Sherri and Reuben Johnson

Sherri and Reuben Johnson

Of the hundreds of people I’ve met who started a digital agency, almost all of them stumbled into it. But the two people on today’s show saw the web as a way to improve their lives. Living in a small Northeastern mill city, a tanking economy and failing health were taking its toll on the young couple. And then a friend told them about working in tech in Atlanta. Sherri and Reuben Johnson never looked back. Listen to part one of The Fly Media Origin Story.

Do you know a company with a unique origin story? Tell us about it!

Carl Smith:
Hey everybody, and welcome back to The Bureau of Briefing. Today we are starting a series called Origin Stories. And the reason for this is two friends of mine who I believe I met on social media and then actually got to meet in person at Owners Summit recently in Charleston, South Carolina, Reuben and Sherri Johnson, they ... I just had to say they inspired me. We ended up talking one night, and they were sharing their stories of how they got started with Fly Media Productions, their company. And I was like, "I've got to get them on the The Briefing, and I've gotta share their story." And if there are other stories out there like this, I just think we need to know them. So welcome to The Bureau Briefing Reuben and Sherri Johnson. How are ya?

Sherri Johnson:
Hey.

Reuben Johnson:
Hey, Carl. Wow, that is-

Sherri Johnson:
Origin Stories is such an awesome, awesome idea. Like those are my favorite movies. Jeremy, my son, always gets, he laughs at me because he's like, "You only like The Origin Stories." I'm like, "But they're the best part."

Carl Smith:
They are, right?

Reuben Johnson:
Yeah.

Carl Smith:
It's like after The Origin Stories, you just have to keep going. But the getting there part, that's pretty cool.

Sherri Johnson:
Yep.

Reuben Johnson:
Oh, sorry. Go ahead. I was gonna say, it's a pleasure to be here. It's like, this is amazing to us. This is amazing. I'm so happy to talk to you.

Carl Smith:
So tell me, and everybody listens is like, "Carl's really excited today." Tell me how did we meet. Was it through Twitter?

Reuben Johnson:
I think so, yeah. I mean, I know I had known about the Owners Summit and the whole Bureau of Digital. And I don't know how I found that I out. I'm assuming I found it out through either the expression [inaudible 00:01:46] community or through the Mike Monteiro video with Fuck You, Pay me with [inaudible 00:01:53]. I don't know, it was somewhere around that time I came across a lot of that. And we had always wanted to go to one of those conferences. We consumed so much of what y'all had put out, and we kind of did that thing where we reached out. I guess we reached out on Twitter or something. And I think that's kind of how it started.

Sherri Johnson:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Carl Smith:
Well, I remember seeing your photo. And you just updated it.

Reuben Johnson:
Yes.

Carl Smith:
And I love how you're still paying homage to the old one. It's like, Reuben, you better be in behind, Sherri. I mean, that's the way that's gonna go. Let's just make sure we know it. But it was so funny, because when I first saw the photo, I was like, "Well, who are you?" And I started checking out Fly Media Productions, and I started looking at the work that you were doing. You know, it's funny because, Reuben, you call yourself a hip hop surfer. I don't know if you still remember that you got that in there. Right?

Reuben Johnson:
Yes. Yes, I do. 

Carl Smith:
And you say, I think, that Sherri is an urban hippy, but Sherri doesn't call herself that, right?

Sherri Johnson:
I did. I actually was the one who came up with it originally. He's like, "I love that. That is so perfect for you."

Reuben Johnson:
And she didn't want to use it before.

Sherri Johnson:
And then he's all proud of it. He's like, "I'm gonna put it everywhere."

Carl Smith:
Well, see, and I used to say I was a short-haired hippie, right? Because it was just like, "It's hot in Florida. I can't have my hair that long." But then you also put up there Digital Storyteller and some of these other things. So let's just back up, first of all, to when the two of y'all met and like what were each of you doing? How long have you known each other? And then we're gonna move forward into kind of Fly Media and how that got started. So Sherri, you tell the story of how the two of you met.

Sherri Johnson:
Me? Oh, geez.

Reuben Johnson:
Sherri's clutching her chest. She's like on the spot. This is awesome.

Sherri Johnson:
Oh my god. I don't like being on the spot. Where to start, where to start? Well, we met in 1995, and we met ... How did we met? We kind of met through his brother who I met at a party. And then his brother and my sister kind of got together. And then we went to a party at his house. And Reuben was supposed to be there, and his brother introduced us and all that stuff. So that's kind of how we got a, real quick how we got our kind of introduction.

Reuben Johnson:
I wasn't at that party, though.

Sherri Johnson:
No, you were supposed to be there.

Reuben Johnson:
I was supposed to. I was working.

Sherri Johnson:
He was supposed to be there, so I was there with my younger sister and her friends in the hopes of meeting Ryan's brother.

Carl Smith:
Which did not happen.

Sherri Johnson:
Which did not happen.

Carl Smith:
You got lucky for a second chance, Reuben.

Reuben Johnson:
Yes. Oh my god. Like that say, thank God for second chances.

Sherri Johnson:
Yeah. And we had met a couple of times at some different parties, and he was always with other people. We met, and when I say "met," we were introduced to each other. But we really didn't have any conversation at all. He was always with somebody else. I think one of the times he was with a couple of girls, and I just assumed he was with one of them, and I just kind of went about and did my thing. And then how we actually started talking was at a Bible convention, which is of all places today the weirdest thing.

Carl Smith:
Well, there you go.

Sherri Johnson:
But that's a big part of our history and background. But anyway, we kind of both bumped into each other there, and we were, I think, throughout the session we were like, we're kind of both thinking to ourselves, "I'm gonna go talk to this person." And towards the end of the session before the day was over I was on my way to find him. I'm like, "I'm gonna have a conversation with this guy. I gotta say something." And he was walking around, and his friend bumped into me, and he's like, "Hey, that guy wants to talk to you." Because he had a limp. It wasn't like high school or anything.

Carl Smith:
Right.

Sherri Johnson:
He was on crutches, and he was like, "That guy wants to talk to you." I'm like, "What?" So then we just started walking around and talking, and we just connected right away. We talked for hours, and then he called me two days later, which that was a little bit of a long time for me.

Carl Smith:
I'm with you.

Sherri Johnson:
I thought the conversation went really well and two days was like, what? But anyway, I like to say he called me two days later, and then he called me every day after that.

Carl Smith:
Aw.

Sherri Johnson:
And then we got married-

Reuben Johnson:
Just like five or six months later.

Sherri Johnson:
... five months later, yeah.

Reuben Johnson:
Five months later, right? 

Carl Smith:
Whoa.

Reuben Johnson:
Yeah.

Sherri Johnson:
It went-

Carl Smith:
And you've been married for over 20 years.

Reuben Johnson:
Yeah.

Sherri Johnson:
It moved really fast.

Reuben Johnson:
It moved really quick.

Sherri Johnson:
We just knew.

Reuben Johnson:
We just knew. I told her, I was telling her I wanted to get-

Sherri Johnson:
Yeah, he-

Reuben Johnson:
I knew I wanted to get married. It was like two weeks we were talking about getting married, and it's like, I just like was very much just laid it all out on the table.

Sherri Johnson:
Yeah. I was 18. He was 21.

Reuben Johnson:
No [crosstalk 00:06:46].

Sherri Johnson:
Almost 21.

Reuben Johnson:
Yeah.

Sherri Johnson:
Almost 21.

Reuben Johnson:
When we met I was just like 20.

Sherri Johnson:
Yeah. When he first told me he loved me, I said, "I think I love you too. I think I'm falling in love with you." I was scared to death that it was moving too fast. I was like, and I didn't want to hurt his feelings. I was like, "If I don't really love him I'm gonna break his heart, so I'm like, "I'm falling in love with you, too."

Reuben Johnson:
Remember when you showed me your diary years later, how you had written that? You said, "I was too afraid to say what I really felt. I was actually in love with him, so I just said, 'I think I'm falling in love.'"

Sherri Johnson:
Yep.

Carl Smith:
Wow.

Reuben Johnson:
That's very-

Carl Smith:
A little cognitive distance there, right? I think I could be possibly falling close to where love may be.

Sherri Johnson:
Yeah.

Carl Smith:
So 20 years ago, over 20 years ago y'all meet. You get married like right away. What we were each of you doing? So you're in your early 20's. And Reuben, I don't know if you were around that same age, but were you working? Were you doing anything of that nature? What was your life in terms of like your job or whatever?

Reuben Johnson:
Oh, that's a good question. That's a good question. When we first met, I was working towards being a partner with a guy who had a seal coating company, like the black top that they put over parking lots and driveways and all that. 

Carl Smith:
Yeah.

Reuben Johnson:
I was working towards being a partner with him. Like I was the lead guy in the crew, and we had just had a conversation about me being partners in the actual business. So I would go out, and I'd do all the work. He would bring the work in, do sales, and run all the back office stuff. I also had, because in the Northeast, that's very much a seasonal business.

Carl Smith:
Okay.

Reuben Johnson:
So I also worked, had another job where I worked at a gas station filling gas and doing all that kind of stuff. I ended up getting hurt on that job. I got pinned between two cars. So it actually wasn't as bad as people think. I had really good reflexes, so I jumped and spinned to the side, so when they crunched me, he crunched my knees from the side. What's that?

Sherri Johnson:
I said it was bad. I still can't squeeze his knee.

Reuben Johnson:
But anyway, so after that accident, and that's so funny, because when Sherri met me, I hadn't had that happen. I was totally healthy and had mobility. And then as the next time she saw me, I had my legs in braces, and I was on crunches.

Carl Smith:
It was the way to your heart. It was just so heavy you couldn't support yourself anymore.

Sherri Johnson:
He wore it well.

Reuben Johnson:
But anyways, because of that, it kind of changed the whole trajectory, because I couldn't do the seal coating and stuff. I was basically off my feet. So fast forward a few months, and I got a job in the advertising department at what used to be Strawberry's Records and Tapes. It used to be on the East coast. I don't know if it went all the way to Florida where y'all are at. But it was from Boston down I think South Carolina, but I'm not sure.

Carl Smith:
Okay.

Reuben Johnson:
Anyway, I was in the ad department, and that was really cool. That was around the time when CDs were ... Digital was starting to come out, and CD sales were falling and blah blah blah. So I ended up getting laid off from there. I got sick right after we got married, like really, really sick. And then I just kind of went back, after I got better over towards the middle end of the summer, I went back to what I knew, which was the blue collar stuff. But I had actually gotten the job at the advertising department. I had gone to a vocational technical school in the early 90's, and I had done cad, drafting, and that kind of stuff. So when I got out of school, I was actually a certified cad operator, certified draftsman, and that kind of stuff. It's just when I got out of school it was a really bad recession. I couldn't get work and all that stuff. 

When we first got married I got really sick, went back to the blue collar thing. And then just kind of necessity kind of, I was getting sick again towards the end of the 90's. So we had some health problems that we were dealing with. And that kind of meandered us into thinking about technology and the web again and not necessarily the blue collar work stuff I had been doing.

Carl Smith:
Now, where were you? You said that the sealing company, that was seasonal in the Northeast. So where were you at?

Reuben Johnson:
Oh, yeah. So we lived in, I came up in Massachusetts for the most part. And then Sherri and I, when we got together, we lived in Rhode Island, a little city called Woonsocket.

Carl Smith:
Okay. And so how did you end up in Atlanta?

Reuben Johnson:
I actually wrote a post about it. I just wrote it this morning, gotta publish it. Woonsocket is an interesting place. The Washington Post did an article about it calling it the boom-bust economy. It's a mill city. It struggles really bad economically, and it's super, super working class. Really hard working people, but the city just struggles really bad. There's not really a lot of opportunity there. And we had been grinding away there and all that. We had some friends who had relocated from a couple of other nearby mill cities to Atlanta. And I used to talk to them on the phone and stuff. And then one of the times I talked to one of my friends, he used to be a plumber, pipe fitter, and then he moved into tech, when he was in Boston in a city called [inaudible 00:12:16] outside Boston. 

And so when he was in Boston, I think the tech thing was challenging for him there as well. When he finally made the move to Atlanta, within a short period of time it really changed things for him, and he did really well on the tech side. So he had been talking to us, and he's like, "Guys, you really, really, really, really, really gotta go check out Atlanta." He's like, "It's like nothing you've ever seen."

Sherri Johnson:
Especially for a black guy.

Reuben Johnson:
Yeah, especially for a black guy and an interracial family. He's like, "I can tell you all the stuff," but he goes, "But we're from the same place. You're not gonna believe me unless you see it with your own eyes."

Carl Smith:
Wow.

Reuben Johnson:
And then a friend of ours from Florida had to say the same thing. One of his visits to us he's like, "Yo, y'all gotta check out Atlanta." He's like, "Y'all would do so well there." So we ended up ultimately, we rented a tiny little U-Haul trailer, took only what would fit in the trailer dock, and then ... Woops. My browser just timed out on me. We took only what would fit in that U-Haul and our truck, and we gave away the rest and sold what we could and came down to Atlanta. We had never been here before. It was just like-

Sherri Johnson:
In 2012.

Reuben Johnson:
Yeah. That was 2012. And we started from scratch. We had gotten rid of all our furniture, just like everything. It was the best move we could have ever made. I look at it, and I'm always saying to people, "I wish we had done like 10 years earlier." I wish we had just said, "Fuck fear. Do this," way back when. Because it's something like we're super fastidious when it comes to research and knowing it. So it's something like we had done years of research, but never really pulled the trigger and did it. So we had made the decision to just do it.

Sherri Johnson:
And financially it was getting a lot harder up North for us. There was not a lot of opportunity for us at all. It was just getting harder and harder. We were like, "If we don't do this now, it may be too late. We may be out of business before we have a chance to even give something else a shot."

Reuben Johnson:
And then the recession was like crushed the area like ... I mean there was just like, people were losing their jobs left and right. Houses were just sitting there empty everywhere. It was just really, really tough.

Sherri Johnson:
Then when we came here, it was totally different, totally different.

Reuben Johnson:
It was like a whole new world.

Sherri Johnson:
Yeah. It feels like a rebirth of our business.

Reuben Johnson:
Yeah.

Sherri Johnson: And just everything. It's been really wonderful.

Reuben Johnson: Y
eah. [crosstalk 00:14:48].

Carl Smith:
So, Sherri, if we back up to when y'all got married, what were you doing vocationally?

Sherri Johnson:
I had just graduated high school. So I was figuring out what I wanted to do.

Carl Smith:
Gotcha.

Sherri Johnson:
But the plan was to go into hairdressing.

Carl Smith:
Okay.

Sherri Johnson:
Because I was from a small town, and that was ... We didn't really think much about going far outside of our town. So there was some salons, and I liked doing hair. I always did my cousins hair since I was little and they were little, and that was a thing that I liked that was creative and fun. That's where I was kind of headed when we met.

Carl Smith:
Somebody that I met once said to me at breakfast one morning at one of the camps. She said, "Choose courage over comfort. That will make all the difference." And what you just described, had you gone into the hairdressing, had you done those things, that would have been the comfort, right? "Well, I know how to do that. I can take care of it." But y'all packed up that little U-Haul and drove to Atlanta, and you chose courage. Every time I hear a story like this it makes me think about her saying that. And I'm just blown away at what it must've been like to cross the little city limits not knowing where you're going and just heading to Atlanta. So you get there. Now, had Fly Media Productions, was that already a thing? Did you start that before you took off?

Reuben Johnson:
So that's a good question. So when we started Fly Media, it was way in the early 2000's. So it's basically like a, probably like a 12 year-

Sherri Johnson:
Yeah, before we [crosstalk 00:16:45].

Reuben Johnson:
... before we left, before we left Atlanta. We had been doing it, but I had been working other jobs at the same time.

Carl Smith:
Okay.

Reuben Johnson:
I mean, yeah. When you said like, "Crossing the limits," that's so funny, because the night we left, we had been spent all day packing, and I was delivering furniture to people and giving stuff away. So we were driving all over. It was pouring rain. 

Carl Smith:
That's perfect.

Reuben Johnson:
But it was like the most optimistic I had ever felt. Oh, yeah. It was like a scene from a movie. It was surreal.

Sherri Johnson:
We were literally like giving furniture to people, like handing furniture to people, packing the truck, cleaned up the apartment. It got dark. We got in the truck, and we drove down.

Reuben Johnson:
And we drove.

Sherri Johnson:
And Reuben just drove.

Reuben Johnson:
Straight through the night.

Sherri Johnson:
It was just, yeah. It was a lot.

Reuben Johnson:
It's crazy. But it was like amazing, too. 

Sherri Johnson:
We were ready.

Reuben Johnson:
I was still on so much adrenaline-

Sherri Johnson:
We were ready for the-

Reuben Johnson:
... from the whole thing. And we were so excited to get there. but we got about three hours away from Atlanta, I started to crash. We stopped at every rest stop, and I went to sleep for 15 minutes at a time. And I kept literally like, "Okay, I'm super tired. We gotta pull over." We pull over at a rest stop, and we'd park, and I'd sleep. And at a certain point Jeremy's like, "This is getting ridiculous. Just stay in one spot and sleep, and then we can drive all the way there."

Carl Smith:
Must make progress. Must make progress.

Reuben Johnson:
Exactly.

Carl Smith: Y
eah, that's so funny. This is the other part of the story that's just amazing to me. So you have a friend who says, "Oh, you really gotta try tech." And then you just do it. I think about how I can't code. I can't design. I can't do any of that stuff. You gotta start at a web shop, because it seemed like it would be cool. And you go from the blue collar stuff to just doing tech. Like what is that process? 

Sherri Johnson:
Reuben had a little bit of a tech background with cad-

Reuben Johnson:
With cad and with-

Carl Smith:
Yeah, yeah, yeah. Okay.

Sherri Johnson:
Yeah. But we didn't really have a lot of choices at the time. We both were dealing with health issues, and we needed something that would allow us to be able to work from home.

Carl Smith:
Okay.

Reuben Johnson:
That was like the-

Carl Smith:
T
hat was the [crosstalk 00:19:00].

Reuben Johnson:
... one of the biggest motivators. Because like for me, I was starting like, so I was born ... I keep saying the health problems, but I was born with a pretty rare immune disorder. So I was born immune compromised, and I have some other things I deal with, too. But it started rearing its head. And working a really physically intensive jobs were starting to take a toll on my physically. So I was starting to like, you know, a lot of time out of work. And there's no benefits, so you're not working, you're not getting paid. So I was starting to deal with a lot of stuff like that. And the friend that we were talking to, he worked from home. He had a normal schedule. He wasn't frazzled all the time and stressing all the time. 

So I was paying attention to that, and the money was pretty good. We needed something else. And I kind of wanted ... We wanted different and better, but we really wanted to spend a lot of time together still and all that. And then finding out that that was actually possible in tech, I think that was the biggest sway for us. It was creative, and it was possible to do. That was one of the big motivators, because I had been doing ... I think it was 2000, 2001, I had been working cad at the company. But I was also running the CNC machines. All my cad drawings, I had set up the machines and all that.

And I started getting sick just from the little bit of exposure from the stuff in the machines. And it kind of [inaudible 00:20:31] it like, "Okay, we gotta do a thing that's gonna be better for us." And I think that was kind of one of the final pushes that said, "We're gonna make this work. We know we can do it."

Sherri Johnson:
And when we first, when they first, I don't know [inaudible 00:20:45] when he told us about it, I don't know where my role is supposed to be, but I was absolutely not interested at all. We didn't even own a computer. I didn't know anything about computers, nevermind coding and all that stuff. But somehow design came into the picture. I don't even remember, and that interest me. And then I started to learn and play around with that, and I was like, "Okay. I like this. This is fun. I can get into this." And that's kind of where we went where he took on the coding side of the things, and I took on the design of things, and we just worked together.

Reuben Johnson:
Because that was one of the things I didn't like about cad, too. I didn't get to ... I'm super creative, and it felt like, as much as I had loved cad in school, the stuff I was doing for the packaging industry was not creative at all. And I loved magazines and music and fashion and all that. And then when I found out you can do that in the web, I was like, "Why have I been so dense? Why have I been so resistant to this?"

Carl Smith:
And so you start in the early 2000's. When I started my company it was 2003. So you get going, and the name Fly Media Productions, right? So talk about how you decided that's what we're going with. Because you own it. I mean, that's the thing. You can't be Fly Media Productions and kind of do a couple of things. You gotta own it if that's who you're gonna put out there. So talk about coming up with the name.

Reuben Johnson:
Wow. You ask some good questions. You seriously ask ... Because you know what's funny, ironically enough that wasn't our first name.

Carl Smith:
Okay.

Reuben Johnson:
When we started our first name was more of a reference, an homage to surfing. So it was Liquid Web Imaging and Design.

Carl Smith:
Oh, there you go.

Reuben Johnson:
And I'm Mr. Long-talking person. So I have this name that's like five years long. But Sherri was never feeling that name, but she agreed to it, because she was supporting the whole vision. But we ended up, I think it was around 2003, right? Or was it a little after?

Sherri Johnson:
Fly Media?

Reuben Johnson:
Yeah.

Sherri Johnson:
I think it was ... Yeah, maybe like, yeah ... I don't know. It was few-

Carl Smith:
Years later.

Reuben Johnson:
Somewhere around there we did the Fly Media, and we wanted something like, "Okay, if we're gonna make this work, we're gonna come out really strong right out the gate as us 100%." We didn't really have a model of a company we could pattern what we wanted to do after. We knew in our heads what we wanted to do, but there was nothing out there that we saw. We kind of saw it as a mashup of what Chamarra was doing with Baby Phat, what we saw with Juicy Couture, what we saw with a bunch of other brands kind of mashed together. And then we really had been digging on Razorfish and some of the brands like that that were in digital. And we kind of like-

Sherri Johnson:
I think it was more accidental. The name was more accidental.

Carl Smith:
Well, Sherri, were you able to get onboard with that name, with Fly Media, a lot easier than you were with the Liquid Design or whatever the long name was?

Sherri Johnson:
Yes, definitely. I can't remember. I have a horrible memory, so I apologize.

Reuben Johnson:
I think you were right.

Sherri Johnson:
But I can't remember if Fly Duo came first or Fly Media Production came first.

Reuben Johnson:
I think you were right, Sherri, Fly Duo.

Sherri Johnson:
One of the designs we had done, Reuben put at the bottom in the signature, he said, "Another Reuben" ... something similar to, "Another Reuben and Sherri Fly Media Production," or something like that.

Carl Smith:
Oh.

Sherri Johnson:
I was like, "What? Why is that not our name?"

Carl Smith:
Yeah.

Sherri Johnson:
It was something like that or Reuben and Sherri Duo Creation. I think it was Fly Media ... Reuben and Sherri Fly Media Production. And I was like, "Reuben, that is amazing. That's a company name."

Carl Smith:
There you go. So what happens with the clients that you're attracting when you shift from that first name to Fly Media?

Sherri Johnson:
That was pretty easy, because we didn't have a lot of clients.

Carl Smith:
So if you don't have any clients, there's no big shift. But you know there's something about when the founders of a company, like the two of you, when you find that you're proud of what you're doing for yourself versus when, and this happens to a lot of companies. You come out with what you think will be effective versus what you want to be a part of.

Sherri Johnson:
Well, that's what Liquid Web was. We tried to do it by the book kind of like what we thought was expected of the industry. The only thing that we didn't do 100% by the book was our style was very, always very different. And we always wanted to do something unique and creative and editorial. But everything else, like how we ran the business and the type of clients we tried to get, it just it wasn't us. So when we changed to Fly Media it felt like our happy place, like we were at home on the web and it just was so much easier to talk about what we were doing, talk about the kind of projects we wanted to be involved in. It just made everything easier.

Comment