So, then, how did you learn tech diving?
Well, that was one of the great benefits of aquaCORPS. I got to train with some of the best divers on the planet. I started by training with Bob Scheimder and his folks. Then I went to Florida and then Mexico to complete my cavern and cave diving training and then started going to Key West to train with Capt. Billy Deans and learn mix diving. I subsequently moved to Key West to be closer to the action and joined Billy’s staff. We worked to create the first tech diving (nitrox, trimix) training courses. Tech diving was all about learning and training and perfecting and pushing the art, and Billy’s shop, Key West Diver, (only a couple of miles from the aquaCORPS offices) was a meccaMecca for tech training; it was the place to be.
I trained with Lalo Fiorelli and Steve Gerrard for my full cave diving certification, and participated in some of Steve’s Yucatan expeditions. I also got to dive with and learn from some amazing divers like Sheck Exley, Gary Gentile, Jim King, Wings Stocks, Rich Pyle, Paul Heinrith, John Crea, Chris Sorauf, Dustin Clesi, Bob Raimo, Tom Mount, Bret Gilliam, Mike Madden, Gary Walten, Eric Hutchinson, Kevin Gurr, Rob Palmer, Karl Shreeves, Hal Watts, Ed Betts, Jim Brown and Joel Silverstein. Sooner or later everyone showed up in Key Westthere. From that point of view I had a great job!
What kind of gear did you use? Plain vanilla, but tekkie? Or nitrox, or He02? Were rebreathers ‘in’ then or just over the horizon?
I was diving with recreational gear; single tank, BCD, dive computer etc., until I got into cave diving and deep diving. Our standard rig at Key West Diver were double hundreds or better as far as tanks, a back-mounted wings-style BCD with a redundant bladder, Poseidon Odin regulators, stage bottles of course, depending on the dive, typically one EAN cylinder and one O2 cylinder, DUI crushed neoprene dry suit, a Beuchat dive computer which I used as a depth gauge, (this was before everyone came out with mix computers), DCAP tables courtesy of Dr. Bill Hamilton, Force Fins, a jon line, reels, dual lights, I used Lamar English lights, a writing slate and a life bag and emergency ascent line. For open water dives we also carried an emergency kit with flares and a satellite transponder. And for transportation, we used aquaZepp scooters. Rebreathers were really available yet and we had several at the shop at different times but outside of a few trail demos I never dived one.
What did you do, mostly? Just look, or snap pictures, or poke fish, or explore caves … or just enjoy pushing the envelope?
Again, I just loved being underwater in any way shape or form. I was enthralled with the underwater environment. I enjoyed more challenging dives because doing them right took work. That’s part of the whole tech thing, I think. Putting it all together, planning it out and then executing the plan. It was also amazing to me to see and experience some of the places one can go underwater: I’m thinking about being an hour deep into some unearthly underwater cave—better yet a virgin cave!—or floating through a sponge-encrusted tunnel that opens out on a wall at 140 feet (43m) in Cozumel (on air! (I always loved that nitrogen buzz, though mix is the only way to go for deep stuff).
OK, so you get the idea for a technical diving magazine – how did the plan evolve? Who were some of the people involved editorially, with the writing, initially? Can you identify the staff for the first issue or first couple of issues? Where were you located while all of this was going on?
I was living in Santa Cruz, California, at the time. I knew a couple of freelance editors from my work as a freelance writer. My lover was a graphic designer. And there were a lot of people with stories that needed telling. So I just started cobbling the magazine together. The original staff was me, my editor, Susan Watrous, who I had a huge crush on at the time, graphic artists Davina Midori and Pam Falke. I also got lots of help, encouragement and support from friends in the computer business and people in the diving industry like Dr. Bill Hamilton, Marty Snyderman, Steve Gerrard, Wings Stocks and others.
The magazine really began to take off two years later when I moved to Florida and started organizing the first Enriched Air Nitrox workshop with the help of Dick Long, founder and CEO of DUI, in response to the so-called ‘nitrox controversy.’ And I made several friends/supporters/mentors who hung with me for the rest of the amazing journey that was aquaCORPS. They were Lad Handelman, the former CEO of Cal-Dive and Oceaneering, who joined the aquaCORPS board; sport diving industry veteran, Bill Roe, with Florida Scuba News; and Billy Deans who I already mentioned.
aquaCORPS and the tek Conference would never have lasted as long as they did without the personal help of those three people. But three are in a class by themselves. There were many others whose help made the magazine and conference: people like dive physiologist Dr. Bill Hamilton, for example. Bill played a huge role in the development of aquaCORPS and tech diving and gave us intellectual credibility and tables. And Mr. Rebreather, Tracy Robinette, a voice of realism and sanity was enormous help to aquaCORPS and to tech diving. There were also some key staff people who made a huge difference: Mike Belininski, aquaCORPS’s main graphic designer and Mac guru (aquaCORPS would have embolised early on without Belinski)), and Julie Pounder, who represented the magazine in the U.K. and was always there to help, and writer Walter Comper, who helped organize the tek Conference and represented aquaCORPS in Europe, and our office manager in Key West, Smokey Parrow.
So . . . the magazine is ready to rock ‘n roll – how did you finance it? Right from the first it was a high quality, expensive magazine to produce. Did you float the first issue(s) out of your own resources? Friends? Relatives, or what?
As I mentioned at the outset, I’d just gone through a (very painful) divorce and that, along with the collapse of my Silicon Valley consulting business, had left me with virtually no resources so, unfortunately, there weren’t many alternatives. I had to raise money. So here’s a story for you. Because I needed money to get the publication off the ground and didn’t have any I took the approach that my mentor Lad Handelman later codified for me. He had once told me that if I just pretend and act as if it is going to happen no matter what, then it will (happen). I figured (naively, I might add) that if I just got the first issue out the rest would take care of themselves. So I took that approach and just knew in my soul that it was going to happen, that I would make it happen no matter what.
And so I had a few hundred dollars to get going, and convinced my team of contractors that we would have the money and they would get paid. And I convinced the printer that they would be paid and managed to get them started without a deposit. And I managed to scrape up enough money for my DEMA booth for the January 1990 show where I planned to launch the magazine. We began working on aquaCORPS issue #1 the previous October. In the meantime, I was madly calling all my business associates and friends and relatives to raise seed capital to put out that first issue.
By early January I had the issue edited, layout done and it was shipped to the printer who was to produce 2,500 copies and have them ready for me to pick up Wednesday morning so I could board the plane in the afternoon for Orlando, Florida and the DEMA show.
The only hitch was they wanted a cheque for $7,500 and I had something like $200 in the bank. That very same Wednesday at 10 a.m., after two months of fund raising efforts, my first investor, a entrepreneur named Adam Albright, who lived back east, told me he would wire $10,000 later in the day. There would not have been an aquaCORPS without Adam at least not in time for DEMA 1990!
I drove to the printer. Wrote them a cheque for $7,500, picked up the boxes of magazines and headed for the airport. The scary thing was, believing that I could ‘make it happen,’ I’d already decided that I would write the cheque for $7,500 whether or not Albright came through.
Truth is I had to write several big cheques with no money to cover them on several occasions during my aquaCORPS stint. I figured I could always raise the money or negotiate my way out of the problem after the fact. I’m not proud of that; it was illegal and a very stressful thing to do. You could say that I was driven and determined, really stupid, or just had a lot of faith. Probably all of them were true. Unfortunately, aquaCORPS never got easy. I needed at least one major miracle to happen each issue and it did for six years and 16 some issues if I include my TechDiver publication as well. And then in February or March of 1996, the run of miracles ended and I was forced to close aquaCORPS.
How about outside investors? Was that in the mix from the start, or just a “we need an angel” move, later?
I always wanted to put aquaCORPS on a solid business footing. Trouble was I was not really a businessman at heart. I don’t think a true numbers crunching businessperson would ever have launched aquaCORPS in the first place. In retrospect, there wasn’t a large enough market to make it a profitable, sustainable business at the level I envisioned. Of course, I didn’t realize that at the time. Ken Loyst once told me I should have kept aquaCORPS a small, quarterly black and white newsletter and from there build it much more slowly. He was probably right in some way and had I taken his advice, aquaCORPS might still be around. But that was not our path.
As I said it was more of a personal mission or cause than a business. I managed to get a few angel investors from among friends and family. Eventually, with Laddie’s help I was able to get some outside investors led by Rod Stanley, CEO of American Oilfield Divers. (aquaCORPS would have sank in 1994, right after the “C2” issue #7 if Rod & company hadn’t of stepped in). You were part of that Phil and I really appreciated your investment and having you on board! You remain one of my heroes!.
I was totally excited about securing a sizeable investment even though it meant I had to give up control of the company in exchange for the funding. I believed that this cash infusion would help make aquaCORPS a successful business and that’s what I wanted. But the reality was I needed help running the business as much, or more, than I needed money! I was heading up the design, editorial and production of the magazine, spearheading conference planning and trying to run the company. The workload was sufficient for two full time people. I was in over my head and never really able to get all the day-to-day help that I needed. In retrospect though, it may (or may not) have made a difference.
Laddie later told me that I should have sold the business in 1995, the year that tech diving and aquaCORPS seemed to peak. It was great advise but just then I was up to my eyeballs, no, scratch that, I was way over my head trying to keep the company afloat, to manage about 10 employees, put out aquaCORPS on a more frequent basis and organize the tekConference. It was a 24/7 job for way too many years. I gained a new respect for business management. I learned the hard way that being good with people, motivating, organizing and instigating, and being a great creative director, was not enough. I was not a good business manager. It’s a real skill.
In the conclusion of this exclusive Diver Magazine AquaCORPS interview, publisher Michael Menduno talks about the controversial ‘nipple’ and ‘manipplelator’ illustrations, the infamous Bondage pictorial, the highly regarded AquaCORPS tekConferences and in the aftermath of it all, what m2 is up to these days.
End Part I