experiments Throughout the Years)
After 10 years at Bachrach, I had to move on. Too many acquisitions had taken place and it was no longer a fit. I began looking elsewhere. When I was offered a position at Dreams Retail in 2008, I jumped. Fortunately, during the interview process, my college education wasn’t a deciding factor.
I would have to say that my years at Dreams, Inc. have been the highlight of my career to date. Kevin Bates and the team he built created a work environment that brought out my best. I started off in an Account Management role but followed the same strategy I used to work my way up at Bachrach. I went from non-management to executive management with a team of more than 50 people to lead. I eventually got promoted to Director of Marketing and in less than two years after that, became VP of Marketing.
This too eventually came to an end. Dreams Inc. was acquired by Fanatics Inc. and I relocated from the Chicago area to the Jacksonville, Florida area. (The kids didn’t like the move, but we had a new house built in a nice neighborhood. It also helps that we live only a couple hours from Disney.) I was able to keep my position as VP of Digital Marketing but with so many changes during and after the integration period, it was the beginning of the end for that chapter. My time at Fanatics officially ended in January of 2015. Without having anything lined up yet, I spent 6 months in what I call “mid-career retirement” – a career break if you will. We didn’t have to worry about finances, at least for a while, so I had the luxury of time to decompress, reconnect with my family, and think about the next chapter. As scary as it can be to lose a 6 figure salary, I’m grateful for what I’ve gotten in return.
“We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”
– T.S. Eliot
Today, I feel like I’ve come full circle in a way. I’m back in fashion retail and am making about the same income as I did when I first started my career. I see everything through a different lense though. While money is still important, it’s no longer the carrot. It’s no longer about the prestigious title, but more about the unique contribution and value. Being hourly no longer has a negative connotation to me. It now means I have more work-life balance. Instead of thinking so much about what I want in the future, I spend more time appreciating what I already have and whom I’m with today. Things will have to change again I’m sure. Even though we’ve always lived below our means, our current lifestyle is not sustainable in the long run with my current income. Surprisingly, I’m not very worried though. We’ll figure it out. I know because we’ve done it before.
Regarding my college degree, or lack thereof, it has definitely made a difference in my career choices and the life I’ve lived. I’ve spent most of my career proving that you can succeed without a degree. When the competition was smarter, I just worked longer and harder to compensate. Most of my lessons learned were from the school of hard knocks. I learned the simple yet important lesson on how to make a positive difference…always strive to leave it better than you found it.
I’m content with what I’ve accomplished as a college dropout. I have no regrets.
Caro and I were married in 1998, not too long after I started at Bachrach. Although she has seen and experienced all the ups and downs of my career, she has never stopped being supportive. Even when she didn’t agree with all my choices, she has stood by my side and was always there to give me strength when I needed it most. I can’t imagine how things would have turned out without her. All these years later, I don’t worry too much anymore about climbing the corporate ladder or making lots of money. With her and our three beautiful children, I already feel successful. Together we’ll make life good no matter what comes our way.
To my band of brothers who joined me on my crazy adventure as an entrepreneur: That was an awesome ride, let’s do it again!
Grateful to the many coworkers who I had the privilege to work with, and my bosses/mentors who also shaped who I am and how I work today – they were some of my best teachers. To the organizations and hiring managers who took a leap of faith and gave me a shot, thank you.
I also want to give a shout-out to all my family and friends, near and far. You’ve never judged me and accept me for who I am, warts and all.
And special thanks to Mom and Dad, for always loving me even when I disappoint. From you I learned what is possible when you work hard. [2/17/2016 4:38am] Today is Dad’s 70th Birthday. I dedicate this post to him.
I was still living in Japan at the time (circa 1997) the web really started to take off. Caro and I were only dating then, but she saw my interest and bought us our first laptop. It was an early Mac Book and the screen was only black and white but we got it at a decent price ($1000 USD factoring in the dollar/yen exchange rate). That’s how it began. I got sucked into everything Internet.
So much about the Internet was exploding with potential. Living abroad, the whole concept of email was wonderful – no long time gaps between writing letters and receiving responses. It felt so instant. The only challenge was that not everyone was using email yet. I spent so much time playing around with this new tech toy, everything from learning design software to surfing the nascent web. I stumbled upon GeoCities, a web hosting service that gave people online tools to create their own website. It was exciting to think you could create something multimedia and then immediately publish it for others to see.
My first site was based on a theme I called “Spheres and Cones.” Basically it was model I used to frame the idea of self-actualization and personal growth. My friend, Scott Scholtens, also bought a laptop and he was better at the design thing than I was, so he helped me created a logo and other graphics for the site. Fond memories of the early days when I didn’t care so much about how good (or not so good) my web design skills were.
After returning to the States, I continued web design and tried to take it to the next level. The next stage involved using websites to support my entrepreneur initiatives. While working retail, I spent my other time trying to build out concepts for a mobile DJ business which I called Sound ReCreation. I wanted to go all in so I formally incorporated the business and bought the domain name. Sound ReCreation, Inc. was an S corporation (Delaware) with the website www.SoundReCreation.com. It started with the conventional content (About Us, Contact, Services, Pricing etc.) then I tried to add song lists, music clips, PDF client forms, and a page for partners and related vendors. I’ve lost many of the original image files, but here’s any idea of the logo and site layout. I found an ad we placed for a University Fashion Show Program.
Credits for the logo and site design go to Tommy Torres, my lifelong friend whom I grew up just referring to as “cousin” though we’re not technically related.
Actually, I forgot to check the Internet Archives. WayBack Machine had some site pages archived. Here’s a capture from December 26, 2002 (Wow! Did I really write that content for our About Us page? Weird reading it after all these years)…
As Sound ReCreation evolved, I learned that the money was in DJing weddings so I focused on acquiring clients for weddings over other types of events. Eventually, my “Partner” page of the site expanded to a point where I decided to break out vendors into categories, such as Chicago Wedding Photographers, with a dedicated page for each category. Using what I learned from self-study plus trial and error, I optimized each category page for the search engines. Over time, the site analytics showed that the most visited pages of SoundReCreation.com were the wedding vendor category pages. Local wedding professionals started contacting us asking if they could pay to have their business included on our pages. They too noticed our high search rankings and decided it was better to pay us than figure out the SEO thing themselves. That’s when I had the idea to buy a new domain name so these pages could spin off into something new…ChicagoWeddingServices.com. (I went ahead and bought ChicagoWeddingDJ.com as well. I was surprised it was still available.)
I had a feeling that these SEO friendly domain names could piggyback off the success I already had with the SRC vendor pages. I was right. ChicagoWeddingServices.com and ChicagoWeddingDJ.com started showing up in the top 3, if not number one, of the organic search results for many relevant search queries. Any time someone searched for something like “wedding reception venues in Chicago,” or something local and wedding related, we would come up. Call it dumb luck or whatever, but I accidentally became good at SEO when the search engine algorithms were not yet as sophisticated as they are today. That luck lasted several years until about 2005 I think. Google had a major algorithm update and I finally fell from grace with Google. Traffic died and today is less than a hundred visitors each day. It was great while it lasted.
While I was tempted to sell the domain and give up on the site as a business, I’ve kept it and tried to update it enough so it isn’t as terribly dated as the original design that was not mobile friendly. Last year, I finally had the time to complete a redesign that was years in the making. It was DIY since it made no financial sense to pour more money into a site that no longer made any profits. I used the opportunity to play around with responsive design and CSS. This is how it looks now on Desktop and Mobile:
Lately, I haven’t spent much time on any new websites. That said, a month or so ago I agreed to help out the Boy Scouts Troop that my son León is a part of. They wanted to put up a website that they could leverage for recruiting new Scouts in the area so my wife and I bought troop23nocatee.com and I quickly put together a WordPress site hosted on my existing web server. The template is simple so it can be consistent with the printed flier they made for recruiting.
A few years back, I was overzealous and bought quite a few domains with the intention of monetizing them somehow. Most of them have just been parked yet I renew them every year, hopeful that I’ll eventually do something with them. Perhaps I’ll put them on the market and see if I can recoup some of my expenses. Most likely I’ll just let them expire so someone else may run with them.
I’ll list the domains here and if anyone has ideas and wants to partner on a project with any of these domain names, please get in touch.
The original intention was to spin off more targeted sites for specific services and/or cities. For example, cityweddingphotographers.com could have any number of subdomains for each city. NewYork.CityWeddingPhotographers.com would target photographers and their potential clients in the New York City area. Once upon a time, these niche sites would outrank the larger sites such as TheKnot.com. That’s how ChicagoWeddingServices.com took off. Advertisers on CWS would tell me that they got better traffic and more bookings from our site, and it didn’t cost as much to advertise with CWS. Nowadays, it will take a different approach to succeed. I have ideas but the time and effort needed is substantial (team of freelancers?). Collaboration seems to be the better option. If you’re interested in batting around some ideas, please mention that in a comment to this post and I’ll be in touch via email.