Learnings from Hajj Flemings

My smartphone tells me that I first met Hajj Flemings on September 12, 2016. I consider that a lucky and special day for me. It was just as I had made the transition from working at Kleiner Perkins, and had jumped into the world of Automattic. Having just had the opportunity to work with many incredible startup CEOs in Silicon Valley, I was curious about the world outside of the tech bubble. I’d already been talking with entrepreneurs from Boston, Austin, New York, Los Angeles, and budding ones at some of the giant hackathons out there like at UMich and Penn. But I was missing something — I wanted to see outside of the tech bubble.

And then it happened. I met Hajj. And I was reconnected to my childhood experience of working in a small business growing up in Seattle.

Because Hajj had made it his life’s mission to work with small businesses in the Detroit area — to bring his training in digital marketing to enable many businesses that are on the other side of the digital divide, to be noticed. And to prosper like other first-class businesses that had managed to plug-in digitally over this last decade.

Eight months later, I’m in Hajj’s city again. Beautiful Detroit! And since I met him in September, I’ve been going across the country building websites for small businesses here in the US. Why? It’s simply the best way to learn from the customer — to directly work with them as a partner in solving their problems.

When I was a child, I vividly remember tending to the storefront of my parents’ shop. Talking with the customers was always an interesting affair — I was terribly shy, but I always learned a new thing or two from them as to why they would drive from hours away to pick up my parents’ handmade tofu. The little shop in Seattle is no longer there anymore, but this little video snippet from a Japanese TV program remains.

It was definitely an NPS 100 product and in service, too. Not because of me of course. It was because my mom and dad put everything into it — and they were always so dead tired at the end of day. They worked six days a week, and sometime seven. From before dawn, and all the way to dusk they were working. There was rarely a moment to rest or to sit down, and I recall how often had no more than five minutes to eat lunch while helping at the store. In hindsight it sounds a bit brutal, but when you’re a kid growing up in such an environment, it’s what is normal — and it definitely made me stronger. My parents never wanted us to take on the business after they retired because they felt it was simply too much work. They dreamed of better lives for me and my siblings. And they put all their savings into us so that we could go to college and possibly escape the kind of lives that they needed to live so that we might succeed.

What does this have to do with Detroit and Hajj? Hajj’s reintroduced me to the world that I came from through his clientele: the world of small, family-owned businesses in Detroit. And it came at the perfect time as I’ve been asking about the design of WordPress tools and how they relate to folks who don’t have the luxury of time to sit at a desk with their laptop or can’t even look at their smartphone because their hands are too busy. We’re all asking about this world  — the real world — right now at Automattic. And I’m proud that we’re going to share a bit about where we’ve been and where we’re heading, and to share some of the stories of the people in Detroit who we’ve been fortunate to get to learn from and with.

If you happen to be in Detroit on Wednesday, May 17 we are co-hosting a small salon with Hajj’s team at the DCDT to benefit a local juice company Drought Juice. Here’s the site that goes over the short program — hope to see you there! —JM