What does it take to succeed?
If you’re reading this post, it’s likely someone took a chance on you. If you got a “lucky break” somewhere along the way, someone took a chance on you. And if good things tend to happen when you’re around, I’ll bet they often started when someone took a chance on you. You have to be good, and lucky – this part is about the lucky.
Sacramento, CA – July 1996. For some reason I thought it was sensible to pack up everything I owned, follow a girlfriend across the country, learn HTML in 24 hours, and apply for a job as a “webmaster” using a newfangled thing called an online classified ad in the Sacramento Bee to apply for a job making web sites for a guy who ran two McDonald’s restaurants in Davis, CA. (Yes, that’s right – I was one of the few people making web sites in 1996 who had “McDonald’s” on my W-2 because he hadn’t changed his business license yet for his new business.)
Yet that one choice (thanks, Dan Lintz) to hire a novice “web master” who then learned graphics, programming (ColdFusion FTW), client services and team management in what constituted my first real “startup” substantively changed my career. Dan took a chance on me because I was persuasive, because I bluffed my way into knowing the things that I eventually learned and excelled and because I was willing to put myself out there and do what it took to win customers.
Leap, and then Look
What did working for the McDonald’s of web design teach me about taking a chance on people?
First, that people aren’t necessarily what they seem at first glance, and that first impressions are important. I believe Dan gave me a shot because I took the leap of believing that I could do the job of “webmaster” (whatever that was) and then found the parts of the job where I excelled and the parts of the job where I needed help. What I didn’t know, I learned along the way. Two months into the job, our programmer quit. Dan handed me a CD of O’Reilly Website that included something called “ColdFusion” and said something to the effect of “this looks like it can send emails. Can you learn this? Without the first chance, I wouldn’t have been able to warrant others – and to give that chance to them.
The second thing that working for Dan taught me about working for a startup is that the only constant is change. We learned what we were doing as we were doing it. That didn’t mean that we learned everything at once, but that we optimized for a “good enough” experience. At the time, I think we did that because we didn’t know better. I now believe that an “up and stumbling” approach to most problems when everything else about a project is unknown makes sense and conserves resources to think about new challenges you don’t know yet.
The third and most important thing I learned during my stint as a webmaster for a business that began its life as a McDonalds is that the people are the very most important part of the business. Dan took a chance on me because he believed in me as a person and thought I could do what his business needed to succeed. Did he know exactly what he would need and thought I was the best person for the job? Maybe – but he gave me a chance to prove it to him and I’m glad he did.