Retrospect: 20 years ago, I built websites

2020 marks a milestone of sorts for yours truly. Twenty years ago this month, I semi-voluntarily* left a position with one of the largest energy companies in the world and embarked on a new career in the glamorous but low-paying world of website design.

The World Wide Web was still in relative infancy at that time. Expectations for websites were low, and I managed to meet them quite often. I was intrigued by the combination of technology, creativity, and business acumen necessary to run a one-man web design/development studio, and for ten years, I had the time of my life.

I rarely blogged about any of my clients. But now that I’m ten years removed from any association with paying clients, and on this milestone anniversary, I feel it’s appropriate to do a bit of looking back.

The strange and unusual

Boy, did I have a wide assortment of jobs, from medical practices to oilfield services to community foundations to clothing stores. But a couple stick out for their, um, unique business models.

One such website was for a grandmotherly type who wanted to sell templates for big rabbit feet so that parents could create footprints to fool their children into thinking the Easter bunny had visited them. I diplomatically tried to convince her that this was not a winning strategy in any sense of the word, and while I did build a prototype of the site for her, I don’t recall that we ever went live with it.

I also built a website to showcase a movie script for a proposed film based on the “real life BillyJack” who was the subject of the 1970s movie Billy Jack. A portion of my promised remuneration was to be a cut of the proceeds if and when the movie hit the big time. Obviously, since I’m still an itinerant blogger, that never happened.

Lastly, I was hired to build a “for sale” website for a 2,000 square feet loft in the Tribeca area of Manhattan by an artist, asking price of $1.7 million (in 2008). I have no idea whether it ever sold; I was not offered a cut of the sales price.

The artistic

I mentioned an artist who hired me to publicize his New York loft for sale. I also created a website to showcase his art, one of almost a half dozen artists websites I designed. A couple of the artists were internationally known painters, one on the east coast and one on the west, but these clients also included local (to West Texas) painters as well as musicians and graphic designers. One of the latter did design work for one of Madonna’s books.

I built websites for a couple of professional photographers, and those were fun jobs as they were more graphical and less text-heavy (as you would expect). One of them was old-school; no digital photography, so I did a ton of scanning and retouching to put his work online.

In addition to individual professional creatives, I also did work for less well known but no less important organizations such as high school choirs, community symphony and ballet guilds and professional storytellers (not to be confused with politicians).

One of the more interesting sites was a sort of site dedicated to the work of a little known Texas artist named R.L. Day. He created only eight works in 25 years, and one of those has been lost, but thanks to his estate, the remaining seven are preserved in print form.

The local and charitable

This might be the category I’m most proud of. I stopped counting at thirty, but I either designed, redesigned, or maintained websites for many nonprofit organizations and churches. Most of them were local to West Texas, but a few had worldwide reaches. Many of these job were done pro bono, and those that weren’t were billed at a significant reduction in my [already pretty low] rate.

You may recognize some of these clients: United Way, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, Camp Fire, Big Brothers Big Sisters. If you’re in or from Midland: First Baptist Church, Grace Lutheran Church, Sibley Nature Center, Permian Basin Area Foundation, Keep Midland Beautiful, Lone Star Sanctuary (for animals), Midland Fair Havens, Midland Shooters Association, Hi Sky Emmaus, Permian Basin Petroleum Association, Midland Need to Read.

The commercial

I had the privilege of designing and building websites for a wide variety of technical and engineering companies, most of which were oilfield related. I also worked with a number of medical practices, from anesthesiology to cardiology to urology to advertise their services. (I had the disheartening experience of hearing about the murder of one of those clients, a well-known physician in Odessa.) Oh, and I also built a site for a veterinary practice in Ohio.

There were a handful of non-oilfield business I supported, including a women’s apparel store, a plumbing supply company, a wind power supply and services company, and a couple of out-of-state companies supplying equipment and parts to the aviation industry. There were also insurance and home improvement and custom car building companies, as well as a physical trainer (pre-Crossfit!) and a food seasoning company and a restaurant and a bed-and-breakfast out in the middle of nowhere, West Texas.

There were also lawyers and one firm specializing in providing and prepping expert witnesses for trials.

Wrapping up of the looking back

Those ten years working for myself, from home, doing stuff that almost nobody else in the area could do were pretty special. To be honest, I wasn’t a great designer, but I was fast, reliable, and reasonable. I also had some business experience that I believe some (many?) of my clients found valuable.

I was also old, relatively speaking. And, finally, the technology advanced so quickly that I no longer had the energy to keep up with it. With the advent of smartphones, tablets, and other non-desktop-computer devices with which websites needed to be cooperative, as a one-man operation, I was just overwhelmed by the prospect of making every site work in every medium. And, frankly, the money wasn’t commensurate with the time and effort I was putting into the work. So when an oil company came calling, offering five times what I was making, it just made sense to get back into what I had done for twenty five years before the website gig.

It was still very difficult to inform all my clients that they needed to find someone else to take things over. I had come to think of many of them as friends (although that meant that they understood where I was coming from). 

But time marches on, and although I haven’t spent much time looking at the current sites of those former clients, the ones I have seen have undergone definite improvements over what my caveman-drawing-like efforts were. Still, I’d like to think that I provided the impetus for a lot of companies and organizations to bend the web to their will, for their own good and for the good of those they serve.

I could have done worse, I guess.

*I say “semi-voluntary” in that I could have continued my employment had I been willing to move to Houston. Being reasonably sane, I declined that “opportunity.”