Thunder Press Roots

This will cost my editorial license a few points, but it’s not much of a stretch to say that Thunder Press has roots with BMW.

It was 1987 and I was suffering from that itch that only a new motorcycle can scratch. I had a couple decades of riding on the books so I had a fair idea of what I wanted, but it took several test rides, a lot of reading and numerous jaw sessions to have me conclude that a new BMW K75S was going to replace my Honda Nighthawk 650. I hammered out a deal with the local dealer and told him I’d be there Saturday to pick up the blue beauty.

After leaving work Friday I figured a quick stop at the new San Jose Harley dealer would cement my BMW choice. I was persona non grata at the older Harley dealer in town, probably because I had asked him if the drip pans under the new Shovels were an option or standard equipment. I found these same Shovelheads at the new dealer, but absent the drip pans. Oh, they still leaked, but the new guy was better at marketing… He’d wipe up the drips.

A quick walk through the new Harley showroom had proved my BMW choice was the right one. As I was leaving, the better-at-marketing dealer asked if I’d like to see one of the new Evolution-engined FXRs. It had just arrived and was being set up. “Sure, why not,” I answered. I was familiar with the Evo but figured it was just more of the same; I’ll admit to thinking along the lines of “lipstick on a pig.”

In my much younger days I had an Italian drinking buddy who regularly experienced “Colpo di fulmine.” This was usually uttered after a few drinks and when a woman —almost any woman— entered his sight. Literally it translates to something like lightning, or thunder strike. What it means on the street is “love at first sight.” Looking at that metal flake blue and black 1987 Harley-Davidson FXRC, colpo di fulmine came instantly to mind. The BMW was history.

It didn’t take many FXR rides to realize that I’d entered a motorcycle culture quite different from what I was used to. If anything, it was less about motorcycles and certainly more about the people riding them. Harleys, specifically and almost exclusively. I like all motorcycles, but the camaraderie I found among Harley people was both seductive and highly entertaining. The most visible differences between my new best friends and me were, one, I wore a helmet (remember, this was pre-helmet law 1987) and, two, I wasn’t inclined to hug everything with a heartbeat.

I have never been — and am still not — a group rider or club joiner; to me motorcycles are a solo pleasure. Despite this, and at the request of the dealer, I founded the Santa Cruz HOG chapter in ‘88. This compounded a problem I had from the beginning of my Harley adventure: Where to find ride and event info. The primary sources were shop flyers and word-of-mouth; the former often badly done, and the latter not that reliable. Easyriders magazine held sway nationally but lacked any relevant local content. There were a couple of Harley-centric regional pubs, but they specialized in good intentions, bad execution, awful jokes and nekkid wimmins – nothing wrong with that – rather than useful event news.

I’ve always been a bit of an entrepreneur — three small businesses were part of my past — so this lack of needed info got the gears turning… though slowly. It took a couple years of casual thought for me to outline a plan. My first idea was to gather all the flyer info, verify it and produce a monthly calendar. That thought died as I realized the effort would quickly become drudgery. Then the idea of an actual Harley-Davidson motorcycle newspaper grabbed hold and would not let go. The biggest obstacle in the way of this were the “golden handcuffs” with which I was shackled. That is, I had a well-paying position in the computer industry with all the status, stock options, large staff and private office that growing Silicon Valley could offer. Cutting loose from this was gonna cost me in any number of ways.

On the other hand, I was bored out of my friggin skull. It was time to leave.

So in mid-December of 1991 — and with the blessing of my wife — I gave notice. On January 1, 1992, I called myself a publisher. This, despite the fact that I had little knowledge of reporting, paste-up, photo screens, editing, ad sales, printing, distribution… and my writing was suspect. I gave myself three months to learn enough of these skills to meet my self-imposed deadline of April for Thunder Press, Issue #1.

My first shock as a publisher was cultural. In my corporate position I was surrounded by a support network and a staff to do the real work. On Day 1 of Thunder Press, I sat in my living room with an Apple computer in front of me (loaded with Word and PageMaker), a fax machine to my left and a push-button phone to my right. No staff, no help, no clue. What the hell had I done?

What I had done was to step off a cliff, expecting to learn how to fly before crashing on the rocks below.

Ignorance gets a bad rap. While some embrace it a little too enthusiastically, it can be helpful … honest! As an example, had I known what I’d be up against when it came to starting Thunder Press, well, I probably would have just gone for a long ride instead. But because I really didn’t know what I didn’t know, I just blithely — and ignorantly—carried on.

The mechanical aspects of publishing – layout, paste-up, photo screens, etc. – were new to me, but as they were defined processes, I figured I could learn them, and did. My smugness, however, got seriously slapped when it came to some of the art aspects. Particularly the ‘art’ of selling ads, at which I sucked.

Issue #1 held seven ads in its 20 pages, each one painfully sold by yours truly. And all were to friends, or friends-of-friends. And it took me three months to do it, and I hated every minute of it. There was no way, though, that I could get around it; I either had to sell or close the doors. For several months I managed to sell enough ad space to keep the doors open. But it took the hiring of three Hall of Famers (if Thunder Press had a Hall of Fame) — Debra Allen, Kate Chickering and Bev Nehmer— to put us on semi-solid financial ground.

The months before publishing Issue #1 was a blur of activity, but also very exciting (except for that ad sales thing). I was climbing several steep learning curves, but the challenges were the reason I did it.  The first issue and several thereafter were targeted at Northern California only, with a press run of 5,000. I can very vividly recall driving up to the printer’s shipping dock and seeing a pallet stacked with my papers. This might sound a bit silly, but that was a very emotional moment. Then came the next big hurdle, distribution.

I had compiled a list of regional motorcycle-related shops that I thought would be interested in distributing a free Thunder Press. With my van loaded with fresh-off-the-press newspapers I began making the rounds of the shops on my list. Simple, right? Nope. Many of these shops did not want the papers —free or not— “cluttering up” their counters. As one shop related, there were numerous free “rags” out there, and most failed after an issue or two.

I was aware of the other papers, but believed I could do a better job because, without exception, they were poorly written and edited, slapped together, and appeared irregularly. It took several months to gain entrance at most shops, but we did it by producing a quality product. As an example of what we were up against, each month I’d visit the shops and offer to take back any remaining papers. Usually there weren’t any because they just tossed them in the trash. At one particular shop, they always told me they gave out all papers I’d deliver… that is, until I discovered all the unopened bundles at the back of their shop.

The problems, issues, roadblocks and hurdles were, at first, ongoing. More than once I was ready to throw in the towel, say “nice try” to our small staff and move on. But something positive always managed to appear and give us the energy to continue. Usually it was in the form of a new hire, referred to as a “Finugy” around the office. (You’ll have to think about that term a bit to understand it.)

Early in my working life I was offered a bit of advice that took me years to fully understand. To wit, “Always hire people smarter than you.” I customized it a bit, “Always hire people smarter than you, and listen to them.” Doing that was what allowed Thunder Press to succeed.

A version of this story was originally printed in the Thunder Press 25th anniversary addition.

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