The Growth of a Disruptive Geek: My Story

I am often asked by friends and family members who see my controversial posts, “Why (or How) do you get so many people to comment on your stuff?”

Now, I’ll admit, not every one of my posts stirs the pot, but I usually know which ones will when I post them. This won’t be a “stir the pot” type article, but rather, a story of how I got started in the business of creating conversations on the web.

8th Grade: I was the geek who could make websites

It started when my family got an internet connection.  This was around 2000, so it was 56k dial up from AOL that I could only use for 30 minutes a day because we only had one phone line. I was, at the time, an avid Lego user, so building things naturally tickled my fancy. When I realized that computer programs and websites were just things built by people, I realized that I had to know how they worked.

I bought my first coding book around 7th grade (2001/2002), and began to struggle through Visual Basic.  I didn’t get far because I was not patient enough and you couldn’t Google things to find tutorials as well as you can now. So, I moved to the web, where I quickly grasped HTML, a much simpler concept for a 12 year old.

In 8th grade, I made my first website (hosted on Geocities or Yahoo!, I don’t remember).  It was a collection of rumors that I had gathered from my “cooler” friends in the class about who liked who, and who got caught kissing someone, and which teachers were picking their noses. It was completely stupid, but it quickly got noticed.

I used AIM to pass the word around to everyone in the class using an anonymous account called “SecretDirt” and pretty soon, the students, faculty, and teachers at my school were furiously trying to find out who created this awful piece of work.

High school: I sold out

Despite the rush of building, launching, and soon after deleting “SecretDirt”, I wanted to be cool in high school. I went to a bigger school where I knew almost no one, and joined the football team in order to fit in better with the people I knew would be a part of the “in” crowd. Even so, I was always a bit of an outcast among the social elite in high school (likely due to my lack of natural athletic ability), and found myself in the middle-range of “not quite nerds, but decidedly uncool anyway” people.

I got very involved in Student Counsel, and made it to the VP spot my senior year. I started trying to fit in more with the intellectual kids, but they were skeptical as I acted too much like a jock for their decidedly “un-jock” ways. Even so, I had a good group of fellow middle-grounders like myself, but I was careful not to pursue anything too geeky.

College: f*ck it, Engineers make more money

I liked math and physics, but I kept that to myself in high school. When I got to college, I quickly realized that those old high school stereotypes are completely stupid, and had no bearing on your place in the real world. I declared my major within a couple weeks – Mechanical Engineering.

I knew three things about myself at the time:
1. I liked working with people.
2. I wanted my career to involve creating things.
3. I was faster at learning math and science related topics than most people.

Besides that, I knew that as an engineer, money would never be an issue. I grew up relatively poor, so I knew what it was like for a family to struggle with money, and I didn’t want to be in that position. Being an engineer who understood people would be a huge plus, right?

Post-College: back to the drawing board

After working two years of internships with three different companies as an engineer, I knew that I didn’t want to grow up to be one.

I was doing fine in my classes, but finding it increasingly difficult to care. I had worked in the industry long enough to know that engineers didn’t use third year heat transfer in their day-to-day work. Hell, they didn’t even use the Pythagorean Theorem.  The top-level engineers didn’t even do engineering; they made lower-level guys who actually understand the stuff do work for them.

Even so, I wasn’t going to quit after 5 years of studying and working on this. I started teaching myself web development, founded a blog at the University of Tennessee, quit my job, and found enough freelance clients to pay the rent.

At this point, I was struggling. I had been paid for working 30 hours per week as a technical writer, when in reality, I was spending between 10 and 15 hours per week working, and another 10-15 hours per week at my desk learning to build websites. My bosses always loved my work, and I was always ahead of schedule. I didn’t see a reason to work more when I got paid the same amount as my peers, produced the same results, and worked half as much. Call me dishonest if you want, but in an hourly job, there’s no incentive to work harder than you have to.

My blog at UT started to catch on. Over 200 students applied to write within the first two months, and in weeks we had over 80 regular writers. Most of the content was crappy, but we had a few articles that carried us to well over 10,000 pageviews per month by the end of the semester.

A Passion Unlocked

I realized at this point that I loved managing people and managing a platform. I wrote some of the viral articles myself.  The best ones were coincidentally the most controversial.  ”Never go to Niceley’s” was a scathing piece about the poor service I experienced at a brand new bar in town. The poor owner hadn’t even had the chance to start a website for his place when I came in, and just two days after my awful experience, my review was the #1 Google search result for his establishment. The bar went out of business less than a year later.

One of the other articles that got the attention of UT’s student base leaked the headliner to a major music festival on campus.  The event – called Volapalooza – is run by a group of students in a branch of the student government called the CEB (Campus Entertainment Board).  It’s their big event of the year, and they love the fact that they can keep the headliner a secret until after tickets go on sale. It’s a way to draw people in before the event even means anything, and it’s totally stupid campus politics.

Through friends of friends, I found out who would be the headliner, but of course, I didn’t know for sure. It was just a solid rumor. So, I got one of my friends to write the article. Next thing you know, the president of the CEB finds me on Facebook and starts threatening me. He called me several times. He left voicemails (which I kept, and will likely release later as I recently found out he’s running for State Senate), and he eventually offered to bribe me if I’d tell him how the information leaked.

We never gave up our source, and had a lot of fun writing “Find out who’s headlining Volapalooza on VolBlogs.com” all over campus and every chalk board we could find. That will go down as one of the most exciting and fun times I ever had in college.

My First “Job”: Something I Love

Me speaking at the quarterly Entrepreneurs of Knoxville meeting in 2012

I started trying to expand my idea of college news blogs at business plan competitions for the next few months. I got very little traction, and eventually fell back on freelancing full time to pay my rent and buy enough spaghetti to live on. I kept plugging away though, and eventually, a startup called Uloop phoned me. They wanted to get into college news, and I was a go-getter and programmer who knew enough about it to add value to their company. Fast-forward a few months and now, as a member of Uloop’s team, the news platform I developed is growing faster than I could have imagined with just enough funding for me to keep my 300 square foot apartment.

Would I trade this for 40 hours of thankless work per week at GE making washing machines (my first college internship)?

Hell no.

I’ve realized that I love working with people, not working in a warehouse making money for someone I’ll never even get to meet.  I love owning my projects, taking responsibility when it doesn’t work, and continuing to disrupt someone’s way of thinking. I used to worry when people didn’t like me for writing articles that offended them. After two years of offending people, I’ve realized that there’s no way to create something meaningful without shaking up a market that previously found itself happy without me.  My goal is to continually offend if that means progress. My goal is to continually disrupt if that means evolution. Business and media and news are all variables – not constants – and I love every minute that I get to shake things up.

If you call yourself disruptive, let me know why in the comments. I love hearing from my readers. If you think I’m an arrogant ass, then let me know too. Either way, I found a formula that works, and you’re just feeding the fire.