I Spent my 8th Grade Summer Getting Scammed

Freelance Web Development sounds sexy. You set your own hours and rates, can work from anywhere, and get to do a rotating set of interesting projects.

Breaking in as a freelancer is not easy. I was a 14-year old WordPress “developer”, long on time and naivety, and short on everything else. Armed with these skills, I spent my eighth grade summer getting ripped off.

The Backstory: In middle school, I built websites for my nine year-old brother and a twelve year-old rapper (who would go on to great fame), and tried to figure out how phishing sites worked. With that experience, a logo I got for free on Reddit, and a domain name, I started to try win some freelance gigs.

The First Clients: Every day, I would go through the freelance, forhire, and favors subreddits. If the post involved web design or WordPress, I’d reach out. From the reach out, I got two initial gigs. Both did not pay in cash, but I figured the initial testimonials (and other rewards) would be worth it. 

I built both websites, confirmed that they met their standards, delivered the code, and then politely asked for that testimonial (and in one case, a retro soccer jersey) that had been promised.

And… 

Crickets. 

Both of these “clients” couldn’t even bother to write a couple of nice sentences, and went ghost right after I delivered the code. 

This experience gave me a healthy dose of cynicism, and looking back on it eight and a half years later, some major takeaways.

#1 – People value you at the cost you impose on them. 

Ideally, this would have been solved by charging them for my time. Since that wasn’t really possible, I should have at least ensured that they had spent sufficient time thinking through these projects on their end. These “clients” spent very little of their own time and gave me short broad asks, that clearly had not been planned or thought through. I then spent a bunch of my time taking that, and turning it into a functional website. 

At Healthie, one of the best things we did was start charging for the product almost as soon as it launched. In cases where it’s not possible to get paid, whether for your product or your time, ensure the other party is at least investing similar time on their end. For example, if you’re thinking about doing an unpaid internship, make sure you’ll have a mentor at the company who will spend her valuable time with you. 

#2 –  Be mindful of your leverage.

In both these cases, I sent over all the code and access before I had received my end of the bargain. Once I had sent that, I lost all leverage here. These internet strangers had no reason to fulfill their end. I assume these strangers didn’t have malicious intentions, but life gets busy. Since they had all they needed from me, it wasn’t a priority to compensate me.

I never made this mistake again freelancing. At Healthie, where it’s not just my time, but our team member’s as well, I remain very mindful of our leverage.

#3 –  Follow, Follow, Follow Up. 

Digging up these old emails, I was amazed that I didn’t follow up more with these “clients”. I sent one softly-worded request, and left it at that. Now that I’m older and wiser, I decided to change that. 8+ years later.

Should You Learn to Code?

We’re at an interesting crossroads in the Learn to Code movement. On one hand, we have huge endeavors like the CS4All initiative, which wants “all NYC public school students (to) learn computer science”. On the other,  the rise of No Code tools like Webflow and AirTable allow non-programmers to build fully-featured applications, tools, and websites without any coding knowledge.

Is programming the new literacy? Or is all the money, energy, and legislative time spent on this a huge waste? Most pro arguments here boil down to economic data, high developer salaries, and access to opportunity in an quickly changing world, versus the con side’s fears of commoditization and developer over-saturation. At the end of the day, the numbers here don’t matter, and I’ll spare you the specifics, because they miss the point.

You should learn to program, because programming fundamentally changes the way you’ll approach and attack problems, regardless of the domain. Whether it’s a web application, a complicated travel plan, or a full-blown life crisis, programming will help you effectively tackle problems big and small.

Why? At it’s core, programming is about taking problems, breaking them down into smaller pieces, and continuing to break them down until they become solvable. Take the Fitbit integration we built as part of Healthie (the startup I work on). It’s a relatively complex feature that involves regularly authenticating with Fitbit, pulling down a wide range of data, and converting it into the data format we use at Healthie. This feature, when broken down, goes from a wide-ranging description into a couple dozen simple functions, that someone with a few days of programming experience could probably understand.

This is a calming way to go through life. The same way of thinking suddenly makes big, scary problems simpler and more approachable. What used to sound overwhelming and impossible becomes an organized path with individual steps and clear progress points.

The hard (and valuable) part of programming isn’t the art of writing lines of code, but the art of breaking problems down. Writing lines of code is one way to do it, but likely not the only way, and maybe not even the best way. As this becomes clearer to educators and legislators, I expect teaching basic HTML to go away, in favor of a more wholistic focus on problem solving, even if it doesn’t involve a computer.

Thoughts or Comments? Let me know on Twitter

Finishing Fights

Sports idioms are everywhere, startup world included. We talk about home runs ideas, ball park estimates, and (nonsensically) below par quarters.

These analagoies permeate casual conversation, board meetings, and all-hands, but they are (pun intended) off-base.

Building a start up isn’t a ball game, it’s a fight sport. What’s the difference?

1) There’s more than one way to win

In football, baseball, soccer, basketball, etc, there is exactly one way to win. You score more points than your opponent. When my (un)loveable loser Jets are down 20 points, their only hope of winning is to score 21. Hell, even quidditch, the sport from Harry Potter — a fantasy book full of mythical creatures, flying brooms, and literal magic —  follows this. The Golden Snitch just gives the catching team 150 points. If 150 points isn’t enough to close the deficit? Tough luck, your team loses.

Deficits exist in start ups and fight sports as well, and should not be ignored. Periods of poor, lagging performance can leave founders, boxers, and wrestlers behind their competition. If not corrected, time can run out, those deficits can become final, and the competition can be decided on points, just like all the sports mentioned above. However, unlike those aforementioned sports, those deficits can be short circuited.

No matter the score, no matter the time remaining, fighters and founders are never more than one punch, pinning combination, or well executed idea from breaking through and short circuiting, not closing, the deficit. It doesn’t matter how bad things have been, and how far behind you are. Until the final bell is rung, or the company is closed, there’s a fighting chance.

2) There are no substitutions

When football games become routs, both sides, winning and losing, pull their main players and ease up. The stars sit on the bench, the clock runs down, and the coaches prepare to shake hands. When a basketball player gets injured, he comes out, a sub goes in, and the game continues. In start ups and fight sports, this concept doesn’t exist. If a fighter gets injured and can’t continue, the fight is over. If the founders burn out and quit, it’s (effectively) a death sentence for the company.

Just like a UFC fighter needs to fight smart and not gas out too early, founders need to be smart about their physical and mental energy as well. To repeat a cliche I used to vehemently not believe, it’s a marathon, not a sprint. Finish the fight.

Agree or disagree? Let me know via twitter or email or elsewhere.

Startups, Sports, Poker, Music, and More

I am the CTO and cofounder of Healthie.  Prior to doing that full-time, I dropped out of Penn, did a range of contract gigs (including in Portugese, a language I do not speak), and tried to start a few things that did not pan out.

Outside of work, I’m a poker player, submission grappler, and songwriter, trying to be less mediocre at all 3.

I started this to start sharing and building a record of my thoughts. I’ve gotten really into Fred Wilson, and other bloggers, and want to start doing something similar on a small-scale myself — both for my own sake (it’s interesting to see my prior thoughts), but also to try to become a greater part of the  larger community

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