From $300 Unemployment Checks to Six Figures: How I Did It

In early 2009, I had just begun a new job at a digital agency. Just seven short weeks after starting, I was called in to a conference room and laid off. As I sat listening to the CEO explain the situation, I looked around the room and noticed something: of the dozen employees being let go, only one of them was a developer. Everyone else was a strategist or a project manager (like myself).

One thing was clear: In that tough economic climate, if you didn’t have hard technical skills, you were expendable. So there I was, laid off, with no essential skills to speak of, left staring at a $300 weekly unemployment check and one of the worst job climates in our nation’s history.

I was devastated, but determined to find my way out. And I did. Here’s how.

1. Learn a Skill That is in High Demand

Someone (I wish I could remember who) recommended I spend just an hour each day sending out resumes and fill the rest of my time learning something new and marketable. And that’s just what I did.

Inspired by my experience in that conference room, I decided to learn to code. I opened up a book on learning HTML and CSS and started to work through it. I desperately needed something to do to stave off the unemployment tailspin, and I figured, learning to code was better than watching television. The skills I learned not only allowed me to be creative and build amazing things, but they also turned out to be insanely marketable!

Seriously. It was like falling into a honey pot kind of marketable.

Mastering code wasn’t easy or fast. In fact, I’m still learning new things every day! But that decision—to gain clear, marketable, digital skills—changed everything. Suddenly, I could execute. If I had an idea, I could make it happen. And every new skill I learned opened up 10 new opportunities! And each new opportunity got bigger and better.

Within three months, I had enough familiarity with HTML, CSS, and other coding languages used to build websites that I landed a new job as a technical project manager, plus a gaggle of freelance clients who wanted me to build them websites. Within six months, I had made more money than I would have made in that period if I hadn’t gotten laid off.

2. Where There’s a Need, There’s an Opportunity

My experience got me thinking: If I—an African American studies and art major—could learn tech skills, anyone could do it. It was hard, sure, but only in the way that learning anything new is hard and confusing at first. It definitely was doable, and I quickly found the process of learning so enjoyable that the experience alone was worth it. So why weren’t more people learning digital skills?

The new team that I joined ran digital marketing at MTV. It quickly became clear to me that the women I worked with would be so much better at their jobs—and would make more money and move up faster in the department—if they had a greater understanding of the tech side of the business.

Instead, without the tech know-how, they were effectively designing and pitching campaigns to advertisers without understanding how those campaigns would come together. There was tons of information out there, but I knew from experience that by and large the material about learning to code was terribly boring and unsexy. That seemed like such a lost opportunity because it was propagating the idea that tech was dry, boring, and not creative.

What would it take, I wondered, to make my co-workers be interested in learning digital skills?

3. Test Your Idea, Gather Feedback, Refine and Do it Again!

My company, Skillcrush, was born as an idea about a chick-lit book on technology. At the time, making an online education company was not the idea.

Since writing a book would take forever, I decided to start with a “cheat sheet” of sorts (it felt like reasonable proxy for a book). I figured I could make the cheat sheet look pretty and see if anyone cared to read it. My collaborator (and eventual Skillcrush co-founder) convinced me that instead of making a cheat sheet, we should make a deck of cards. We named it the “Digital Diva” deck and illustrated a set of about 15 cards, each one of which defined a tech term—like HTML or JavaScript—in a fun and relatable way.

Did we think this could make money? Not much. Did we plan to build this into a business that employs seven? Not initially.

But the Digital Diva deck became a conversation starter, as well a test. I could show it to women I met and gauge their interest. Did they like the way we defined the terms? Did they appreciate the illustrations? Did the cards make technology feel more accessible?

And sure enough, I started this very conversation with one woman who it turned out had been thinking a lot about this same idea: making fun, accessible, online tech education targeted at women. She brought the business savvy and we brought the tech and design talent, and boom, Skillcrush was born.

But that was not the end of my experimenting! Once we decided we were going to build a company, I kicked the experimentation into high gear because I knew that now we really needed to figure out whether this idea had teeth.

During one experiment, I pounded the pavement at SXSW with my two co-founders, convincing women, one by one, to sign up for a newsletter that explained tech in an easy to understand way (we figured that if women at SXSW weren’t into it, no one would be). Soon the newsletter took off—it started getting shared, more people subscribed, and it got covered in the media! With the success of the newsletter, I tried launching a downloadable ebook. Then a tutorial. A fun, fresh class on learning technology. And hundreds of people signed up!

Just over a year later, we offer four classes, two career blueprints, and a unique learning community that helps people learn to code the way I wish someone had told me to learn years ago! And our team has grown to seven.

The takeaways? No one wakes up one day and has a six-figure business, but that’s a good thing. Time and hard work do pay off, so start by equipping yourself with the hard skills you need to be successful. As you go, be on the look out for a problem that needs solving. When you think you are onto something, start testing the market and the product right away.