On December 12th 2010, Clever Web Design was conceived. It was a teeny tiny, fragile idea that ended up defining the last 2 or so years of my life. As time went on Clever’s identity and my own have had an interesting ride together, sometimes intersecting, diverging, intertwining, and finally diverging again. To me, Clever is an entity unto itself. It took on a life of its own with it’s own personality, one that does not always reflect my own thoughts, feelings, or beliefs. I’m thinking about this because I’m at another one of those crossroads in my life where it’s time to make some big moves. In my preparation for what’s next I’ve had to think about the different roles I play to different groups of people and how Clever is both an integral part of my being but at the same time a separate entity. This is the story of how a brand was born, was defined for better or worse, and what it will become.
A naive endeavor
In the early fall of 2010 I was lost. I had just come out of what can be described as a five-year long stupor. In 2005 I kind of imploded on myself one day, and five years later I finally woke up and naively believed I could just pick back up where I had left off. I won’t go into what those five years were about but you will be able to read about it another time. So it was fall of 2010, I had just moved back home for the third time in five years and I was about to enter my mid-twenties. I knew I had to do something to move myself forward. All my life I was expected to do big things and now here I was without a college degree, living at home, and working as a fry cook in a shitty fast food restaurant. It felt like I was running out of time and I needed to catch up with what I had failed to do in the previous five years. At the same time I was trained to believe I was not worth anything and had nothing to offer the world. But there was one thing I had always enjoyed and doing in my spare time and studying for years without it ever occurring to me that it could become my career. It was web development. Since I was 10 years old I had been building websites, learning about design, and redesigning my own websites ever since.
Then Clever was conceived. I was on the phone with a good friend of mine who was working in the tech industry and who had a few connections and she said “why don’t you start freelancing”? Why didn’t I? I couldn’t just up and start designing websites for people could I? How could I do that with no formal training? I’m just some guy who has a skill, who would hire me? So many questions and doubts crossed my mind but in that moment, because of the way my friend had said it, it suddenly struck me that I could be a professional web developer. It was my shortcut to success.
So on December 12th, 2010 I hopped on my iMac and started coding and researching and madly taking in everything there was to take in about starting a web development company. If I had known then what I know now I would have given up that same day. I had an uphill battle ahead of me and starting a web design company was incredibly naive of me. I was worth what I was charging at the time which was well under $1,000 per project. I was skilled and fully qualified to do the work but I was not operating at a level even close to where I am now. I could never compete with even the worst companies out in the Chicago suburbs many of whom were doing work so awful that I wondered how they ever got more than a single client or how they could ever stand to look at, let alone publish, their portfolio. But I carried on, ignorant of what was ahead of me and learning priceless lessons daily.
It was late December of 2010 and I had created Clever’s first website (I have a copy of it on my computer so I can look back and remember where I came from). I remember choosing the name. I named the company Clever for a few reasons. I thought I was being clever by shortcutting the system and creating my own job rather than getting it the traditional way, people always considered me to be very smart, hence the word Clever came from that, and I thought of the designs I would create would be clever – I would find a way to create big things with whatever was lying around at the time. So the name Clever is all about intelligence, ingenuity, etc. I do regret choosing ‘chooseclever.com’ as the domain name though. People keep thinking the company is called Choose Clever when it absolutely isn’t. The domain ‘cleverwebdesign.com’ was taken, I did buy the .net but wanted a .com so for SEO purposes and because people always remember a .com. So after that I put the site online. It was a milestone I was proud of and will never forget. In addition I created several business plans, business cards, advertisements, flyers, and more. I had organized things as if I were opening a multimillion dollar design shop and deep down that’s what I was really trying to do. Later I came to find things didn’t work the way I thought they would in practice. They should, but when it comes to clients, you never know what’s going to happen next.
Then one day everything changed and got very real
I was still working as a fry cook. Well, technically I had become the manager of the store. I had the keys and locked up every night and managed 10 or so employees per shift but at the end of the day it always ended with me being the last person in the store cleaning up and doing a lot of the work myself plus managerial bullshit. I was unhappy. Not because I didn’t like the job. It’s certainly true I hated the job itself but it was something far deeper than just that. I knew I could do better. I was a straight A student, took honors and AP classes, went to Loyola to become a doctor, and was expected by every authority figure in my life to become a big success and here I was five years after graduation working as a fry cook in some shitty burger joint. Along came Christmas and New Year’s and who was asked to work every single holiday without holiday pay? Me. I had had enough at that point. I had been looking for clients in my spare time and completed my first job free so I had something to add to my portfolio. I was now looking for more and I had this feeling that if I wasn’t forced to get this business off the ground I would continue to just barely slide by and do the bare minimum. So on New Year’s Eve I had finally come to my breaking point. It was a few minutes before midnight and I decided it was time to go. I was just about to start cleaning up and suddenly stopped. I took my shirt off and threw it on the ground. Shut off the machines, the lights, and left everything unclean. I wrote a note that basically told the bosses to “fuck off” in those words, I left the building, locked it and went home. Normally I’d be embarrassed about how I quit that job but if you were to have seen the conditions under which they forced us to work and the way they treated us you would understand. I’ve never left a job on bad terms. Every job has its negatives but this one was different. I’m glad they mistreated and stole from their employees now though because if they hadn’t I would have never grown.
From that day on I was the Lead Programmer and Founder of Clever Web Design. I still use that as my email signature. Clever became my identity. I not only worked for Clever, I was Clever. Everything I did was for the company and its growth. For the next two years my identity and Clever’s brand would be one and the same.
It took about 6 months before I saw any money from Clever. It was very scary. There were times when I couldn’t eat and I was paying for things with pennies and quarters. I was genuinely scared but determined to make this work. It seemed that the closer to failure I was the more a part of me Clever became. After that first six months I started getting clients without a problem. I was making money and in my first year made more than I had the previous year with a steady job. It still was a pittance compared to today but I had done it all myself. I thought that growth was guaranteed but year two proved to be much harder.
It wears on you
On the first anniversary of Clever’s birth business was still in high gear. I was getting larger and larger contracts, getting far better at my craft, and finally got the hang of handling clients. About half way into the second year things started to wear on me though. I was still working completely on my own. I had tried out a developer but he ended up not having any of the skills he advertised and completely unable to carry his weight. Some clients were always a pain to deal with but after so long it wears on you. I naively offered free lifetime support which the clients who paid the least in the beginning fully took advantage of. Still, I got through it and continued to be successful in my business but it started to seem as though I had hit an invisible ceiling on my income. I could consistently pull in a certain amount of money but I couldn’t quite seem to break it. Normally this would be alright but what I was making was not acceptable when it came to the rest of the industry. Then one day, business slowed to a crawl. It was dry spell. I had gone through them before but somehow this one really got to me. Suddenly, the lack of income and lack of business got to me and I started to get depressed. Once every so often I get an unexplainable itch. It’s this sort of voice in the back of my mind telling me I can do better and that it’s time to take things to the next level. That voice was whispering to me again and I knew I had to make some more big moves. It was suggested to me that I look for a full time position. It was a good idea and I could still run Clever on the side but at that point Clever was such a big part of my identity. To take another job felt to me like I was admitting defeat. I couldn’t fail at this. I had been so successful until this point, how could I ever turn my back on the thing that had gotten me out of my slump?
Admitting defeat to embrace success
At the end of my second year running (and sometimes being) Clever I took a job with Norvax. I felt vindicated that a company believed I was talented enough to work in their marketing department. I admitted defeat with Clever but still continued to run the business on the side. It’s coming up on a year with this new company now and looking back I’m so glad I admitted defeat. In surrendering and admitting that I’ve failed I was able to embrace success. The experience I’ve gained and the tremendous growth I’ve come to have through working at this new company was worth experiencing the failure I experienced with Clever.
Now, after almost a year at my new job and three years with Clever, I have far more to offer and that little voice is whispering to me again. It’s telling me it’s time for an upgrade. So now I’m upgrading. I’ve put together a new portfolio and resume site that I’ll debut soon. My identity with Clever has once again diverged. Clever is its own entity and, I hope, will continue to be for a long time to come. I’d love to one day come back to Clever full time and grow it into a fully functioning business again and I will. But right now I have to take care of a few things that will put me in a position to do so later.
For now, Clever is still just chugging along. To me, it’s a reminder of where I came from. It taught me to believe in myself. It took me from an amateur to a professional and to a point where I can compete with other professionals on their same level. Clever gave me my life back after some very bad decisions. I’ll always keep it alive and one day it’ll become my main focus again. But for now, Clever the brand continues to be associated with quick, affordable, high quality, professional web development for small businesses in the suburbs. And when it comes to the suburbs, no one can do it better than Clever. And that’s one thing I can finally say with confidence and pride.