From sleeping in a car in Silicon Valley to owning a development agency
Michael Aubry wanted to get out off his hometown in Illinois and work in Silicon Valley. So he drove across the country and arrived in Palo Alto with $300 in his back pocket, sleeping in his car while he picked up freelance work. I chatted to him about his tips for newbie coders, getting out of a small town and being successful as a developer.
Thanks a lot for the interview, Michael. Can you tell us a bit about yourself?
My name is Michael Aubry , I am 28 and I live in San Diego with my girlfriend and two new puppies. I have always been fascinated by social media, design, and storytelling. So that is why I am working on Story Creator - a tool to help content creators make beautiful content.
In order to keep the money flowing I am doing freelance work. I am currently working with Keto Connect a couple who shares recipes about the ketogenic diet. My goal is to retain them as clients so I can maintain the web app we built, hand hold them until they hit the market, then work with them to reach $50,000+ MRR.
Why did you originally get into programming and how did you learn?
I actually started coding after I discovered you can obtain free xbox games on torrent sites. In the small midwest town that I grew up in, there wasn’t much entrepreneurial support and there was no way in hell I was going to work at a fast food joint.
Plus I didn’t want to put the burden on my single mother to have to give out her hard earned money. Which meant it was hard to keep up with the new releases of video games every few months by myself. So a few tech savvy buddies and I did our research and came across the wild wild west of the internet.
I didn’t know what I wanted at the time but I knew I liked building things and I knew that this was an opportunity to get ahead. I was extremely driven and decided to use torrents to learn as much as I could.
This is when I came across Google Adsense. I set out to use dreamweaver to build my first site. I also leveraged tutorials on how to write HTML and CSS. I remember building LifesGreatQuotes.com. After building it there was a rush and I had to tell everyone. One of my buddies lived a mile down the road and I sprinted to show him on his computer that he could open a browser and pull up my website I built.
The most practical way to actually get some cash was to find others that wanted a site. That seemed more direct than getting a bunch of traffic and making money through Ads. So I came across Warrior Forum which is an awesome site around marketing. I figured I’d forget about marketing and just help marketers build the sites. I charged low, around $800 for a site at the time. What I would do is get themes and modify them.
The most valuable teacher was building an app for the basketball league I was in. I spent a lot of time on Stack Overflow learning new things alongside various courses. I was really motivated to get out of small Jacksonville, Illinois and go somewhere the feedback loops aligned with what I wanted to be. Which lead to me packing everything and just going.
I read that you drove across America, sleeping in your car and arrived in Silicon Valley with $300!
It all started in my buddies kitchen. His name was Michael also. I said “Michael, how crazy would it be if I was homeless for a little. Do you think it’s possible to lose it all and build yourself back up. I have a theory that you can’t have anything unless you’re willing to be at the bottom and have nothing.” He looked at me like I was crazy. I pondered on this a little. Then after being so fed up with living the life I was, I needed to take action.
I did some research on Silicon Valley and seeked out what others have done. I came across Kurt Varner’s article on Business Insider. This inspired me and made me feel like it was totally doable. After a night of calculating my expenses and working on an advert, I was confident I’d find another freelance client. I had packed everything in my Pontiac Vibe, fired up the GPS on my cell phone that had no service - only WI-FI. Then I hit the road with the snow slowly melting away from the car.
Now on my way towards a new life line, passing through Missouri I remember getting to a town not far off from Kansas City. I found a nice spot in the parking lot and went to sleep just for a few hours. After passing through Nebraska, 9 hours later I made it to Wyoming. I have always been dedicated to the gym, so I found the nearest YMCA and it was one of the coolest workouts of my life. Whenever I lose motivation I just think of that workout.
After passing through hot miserable Nevada, I remember hitting the line to California and was feeling like I had made it. I remember seeing the sun shine through the tall redwoods, the trees were so green and the drive was all down a beautiful mountain - I was in love.
How did you survive on $300 while you were looking for developer jobs?
Luckily a day before I actually had a client respond. So my first goal was to find a Starbucks and get to work. After getting the project setup and half the payment, I was relieved. I was now at around $500-$600 in my account so enough for food, gas, and a gym membership.
As I was working and getting familiar with Palo Alto I was adopting a temporary routine so I could make some progress to make the client happy. The routine was pretty much work at StarBucks for hours upon hours, then eat a cheap meal at Safeway, then find a quiet spot with little foot traffic to park and sleep.
After getting a little money in the door I was able to go to the Hacker Dojo. I actually met one of my best buddies there Faraaz Nishtar. He took a look at some of my work and loved it. At the time he was so kind and while I was sleeping out of the car, he offered to let me crash at his place in San Jose.
How did you get your first job in Silicon Valley?
My first job came after I met the founder of Xy Gaming in the Hacker Dojo. He seemed like he knew what he was doing and I knew he had a small staff. So as the old saying goes “closed mouths don’t get fed,'' I had to open my mouth and start a conversation to get things going.
After taking a look at my work (having a portfolio is very important) he was interested in moving onto a coding interview. I had to build an email client in PHP. It was hard but I did a bunch of YouTubing and was able to put it together.I worked there for a while building cool things. This is when I started to truly grow into an engineer and had a proper Silicon Valley experience there. It was fun!
What are some good steps to take when you are trying to get hired for the first time and you don’t have a CS degree?
The most important thing to keep in mind is that the money comes from the consumer which pays the company and the company needs people to help solve other people's problems. Employers have a mission to do that and will be working with you to accomplish the mission. They’ll pay attention to your confidence, to the way you interact, and most importantly, how you make them feel. You must be able to look people in the eye and have conviction. So in order to achieve this you just gotta be good at what you do.
Look specifically for people who may have problems you can solve with engineering. Then once you have identified someone has a problem you can solve with software, then offer to do it for free, or for really cheap - if you’re just getting started. Spend 2-6 months working on it. Then see it to completion and add it to your portfolio. After that get back out on the hunt and talk to people. You have to meet people and position yourself for opportunities.
What advice do you have for someone who wants to learn programming?
Be patient, and be passionate. It’ll be a tough journey, but if your desire to solve a problem is strong enough and you’re obsessed enough then you’ll love it. Also think about what you like to work on and make sure you’re working on a thing you love, just make sure even when motivation isn’t there you’re seeing your work to completion.
Come at it from the mindset that programming helps solve problems. Programming is essential in a modern world. So you may be left behind if you don’t know some of the basic stuff.
Can you tell us about Story Creator App and your plans for that?
Story Creator is being built to help content creators make professional looking content without the hassle of having to learn Photoshop etc. I first saw the power of Instagram and Facebook when I used to throw parties back in San Francisco. I was able to meet people out and exchange Instagrams so that I could keep them in the loop with my life.
Anytime I had an event I would typically have a good turn out because the people watching the stories knew they were going to have a great time. I’ve seen fitness brands blow up to $10 million ARR because of a little story telling behind a camera.
The problem is that not everyone is comfortable in front of the camera and recording in real time. Also not everyone can create beautiful content. Some people just have good products or messages. My goal is to give them a platform to build trust and make their stuff desirable. I want to help them focus on making their products and services better, not worrying about creating content.
In one month I want to get my first paying user. From there I will work on getting 10. Then over the course of a year I would like to hit 1k paying users which will bring the company $10k -$20k MRR. From there I can improve the product even more and start to shoot for the moon.