20 Years In The Business

2016 marks a significant milestone in my career as a marketing technologist.

It was 20 years ago, in the Spring of 1996, when I built my first website. From the time I strung together my first HTML up to now it has been a fascinating, interesting, fun (for the most part) and challenging career.

In 1996 I was a non-commissioned officer in the Army. I was coming up on a year left in my contract and had already made the decision to leave military service for a civilian career. The problem was, I had no idea what I wanted to do. I was trained as a Czech linguist and an intelligence analyst. While that in itself was a great career it didn’t really translate directly to a job on the outside.

Moving with a family while in the military in those days was a challenge. Most military communities didn’t have enough on-post housing available for the growing number of families. That made it necessary for many to seek homes off post. What would normally happen was that one member of the family would get to the new area, talk to their new coworkers and get a referral for an apartment community or a property management company. Then came the days- or weeks-long schlep around looking for a place to rent. It was very tedious and stressful.

One day, as I was helping a new arrival to our unit, the conversation turned to the challenge of finding a place to live when moving with a family. As Dave and I talked he said something that inspired me: “There must be some way for people to use this new Internet thing to help soldiers find a house before they move.”

Up to that point, I’d been trying to look for a business I could start from home with the idea of potentially building it large enough that I could transition from the Army to that business when I got to my discharge date. Nothing that I tried, though, had really gelled. What Dave said, though, got me thinking about putting together something that could provide an income as well as fill a real need.
I got on my brand new PC running Windows 95 (a brand new OS at that time) and started looking for rental referrals. I learned two things:
  1. There were rental referral companies out on the web. The largest of them were Apartments.com and Rent.net.
  2. The existing rental referral companies were mostly centered in larger metro areas and were very expensive to get into.
I realized that many military communities were not in or near major metropolitan areas, and, because of that, the rental managers likely didn’t have a budget to get onto the online rental referral programs running at that time.

In the meantime, I started taking apart websites (learning how to do “view source” in those first web browsers). With my very rudimentary command of BASIC, I figured out it was pretty easy to put websites together. I got a copy of “Teach Yourself HTML in 10 Days” and really got into the code. I learned to put together form actions with CGI and purchased my first domain. Thus, GeneralRent was born.

Screen shot of the home page of www.generalrent.com - circa 1999

We started in Central Texas, signing up apartment communities and property management companies. If they didn’t already have a website (and most did not), we built one for them. Property managers would fax (and later email) their vacancies to us and we’d update their listings weekly. Those who were really forward-thinking would ask us to come pick up pictures of the places for us to scan and include with their listings. There were several occasions where I would go and take photos myself … for an extra fee, of course.

We joined the local apartment association and set up a booth at a Texas Apartment Association conference in order to attract more clients. We soon had listings in San Antonio and El Paso. Things were really coming together.

During that time I was also building websites for auto dealers and an art gallery. The art gallery owner didn’t even have email. I would get questions from customers via the online form on his site and call him during afternoons so he could dictate responses to me to type in and reply to them.

After about a year of tremendous growth, we hit a wall. The first sign of trouble was getting funding for expansion. We came to where we needed more equipment and operating capital. I didn’t know anything about getting investors or funding, so I went to the bank to see about getting an SBA loan.
The folks at the bank were nice, and they humored us. Online businesses were still so new, that they didn’t consider intellectual property and a business with few physical assets a good risk for a loan.
The other shoe fell when several of the larger rental referral sites merged. Their combined forces commoditized listing space, brought the prices way down and virtually eliminated the bar to entry for most rental companies. I had not yet mastered the programming and database skills to build a dynamic website that could scale enough to compete with them. After several months of losing clients I made the tough choice of getting a “real” job.

I ended up working as a temp worker at Wilsonart International working on a project to upgrade workstations from Windows 3.x to Windows 95. Thankfully, I’d had to rebuild computers at home enough that I had some great troubleshooting chops. That eventually led to a “regular” job doing tech support, and later to being promoted to Webmaster. I held that position for 12 years doing everything from application programming to database admin, to server admin, SEO, social media community management and more.

For nearly 4 years now I’ve been with the Search Team at Rockfish where I am fortunate enough to be able to work on SEO and Online Reputation Management projects for clients both large and very large.

Humble beginnings have led to a great career for me. I’m looking forward to another 20 years working in this amazing and dynamic field.

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