My Best Friend – A Magento Story

Once upon a time, there were two best friends named Alex and Shawn. Alex was the best friend a guy could ever ask for. To this day, I still haven’t met a single person that measures up to him. When I think about the way some people loosely throw around the word “friend” when they really mean “acquaintance”, that wasn’t the case here. Alex was as much of a friend as a friend could be. This article is as much a telling of how I landed my dream career as it is a tribute to my friendship with Alex. Before he left this world for a better place, he set me on the path for a lifetime of success and never knew it. I dearly miss my friend.

Sales Jobs…

For much of my life, I was in sales. I was decent at sales but I didn’t particularly enjoy it. I guess in the beginning I enjoyed sales. Sales jobs came with all the promises of unattainable commissions a 17-year old needed to hear. As I wasn’t particularly interested in college, I was drawn towards sales. The potential for high reward was exciting to me.

Over the years, I went from telemarketing to door-to-door knife sales to mattress sales to car sales and eventually to real estate agent. Oddly enough, my lifelong passion was to get into law enforcement. I never really acted on that goal. Maybe it wasn’t really my dream after all. Maybe life just had a different path planned out for me.

Happy Times

One day in the early 2000s, out of nowhere, Alex said he was going to start attending college and asked me if I wanted to join him. I thought it was a great idea and so we went to school. Alex was a member of Mensa, a very smart guy. It was awesome that we got to go to school together and study together. And hey, we were young, so we’d do a good bit of partying after class too. The idea of going to school with a friend instead of doing it all alone was a driving factor for me. We both made the Dean’s List every semester.

While attending school together, Alex came to me and said he needed a job. I got him hired at the car dealership I was working at. It was kind of a sleepy dealership so we had time to study while at work, chat, and just carry on. We even decided to get into the “crank phone call” game. Sometimes, we even made the calls from the dealership showroom. We were called the “telephonies”. Howard Stern didn’t respond when we sent him our CD but our friends and families thought the calls were hilarious. We just really had a good time no matter what we were doing. We didn’t make alot of money at it but we did have fun.

Intro to E-Commerce

One afternoon while sitting at Alex’s desk in the showroom, he showed me something on his computer. Apparently, he had a little business going on for himself that I wasn’t aware of. He was selling Hot Hands on eBay, those little handwarmers that you shake up to activate the heat. After he showed me what he had been up to, he asked me if I wanted to go into business with him. Hell yes, I said. And so, A&S Online was born.

At the time, we were only selling on eBay. We were selling Hothands by the case load but it was never very profitable. A month or two later, we realized that we needed to expand our offering but we weren’t sure what else to sell. Cell phones, electronics, jewelry, candles, blank cases of DVDs… We had conference calls with little gadget makers in China. We experimented with selling some of these items but it was a bust. 15 years later, I still actually have some sleeves of blank DVDs and CDs sitting around. We desperately needed to find something worthwhile to sell.

We Found a Niche

As I was an avid and competitive shooter at the time, I started wondering if we could find a supplier of shooting supplies. I started calling the manufacturers of some of my favorite gear. They were able to direct me to a number of different distributors. This is where I learned about drop-shipping. We suddenly had access to hundreds of thousands of products that had margins we could make money with! And we didn’t have to stock them. We started listing that stuff on eBay at a lightning pace. In fact, much of that work took place right from our desks in the car dealership showroom. I mean, we had no other way to kill time, right?

We Became Merchants

We decided we needed a website. I knew nothing of e-commerce, less than nothing. I didn’t know what code was and I certainly didn’t know any developers. Fortunately, Alex knew a developer. I still remember, to this day, driving from New Jersey to Staten Island to meet with his developer friend in one of the heaviest snow storms I can remember. That’s how eager we were to get started. A month later, we had a fairly basic e-commerce site. It was enough to get the job done for now.

Now that we had a website and our products were selling, we started to take it a little more seriously. We were on, what I would estimate, about an 85% dropship / 15% self-ship business model. We were going through shipping supplies like nothing. We were excited, we felt the sky was the limit, and we actually started to envision the idea of working for ourselves full-time.

Remember, all at the same time, we were attending college, working together, and now in business together. It was a very good time and we tried never to let business get in the way of our friendship…even when we had disagreements. It was great.

Highs and Dramatic Lows

By this point in time, we had been in business for about 4-5 months. We were seeing minor profits but things were moving in the right direction. We were expanding our catalog daily and shipping products every night.

Once in a while, Alex and I disagreed with each other on certain points. We still had a solid friendship but things were getting a little tense and we both noticed it. I just assumed it would pass.

On April 10, 2005, Alex and I had rented a table at a gun show in Pennsylvania to sell our wares and increase awareness of our website. I remember at the time, as we drove out there, much of New Jersey had significant flooding. There were stop signs covered in water and there were houses that had water up to the windows.

On our drive out to the gun show, Alex brought up a subject we hadn’t previously touched. He mentioned the stuff we had been disagreeing over and the effect it had on our friendship. Something he said sticks with me to this day: “let’s just forget about business for a little bit and remember to be friends”. He was right and I agreed. In hindsight, I always thought there was something foretelling about that moment, like he had a premonition.

Exactly one week later, on April 17, 2005, he died on the way home from NYC. The best friend I ever had in this world, gone forever. I had been calling, a few times throughout the night, because I needed some supplies he had. He wasn’t picking up and I never got to say goodbye.

Inspiration

In the aftermath of my friend’s passing, I was left to deal with our website developer. He had been working for us fairly cheap due to Alex’s friendship with him. We spoke a bit and we came up with a game plan for moving forward. I kept the business going.

A VERY short time later, for reasons I am unaware of to this day, this developer became a nasty, shady, piece of shit. After Alex passed, he had promised to do a number of things either for free or cheap. I didn’t have much money at the time so I took him up on that offer. When it came time to ask for these things is when I saw his true colors. It was like a light switch went off. Jekyll & Hyde.

He started doing things to throttle the webserver. He started turning the server off on weekends. Oddly, he would always be fairly polite on the phone as if nothing was going on and then take these passive-aggressive actions. In fact, he heard I had put the business up for sale and demanded a commission. He was even holding the domain name hostage. This guy was a nightmare for me.

A couple years later, when I decided to start a new business, I only knew that I didn’t want to deal with a guy like that again. This was my inspiration to write my first line of code. I couldn’t afford a developer anyways. All I knew is that I wanted to get back into business. Above all else, I didn’t want to get into business with someone like that again. I wanted to be self-sufficient.

Volusion

I was ready to start my new business. As I mentioned, I knew nothing about nothing about nothing except for the products. I knew my product line well. I did about 30 minutes of research and decided to give Volusion a try.

Volusion is, or was at the time, a closed-source e-commerce platform that gave me some places to add some css and html for minor customizations. Everyday, I would struggle to figure out how to position something on the page or change a color. Javascript? Fughetaboutit! I struggled to do anything at all. I sucked bad! This went on for a while but as I fought through, I could more or less achieve the simple little changes I wanted.

The little bit of code I did write was absolute crap. As I mentioned, I didn’t know anything. In fact, I thought Volusion was the only game in town. That’s how little I knew.

Magento

Who, or what, is Magento? I had never heard of them before. But really, that just continues on with the fact that I knew nothing. I wasn’t a developer and I didn’t aspire to be a developer. I only wanted to sell products online with ease.

One of my vendors had recently re-platformed their website. I thought the new site was great. As I had a pretty good relationship with this vendor, I called them up, asked about what software they were using and all that jazz. It turned out to be Magento.

I did some reading and some online research and wanted to know how complex the Magento platform was. I was not a developer and I wasn’t planning to be. All I wanted to be, and remain, was a merchant. Magento seemed a little too complex for me BUT they also offered the now-defunct Magento Go platform. That appealed to me.

I sent multiple e-mails to customer service but never got a single response. So what the hell, I decided to give Magento community a try. If I was going to be on my own anyways, I preferred to be on my own without a monthly fee!

Community Support

As I began to see that I could do ANYTHING I wanted with the Magento platform, I decided to try my hand at minor things here and there. I started turning to stack exchange and other online resources quite a bit. As one minor improvement led to another minor improvement and so on, I realized that Magento had major support, for free, from the community at large. In particular, I had gotten tons of help from Alan Storm‘s and Vinai Kopp‘s online writings.

My code was still crap and I was nothing more than a do-it-yourselfer. With the support of the community, these tasks started to become less and less grueling. I actually started to have fun with it.

I don’t remember what specific thing I was trying to accomplish or where I even asked the question, but I remember that Alan Storm replied “use an observer” and provided a small snippet of code. THIS WAS THE TURNING POINT! Don’t get me wrong… I had no idea what that meant or where to place the snippet of code he gave me. Once I figured it out though, lightbulbs were going off over my head by the hundreds. It was amazing to me, it was like the blinders were removed. Such a little bit of guidance really started a chain reaction of learning Magento piece by piece.

Freelancing

After my “awakening”, I started spending 12-15 hours per day learning and doing. From YouTube tutorials to online writings to stack exchange, I was reading, learning, and using every resource I could get my hands on.

At this point, even though I was no expert, I had spent a significant amount of time developing on Magento. I thought, what the hell, let me post myself up on freelancer.com and see if I can make some side money. Well, it worked. I got hired over and over again. Oftentimes, it was by the same clients.

One particular client from freelancer.com kept on giving me job after job. We actually became personal friends and it was a really great relationship to have. It still is, we keep in touch, and when I make it out to England I’ve got a place to stay and a mate to drink beers with. In fact, he helped me score my first professional job by writing a recommendation letter for me.

Anyways, freelancing took off nicely for me. I didn’t have high expectations at first. Of course, I was still also working on my own Magento site. Between freelancing and then coding for myself, I was writing huge amounts of code all day, every day.

Stepping Stone

I freelanced for a few years, improving my skillset over time. Distinctly, I remember I had this low volume, almost silent thought that maybe I could do this “coding thing” for a living. I wasn’t making much money with my Magento site and I enjoyed writing code more and more as time passed.

With each passing day, my once-silent thought got louder and louder. Eventually it was screaming. It screamed at the right time too because I very much needed to do something to improve my financial situation.

So, I scored an interview with a smaller Magento agency in NYC. One of the conditions of employment was that I become Magento certified. I pulled off that miracle and I got the job! My financial problems were fixed and this was a fantastic progression in what was becoming my new career path. I was very, very happy.

I worked at this Magento agency for a few years and I very much enjoyed my time there. I liked the owner of the company very much and I liked the vast majority of my coworkers. Some of the projects were pretty interesting and the code out of this shop was stellar. I was committed to my role and I treated everyday as a learning experience. After all, I had gone from working alone for years to being part of a team of skilled individuals.

Eventually, I realized bigger and better things awaited me. Although I was fond of my boss and his agency, I started to outgrow it. Opportunity knocked and I answered.

Peak

As I mentioned, opportunity knocked. Actually, it knocked in triplicate. I had three strong offers from some great employers on the table. I had a buffet of choices in front of me. All had their pros and cons to them. After careful consideration, I made my choice.

This choice landed me at the Global Elite Magento agency that I work for today. I have the pleasure of planning and leading builds of e-commerce implementations for some of the world’s largest and most well-known brands. Most of these projects are very complex and they’re always interesting. I enjoy EVERY single second of it. When you do what you love for a living, it’s not a job, it’s a pleasure cruise.

From my recent promotion to Technical Architect to my recent earning of Magento’s highest certification, I feel as though I’m on top of a mountain. I never get bored of it, I never get tired of it, and I never take my good fortune for granted. And I never forget those that helped me get here.

Thank You Alex

If it wasn’t for you, Alex, I don’t know what throw-away job I’d be doing today. I remember our talks of wanting to do something better. I remember working towards those goals. You were the best friend a guy could ever have.

Thank you for asking me to go to college with you and thank you for asking me to go into business with you. You never had the chance to know, but you set me up for a lifetime of success and I am forever grateful.

1 Reply to “My Best Friend – A Magento Story”

  1. Thank you for sharing this wonderful story. I am equally thrilled that you found your professional calling with Magento, and that somehow Alex seems to have caused you to go on this path. Oddly enough, yesterday, out of the blue, I asked my husband “What does Shawn do these days?” “He writes code” he answered, and we talked about all the other things you had tried and wondered how did you get to writing code? Just a few hours later we found out about this story. It felt like Alex was saying “Ok Mom, does this fully answer your question?”
    His beautiful soul is still smiling upon us from above, after all these years.
    Juliana

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