I Fired Myself

If we’re friends on Facebook or Twitter, you know about my new job in Baltimore. Technically, it’s not a new job yet, as I don’t start until February 4. However, it’s a new job and a return, for the first time since 2006, to a more corporate (if laid back) working environment. I’ve only worked for one company in that period of time, and I was a founder. That, of course, is the hugely successful WP Engine. However, I left that role in October of 2011. I still didn’t have the motivation to not work for myself.

A little about this new role, however, since I brought it up. I feel it’s necessary in proving the point I want to make.

Corporate Culture

Agora Financial, as a division of Agora, Inc. was named the 2nd best place to work in Baltimore in 2011 by the Baltimore Sun. As an adopted Austinite, that label carries a high standard. In Austin, “business casual” is cutoff jean shorts (“jorts”) and a tech swag tee shirt with sandals. In Austin, the chic commuter rides a scooter or bicycle. Maybe even walks. In Austin, drinking a beer is not something simply saved for off-hours. In fact, many companies keep a refrigerator stocked with beer because, hey, the workforce can be more relaxed, efficient and productive if given certain leeway. Thankfully, none of us are drunks… maybe.

At Agora, I found a company that matched this sort of comfort level I’ve come to expect. When I flew up for an interview (and job interviews have been something I’ve not really had to do seriously since 2002), I emailed Mark, the Art Director and my point of contact, and very politely suggested I wouldn’t be arriving at their headquarters in a tie. Manage expectations, and such. Mark’s response was simply, “That’s fine. Business casual works”.

Business casual can mean many things. It’s sort of a catch all phrase that means different things to different people based on different companies policy ideas. So I wore some decent dress pants, a button up shirt and a vest with no tie. The team had sandals, jeans with holes, and hoodies and plaid-pattern button up shirts. I felt like I was in Austin!

Ideology

But company culture was just one aspect. The work they do perfectly fits who I am practically and ideologically.

You see, Agora is a publishing company first and foremost. I’m a publisher. I’ve written a book and worked with traditional book publishers. My first startup was a publishing company with, at our peak, 350 blogs. Agora’s model is different than those models, but they’re publishing. They are creating content that, hopefully, long outlives us.

They are a policy research publishing company. Those who know me know that I love policy, I hate politics. When I engage in politics, it’s usually from the lens of policy. Agora provides research analysis and white papers based on their policy research in a subscription format. So there’s also a revenue model. And they’ve been highly successful at doing this, historically through newsletters, for years. It’s a proven model, and they are a proven company.

In addition, their policy analysis generally comes from a libertarian (small “l”) perspective. As a left-leaning small-l libertarian, I enjoy this aspect of what they do (even though I suspect most of my colleagues and most libertarians as a whole are right-leaning small-l libertarians, I suspect that we all agree on a framework of responsibility and limited government in individuals life, and diverge on other less-important minutiae).

I was hungry for this job. It was a dream job for me. Join a company doing things I loved, in areas I loved, with tools (WordPress) I loved, with a style of corporate culture that I loved. When they made me an offer, I didn’t hesitate to accept and fire myself from my own company.

I fired myself!

Having the Balls to Fire Myself

Most people aspire to stop working for the man, and start working for themselves. There are entire classes at universities and colleges about entrepreneurship, and to be sure, entrepreneurship is the mode of decade.

The other night, I had the opportunity to guest lecture for an capstone course on digital entrepreneurship for American University. It was online and you can hear my story and lecture here. This course is a culmination of all the classwork done in this program and is largely a practicum of everything learned to that point. The lectures are a series of lectures from guests that give the students inspiration and motivation about their futures while they work on their individual projects.

During this talk, I spoke specifically about the time I left corporate America and went out on a limb. It was 2006. I had been working on a side-project basis for over a year building up a WordPress-powered content network and when we finally took funding, I was employee #1 or #2, depending on who you ask. I couldn’t wait to leave my computer-fixing job and go do something I really, really wanted to do instead and get paid for.

I’ve heard stories like that from hundreds of entrepreneurs. Most never look back with any regret, despite the struggles and sometime-economic instability.

I have a view that whatever I do, I do it because I want to. It’s very easy to look and say that running a startup, building a product, starting a company or, in general, working for yourself is, in fact, the holy grail.

From Happiness to Happiness

My view is that the holy grail should be happiness and motivation derived from what you do. Sometimes that means taking a more unorthodox step and saying, you know what… being an entrepreneur is awesome, but it’s a vehicle to happiness, not happiness itself.

So effective February 4, 2013, Aaron Brazell has been terminated by Aaron Brazell.

I don’t know if I would have fired myself to go be a developer in some developer-happy company that segregates the developer from the product line. In other words, a lot of developer-oriented companies have developers as a means to an end. Product managers go talk to customers, develop goals, milestones, wireframes or storyboards, make decisions on initiatives with corporate executives and the developers exist to make that shit happen.

Some people like that. Some people don’t want to be a part of the politics and roadmapping. They work better with a framework that defines what their role and deliverables are. For them, that’s happiness.

For me, happiness is seeing the vision, talking about what it means – the pros, cons, feedback – iterating, being a part of the process of both scoping and building and then allowing the idea to flourish. It means building something toward an end. In the idea of a startup, it means building a product and moving it toward acquisition, IPO or even failure.

As a consultant, there was no viable end. Unless I’m committed to building out a team (I’m not), increasing a production pipeline (without a team, I can’t), or other such motivations, a consultancy looks exactly the way it does in 10 years as it did on day 1 – find clients, build something for them, collect money, wash, rinse, repeat. There’s no glorious ending. To me, that makes for an unhappy Aaron.

Agora provides an exciting platform, an an innate sense of entrepreneurship internally, that makes me happy. If I have an idea, I can try it. If I think something could really work well, I’ve got a green light to work on it. All within a good developer situation where I also have deliverables, and things to look at and solve. The combination of such makes Aaron a very happy person.

Informalities Can Kill Your Job Search

The economy is way down and the pain is not only being felt at the pump. It’s being felt in the job market. Unemployment hit an all time high last quarter as more and as more and more people hit the streets looking for meaningful employment, bad habits are accompanying them.

Sarah Needleman of the Wall Street Journal wrote a story today about the informality used in social media, text messaging and other “typical” lines of communication. Often times, the informalities deep six candidates.

I’ll admit that I am guilty of being informal in job searches. Needleman indicates that the most egregious mistakes come from entry level candidates just out of school, indicating a generational (and of course, maturity) issue.

I also tend to use emoticons mostly in IM. This has gotten me in trouble in the past where the text I’ve written in emails was misunderstood because of a lack of a :-) or ;-) to indicate humor. Text as a medium sucks, and that is why ultimate care must be taken in how text is formulated.

Other things that can kill a candidacy with a company are:

  1. Not understanding the company culture
  2. Eagerness to proactively answer unasked and unrelated questions in an interview
  3. Blanket resumé distribution
  4. Inappropriate attire for an interview (Understand the culture of the company as in point #1, especially in the web space)
  5. Buzzword Bingo on resumés or in interviews
  6. Inability to discern exactly what an interviewer is looking for despite the questions asked
  7. Inappropriate behavior, photos, language as demonstrated in social networks, blogs, etc

Obviously, not all of these things apply in every situation. Astute candidates get ahead of the curve and understand before sending “Send” what exactly is being communicated.

As a bonus, my friend, Jen Nedeau, is quoted in the article as well. She demonstrates an appropriate use of these technologies.

“I definitely text my managers if I am running late,” says Jennifer Nedeau, 23, a project manager at New Media Strategies Inc., a marketing firm in Arlington, Va. “I know I’m not bothering them with a phone call, but they’re still getting the message.”

I’d add that text messaging a manager comes after you’ve got a good relationship with the manager or if he/she explicitly gives permission. Otherwise, you’re asking to be on a list. ;-)

Job Search: Define Your Goals

A friend of mine just landed a job. Congratulations to her as the job market is shriveling up. I won’t mention her name for fear it could cause complications at her new job but many of you know her.

She hasn’t worked for a company in 17 years, give or take, and has lived quite successfully as a consultant. However, she became enamored by the possibility of helping companies directly in her line of expertise.

She gave some thought to what she wanted to do and wrote this document, republished with her permission.


Overall function
I want to provide strategic direction that integrates new and social media opportunities for a dynamic organization. I see this function as working collaboratively with many departments and functions such as marketing, communications, PR, recruiting and retention, customer service, community management, investor relations and product development.

About new media and social media
I’m defining these terms not just as technology and communication tools, such as blogging, YouTube, Flicker, Twitter, Facebook, podcasts, social bookmarking and social networking, but also as a new realm of communications with a distinctly different culture that includes activities such as ““

    User-generated content

  • Conversations and comments
  • Personal branding and online profiles
  • Personal and personable content
  • Community management
  • De-institutionalizing of information
  • Rating content
  • Tagging
  • Link, links, links “¦ and more links.

My ideal job looks like –

  • Working across a number of departments ““ marketing and communications, sales and business development, HR for recruiting and retention, IT, customer service and PR.
  • Providing strategic direction, internal consulting and project management.
  • Interacting with staff at many levels, including executives, managers, creative teams, technical staff and admin.
  • Designing, implementing and managing projects.
  • Keeping abreast of emerging new media technologies and trends.

I am less interested in work defined by digital media maintenance, e.g.

  • Keeping a website current.
  • Managing online advertising and email campaigns.
  • Handling technical functions of a company’s digital communications.

I am more interested in —

  • Being at the forefront of new media.
  • Identifying opportunities and developing strategies using new media.
  • Designing, implementing and managing projects.
  • Internal education, integrating new media and expanding an organization’s capacity.

Company / Environment
The environment in which I want to work is an organization that —

  • Already has a strong brand, marketing department and PR component.
  • Values creative business strategies supporting both short- and long-term goals.
  • Has leadership that is open and pushing to be an adaptive and dynamic company.
  • Has leaders who know they need to do something different ““ and fast, but may not have any strategy or plans yet.

The type of organization I want to work for is —

  • A large corporation, even a national brand.
  • Military organizations and federal government, or a government contractor tasked with bringing social media functions into the government.
  • A small municipality with robust funding for creative economic and community development.
  • I am less interested in nonprofit organizations.
  • The industry in which I work is of less importance to me than the job function.

Location

  • Company location is not important.
  • Willing to travel.
  • Looking to work in a creative and flexible environment, where technology and online
    communications are robustly supported; meeting space is beautiful, and productivity and
    results are valued over face time.

Notice how she defines exactly what she does and does not want. She knows specifics, down to the detail, on the principles of her employment. She knows that she may not be able to detail specifically which company or organization she wants to but she knows specifically the role she is looking for and what she wants to accomplish.

As unfortunate as this is, the economy is growing worse and more people are looking for work. You may be one of them. Instead of hitting the job boards with dervish-like ferocity, take a day or two alone and in a quiet place and write your own roadmap.

Knowing specifically what your goals are will greatly increase your chances of finding meaningful employment where you can do what you love and love what you do.