Pull Quote: Take the time to learn the fundamentals of HTML, CSS, JS and PHP. You'll be glad you did.

Full Circle: Life Lessons of a Perennial Entrepreneur

I didn’t go to college until I was in my 40’s. When I graduated high school I went to work for a family business.

There has been one common thread throughout my adult career, my love for technology.

I was 24 when I bought my first computer, it was PC running MS-DOS.

Five years later, the company I was working for bought a computer program to manage their rental properties. I was responsible for using it and data entry. The program was written by a local software developer. He became a mentor and when problems arose with the code, he walked me through on the phone how to edit and compile the source code. (Yes, he left a copy of the source code on the computer – this was way before remote support was possible.) It was dBase II. Fast forward a few years later and he hired me as a part-time contractor to help him customize the codebase for his clients. It seemed I had a knack for writing code and troubleshooting bugs.

Eventually, I would go on to purchase the source code from him and launch my own property management software company. I ran it for eight years, while I rewrote the entire codebase. My business grew. I learned a lot about sales, running a business and managing employees. Most importantly, I learned how to listen to clients and by doing so, I was able to create the products they needed to run their businesses.

Then, Windows came onto the scene. My software was not Windows compatible. It was running on FoxPro, a Dbase III competitor for MS-DOS. My business plateaued and I was faced with another rewrite of the codebase to stay competitive. To top it off, I’d lost my only support person at the same time. These are the challenges most small business owners face at some point. I was experiencing burnout and needed a change. Long story short, I eventually sold the software line to a competitor who was looking to expand their user base and incorporates some features that were in demand that my product had. It was win-win for both of us and to this day – I’m still happy about that transaction.

I went on to work at a boutique consulting services firm in Houston, Texas as an Account Manager to large Fortune 500 clients, mostly in the energy sector. It was an amazing experience and I learned a lot about working in the enterprise space. This was very different from working with the small property management companies I had previously serviced. It was a great four years. The last year boomed as many clients scrambled to complete their Y2K upgrades.

In the spring of 2000, everything changed. The company had been acquired, and the dot-com bubble had burst. All the Y2K work was done and the world did not end. I decided to take some time off.

In the fall of 2000, I enrolled at a local community college. I spent the next two years and half years completing my core curriculum and then transferred to Texas A&M in 2003 to complete a Bachelor of Science degree in Horticulture.

Why Horticulture? I’ve always loved gardening and jumped at the opportunity to learn everything I could about it.

Life Lesson: In hindsight – I wish I would have completed a degree in Computer Science. It was a bit of my own arrogance, that since I had run a software company and worked at a consulting firm, I knew all I needed to know. Truth was, I didn’t and would have benefited greatly from that experience.

Trying to make a hobby into a business.

In 2003, I decided to open an online store to sell home and garden gifts. I built a website using the Yahoo Store platform, and for the next 5 years watched it grow.

My first introduction to WordPress came when I wanted to start a blog for the store. I like the idea of a self-hosted solution and loved getting back into programming.

I went from running the business from my home to a small warehouse. It was 2007 and the housing market was booming. I jumped at the opportunity to lease a much larger warehouse with a retail storefront.

There were important life lessons in it. One that made a strong impression on me was best described by the character Justin Matisse in the movie Hope Floats:

“You’re talkin’ ’bout the American Dream. You find something that you love, and then you twist it, and you torture it, try and find a way to make money at it. You spend a lifetime doing that. At the end, you can’t find a trace of what you started out lovin’. “

That’s how I felt sometimes when running my store. What I loved about the home and garden space and trying to make money at it were sometimes at odds with each other. I loved designing the website, adding functionality and mastering the art of improving the SEO of the site.

I was about to learn a very painful and valuable lesson. I was financing the growth with debt. I got caught up in the growth curve and was sure that things would just keep getting better, allowing me to pay down the debt. Indeed servicing the debt was not a problem, as sales continued to grow.

Then came 2008 and the Great Recession. For the next three years, I watched sales decline, my credit lines pulled and my business contract. That made servicing the debt, really hard. I was stuck in a lease that I could not afford. Many of the vendors I bought products from went out of business. Everyone was hurting. I was not financially prepared for it.

In the end, a chain of events led to a huge financial mess – one that to this day, I am still recovering from. In 2011, I liquidated the inventory, sold my online store to a third-party and moved on.

Transitioning to WordPress

I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do at that point. I was depressed and dealing with the financial fallout of losing my business.

I wrote content for a garden center and slowly began working on websites for others. I chose to use the Genesis Framework and began customizing their themes for clients. I liked it because it leveraged the power of hooks and filters in a way that made sense to me – and the Genesis community is amazing.

I worked in real estate for a while to help pay the bills, but it just wasn’t right for me.

During this transition period, I used the time to improve my web development skills. I began working with WordPress every day, learning everything I could. I took online courses in HTML, CSS and PHP.

Today, I’m running my own business again, building websites and helping clients promote their digital brand. I learned a lot about SEO running my eCommerce business, how to market products, write copy and promote my brand. Now I’m helping clients do that.

With decades of business experience along with some hard life lessons, here’s what I’ve learned so far:

  1. Don’t assume things will continue in the same direction. Business is cyclical, so like a squirrel – stash away some nuts for the winter.
  2. Stay out of debt.
  3. Know when to hold ’em and when to fold ’em. Sometimes hindsight helps make this clearer, but trust your gut and follow your instincts.
  4. Be helpful to others. Take time to share what you’ve learned, make friends and enjoy the ride.
  5. Learn from every engagement, and take steps to improve how you communicate.
  6. Be a Life-Long Learner. Dedicate time to experiment, think and try new things.

Finally, if you’re considering a career in web design and development in WordPress, take the time to learn the fundamentals of HTML, CSS, JS and PHP. You’ll be glad you did.

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7 comments

  1. This is a good read. Thats an honest take on being a business owner in any platform. Its alot of work.. sometimes it feels like more than its worth, but its freedom, so ill keep going. At the point now when I need to freelance away some of the work. Not enough time in the day honestly.

    Take care, and enjoy the ride.

  2. Marjorie Ray says:

    Thanks for telling your story Jackie, we have many things we have in common, including real estate and horticultural sales!

    I knew you were tech savvy, but I also thought you had a background in design, as I’ve always like the colors and layout you choose for your sites.

    Great post!
    Marjorie

    • Jackie D'Elia says:

      Thank you, Marjorie. Someday I’ll have a nice vegetable garden again – but for now it is houseplants inside and veggies on the balcony.

      One of my favorite work things to do is designing color palettes and layouts.

  3. Nakeita Norman says:

    Great job, Jackie! Even though I have had the opportunity to hear many of these valuable nuggets before from you, I am always amazed at the incredible experience you’ve gained and the extraordinary way that you have consistently taken life’s challenges and made your own delicious lemonade. Keep moving forward and I am confident that you will blaze a path that many others will be honored to follow.

    Standing tall behind you,
    Nikki

    • Jackie D'Elia says:

      Nikki – Always feel inspired after chatting with you. Thank you for your encouragement and friendship.

      P.S. Loved your comment about “delicious lemonade” – so true!

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