How I Broke into Tech: Ex-music Teacher to Founder
Four years ago I was a new stay-at-home mom living in a 15x20' guest cottage in Missouri’s dairylands wondering what the hell had become of my life and trying to send article pitches over a dialup connection. Fast forward to today: I just wrapped up a winter living with my family in Ethiopia (where, gotta be honest, I might as well have been on dialup) and am co-founder of two coffee companies, one of which is tech company Crema.co, a startup fresh out of the 500 Startups accelerator program. It’s been a wild ride and I’m just getting started.
There are plenty of routes for breaking into the tech industry, but my journey is a little simpler: I bumbled into tech. Still, my bumbling has some common themes, and it is an entertaining story which I think demonstrates above all else that there is no cookie-cutter approach to success. In fact, I strongly believe that it is the people who spurn traditional wisdom and embrace the risk of striking out into the unknown who have the greatest potential to shape the future.
What we want can change, and that’s ok
My childhood was idyllic, long afternoons playing in cornfields and practicing classical piano. Homeschooled, the oldest of six children, I was trained to be a wife and a mother and, above all, to follow the safe path laid out by the Church. For some, this works just fine. Not for me. I spent years after high school teaching piano to a sizable studio, writing four novels that didn’t deserve publication, and agonizing over the tension between my duty (as I perceived it then) and what I really wanted to do, which was travel the world by myself and get a Phd. in something, anything, but probably music or English.
Eventually I jumped careers and locations, winning a coffeehouse management job and earning a degree in English at a community college. I began to come to terms with the emotional baggage I carried from my religious background and… I fell in love with a red-bearded barista in North Kansas City. Got married. Had a blue-eyed daughter. Ended up back at my parent’s home, hammered with postpartum depression, living in their guest house, and completely confused about life in general and the far-off concept of a career in particular.
We can’t visualize the future, because we’re too small-minded
I didn’t even know a “tech industry” existed that winter of 2012–13. My nights were broken as I nursed my daughter and my days were a balancing act of doing the mom/wife thing and trying to build a career as a freelance writer. Beautiful moments — like the evening we sat around the firepit and I played my harp while we roasted hot dogs and made S’more’s and talked about life — balanced with the sheer terror of not knowing what I was doing. I felt trapped in my role, and money was so tight that we relied on government assistance for food for a while.
On a whim I chatted with Jason Burton, founder of boutique beverage marketing firm The LAB, and in an eye-opening moment of serendipity, he offered me a location-independent internship. I opened my twitter account so I could learn to handle The LAB’s social media clients. Every tweet took several minutes to program. The basics of client management, event organization, copywriting, PR, and marketing were new to me: I was like a sponge, soaking up knowledge and perspective. I was lucky Jason offered real guidance, plus I had Google at my side.
The internship turned into a job, and in Summer 2013 I helped organize the first San Francisco Caffeine Crawl (the below picture was taken at Ritual, a company which in a beautiful full circle will be Crema.co’s newest roaster partner this month). We moved to LA for a few months, then to Portland. My husband was on his own career journey too, and we hit some real obstacles.
Once, his salaried position as Sourcing Director with a new green coffee company fell through two days before he was set to start. We had less than $200 in the bank and rent was due. I took a part-time job with a coffee company doing operational management at $13 an hour to make ends meet while holding down two other positions. Then, Portland’s competitive housing market kicked us to the curb: our temporary rental was ending in two weeks and we had inquired at over fifty rentals only to be turned down or ignored, one after the other. One of my bosses offered us a barn in the country to live in: just before we had to say yes on that offer, a house in our favorite neighborhood opened up and we’ve been there ever since. We had no childcare, no family around, and no idea what we were doing. The sheer hardship and confusion was overwhelming.
The details change, but our personal themes stay the same
Storytelling has always mattered to me. Ever since that summer day in my 16th year when I stopped in a university quadrangle during piano camp and had the lightning-flash realization that I. Was. A. Writer., I’ve spend countless thousands of hours hunched over a computer or notebook vomiting forth novels, stories, articles, social media posts, employee handbooks, website copy, proposals, complicated emails, and branding documents. As my life changed from music teacher to café manager to wife/mom to career woman, my obsession with the written word stayed the same and acted as the launching pad from phase to phase of my career.
I decided to do my own thing
I loved my job with The LAB (organizing Caffeine Crawl events throughout the West Coast, working with great beverage clients on marketing plans and collateral, and drinking lots of craft cocktails) but I found I needed more autonomy and profit potential; at the same time my husband, who is a talented coffee technician, needed the same. We opened Catalyst Coffee Consulting Fall of 2014 and proceeded to prove just how badly business can go for good-hearted people who know nothing about business. Still, I had a blast that first year of business, working with big coffee clients like nonprofit Alliance for Coffee Excellence, traveling to Peru and Colombia for clients (and wearing parrots), and learning to take full responsibility for the monumental fluff-ups we performed.
A huge highlight of the first couple years was working with Tyler Tate of the newly-minted startup Crema.co, a coffee subscription that helps coffee drinkers discover and subscribe to top coffees from craft roasters. He first contacted me in my capacity as a coffee journalist when he was running Crema’s (successful) Kickstarter project, and we hit it off so well that I began to consult with him on branding, messaging, and coffee content. Together we took Crema.co into an intensive beta period and then officially launched on December 3, 2015.
One thing leads to another
By this time I was starting to wrap my head around how things work in the business world from a relationship/skills standpoint: you learn how to do something (whether you have to Google it, or you’re lucky enough to have someone teach you) and you leverage what you know to do good work for someone, and then you leverage your relationships to meet new people, and you do more good work for them, and you just keep the momentum going.
What I didn’t count on was getting so deep in the mission, values, and plans of Crema.co that when Tyler offered me a cofounder role, after some meditation, I took it. I was so new to the concept of funded companies that he had to talk me through the equity options and owner agreement. Still, it made perfect sense.
The widely-varied skills and life experience I had accumulated to this point combined to bring just what Crema.co needed: someone to manage the coffee side as well as the content and marketing, to handle quality control and roaster relationships, to set and maintain the course for customer-facing communications, and to provide an unashamedly romantic view of this product that impacts so many people around the world. Tyler and I had already fine-tuned our working partnership: our personalities are perfectly balanced.
Relationships are everything
Let the Crema.co cofounder relationship be a case study for best-case scenario. Tyler brings the tech, data-driven background and I bring the coffee and content expertise that let us build the coolest coffee search-and-brew experience ever. We both have young families (Tyler’s got three big-eyed kids, I’ve got one) and share core values such as respecting human dignity and striving for excellence. Both of our spouses are professionally involved in Crema.co as well (my husband Michael consults on coffee quality/selection, and Ruth Tate handles many of our logistics as well as shooting all our photo assets and creating our enchanting social media). Our skillsets are complementary and our personalities are too: I’m all warm/prickly/human interest story, and Tyler’s cool/collected/logical.
Relationships have driven my entry to tech in other ways too: it’s through the chance connection over a coffee cup that I entered coffee in the first place, how I met my spouse, and how so many other crucial connection s have been formed. At Crema.co we had the privilege of recently completing 500 Startups Batch 19 (view our Demo Day pitch here) and the driving factor for all the success we are seeing is the relationships we have formed with other startups, investors, advisors, and most importantly, our incredible community of coffee drinkers that fuel the small revolution.
The future will be bigger. Which is scary, and cool.
In some ways I’ve given up trying to shape my future, because the reality of what happens is much more interesting than any scenario I could have envisioned. (Back to my first point: what we want can change, and that’s OK.) I’m still startled by the way I’ve entered the tech industry and fascinated by the huge potential for personal development and startup success I see ahead. Pitch events still weird me out. I still wonder what exactly I should wear as a startup founder, and stand out like a sore thumb in rooms full of computer science grads (though there are a surprising number of fellow fantasy buffs floating around in tech!).
I don’t fit in, but that’s the whole point of building a career in the tech world, isn’t it? With enough agility, talent, hunger, search for personal identity, and willingness to build relationships, you can do almost anything you set your mind to.
For Crema.co, that looks like leveraging relationships and skills to keep building our platform into the ultimate destination for folks who drink coffee at home (or at the office) and who care about what they drink and how it impacts the global coffee community.
For me, it looks like speaking up more, working harder/smarter, and learning a hell of a lot more about what it means to be a founder in tech, a working mom, and a human being who plans to make the world a better place.
Four years ago I wore a different skin. I can’t wait to see what I look like in another four years.
I couldn’t have transitioned without resources, and here are some of my favorites.
Danielle La Porte — white, hot truth for lifechangers.
Getting Things Done —the organizational system that actually works
Mark Manson — not giving a fuck about shit that doesn’t matter
Dave McClure’s blog — down-low on the weird/wired world of Silicon Valley
Interested in shifting focus and breaking into tech? Check these links out for yourself. And let me know what you think, eh?