Can I tell you a story?
About eight years ago I was at a meetup when I stumbled across an amazing business card on the counter at the venue.
The card was witty and clever, but it was more than that. I could tell that the person behind the card was creative, bold, an irrepressible force of nature, unashamed to stand out in a crowd. Even though I had no idea who this person was, I could tell she was everything I wanted to be.
At that time, people weren’t giving themselves silly titles or wearing their creativity on their marketing sleeves. This was the era of “Web 2.0,” where every business and individual was trying to figure out how they could leverage the Internet. WordPress had become the big new thing, and people realized they could reinvent themselves through blogging and personal websites, something that had been out of their reach during the early days of the Internet. Yet few people were making their living on the web, at least not “regular” people.
And here was a woman who was doing all of that, and wasn’t afraid to do it her own way.
My life then was much different than it is today. When I picked up that card, I was in a dead-end career with a job that didn’t pay all of my bills, working with people who didn’t let me shine. My very survival (and I don’t exaggerate) depended on growing, learning a new skill, and making a career change.
So it paid for me to notice little things like a goofy business card.
Several months later, I had just started up a new business for myself as a website designer. This represented a giant, scary step for me (since I had been doing the same job for 15 years at that point), and I honestly had no idea how to run a business, much less be a successful freelancer.
One thing I knew was that I needed to network to find clients and learn more about the business world.
A new group called Sharp Skirts hosted a social event for women entrepreneurs and business-owners, and I decided to give it a shot. It wasn’t my scene at all, but they had wine and cheese, and I remember telling myself, how bad could it be?
Seeing how nicely all the other women were dressed, I was completely out of place. When we went around the room to introduce ourselves, it got worse. Hearing the stories of all of these successful women, I felt like such a fraud.
In hindsight, I only remember one of the stories. A woman told us how she ran a successful digital company at the dawn of the Internet, Go Media, and how it was acquired by Excite, a (now-defunct) search engine. Then she described with humor how she then started a coworking facility in Austin. Unlike her previous venture, it failed spectacularly, costing her a million dollars and leading to bankruptcy.
A million dollars? I had maybe made a couple hundred dollars with my fledgling business, and definitely had less than that in my bank account. I was way out of my league. But then my turn came around, and I had to make the best of it. “I build websites and blogs for people,” I said proudly, even though it felt like the dumbest thing in the world compared to running a business incubator or travel service or all of the other things these women did.
Oddly, the woman who had earned, and then lost, a million dollars engaged with what I had to say. She didn’t act like it was insignificant but said she might have some work for me. Then she told me about this new event called BlogathonATX.
She gave me her business card and it was like the most magical thing happened.
It was the same business card I had picked up months before.
Julie, I guess you’ve figured it out now. That was your card.
I can’t remember the first time I met most people in my life, but I’ll never forget meeting you.
From that moment, we became friends. Two women in the prime of life, striving to stand out in the Austin tech community—a culture that’s so male, and young, and hip.
I never forgot your back story, and from time to time we talked about it. To my feeble brand-new freelancer/entrepreneur brain I couldn’t even conceive of having the kind of success and failure you experienced, and I wanted to learn everything I could from you. Funny thing is, I recall that you once told me you regretted telling everyone your story (and you’d probably be pissed that I’m doing it again now). As I recall, I had to remind you how glad I was that you had told us. It made you remarkable.
What it said to me, and to everyone else in that room, was that you were the kind of person who took risks. Sometimes it worked out, and sometimes it didn’t, but you always picked yourself up and kept going. You couldn’t just sit still and let life happen. You did the stuff that other people might have thought was crazy. You started Austin FreeNet at a time when no one even knew what the Internet was. You went to culinary school and rocked it, and then went to Ecuador, and from what I could tell, rocked it even harder. You fell and busted a wing, and even though you had to do everything one-handed and in pain, you still rocked it. Life was hard, and it frustrated you, but you just kept going.
If I hadn’t met you, I don’t know where I’d be right now. You introduced me to one of the best groups of people in Austin: the BlogathonATX tribe. Because of you, I’m friends with Ilene and Laurie, Kay and the Q, Cathy and Fernando and Haley and Annette of the Sparkly Jacket. Jennifer and Lisa, Eric and Sallie. Mr. Weenie and Mama Weenie. Harry and Dexter. And Nanette, who helped me find a new home in two days (that may have also saved my life). And so many more I met through the years of attending.
You were the one to share the joke about Weenie always spilling things. You were the first person who showed me what UX was all about. You convinced me to not let the naysayers get me down.
And BlogathonATX helped start me on the path I’m still on today. That first year when I tried to sign up, it was already sold out. You hooked me up as a volunteer doing WordPress support so I could attend. Here’s a funny secret that I know will make you smirk. That first year in the Tech Cave I had no idea what I was doing! I knew WordPress pretty well, but I had never done support for random people. I was so scared I’d screw something up. But it worked out in the end.
Being at BlogathonATX that first year (and then all the others) gave me a chance to try something new, and as luck had it, I liked helping people with their websites. Within a couple of years, I was able to escape my old job to go work for Automattic. And then, a couple of years later, I launched my full-time freelance business.
All of that because I met you.
Julie, I know we were never super close, but yet we were never very far apart. We were always chatting over Facebook, or email, or when our paths crossed in various ways. We shared the same politics, the same love of books and stories. A love of good food. A passion for the digital universe, good website design, and effective communication. And pets. There aren’t many people who have a dog with as much personality as Mr. Pants. (Do you remember the day when we brainstormed how to turn Mr. Pants into a character for a website? Good times.)
I’m grateful that we met for lunch recently so you could help me with my portfolio site. It was such a great day hanging out with you, talking politics and business and whatever else we got on about. When you left I smiled, knowing a little of your brilliance had rubbed off on me.
That was the last time I got to see you, and now I’m just reeling. How is it that you’re not going to be around anymore? No more Julie snark on Facebook, no photos of Mr. Pants sitting inappropriately, no more brainstorming. I just can’t bear it.
I sit here trying to make sense of it all, and I know you’re probably just rolling your eyes, wanting to tell me to go do something else. But it’s you, Julie, and I can’t. I knew about your personal struggles, and I knew you were trying to reinvent yourself professionally (like all of the best entrepreneurs do). But even though things were tough sometimes, you were a fighter. A bad ass. So I just can’t understand.
One thing’s for sure. I’m not alone. There’s a not-so-small army of friends and family who you inspired, and we’re all struggling to understand. We miss you so much already. You didn’t leave a hole behind when you left us—you left a chasm as wide as the Grand Canyon.
Wherever you are now, I hope you realize that so many of us would not be the people we are if you hadn’t been in our lives. You will always be the symbol of thinking huge and giving it your all. You shared your creativity and your time with so many of us, and we’ll always be grateful. And when we think of you, we’ll remember that there’s always another risk to take, and another battle to fight.
And without you, who will tell people to stop making crappy websites?
Wherever you are now, I hope you’ve found peace (and a good sous vide machine). Put in a good word for the rest of us? We’ll miss you.
Oh and that business card? I still have it. So there.
Update: after chatting with a few mutual friends, and seeing stuff on Facebook, I wanted to add a few more thoughts.
As James Laughlin said, some people are saying Julie was such a sweet person. But she wasn’t sweet, and she would have scoffed in her undeniably Julie way if anyone called her that. She was “a tough bitch,” as he put it. And that’s why we loved her. As he put it, the unspoken message of everything we ever got from her was “quit your whining and get your shit done.” And that’s why we all looked up to her.
And Samantha Fagan said, “She was the second person I interviewed for my podcast. And when I was having a hard time with a client last year, I reached out to her and asked her for advice. She met me in the middle of the day and listened to me as I cried about self-doubt and spoke wisdom into my life. She encouraged me. She was a role model for me as a queer, female, entrepreneur. I’m so sad and so mad and crying alone in my apartment. I wonder if she cried alone in her apartment, too.” Anyone who knew Julie knows she must have. She never wanted to show that part of herself, though glimmers did poke out of the iron-clad facade she always wore if you listened. She struggled at least as much as any of us. And maybe this is a lesson. Don’t assume the strongest among us don’t need your help just as much as you need theirs.
Greg Ackerman posted on Facebook: “I think I can speak for many of us in Austin when I say there’s a gaping hole in our close-knit community that will be difficult to fill. Julie touched so many people and now she’s gone. The least we can do is honor her memory by being the best possible human we can. She did the same every day of her life.”
And my friend and former supervisor Michelle Greer also posted a tribute to Julie on Medium. From Michelle, I learned that Julie created the Austin Pets Alive! logo and designed their first website. I didn’t know about that, but it doesn’t surprise me in the least. She’s calling on people to donate to APA! in Julie’s honor, and I know Julie would have loved that with all of her heart.
There’s no word on a service or memorial yet, but be sure it will happen. As I told James, all I want right now is to go to a park with a bunch and scream at the top of my lungs. So maybe it’s a good idea to wait a few days. 🙂
Omar Gallaga posted a touching memorial for Julie on Facebook.
And in the aftermath of Julie’s passing, my friend Lani Rosales (who would also scoff if anyone called her sweet!) posted in Austin Digital Jobs on FB about the dirty underbelly of depression and unemployment, and urged us all to reach out to our friends and people we’ve lost touch with, to remind them that they matter to us.