Sherri and Reuben Johnson

Sherri and Reuben Johnson

How do you start a tech company without a computer? Drive and relentless determination. Sherri and Reuben Johnson of Fly Media Productions worked out of their local library, using books and VHS tapes to teach themselves how to build sites. With no clients or connections, they would park their junker car out of sight, then walk the main streets handing out printouts promoting their web services to local businesses. Like many of us, their beginning setup wasn’t ideal. So how do you make things work when you have ability, but few tools or resources—and how do you stay true to yourself in the process? Listen to Part 2 of their story for some inspiration, or catch up with Part 1.

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Reuben Johnson: Yeah. I definitely think so. It makes it easier to ... It's kind of like when you don't have to feel like, "Oh, I don't want to get found out."

Carl Smith: Yeah.

Sherri Johnson: Yeah.

Reuben Johnson: You know? Because if you're putting it all out there, there's nothing to get found out about. You don't have to worry about saying the wrong thing or like, "Oh, crap. I just slipped in to how I really talk." You know what I mean, while you're having a conversation.

Sherri Johnson: Fly Media allowed us to be who we are 100%. And it wasn't like we were competing with our company.

Reuben Johnson: Yeah.

Sherri Johnson: Or trying to be something that we weren't.

Reuben Johnson: That's been a process though. It's also been something like we're still working on it now to this day. It's like we worried so much even like with this conversation. I'm like, "I don't want to in any way give the impression we're the success story yet."

Carl Smith: Right.

Reuben Johnson: I mean, I know we will be, but we're not where we want to be yet.

Carl Smith: It's interesting. There's this quote. We're friends, and we're gonna see each other a lot more. And you're gonna hear me say this a dozen times. But this quote changed me, and it's Henry David Thoreau, and he said, "Beware of any enterprise that requires a change of clothing."

Reuben Johnson: Whoa. Okay. Okay. That's incredible.

Carl Smith: If you have put a tie on to do whatever this is short of a wedding or a funeral, right? But if you have to change who you are to be a part of something, it's never gonna work out, because you're not being true to yourself.

Sherri Johnson: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Now you're speaking our language.

Carl Smith: That's what Fly Media is, right? That's your Thoreau moment where you realize, "Liquid Web is not us." And it's not the hundred other companies that have a variation of the word liquid. When we started [inaudible 00:27:35] we were like, "Okay, we're gonna need to be some sort of a color and some sort of a martial artist. So we're gonna be Red Media or Blue Samurai." And I was just like, "They're all taken. What are we gonna do?" So it's just amazing to me to hear that you got there and now you're still being focused on that. And I hate the word authentic anymore, because it's become a buzzword, but you're focused on the real Reuben and Sherri, the real Fly Media and getting that out there. And I have a question. So you said you started this and you didn't have a computer. And you didn't have clients, and you started it because you needed money, because you were, well, you also needed something where you could work from home. But obviously you were at this kind of crossroad.

Sherri Johnson: Yes. We needed money too. We were living in the projects.

Carl Smith: How do you start a tech company without a computer?

Reuben Johnson: Wow. That's a really good one. You're amazing.

Sherri Johnson: [inaudible 00:28:36] for the library.

Carl Smith: It's the amazing Fly Duo.

Reuben Johnson: Thank God for the [crosstalk 00:28:40].

Carl Smith: How do you do this?

Reuben Johnson: Well, thank you. Well, we have to really say thank you to the Woonsocket Library, the Cumberland Library, the Providence Library.

Sherri Johnson: Lincoln Library.

Reuben Johnson: The Lincoln Library. Oh my god, yes. The Lincoln Library, the [inaudible 00:28:53] Library. That's how we started. We went to the library and got every book we could.

Sherri Johnson: And VHS videos.

Reuben Johnson: And VHS tapes. We watched all the tapes from the '90's that Microsoft had made on it, on creating websites, and it helped us tremendously. And then we used to, at the library you rent time on the computer. It doesn't cost any money. So that was part of how we were learning. And then I used to go to my dad's house, and we practiced there on his computer.

Carl Smith: Okay.

Reuben Johnson: But my dad didn't like us saving stuff on his computer. He's very, very particular about it. Yes, I know. He didn't like us saving stuff. So we had to be very careful. And he didn't want me to install software on it, so that made it challenging.

Carl Smith: It's like, "God, do you not know who we are? We are Fly Media Productions. We gotta save stuff."

Reuben Johnson: And all he's thinking ... Exactly. But he's thinking, "Hey, I paid a lot of money for this computer. You better not break it."

Carl Smith: Oh, man. [crosstalk 00:30:01]. He's a dad. He knows who you are.

Reuben Johnson: Exactly. Exactly. That's a dad. But the fact that he let us do it means he had a lot of faith in us, because he was always so worried about the computer. 

Sherri Johnson: So that's how we got our very, very initial start in training. We taught ourselves from whatever we could get our hands on. 

Reuben Johnson: We used Notepad. That's how we coded it, because it came on a computer, and it was already installed. And then a friend of ours for-

Sherri Johnson: Fifth.

Reuben Johnson: Fifth anniversary, a friend of ours that we had had ... He was like a mix of a brother and a uncle to me. 

Carl Smith: Okay.

Reuben Johnson: He was super pivotal in my life. I had known him years before I had met Sherri. And I had been there for him, and I was more thinking of it, "He's my friend. I'm gonna be there for him." I more thought of it like that, but it was a really challenging time in his life for several years. I had been there for him. I had done whatever I could to support him in what he was going through. And then when he came out of that on the other side, he was doing pretty well for himself. He owned a couple of painting businesses and stuff like that. And he turned around, and he said, when he found out what we were doing he's like, went down to the local Walmart, and this is how it is if you don't know about tech, you go to where you think you get tech. 

And he went in there, and he talked to the clerk. And this is the funniest story when I think about it. I'm like, "I gotta love him, man." And he goes up to the guy in the computer department. He's like, "I need you to point out the best computer in the store." He's like, "The best computer. I don't care about the money. What's the best computer you have in here?" And this is a big dude. He's a big ass dude. He makes me look small. And so the dude brought him over a computer, and he's like, "Is this the best one you got in the store? Has this got everything in it that somebody needs?" He's like, "Because this is for my boy." He's like, "This better be the best one." He's like, "Look, this is the best computer, XYZ, blah blah blah." And he bought that computer. He bought a few other things with it, and he gave it to us for our anniversary. And I was just like remember to this day that still hits me.

Sherri Johnson: It changed our life.

Reuben Johnson: It changed our whole life. And it was a HP Pavilion with Windows Millennium. And Windows Millennium, I don't think, it just come out. And it changed our whole world, because we had a computer now in our house.

Sherri Johnson: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Reuben Johnson: And when you have it in your house, we didn't have to drive to a library every day anymore. I didn't have to drive to my dad's house. We didn't have to ... It was in our house. We could literally just walk in-

Sherri Johnson: Spend hours doing training.

Reuben Johnson: ... and spend hours doing it and not have to try to figure out a commute or the bus or driving or anything. It changed everything. We spent so many hours. It changed everything. It was amazing. It was the most powerful gift. He helped give us an opportunity, and I'm forever grateful. So that's part of why we try to, any way we can help other people we try to, because sometimes, for him that may not have been a huge thing for him to have to do as far as ... It may not have been something that was hard for him to do because he had the money, but he made the effort and did something that helped somebody else that changed our world. And I kind of look at us helping other people the same way. We might be able to help someone in a way that's not like, "Oh, it's super hard for us to do it." But with our expertise we might be able to help them in a way that's kind of relatively easier for us. But it might pivotal for them in some way, too.

Carl Smith: I think for people that are listening. And you hear people say stuff like what you just said, Reuben. And you're like, "Oh, that's nice." No, I have to say when we spent time together at Owner's Summit, and we were out by the fires, and you were talking about you and Sherri, and you were talking about Fly Media. It's real. You can tell it's part of the essence of who the two of you are is this need not only to create your own path, but to make sure that you're helping the people that you meet. It was one of the reasons I wanted to get you on the show and one of the reasons I was so glad to finally meet you in person was because I could feel it in the things that you were doing around social. 

So I'm just glad to hear you say that, because it's just unfathomable to me that you can have a company, and granted maybe the clients weren't always there, but you didn't have the basic tools, and yet you fought. You found a way. So I'm just baffled. How did you meet with clients? How did you present work? All I can think is, you know, of any other craftsman, craftsperson who has to do this and they don't have the ability ... They might have the ability but they don't have the tools and the resources. So how do you convince clients and how do you work with them when you've got this humble beginning?

Reuben Johnson: Wow. That was really interesting. I love that question.

Sherri Johnson: The struggle was real.

Reuben Johnson: Yeah. Struggle was real.

Carl Smith: Was real.

Reuben Johnson: It's funny, because when we started I went the old school hustling route. I literally walked the main streets and went into every business locally to offer them website services. I walked around with a folder under my arm, and I think some sort of briefcase, and I had printouts I had made. And I just went in every business-

Sherri Johnson: We didn't know people.

Reuben Johnson: We didn't know anybody.

Sherri Johnson: We were young. We had no connections. We didn't come from anything. We just didn't know anyone.

Reuben Johnson: We knew we could do it, and we had that optimism, and we were young. So we're like, "Hey, we gotta make it work." So we went into every business, all these tiny little shops and t-shirt shops and whatever, barber shops. It didn't even matter. That was the first thing we did. And then when we started going to Providence, which was a bigger city than Woonsocket, and it has more corporate buildings and all that. One of the things we did is we'd always like ... This is a funny story. It was a really cool little restaurant that we saw. And I wanted to go in there and see if they'd be interested in a website. But our car was a hoopty. It was garbage. So we parked down the street and around the corner just to make sure no one could see the car. And then we walked up and tried to be all nonchalant. 

It was the middle of the summer, so it was really hot. And I'm like, okay. Walk up the street nonchalant. And we went in there. The lady was really nice. She heard us out and stuff, made a followup, I think, appointment with us. We didn't ever end up getting that one, but we got one nearby for a cake thing. And we just used to make sure we parked far away, and we always met them at their business and made it super convenient for them. So we'd make sure we were there whenever they wanted to be there. That's one thing, if you don't have a place to meet people, and you're meeting at their ... You're able to make it easy for them. So I think that worked out to be [crosstalk 00:37:18].

Carl Smith: So selling technology with paper.

Reuben Johnson: But that's what we always did.

Carl Smith: There you go.

Reuben Johnson: Yes. Yes.

Sherri Johnson: That is a question that I hope you ask everybody, because that is the thing that I am most intrigued by is how did you get your first client or your first few clients? Because it was so, so hard for us. And the thing that really changed our life as far as bringing in clients was Twitter. When we ever got on Twitter, we got 90% of our clients from Twitter for a while. It's only been recently the last few years that it's started to die down. We're looking in other places as well, but Twitter was a game-changer for us.

Reuben Johnson: Yeah. Sherri was bringing in clients off of Twitter left and right. I mean, she was like, she's amazing when it comes to all of that.

Sherri Johnson: And it wasn't just like putting out your business stuff and your articles and all that. We did all that. But it was also doing the search and seeing who's looking for a site. And then looking at that person and seeing if they're somebody you want to work with. Because like I always say to Reuben, we're interviewing them kind of thing. We're just as picky as to who-

Reuben Johnson: Absolutely.

Sherri Johnson: I'm actually gonna reach out to. And in some ways it was better because I could see them. I could see what they're doing. If it was somebody we wanted to be involved with before I even ever reached out to them versus you get emails that come in, you don't know who these people are, and they're already starting a conversation with you. So in some ways that was awesome, but it was a lot of work, and it was a lot of time.

Carl Smith: We used to say it's better to have a velvet rope than an empty parking lot. And that was the thing for us. 

Reuben Johnson: Oh, that's really good.

Carl Smith: It was, and to your point. It's like, be choosy about who you want to work with. But it's hard to be choosy if you don't have a little bit of cash put away.

Sherri Johnson: Yep.

Reuben Johnson: Yeah. Well, that's one of the reasons why I had always kept a day job. I had always had some sort of day job. It usually had zero to do with tech, but because we were being so choosy-

Carl Smith: There you go.

Reuben Johnson: ... so it made a real challenge to get up and going. At a certain point that became a crutch, because I did it for literal years and years and years and years.

Sherri Johnson: Also leaving the projects is kind of a crutch, and it's very scary.

Reuben Johnson: Oh, hell yeah.

Sherri Johnson: Because when we first started, our rent was super, super low. And as we started to get more business and make more money, our rent would go up and go up and go up. But that's how it is. And then when you start making some decent money, it's almost like you're throwing out. So you hesitate, and you hold back. And you don't push as hard as you would if you didn't have that crutch. And I don't say it like people are leaning on that in a bad way. It just, it's very scary, especially when you've been in it for a long time. And you're working your way out of it, and you're at the end, and you're like, "Okay. This is it. Once we pass this dollar amount, we're out of here, and it's 100% on our own. We're 100% on our own." That was very scary for us.

Reuben Johnson: And then when you don't really know anyone who does it who looks like you and comes from where you come from, that's scary. Because that's like-

Sherri Johnson: Yeah. Back home we really didn't get a lot of work from back home. Most of our clients have always come from across the states. And I think a huge part of that is because people who look like us back home didn't do a lot of successful-

Reuben Johnson: Businesses where they could afford that [crosstalk 00:40:51].

Sherri Johnson: ... business, yeah. They weren't looked at that way. People like us were not looked at in that way. So people just didn't look at us that way. They didn't trust us in that way. So our clients came from all over the country. They always have.

Reuben Johnson: And I think sometimes the people would be surprised back home like when we'd be like, "Oh, yeah. We did this website for XYZ company." And they're like, "Y'all did that? Like, how?" You know what I mean? But it's like I think we're all in the same boat when alls you see is certain things and that's it. You stay in that lane, and you don't think any bigger than that.

Sherri Johnson: And then we come here, and we have conversations with all kinds of people, white, black, all ages. And people just look at us and take us seriously. And it's the weirdest thing. It's still weird. It's still weird for me.

Carl Smith: You mean once you got to Atlanta?

Reuben Johnson: [crosstalk 00:41:35] though. Amazing weird.

Carl Smith: Yeah.

Sherri Johnson: Yeah.

Reuben Johnson: Yeah.

Sherri Johnson: Because they're used to seeing it here. 

Reuben Johnson: Yeah.

Sherri Johnson: They're used to seeing people who look like us who have success and are doing well and are doing this, that, and the other thing. So they look at us like we're just like everybody else. We're like, "Wow. They're taking us seriously."

Carl Smith: Yeah.

Sherri Johnson: We weren't used to meeting people face to face, because it just didn't work for us. It didn't work for a long time.

Carl Smith: That is so powerful. And as somebody who didn't struggle, as somebody who was privileged coming up to think about what you went through and then finding a place where you were accepted, that had to make your heart grow.

Sherri Johnson: Yeah.

Reuben Johnson: Oh, hell yeah.

Sherri Johnson: For sure.

Reuben Johnson: Yeah. Yeah. Yes. Yes. Emphatically, yes.

Carl Smith: So you're still in Atlanta. How long have you been in Atlanta now? Six years in Atlanta.

Reuben Johnson: Six years.

Sherri Johnson: Yep.

Reuben Johnson: Six years, yeah.

Carl Smith: Things are going well for Fly Media?

Reuben Johnson: Things are going a hell of a lot better than they were back home. They're still not where we want them to be.

Sherri Johnson: Carl, you weren't supposed to [crosstalk 00:42:50].

Carl Smith: I'm sorry.

Reuben Johnson: We're just playing, okay. 

Sherri Johnson: I'm just kidding. I'm just playing.

Reuben Johnson: You can ask that question.

Carl Smith: I know I'm successful-

Reuben Johnson: No, that's a good question.

Carl Smith: ... and Sherri's gonna play with me. She's gonna say, "I'm just poked them a little bit." There you go.

Reuben Johnson: No, but it's good, and I appreciate it. It's good to keep your guests honest. You know?

Sherri Johnson: Hey, you want real?

Reuben Johnson: Exactly.

Carl Smith: What's next? Where are you guys heading? What's the next goal?

Reuben Johnson: I want to get to the money goals of the folks that we see that we really, really admire, and we work [crosstalk 00:43:25] on the business side.

Carl Smith: Okay.

Reuben Johnson: I want to make really good money. I love the examples of folks like Rou Reynolds. There's so many people from conferences. I mean, I feel it is unfair to just pick one person to say, "Yo, I want to taste some of the fruit of what they're doing for our business."

Carl Smith: Right.

Reuben Johnson: But we want that. But we also want ... There's so many damn things that I want.

Sherri Johnson: Our goal right now, this year we're focusing a lot on building relationships with people and hopefully being able to get to a point where me and Reuben are actually growing the business. Because we've been doing everything just the two of us, which is part of the challenge. You know how it is. You're doing everything, including the work. So going to Owner's Summit was just like very eye opening for us. And we saw ourselves in a place that we haven't seen ourselves in a while. And it kind of reinvigorated us, and we want to get to get to a point where we can actually not have to do so much of the work and more focus on growing the business and growing relationships and getting the business out there in front of people so that we can actually get more work. And then be able to help other people out by giving them work, you know, people that may not necessarily have such an easy time getting into the business or the industry itself as well.

Reuben Johnson: Yeah. I think that ... I totally agree. I think that that statement that Will said when he said, "Think about how many more people you could give jobs to to help have a better life if you were willing to grow." That really resonated. Because the idea of having employees always scared me to death. It always scared me to death. And when he said that it hit me like, "Oh, yeah. We could be those people who give XYZ many people jobs." Like holy shit. That changed everything. So now it's like growing has a bigger purpose for us, and increasing revenue means way more than just helping us in a more real way that we can really see right in front of us. We can just see so much of how we could be change-makers. 

And I think the conversation that I had with Marcus Neto about the things he's doing where he is. It's kind of like a similar thing where when you're helping people with decent jobs, and you're giving people a chance who may not necessarily ever get a chance outside of you offering them an opportunity or making way for an opportunity, that's huge. So that's where we want to be. We're certainly not there yet. We still deal with the boom-bust, and we're trying to get away from that as far as ... And I know that's a lot of agencies struggle with that challenge. So we're still trying to figure out good strategies to eliminate the problems that that can cause.

Sherri Johnson: Yeah. We still have our share of problems. I think everybody has, everybody does. I'm totally looking to say something. I forgot what I was gonna say. I don't know. I was totally gonna say something. I forgot. My bad.

Carl Smith: I have to say I'm so glad you're part of the Bureau community now. When you come to an event, we're trying to make it so that it's easier for people to become part of the community even if you happen to live halfway around the world, because the collaboration that happens and the support that happens. Last year we saw three shops that thought they were gonna have layoffs that were able to actually take work off of other shops that were overloaded and able to save those teams. Those were obviously bigger company problems, but at the same time we're seeing shops that are younger or shops that are smaller getting pulled in to support other shops that have work. For me, listening to what you're talking about and what your goals are, it feels like they're really aligned with what we want to do at the bureau in terms of being better together. So welcome, and thank you so much for being on the show today and for sharing your story. It's really inspirational.

Reuben Johnson: Well, thank you. It's a pleasure to be here. It's a legit honor.

Sherri Johnson: We feel welcome.

Reuben Johnson: Yeah. We do.

Sherri Johnson: [crosstalk 00:48:06].

Reuben Johnson: We love this community.

Sherri Johnson: I was not expecting that, to be honest when we went to Owner's Summit. I wasn't expecting to feel as welcome as we were and do and are. That's been nice.

Reuben Johnson: It was from the moment I stepped into the, what do you call that thing? The [crosstalk 00:48:25].

Carl Smith: Where we were having the event. Yeah.

Reuben Johnson: Where the boardwalk thing.

Sherri Johnson: The welcome, the reception.

Reuben Johnson: Yeah. Yeah. And I saw Lori and Brett. It was just an amazing thing, just her smile and just ... And she knew who I was when I walked up there, and it just that made all the difference in the world. And then the next two people I talked to I said hey to Marcus and his wife and then Jim and Brian. And from there it just continued to just get better. You have put together, all three of y'all have put together an amazing community.

Sherri Johnson: We feel blessed.

Reuben Johnson: Yeah. [inaudible 00:49:04]. Put the praise hands up. It's amazing.

Sherri Johnson: And we're so happy that it happened at the beginning of the year, too, because we feel like we've got so much time in this year to move into some new goals and get some things accomplished before next year when we meet everybody again.

Reuben Johnson: Yes. Exactly, because that's the goal, too, is next year for us to be there and to see everyone again if we don't get to see them sometime before then this year. Yes. And anyone who's open to collabing, we would love to collab.

Sherri Johnson: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Reuben Johnson: Right, my sales pitch.

Carl Smith: You gotta get it in. That's what you do. You're a hustle, right? You gotta hustle.

Reuben Johnson: Yes. Exactly. 

Carl Smith: Well, everybody that listened in. Thank you so much. This is the first in our Origin Stories series. And I have to say, I think it's one of my favorite episodes we ever done. So stay tuned, and we'll talk to everybody soon.