// September 2nd, 2012 // Comments Off // Uncategorized
I wasn't always this suave hip twenty-first century tech entrepreneur that you understandably envision I must be. </sarcasm>Before I discovered that I actually enjoyed the business of business, I was a hard core tech nerd. I knew nothing about what it takes to run a business, why anyone would want to go through the trouble, or what possible reason anyone would want to buy any of this tech stuff outside of the obvious fact that it's really fun and cool.
My first "real" computer job was as the computer tech at Dawn Computer Support in my little home town of 70 some odd thousand people in Arkansas – technically the 2nd largest city. We built and sold clones of IBM PC/XT/AT computers and provided on-site service (me) to various small businesses. I was still in high school and it was a massive improvement over sacking groceries at Safeway which I had been doing (and hating) heretofore. Besides, now I was getting $4 per hour rather than the $3.75 Safeway paid and didn't have union reps chasing me around to join their communist revolution to ensure no one being paid under $7 an hour was allowed to cut the watermelons in the produce section (true story)!
One evening there was no one else on the floor and a lady comes in looking to buy a printer. My mind races at all the possible options that must be considered in this very important decision about what to recommend to her but I had absolutely no context for what someone like her may want to do with a printer. I naturally froze and stumbled my way through until she regrettably went on her way sans printer. Had she wisely asked about which printer supported downloadable fonts from the pfs:Write word processor and stated a preference for a serial connection rather than parallel then I would have been on game and made the sale! I had no business being in sales and avoided being anywhere near the floor again after that.
Quite satisfied with being the tech guy I went through a few more jobs and even did freelance programming until I landed a gig that paid $7 per hour doing dBase/Foxbase programming for a small consulting shop. This was when PC networks and companies like Novell were just becoming viable. So a lot of our business was customizing SBT Software accounting modules for small companies and downsizing from from insanely expensive mainframe/mini computers to DOS-based PC networks. Fun work and really helped the clients out a lot. PC revolution indeed! I was on the front lines.
We were also a very small company. Paul (not his real name), the extremely smart chain smoking owner who loved to golf was a good programmer and had grown the biz to include a secretary, salesman, another programmer, Ray, (who just came from the mainframe world and found PCs quite chaotic), and myself. Being so small, and PC servers being so expensive (not uncommon to be $20,000 1988 dollars), our clients had to pay for hardware upfront so we could get the stuff setup and working in our office before deploying to their site. We'd done enough of these that our vendor let us pay COD check – which meant, technically we were "cash on delivery" but we could just hand the UPS driver a check and they trusted us that it would be good.
Working on our biggest project to date, Paul calls in and says he's sick. We're very busy but wrapping up and things seem ok so I assure him that we're fine so just get himself well for the install and we'll be ready for him. A few days later the secretary gets a call from our network hardware vendor telling us that the check for these servers bounced! This is, of course, impossible as our client paid us up front and she deposited it to our account herself. Unfortunately none of us has access to the bank account to even check the balance so we scramble to contact Paul who cannot be found. 48 hours later, concerned he was dead or something, I broke into his apartment (leet pick locking hacker skills!) but he was not there either and everything seemed in place. Now we're really in a fix. Server company wants their money, client wants their servers, we got payroll coming in a few days which comes outta the same checking account that we're told is empty and Paul is AWOL.
One of my (several) unusual 'personality'(?) characteristics is that I seem incapable of worrying about things that I have determined I really have no further ability to influence. Often it makes me appear insensitive to others' plights or concerns – like poor Ray who can't stop imagining what terrible things must be happening. The upside is that I never panic and thrive in tense situations. (cue RepoMan quote!) This is way above my pay grade so I just try to convince him that we should just keep on working to get the system ready for delivery and expect an answer will come soon. He doesn't buy it but manages to keep going regardless.
And, indeed, answers come in strange ways. In this case, in the form of a half-inch thick American Express bill that shows up in the mail. Our secretary opens it at my insistence, "Paul usually opens these himself!" she protests. "It's huge, he's missing, it's normally just a couple of pages! Open it!" Hidden within are page after page of cash advances from Las Vegas. We soon hear from his brother that, apparently Paul (unbeknownst to us) has an old alcohol problem, was going through a messy divorce, and blew the whole company on a drunken binge to Vegas. So now there's no money in the company and we're not getting paid. The sales man and Ray quit while mumbling something about the insane PC world and how we was going back to mainframes forever. (At the time, I thought to myself “what an idiot cause PCs were the future” but hope he finally made his fortune and got his revenge working on the Y2K problem. Not the last time someone likely succeeded doing something I thought was insanely stupid and therefore have given up trying to know what's best for others – even when it's clearly stupid.) Now I'm the only one left to call the client and let him know his servers are about to be collected by the UPS man.
The client's a nice guy. He understands how to talk to tech geeks like myself (and Paul) and get things done. So I feel REALLY bad to have to break this news to him. I ring him on the phone, give him the punch line and brace for the inevitable screaming. Instead, what I hear emanating from the phone's speaker I'm holding a few inches from my ear, is a soft – mono-tone – calm disbelief "Oh no.... not again." Seriously?!?!? WTF?!?!? I am incredulous!
It turns out that Paul and the client go way back. Way back apparently to when this exact same thing happened before! I am stunned that our client would expose himself to such risk again but, we do live in the South, and people really are nicer there – as I will depend on soon enough myself. Now I'm unemployed, broke, and can forget about saving money to go back to school. My parents think I'll never leave home. Paul's out of business and off at rehab to dry out. But there are all these other clients who still need someone to look after their systems and seemed to notice that our business improved after I was hired so some credit rubbed off on me. A few suggested that they should sign support contracts with me ("What's a support contract?" is my first question!) and I took these to First National Bank and got a 20,000 business loan.
April 1st, 1989, Business Data Management was born (no joke – I still have my planner entry). I have 400 square feet divided into two offices and a massive 330MB hard drive I paid $1600 for installed in my Compaq Deskpro – and no idea how to run a business. But I do have plenty of work and nice clients – many of them small accounting firms who know better than I just how clueless I am. So I code and work all nighters (I perfected the 36 hour work day. Work 24 straight, sleep 12. Do this twice in a row and you're back on normal people time.) I suck at budgeting and remembering how/when to pay certain bills and government fees. More than a few times I sheepishly ask a client whether it would be possible to pay the next quarter's support contract in advance. Certainly if not for the kindness (or perhaps outright desperation – but I think mostly kindness) of others, I would have been out of business many times over.
But eventually I got it. I don't think had I lived in NY or California that I would have had so many chances to learn and would likely have ended up going back to regular employment. But I finally discovered (after making several proposals and closing a few sales) that the business of business could (almost) be as fun as executing code at times. Especially when you discover that your awareness of an elegant technical solution solves a customer's real problem in a particularly disruptive way that excites them (once you convince them it's real). I can think of no more objective appreciation of the value of an idea than convincing someone who has no idea of how it's done to give you significant sums of money to do it because they understand what it does for them. That's fun stuff. And that's how I became an accidental entrepreneur.