Pull Quote: I hope and pray that in some small way I'll be able to take what I've learned and make an impact for others.

I Don’t Know Anything and That’s OK

I grew up on a small farm in lower mid-Michigan. I am the oldest of seven children and was homeschooled from second grade until I started college. Until my first day at Jackson Community College in the summer of 2006 at the age of eighteen, my world consisted of little else besides what existed within the borders of our eighty acre farm. My friends were my siblings. My work was my chores. My curriculum was whatever books we owned. My peers were my parents.

Looking back, I was never dissatisfied with my upbringing. On the contrary, I believe I was quite privileged to have grown up in such an interesting environment where I had the freedom to learn what interested me and was able to bond with all members of my family. I learned about responsibility and hard work while raising animals and helping run the farm. My character was cultivated by my position as a role model for my six younger siblings. My love for learning blossomed as I blazed my own academic path. All of this made me who I am today.

However, I must acknowledge that there were numerous instances in which I found myself poorly equipped for the challenges I encountered when I began taking steps to build a career. Looking back, there were so many times that I felt like I was a complete imposter surrounded by folks who knew what to do and where to go and how to succeed. At least that’s how I felt then. It was pretty stupid. I realize now that no one had a clue. Most people just managed to hide that fact or honestly didn’t care enough about anything so a nonchalant, confident attitude came easier to them.

But my real challenges were never related to the fact that I didn’t know what TV shows anyone was talking about or had never tried the shots they raved about or didn’t know how to play Texas Hold ’em (yet) and a hundred other things that made people my age raise their eyebrows at me. What actually affected my life was my utter lack of a plan. I was a blank slate. And I mean, just about as blank as a person could get. People would ask me what I wanted to do with my life or what I was majoring in and they may as well have been asking me what the winning lotto numbers would be in 2025 or how fusion reactors work or how many lobsters in the Pacific ocean were ambidextrous or why radio stations play Sammy Hagar. It was an absolute mystery. But it was a mystery that I felt immense pressure to solve. I had to do something with my life….but what?!?!

I’m to this day not quite sure how everyone else does it. How do you figure out what path to walk down? I do know that I didn’t have much of anyone to look to for answers or inspiration. My father ran his own painting business and I was pretty sure I didn’t want to do that. But…what else is there? My answer to that was weak. I didn’t have any friends or uncles or parents of friends that I could look to. I didn’t know anyone who wore a tie to work or used a computer every day for their job. I knew a couple farmers who had heard of computers… And so getting ideas, even bad ones, was challenging. A lot of time during my teenage years was spent playing basketball by the barn on my chicken poop covered dirt patch, fantasizing about one day being an NBA star. Still waiting to get signed one of these days…any day now…

I didn’t know who I was or what I was meant to do but it didn’t matter. I had lots of time.

My first job was milking cows on a dairy farm. I did that for a few years and learned a lot. Most of what I learned was what NOT to do with my life. My co-workers were no one’s definition of success and I remember interviewing them to understand how exactly they’d managed to get where they were. I took that knowledge and used it to help influence my life decisions. Whatever these blokes did, I just needed to not do and maybe that would be enough. Not bad logic for a teenager I guess. If only it were that simple.

I can’t recall who exactly said it, but at some point in my youth, some wise soul mentioned in passing to me that computers were a big thing and people with “computer skills” would probably always have work. I didn’t know what that meant by any means but I never had much else to go on. When I was a teen, my dad gave me an old PC that someone had thrown away or something and I enjoyed fiddling with it. I got pretty good at fragging n00bs in Half-Life during overnight LAN parties and liked burning CDs with it. Maybe computers could be my thing? In the absence of any alternative, I chose to halfheartedly pursue a career in technology. Took a few IT classes (after I learned what “IT” is) and even got a part time job where I kinda sorta did computer stuff.

I didn’t know what kind of work was right for me but it didn’t matter. I just needed to get through college.

Everything was going fairly well for a little while. After a couple years of college and getting the hang of my computer-ish job, I began to feel like maybe I could be on to something and the future no longer seemed like a blind leap into a black hole. Everything was peachy until…the perfect girl came along and I had no choice but to marry her.

So my perspective changed pretty quick. Suddenly my sense of responsibility and urgent need to accelerate my career was at the forefront of my mind. I got an addtional part time job at some crappy place and started picking up all the extra hours I could instead of playing paintball with my buddies. I took as many college classes as I could handle, even over the summer, in an effort to complete my degree faster and get to that cushy full time IT job that was waiting for me once I had that coveted piece of paper from the University. At least that was the plan. I hadn’t learned yet that life plans like this aren’t worth much.

After getting married at 22, I relentlessly pursued every opportunity I could find to further my career. But nothing worked. I was passed over for more jobs then I care to remember and couldn’t understand what I was missing. College seemed like it would never end and I was slowly catching on to the depressing reality that a degree guaranteed nothing. I was a full time student with two part time jobs, a wife and a fixer-upper house. My life was pretty busy but deep down I knew I wasn’t doing enough.

There came a point where I found myself depressed from how few responses I was able to get from my resume as I sought to level up my career. I was also getting burned out at college and frustrated with how long and costly the process was, how poorly it seemed to reflect work in the real world and how little it actually guaranteed in the end. I convinced myself that I needed to take matters into my own hands. The life I wanted to lead wasn’t going to come to me if I just hoped for it. So I began seeking additional ways to make myself stand out and add more marketable skills to my tool belt.

I didn’t know how to stand out but it was OK. Because I can always learn new skills.

There were lots of skills I considered. Learning a foreign language, graphic design, video editing, blogging, teaching music, teaching….something else. My scope was broad. All I knew was it needed to be a skill set which I could develop independently, without expensive formal lessons and that promised to add real value to my resume. At some point I recalled an Adobe Dreamweaver class I’d taken online for a couple credits the previous year and thought perhaps that website design thing could be it. Seemed pretty straightforward. Honestly, I think web design was a lot more straightforward back then but that’s beside the point.

So I did a little research online and learned all kinds of interesting things, most of which are completely irrelevant today. HTML tags like `<frame>`, `<marquee>` and `<center>` were powerful weapons in my arsenal. I had no clue what a “CMS” was. Responsive design wasn’t really a thing (at least on my radar) yet and most of my layouts were built using a 960px wide grid and tables (which most of you will chuckle about but only because you were there once too). I eventually found a tutorial series on PHP which I stuck to for quite a while and honestly taught me far more than a semester of web design in college had done.

My saving grace at the time and what made all of this possible was that my primary job consisted of me sitting at a computer all day waiting for an occasional plea for help from other computer users in the room. These requests were typically mundane and trivial problems like “how do I print this entire website?” or “FarmVille isn’t working!” or “can you help me upload these pictures of me singing karaoke to my MySpace page?” or “how can I download these {CENSORED} videos to my flash drive?” and so on. But in between offering these valuable services to society, I found myself with more than enough time to study web design and hone my skills, looking forward to a day when I wouldn’t have to be interrupted every hour by someone who forgot their password to Hotmail…again.

Now as most of us in the web design profession have come to know, everyone needs a website. So it didn’t take long for me to get my first actual projects. Basically the first time I so much as mentioned that I was learning to build websites I had a line of friends and acquaintances asking if I could help them out. So I said yes to a few and threw together some truly unbelievably terrible websites. After that, when thankfully the Internet police did not lock me up for my atrocious Internet polluting crimes, I updated my resume to reflect my new focus and the first application I sent in turned into a paid internship at a marketing agency. After so many prior failures, I couldn’t believe that just adding web design, HTML, CSS, Adobe Dreamweaver and other such “skills” to my credit made such a difference but it did.

I didn’t know where things were headed and if I’d be good at this but it didn’t matter. It was something better.

In just a few short months, I found myself working full time as the Technology Director for the same agency. I put on my tie every morning, commuted 45 minutes one way to the office, worked tirelessly and proved to myself and my supervisors that I was capable of great things. I learned that I could learn anything if I put my mind to it and put it in practice by saying “I’ll take care of that” constantly at work, no matter what was being proposed. My skills evolved rapidly, my responsibilities grew and soon I was earning a respectable living and feeling great about myself and my future. Everything was great…but…

I didn’t know that no matter how certain things seem, life can shake things up. But it was OK because I adapted.

Prior to 2011, I had never given the idea of running my own business any thought at all. I had zero interest in anything like it. But that’s what I ended up doing. The awesome job and bright future I had with an exciting young startup all went down in flames rather suddenly. That’s one of the crazier parts of the whole story but, sadly, not something I want to write about online. Ask me in person if you’re curious.

Anyway, just when I thought I had finally solved that great mystery regarding my professional calling, I found myself quite abruptly in a difficult situation: no savings and no job. Just an ability to make simple websites and some knowledge of marketing. And so, I started a business of my own and began seeking clients. I didn’t know where to start but I came across meetup.com and began attending a few groups that ultimately made all the difference in the world. The first group was a free business networking community where I locked in a few small clients and met my current business partner. The second group was the local WordPress meetup which had fortuitously only just started. I’d been introduced to WordPress by a colleague months ago and had even used it to power a couple company blogs but this meetup opened my eyes to how powerful this software could be.

I recall going to those WordPress meetups back then and what a tremendous difference they made for me. I didn’t know anyone else who did web design and having a place to get my burning questions answered was huge. At the first meetup Peter Shackelford taught me what custom post types were. This was monumental! It was like the first time I was introduced to the minor pentatonic scale on guitar. Suddenly, so much was possible. At another, I learned how to use Chrome’s developer tools. Still others introduced me to game changers like shortcodes, Miniloops, multisite, custom fields and more. It was an exciting time.

I didn’t know how to make great websites but it was OK. I now had the WordPress community.

Less exciting was our client portfolio and prospects. Jackson, Michigan is not a big city. It is a small town that was hit extremely hard by the recession. The downfall of the auto industry made Michigan one of the most economically depressed states in the nation during those years and Jackson was among the cities most negatively impacted. Far more businesses were closing than opening and no one had money to spend on marketing and web design services. At least that we could find. There were honestly days I felt like crying because it was so hard to find paying clients. I’d get up early and dutifully put on my tie, kiss my wife goodbye and head over to some networking event where I tried to persuade retired old ladies selling cupcakes that they needed my help enhancing their online presence. We’d close a few deals here and there worth a few hundred dollars and gradually increased our client base but the going was tough. I had to teach college classes on the side to pay my personal bills so we could keep the business growing.

The business did grow. But there have been many growing pains. We learned painful lessons along the way about hiring the right people, choosing clients wisely, not counting on deals until the money’s in the bank, never taking shortcuts with our work and more. I’ve learned that running a small agency is hard. There have been times where I couldn’t believe how well things were going and times where I questioned whether we should give up or not. Incredible highs and embarrassing lows.

An interesting sub-plot to this part of the story was my role within our business. More specifically what I wanted it to be, what I didn’t want it to be, and what it became. I mentioned earlier that I learned some PHP and how to make websites. That’s true but honestly, I never got very good at it. But…I also never wanted to. The concept of being an actual “coder” had no appeal to me. I knew slightly more than my clients and considered that to be plenty. I also knew more than my partner and colleagues which resulted in the lion’s share of the technical tasks falling on my plate. I worked hard to solve all of the problems our clients had and much of that required some coding but I never went beyond copying and pasting scripts with some minor tweaks here and there.

There came a point when I even had a conversation with my business partner about the amount of code related work I was doing. I was blunt and expressed to him that I didn’t start the company with that in mind and the goal for us was to hurry up and get enough clients so that we could hire someone to handle the development work and I would never have to touch any of it again.

But then a strange moment came some months later when I solved some seemingly challenging problem which impressed my business partner enough that he jokingly pasted a “Code Poet” sticker on my Macbook. I’m not sure how to explain it but at that moment, somehow, everything changed. I was stunned to realize that without even noticing and completely against my intentions, I had grown to like web development. Writing code suddenly wasn’t a burdensome chore to be solved as quickly as possible and moved on from, but instead an exciting challenge with unlimited opportunities.

Since then, development, particularly WordPress plugin development, has become more than just something I do when clients need it. It now rivals playing guitar as one of my favorite free time activities! I seriously never saw that coming.

I didn’t know code could be so fun but it is. And somehow, despite all my resistance, I learned and embraced web development.

As a result of my increased passion for development, we gradually began taking on bigger and better projects. Being able to solve complicated problems in a sustainable way, where I no longer had to give the client a list of things they couldn’t update because the site would break if they did was a huge difference maker. It helped prevent things like being anchored by the support requirements of shoddy past projects and many other crippling and limiting issues. And it has also helped tremendously with my confidence and ability to work with and add value to prospective clients. I look back to the times before I really embraced development and was truly a hack who had only a little more experience with HTML than most of my clients (which I thought was good enough at the time) and found myself sitting in conference rooms of huge companies trying to fake my way to a sale.

Those were terrifying experiences! I used to think job interviews were tough when I was younger but they’re nothing compared to some of the meetings with executives that I’ve had where my expertise was put to the test and all the while I felt like I was living in the first verse of “Lose Yourself” by Eminem, where so much was on the line and I was desperately trying to hide from them the reality that I was just a kid who didn’t know how to solve their problems or even how to build a proper website. But with time, and a serious focus on honing my skills, especially the skills my clients kept requesting, that feeling went away. Today, I still don’t know anything but I believe that I can help my clients and I can learn whatever is necessary and that is what matters.

I enjoy looking back at those challenges and reflecting on the lessons learned from them. I think about how not knowing what to do with my life, while terrifying and frustrating at the time, kept my mind open and receptive to the unique opportunities that came my way. I think about how my realization that slowly plodding along, getting my degree and climbing the corporate ladder one tiny rung at a time was selling myself short and circumstances pushed me to do more in less time than I ever thought was possible. I think about how risking everything by starting a business with no safety net of any kind forced me to succeed or die trying. I reflect on how my having no one to turn to for code problems forced me to learn development myself which eventually became a passion of mine (and lead to the creation of popular tools like this). I recall how being desperate for business in a struggling economy pushed us to find unique and creative ways to differentiate ourselves and grow our company.

Most of all, I think about how the choice to focus on WordPress and immerse myself in this rich community has not only changed the direction of my career for the better but also taken me places I never thought I could go and completely shattered my notions of conventional business philosophies. I’m eternally grateful to all those who’ve selflessly helped me along the way by teaching, hiring, referring and generally supporting me personally and professionally. Most of them don’t even realize what a difference they’ve made. I hope and pray that in some small way, I’ll be able to take what I’ve learned and make an impact for others. I don’t know how, or when or for whom but then, I don’t know anything.

14 comments

  1. John Locke says:

    It’s eerie how much I related to your story, Kyle. I grew up in a small town, too. While I wasn’t home-schooled, the first third of my life I feel like I fell into something I was good at (not tech), and just sort of rode that wave. Web development ended up being a path I chose, rather late to the game, but it’s working out pretty well so far. Love the part about the first verse of “Lose Yourself”…how did you know? Haha…
    Thanks for sharing your story.

  2. Kyle says:

    Thanks John! I appreciate your comment. Awesome that you can relate. So interesting how many of us blindly stumble around until we eventually run into something awesome and wish we’d have found it sooner. WordPress and web development are incredible and I’m so grateful I ended up where I am.

  3. Topher says:

    I grew up in similar circumstances, also in Michigan. Lots of this sounds familiar, though I grew up in the woods, not on a farm. The woods are better. :)

  4. Nate says:

    Awesome, Kyle. Just awesome. I’ve been hacking my way as a full-time WP freelancer over the last year, and definitely identify with the “I’ll take care of that”, trying to learn everything I can on the fly. It’s awesome and brutal, and it’s essential to have a supportive wife:-). I feel like I’m at the cusp of that next step. So excited, so nervous. I don’t know anything either:-). Thanks for writing all this down.

    • Kyle says:

      That’s really exciting to hear Nate. And I love how you describe it as “awesome and brutal” because that’s how I look back on it as well. There were so many times where I made the stupid mistake of agreeing to and promising something I had no clue how to deliver. This caused some serious pain and anxiety for me at the time but in the end I powered through and learned so much more than I would have had I stuck to what I knew only.

      Also, amazing to hear that you’re leveling up. It isn’t easy to do so if you’re really elevating than high five! You must be doing some things right. As I’ve said already, it doesn’t matter what you know now.

      Best of luck to you and I hope to bump into you one day.

      • Nate says:

        Yeah, man, some serious sleepless nights, but that’s how you learn, right:-)?

        Yeah, if you’re ever in Seoul, South Korea, let me know. Easy to bump into people in a city of 24 million!

  5. Isaac says:

    Really appreciated this article. I’m also a homeschooled, self-taught web developer from Northern Michigan! Accept the farm I grew up on was in the Upper Peninsula, so maybe even more rural. lol

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