A successful entrepreneur shares her thoughts on business success and failure.

One Million Dollars, The Hard Way


At Sun Microsystems
Me, when Cobalt got bought out by Sun
in 2000, with my employee number and a
fake bar code marked on my arm.
There are a lot of readers on this blog–perhaps you–who recently started reading. Lately I realized that as a new reader, you may not know much about me, who I am, or my history. You probably know that I “sold a business for $1.1 million at age 26”, since that’s in my sidebar. But what happened before that?

I grew up in a small farm town in Indiana. I first got online in 1995. My parents had given me a computer, but everything else I had to buy on my own. I got an allowance, but my parents refused to pay my burgeoning Internet connection bill (which was dialup, and since it wasn’t a local number, billed me by the minute!), so I took jobs to get by.

I worked Internet jobs all through high school, starting in 1997, when I took a job at an SEO firm, working from home, submitting sites to search engines. (Back then, SEO was all about how many search engines you could submit your site to…how things have changed!) I got paid pretty well, and learned how to fly through copy-and-paste.

My First Job and Bounced Checks

When the first check arrived in the mail from the SEO company, my mom took me to the bank to deposit it, and then gave me a lecture on bad checks and bounced checks. She had a tough time believing that I had a real job online–but I did. I continued to work for that company through high school.

All this time, I was learning how to build and fix computers. Living in a small town, we didn’t really have a computer repair shop, so I did repairs myself. Later I found I could also repair my neighbors’ and friends’ computers–which I did in exchange for small amounts of money, or sometimes just for a good home-cooked meal.

In 1998, I got a job at a web design firm for the summer. I found the job by hitting up the local Yahoo directory (for Cincinnati, Ohio–the nearest city to where I lived!) and emailing every web design firm in that directory. I had a showcase of various websites I had built.

From those “cold emails”, I got two interviews. One of the interviewers laughed at me when I came in and he found out I was a 16-year-old kid. The other firm saw potential. They gave me just above minimum wage and hired me out to their clients at $75/hour. I was their staff HTML “programmer.” I also taught myself Perl using the books they had around their office (and various websites) and built things like contact forms for their customers. I was just happy to have a job doing what I loved, which was building websites. I continued to work for other web companies throughout high school.

Off to Silicon Valley

In 1999, I graduated high school and moved to Silicon Valley. I knew Silicon Valley was where I wanted to be. I only applied to two schools–San Jose State and Santa Clara University. I was accepted to both, but Santa Clara University wouldn’t let freshman choose their course times, and I wanted a stable part-time job as well, so I went to San Jose State.

I went on craigslist and hit up companies in the Valley, looking for a job as a web designer. I didn’t find much–until I got a phone interview. I closed the deal, getting hired on as their “Marketing Manager” for the whopping sum of $15/hour, part-time. (With promises to increase that salary in the future!)

When I walked in to their office in Silicon Valley to meet them for my first day at work, they found out I was an 18-year-old college kid. They fired me pretty shortly thereafter.

I tried again, hitting up craigslist and looking for web design jobs. I didn’t find any, but I did find a job doing desktop support at a startup company called Cobalt Networks. That has, so far, been my all-time favorite job. Even though I didn’t get paid much, I thrived. I was able to use my hardware and software troubleshooting skills to help people, and I got along well with everyone in the office.

Cobalt was a shop that made Linux-based servers. I had some familiarity with Linux, but begged the engineers at the company to teach me more. I remember going up to one of the engineers after work and asking “What’s a ‘for loop’?” The engineers, most of whom were only a few years older than me, thought it was pretty neat that a young, cute girl was trying to learn bash shell programming. They brought me piles of books and gave me advice on how to code well. I spent many late nights at the company, absorbed in books and websites on programming and system administration.

At Cobalt, I learned an up-and-coming language called PHP. Cobalt engineers were fans of PHP (back then, it was either PHP or Perl, and PHP was a lot easier and more friendly to program in.) My boss, seeing my interest in programming, asked me to make an intranet for the company. I wrote it in Perl and then switched to PHP.


Cobalt Halloween party, 1999. I’m the cheerleader on the left.

Up until then, I’d never considered myself a “programmer”. Programming was uninteresting to me–the only programming class I’d ever had, in high school, taught useless, out-of-context things like how to build a fake cash register. But when I was introduced to web programming, I thrived. Now I could build interactive websites that people would actually use! I launched our intranet proudly. I’d built the whole thing myself, with self-taught knowledge.

The End of College

In 2000, Cobalt was acquired by Sun Microsystems, and I learned that Sun would only accept employees who had full-time jobs. At the time, I was still working part-time. I realized that to jump into Sun, I’d have to be a full-time employee. So I made the decision–not an easy one–to drop out of college.

My boss at Cobalt said it was the worst idea he’d ever heard.

My mom, when I told her, started crying and said it was the worst decision I’d ever made.

I went ahead with the decision, and my parents cut off all financial support. (They’d been paying for my classes, monthly cell phone bill, and dormitory housing. I was responsible for everything else.) After 1.5 years of college, I was done–and truly on my own.

Sun did hire me–because I was again aggressive about getting my foot in the door. I hit up their internal job portal, found all open jobs that had anything to do with web development, and called people until I got interviews. I got 2, and, impressed with my initiative in building the intranet, both teams offered to hire me. I took the full-time job that I felt had better resume potential (as I felt I would need a great resume with no college degree) — as one of the 6 core developers behind Sun.com.

Then, my grand plans hit a snag. I had a low salary at Cobalt because my main job was still doing desktop support. I had consistently asked for raises, and I’d gotten up to just above $22/hour. Sun inherited that salary of mine, and then–so my boss claimed–they couldn’t raise me more than 10% above my existing salary.

I was devastated. $22/hour was fine when my parents were paying my dorm rent, but now I was done with that. I had to pay my own way. This was in Silicon Valley, during the dot-com bubble. To give you a sense of how crazy rents were, I watched a new apartment complex get built near our office. I drove by it every day, and one day a sign popped up: “Waiting list now available.” I found out that not only were rents $1800+/month for a tiny apartment, but that they had an 8-week waiting list at that price.

One of our summer interns (older than me) at Cobalt moved to the Valley to take a job for the summer and ended up literally living under his desk because he couldn’t find a place to live. We had showers in the building, and he ate a lot of take-out. That’s how insane things were.

I eventually found a place–a shared bedroom in an old lady’s house–for $950/month. Even today, that number seems crazy to me. I had no kitchen privileges, but the area did have its own entrance. I set up a toaster oven and ate out a lot. My boyfriend ended up paying for a lot of my meals because he felt bad.

My friends urged me to quit and find a better job, but right around the time I got drafted on to Sun, the bottom fell out of the Valley economy. Now rents were starting to drop–but there were no jobs to be had. I clung to my Sun job for dear life.

My job moved to San Francisco, where I couldn’t afford to live. I found a tiny 1BR apartment 35 miles east of San Francisco. I took the BART (train) in to work every day. My rent went from $950/month to $1475/month. The train was about $9/day. Buying a sandwich for lunch in San Francisco was $9. (Most people have no idea how expensive San Francisco is until they live there.) I was starting to have massive credit card debt.

There was another girl, a couple years older than me, doing pretty much the same job I had. When I found out her salary was $72,000/year for the same job I was doing for $22,000/year less, I threw a fit. I took it all the way to HR, who basically said “Take it or leave it.”

I cried one day on the way home when I read the paper and realized that the person driving the BART train had a higher salary than I did.

There were pros to my job at Sun. I took a week-long Solaris system administration course, which gave me a deep insight into how UNIX servers worked. I helped build a Linux-based intranet at Sun, after one of the directors there saw what I had done at Cobalt. But mostly, for an entire year, I was miserable.

I did not stop taking action, however. Every day, I used Sun’s fax machine to fax resumes to companies that were looking for web developers. I had heard somewhere that faxes got read more than emails, so I faxed nonstop. My boss told me to stop abusing the fax machine. I didn’t. I wasn’t making ends meet, and every month I was getting deeper into debt. I didn’t have a choice. I needed a better job, and I knew Sun wasn’t going to be able to provide it.

The Big Job Interview

Finally, a breakthrough came. A friend of mine saw my PHP skills and was suitably impressed. His company (in a cheaper area of the Valley) was hiring. He invited me in for an interview.

The interview was with his boss. The guy scowled at me when I came in. “You know, from your resume alone, I would never have even given you a second look,” were the first words out of his mouth to me. “But Mike said you’re good, so I did him a favor and called you in.”

I just sat there, not really knowing what to say.

The boss ushered me into a conference room with a white board. A couple other men were sitting around a table. “Okay, show us in PHP how to make a database connection to MySQL and select rows from a table,” he said, gesturing to the pens in the whiteboard tray.

This was not an open-book test. There were no books or websites. I had to have it memorized.

Little did he know that, besides faxing resumes all over the place, I’d also been working every night on my own website–for my fledgling hosting company. And just last night, I’d written that exact code. So it was fresh in my mind.

Without hesitation, I picked up the marker and began to write. On the right side of the white board, I drew out a MySQL “users” table. And on the left side, I began to write, perfect flowing lines of PHP code.

“Do you want me to select everything from the ‘users’ table?” I asked as I wrote. I was met with shocked silence. Taking that as an affirmative, I continued to write. When I was done, I turned around. Their expressions were a mixture of grief and amusement.

It was then that it hit me–they’d set me up to fail. (I found out later that they had interviewed 12 people for that position, and every single one had completely failed that task.)

I had passed their setup with flying colors–and now they had no idea what to do with me.

The rest of the interview was a lot of paper-pushing, mumbles, and “We’ll call you.” I left with high hopes. I had aced their test!

I prayed so hard for that job. It paid $74,000/year, which might as well have been $1,000,000/year from where I was sitting. I prayed nonstop. I knew I wanted to start my own business, but wouldn’t it be so much easier with no debt hanging over my head? Without sweating how I was going to pay bills?

They called me back a few days later. Would I–the only one who had passed their test out of so many candidates–get my “dream job”?

No.

They chose not to hire me, because, as the boss man said, I had stated in the interview that I wanted to start my own business, and he didn’t think I was going to stick around the company very long. “We want someone who’s going to be here at least 4 years,” he told me.

Of course, you and I know that he never wanted to hire me to begin with. Whether it was because the company was almost entirely male, and I would have been the only female in the department, or because he just didn’t like some young kid showing him up–we’ll never know that.

(Ironically, he left to start his own business less than four years after that. Yeah, I kept tabs on him.)

I was devastated. I felt like the world was stacked against me.

Back to Sun

Sun finally got wind that I didn’t want to be there, and put me on a “performance improvement plan.” That meant I was on a 90-day watch. I had to do better, or I was out of there.

While signing the plan, I noticed a loophole. A paragraph in the long document said that if I chose not to take part in the plan, I could get paid severance to leave. Immediately, I knew that was my “out”. Total pay, including vacation time, would be about $8,000. That was enough to live on for about three months. I could make it.

I told my boss I wanted out. He said that wasn’t the intent of the plan. I told him I didn’t care; that I was done. We conferenced with HR. The HR person said I didn’t have to leave. I told HR I wanted out immediately. (They ended up paying me for 2 weeks’ severance and then asking me to hand over my keys right away, it was so clear that I didn’t want to be there any more.)

On my way out the door, my boss said the #1 most insulting thing anyone’s ever said to me: “Well, I guess when you’re gone, we’ll just replace you with an intern.”

I shut out all the noise and continued building my hosting company website. I launched my business a few months after I left Sun, in July 2001. Of course, it didn’t end up paying my bills for years. I did contract PHP programming for years, mostly finding gigs on craigslist. I built shopping carts, merchant account integrations, and even entire content management systems for my clients. (This was long before the days of WordPress.) And mostly, I scraped by, still with credit card debt, but most months coming out about even.

I took any extra money I had and and poured it into buying servers for my hosting company. And it grew, slowly but surely. (The rest of my story running my business can be found at Sharing My Journey to One Million Dollars, which was written just after I sold my business, but while I was still “embargoed” from talking about the sale, and The End of An Era, where I speak candidly about my 10-year journey through Silicon Valley.)

The Moral of the Story

The moral of this long-winded story is this: Everyone talks about (and remembers) the big moments. Like the day when I signed those papers to sell my business, on September 7, 2007, for $1,104,000. Or the day when I quit my job in 2001 and walked out of the door into the blustery winds of San Francisco, and almost cried, because for the first time in a year, I felt free.

But it’s easy to forget what it takes to make those moments. I never stopped fighting…not even for a second. And I never stopped learning. I was self-taught in everything I do. I am a graduate of the school of “Everyone said I couldn’t do it, and look, here I am.”

After my parents cut me off, I was determined to prove to them that dropping out of college wasn’t a mistake–that I could be successful anyway. And I blew them away. But I still haven’t stopped fighting. Now I’m passionate about helping others–whether that’s by hiring people or whether that’s doing cat fostering and rescue (which is one of my hobbies.) And writing this blog, which I do because I’m passionate about helping you succeed.

I said back in December 2007, when I turned my personal blog into “erica.biz”, that I started this to help figure out why I was successful when so many others aren’t. And, as the years have passed (I’ve been blogging here nearly 4 years now), I realize there’s another, deeper purpose: To give you the strength, determination, and grit you need to succeed.

This world does not hand you success. It certainly doesn’t hand you a job. I’ve had to fight for everything I’ve had in this life. I’ve taught myself what I need to know to be successful. And, if you see yourself in any of this, my message to you is: You can do it, too. Just don’t expect it to be easy.

I’ve avoided many of the “easy” routes to making money on my blog, too. I could have sold a bunch of cheap, crappy “make money now!” programs–and probably made some money. But I didn’t feel right in doing that. (If you’ve been around a while, you’re probably surprised at how few affiliate promotions I run on this blog, whereas the predominant theme in Internet marketing is to email your list a new promotion every day. Garbage, I say, garbage.)

Changes I’m Making Today

Lately, I’ve thought a lot about how to help you even more. My 30-day “no email” trial was a success in many ways, but also a failure in an important way: it cut me off from communication with you, my readers. I know many of you are looking for an honest way to succeed. And in cutting off email, I cut off your questions and a way for you to share your successes with me. That was my mistake, and I apologize.

So today, two things are happening:
One–I’m opening email back up. If you receive emails from me (as part of my email list), you can just hit “Reply”, type your response, and I’ll read it. (Note: If you’re planning to write me vitriolic hate mail, save your breath and just unsubscribe instead. That will make both of our lives better.)
Two–I’m introducing an exclusive, limited program for those of you who would like more personal access to me. Now, I’ll be upfront about this: This won’t be cheap. I’m looking for a small group of people I can help mentor.

You probably know how many people are out there teaching this “how to make money online” stuff. Chances are, you’ve even bought a program or two, and perhaps you haven’t been so happy with it. (That’s another big reason why I don’t promote that stuff much any more.) And if you know that, you know how rare it is when someone who’s actually made over $1 million online, in a legitimate business (not hawking “how to make money” crap products), opens up mentoring spots. In fact, in all the four years I’ve run this blog, I haven’t done it, either.

But I feel that now is the right time, especially with the economy the way it is. I started working from home online in 1997. I have a lot of knowledge I’d like to distill–everything from figuring out the right niche to go into to in-depth business strategy and growing your business to new heights. I even have some “ready to go” business ideas that I think can make a mint, in the hands of the right person. So if you’re not sure what you want to do online, this may very well be your chance to really “go big” with a business idea that’s already been vetted and tested by someone who’s made millions online.

As I said, this won’t be cheap. But if you think you might be interested, and want more information, just put your name and primary email address in the box below, and I’ll let you know more details. (And if you’re struggling with money, I will likely offer a scholarship to at least one person, so put your name and best email address in there as well, and I’ll let you know about that, as well.)

There’s no obligation, so go ahead now:

Building an online business isn’t easy, but it’s worthwhile. I’m ready to work with you to achieve similar heights to what I achieved. I believe you can do it. And just like I had people to ask about programming, you may just need someone to help you get clear on what to do and how to get there. I’m happy to be that person for you.

Put your name and primary email address in the box below, and I’ll follow up with you with more information about my mentoring program within the next few days (remember, there’s no obligation, so if you’re interested in finding out what I have to offer, go ahead!)

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I'm Erica Douglass.
After selling my online business at age 26 for over $1 million, I created this blog to help you grow your own business quickly.

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