April 15 marks the birthday of ComicsVerse’s CEO and Founder, Justin Gilbert Alba. While the folks at ComicsVerse are already aware of Justin’s generosity, wisdom, and impeccable leadership, we believe the rest of the world should also know how lucky we are to have him.

Justin Aba is more than ComicsVerse’s CEO to many of his employees. He’s a role model and an inspiration, but more importantly, he’s there for us. He takes on so many responsibilities and still has time to check up on people, especially when he gets wind that they may not be doing so well. He encourages people to take personal time and provides uplifting dialogue to help lift some people out of their own dark abyss. One employee felt the need to share this cartoon he made, which has a direct quote from ComicsVerse’s CEO himself.

After some difficult life circumstances and overwhelming depression, Justin went out of his way and provided much-needed support and love. Thank you, Justin. I’ll never forget these words and do my best to make you proud.-Bob

Getting to know Justin is one of the best things I got out of my time at ComicsVerse, and I think anyone else will agree. So to honor him on his day, I’d like to share with you an amazing interview that I had with Justin, which truly embodies how passionate he is about the company and, more importantly, its people.

READ: Justin wrote a heartwarming open letter about how X-Men comics saved his life!

Anika: So Justin, why don’t you start off by giving us a brief introduction about yourself?

Justin: I grew up in Westchester County. It fucking sucked. I failed at a lot of things only to realize failure is inevitable on the journey to achieving any sort of greatness. More failure ensued, but I started succeeding more. I was an actor, then I started taking photographs. Now I’m ComicsVerse’s CEO, and I host a podcast that uses comics as a platform to discuss all the reasons people kicked my ass in high school in hopes other people like me won’t get their asses kicked as badly (‘cause it sucked).

Anika: Tell us about your path to becoming ComicsVerse’s CEO?

Justin: Got a few days for me to explain this?

I jest. I always fear the implication of this question leads to the assumption that there are already paved paths for others to follow. There probably are, but I think the danger in that lies with someone else believing they can’t get to where they want to go because their path is so different. That was, certainly, my experience.

ComicsVerse & ComicsVerse's CEO Justin Alba
The ComicsVerse team at NYCC 2015

I grew up wanting to act because the theater and other artists were the closest I came to having a sanctuary. I used my computer a lot. There was an episode of Judge Judy on one day when the work wasn’t flowing in. She scolded someone, “why don’t you put all that time on that computer to some good use and make some money?” I only worked menial jobs before this. Anyway, I took her advice.

At the time, I incorrectly assumed “computer work” would be easy as most privileged males do. I suffered from what is called the “Dunning-Kruger Effect.” It basically means that a person thinks something is easy because they know so little about it. I actually believed things like graphic design, typography, web development, front-end development, back-end PHP were all the same thing. Sure, you needed a computer to do most of those things, but that is just about the only thing they have in common.

I had a lot of time on my hands so I figured I’d read everything I could on these subjects. Torrents were much bigger then than they are now. I downloaded every “…For Dummies” book I could. It took me about six months to learn HTML, and two years to learn CSS without any training whatsoever. I read every day. I worked on web development, administration, computer hardware, video editing, etc. every day without fail. There wasn’t a need to push myself. It was something I wanted to do and, frankly, there wasn’t anything better to do.

A lot of my friends were artists, actors, photographers, and makeup artists who needed websites. I built as many free websites for them as I could. The first fifty or so were some of the worst designed things in the history of humanity. Eventually, I got better.

I started charging a little bit of money and going on CraigsList and getting clients. Then came the 2008 Presidential Election. There was a breakdown of McCain’s campaign finances. He spent $900,000 on a website. I immediately went on the website and realized I was charging people $550 and building scripts and designing websites that were dozens of times more complex than the McCain website. I started charging more. Something weird happened. People started respecting me more. I also had less work to do (but spent more time staring at it over a sense of guilt). My client base branded me a reputation for being nice, under-promising, and over-delivering.

I was having a great time helping people improve their businesses, increase their revenue streams, and translate their company’s needs to an online structure. Eventually, I picked up some branding and marketing knowledge on the way and was able to start charging for consultations. Mind you, my prices were often 50% to 75% lower than my competitors. I blame this on low self-esteem.

ComicsVerse celebrating the Marv Wolfman Podcast with ComicsVerse's CEO Justin Gilbert Alba.
Some of the ComicsVerse gang celebrates a successful podcast after interviewing DC Comics and Marvel creator Marv Wolfman.

After a while, I learned more about art. I started to get my own ideas of how I wanted a website to look. Studying case study after case study, I would always try and sway my client into following the data instead of some ancient print model proven not to work on the web. Sometimes, people would listen to me. Usually, they would not.

I had a greater urge to express myself. I was still involved with acting but felt a need to express myself in different ways. So, I went back to college, eventually transferring to Columbia University. I published two photography books there. On a whim, I decided to take a course called “Comics and Graphic Novels as Literature” during a summer semester instead of “Masterpieces of Western Literature.” After all, the idea of reading Moby Dick in four days can be a deterrent.

READ: Dear MARVEL exec, here’s the real cause of sagging sales!

In that comics literature class, I met two people I wanted to work with. I built a website a week later. Two weeks later, we started a podcast. I knew nothing about audio and researched what I could online. The first few episodes of the ComicsVerse Podcast were awful. So was one of my original partners who I wanted to be the ComicsVerse’s CEO. He ended up wanting glory without giving up some guts. He didn’t last long, and I eventually became ComicsVerse’s CEO. My other partner-in-crime would go on one day to edit comics at MARVEL.

No one listened to ComicsVerse or came to the website. We were lucky to get twenty to fifty hits a day. So I read more and studied more. I learned, hired interns, got over myself and learned to deal with people (and myself once in awhile). I got stabbed in the back a few times. A few other times were the best times of my life. I finally bloomed and came into my own (albeit late).

Anika: Describe a typical workday at ComicsVerse for ComicsVerse’s CEO.

Justin: No two days are quite the same. I’m sure that’s a popular answer but true nonetheless. I wake up. First, I check our intranet system to see if there are any fires I need to put out. Then, I check my email (which can be as many as 600 emails in the last eight hours since I fell asleep). Finally, I plan my day.

How do I plan my day? I ask myself: “how much time do I dedicate to the whirlwind of ComicsVerse or special projects?” The whirlwind is what I call the everyday stuff that keeps ComicsVerse afloat. Special projects are designed to further the company’s mission and improve our brand somehow.

My nights usually involve meetings. I meet with many people one-on-one and meet with other business owners to see if we can partner. Most of the time, meetings suck.

On weekends, I record our podcast and help set up my living room as a studio to record our weekly videos. If there is a podcast episode I’m hosting, I’m usually spending Thursday night and Friday frantically reading and writing the podcast script. I work seven days a week from the moment I get up out of my bed to the moment I get back in it to sleep. Startups are a 24/7 job. Make no bones about it! That being said, I couldn’t love it more.

LISTEN: Did you know Justin is also our podcast host? Hear our latest podcast about examining the Ultimate Galactus Trilogy!

AnikaHow would you describe the organizational culture at ComicsVerse?

Justin: The corporate culture of ComicsVerse is what I believe this question is asking about. You know, I believe in a community first business model. People come first. Their happiness comes first. Output, traffic, everything else is bullshit if people aren’t happy. Why would people you make miserable want to do anything to help you?

That isn’t to say that there are people who don’t take advantage of the community first business model. I once hired someone who was supposed to write two articles per week. I assumed he was. He ate a large amount of food I purchased for everyone. He had the privilege of being on a podcast (which was now receiving hundreds of thousands of plays per episode). Several people spent hours helping him write. He took up a lot of time and resources. He even took his girlfriend for a night out on our company Uber account which is tied to my personal credit card.

ComicsVerse
One of the many parties at the ComicsVerse apartment office.

Eventually, I found out after 12 weeks he hadn’t written one thing despite owing me 24 articles. I’m all about charity, but if I’m going to give my time and money away, I want to be able to choose who I give it to. An entitled lazy person trying to get free stuff isn’t on my list, unfortunately (for me).

Despite the above story, (now for a segue) I think it’s important to laugh a lot. It’s important to be friends with the people you work with. It’s important the staff be close, not just with me, but for the staff to be close with one another. That definitely leads to a lot more emotional issues between people than other workplaces, but it still makes the good moments, great moments.

I think the idea that a leader needs to be feared or dominate others is fucking weird. I spent most of my life with people thinking I was a monster for being fat and queer. Feared? No, thank you. I want to embody the values of our company: kindness, fairness, closeness, community, and love.

Anika: How would you describe yourself as ComicsVerse’s CEO?

Justin: On a good day? I have somewhat innovative ideas (I’m hardly Steve Jobs, let’s keep this relative). I believe in looking at and following good data. At the same time, I think knowing when to forget about analytics and go with your gut requires good judgment. Sometimes I have that, sometimes I don’t. I try and be nice, but sometimes I get frustrated when I feel unappreciated or grossly taken advantage of or overworked. I try to make it clear I have an open door policy. Getting to know all of the staff personally, I also try to do. I try and remember to keep a professional wall between the staff and myself. Those times that wall came down, in came the Trojans with their horse. My heart has yet to fully recover from being broken. My back yet to heal from the stab wounds.

ComicsVerse
Justin Alba with X-Men writer Chris Claremont at the ComicsVerse apartment office

I like to remind people who are stressed that it’s just comics, and I like to remind people who are uninspired that comics are another art form that changes lives. Both are true.

Danger is abound when an executive starts thinking they are superior or above anyone else at the company (or in the world for that matter). I treat the cleaning person as good as I would treat a comic book creator I’ve known 20 years. Actually, I probably treat the cleaning person better (I spent a couple years cleaning other peoples’ toilets myself). As souls, we are all equal…everywhere. While I might be the most important person at my company because of my financing and title, I always remember that I’m just a guy who talked a bunch of people into helping me turn a vision into a reality (and then a business).

Make no mistake, if an executive walks into their office, asks their assistant how they are without giving a shit, ignores the person cleaning their office while they use the phone, and treats only clients or sponsors or shareholders with respect, they are an asshole, and they are unhappy. It takes a village to accomplish small tasks, and other people don’t exist to make you feel superior. If you need to feel superior, you are insecure and should see a psychologist.

WATCH: Think ComicsVerse is a cool place to work at? See our company video!

At my worst, I am reclusive. Certain types of work paralyze me. Eventually, I just pay someone to do whatever that is or confront it and realize I could’ve gotten whatever it is that I avoided finished in twenty minutes.

I try to be fair, nice, kind, and selfless, to absorb stress for my staff instead of creating more for them. I try, but who knows if I do these things well? For all I know, people might see me as a tyrant. Leading is a tough and lonely gig. There’s no one to watch over you. The public is your boss. No one knows or cares about all the millions of little decisions that wind up making huge things happen or the agonizing process behind smaller decisions. In their defense, employees don’t see them, so it makes sense people might conclude something happened on its own or was an arbitrary decision. No one asks you if you’re OK. If they ever did, you’d have to lie and save it for your therapist. Mind as well, mine isn’t cheap or covered by Obamacare.

Anika: Finally, do you have any advice for those who aspire to become an executive like yourself?

Justin: Don’t listen to a word I said. There are no paths. It’s all bullshit. Go out and be as much of you as you can be. Don’t compromise until you have to. Face yourself. Face your demons. Look at your soul in the mirror and be honest about the darkness that can sometimes look back. Only then can you let in the light.

Again, there are no paths. There is only a never-ending forest. The point is to get lost and find an area of this dangerous forest where you want to make yourself a log cabin. Along the way, you run into people. Some people want to make sure you never get to where you want to go for selfish reasons. Some people want the log cabin you built because they don’t want to put in the effort to make their own. Sometimes good people walk through the forest with you and cut down trees at the same pace and same direction you are. Sometimes that lasts a long time, but usually, it doesn’t.

People will try and bring you down and shame you just because you carry an executive label. It’s a strange phenomenon because you don’t change. Other people around you change because of an assumption you wield power over their lives, an illusion on their part. This phenomenon becomes your responsibility. It sucks because you never want to be the scapegoat or sounding board for someone’s bad day that has absolutely nothing to do with you, but it’s inevitable its going to happen, so get ready for it, and don’t take it home with you.

Carve your own path. By the time someone finishes up carving theirs for you to follow, all the trees and weeds and grass will have grown back anyway.

If you want to be a CEO, don’t think in terms of paths because you need to get used to living moment by moment but never losing sight of the long-term goal, whatever that is for you. If it’s a lot of money or people kissing your ass, you haven’t faced your demons, and I can’t help you.

Don’t expect to walk around happy every moment of every day because you are living your dream. If it was that easy, everyone would do it. Get used to living in the discomfort of uncertainty and failure. Get used to the realization that there is no path. Stop beating yourself up over not doing what you think you should’ve done that day and do what you need to do that day or that hour or that minute. Listen to yourself. Trust yourself. Never give up, and learn to forgive yourself when you need rest or a hug.

Do things for other people without wanting or needing a “thank you.” Live a full life. Cuddle a lot with your significant other. Remember the crown on your head isn’t heavy because there is no crown. Wake up call: you are no queen or king. There’s no royalty in America. What you really are is a mortal version of Atlas, physically and emotionally naked for the world to see and for daws to peck at while you attempt balancing the universe on your shoulders, at most times, at the expense of your health and happiness. A little word like “heavy” doesn’t begin to describe the feeling of the crushing weight that no one else but you can see.

Love a lot, and be good to people. It’s the only thing that’ll help.

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