My Career In Online Marketing: Lessons Learned From A Zig-Zag Path

A few weeks ago, I returned to my hometown of Iowa City, Iowa to attend my 25thhigh school reunion. Several hours – and several beers – into the reunion, I was deep in reminiscence with an old friend who said, “David, even in high school, it always seemed like you had a plan for what you wanted to do.”

This struck me as odd, because I’m pretty sure I’ve never had much of a plan. But perhaps, I thought, this is an example of the Johari Window, which explains that there are parts of all of us which are known to others but unknown to us.

Then again, when you consider that I majored in Middle Eastern history in college and then got a JD a few years later, it’s hard to argue that there was some master plan to eventually found an online marketing agency.

That conversation has definitely caused some self-reflection: Exactly how did I end up in Silicon Valley in online marketing? I started to think: If I gave a commencement speech to a group of high school graduates today, what lessons could I pull from my “path” to online marketing that might benefit them? After some thought, I came up with three overarching themes.

Lesson #1: Follow Your Passion, Not the Money



There are reams of data that show that certain college degrees result in higher salaries than others. For example, majoring in petroleum engineering commands an average starting salary of over $100,000, compared to child development, which starts at $32,000. (Of course, these statistics don’t show whether petroleum engineers are happier.)

When I graduated from law school in 1999, the legal market was relatively hot, meaning that I could have found a $100,000+ job as a lawyer fairly easily. I  realized however, that I would hate being a lawyer — if I practiced law, I’d wake up at 40 in a full-on mid-life crisis. So I eschewed the golden handcuffs of a legal career and literally packed my car with all my belongings and moved to San Francisco with nary a job prospect.

During my first year in San Francisco, I took whatever jobs I could find: game testing for “Barbie Super Sports” (yes, I am in the credits!), legal research, and eventually my first non-legal, full-time job, at a small consulting company that paid me $37,000 a year. I couldn’t afford to pay for parking, so I had to park on a gravel bar on the outskirts of town and walk a mile to work.

Eventually I found myself at a start-up in 2000 -- with the ambiguous title of "manager of strategy." When the sole member of the marketing department quit, I volunteered to steer the ship until professional management could be hired. While steering (mostly badly), I discovered a company called GoTo that sold advertising on a cost-per-click model.  I was hooked. I came into work excited to see if I could eke out a few more clicks at a few cents less. I had found my passion, and it didn’t matter how much I was getting paid. It was awesome.

As a good friend told me, if you go to a good school and get reasonably good grades, you can find a job that pays you a lot of money pretty easily. The challenge is finding a job you are passionate about. Once you’ve found that, if you want to make lots of money, you probably can -- but even if you don’t, you’ll still be happy.

Lesson #2: Never Say “What If”

By 2008, I was an SEM old-timer. At that time, there were probably fewer than 1,000 people who had eight years of SEM experience. So when I left my job of vice president of advertising at yet another start-up, there were dozens of companies that wanted to offer me a nice salary and stock options to join.

I had always thought it would be cool to try to start my own company, and given that my wife was about a month away from delivering our first child, I knew that the window of opportunity to take a risk on something entrepreneurial was probably going to close very soon (it’s one thing for my wife and me to starve, but another to let a baby starve!).

In other words, if I didn’t try to start something now, I probably never would, and I’d be forever wondering “What if?” So I decided to take a chance and try to start a small business. I figured the worst thing that could happen would be that I’d have to accept a real job once I burned through my reserves.

Fortunately, the risk I took paid off. From my perspective, though, even if I had completely fallen on my face, I would have been happy. Trying and failing is much more satisfying than never trying at all. Try to have as few “what if” moments as possible.

 Lesson #3: Somebody’s Gonna Lotto — Might As Well Be You

In the first few years of building my agency, I would describe my attitude as “just being happy to be here.” Being able to make ends meet running my own company was awesome, and I got a lot of joy out of making customers happy and slowly growing my business.

I saw an ad on TV for the California Lotto with the moniker “Somebody’s Gonna Lotto, Might as Well be You,” and it resonated with me. Someone is going to be #1 (the winner) at everything in life, so why not aspire to be that person? Why assume that we don’t have the ability/desire/connections to reach the top?  Why not me?

What a Long, Strange Path It’s Been

Had I followed the straight path -- which most likely would have meant practicing law -- I think I would have probably violated at least two and possibly three of the lessons I describe above. I’m glad I didn’t follow that path. I love online marketing. It took about 30 years of wrong turns and false starts to discover my passion, but life is about the journey, not the destination.

I suspect that most of you also followed a similarly disjointed path to end up in online marketing. Hopefully we all have many more years to follow new paths. Follow your passion, live without regrets,  believe that you deserve to be the best, and that path will no doubt be strange and fulfilling!

1 comment about "My Career In Online Marketing: Lessons Learned From A Zig-Zag Path ".
Check to receive email when comments are posted.
  1. Steve Baldwin from Didit, September 15, 2015 at 4:47 p.m.

    The best lesson I learned about this business I learned from a wonderful guy named Gian Trotta, who is sadly no longer with us. He was an exponent of the "Swiss Army Knife" school of career development. Don't focus at being the best at one thing -- develop two or three different "blades" of expertise that will prove handy in different situations. Because almost EVERY situation in the digital world is unique. Skills are cross-disciplinary and collaborative. The world is never the same. I liked this column a lot (and am very glad I'm not the only one in digital marketing who went to law school and said to myself "I really don't like the law business" -- there's got to be something more interesting!).

Next story loading loading..