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The grind of the day job

My memory should be hazy. It was roughly 11 – 12 years ago now, but I remember that week like it was yesterday. It was the week opportunity first came knocking for me. I wandered into the head office car park of the agricultural retailer I worked for as a fresh faced (and very hungover) teenage marketing assistant. My shirt was half untucked, my shoes had soaked up rain water from the pavement as I walked in that day. My feet were wet. It was Wednesday. I was late.

I slung my rucksack into the corner of the office and trudged to the kitchen to make a round of coffee for my 6 strong team. A half-ass silent apology for showing up late. The tea lady (yes, we had one of those) was in there already. She was by my standards an old lady, but full of enthusiasm and always prepared to take the piss when I had obviously had a heavy night. She told me to get back to the office and that she had the situation under control. Coffee would be along shortly.

Sliding into my chair, I fired up my machine – a big old Dell workhorse with two large monitors I had managed to haggle out of the IT department (back then co-workers would stare in amazement as my mouse ‘magically teleported’ from one screen to the other). Both monitors had a different resolution and weighed as much as a car. At the time, I was living alone in a small flat and, due to being painfully poor, had not yet replaced my home computer that died a few months earlier. That meant that mornings at work were also catch up time on the internet. Myspace, Bebo, MafiaBoss and MSN Messenger were all part of my morning routine. It was easy to drift along.

That Wednesday was particularly dull. Work was slow, PageMaker was crashing on me and I had already had one too many cigarette breaks. It was still raining outside. The office was eerily quiet as my equally bored co-workers lost themselves in whatever website they had been distracted by. They were better at pretending to be busy than I was. I found myself cruising around Bebo looking at friends photos, all of them terrible. Camera phones in 2005 only had two quality settings – potato or potato, and there was an active obsession with using poster effect filters on everything. I guess we should have seen Snapchat coming huh?

Ever the inquisitive adventurer, at some point that day I ended up in the small print pages on Bebo. Terms and conditions, privacy policies, some other random information you would never see on a large company’s website these days. Then on one of the pages, about half way down, I locked onto the words ‘Custom Skin’. What the hell? For the last few months Bebo only had a handful of profile skins to choose from – Dull, Duller, Bebo brand colours and a few textured skins made by the developers. Yet here, buried in the footnotes of the site, was a section about creating a custom skin for your profile. I remember staring at those words for a while.

Spotting an opportunity

To me, at this point in my life, I had struck gold. My obsession with taking everything apart, or customising it, or trying to improve it was in full swing by the time I turned 16, so I would grab any opportunity to do so. I had recently learned how to correctly slice in Photoshop so thought this would be good practice. How cool would it be to have my very own profile skin? I would be the only one with a different profile. It didn’t mean much in the scheme of things, but I’m a creative dammit. I was going to rock this.

After another cigarette break I returned to my desk, fresh coffee in hand. I carefully read through the few short paragraphs relating to the skins. I was slouched forward on my desk, chair rolled backward, my chin resting on the rim of my mug with both hands clasped around it to get warm. I remember my eyes stinging through lack of sleep and the beating my hangover was still giving me. It was a bad day to find something interesting to do, but I wanted to make the most of this before somebody else beat me to it.

I’m not completely sure if the PDF document relating to the skins was linked on that page, or if I had to email someone to request it. That part is hazy, but I remember having possession of it that day. The document was simple. It was a set of plans for all of the assets required to skin a Bebo profile page. Shapes plotted out on a grid for each element with dimensions and short reference names to identify them, and a TINY filesize limit for each. I wasn’t too familiar with high level compression but I figured it shouldn’t be too hard.

Devising a plan

I didn’t need to decide whether I wanted to give this a go, Photoshop was already launching, pen stuck in my ear, eyes turned to the ceiling trying to conjure up a theme that would blow everyone away. The hangover raged on. Nothing. I began searching my desk for inspiration. There was no such thing as a quick Google search on 2006 Devonshire broadband. I had a stack of printed customer newsletters beside me, the top one was December’s Christmas offers. We had, in a stroke of award worthy creativity, put a layer of snow on top of all of the boxes. I stared at it blankly. I was yanked out of my fugue state by my co-workers putting on their jackets and gloves. My head snapped toward the clock – 17:32. A whole work day had passed. I hit the shut down button and shuffled my way out of the building.

At home there was still no working computer. My television had four fuzzy channels. I had an opportunity to do something creative but no tools away from my office desk to find inspiration, or work on my ideas. We really do take our devices and connectivity for granted these days. Sure, proper creatives back then had access to the newest technology and had methods of working offline, but I was a teenager from the first generation of internet kids. Dial up internet was available from the time I was old enough to understand windows NT, we didn’t know any other way. At some point I passed out on the sofa.

Taking action

Thursday morning. I’m sat at my desk, coffee half finished. It’s 8:39 AM. My co-workers start to arrive, each staring at me with a puzzled expression because I had never beaten them to the office before. Of course I did, I had a mission of the highest priority. Photoshop finally finishes loading and I crack my knuckles, preparing to put the plan into action. The ‘Plan’ was to recycle the snow from the Christmas newsletter, only way way cooler. During my walk to work that morning I couldn’t get the idea out of my head. Bebo profiles were made up of boxes with coloured headers after all, it would be easy. The only problem was the snow. It’s not Christmas, and teenagers don’t like Christmas anyway.

I had considered what I could substitute for the snow. What could sit over the top of the boxes the same way? Blood? No that’s too dark. I need this thing to get approved. Grass? No, that’s rubbish. Dirt? A skyline? Slime..? Slime. That’s the one! Where would there be slime? A warehouse, a factory maybe. I’ll make the headers metal with slime oozing over it. My friends will think that’s amazing. Hazard stripe paint on metal with toxic bright green slime. Alien slime! AREA 51!

I set to work creating the largest of the assets. Metal texture, hazard stripes on overlay, slime shape on top with some shadows and highlights. I worked through the asset list, duplicating files, rounding corners, scaling textures. It was beautiful. I had to be careful to allow space over the assets for the text that a Bebo profile would put there. Once I was happy, I created the CSS file to go with them. This set the fonts, sizes, colours and any spacing for the profile. I did some googling before exporting all of the assets as close to the file size limit as possible to maintain as much quality as I could. By now it was late afternoon. I packaged the files up and emailed them to the address provided with the title AREA 51.

I stared out the window and wondered how long it might take to get a reply, or whether they would apply it straight to my profile. I guess I would have to wait. I returned to MafiaBoss and the pile of work beginning to stack up beside me. The rest of the day dragged on. I checked my Bebo profile every 30 mitutes before closing down my machine for the day.

Bitch, I’m famous

Fast forward. Friday morning, 8:30 AM on the dot, butt hits chair. The office was still empty. I’d have to wait for my coffee – it turns out nobody comes in early on a Friday, so the water boiler hadn’t been switched on yet. I sat and swung on my chair as my computer chugged slowly through the start-up routine. Password accepted and the desktop appears. Web browser open, More waiting. I open my profile page with my fingers crossed. Nothing, still looks the same. Gah.

But I have some… Wait. WHAT THE ACTUAL F…

Notifications (or the closest thing Bebo had) everywhere. Thousands of them. Wall posts, messages, friend request, photo comments, sketches. A constant stream of them. They were like an army of ants invading my profile page. ‘SICK SKIIIINNN M8’ … ‘Omggg cn u make me a skin wif me name pls?’ … ‘Ow did u do dat mate, u wrk for Bebo yh?’ … ‘U mUsT bE RIch eNNit. Cn i aV ur nUMba?’. It went on and on and on. Mostly written in the bizarre language native only to central Bebostan. I always imagined that to type that way you must assign one finger on each hand to ignore the key it’s supposed to hit, and hold shift instead. More comments were arriving every time I refreshed my profile. I wasn’t entirely sure what the hell was happening. My profile still looked the same, where are they seeing this? I hit the skin select button. Oh Shit.

The skin select screen was a table of the 7 or 8 skins provided by Bebo to choose from, a feature only implemented a few months earlier, but the users were already bored of them. They had MySpace to screw around with after all. The skins (if memory serves me correctly) were ranked by number of profiles using them, and there, second from the bottom was the Area 51 skin with a little preview image. It looked awesome and stood out a mile against the primary and pastel colours of the other skins. There was one other difference though. As well as the title and some other details, mine had an extra line – Created by: Nick. My name was hyperlinked to my profile.

Bebo at the time had millions of users. Just imagine for a second that all Facebook profiles were public. You could post on anyone’s wall, see all the content (unless the profile was made completely private) and direct message anybody – a little like the way a Facebook business page works. Now imagine that you, (and only you) could change the colours and layout of your Facebook profile, and there was then a button added right below your profile picture that said ‘use this skin’ for others to easily apply it to their profiles too. Anyone who applied it was also given that button below their own profile picture. For anyone that saw the skin, there was a direct link to your Facebook profile. That’s not to mention the skin select page linked on the main menu that also listed it. This thing spread like wildfire. I was the owner of the only custom skin on Bebo that was already climbing the ranks by number of people using it and nobody had a clue how I had done it. They grabbed their pitchforks and descended upon me for answers.

The fallout

For the rest of the day the situation just escalated. As the Americans began to wake up and login, it picked up speed again. It seemed that everyone who saw the skin in the selector or on another profile applied it immediately. The barrage of comments continued until I had to shut down my machine for the day. I had been replying to some, and have a vague memory of adding something like ‘Creator of THE SKIN’ to my bio, but I gave no clues as to how I had ended up designing a skin for Bebo. The general lack of access to good graphics programs for most people my age or younger was an extra roadblock for those that discovered the information I had found two days earlier.

It took another three days before the second custom skin appeared on the skin selector. I think it was bright red with some fancy graphics on each header. Someone else had found the info page and the heat finally started to die down. Users were discovering and sharing the method for submitting skins, and later that week some blog posts started to spring up with instructions on how to make one yourself. More skins appeared, but mine held steady at the top below the default skins. Getting there first had it’s advantages.

The internet re-adjusts

Bebo skins blog post 2006The skin selector list grew and grew with every passing day. Soon it was renamed to ‘Featured Skins’ as the developers became overwhelmed with the torrent of submissions I had kick started, and they would only add the best submissions to the platform. Shortly after, new skins stopped appearing altogether. The development team had obviously realised this was getting out of hand and no doubt set about coding a submission and approval system.

This system was released a month later, and users were finally able to upload and apply their own skins, as well as searching the database of existing ones. The internet is elastic, and recovers quickly when there is an imbalance. If something breaks out and gains a lot of attention, many other variations will quickly appear, systems and businesses will emerge and normalise the market until everything settles back down. This was now happening. My reign had come to an end. By the end of the year there were well established websites selling skin design services.

Bebo Businesses
Bebo skin services sprung up

Unfortunately, I’ve still not managed to locate an image of my skin. Believe me, I’ve googled like a madman. At least six computers have exploded since then, and it’s likely I never retrieved the files from my office computer when I left the company anyway. One day it might show up. If anyone knows an old Bebo employee that could help (or even tell the other side of this story), please harass them for me!

Learning from it

11 years on, and I finally realise what happened that week back in 2006, and why my subconscious refused to let me forget the details. That week, I spotted an opportunity buried within something I already did. Something nobody else had done. I jumped on it. I used the skills I possessed, threw in some hungover creativity, learned some new skills to get the job done, and I created a storm. A storm that drew large hordes of my peers in my direction, disrupted the operations of a company and probably caused a fair few headaches in their development team. I didn’t profit from it, or build a huge list of followers, or capitalise on the result. That was the one piece I was missing back then. Learning to capitalise on the results.

These days I’m wiser and understand the industry well enough to benefit from my random victories, but it’s the process of seizing those opportunities that’s most important. I know, it sounds like the description of another ‘follow my method to become successful’ books, but that’s not it. The truth is, you can’t learn how to create opportunities from a book. You can learn to capitalise on them, or to build businesses from them, but creating them in the first place? That’s all you. Go and take a look at how most large market leading businesses began and you’ll find two answers. They began through exploiting an opportunity and doing something new (usually gaining funding after the fact), or they hijacked an emerging market through brute force with a pile of money and a gigantic stack of research.

Find your field

I believe it goes deeper still. Creating opportunities is not easy. You can stand in the shower for 45 minutes every morning staring at the tile grout and trying to come up with the next big thing. You can pour all of your time and money into chasing a crazy idea that you’re sure will work out. You can write business plans, create logos, build websites, and tell people your idea will be worth billions. The fact is, you’ll likely fail. That’s how this works. Forget the big stuff, because none of us are Mark Zuckerberg. Even if we were, he didn’t start Facebook that way.

If you truly want to position yourself to seize opportunity, then you need to start hustling. Opportunities worthy of taking in this business are a product of your environment. You need to know what your field is, immerse yourself in it and learn something new every day. Aim to be the best at what you do. Don’t like your field? Change it sooner rather than later.

Recognise, plan, hustle

Back in 2006, I was immersing myself into the marketing industry for the first time, learning graphic design and development skills. The opportunity actually came from another part of my life – my social life. I recognised it, made a simple plan, and took action. Mark Zuckerberg? He was immersed in development and studying at university. His business came from the opportunity he saw to rebuild the university’s online year book. He recognised it, made a simple plan, and put his skills to work to make it happen. The events that led to Facebook becoming a huge success happened little by little as he continued to hustle and spot new opportunities.

If you know what your field is, keep hustling, and never stop learning, you will find opportunity everywhere you look. These aren’t opportunities to change the world or flip an industry upside down, but they are just as important. These are opportunities to make something a little bit better, or make people’s lives a little bit easier. If you’re prepared to capitalise on the victories when they happen, they can lead to bigger opportunities and bigger rewards, but creating the opportunities in the first place matters most.

It’s this hustle that can start a snowball rolling. You won’t know which snowball is going to pickup speed, so just keep rolling them day after day, week after week. Take pride in the small stuff. Even if you don’t launch the next Facebook, who cares? You may start something we don’t even know needs to exist yet.

How will you find it? Opportunity will tell you.

Also published on Medium.

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