13 March 2020
When I was in elementary school I met Chris. I think it was fifth grade. We were in the same classes — our school had a weird set up where even in fifth grade, the kids rotated between different classrooms with different subjects and different teachers — so I’m sure we worked together on some school things. I really don’t remember the exact way we met. I don’t remember our early conversations. However, I do remember the first time I took the bus to his house instead of mine. It was the first time we hung out away from school, and that day set me down the maker’s path for the rest of my life.
From that one day after school, through middle school, and through high school, Chris and I built things. Some of those things were stupid (as in stupid-dangerous), some of those things were pretty fun, and some of those things flat-out defied the world to which most people felt children were confined. In no particular order, we built:
We built so much more than that, and I could dedicate an entire article to each of the things we built. We didn’t know any kids in elementary school or middle school or high school building the things we built.
In middle school, I met Andrew. He, Chris, and I became inseparable until after high school. Andrew wasn’t necessarily the maker Chris and I were. He was into cars by the time we reached high school, so he helped Chris and I in the garage. He tinkered with his own car when he got one. But really, Andrew was pragmatic, business-savvy, and financially responsible. Hell, he bought that first car himself for $3500. I got my piece of crap car for $500 and Chris got his for a couple hundred as well.
While Andrew wasn’t the maker Chris and I were, he was integral in helping me continue my maker ways after high school. Andrew first realized that the parts we were ordering for our cars could be had for so much cheaper if we were a business ordering wholesale. Without a second thought, we went to the state courthouse and filed for a business license. We were 18, and we officially owned our own business — JA1 Racing. Justin, Andrew, Number One, Racing. Stupid, stupid name. But it worked for the most part.
This was in 2002, so we had a hard time getting manufacturers to add us to their wholesale list because we were “an internet company.” We didn’t even have a website at the time, so it was hard to argue that we were even that. We definitely weren’t a brick and mortar which many of the manufacturers required when signing up distributors. But we made it work.
We received the wholesale pricing books from some of the top parts manufacturers. We had access to order parts for our car at a fraction of the cost our friends were paying. So we took advantage of that and tricked out our cars with money from our part-time jobs.
But buying parts for our own cars wasn't enough. We could sell these parts to our friends. We could sell these parts to strangers. So we built our website. The domain — www.ja1racing.com — was so bad no one even owns it now. But it was ours. We created a logo, a slogan, and stocked our site full of inventory. We didn’t have to actually have any inventory since anything sold would be drop-shipped to our customers. Thanks to the wonders of the Internet Archives Wayback Machine, here’s what the site looked like in 2003:
In reality, our business was not even a business. We never filed any tax documents. We made sales to exactly two people — both of which lived in the same town we did. We never sold to anyone online. We were just out of high school and didn’t have a clue how to run a business. The one thing this “business” proved to me was that I loved making things.
As time went on, and as college came and went, I tried to make other things. I tried to write books, but that never worked out. I decided to write screenplays. I loved movies, so it only made sense, right? I wrote a horrible “sequel” to Con Air that only my roommates read. I wrote a terrible comedy about working in a grocery store. I wrote half movies. I wrote titles to movies. Then I made something I was proud of. It took time, but I completed a screenplay called Beneath the Shield.
That screenplay got the attention of an agent. I had meetings, we worked on multiple drafts. The screenplay was pitched to studios. This went on for over a year. One day, I realized my contract with the agency had run out, and they had never bothered to call me to renew it. That hurt. I didn’t write another screenplay after that, but I still had a burning passion to make things, to create, to build.
I was late to blogging when I stumbled into it. I love baseball, and I hate analysis that feels canned and doesn’t explore all angles. I read an article by an ESPN analyst, and I felt compelled to respond. I immediately searched for “blogs” on Google. That’s right, it was 2011, and I was new to this whole “blogging” thing that seemed to be gaining steam. I was so new, in fact, that I had to do a Google search to even figure out where to start a blog. Not surprisingly, I hit on Blogger — a Google company.
I launched my first blog, a baseball site called The 5.5 Hole. I wrote a piece on Albert Pujols and shared it with friends and family. They seemed to really enjoy it, so I continued writing. I didn’t do much promotion. I had no idea what SEO meant. I wasn’t even on Twitter initially. I would occasionally share my articles on Facebook, though.
One day, while combing through an email account I rarely used — and coincidentally the one I used to sign up for Blogger — I noticed a message from someone at a site called Call to the Pen. Blaine Blontz said he was the editor there and wanted to know if I’d write for them. The email was over a month old because I simply forgot that email account existed until that day. I replied, apologized, and asked if he was still interested. He was.
I signed up to join the FanSided sports blog network. I would be a staff writer for Call to the Pen. The position came with no pay, but I was sure more people would read my writing now. I wrote my first article the same night, updated my bio, and caught the attention of one of the higher-ups (someone who was actually being paid). He noted that I was a Padres fan. As luck would have it, FanSided’s Padres site needed an editor. He asked if I would take over as the editor — a paying gig. I said yes immediately.
For over a year, I was the editor at Chicken Friars, the San Diego Padres site for FanSided, while also acting as a staff writer for Call to the Pen. Eventually Blaine, the editor at Call to the Pen who had originally recruited me, left for another site. I applied to take over as editor of Call to the Pen. I got that position, but I was starting to get burned-out.
Writing for very little pay was wearing on me. The whole pay your writers nothing, or very little, model was frustrating. I was not happy with the direction of the network, and I thought I could do something on my own. I wanted to make something on my own again.
So I did. I reached out to Blaine and asked him if he wanted to launch a new baseball site with me. The site would be called MLB Injury News and it would cover nothing but injuries in baseball. This was something no one was doing, and I was convinced it would be a success. However, my expectations of success were modest compared to what we would actually see. Blaine signed on with no hesitation.
For the first time in my life, I paid for something (other than domain names and hosting) for a business I was working on. Blaine and I agreed to purchase a custom logo. And to be honest, even nearly eight years later, I still love that parody of the MLB logo.
We both had experience in writing, SEO, marketing, and everything that comes along with making a sports site successful. And it was successful. Our site grew quickly and we soon brought on additional writers. We worked hard to pay those writers as soon as we could because we both remembered how frustrating writing for free could be.
By the time it was all said and done, by the time I decided I was ready to build something new, our one little site had morphed into four, then it consolidated down to one large network. I launched initial partnership talks with a company called Fantasy Pros shortly after that. The content we were producing was extremely valuable to fantasy sports players. Eventually, Fantasy Pros acquired our entire blogging network. Blaine continues to work for Fantasy Pros, but it was time for me to move onto something else.
I built my first website late last year — a website for my son’s daycare. Then I built small things. A contact form page, an interactive portfolio, a mobile hamburger menu using nothing but CSS. I had discovered something. I could build in the digital world. I could make things as frequently as I wanted.
I designed the interface for a web application I still hope will see the light of day (UPDATE: it never did see the light of day). I designed new interfaces for GEICO, the company I was working for at the time. I designed reimagined interfaces, fake mobile applications and more.
Now, I’m building again. I’ve grown comfortable with my front-end development skills. I am building landing page templates for companies that need to call customers to action. Maybe it’s a sign-up form. Maybe it’s a marketing site for a new mobile application. I’m building a little bit of everything. I recently uploaded my first template to Envato’s marketplace. I don’t know that I’ll sell anything, but I know I love making things.
We live in a world of consumption, and trust me, I consume a lot. I read blogs, magazines, and books at a feverish pace. My wife and I allow ourselves some time after our son is asleep to watch an hour or two of television. I listen to music when I run or when I work at my desk. I consume a lot. But I truly believe we should all make things too. If you consume a lot, you should make a lot. It balances the world out.
If you’re not already doing it, make something today.