My Long and Winding Road to Becoming a Small Business Owner

How a love for storytelling, branding, and a wardrobe full of black lead me to start Writing Ninja.

Noi Sabal

19 min read • 4,974 words

From learning about viral marketing while hanging out with Bono… through sake bombs and indoor skiing in Tokyo with founding Adobe engineers… to debating tech innovations with an astronaut who’s walked on the moon… my path to becoming a small business owner has been filled with more than a few twists and turns. 

I’ve always been obsessed with writing and marketing. And I’ve always been called a ninja because I wear so much black. But only recently have I become a Writing Ninja.

Here’s the super long, kinda crazy, and 100% true story of what’s led me to combine my love for storytelling, branding, and technology to start Writing Ninja.

U2: The Original Viral Marketers

Before bands had websites, YouTube channels, and Instagram accounts, (and I mean way back before the “World Wide Web” was launched in 1993), fans who wanted the REAL skinny on their fave bands had to share information with each other by subscribing to something called fanzines. These “Zines” were homegrown little magazines dedicated to a popular band, created by a superfan who would cut & paste, Xerox, hand-address, and mail ’em out with love. 

A friend from mine from freshman year at Emerson, Debbi, had one such fanzine. Her Zine was dedicated to a band on the verge of mega-stardom in the US at the time: U2.

Keenly aware that their fans were the backbone of their exploding popularity, Bono and U2 invited two people from every US fanzine to a series of events in Boston over one glorious week in 1987. They held exclusive events for these oh-so-dedicated superfans, including Zine-only press events and special passes for several of the band’s very first stadium concerts. Lucky for me, Debbi asked me to join her for these once-in-a-lifetime events.

While I won’t go into all the fun details about this crazy week, one thing that has always stuck with me is something that happened the very first day we were introduced to the band. 

Our first meeting was held one sunny afternoon in a classic Boston club, The Rat. All four band members were there hanging out with about 100 Zine editors, chatting and answering questions. Bono and Edge were genuinely engaged, happily answering as many of our eager questions as they could. Adam was there but wasn’t quite as engaged. 

But it was Larry Mullens Jr. who now makes me realize what I was experiencing way back then: my first interaction with Viral Marketing.

In the middle of the event, Larry suddenly stood up — with such force that he knocked his chair back — and stomped out of the room, growling, “I don’t need to be here. You’re not real reporters. This is such bullsh…” He trailed off as he angrily threw the door open and stormed out of the club, blinding us not only with the white-hot glare of late afternoon sun, but with his sudden explosion of disgust and impatience.

We sat in stunned silence — but just for a moment.

The ever-charming Bono turned to us and quickly smoothed things over. While he acknowledged what Larry had done, he didn’t dwell on it, nor did he act as if nothing had happened. He was just honest and authentic about the situation.

He said something to the effect of: “We know how much we owe you (Zine editors). Without your hard work and dedication, we’d just be some guys who like to play music together. You, our fans, are the only reason we’ve gotten this far, why we have any success. So we’ll stay and spend all the time together we can, until you know how much you mean to us. All of us.”

The three remaining band members graciously gave many hours of their time that afternoon. And this was the day after Bono had slipped on a wet stage during the previous night’s concert and dislocated his shoulder. Arm in his sling and wincing every so often, he was obviously in pain that afternoon. But he stayed until every single person in that club felt as though we were all friends; that we were all on the same crazy ride — together.

The fact that Bono recognized how much each person in that dark, sticky club meant to their band’s ultimate success is what makes me realize now that this was my first interaction with viral marketing.

He realized that when you talk to an individual — no matter how “powerful” or “ordinary” they may seem — you’re actually potentially talking to the world. Because when you do or say things that resonate with people, they talk about it. They tell people… who tell people… who tell people.

When you do something comment-able, people will comment… for better or worse.

Negative or shocking stories spread quickly, like gossip or a disease.

But authentic stories, honesty, and genuine caring are embraced, treasured, and shared. And these are what build brand relationships that last.

As I’ve been creating and marketing Writing Ninja, I’ve taken that day’s lesson to heart. I have tried to develop Bloggin’ Ninja to do precisely what Bono taught me that day: market honestly, genuinely, and authentically.

If you share your truth and let people in, well, sure, there will probably be some trolls and naysayers.

But there will also be a community of like-minded people with whom your message will resonate. And those are your people, your audience, the people you write for and engage with.

My longest relationship has been with… Adobe

Looking for a summer job between high school graduation and my first year at Emerson College, I bluffed my way into getting a job at a small local newspaper. 

During my interview, the owner of the paper (who was also the publisher… and writer… and salesman… and, well, everything else, because only he and his brother worked there!) asked if I had any design experience. I confidently answered, “Oh yes! I’ve worked at my dad’s ad agency for years.” Great. How ’bout with Apple computers? “Yep… we had them at school.” And what about Photoshop? Photo-what? I said to myself, but out loud I said, “Oh… yeah, sure. Photo Shop!”

I got the job, started feeling my way around the computer and software, and began designing some of the absolute WORST ads a local paper has ever seen. Over the next few summers, my crappy designs slowly improved as I learned about design and marketing in college. And my wonderfully patient and kind boss (who later said he could tell I didn’t know Photoshop during the interview! lol) took me under his wing and taught me all of his design tricks.

And so began my love affair with Adobe.

I have actually been using Photoshop since the very first version, 1.0.7 (yes… I’m old! 😝). Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop have been design staples my entire career. In fact, Ninja Neno and all of the graphics on Writing Ninja were created in Illustrator.

I’ve always enjoyed discovering and playing with new technology, often being the person to pick up a manual or stay up all night to figure out how to create something for a next-day deadline. 

Technology just clicks for me… and it’s one of the main reasons I started Writing Ninja. Combining the creativity of writing with the precision of tech — helping creatives stay organized, have fun, and be productive — that was just too exciting and challenging for me to pass up. So I dove in, and here we are, four years later, with Bloggin’ Ninja.

Film School Dropout

After Emerson, I got into UCF Film School. My dream had always been to write and direct movies. But once I finally made it to film school, I quickly discovered that I HATED directing, but LOVED storytelling. I wound up focusing on screenwriting and editing — the two sides of production that shape the story.

I was surprised at how incredibly technical screenwriting is. Sure, you have to be creative to tell the story, but you also need to fit a lot into a very limited space. While there are definitely formulas to all screenwriting, it’s the job of the screenwriter not only to get creative with the story, but also to stay well within the technical confines of screenplay structure (without being too obvious). It’s a balancing act and one that takes a lot of practice to do well.

Storytelling fascinated me, so I read every book and took every course I could on screenwriting, marketing, and story structure.

Blogging is similar to screenwriting; you have a limited space to get your message across, and there’s a formula and structure within which you’ll be most effective. So all of my years studying the structure, emotional pull, and arc of storytelling for the screen came in handy when I set out to make both Writing Ninja AND Bloggin’ Ninja.

My film school class on our first day. (Yep, I stood out; not just because of my Pacific Islander-ness, but coz I never wore shoes for some reason that year!)

While in film school, one of our adjunct professors, Bob Allen, was then the Head of Production at Disney/MGM Studios. He was (and probably still is!) amazing; funny and easy-going, yet amazingly professional and knowledgeable.

During my senior year, I was lucky enough to be the person Bob recommended for an internship on the Disney backlot for a commercial production company. And one day, about three months into the job, the editor for the (terrible) tv show I was working on stormed out of the office, quitting on the spot. So I picked up the manual for the (then cutting-edge technology) computer editing system and told the producer, “I’ll do it!”

I stayed up all night trying to make sense of the manual, and the next day, I was editing my first tv show. I never went back to school and have been working ever since.

Over the years, I worked on nationally and internationally syndicated shows and tons of commercials. I learned from some fantastic directors and producers, each of whom had different ways to uncover the core story for each brand. I went on to work on some of the first viral marketing campaigns for large and small brands alike. 

And now, I’ve taken all those tricks and knowledge and spun them into the Bloggin’ Ninja Writing Roadmap. 🤓

Rebel Lessons 

While at UCF Film School, I had a work-study job in the Film Office, where I was lucky enough to be the liaison for visiting speakers. One of the people who came to speak to our class was the director Robert Rodriguez.

He’d just finished El Mariachi and was touring film schools as a guest speaker, driving himself around the country in an old beater of a car that barely ran. (Seriously. I was surprised that the engine actually rumbled to life when he turned the key!)

Robert arrived a few hours before his guest lecture, and I was excited to play tour guide. I quickly found my best friend and Mr. Rodriguez’s biggest fan, Mark (who is now a prolific indie director himself!). It was a fantastic afternoon of three film school geeks wandering around, hanging out, and talking about anything and everything Film.

Later that afternoon, Robert regaled the whole class with his now-famous tale of Indie Film gumption. How he checked in to a month-long drug research study, which not only funded his film, but gave him time to write his script… how he did everything from operating the camera to editing the movie himself… how the single-minded determination with which he tackled filmmaking made it possible to make his stuff, his way.

(Just look at the full crew credits for El Mariachi, he IS almost every single department!)

My well-worn, yellow-paged copy of “Rebel Without a Crew” has been read MANY times

Well, those “you can do it” lessons have stuck with me forever.

Throughout making Writing Ninja, I’ve often thought of his old car… of him unapologetically asking where he can get a cheap bite to eat before getting in front of our class to screen his now-classic film… of him letting us all know that, yes, if he can do it, we all can too. You just have to put your head down and keep going.

I can’t even count the number of times over the past four years that I thought, “Why am I doing this?! I’m crazy for making this… It’s so hard…!” Only to remember that I needed to just think of myself as the software version of “Rebel Without a Crew.” I needed to become a “Coder Without a Crew,” embrace my inner Rodriguez, and “just keep going and get it done!”

So, thanks, Mr. Rodriguez. 🤩

Side Hustles of a Tech Nerd

I’ve been creating side hustles between gigs for a long, long time. A lot of them failed (some miserably!). A few did okay. And finally, two went really well. (Phew!)

Whenever a tv show I was working on went on hiatus and I couldn’t find any commercials to edit, I would fill my time writing screenplays and making websites.

A friend of mine was a full-time affiliate marketer and started to make AMAZING money in the early 2000s. She graciously showed me how to create sites that would make a few bucks, giving me my introduction to passive income.

The idea of passive income was a revelation to me. I’d spent my entire professional life working on the clock for clients. The idea of making money while NOT working — while on the beach… reading a book… taking a nap…! — was SO enticing. 

I dove right in, registering hundreds of domain names and making dozens of (bad!) websites until I started to get the hang of it.

My first online side hustle was shooting and selling stock video footage. I made three sites of my own and then submitted the footage to four different online stock library sites. While all but iStockphoto eventually went out of business, I made a great little monthly income during the infancy of online stock footage.

Some of my footage is still selling on iStock today. I have a series of Mrs. Claus videos that still does pretty well every Christmas. And actually, one clip just showed up on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah a months ago…. (Want to see? Check out the clip below or on YouTube. Around 2.5 minutes my spa background video is behind the poop emoji! bawhaha!!!)

So, yeah, I’ve been making side hustle websites for a long time. I created my very first site in March of 2005, on WordPress v.1.5 and have been making money online ever since.

Yep. I am a huge WordPress nerd. 🤓

Over the years, I would take any technology or products that I loved, create a WordPress site for it, and then just write blog post after blog post about ’em all. I was an affiliate through programs such as Avangate, eSellerate, Commission Junction, and Share-a-Sale, just to name a few.

I loved getting Xmas cards at Tiny Prints… but refused to pay full price. So I started an affiliate site promoting Tiny Prints coupons! I wrote screenplays but hated formatting in Word; I became a Final Draft affiliate. On and on it went… I started making Amazon affiliate sites… Books-a-Million sites… gluten-free makeup sites… Wirecast affiliate sites…

By 2013, I had so many different sites; my husband would joke that I was a domain junky. And I was — I was totally addicted to finding the perfect URL that would search well and make money… with visions of lounging by the pool with a Caipirinha floating in my head.

I’ve made SO many sites, affiliate accounts, and blogs over the past 16 years that sometimes I dream about how to optimize ’em better (how sad is THAT?! lol).

And since I created most of these sites back before social media outlets were ubiquitous to marketing, I relied on being found organically by search engines.

I spent years researching SEO, reading every book I could get my hands on, and breaking down sites that were succeeding to reverse engineer how they were killin’ it. 

Eventually — after a lot of help from friends, a ton of research, and a LOT of trial and error — I boiled down all the steps I needed. I made checklists and worksheets full of everything I needed to do when I started a new site. And then made another one for optimizing each blog post as I filled ‘em with content.

And all… THAT… has became the basis of how Bloggin’ Ninja works and where the Honest Optimizer, one of the most popular features in the Writing Roadmap, came from. 

Indoor Skiing, Sake Bombs, and Karaoke

My relationship with Adobe deepened when I was hired to travel around the world and demo video editing software at conventions. (Oh, Adobe trade show booths back then were a sight to behold. Too big… too bright… too loud… I LOVED it!!)

Being on the main stage of a big show like NAB in Vegas or Inter BEE in Tokyo felt kinda like being a nerdy rockstar, with vast seas of tech geeks flowing all around you.

I was SUPER intimidated at first, but everyone was so welcoming I quickly got used to it all. The vibe of most software companies I worked for during the Dot Com era was “Work hard, play harder.” So I quickly fell in love with the behind-the-scenes culture of engineering.

I spent several years touring trade shows as a “Demo Artist” (basically a hired turbo-geek who could nerd out on any facet of the software), filling the time between editing gigs on tv shows and commercials. There were countless trips of oh-so-much fun…!

One trip stands out, though — and it’s another building block in the Wall o’ Courage it took to give me the strength to start building my own software.

One night after the Inter BEE show was over, a couple of Adobe employees invited me to go out with the group. I was exhausted after a full day of talking non-stop and being assaulted with the sound and spectacle of the biggest trade show in the world. 

But then I learned about their “Ultimate Tokyo Tour” itinerary: start with indoor skiing (wh-what…?!), a sake bar for dinner, then a famous karaoke club.

Um… yes, please.

I won’t regale you with all the details of the evening, but it turns out that one of the original engineers of Photoshop came out with us that night. I ended up sitting next to him at the huge semicircular booth in the bar, doing sake bombs (“Kanpai!!“) and listening to tales of software development that were so… inspiring… scary… and laugh-out-loud “no WAY!!” funny that I knew I was in the right place, with the right people, at the right time.

A year after that night in Tokyo, I took the only “real job” I’ve ever had (as opposed to the freelancing gigs on tv shows, contracting as a Demo Artist, and now as an entrepreneur with Writing Ninja). My only official Desk Job was at a software company in northern California, Scitex Digital Video, where I worked in the engineering department for almost two years. It was an extraordinary time in my life, spent with some amazing people, in a huge, wide-open office of cubicles packed with more toys than I’ve ever seen. (Nerf War, anyone?)

Through all my time in software, I learned that most of the time, it feels like nothing goes right in development… until it does.

Circuits break. Boards overheat. People argue. But when it all comes down to it, if you have a clear vision of your purpose and stick with it long enough, you can do anything you set your mind to. And that’s what’s given me some courage to try it myself and has helped me get through the many years of development on Writing Ninja.

Talking Tech with The Man on the Moon

After I’d edited a few tv shows, I started to “play” with the then-still-new technology of non-linear editing machines. I would push the tech until it broke… then report what’d happened to the software company. I got to know the engineers and product manager of my non-linear editing machine by name. After a couple of years, they asked me to make the relationship more official and do some contract work for them. They gave me all the latest hardware and software, and then they paid me to just play with it and make extreme videos all day, trying to break it.


I pushed and prodded and broke their software over and over. I used it on different tv shows, creating new, custom effects and saving them as video keyframe sets. (They actually wound up packaging and shipping my keyframe sets with their software as “Noi’s Keyframe Sets.” For years at trade shows, when I would introduce myself at the beginning of a demo, someone would invariably be like, “You’re Noi?! I use your keyframes all the time!” It was kinda neat…!)

At one point in my tv career, I did some fun stuff on a tv show that got written up in Post Magazine.

A producer for the “Discover Magazine Awards” saw the article in Post and asked me if I’d be interested in a job. He wanted to create something to playback at the end of their Technology Innovation Awards Show, using cutting-edge tech to make it.

Since it was a late addition to the show, he didn’t have any money in the budget for it, but he thought a fun, layered, stylized video piece that could capture the event’s emotion would be interesting. He said that if it worked, bonus! But if it didn’t, no worries; they had the usual tape replay, and it was only 500 bucks.

I excitedly agreed, took that money and spent two weeks cobbling together a hardware rig. I needed to watch all the feeds from all the cameras, then toggle buttons to switch the video being fed into the computer, all while editing it together. (This may seem so easy now… but 20 years ago, this was a feat!!)

Three days before the show, I constructed a Frankenstein rig of computers, monitors, switches, and cables backstage, all precariously perched on an old folding table, tucked into the dark wing of the stage. 

For days I practiced capturing video, watching all the feeds on all the monitors… capturing it on the fly with one hand while editing & stylizing, rendering, and prepping video for playback with the other hand. It was a lot for one person to do.

(Now, this would be something like… pointing 6 iPhones at a stage while you watch all 6 phones live on 6 different tvs. When something good happens, you’d choose the button for the right phone and click RECORD on your laptop. And while you’re doing that, you’re loading the video to the timeline, finding good clips, and editing it together. Back then, there were no preset effects, so you’d have to do some serious math on the fly to create keyframes, layers, and effects — all while editing, watching the show, and capturing the best of all 6 iPhones. Phew!)

It was stressful — and exhilarating.

During rehearsals, guest presenters and award hopefuls would come and go, chatting as they passed, asking what in the world I was doing. It was pretty weird to talk about my little video setup with them; they were the ones being honored for incredible technological advances in science

On the last afternoon of rehearsals, as I bent over my array of hard drives and fiddled with cables, I could feel a low rumble of hushed conversation building behind me. I turned around to see what it was all about… and came face to face with Astronaut Buzz Aldrin, one of the first two humans to land on the Moon.

The man inside this iconic suit was standing right next to me, checking out my tech. Gulp.

A presenter for the show, Mr. Aldrin was backstage waiting to be called to the podium to rehearse. He asked something like, “What are you up to over here…?”

I don’t remember much from the beginning of the conversation — I was more than a little star-struck! — but I did my best to describe my editing challenge. He was just so lovely — so smiley and curious — that after a few minutes, I relaxed and just fell into giving him a demo. 

I remember he cracked a joke — although I have no memory of what it was now — but I laughed so hard that I (embarrassingly!) snorted while laughing. He seemed very pleased with that reaction and, while slowly nodding, Buzz Aldrin told me, “That’s quite a rig you have there, little lady,” as he wandered over to the podium. 

I’ll always remember that. From the nodded approval of the man who walked on the moon, right down to the “little lady.”

After the show, he sought me out and congratulated me — because it actually worked! I just smiled and wordlessly nodded; I’ve never been as happy, disoriented, and speechless as I was by that comment by that kind astronaut on that amazing, stressful, and invigorating night.
When I think back on it now, Franken-Rig should NOT have worked. I really, really should have failed. But I didn’t realize that at the time, so I just… did it. 

That lesson has helped me frequently ever since, both in life, and while creating Ninja. If you don’t think it’s impossible, then it’s possible. 🤗

“You should write a book!”

My weird combination of experience in storytelling, blogging, and software development all came together when I started consulting as a branding and marketing coach. 

I’d work with clients, asking them questions to discover the Who, What, and Why of their brand. Together, we’d discover the core of their brand. I would always avoid telling them what I thought they could write for their business, instead asking them questions until they came to their own conclusions.

Over time, I developed a whole series of worksheets and fill-in-the-blank prompts to help us uncover what they should talk about on their blogs. And while this was a great start — it gave them a solid foundation upon which they could build their brand — I found that they kept asking for more and more ideas to populate their sites with content.

That’s when I realized that Blogging for Business is really just telling your brand’s story, one post at a time. By writing little vignettes (blog posts), you’re giving your audience glimpses into your company’s culture, heart, people, and products.

But while most small businesses have some similarities, every company is unique. My standard set of questions could only get us so far. So I set out to figure out if I could create a universal set of prompts. Using the technical and creative skills I’d learned from studying screenwriting for so long, I broke down thousands and thousands of blog posts until I finally saw it: the pattern of technical organization that constitutes a successful blog post.

Just like in screenwriting, Blogging for Business has best practices and formulas that give you the most bang for your buck. And when I combined those screenwriting storytelling patterns and business blogging patterns, everything came together.

I created a master series of worksheets that anyone could use. Soon, clients started requesting their own copies of spreadsheets. They would tell someone about it… who in turn told someone… until I started hearing from people, “You should just write a book with these.” While I was hesitant at first, they really seemed to help people. So eventually I thought, “Maybe I should publish them… But a book? It’s 2017. And a book can only be used once… So how about — software!”

So now I’ve done just that; created a piece of software that combines the technical aspects of screenwriting and blogging with my love for creative storytelling and branding. The result is a unique piece of software that blends the creative and the technical, allowing you to brainstorm and develop ideas yet still quickly get optimized, professional content out to the world.

After writing all of this, I can see that everything I’ve done has led me here.

Technical writing? Check. Software development? Check. Creative branding? Check.
So yeah. I told you it was a long and winding road…! 🙂

Hopefully, it’s all going to be worth it. Time will tell if Bloggin’ Ninja (and eventually, Writing Ninja for screenwriting and fiction writers!) will be able to help people write better content with confidence.

Want to see what all these eclectic experiences helped create?

Check out the Bloggin’ Ninja demo video or grab your free account to see what it’s all about!

Then you can drop me a line and let me know what you think. Because, honestly, if you’ve read this far it probably means we’re probably both small business owners or living the same kind of entrepreneur life. So I’d LOVE to hear what you think about how I got to the idea of having a template to track each phase of blog posts — whether it’s good or bad. 😄

Want to write a post like this one? You can!

This is TitleTopic #116: “Personal Journey” It was developed, outlined, and written entirely in Bloggin’ Ninja. Grab your free trial to see how easy it is to create killer content in minutes with our one-of-a-kind software.

About the Author

When she’s not working, you’ll find Noi with her hubby and teenage son, usually hanging on the beach (sailing, reading or playing with their Mini Aussie), watching movies, or hosting big fun dinners on their deck. And in case you were wondering about her name… Noi rhymes with “boy” or “joy.” While it isn’t a “real” or traditional name, it does mean “inquisitive” in Hawaiian. And yep, there’s a story behind the unusual name.

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