A conversation with Eric and Elizabeth about DesignerUp and the road to becoming web masters.
Eric and Elizabeth didn't take the most conventional path to working in the tech industry. Elizabeth whose background is as a classical pianist and Eric who is a software engineer and multi-instrumentalist never had ambitions to start their own online businesses or build websites for a living.
Interviewer: When did you get started in web development?
Eric: I realized that I really enjoyed problem solving when I built my first Lego set and when I got my hands on my first computer I was hooked. I could see so many possibility in the digital world, so many things I could create. I started teaching myself HTML and PHP back when the internet came to your house in the mail in the form of a CD.
Elizabeth: While Eric was busy building servers in his bedroom I was down the hall trying to understand this concept of 'electronic mail'. I was an analog girl who liked to play piano by candlelight and avoid things that plugged in. I graduated with a degree in classical piano and started teaching out of college. I had studied pedagogy (the science of how to teach) for many years. I wanted to get more students but I wasn't sure how to get myself out there. Eric suggested that I create a website and so for the first time I opened up my computer for something other than writing a term paper or playing Diablo and started to think about how I would want my website to look.
Interviewer: What was your first design or dev job?
Eric: I put up a really awful looking portfolio and bid on a few odd programming jobs on outsourcing sites and landed some small projects. After working with a few clients, I decided I wanted to start something of my own. Self hosting was in its infancy at the time and taking off quickly, I saw an opportunity there. So I coerced my mom into buying me a server and I started charging people online for server space.
Elizabeth: After I made my first site with my brother's help. He said 'Hey, you're not that incredibly bad at this' (which is a huge compliment coming from him), and he asked me if I wanted to make some ad banners for one of his clients. That was my first paid design job.
Interviewer: What made you stick with it?
Eric and Elizabeth: We kept working together on client projects, coming up with cool little SaaS apps and startup ideas and goofing off... a lot. It didn't really feel like work most of the time and people were paying us to do it, so we just kept going.
Eric: I, as a privately trained drummer and a self-taught guitarist and Liz, having gone through the rigors of formal conservatory training experienced such a huge chasm in the accessibility of music lessons at both extremes. We wanted to bridge the divide and shake music learning out of the 'drop your kids off at piano or guitar lessons every Wed' routine. We knew we could leverage the internet to share our knowledge and decided to create an instrument learning platform.
Elizabeth: Yeah, that's when it got really serious for me. I'd had one foot in music and one foot in web design on the side for a while and didn't really want to let either go. But I was not getting paid very well to teach Chopin and was doing much better creating ad banners. This was the perfect way to combine my passion into a sustainable livelihood and help others to cultivate skills that I'd found so rewarding and useful in my life.
Interviewer: What big challenges have you faced along the way?
Eric: Do we have that kind of time?hahah. I can't even innumerate. Creating and launching our guitar instruction site was really the catalyst for pushing us to the limits of what we could learn and create with online technology. I was learning Ruby on Rails at the time when the language was just a fledgling. We were both learning about server admin, secure site protocols, payment merchants and gateways, creating recurring subscriptions, video recording, production and editing, hiring, firing, payroll etc...
Elizabeth: Yeah, every 5-10 secs I was hearing a new term I knew nothing about, cursing, crying or all three. We were either practicing until our fingers bled creating guitar lessons or typing until our fingers bled coding thousands of lines of code. We became the Jack and Jill of every damn tech trait you could think of.
We became the Jack and Jill of every damn tech trait you could think of.
Elizabeth: It's so much more common today. Someone who simply wants to have a Youtube presence or make money from their blog needs to start learning about design and quickly. You won't get very far without the ability to make yourself a website, shoot and edit a video and market through ads or social media etc (unless you have tons of cash to spend on hiring someone else to do it for you). And each one of these pursuits can send you down a rabbit hole of learning paralysis and roadblocks.
Interviewer: What's something you wish you knew then that you know now?
Elizabeth: I didn't have a solid design background and didn't really know the 'correct' terminology or design principles to apply. I was so busy running a business and learning on the fly that I just approximated, imitated and took what I could from scattered resources and tried to piece together some semblance of a workflow. I refined it as I went and got more and more efficient over the years and when I had downtime from launching a new training module or course, I dove into design 101 courses and tried to reverse engineer a good foundation for myself. It was hard and I do think it would have saved me a lot of time and headache it I had learned the basics earlier on or reached out to a mentor (other than my brother lol).
Interviewer: I guess in that sense you've got a really unique perspective to share about working on full-scale web applications.
Eric: I'd say so. When we sold the music instruction company we moved onto designing WordPress sites and realized that customizable premium WordPress themes were starting to be high in demand. WordPress was just beginning to morph from the simple blogging platform into the behemoth of a CMS that it is today.
Elizabeth: ThemeForest was our marketplace of choice and it was around the time that I actually started learning front-end code and not just designing static mocks in Photoshop.
My ability as a designer was enhanced exponentially when I learned how to code
Elizabeth: We only had like 2 browsers and 2 different screen-sizes to design for back then. This was before responsive design and the role of 'User Experience' was really defined yet. But thinking back, that's really what coding lead me to do, it lead me to think in terms of actions and responses. When we made our first engineering hires my designs were being picked apart by the programmers as 'un-codeable' and 'not optimal'. I had to learn to speak programmer really fast. That's when I started looking through the lens of the whole team that was building the site, and perhaps most importantly, through the eyes of the users that were using our themes. I realized that our users in a sense were also our designers and developers because so much of what they do with our themes were predicated on us coming up with the features workflows that they needed most to create great websites.
Building WordPress themes really launched me into the next level of my ability as a designer and got me thinking like a User Experience and Interface designer before those titles were even a thing.
Interviewer: What would you say to aspiring designers that are just starting their journey or are trying to reach the next level of their work?
Become a Maverick. You’ll need a lot of varied skills to become successful in any field of design or development. You’ll need to be able to write great copy, be an art director when choosing stock photography, and be equally as comfortable in Photoshop and Sketch as you are in a code editor or relating to your programmers. If you’re not, don’t resist your nature. You can always get better at what you’re not good at, or find equally talented people to partner with. But if you don't even know what you're trying to achieve or have a sense of how to get there, you won't attract the right people or processes you need to manifest your vision.
Create Value. Whatever you do, be authentic, be empathetic and it will show. Don't just give people a reason to want your service or to buy your product. Give them the space to feel heard, inspired, to feel like you've alleviated a pain point or hardship for them or help them feel supported in some way. Just by existing and doing what you do best to the best of your ability with integrity and compassion can go a long way in this industry and in life!
Befriend Rejection. You will get rejected. You will have setup backs. You will fail. If you're lucky maybe only 100 times. Don’t give up! Keep improving your skills and trying out new things. Take action with purpose, even if you're not sure what the outcome will be. Take calculated risks and let your inspiration and your intuition guide you and remember that sometimes a breakthrough is just right around the corner.
Keep learning and get support. Learn from brilliant people along the way, ask stupid questions and read good books. Bring awareness to your weaknesses and strengths, and adjust where necessary. Don't silo yourself in a vacuum of 'this is what I do and only this. New perspectives and skills can come from some very unlikely places and it would behoove you to take heed and look for growth and inspiration anywhere that you can.