I grew up in a family that didn’t have much money. Even though my dad worked like crazy to provide for us, there was just never enough money to go around. In fact, on many occasions, I remember watching my mom try to create a dinner out of random bits of canned and dry goods that were in left over in the pantry because there was no money for groceries. At other times, relatives would drop off care packages full of food to make sure we had food to eat. And I’ll never forget seeing my dad scrape together whatever spare change he could find – including antique coins out of his own coin collection – just to buy milk, or eggs, or a box of macaroni and cheese for dinner.
Now, let me pause for a minute to say I’m not looking for sympathy here.
This is just to set the stage for the rest of my story, and to drive home the fact that even a person from a poor family who’s had no outside financial help can build a rockstar career.
Now, back to the story….skipping ahead a few years to my senior year of high school.
I was an above average student throughout high school, but didn’t make good enough grades to earn a scholarship to college. Knowing my family’s financial situation, I knew there was no way my parents could afford to contribute to my college education either. And with my eyesight below minimum enlistment requirements, joining the military’s ROTC program was out of the question.
So I decided to get a job, work for a while, then figure out my next move. After a while I found work at the neighborhood grocery store as a “stock boy” and cashier working for minimum wage (which was a little more than $5 per hour at the time).
Then, finally, opportunity knocked.
An opportunity for a new career
Stan, one of my close childhood friends, was working for a prepress company not far away (at the time, there were “prepress” companies that would take files designed by ad agencies and output film negatives of the art that would then be taken to a print shop to be printed), and had just been offered a job at another company at a better salary.
So he offered to train me to take over the job he was about to leave.
Since the job he was offering me would basically double my income, I’d work my full shift at the grocery store, then work with Stan into the wee hours of the morning learning my new job (I remember I was only getting about 3 hours of sleep a night at that time, and my “initiation” project involved working 3 days straight with only one hour of sleep).
After a few weeks, Stan left for his new job and I had quit the grocery store to work as a Prepress Technician / Graphic Designer – almost exactly one year after graduating high school.
The birth of my rockstar attitude
Working at this new job was where I first formed what I consider my personal “rockstar” attitude.
One day while I was working on learning more about the software I used for my job, I remember thinking “If I’m going to be a graphic designer for my career, then I’m going to be the best damn designer there is.”
So I threw myself into learning everything I could about my craft. I started studying the designs the ad agencies were bringing in for me to output, I learned everything I could about the computer systems and software that was used in my industry, and I started building an “idea book” – a scrapbook of ads, direct mail pieces, brochures, et cetera that caught my attention – and studied their design.
I also started hiring myself out as a freelance designer, which led to my next career move.
Moving from “rookie” designer, to print shop manager, to marketing manager….
One of my very first freelance clients recommended me for a job as an Art Director for a statewide magazine. So I went to see the publisher to find out more about the position, and walked out of his office as their new Art Director. This new job meant I was personally responsible for everything relating to the design, layout, and production of the magazine, as well as designing ads for companies who were paid advertisers and didn’t have artwork to supply us.
From there I took a job at a local print shop, working my way up to being one of the shop managers in charge of the design department, and often ran the business in the owner’s absence.
Next, I was hired as the Marketing Manager for a yellow pages company that published 26 phone books in 3 states. It was at this job that I learned photography and website design – because they were suddenly dumped in my lap. One day I got a call from the Vice President of the company asking me “how are you with a camera?” When I said “ok, I guess,” his reply was “Good! Go buy a digital camera and you’re going to be taking the photos for the covers of our directories from now on.” The company website was made my responsibility in similar fashion. At this company, I also had the opportunity to attend many seminars and conferences to hone my skills, helped write the company’s design standards manual, and held a training seminar to teach all the other designers in the company how to improve their skill and turn out better designs that look good in print.
A huge opportunity that went bust
Throughout this time, I continued pushing myself to be better at my job with each new position I took. I also continued hiring myself out for freelance design and marketing jobs on the side. And one of those freelance positions led to the biggest opportunity that never was.
One of my freelance clients told me one day that he was planning on quitting his job to start an ad agency, and he wanted to take me on as his business partner. We talked about it for a while, worked out the details, and a new agency was born.
After quitting my job at the directory company, I began to work for our new company full time serving the marketing needs of our clients (which was made up of his freelance clients as well as my own). And for a while, everything was going great.
Until my partner got greedy.
Unfortunately, my business partner got wind of an opportunity to join forces with an up-and-coming local agency that was making strides in the entertainment industry, and decided he wanted it all for himself. So he managed to find a loophole in our contract, cut me out of the company, and took all my clients with him – leaving me with no job, no income, and no clients to start over with.
So it was back to “square one.” I started looking for work, and soon found a job opportunity at a company that manufactured and sold mobile homes throughout the eastern half of the United States.
So I went for the interview, talked with the marketing manager and the owner, and headed home. While I was there I had some concerns about the company’s culture and work environment, so when I received a written offer a few days later, I called them and politely declined the job.
They raised the offer.
I thanked them for the flattering offer, but explained I still had some specific concerns, and again declined the job.
They raised the offer yet again, and threw in some additional benefits as well.
By this time, I hadn’t found any other jobs, and the meager savings I had been living off was running out, so I decided to accept the job on a trial basis.
It was the best marketing department I’d ever worked in. In fact, Darren, the guy that was my boss at the time is now one of my best friends.
After a while, Darren left the company to start his own business, and I took over his spot as Marketing Manager.
Launching out on my own
I had a great run working at that company and pulled off some amazing marketing campaigns (Darren and I still marvel at what we pulled off when we worked there).
But around 2003, I decided I’d had enough.
Unfortunately I had been working a lot of long hours and since my house was an hour-and-a-half drive (one-way) from work, it made for a lot of really late nights. Especially in the winter when the morning drive to work took three hours because of snow covered roads.
One day while I was working on a new website for one of the company’s developments, I remember thinking to myself “why am I busting my ass to put money in someone else’s pocket when I could work just as hard and keep the money for myself?”
So with a few hundred dollars in the bank, and two credit cards in my pocket, I started my own marketing company and quit my job.
Being scared shitless is a great motivator
When I quit my job to start my own marketing company, I had one client and a part-time “temp” job that, combined, gave me three months of being able to pay my bills before I was in trouble.
Needless to say, I was scared shitless.
But, despite the fear, I still had to make this work somehow. So I worked hard, and made some connections with other companies that my clients were using on a regular basis (like print shops, sign companies, etc) and the referrals started rolling in. I also did some niche marketing with direct mail, pay-per-click ads, and trade show appearances.
Within three years of quitting my job, I had two employees working for me, and was making six figures per year. I had also won several prestigious design awards and have been an official judge for those same competitions every year since.
Not bad for a guy who used to work in a grocery store, doesn’t have a college degree, and is 100% self-taught, eh?
The moral of the story
The reason I wanted to share this story with you is not to brag about how great I am, but so it will be a source of inspiration, and to show you that anyone can be a rockstar in their niche if they choose to be – even a guy like me from a poor family, who has no college degree, and is completely self-taught.
Believe me, I’m nothing special. I’m just a regular guy that worked hard, learned all he could about his industry, and took the leap of faith to work for himself.
And if I can do it, so can you.
It’s not easy, it takes a lot of work, and you have to be willing to take risks and get used to uncertainties – but you CAN be a rockstar.
Assuming that you’re already good at what you do, all you need is a rockstar attitude. I remember when I was first getting started in graphic design over 15 years ago, I told myself that if I was going to do this new career, then I was going to be the best damn designer there was.
And even though I may not actually be the best designer in the world, that attitude got me where I am today, won me several industry awards, and was the motivation I needed to be successful.
The question is, what does YOUR “rockstar” attitude look like?
What do you see as your rockstar attitude? What kind of things do you think in your head to get yourself motivated? How can you take that self-talk and use it to propel yourself to become the rockstar of your niche?