On January 22, 2009, I was called into my managers office at Sun Microsystems. I was informed that due to the economic downturn I was being laid-off. (Thousands of people lost their jobs that day.) I remember the meeting vividly. I did everything that I could to not break into a big smile. In my mind I was doing cartwheels of joy out the front door of the office building. I was free to pursue publishing full time. A plan that was put into place in the fall of 2001 had reached fruition. I went home, sat at my computer and worked on the Al Williamson Flash Gordon book without any fear or worry about hunting down a new job. On my first day off, I took my son to Seabright beach and felt the sand and cool ocean air and dreamed about the future. I didn’t foresee, though, how difficult it would be to launch a full-time publishing business without the safety net of a salary from my now absent day job.
This is how it happened.
In 1997 I was employed by my good friend, Dick Swan, at his Big Guy’s Comics store in Mountain View, California. For roughly a year and a half I was working on Wednesday’s for new comic book day, then also on Fridays and Saturdays. We had a regular customer named Patrick. The first day that Pat came into the shop he asked me if we had any Adam Hughes comics. Since I was a fan of Hughes, and that we had one of the largest comic backstock inventories in the area, I pulled out just about every mainstream and obscure title that Adam worked on to start off Pat’s collection. We became friends and I looked forward to his visits when we could talk comics and artists. In the fall of 1998, I had quit Big Guy’s to move to Santa Cruz. This had been a big goal of mine for years. Before I left, Pat had told me that he may have a job position to offer me. I had no idea where he worked, or what this would involve, but he let me know that he would keep in touch.
During my first few months in Santa Cruz I was strongly considering a few options for my future. I had been buying and selling old and collectable books on the side for years, and the idea of starting my own book business or opening a comic shop were on my mind. Another option which I was thinking about was becoming a fire fighter or joining a search and rescue team. These latter options would put into practice my experiences and knowledge gained while working at the commercial bungee jumping business for 5 years, Bungee Adventures (this is a whole post in itself for a later time), and from my years of rock-climbing. Plus, it would give me an opportunity to help people, which is a huge motivator for me. I was leaning heavily toward a book business on the side, then fire-fighter as my day job.
Then, in October or November of 1997 I received a call from Pat that he would like me to come in to his work and meet his colleague, Colleen. The two of them managed a group together. As I drove in from Santa Cruz to Cupertino to meet with them I had no idea what the significance of this moment was about to place on my life. Pat and Colleen managed the Java Sustaining engineering team at Sun Microsystems. At the time there was only eight people in the group. I was being brought in to be a Quality Assurance (QA) tester for the Java Development Kit (JDK) and Java Runtime Environment (JRE). As the engineers would create a patch (to fix a reported bug) for Java, a pair of us would run a series of stress tests to verify that the patch corrected the reported issue.
I had no college degree and had a very basic understanding of computers. I had no idea what Java was, or why people would be shy when this guy James Gosling would walk by. (Inventor of Java, if you did not know.) I was teamed with an incredibly brilliant engineer, teacher and mentor there, Selvi, who was patient with me and guided me as I learned the basics of the tech on hand and the corporate work environment.
I was brought in as a contractor. I had three months to prove myself. If I did well, I would be converted to an employee. If Pat was wrong about his gut feeling about me, I would be let go. I had three months to learn everything that I could about Java, Sun Microsystems, computer software and hardware (primarily for Sun, PC/Windows, and Mac platforms), Solaris (including Unix and Linux), the corporate world, basic scripting, you name it! Whatever Pat saw in me to take me from a comic book shop to sticking me in the Java sustaining group was something I did not see in myself. I ended up being there for 10 years and two months.
Just a couple of years after I started working at Sun, in 2001, I began working on my first book Franklin Booth: Painter with a Pen. My passion for books and art needed an outlet. I wasn’t content buying, collecting, and selling books on the side for fun. (I’ll write a separate long version of this at some point, but for now I’ll keep this part of the story brief.) I never intended to be a publisher. I was simply making one book. There was no big vision to have a line of books, work with living artists, or to even do a second book. I was just working on the one book. I self-published it, then decided to work on a book on Joseph Clement Coll for 2003, then a second Coll book for 2004. By 2005, when I published Mark Schultz’s Various Drawings Volume One I realized that this may actually turn into something. That’s when the vision of actually being a publisher started to cement itself. I suppose it was already there in 2001, but now it was tangible and not just a dream.
As I worked by day at Sun, I was working nights and weekends on books continuously. The nice thing about having a day job was that I could channel my salary into the books and not worry about profits or loses. I was able to learn the publishing business slowly on the side and let the tree and roots grow into a solid foundation. While I was at Sun I was working with incredibly brilliant people, so I had growth by day, and a creative outlet by night. Most importantly my confidence in myself was growing. It was going well.
By the midpoint of my decade at Sun I had shifted over from the QA team to the systems administrator team that supported the Java engineering and sustaining teams. Our sys admin group managed thousands of computers and dozens of labs. I supported hundreds of engineers and was fortunate to work with some of the smartest people who I have ever met.
Our sys admin team grew from a small handful of people to roughly 15 individuals before layoffs began chipping away at us. By the time I left there was only 6 of us, and that was the leftovers from two consolidated teams. It was brutal. As an aside, a year after I was gone, I saw the news that Oracle had bought out Sun Microsystems on January 27, 2010. Many of those who I had worked with for years lost their jobs due to redundant positions. I felt very lucky to make it out and to have publishing waiting for me.
My first 5 years at Sun Microsystems I truly enjoyed. I was working hard and thrived in my role. I was very grateful to be there. I was in a position where I was helping people, whether it was the Java engineers to test a recent patch, or as a sys admin to keep the engineers going as we maintained and fixed the labs and machines. We handled the network, the lab environment, hardware, OS’s–everything that you could imagine. It was a very diverse job that pulled and stretched you in all directions. I enjoyed the variety and the constantly shifting duties. It was perfect for feeding my brain that craves off of challenges, growth and change.
I had eight managers in ten years. In this order, there was Pat and Colleen, Rose, John, Sheryl, Bruce, Rajan, and my final manager who I won’t name. Most of these managers were short term, lasting just a year or less. I worked for Rajan the longest. While I liked and learned from all of them, (except my last manager), Rajan was my favorite. He was recommending and prepping me for a management position before he left, but that plan dissolved when he found a new position with another company. His direct manager took over our team. This is when things changed quickly for the worse.
All of my managers I liked, respected, learned from, and felt privileged to work for, except the last one. As cold and harsh as the corporate world can be, I always had managers who supported me, turned me loose to do what I do, and who trusted me to get things done. I was, for the most part, completely left alone to do my job. That’s when I thrive. I’ll work to the bone to please my managers, team and those who I support. But, if you try and assert control over me or don’t support me, I leave and use it as an opportunity to find something else that motivates me and where I can thrive mentally. I don’t stay in hostile or negative situations.
My last year at Sun was painful. Moral was low and stress levels were high throughout the groups due to the company doing poorly and the economy beginning to tank. I heard through the grapevine that a new round of layoffs was coming. I made it clear to my final manager that I was no longer interested in working there. I was essentially volunteering myself to take the hit. I had Flesk running in the background. I had something to fall back on. I had a vision to pursue. I wanted to follow my own passions and utilize my own creativity. I never told anyone, except for a couple people at Sun that I had a publishing business on the side. I was very careful to keep Flesk and Sun separate.
Long story short, I was laid off that January in 2009. I was grateful to be gone, and I was also happy that the rest of my team could stay and was not laid off. As far as I knew, I was the only one with a backup plan. I did this since I knew how volatile the tech industry was. I’d seen dozens of co-workers let go. I knew I needed to take care of myself since Sun was showing signs of problems. At the same time, I was never a good fit for the corporate structure.
So, on January 23, 2009 the dream began, but the realities also began to set in. For those who worked through 2008 and 2009 you will not forget just how tough this period was. For me, book sales dropped significantly, and book returns were high. Book stores ordered large quantities that I delivered, then months later the stores would return mass quantities. I was left with printer bills and piles of boxes of unsold inventory. Within a year I was seriously in debt and in a tough spot. By 2010 I took a significant loan and got a little smarter about making decisions. I believed in myself and thought that if I just kept on working it would all work out. Then I spent three years essentially chipping away at the loan and debt to get back to a stable place. I was doing what I loved, but it came with a lot of stress. None of this was easy, and it was a very difficult time. I made a lot of mistakes, which is not a crime. It would have been a sin to not get back up and learn from those mistakes. My passion and determination got me through in the end.
Benefits to running my own business included my ability to raise my son, to be with him every day and not put him in day care. I get to live on my own terms, fail or succeed based on my own actions, and I get to work with artists and do things for others. I’m not driven or motivated by money, but instead by doing something that I think benefits others and that I enjoy being a part of.
Despite all of the struggles, hardships, difficulties, disappointments, and setbacks—it was all worth it. I wish it was easier, but I never expected it to be easy. I don’t expect handouts. I don’t expect anything to be given to me, and I don’t expect that I should get a pass. I have high expectations of myself, and believe that I should not feel pity for myself when something bad happens. I think all experiences are lessons to learn from and to use to move forward to something better. I see every instance as an opportunity for improvement and that I was meant to experience it for a reason. That reason is oftentimes unknown to me for years, but eventually I learn the reason why—even if it’s 5-10 years later. I have trust in myself that everything will work out and that as long as I don’t quit or give up, that what I do will make things better for my son, for others, and for myself. For those reasons (and more) I refuse to quit.
Life has always been about the journey for me. I love it. The time we have, the options we have, the chances we get, and the opportunities that are presented to us. I like that I am just discovering my gifts, and knowing what I can do with them, and how they will provide opportunities to others who I will never meet.
This is just the beginning for me. I’m greatly looking forward to the next 10-20 years.
Make the jump!
Text and photos copyright © 2019 John Fleskes. Videos © 2019 Flesk Publications. Artwork © 2019 its respective artists. All Rights reserved.