This interview, with Brendan Nee and Jed Horne of Blink Tag Inc, focuses on web development, technology consulting, and starting your own company right out of school. Blink Tag is a startup company that specializes in web development, transportation and city planning websites, graphic design, and web consulting.
Brendan and Jed did their graduate programs at UC Berkeley. Following their 2008 graduation, they launched and founded their own company, BlinkTag Inc, departing from the typical career trajectory of Master’s Candidates in City Planning. Prior to their graduate work, Brendan studied Civil Engineering at University of Minnesota and Jed studied in Civil Engineering and Public Policy at MIT.
Let’s start with America’s favorite question: what do you do?
J: Brendan and I are co-owners and founders of BlinkTag, Inc., a small startup that provides technology and web application consulting for public agencies and companies in the fields of city planning, transportation, and real estate.
B: We manage a web development and technology consulting firm that specializes in working with transportation and city planning websites.
Where do you work? Do you have your own office?
B: We built an office on the second floor of a converted Auto Trim shop. It’s a live/work space with a lot of flexibility.
How did you get into this field?
J: I was always pretty good at math and science, and started out college wanting to be a physicist. It didn’t take me very long to figure out that that was way too weird a thing to do, and that I wanted to concentrate on slightly more grounded questions in the field of urban policy. If I had to do it over again or to recommend a course of study to someone with similar interests, I probably would have majored in economics.
B: I have an undergraduate degree in Civil Engineering and a Master’s in Transportation Engineering. I got interested in transportation after working for an airline and traveling all over the world in my spare time.
Did you do any advanced training or graduate work to prepare yourself for this field?
J: I went to graduate school right after undergrad, which was probably a mistake in retrospect, since I dropped out after only a single semester. I think my motivation at that time was the wrong kind: I didn’t know what to do with myself after college aside from continuing on with what I had been doing for the past four years.
I returned to the program two years later, after working in the research department of a commercial real estate firm. What brought me back to school was seeing my hometown of New Orleans destroyed by Hurricane Katrina – I was able to talk my way back into UC Berkeley on the condition that I spend a semester back home researching the rebuilding process, and that research became my graduate thesis.
B: I went straight from undergrad to graduate school: I wasn’t done being a student. Moving to the Bay Area for graduate school was a big change. San Francisco has a lot to offer, great climate, food and lots of interesting neighborhoods. It’s easier to meet people who have technical skills, which has really helped us find great employees and collaborators.
Was there a pivotal moment during school, during an internship, or during a conversation with someone that led you to this area of work?
J: Since age five, I’ve always lived in interesting cities, and I remember doing a segment in my high school geography class on city planning and thinking it was pretty cool. I wish I could say that I am motivated by purely altruistic reasons, but I also find myself motivated by my desire to travel and explore interesting areas to live. A lot of my motivation comes from exploring new cities and new modes of public transportation.
B: I had been doing web development consulting throughout high school, undergraduate and graduate school, so by the time I graduated I knew that working for myself was something I wanted to continue. There seemed to be a demand for websites related to transportation, city planning & real estate so we started a company that focuses on this niche.
Describe “a day in the life” of Blink Tag.
J: There isn’t really a typical work day. I set my own hours and manage my own time. I try to be at my desk by about 10 or 11 AM. (Our office is a live/work loft that we built.) Sometimes will work until 3 AM, but we have lots of breaks in between. At any given time we have probably six or seven active projects, and on most days, I’ll field emails or phone calls from clients.
In our office, aside from Brendan and me, we have two employees who are also there most days. We have a network of roughly fifteen contractors that we work with on a project-by-project basis. Our contractors don’t typically work in our office, although they do come in on occasion. We do occasionally travel for projects (or for fun), and it’s easy to work remotely since most of our work is done online.
B: I’m not a morning person, so I get most of my work done in the late evenings. I get up, check my email, and respond to issues that came in. We email or IM with our consultants and staff on the status of their projects. In our office we have 3-6 people working every day and we’ve got 10 additional consultants that work off site. We typically have 1-2 meetings per week with clients in the Bay Area that we travel to.
I’m my own boss, but I only generate revenue when I’m billing hours so I have to stay focused on the tasks I’m working on and what comes next. I put in 50-70 hour work weeks, but my time is flexible and I like to work in long chunks so I can take a day off as needed.
What are the top 3 things you like or enjoy about your job?
J: First, I like the flexibility. I like most of the projects that we’ve taken on. And I like my co-workers.
B: I like the flexible hours, and that I get to choose which projects to take on and which to reject. Lastly, the opportunity to learn new tasks on the fly: from accounting to marketing to programming – I get to pick up new skills every day.
Describe the types of skills you learned over the past year and things you learned about business that you didn’t already know. Did you have any unexpected moments where you realized how much you needed to learn?
I was able to learn this all gradually as our business grew and different types of projects and challenges appeared, so it I was never really overwhelmed. It’s important to always be learning new skills.
J: I’ll second Brendan – my approach has always been that I can pick up the technical stuff as I go along, and the business side is something I don’t think I could have learned in any other job. I don’t know if there was a single “aha” moment, but you wind up learning a lot of little things every day.
What are the 3 “lows” of your job – what do you like the least about what you do?
J: I don’t like the fact that I’m “on the job” more or less twenty four hours a day. Sometimes I wish I had a manager – I’m not that good at organizing my time. And third, sometimes I don’t leave the house for a day at a time.
B: First, hiring – it’s pretty time intensive to find new staff & consultants, we try to hire through our social network when possible. Second, the work overload: since I’m in charge if we get really busy I’ve got to put in the hours to sort through all of the issues and assign them to staff. Third, the uncertainty – It’s up to me to keep projects coming down the pipeline to keep myself and my staff employed.
When thinking about the transition from Academic/College to Professional/Work life, what took the most getting used to? What strategies did you use to adjust to the differences?
B: It was a pretty smooth transition for me. It was important to keep up ties with my colleagues from school to stay up to date with potential contracts, employees & happenings in our field.
J: I found academic work to be really frustrating in a lot of ways, in part because there wasn’t a clear link between the work I was doing and a “product” to be delivered to a client. The biggest difference for me, which I think ultimately resulted in a positive change in my work habits, was the switch to a mindset where I was doing things for a particular reason and that I needed to organize my work in a way that would quickly and efficiently solve a specific problem.
I also think it’s hard for some people to understand that their time is valuable, particularly if they’re coming from an academic setting where they are encouraged to think more and do less. Aside from diving right into a client/consultant relationship, I don’t know a good way to make that adjustment – some people are better suited for academia, and some for the workplace.
When did you start thinking about your post-education career? How long did it take to find a job?
B: I started thinking about it halfway through grad school. I pursued my interest and considered jobs later.
J: Honestly, I didn’t do much thinking about it. I’ve never been much of a strategic planner, and the fact that my buddy from grad school wanted to work together on building our company was a really easy transition, and the whole thing more or less just happened.
How do you define success in the workplace?
B: I’m able to set goals, number of hours billed and number and type of projects completed. We’re now able to be pickier about the types of projects we take on.
J: That’s one of the issues I have with working alone – it’s hard to set clear goals for yourself, particularly as a new company that will more or less take any kind of work to stay in business. Over our first year in business, however, we were able to develop a client base that was increasingly interesting to us and to build a network of contractors, and I’m more proud of developing our business than I am of any particular project we worked on.
What does “work-life balance” mean to you, and how do you maintain a work-life balance?
J: I’m not really sure how to answer this question, because I think I’m at a transition point in my life – I’m just now starting my career, and I don’t have a family to take care of. I don’t yet have a clear sense of where I should draw the line between “work” (what I do to make a living) and “life” (other things I have going on), or necessarily how to balance them correctly. I guess I haven’t really yet figured out how I should set my priorities.
B: I work from home so work and non-work blur together. However, I get to be flexible with my schedule, so I try to do interesting, fun stuff when I’m not working, and get work done when I’m not doing anything particularly rewarding entertaining. Since I can work from anywhere, it’s pretty easy to get an hour in here and there. I try to work outside the home office at least one day a week, there are a bunch of good coffee shops to work in nearby.
What advice do you have for recent college grads and new employees? Any words of encouragement or advice to offer?
J: Don’t go to grad school right out of college. Also, don’t do something you don’t like just because you think you have to.
B: Consider working for yourself, start taking on projects while still a student to build your portfolio, experience and confidence. It’s not really that hard to start your own business. Maintain ties to your academic colleagues.
Would you recommend the same path to other people? When do you think is a good time to begin job searching or career planning?
B: I’d recommend considering working for yourself if you are self motivated and don’t mind learning the business administration skills required. The payoff in flexibility greatly outweighs any negatives.
J: My mother always told me I have until I’m 35 to find a career, and I think she’s probably right – I don’t see any really good reasons to start out with a big company or on a clear career track until you’re ready to do so. I think a lot of people forget that, assuming they come from a supportive family, they really can afford to take more risks when they’re young than they might think. Starting a business was certainly a risk, but the types of things I’ve been doing would have been out of the question if I had grabbed the first job that came to me as a twenty-one year old.
Most people have a very narrow definition of “career planning” – I don’t see it as a formal process, but one of experimentation and self-evaluation that takes less “planning” than I imagined coming out of high school. I would suggest doing as many different types of things as possible when you’re young, and a great way to do this is to start your own company where you get to set your own rules.
“Career Focus” is a series of interviews with young professionals in San Francisco exploring different job fields and professions.—
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