Quitting the family business

I’ve always told people that you never quit a family business but here I am trying. For the past 20-something years I’ve been doing computer work for Peel, Inc., my family’s business. I gave my 5-month notice back in July and have been working towards tying off loose ends and getting ready for a hand-off to someone else.

It’s hard to say when you actually start working for a family business since you are raised in it. The business started the year before I was born as Quality Printing & Office Supply – doing both printing and selling office supplies for local businesses. Back then, people still needed business cards, letterheads, envelopes, shipping tags, etc because there was no desktop publishing. I remember doing office supply inventory back in junior high and running the offset press in high school among other job work.

I helped my Dad move us from the TRS-80 systems to the then-new 286-based systems. Eventually we had multiple systems we connected via 10-base-T and NetWare Lite (anyone remember IPX/SPX) — based on that product’s release that was back in 1991. Sometime in the early 90s the business switched from doing typesetting from purely text-based input devices that “printed” out on chemical sheets and we then pasted together on the light-table (the origin of “copy and paste” in a very literal sense) to a digital model using Aldus PageMaker and HP LaserJet 4 printer.

The first program I ever developed for Peel, Inc. was Lable Star1. It was a QBasic rewrite for the PC of a Basic program my Dad had written for the TRS-80 to print packing labels for print jobs. It was super simple: you put in the description and total number of boxes and it would print out labels for each one (box X of Y). Ah, LPT ports, how far we’ve come.

I designed the first Peel, Inc. website. I don’t remember when that was but the WayBackMachine has one that is dated December 19972. Like most back then it was pure HTML although shortly after that in 1998 it was moved to PHP/FI 2.0, which was a step above server-side includes, but just barely. The website remained largely crap up until 2004 when my involvement in the family business took an interesting twist.

By 2004, Peel, Inc. had transitioned from a printing and office supply company into a printing and advertising company. Seeing the writing on the wall from desktop publishing taking over basic printing needs and Walmart taking over the office supply needs, my parents pivoted the business into its strength: offset press printing. Subdivisions and communities in Houston were wanting a way to communicate with their residents and brand their communities. A magazine-style newsletter printed solely for them with relevant news was just the thing. Peel, Inc. entered this existing market with a different approach than some of their early competitors: instead of charging the communities for the newsletter we sold advertising and made it free to the subdivisions.

Peel, Inc. had several ad reps in Houston that would go to businesses and sell ads. They’d fill out a 3-part carbonless form, fax in a copy, and then at the end of the month they’d FedEx all of their contracts in. We’d take the fax and input the data into a DOS-based database program called Q&A. Newsletter designers would take printed reports from the database when setting up the newsletter to make sure all the ads got in its respective newsletter. To my post-dot-com mind this was horribly inefficient. Why not just have a web portal for the ad reps to fill out a virtual form and centralize everything? The designers could access the same data before setting up their newsletters.

Sometime around that summer I approached my Dad with a business proposition: let me implement and design this system for a cut of the contracts that went through it. He agreed and in October of 2004 ConTrack was born. Over the next couple of years this grew to be a central component of the business — everything goes through ConTrack. Today advertisers can log into the system to see their past contracts and pay their current one through PayPal. Residents can log into the main Peel, Inc. website and submit articles and view past newsletter editions. None of this is particularly earth-shattering but it’s been pretty amazing to watch the whole thing grow over the past 10 years.

Also since 2004 the business went from one building in Littlefield to a multi-site operation where newsletters were being set up in Austin yet printed in Littlefield. I designed the back-end IT systems that enabled this workflow. We had one primary designer move to Dallas and I learned about VPNs and how to allow her to be fully productive from there. I’ve dabbled in email, web design, VPNs, Samba, off-site caching, and more. A few years ago the business got a bit simpler as it consolidated down to one building in Lakeway and moved to Macs — removing the need for offsite two-way data sync and anything having to do with Windows.

The business continues to evolve. Just last year we released an iOS app for residents to view their newsletters and receive community notifications. This month we rolled out an iPad-optimized version. I didn’t design the mobile apps — not my wheelhouse — but I did design the backend systems that support it (and learned about APNS in the process).

Of course, during all of this time I’ve had a full-time job, first with IBM starting in 2000 and then with EMC Isilon in 2010. This year at EMC Isilon has been the busiest of my professional career and I’ve been unable to focus time on Peel, Inc. This is a disservice to them and it’s been very taxing on me as well.

Which leads us up to now, my last day in the family business. Like any family business I don’t expect I’ll ever be truly out of it — the businesses/contractors that take over the IT systems will undoubtedly have questions that I’ll need to help answer — but it’s at least a formal parting of ways. It’s been a great learning experience in every aspect imaginable and now it’s time to move on.

1 Yes, that’s ‘Label’ misspelled. I was, and continue to be, a horrible speller. English sucks, compare: bible and able to label.

2 And I’m not linking you to it as it is hideous.

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cpeel

I'm Casey Peel, a software validation manager with Spaceflight Industries in Seattle, WA. Space, the final frontier! I volunteer as a developer and system administrator at Distributed Proofreaders, the largest contributor of public domain ebooks to Project Gutenberg.

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