Technological Waves and Business

An Expensive Lesson

 

In the latter part of the 1980s, I received a rather expensive lesson. Perhaps it could be said that we all pay in one way or another to get our education. And it was a lesson in how companies, both large and small, can thrive or become swallowed by technological waves.

Because of some pressure by our then-competition, I felt I should design and offer to garages and oil companies a superior PC-Based program that would generate work orders for customers and track inventory.

I set to work for about 5 years.

And because, as I have mentioned in the past, some software seems to be offered with little regard to how it is actually used in the real environment. The end-user is supposed to “bend to the will” of the program.

It’s main function was to generate a computerized work order to the automotive shop customers (in California’s case) leaving their car with an estimate, and then picking up their cars when the work was complete with a finalized work order.

California law requires a shop to provide the customer with an estimated cost of repairs, which the customer then acknowledges by signing.

With a customer of ours (a shop owner) , I decided to test it myself and make changes as I saw the need. I served as a service writer for about 6 months.

The first thing I noticed, which most of the competitors’ programs lacked, was a way to put the production of an estimate on “hiatus” while another customer came in.

You just want to tell the writer what is wrong with your car and leave it, right?

But maybe someone has to check the prices of parts first or look up other information before they can give you an estimate.

In the meantime in the morning, someone else wants to just tell you their problem and ….leave it. People hate to wait. Especially while someone is keying in work orders.

So I devised a way to store as many work order estimates as memory allowed, to be retrieved later and finished. It allowed the fast means of processing everyone coming in the morning to drop off their cars.

We even had custom-made perforated work orders designed, which wasn’t inexpensive. Most competitors were just printing on blank white 8 x 11 paper.

They still do.

I did a number of things wrong though in trying to bring this to market.

In my zeal to make continual improvements and deliver as “bug-free” a product as I could, I kept working…and working…on the program.

For 5 years.

And because I knew the advantage of multitasking (a computer’s ability to process more than one thing at a time), and multi-user (more than one person could access the computer and data), I decided to offer a Unix version. Other users would access the main computer on dumb terminals. I would believe today with the cheapness of micro computers dumb terminals, along with dot matrix printers, are almost extinct.

Today, even your smart phone is multitaskinkg but it wasn’t so back through the 80s and early 90s.

Unix was supposed to be the operating system of the future because it was so portable across different platforms. It would run on everything from super computers to….microcomputers. It was developed in the early 70s by the famed Bell Labs and because it was what we called “open source” – anyone could access the source code (massive, as you can imagine in an operating system) and make whatever changes they wanted.

Eventually there became 2 main versions of Unix – ATTs original called System V, and a flavor from UC-Berkeley called simply BSD.  And that, according to the wise men (and women), was the future of computing.

As micro computers took hold, some companies ported unix to run on the Intel chip. I chose SCO (Santa Cruz Operation) for the unix on our micros. These companies charged for their copies of unix because (a) they made their own changes and of course offered customer support, and (b) they were…a business and wanted to stay in business.

So we developed actually 2 versions of my system in tandem – the unix version and the DOS version.

Only Microsoft, after a couple of years, began to introduce Windows.

While I was working on the DOS version.

The only problem for me was that I really didn’t have any kind of a marketing plan and I discovered there were literally 100s of companies, large and small, offering programs for shops. Pretty dumb in retrospect, I know, but I was naive and felt that simply offering a superior product would have customers coming to me.

I had even set up our vendor of microcomputers as we were selling our systems. I forget how Dell computers organized their list, but for a short time we were right behind Microsoft as a vendor to them. If you are asking me to clarify this (the reason or rationale)  I can’t but thought it was funny and I remembered that.

Guess I was all talk and no action. (All hat and no cattle MarineMom?) 😉

Except I wasn’t consciously bragging with nothing to offer; I thought it was going to happen. I did have something to offer but no real plan on letting the market know about it.

Found out things don’t work that way. A marketing plan is just as much work, if not more, as the actual development.

Remember the DeLorean?

And besides all that, there was a young Finn, Linus Torvalds, who was busy rewriting unix to make his own brand.

And he spread his own creation to the winds, where others happily took it and made their own enhancements.

Today, I would say, the Internet is powered by Linux. It has really become a defacto standard. You are probably reading this through a server powered by Linux.

I am not sure if unix is even widely used anymore.

So, through both my lack of planning and new technological waves my great system was stillborn.

I wrote this because of a great review I read of a book on how Netflix was created. It was written by one of the 2 founders, Marc Randolph.

Starting a business is tough enough. Why would any sane person choose to start a business in a dying industry?

One answer to that question can be found in “That Will Never Work: The Birth of Netflix and the Amazing Life of an Idea,” a charming first-person account of the early days of one of the most successful tech startups ever. The author, Marc Randolph, co-founded Netflix and helped run the company from its inception in 1997 until 2003. His book is a conversational exploration of the successes and missteps of those early days. Anyone looking for dirt about the media industry or Netflix’s better-known co-founder—current chief executive Reed Hastings —won’t find it here. The book instead offers an engaging read that will engross any would-be entrepreneur.

The well-aired story that Mr. Hastings started Netflix after facing a steep late fee for an overdue rental of “Apollo 13,” it seems, is apocryphal. “The idea for Netflix didn’t appear in a moment of divine inspiration,” Mr. Randolph writes. Rather it emerged from a search for a next act.

 

From simply renting DvDs by mail for a fee that didn’t work, to trying a subscription model which was fairly successful, to finally using the full potential of broadband Internet  as it became available to more homes.

Today Netflix is a huge entertainment industry force.

They saw the wave and knew how to utilize it.

 

 

 

 

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