The first time I heard Smells Like Teen Spirit, it was like a freight train sucker punched me in the chest. I was a teenager at the time and I’d listened to a lot of music before, but I’d never felt *it* until I heard that song come over the radio for the first time. It was the beginning of something.
I immediately went on a record store rampage, spending all the money I could earn on CDs by bands I’d never heard of, trying to rediscover that feeling of *it* I experienced when I heard that song for the first time.
I remember starting with the Pixies (the guy at the record store told me they were a big influence on Kurt Cobain. He was right). Then I started moving backwards through time to Talking Heads, David Bowie, The Beatles, and on and on until I finally made it all the way back to Bo Diddley and his little square guitar.
I ended up falling in love with the psychedelic music of the 60s and 70s, because to me it felt less like a product and more like an adventure. And after my first viewing of The Wall, I promised myself that no matter how old I got, I would never become a cog in the machine.
My definition of a cog: when you sacrifice your freedom or individuality for the good of someone else.
Our lives take strange paths sometimes. Though I never would have guessed it (nor would it have even been possible to at the time), my love of music directly led to my career in affiliate marketing.
This is how.
I don’t need no stinking diploma
I had no interest in going to college when I graduated high school. Not because I didn’t like to learn (I loved it and still do), but because I recognized that I had no idea what I wanted to do with myself. At that point, I only knew what I didn’t want to be: a cog in the machine.
I was certain that going to college without a clear direction would just accelerate my transition into being a cog. Within 10 years I’d wind up like Patrick Bateman, applying a wax face each morning and debating the artistic merits of business cards.
Meanwhile, I’d run into a musical rut. I wasn’t feeling *it* anymore. All the music I could find in the record store was feeling old and tired. It was around this point that a guy I worked with gave me an audience recording of a Phish show (3/12/93, for those of you who you care), and turned me on to live music.
So while my friends were all packing up their stuff for college, I took the money I’d saved from working after school as a steakhouse cook and hit the road in search of *it*.
Ladies and gentlemen, the Phish from Vermont!
I spent the better part of 3 years following Phish around the country, and it was one of the defining experiences of my life.
I got to see the country, experienced *it* on a near nightly basis, achieved a great perspective of what’s actually important in life (hint: not business cards), met a lot of great people (including my future wife), and I learned how to make money on the road.
While following Phish, I learned these key lessons about life and business:
1. Look like you’re supposed to be there and nobody will question you. Sometimes you might have to carry around different colored wrist bands in your backpack.
2. Value is relative. I used to sell bottled water in the parking lots for gas and food money. I did ok. But it was much more valuable to people when I stood right by the entry gates (I sold more and for higher prices).
3. Provide value and people will love you — even on your off nights. I learned this from the band.
4. Authority is an illusion.
5. If you’re good to people, you will always be welcome. I quit so many jobs to go on tour, but always tried hard to leave gracefully. I was always welcomed back when I got home.
6. Freedom is worth a whole lot more than money. I didn’t get any value out of money beyond what I needed for food and gas. Once those basic needs were met, money wasn’t good for much.
It was an adventure. But it couldn’t last forever.
Get a job, hippie
When my daughter was about a year old, we moved to Charlottesville, VA. I needed a job, but I wasn’t willing to sell my happiness for money. As luck would have it, I managed to get what was a dream job for me at the time: working in merchandising for Dave Matthews Band.
Now, when I say that I worked in merchandising, what I really mean is this: when people ordered Dave Matthews merchandise online, I would grab the order sheet off the printer, take the merch off a shelf, put it in a mailer, and drop it in a bin that the mailman would pick up at the end of the day.
It was a simple job, but it was my first exposure to how online business worked. It wasn’t long before my wheels started spinning. I wanted to make money online for myself. But how?
I didn’t have the answer to that question right away, but I knew right then that I wanted to learn how to build websites.
With a clear direction in mind, it was time to go to college.
On second thought, I’ll take that diploma
After a long educational hiatus I applied to The College of William and Mary, got in, and enrolled in the computer science program. It was *tough* going to school full-time with a family, but the experience taught me a strong work ethic and I tip my hat to everyone who makes it through it. When I left college, I had a good foundation of the technical skills I needed to make a living online, but I didn’t have the business sense.
I took an entry-level job working in the online advertising department at Media General (a pretty big news corporation in the southeast). I made considerably less money in that position than I would have as a programmer, but it was a trade-off I was willing to make for more exposure to the business side of running a website.
I ended up learning a ton about how the advertising business works on the internet, and it wasn’t long before I started building my own affiliate sites in my spare time and applying what I learned at work (for the following five years, I would spend 2-3 hours a night working on my sites after the kids went to bed. That’s what it takes when you have a job, wife and kids. There is no golden bullet.).
I learned SEO as I went along, and with a lot of practice I started getting pretty good at it. I eventually took over SEO for Media General, and it wasn’t too long before I quit for an in-house SEO position at Snagajob. And again, I applied everything I learned to my own sites.
I enjoyed my job, and I worked with great people. But I’d started noticing something about myself. I was taking things too seriously. I was losing my perspective on what’s really important (not business cards). And I’d started to hit that point on the professional development scale where I was sacrificing freedom for money.
When I looked into my future, I could see only one path remaining: a cog.
It was nobody’s fault but own. And I didn’t like it.
On February 3rd, 2012 I quit my job. I’m hopeful that it’s the last job I’ll ever have to quit.
After five years of steady work, my affiliate sites were successful enough that I believed I could match my salary in six months with full-time dedication.
I hope I’m right, but only time will tell. Either way, I’m happier now than I’ve been in years. I have the freedom that I’ve always needed to be happy. And I owe it all to rock and roll.