Today’s my 18th birthday.
I’ve contemplated keeping my age a secret until I was old enough to buy someone a drink. Or at least until my age didn’t end with “teen.” That way, people would “take me seriously.” But I’ve gotten over it.
It really amazes me how much the world focuses on one’s age and degree(s). Even more so than skill and personality, the most important factors. But today, for my birthday, I’ll try to debunk the silly notion of age > skill. I’ll tell you a little story about me, who helped me grow as a writer, designer and leader, and my advice to young creatives.
Age: 0 – 7
I was born in Brooklyn, NY on September 14, 1994. My passion for design and business was evident from a young age. After daycare, or whatever it was called, I’d grab a few sheets of paper and draw – anything, really. I’d then collect all my artwork for the day and lay them out on our living-room couch. When friends and family would stop by and visit, I’d immediately ‘pitch’ them my artwork. They’d give me this awkward smile and purchase one of my drawings for $1 or something. Unbeknown to me, they thought it was crap, but also found the artist cute.
But that was just my design side.
If the buyer forgot their purchase (who remembers to pick up terrible art?), which was almost always the case, I’d put it in a special box labeled “taken.” The next time they stopped by, I’d remind them of their purchase, but would recharge them and add interest for “human error.”
Since then, I’ve learned a lot about both business and design. My artwork is now considered acceptable, and my business skills are more people-friendly.
Age: 8 – 15
When I first discovered the Internet, I was mesmerized. I knew I had to learn how it worked. Eventually, I found W3Schools and it served its purpose well for me. I taught myself XHTML and CSS, and began playing around in Photoshop. I finally reached a level where I felt comfortable charging people for my work. I became a freelancer. Like anyone else, my first clients were family members. I designed business websites for two of my aunts, and made some mediocre logos here and there.
Eventually, I felt confident enough to do work for people who didn’t change my diapers as a child. One of my first was a guy who wanted a site for his car shop. I made him a logo and website in no time, got paid, and felt a sense of confidence. Two more clients followed suit. “I could really do this,” I thought. And all before I reached puberty! It was a great feeling.
But here’s the thing. None of these people had known my age. I thought it wasn’t a factor, but that’s because it was never brought up. I was soon convinced otherwise when I turned 13.
One of my clients wanted a website for a new book. I showed them a mockup of what I’d create. Everything was dandy until I said too much. In the webpage’s copy, I noticed a line that referenced Horatio from Hamlet. Coincidentally, I was currently reading that in English class. I mentioned this. And long story short, the deal was off.
I’ll never fully wrap my head around what happened, and that’s probably because there was no sense to it. After all, I had shown what I’d done in the past and what I could do for the client. Were they worried that the end result would be terrible because I was ‘just a kid?’ Or was it all laughs when they figured I had just graduated from middle school?
I was hurt. I felt like a rock had fallen in my path of progress. I remember wondering if that was how it would always be. Would people’s first impression of me always be based on my age? So that day I decided to never again share my age. And until last year, that’s exactly how it went. No one knew who I was, what I looked like, and most importantly, how many years had passed since my birth.
It served me well. I encountered both good and bad clients, but the point was I got work. All the while I was teaching myself more design and web development skills.
Age: 16 – Present
The Dabbling Phase
Fast forward to 2010, the year I jump started my career. I had blogged before then, but never seriously. I wanted to change that. After all, writing was a skill I’d developed over the years in both home and school. So I went to GoDaddy, registered a domain, and launched Mediain5 the next day – a Friday. At the time, my WordPress and PHP skills weren’t so sharp, so I bought a theme. I launched the site with no clear focus or goal. I just wanted to write on anything that fancied me. Which more or less centered around design and technology. Even with homework after school, I’d sometimes crank out up to ten articles. But of course, growth was moving at the pace of a slug. I remember telling my mom to share my site with everyone at work. Then I’d log in to Google Analytics and spot an extra page view or two. I jumped for joy the month my tiny blog passed 100 uniques. Though minuscule today, I knew one had to start from somewhere.
I found out about a weekly chat on Twitter called Blogchat by Mack Collier. Essentially, each week a topic of discussion centered around blogging would be announced. Someone with authority would lead the discussion and everyone was encouraged to pitch in with the hashtag #blogchat. I met many friends on it including one of my closest, Brian Mongold of FiveFreeApps. He was much more experienced in blogging than I, but still gave me advice where he could. That December he and I decided to team up and create a blog together, UnfollowMe. At its core, the blog was a curated list of all the things on the web worth an unfollow. I did the coding and he brought in the ideas. We begged for the .com from Merlin Mann, but eventually settled for unfollowme.net. It lasted for a short period, but was fun while it lasted and we got a kick out of it.
But I felt like I wasn’t getting anywhere. Occasionally I’d get a burst of traffic and discussion to Mi5, but still felt like I was giving up homework time to pursue something that was getting me nowhere. So when finals came around (May), I decided it was time to pack it up. However, if there’s something I’ve learned these past few years, it’s that when you’re truly passionate about something, you can run from it. You can even hide. But eventually, it will find you.
I hid under a rock labeled “fear of failure” until July 2011. That’s when withdrawal began to kick in. I wanted to write about design and technology again. So I bought TrendingWeb.com and started over. But this time I took it slow. I aimed at one article per week. Each piece was a short interview with a design focused startup (remember that phrase?). It was a blast. I built strong relations with startups like Zerply, 6Wunderkinder, Pulse and Readdle. I was finally getting somewhere.
One day, my friend Brian told me about AppAdvice and how it was a great opportunity to gain experience writing for the “big leagues.” I was excited! Afterall, it involved writing about the startups behind great apps and trying them out for free, all while gaining exposure. So, I emailed them. One day went by, then a week, and then two. Eventually I gave up on that. I thought they’d simply passed over my application (0ddly enough, I explicitly told them not to in my email). But then my phone buzzed. It was a response from Mahmoud Hafez, the co-founder. I quickly opened it and was surprised to learn he was interested in me. We then began a short email thread which eventually ended in a long PDF doc and new email address: email@example.com.
I then began what was basically an internship. For a month, I was groomed as a professional writer by then Editor-in-Chief, Alexander Vaughn. When my time was up I left with a boatload of new confidence and resumed school the next day.
All the while, I was sharpening my design skills here and there. Forcing tutorials down my throat from sites like PsdTuts. I also saved a ton of designs from Dribbble and tried to replicate them in Photoshop for “muscle memory.” But then the writing withdrawal began again – specifically on the day Steve Jobs died. I knew I needed to get back into writing, but where? I wasn’t going to start my own thing again. Mediain5 was long gone by now, and TrendingWeb was simply a personal summer project. Then I remembered one of my favorite Apple tech news sites, Macgasm, and their founder/editor Joshua Schnell. I had bumped into him occasionally while at AppAdvice. So I shot him a quick DM on Twitter asking if he was looking for a columnist. He said no. One week later, I was on the team as a part-time writer, not a columnist. Week one was amazing. Four days in, one of my articles had hit Google News and brought in well over 20,000 pageviews that evening. “Dude, you broke our website” was the message I got from him. I also joined Envato around that time.
At the same time, something else amazing was happening. Jason Calacanis was holding the Launch ‘Pad conference that October and had some spare tickets left over to give out. Somehow I ended up with an email asking if I’d like to attend. I wanted to instantly reply with “of course,” but remembered the travel and lodging expenses would be on me. But I presented the opportunity to my parents, told them who’d be there, who I could meet, connect with, and the overall learning experience. They were convinced and before I knew it, I had landed in SJO (I pitched in). But I had forgotten one thing. I had just turned 17.
Now until then, I hadn’t told anyone my age since that crazy client. But after seeing “open bar” in the itinerary I had just received, I panicked. I quickly responded to the email explaining that I was 17, silly move. Thankfully, I got a response that it would be fine. “Just leave before the open bar… opens.” I sighed with relief and got ready for the one-day conference in the morning.
The conference was great.
I learned a lot about the advancement of tablet technology. I saw presentations from people like Ryan Block (GDGT), Phil Libin (Evernote), Mark Johnson (Zite, acquired by CNN), ConditionOne, Showyou, Sencha, Dolphin Browser, UrbanSpoon, and even eHarmony, amongst others. However, the amazement didn’t end there. After his presentation, Mark Johnson came and sat down right in front of me. And little did I know that was the beginning of a strong friendship. I tapped him once with no response. I couldn’t tell if he didn’t feel it, or was simply ignoring me. So I counted to 10 in my head and tried again. This time he swung around with glee. I explained to him how much I loved his presentation and app. We then swapped iPads to compare our Zite interests. We found many similarities. He asked where I hailed from and what I did. I told him I was a tech reporter for Macgasm and lived in Maryland. But our conversation was cut short when Phil Libin wanted a word with him. But I didn’t mind. Five minutes in person with a great CEO was good enough for me.
But once again, it didn’t end there. While sitting down, I turned around and spotted Christofer Karltop, CEO of Zerply. Although we’d communicated in the past, I’d never met him in person. I had planned to connect with him after the end of session 3, but he had to leave early so I never actually got to talk to him. On reflection, though I was disappointed at the time, I realize it happened for a reason.
When break time was over and we began returning to our seats, I noticed that mine was taken. So I went four rows further down and found three empty seats. I took the end seat and rested my backpack in the next. I settled in, got comfortable and brought back out my Mac for note taking (if you’d like to see my notes, ping me), which I shared with Pulse since they couldn’t make it.
Ten minutes into session 4, two guys approached me and asked if they could sit next to me. The lights were dimmed so I couldn’t really see their faces. But I was brought up well, so I said yes and took my bag off the seat next to me. They took their seats and I was back to my notes. While giving my eyes a break, I glanced at these two strangers and noticed the TED logo on the guy next to me’s bag. I was shocked! So during the break I sparked a conversation with him beginning with, “you work at TED?” “Yes,” he responded kindly. I told him we watched a lot of their videos in my AP Psychology class (yes, I slipped). We then went on to talk about TED the product. He asked me for my feedback on their iOS apps. I was completely blunt and honest. I told him they were sub par to the website. I told him why and how they could be fixed, then we exchanged contact info. “Thanks for your honesty, Jared,” he replied. “Most people think I’d fire them for it, haha.” It was then that I began to recognize this stranger. A quick google search confirmed. I was sitting next to Chris Anderson, the owner/curator of TED. Even Tom Anderson, founder of MySpace, came and took a seat on the floor next to me (I took a photo). Humble guy.
Keep the conversation going
The next day I was on a flight back to boring Baltimore, but enlightened. I was so pumped to just do stuff. I especially wanted to interview everybody in that room, but decided to go one person at a time.
When I got back home, I quickly emailed Mark Johnson for a potential interview. I explained that I wanted to begin a bi-weekly column on Macgasm about people who were inventing, rethinking, or simply doing amazing things. I believed he was on a mission to reinvent tablet technology and wanted to share his story with our readers. He agreed and so my column began. We held our meeting over Skype (he was in the conference room). I had planned for it to be 10 minutes, but it ended up passing an hour. We had a great discussion afterwards. A day or so later, after destroying the replay button, I had a piece ready entitled, “A look at tablet technology with Mark Johnson, CEO of Zite,” the post was a hit.
From there, I went on to interview Paul Mayne (Day One app), Bobby Ghoshal (Flud), Dom Leca (Sparrow, acquired by Google), and Martin Hering (Instacast). All of whom I’ve built relations with. Especially Bobby, who on a visit to Baltimore requested we meet up. The funny thing was he wanted to go to a bar. But I was 17. When I told him I wasn’t old enough, he guessed that I was probably 20, and so suggest a famous hookah restaurant. Yet again, I was one year shy. The whole meetup fell through and I was dismayed. Here had gone a chance for me to meet a great entrepreneur.
But something happened and the day he was supposed to go back, he hit me up and asked me to recommend a place. I suggested a Panera Bread close by and we made it work. We discussed The Industry and Flud in-depth. He gave me advice on growth and focus, and I shared some with him on how to make Flud better. It was an awesome thing he did for me. Especially since he had first canceled out of me being “underaged.”
Even the TED thing went further. I found myself on a Skype chat with editor Emily McManus, then the whole API liaison thing began.
All the while, yet another thing was brewing.
Drew Wilson had an idea for a new blog. Somehow we met up and bounced ideas off each other. When he gave me a background of himself, he mentioned his age. All that was going through my head was “dammit, now I have to say mine.” And he sure did ask, but gave a non-expected response. “Cool,” he said. “I started young, too.” I couldn’t believe it. Drew didn’t give the slightest that I wasn’t an adult or anything. Why? Because his impression of me was based on what I could bring to the table. I’d even go as far as to say he probably experienced the same on some occasion. “Was way different when I was 17. I always wished someone would recognize me,” he told me today. “But I grew up in the stone age when people were prejudice against those of lesser years.”
He explained the idea he had for months, and I explained my similar one that I had actually began to execute with TrendingWeb. A blog covering design focused startups and people was what we agreed upon. Eventually, we got to work as co-founders, built up a team, and launched The Industry on December 12, 2011. It was a rocky start, but growth came.
In January, I Skyped with Ben Parr (thanks for that Ben), Mashable’s former co-editor, and he gave me some real world advice on the bumps we’d reach as a small-niche publication. I took it and used it as a weapon. I changed up our workflow and we began executing efficiently.
When February came around, Adam Stacoviak came on board and started The Industry Radio Show, our weekly podcast. That too started off slow, but has since reached an average of 20,000 plays/episode, been featured in iTunes, and has had amazing guest appearances. As for our team, we’ve grown into a strong, in-sync, family.
And all the while, one last overlap.
In June, I saw a job opening at Treehouse. I read it over and over again, and concluded that I’d fit the bill. I sent out my letter of interest and before I knew it, was on a Skype call with Ryan Carson, their fearless leader. Few days later, I was on the team. Few weeks later, on a flight to Orlando for our quarterly meetup. I knew everyone was going to figure out my age. After all, I don’t have a single wrinkle. So I began to prep myself for impact. And sure enough, someone asked. Word got around, and before I knew it, people were asking me left and right for “confirmation.” But to my surprise, they were warm and welcoming about it. In fact, Ryan took it as a diversity call. “Look at our company’s wide age range. Isn’t it amazing?” I remember him saying over our team dinner.
Today, I’m 18. I have worked at two major startups, I have written for AppAdvice, Macgasm, Envato, and brushed Mashable (briefly), I have encountered numerous entrepreneurs, I am running The Industry, I am advising two startups, I am a team member of Advise.me, I am building a pretty big iPad app, and I am weighing jobs at two billion-dollar startups, yet just as discontent. Why? Simply put, because there’s so much more to do. And that brings me to the greatest point of all.
Age is just a number.
If there’s anything I want the reader to take away from my story, it’s to chase your dreams. Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t, or that you’re too young. Rather, set out to prove them wrong, and yourself right. I’ve come a long way since that crazy client. And I want my story to be an inspiration to others in any way possible. When Steve Jobs said “stay hungry, stay foolish,” he couldn’t be more right. When you set out with an agenda to learn and do all you can – my friend – you’ll achieve greatness.
Attend conferences: You’ll meet great people. At Launch ‘Pad, I realized that the big names are people, too. I was able to converse with people I’d only read about. There’s nothing different between you and Sergey Brin rather than paycheck sizes. Before he started Google, he was just another guy out of boring Maryland. I’m sure there were people who told him Google was a silly idea.
Reach out to people: Not everyone is as stuck up as you may think. Yes, at times you’ll get rejections, and sometimes they’ll just be too busy, but on other occasions, you’ll get through to them.
And my biggest suggestion. Keep building and keep shipping.
I’m not the greatest
People tell me that I’ve accomplished a lot for my age, but I’m definitely not the biggest. There were many before me that did what I did on a larger scale. Jack Dorsey pretty much had Twitter figured out as a teenager. David Karp was whipping up Tumblr and sitting on boards. Even people a tad bit older like Sahil Lavingia. At 20, he’s running Gumroad, a venture-backed startup. And I’m guessing he was active as teen since he has worked at both Pinterest and Turntable.fm. Even my bud Sam Soffes. He built the very popular Bible app, lead product at Hipstamtic, and was living on his all at a tender age. At 23, he’s running Nothing Magical, cranking out Cheddar, and turning down offers left and right. And don’t even get me started on Drew Wilson. Simply put, he’s not human. I’m sure all of these people were told they were too young at some point.
So I’ll direct this message to young people out there. Keep chasing. People who say you’re too young are probably just too old. When chatting with my close friend Josh Long at Treehouse, he told me “honestly, your age group will be the most influential demographic in our history. You’re the first group to truly understand the web’s role in our lives. I wouldn’t waste 2 seconds worrying about what anyone says about your age.” And I’m passing that message on to you everyone.
It really bugs me how many creatives there are out there that mask their identity because of age, gender, and/or race. All out of fear. Fear of people not seeing them for what they can do, or even who they are, but for their age and appearance. This needs to stop.
We should measure ones ability by what they can bring to the table and not their D.O.B. What’s the difference between an avid teen coder and a 32-year-old besides facial hair and selection of music?
But I do highly applaud those who don’t judge that way. People who encourage the young to be proud of their age and what they’ve accomplished. Galen Gidman is one such person. He runs a podcast called Young Guns Show, which is a show about “people who make the web.” People like David Silverman of Instant Bight. The kid’s in middle school, but could probably share more business advise than some of us adults simply by the amount of influential people he’s genuinely interviewed. People like Drew, Bobby, Mark, Brian, Ryan, Mahmoud, and Josh that despite my age, took a chance in me simply because of my passion and skill.
I hope to one day be just as influential.
So if you’ve somehow made it through my nearly 4,000 word birthday message and can relate with this article, I just have one thing to tell you.
You’re young, so what?