This interview was originally published in Floppy Disk Fever: The Curious Afterlives of a Flexible Medium, a new book published by Onomatopee.
Tom Persky is the self-proclaimed “last man standing in the floppy disk business.” He is the time-honored founder of floppydisk.com, a US-based company dedicated to the selling and recycling of floppy disks. Other services include disk transfers, a recycling program, and selling used and/or broken floppy disks to artists around the world. All of this makes floppydisk.com a key player in the small yet profitable contemporary floppy scene.
While putting together the manuscript for our new book, Floppy Disk Fever: The Curious Afterlives of a Flexible Medium, we met with Tom to discuss the current state of the floppy disk industry and the perks and challenges of running a business like his in the 2020s. What has changed in this era, and what remains the same?
Hi Tom, it’s great to finally meet the founder of floppydisks.com. We’d love to know a little more about your company. Let’s start with the obvious: how did you end up with the domain for floppydisks.com?
Nice to meet you too! I think it happened during the early days of the Internet, around 1990. At the time we believed that the Internet should be free and that cybersquatting was a crime. One day somebody contacted me and asked if I wanted to buy the domain for $1,000. I felt it was an outrage. I told my wife I would not participate in this kind of cybercrime, but she took out a cheque-book and got the domain name instantly. This went totally against my principles, but thankfully my wife is much smarter than I am.
Were you already selling floppy disks at the time?
20 years ago I was actually in the floppy disk duplication business. Not in a million years did I think I would ever sell blank floppy disks. Duplicating disks in the 1980s and early 1990s was as good as printing money. It was unbelievably profitable. I only started selling blank copies organically over time. You could still go down to any office supply store, or any computer store to buy them. Why would you try to find me, when you could just buy disks off the shelf? But then these larger companies stopped carrying them or went out of business and people came to us. So here I am, a small company with a floppy disk inventory, and I find myself to be a worldwide supplier of this product. My business, which used to be 90% CD and DVD duplication, is now 90% selling blank floppy disks. It’s shocking to me.
How did your business initially come about?
I started out as a tax lawyer in Washington, DC. I became involved with a software company in California that was doing unique tax calculations. I left my practice with Price Waterhouse and moved to California with a little firm called Time Value Software. This was in the early ’90s. I had no software background whatsoever, but I had a good tax background. The idea was that I would use my tax expertise to work with programmers, and develop better software for tax practitioners.
I did that for about ten years. In the process, we developed a couple of different software applications. In the ’90s, the way you would distribute software would be by floppy disk, either on a 5.25-inch or a 3.5-inch disk. At one point we did a gigantic deal with a US payroll company for which we needed to copy hundreds of thousands of disks. We sent the work out to a third party who did the duplication for us. That was okay, but expensive, and it took a lot of time. The quality also wasn’t quite what we wanted it to be. So the next time we decided to do the floppy duplication in-house and we got our own equipment. This way we could distribute our software to our customers ourselves.
How did this software company then become a duplication company?
Because we were a tax-oriented company and had specific tax filing deadlines, we only used our duplication equipment once every quarter. For 89 days in a row, the machines would be unused and then, on a single day, we would punch out thousands and thousands of floppy disks. At some point, I looked at the machines and how they were unused for so much of the time, and I had the idea to take in other people’s laundry. If the machines were there, I could do the duplication and probably make a little extra money. I started spending an hour a day on it, then I spent two hours, then four, and eventually I hired somebody else to do it. Before I knew it, I had a software duplication company that was working alongside the software company. We basically spun that little business out and I ended up creating floppydisks.com. We now have three employees and continue to do CD and DVD duplication, but most of our revenue comes from selling blank floppy disks.
Where does this focus on floppy disks come from? Why not work with another medium?
In the beginning, I figured we would do floppy disks, but never CDs. Eventually, we got into CDs and I said we’d never do DVDs. A couple of years went by and I started duplicating DVDs. Now I’m also duplicating USB drives. You can see from this conversation that I’m not exactly a person with great vision. I just follow what our customers want us to do. When people ask me: “Why are you into floppy disks today?” the answer is: “Because I forgot to get out of the business.” Everybody else in the world looked at the future and came to the conclusion that this was a dying industry. Because I’d already bought all my equipment and inventory, I thought I’d just keep this revenue stream. I stuck with it and didn’t try to expand. Over time, the total number of floppy users has gone down. However, the number of people who provided the product went down even faster. If you look at those two curves, you see that there is a growing market share for the last man standing in the business, and that man is me.
How many floppy disks do you have in stock at the moment?
Not as many as I’d like, something in the order of half a million. We carry all the different flavors: 3.5-inch, 5.25-inch, 8-inch, and some rather rare diskettes. Another thing that happened organically was the start of our floppy disk recycling service. We give people the opportunity to send us floppy disks and we recycle them, rather than put them into a landfill. The sheer volume of floppy disks we get in has really surprised me, it’s sometimes a 1,000 disks a day.
Where do these disks come from? Are they from all over the world?
Well, I kind of discourage international shipping, because if you’re really doing a recycling service, you don’t want people to put stuff on a jet plane. It’s also just too expensive. We don’t pay for shipping, providing instead what I would call a reasonable shipping offset. If you shop around and find the cheapest possible shipping, we’ll cover it. Of the 1,000 disks we get in every day 100 might be brand new and 900 of them may have labels on them. With all these packages coming in on a daily basis, it is Christmas here every day.
What type of floppy disk is most in demand? And which is the most valuable?
The most in demand is the standard 1.44 MB, 3.5-inch blank floppy disk. I would say that the most valuable are currently the 720KB double density disks. Of course, there are specialty 8-inch disks, for which there is a very small demand and of which we only have a small inventory. They’re absolutely irreplaceable. The same could be said about quad density, 5.25-inch disks.
You mentioned the number of companies still providing floppy disks has substantially decreased. Are there still any companies left that produce them?
I would say my last buy from a manufacturer was about ten or twelve years ago. Back then I made the decision to buy a large quantity, a couple of million disks, and we’ve basically been living off of that inventory ever since. From time to time, we get very lucky. About two years ago a guy called me up and said: “My grandfather has all this floppy junk in the garage and I want it out. Will you take it?” Of course I wanted to take it off his hands. So, we went back and forth and negotiated a fair price. Without going into specifics, he ended up with two things that he wanted: an empty garage and a sum of money. I ended up with around 50,000 floppy disks and that’s a good deal. Sometimes I also get a company that’s cleaning out a warehouse and they find pallets of floppy disks. They figure out through my site that I still buy them and contact me. There’s a constant flow. I expect to be in this business for at least another four years.
It sounds like there is a finite number of floppy disks available. Is this a problem?
Well, I once got a request from the Netherlands for half a million floppy disks and I had to tell them that I simply didn’t have that kind of inventory. Plus, I have two competing goals here. I have a lot of customers for whom I have provided inventory and services for years and years. They helped me build my business and they’ve helped me pay my mortgage and employees. I want to continue to provide goods and services to these people, so selling out my inventory would not be a good idea. Another thing is that I don’t know what my inventories are worth. I know that ten years ago I bought floppy disks for eight to 12 cents apiece. If I was buying a container of a million disks, I could probably get them for eight cents, but what are they worth today? In the last ten years they’ve gone from ten cents to one dollar apiece, and now you can sell a 720KB double density disks for two dollars. I just don’t know what the market will do. It’s very hard to run a business when you don’t know what your product is worth.
Who are your main customers at the moment?
The customers that are the easiest to provide for are the hobbyists – people who want to buy ten, 20, or maybe 50 floppy disks. However, my biggest customers — and the place where most of the money comes from — are the industrial users. These are people who use floppy disks as a way to get information in and out of a machine. Imagine it’s 1990, and you’re building a big industrial machine of one kind or another. You design it to last 50 years and you’d want to use the best technology available. At the time this was a 3.5-inch floppy disk. Take the airline industry for example. Probably half of the air fleet in the world today is more than 20 years old and still uses floppy disks in some of the avionics. That’s a huge consumer. There’s also medical equipment, which requires floppy disks to get the information in and out of medical devices. The biggest customer of all is probably the embroidery business though. Thousands and thousands of machines that use floppy disks were made for this, and they still use these. There are even some industrial companies that still use Sony Mavica cameras to take photographs. The vast majority of what I sell is for these industrial uses, but there is a significant hobbyist element to it as well.
I wonder, if there is still a demand for floppy disks in the industrial world, why would the manufacturers stop producing them?
People tend to think about floppy disks in the same way as CDs and DVDs. To produce these, you only have to pour plastic in one end of a large machine, and you’re getting CDs or DVDs out at the other end. Even though this might already look like a complex process, it’s nothing compared to the manufacturing of a floppy disk. A floppy disk has perhaps nine unique components. There’s the plastic moulding, the cookie, a shutter, a spring, etc. Maybe you can do eight out of these nine things, but as I always say, when you’re 95% done you’re only halfway there. You need all the pieces for the complete product. The amount of effort it would take to recreate a manufacturing line for all of the pieces that go into a floppy would be virtually impossible. We’ve done it before, of course, but now the demand is simply not there. Plus, in time, all the industrial machines, all the airplanes that still use floppy disks, are eventually going to be replaced. So why would you want to spend $25 million to tool up a factory to see if you can manufacture the floppy cookie that nobody has made in 25 years? People have been living off of inventory for five or ten years now. Floppy disks were a very specialized piece of technology with a very difficult manufacturing process. Compared to this, a CD looks like a piece of junk.
You speak quite highly of the floppy disk. I wonder, have you formed a personal bond with the medium over the years? What do floppy disks mean to you?
To me, the floppy disk is a highly refined, technical, stable, not very hackable, way to get relatively small amounts of data where you want it. I grew up in the days of the Sneakernet and at the time, the floppy disk was how we moved information around. It’s a really remarkable thing. There’s a beauty and elegance to them. I can see how complicated they are, and what an elegant solution they were for their time. I’m not a watch collector, but I have friends who are. The beauty of a finely made watch is something to behold. Even though it might be less reliable than a $19 clock, it is a work of art. Just consider the human effort that went into its making. The same can be said about the floppy disk.
Do you also use floppy disks in your personal life, outside of the office?
I have to admit, the answer to that question is sadly no. However, I sometimes take them home, because of our transfer service. People send us the disks that they’ve rediscovered in their drawers. They can no longer use them, but they still want to get to their old address book, PhD thesis, or photographs that are on there. So, somebody might send us five disks with Kodak photographs on them, and we get them off. If we’re running behind, I sometimes transfer the data at home while watching American football. You would not believe some of the letters we get back. People see their late grandmother or their baby pictures again and that’s very important to them. We’re happy to bring these things back. We’re not being charitable and we don’t need to be congratulated for it, but it is nice to know that we’re getting people stuff they really need.
Do you ever worry about data getting lost in this transfer process?
Well, we do the best that we can. We encourage people to store their data in multiple ways. Floppy disks were not intended for long-term storage, neither are CDs, DVDs, or USB drives. If you have important data, it shouldn’t be stored only in one place.
There seems to be a new wave of interest in retro media. I was wondering if you see evidence of this in your business, for instance, from people that approach you for new projects that utilize floppy disks?
Well, people mostly buy disks for art projects, not really for building applications. Every once in a while, I’ll get a game company that wants to rerelease an old game, but I would say that most of it is for art or for promotions. One of the things that I’ve seen a lot is the use of floppy disks as badges at conferences. We sold a lot of disks for that, especially the recycled disks that couldn’t be reformatted. There is a fallout of about 30%, so we have large amounts of disks that we consider to be unusable. Some of these we might actually have been able to format, but we’re just not happy with their quality and reliability.
30% sounds like a pretty high fail rate. Can you tell us something about the quality difference in certain disks? Which type of floppy is the best and which is the worst to recycle?
In the early years, the manufacturing process for floppy disks was pretty bad. In the middle years, when they made billions and billions of disks, the manufacturing process was great. At the end of the life of the medium, the manufacturing process regressed. I would say that the best disks are the ones made between 1985 and 2000. If they were stored at a decent temperature, they’re as good today as they ever were. There’s stuff that was made in the last couple of runs that I bought from China and half of them were bad. When you think about a manufacturing process that’s getting to the end of its life, you have to consider that the testing equipment falls out of calibration. You would have to hire somebody to come in and fix it, but you just can’t afford to tool or replace anything. Even though you might lose 30% of your output, you’re just going to live with the 70% that you have left. In the end the quality was so bad that people didn’t even test the disks anymore. Rather, they just tried to format the disk and if it didn’t work, they knew it was bad. They started spitting out as many disks as possible to burn through the remaining stock. I guess they just wanted to get them out and be done with it.
How do you check if the disks you sell are still usable?
When we get the disks in, we do a copy and compare before we send them back out into the world. If it works for us, we’re confident that it’s going to work in the field. By the way, even in the best days a half percent failure rate was not unheard of. If you bought a 50 pack from the store in the mid 90s, it was very likely that there would be one or two duds and that was actually okay.
Were you ever tempted to jump ship and sell something other than floppies?
No, I’m now 72 years old and I’ve been a tax lawyer, a software developer, and a CD/DVD duplicator. Some people like Sudoku, some people like crossword puzzles. Me, I just like to get up in the morning, have people ask me questions, and try to solve problems. My business is a little bit of an adventure for me every day.
Do you think that floppy disks have a future?
I would say that floppy disks have a future, but it won’t see a revival like Vinyl. People like the idea of the record player and it will be around for a long time as a very niche or cool kind of thing. Floppy disks are going to be a little bit more like buggy whips or typewriters. They’re going to be a collectible marvel of their time. Imagine how hard it would be to manufacture a new typewriter today. There are a number of American authors who talk about the fact that they can only write on a typewriter. It’s something very important to them that is tied into their artistic genius. I think that floppy disks are going to be a little bit like that. You’re not going to be able to replace them. There’s this joke in which a three-year-old little girl comes to her father holding a floppy disk in her hand. She says: “Daddy, Daddy, somebody 3D-printed the save icon.” The floppy disks will be an icon forever.
Edited by Niek Hilkmann & Thomas Walskaar, Floppy Disk Fever explores the curious afterlives of the floppy disk in the twenty-first century by interviewing those involved with the medium today. For more reflections on notions of obsolescence, media preservation, and floppy nostalgia, get hold of your own copy of the book by visiting the Onomatopee store.