is what I imagine most people’s response to that question is. I wouldn’t think anyone outside of my immediate family would waste a minute thinking about it, and yet here you are reading my about page! So I will do my best not to disappoint.
I am an entrepreneur, photographer, and writer who enjoys exploring new hobbies and sharing what I have learned. That is what this site is about. I generally find most people want the content of this site to help THEM learn how to do something new, and I certainly try to oblige, but if you happen to want to know how I acquired my skills then read on!
I have broken my history down in to sections by topic so you can just jump to what is most interesting to you.
After dropping out of college and a series of jobs including temp, house painter, lifeguard and cook; I found programming as a hobby, and quickly a career. The first few years were about becoming competent and mastering my craft. It became apparent to me that I did not want to spend 1/3 of my life doing things for other people, I wanted to learn more about business and customers and what made the whole system tick.
After leaving my development job at Sears I started my first “company” (which was really more of a tech project). It was a platform for online gamers to plan activities, create profiles, and initiate voice chat. In typical first time tech founder fashion I spent 8 months of the 12 months I gave myself building the first version. By the time I got it out in the real world for feedback it was really too late to solve all the problems and monetize it.
Chicago Climate Exchange
After Simergence I needed a paying job. With few connections in Chicago I went to a recruiter and requested to be placed at a startup. I wanted to learn where I had gone wrong. Fortunately that startup was CCX, where I met a bunch of great people including my current co-founder Kellee James.
After CCX was sold I had three people approach me about building the tech platform for an exchange. I figured that sounded like a business opportunity! I applied to what is now Techstars Chicago and was accepted. Kellee joined me as I needed a co-founder and her project was on hold. Ultimately a startup serving startups with uncertain revenue wasn’t the best idea after all.
I was ready for something different. I wanted to do something without venture capital, boards and control issues. I always tried to make my hobbies a bigger part of my life, so with Jack Eisenberg, whom I had met at Techstars, we started a company for hobby starter kits. It was probably the most fun I have had at a startup, but physical product with low margins is hard.
And this brings us to today. Jack and I wound down Hobstr and I sold Exchangery to Kellee for equity in Mercaris, the company she was in the midst of founding. It was a kindred spirit to CCX, but with Organic and non-GMO ag products rather than environmental ones. It was the perfect marriage of a solid business plan with a market that needed it. Four years in and we are still chugging along.
I spent most of my life just not particularly interested in photography at all. I had a class in middle school where we used a pinhole camera. I dated a photographer in college that would tape black garbage bags up in her tiny apartment bathroom, and we would stare as the images slowly appeared under a red light in the developer bath. A year or so later, after we had broken up, I bought a little point and shoot digital camera back before they were really practical, and had it stolen a few weeks later. I didn’t touch a camera for years, until I went on a trip to visit a good friend who was stationed in Egypt. I bought a dozen disposable cameras to document the trip. They all got ruined going through X-ray machines over and over again.
None of that did it. I did not catch the bug. In my youth I had no idea that I would someday want all of these times in my life to be documented. Perhaps more insidiously, I had a lack of respect for the medium itself as an art form. If it didn’t cross my mind photography could be a creative outlet, a voice to share my artistic vision with the world. Pictures were just awkward Christmas photos, awkward vacation photos and awkward birthday photos.
And then one day many, many years later, I started a little product focused, online business with a friend. We had decided to sell hobby starter kits. We researched all sorts of fun and trendy things people could do with their free time; screen printing, toy camera photography, and building terrariums for example. All our kits just seemed like things people absolutely could not live without, and we just knew we would make a killing. I don’t want to spoil the ending, but we may not have made a completely accurate assessment of the situation.angle
Of course like all two person startups with no budget, we did absolutely everything ourselves. This worked out great for the website, as we were both programmers. The product photos were another story.
I was convinced I could easily do this myself, I just needed a “professional” camera to get “professional” product images. That’s all it takes, right? I bought a Canon T3i DSLR camera with a kit 50mm f1.8 lens. I probably spent $700, I don’t remember exactly, but it was a big commitment. I was getting to a point in my life where I wanted to start preserving my memories anyway, so it felt like it would probably be good to have even if this whole startup thing didn’t work out. What I underestimated, was just how damn difficult it is to take a good photo!
I tried everything; taking photos using natural light against a brick wall on a carpet, taking photos using a flash against a plain wall on a table… actually that was about it. You can imagine how well this went. And the feedback, oh the feedback was soul piercingly terrible. 90% of the 10 complaint emails we ever fielded from customers were all about how bad the product photos were. Seriously.
So there I was, an artistic person with a good eye, who spent his childhood drawing, now an adult programmer who was really good at solving technical problems. I was creative, I was tenacious, I could figure this thing out! And this was what did it, the sneaky way photography burrowed its way in to my head, and became a little obsession I could not stop thinking about. I was going to master this damn contraption if it was the last thing I did.
Of course the startup failed, you may have noticed the foreshadowing. I found myself without having much to take pictures of. My poor cat would run and hide every time I picked the camera up, terrorized as I chased her around my apartment taking photo after photo. My now wife, then girlfriend, was only slightly more patient than the cat. I needed something new to shoot.
I live in Chicago, there are no opportunities for landscape photography; there are no waterfalls, no stunning mountain vistas, no bison roaming the plains (or streets unfortunately). Sure there are buildings, I tried architectural photography for a couple days, but it did not capture my imagination. I took photos of graffiti and bridges passing over highways, stop signs and liquor stores, trains on elevated tracks. It was fun, I got some decent stuff. But it all still felt like practice, a novelty, nothing more.
And then I took my first workshop. Something quite unexpected happened, I fell in love with the photos I took of strangers. I took another workshop, that forced us to take candid photos of strangers in public from really, really close. It was intense, no nonsense, get in people’s personal space and snap. As terrible as I’m sure that sounds for most people, for me it was the end. I was a street photographer.
I have since this time branched out. I started bringing my camera to my volunteer shifts at a dog rescue. And more recently, locked down in a pandemic, have turned to a more traditional still life style of photography, with a bit of a twist.