Would You Do It For Free? Pt 3

I was an art director in a previous life. An “ad man”. Fortunately was lured away early in my career to become a technologist. But, not before developing a real appreciation for the career track I was previously on. It was an easy decision and here’s how it went down:

Art direction is a wonderful creative outlet as well as one of the funnest ways to slowly starve. My wife’s an art director. I’m not going to rain on that parade too much. A lot of my contacts at LinkedIn are art directors or in the ad game. I constantly held myself up in their shadow and came up short in the talent department. On the technical aptitude scale… I had it in spades. Mind you, this was 1989. The LaserWriter was hot. LocalTalk networking was just coming of age. PageMaker was still king of the heap and Illustrator 87, or whatever it was, was tearing it up. I knew this stuff inside out. I drew to it like a long lost love. And, it loved me back.

My art director friends were hiring me to set up their networks and file servers, teach them applications and do the really hard production tasks no respectable IIfx should ever have had to shoulder. There it was. I found my thing. Something I knew I would be passionate about until my dying breath.

I remember a conversation with Grandpa Dave (you know, the blind, really great ham radio operator I’ve blogged about recently…) and he asked me one day during a visit if I really loved doing what I was doing as much as it came across. “Without a doubt,” I told him and he asked me…

“Would you do it for free?”

Damned great question. I thought about it while he dialed in some Canadian buddy of his (still hear that CQ, CQ bit when I think of him). The more I thought, the more I realized: Yes. Yes, I would do it for free and said so.

Grandpa must have known I had taken his question with full consideration. He told me, “Good. Never worry about your career choices so long as you love what you’re doing. If you love it the money will come.” You’ve heard that before. And I’ve heard it too, a million times since. But Grandpa took it a couple sentences further and they’ve made all the difference. “There will be a day when the money’s low and that fire in your belly is all you’ve got to get you through. Hunker down and keep that one little ember alive. You get past that and all kinds of good things will happen. Find ways to make ends meet. Don’t lose your dreams.”

My little Mac consultancy hit a low shortly after that. “Low” is the positive spin. It was lower than a snakes belly. Value Added Resellers (VARs) came along shortly after and a lot of my business went their direction. I kept my cool and maintained a living. And, by that, I mean – the rent and utilities were paid and the car payment was mostly up to date. Mostly. There was nothing in the savings or checking and 401-K was a long, lost memory of the workaday world. Then the fateful day arrived. Three of my corporate accounts called within a week of one another and served 90-days notice. I was going to be putting Grandpa Dave’s wisdom to practice. I asked one of them if this was a final notice or if there was something extreme they’d entertain. “Like what?” I said I’d get back with them early next week if that wasn’t too late. To my happy surprise I found the two other accounts were also open to alternatives. [LESSON: In business, “no” does not necessarily mean “absolutely no”.]

Enter the fork in the road. An ad agency in Dallas had been in contact. They were looking for someone to come and head things up on the technology side of life. I had to investigate it. Flew down. Interviewed well and had an offer in hand. Even accepted. Then the euphoria wore off. This isn’t what I really wanted. This was an easy out. So, I called them back and declined.

First and last time I ever did that. Never again. I headed down the wrong fork. Took a U-Turn and headed down the path my heart wanted to follow all along. My pitch to the accounts early that next week was this. I’d work their accounts six months for free. No charge. In return I was asking for a two year contract with minimums and a modest cure for early termination. The contact had the teeth of a butterfly.

Of course they said yes. I was thrilled to have pulled the bacon out of the fire. It would be the only thing I’d eat for the next six months. But, it also landed me square in Apple’s sights as well as the regional MicroAge franchise. Those three accounts were going to be Apple SMB accounts until I pulled a Crazy Ivan on them. A few months later I found myself working for Apple and living a dream life for nearly three wonderful years.

I was fully prepared to live up to my obligation and charge nothing for six months. I’m told the passion for the platform and the fire in my belly (as well as the agressive negotiations) convinced the folks at Apple I was just crazy enough to draw the call up to the Big Show.

Fast forward almost twenty years later. I’m pursuing my next big adventure with Grocio. Would I do it for free? Absolutely. I believe in it like nothing else before it (even Apple and that’s saying a lot). In a lot of ways it reminds me of Apple – wildly ambitious, focused and driven off some internal machinery I don’t yet fully appreciate. I just know it’s what I have to be doing. Even if it means doing it for free.

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