I wasn't surprised when I lost my job in November 2009. I was an electronic engineer working at a large design consulting firm, if “working” could describe my activity those final months. Aside from searching online for articles useful to my employer, I had little to do. As with so many other businesses at the time, the economic meltdown affected clients, contracts and prospects; the pipeline was drying up and everyone had the unspoken feeling that the company would reduce headcount. Gradually, since the summer, I had taken home most of my technical books and personal effects, leaving just enough in my cubicle to seem as if I suspected nothing.
Still, when someone from Human Resources escorted me to a meeting room at exactly 3:00 p.m. the Monday after Thanksgiving, I felt stunned. My wife was pregnant with our second child and our first would be in day care for one more year—at a typical day care center in Massachusetts, which unfortunately is the most expensive child care market in the United States. I returned to my cubicle to find my computer locked, and endured the puzzled glances of co-workers as I gathered my possessions under the watchful eye of HR.
After walking out into a raw, drizzly afternoon, I rode the subway home and told my wife. Although officially unemployed, I wasn't planning to be idle. As a design engineer developing new products I was known for advising technicians and fellow engineers to always have a Plan B.
When I was a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, my thesis advisor invited me and several others to start a small high-tech company. We commercialized technology from our research lab to monitor the processing of composite materials—high performance plastics, reinforced with glass or carbon fibers, that are used to manufacture products as diverse as spacecraft, jet airplanes, automobiles and bathroom fixtures. Though I was a co-founder, I was never part of the company's management. Relegated to engineering, I was a “minister without portfolio.” Eventually our start-up became part of a much larger company and lost its identity, causing me to leave for more interesting work elsewhere.
I was about to come full circle. Some time before I became a victim of the economy, I had teamed with a friend to plan our own venture. Steve and I had worked together at my original startup out of MIT, and had collaborated on various projects over the years. Steve is a software engineer and I'm a hardware jockey. He's a windsurfer with hair down to his shoulders and a pet parrot named Chicken Lips. I'm an amateur astronomer with a wife and (now) two kids.
While Steve long ago had struck out on his own as a consultant, someone had always managed me. Now I was ready, and had no choice but to be independent.
Our first products would be a line of laboratory instruments to test composite materials, utilizing the technology my first company had licensed from MIT. By this time the patents had expired; the original intellectual property was public domain. But a technology is more than patents. It is also "know-how," which is information and expertise known to its practitioners, rules of thumb, lore and institutional memory. From our previous experience, Steve and I had considerable insight in the field of composite materials. The time was right, for composites are lighter and stronger than metals and have found more and more use over the years. Among other markets, we would persue the new industry of commercial space flight, a heavy user of carbon fiber composites.
When we laid the groundwork for our new company, we both had jobs and at that time developed products during our off-hours. Steve already had an office for his consulting activities, which we also used for our company. I set up a lab in my bathroom, and with the birth of my second daughter had to share it with a Diaper Genie. Steve wrote software and I designed electronics. Although we were only two people, the power of today's computers enabled us to do work that required at least a half-dozen engineers twenty-five years ago.
Determined to neither borrow money nor seek investors, we improvised whenever possible to reduce expenses. We fired ceramic parts at 1500 °F in a wok-mounted furnace. We bought an oscilloscope and power supplies on Ebay. In the earliest days we even went dumpster diving to retrieve wire and equipment for prototypes.
Our first market was Japan, where we already had a contact whose sales company dealt with the big comglomerates there. Then we found sales reps in South Korea and China. We got two sales reps for the United States, one for the United Kingdom and one for New Zealand. Ironically, the US market is the hardest for us to establish because the country is so large.
Two years after losing my job from someone else's large company, I run my own small company with international sales and a pipeline of products in development. Sometimes the activity is dizzying, for in the same day I might send e-mails to the U.K. at dawn and to Japan at midnight. But the hours are mine and are flexible in a way not possible with conventional employment.
Gradually I realized that now I have special time to spend with my family. Every morning I walk my older daughter to her first grade class and bring the younger one to day care, then pick them up in late afternoon. I also cook dinner so my wife comes home to a hot meal after fighting evening traffic. My life has a rhythm and pace not possible if we both worked normal hours from 9 to 5, which, including the commute, really are hours from 8 to 6--or worse.
The juggling of work and home life can degenerate into chaos; however, if all elements are balanced, it can also create energy. Sometimes I wake with an idea that can't wait until morning, and sometimes I lose sleep thinking about the next challenge—both with my growing company and my growing daughters. And although no one can see the future, at least now the way forward is mine.