On Wednesday last week, I spoke to Gary Chou’s IxD class about failures I’ve experienced during my career (specifically, Formspring). I got to the end of the presentation and was taking questions from the class. Near the end, Gary asked me if I had one good piece of advice to give to the class of designers. After thinking about it for a few moments, I told them the following stories:
I am not a classically-trained designer. I went to USC for a Creative Writing degree and, after leaving the university, had been planning on attending the New School to get my MFA in the same field (which would buy me time to write my first book or short story collection). Unfortunately, the financial aid package from the New School was so abysmal that I couldn’t, in good conscience, force myself to take on the personal debt necessary to attend (I would have owed something like $120k total for my BA/MFA, a debt that I didn’t see myself paying off on a Creative Writing teacher’s salary). So, with no other plans or options, I returned home to Louisiana and took a not-quite-fulltime job at Starbucks (like all good art students). In my spare time, I was designing and building out web sites (personal blogs, project ideas, etc.), a hobby I’d held since I was fifteen and learned how to use Photoshop 3.0 and how to write html table layouts.
After about a year in Louisiana, I was asked by my friend Merci (who I’d met in one of my literature classes at USC) to fly to L.A. for a few days and design the web site for a company she and her fiance were starting. Of course, I said yes to a free trip back to Los Angeles and spent a few days hanging out, playing video games and designing/building a web site with my friends. It was great. I flew home happy, but didn’t think much of it until a few months later when Merci IM’d me to ask if I’d be interested in flying to Oakland and working with them fulltime (they’d gotten their startup, PMOG, funded). I instantly said yes and, after a pretty nerve-wracking call with their investor, Bryce, in which I’m pretty sure I oversold my css/design experience substantially, I packed my things and flew to Oakland to work with my friends.
Though things didn’t work out very well with me and my friends (I was let go from the company after about ten months and PMOG closed down after about two years of operation), I’ll always be incredibly grateful for the opportunity they offered me (and the career that resulted). And all because I’d made friends with a total stranger in an English class at USC two years prior. It’s often easy to just show up and not interact or be so involved in your own experience that you forget to reach out to those around you. It would have been incredibly simple for me to take that class, keep my head down and not speak to anyone. It would have been really easy for Merci to ignore whatever smart-ass comment I made that day we started becoming friends, or to just not think of me years later when they were talking about who could design their site.
But we did become friends, and she did reach out to me when they built PMOG. And I’m so incredibly thankful for that and everything it started. Talk to the people around you (in classes, at conferences, at bars). Be kind to them. You never know who will think of you at the exact right moment and set you on a path you would never have found otherwise.
The other story started after a few months of living in Oakland. I was working out of my apartment fulltime, and hadn’t met a single person in the bay area outside the people working with me on PMOG. One day, I decided I wanted to meet some designers in San Francisco. So, I did the only thing I could think of: made a list of web sites I thought were well-designed, figured out who designed them and sent a cold email to the designer telling them I was a new designer in the area and asking if they’d like to get coffee or a beer sometime. In all, I probably sent around 20-30 emails to a variety of creative people in San Francisco.
I received a single reply.
Daniel Burka (who at the time was the creative director at Digg) said that, sure, he’d love to grab coffee. We set up a time and I took the train to the city to meet up with him and his friend Mark. We chatted for awhile and, just before we left, they both mentioned that they were going rock climbing the next morning with friends, and asked if I’d like to join.
Absolutely, I did. The next morning I hopped on a 6am BART train from Oakland into the city to get the climbing gym at 7am. There, I met a few more people, which turned into a few more people, which turned into a few more and suddenly I wasn’t all alone in Oakland anymore. And months later when I was let go from PMOG, I had good friends who helped me find contract work while I looked for something fulltime. Eventually, my friend Willo introduced me to the guys at Zoosk and suddenly I was off to the races, designing products for millions of users.
I wonder sometimes about where I would be now if Daniel hadn’t responded to that email. Most likely, I would have gone back home to Louisiana after PMOG. I wouldn’t have known anyone in San Francisco, wouldn’t have known how to even start looking for new work, etc. It would have been just as easy for him to ignore that email as it was for the other twenty nine people who ignored it. It would have been really easy to get coffee with me and for he and Mark to both say, “Cool, see you later, dude,” instead of inviting me to hang out the next morning. I think about these things and am overwhelmed by feelings of gratitude.
I owe a lot of my success to people who were kind to me, even though they had absolutely no obligation to be so. Now, I make a concerted effort to reply to every single cold email I receive. To be honest, I don’t get a ton, but there are definitely moments when I do get one that I think to myself, “I don’t have time to respond to this,” which I immediately follow up with, “But that was me a few years ago.” And I respond. Because you never know who you’re responding to or what difference even the smallest gesture will make in someone’s life. Being kind isn’t always easy. Or convenient. But it has the potential to change everything.