From Zero to Technology: My Story • New Tricks
 In Business Tips

man happily jumping through a hoopOver the last month, I  worked with a successful commercial realtor, with over thirty years experience, to create an online presence that reflected how truly successful he is.  These days it is great to be successful but if you don’t show up that way online, one starts to feel a bit left out. My client wanted me to help him look good. So we set up a plan which included the following:  update his logo, change his static website to a WordPress site, update his Linkedin Profile, create and customize his Facebook Page, set up and brand his Twitter account and then send out a MailChimp newsletter announcing the launch of his new online presence.

I also helped this client to get his online activities organized and synced across his various devices. He had an iPhone and iPad but was using Outlook on his home computer, so he couldn’t access his contacts while away from his office. I set up a Gmail account for him so his business email’s showed up in the new Gmail account, as well as his Gmail  e-mails.

I exported his contacts from Outlook and imported them into Gmail so that his contacts are now available from anywhere he logs in. In order to have access to the files he regularly needs while away from the office,  I suggested that he use Dropbox to upload files to the cloud so they can be accessed and shared from any device he is using with Internet access.  From Dropbox he is now able to  highlight a file and push the button to e-mail it  to someone while on the go. When I finished setting this up, my client was like a kid on Christmas. With a big smile, he asked, “You mean I don’t have to drive all the way to the office to get a contract sent out to someone?

It thrills me to help people get up to speed on using technology to grow their businesses and to make their lives easier.  Helping this client, who is my age,  confirms my logo that it is never too late. I also caused me to reminisce about my journey to get where I am with technology.

My first experience with computers was in the late seventies when I was working on my PhD in Psychology.  We had a language requirement that could also be satisfied by taking computer classes. I chose to take another year of French which did not serve me well, having been to Paris once for three days. Those computer classes would have come in handy since I was required to complete a master’s thesis and then later a dissertation that both required statistical analyses of the data. Those were the days where your data went on a million computer cards that were kept in long rectangular cardboard boxes. I would drop the date cards off to the graduate assistant in the mainframe computer lab and come pick them up later along with reams of computer printouts with the results of my research.

This was before we had word Processors. Those were the days of typewriters and using self-correction white out and then tape to type over or erase mistakes! Another problem was that I never took typing in high school for fear that I would end up typing for someone.  No not me. Not ever. I  sure regret that decision when I see how fast my daughter can type. But I digress.

My first job as a newly licensed PhD Psychologist, was a part-time position on an Alcohol and Drug Program and part-time in private practice. I didn’t need a computer to do my work. In fact, I did not have a computer or even a typewriter in my office  or anywhere on my ward in the hospital. After six months, the director of the program left the company and I twas promoted to his position. Still no computer at work or at home. By that time, I did have a word processor in my office which I used to write letters and create basic documents.

When I married the Medical Director of our program, he was into computers. We bought a computer for our new home,  but it was really his computer. I was able to use it on the rare occasions when he was not on it to do a letter or something on WordPerfect. But  when I went to get on it when my husband was not home, nine times out of ten,  he had changed some little thing that would completely thwart my efforts to get online or find my document.

After we married, I  worked for a couple of years for a national healthcare company as Product Manager of Mental Health Services, flying around the country creating new mental health programs and teaching the staffs how to market them. When I had children, I left that traveling job for my private practice so I could spend more time with the kids. About that time, 1989 my now ex-husband wrote a program for his psychiatric staff to use to to create multidisciplinary treatment plans for the patients. When I saw his treatment planning program, seeing the writing on the wall, I said,  “Everyone is going to want this… when they get computers in the psychiatric hospitals.”  He set about making it into a commercial product and  a couple of years later we were faced with having a product that we had to take to market. We thought we could hire a company to do that for us and when it became apparent that was not ever going to succeed, everyone said,  “Judi, you have to run the company.”

So I was the reluctant start-up. One of my reservations was the the fact that my youngest child was just going into first grade and I had been looking forward to having more time to do my own projects. I had been working part-time in private practice which gave me time to do some renovation and building projects such as designing and building a cottage in our yard and building a Florida beach house. I knew that a start up was a huge amount of work and a huge learning curve and I would be totally consumed with it. My second reservation was that other than a little word processing, I didn’t  know much about computers. But someone had to do it. So I gave up my psychology practice and became the CEO of a software start-up.

As it happened, my  marketing experience with the healthcare company helped me understand how to get this product to market, my subject matter expertise, spacial and design experience, and an innate understanding of useability issues prepared me well to help design the user interface for our niche and most importantly, my PhD research experience which I never thought I would ever need, prepared me to write grants and secure millions of dollars of funding from the Small Business Innovative Research (SBIR) program from the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse, an Alcoholism and agency who was looking to have such a program developed.

It was at this company, I got my own computer. I dove into learning to use it to run my business including having to learn accounting and Quickbooks. I also had to learn enough to train other people, typically with little computer experience, to use our software. Startups are an amazing amount of work in the first years,  but somehow it did work out and our company grew to the point that the next step to growth had to be integration with a medical billing system. Since we did not have the experience to build that and there were several widely used, our best strategy was to get bought out by a billing software company.  Early on, when I was first getting the company set up, a venture capital guy came in to talk to me about our business  said, ” You are doing great now but, when you get to a certain size you’ll want to get in a real CEO.” I was so insulted. “Humph…. a real CEO?”

Over the next several years our company outgrew our original office space.  One of my hobbies was building and renovating homes. So I looked around and found a historic cotton sorting warehouse on the edge of one of Atlanta’s cool Intown neighborhoods and converted the old office space of the warehouse into our new office.  In order to afford the renovation,  my husband and I sold our house and lived with friends for a few months while I built out a temporary space there for us to live. Then,  over the next year, in my free time, I designed and built out a 6,000 sq foot loft space at the rear of the building for our family home.

By the time our company had gone through three major software rewrites from DOS to Windows and then to My SQL we had 16 employees.  I was loving the creativity of the building projects I was doing but was hating my day to day job which ended up being more about managing people and grants than doing the more hands on things that I liked. I found myself thinking, “Where is that real CEO? I understood that the financial guy understood that I was an entrepreneur and not a manager.  I knew I had to find someone to who could take my place and could take the company to the next level. This was hard for everyone to understand that I was doing this for the good of the company. It didn’t help that when I did find a terrific new CEO and left the day to day work at our company, I also left my husband.

For the very first time since I was 12, if you count babysitting and other part-time jobs, I was unemployed.  I knew I did not want to go back to practice Psychology. In fact although I had kept my license at that point, I was so sure that I did not want to ever practice psychology that I let my license expire. I had made a good hiring decision for my replacement and  eighteen months later,  he was able to arrange and did so before the .com crash. It wasn’t for a wild amount of money,  but we were happy with it. The money I received, gave me some working capital to continue to build out four other spaces in the warehouse and I parlayed the funds from the sale of those units into other building projects. Over those years, I became very computer savvy, proficient with financial software, spreadsheets and the Internet. I even met my current husband on Match.com.

During this time period when I continued to do some fun real estate development projects, I asked a friend to teach me Photoshop so I could create my own flyers and ads for my projects.  I was frustrated with the process of having to ask a web designer to make changes for me so I taught myself to create and update my own static websites.  I was never happy with the way these static websites handled new content. And I always had new content.  I would feature my recent projects on the front page but what happened when I had a new most recent project? I wouldn’t want to take the other project to another page or off the site. But that is what I had to do and it created a navigational nightmare when trying to go back to view my other projects.

Then six years ago, I Googled my business name and to my complete surprise, what came up,  number one,  was a post on Dogster ( Facebook for Dogs) written by my Basset Hound, Craig. He had written just three posts after joining our family and Craig’s post was number one in the Google search on my business name while my business website came up number forty – on the fourth page – which no one ever gets to.

Screeshot of Dogster post by Craig Longfellow and Judi KnightAs you can imagine, this turn of events gave me pause. I couldn’t figure out why this happened and asked everyone I knew. Finally, someone explained that Dogster was a content management website. Content Management sites are built on databases and have great power in online searches becasue of their ability to add, organize and serve up fresh content.  When I heard these facts,  the light bulb went off above my head and I thought, “Everyone is going to want this”. I set out to teach myself how to blog and chose WordPress as my platform. It was slow going since WordPress was pretty new then and I didn’t know anyone else doing this that I could learn from. When I first got started, I didn’t even know other people who were blogging.

Over the next year or so, I started seeing signs that the building industry was going downhill and worried with the crazy loans and overbuilding.  I decided this was the time to finish what I was working on and not build anything else I had to sell. That gave me a lot of free time.  I would go to my local coffee shop to hang out with my friends and be talking to them about their websites and why they should change to Word Press.  I started helping friends and family  with their websites and someone would over hear us talking at the coffee shop and and ask for my card.  I didn’t have a business so I didn’t have a card.

This was 2008.  I was blogging and doing some special renovation projects and wondering what I was going to do next. Some of my friends were buying foreclosures which they fixed up enough to rent out. Although it seemed like I should be doing this, I couldn’t bring myself to do that kind of building. It was then I realized my whole interest in building was as an art form. I loved designing and building special projects; an historic cotton sorting warehouse into lofts, a historic deco apartment building which needed saving by renovating and converting into condos, a seven unit beach house town home project that needed to be rebuilt after hurricane Ivan. I was not at all interested in making a living as a slum lord. I loved designing and building wonderful spaces for people and I realized that I was at my core, an entrepreneur but more fundamentally, an artist. But I did not know how I was going to make a living when building in the US had come to a complete halt. I loved blogging and tried to think about how to parlay that into a business.

While having these revelations and job worries, people who I did not know started asking me to help them with their businesses and to design their websites  which I did in WordPress and was compensated for doing so.  Surprisingly, this work seemed to me as satisfying as building them a real office or home. And really, I was building their online homes.  In January of 2009, when everyone else noticed that the economy  had tanked  I looked around and noticed I had a steady stream of paying clients and officially started my webdesign business. Yes, with no formal training in graphics or web design, I started my business,  in the worst economy since the Great Depression. I named my business New Tricks, becasue it was a completely new business for me using  new technology and I was teaching people to use these new technologies along with the new social media applications, to grow their companies.

I began to coach clients on starting and growing their businesses and unlike my psychology clients, I could actually have personal relationships with them. It was exciting to help people create their branded online presence using a WordPress website as the core of their marketing. I was totally energized and passionate about this new endeavor and saw how perfect everything was in that this business was a culmination of everything I had done before, combining psychology, marketing, technology and design.

Many people that I work with have the feeling that it is too late or they are anxious that somehow they are behind. I might expect it from my older clients, but I also hear it from younger people too. If that is you,  I hope you can take heart in hearing about my long, circuitous  journey from being a Luddite to Web Designer and Social Media Marketer.  I am thrilled to be alive today when we have such cool ways to get our words out and be connected with people all over the globe.  I love when I can help other people like my Real Estate Broker client, get that same rush. And this is why my motto is, it’s never too late. It’s never too too late to start a new business or to learn to use new technologies. Really, it’s not – but you have to just start. Start from wherever you are,  putting one foot in front of the other and eventually you will get to where you didn’t even know you wanted to go.

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