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Jun 86 History
Volume Number:2
Issue Number:6
Column Tag:Historical Computing

Confessions of a Computer Store Junkie

By Dick Heiser, Industry Pioneer, On the Great Peace March

Dick Heiser is one of the more famous individuals in the personal computing industry and rightly so. He started the first Computer Store in Santa Monica and his vision has influenced virtually every computer store since. In this third column, he shares with us some of his thoughts on what he learned about business from the Computer Store.

The Right Stuff

According to Tom Wolfe, the Mercury astronauts showed the Right Stuff by staying calm in a crisis and by acting correctly, immediately, effeortlessly. Unconventional business practices that succeed carry a similar feeling of style, of the Right Stuff.

Michael Phillip's book Honest Business shows small businesses how to have the Right Stuff. He recommends investing money slowly, paying bills immediately, telling the truth, not having secrets, and keeping the focus on people rather than on goods or money.

Carbon Copies

Many business practices become "de facto standards" because everybody copies what the first guy did. Sometimes that's smart: Kaypro copied Osborne's portability and price because Osborne had proven his new ideas. In my store, I copied the IBM "solution sell" because it's the proper way to treat a customer.

The "solution sell" is more like counseling than like persuading, and it requires enough time to identify the problem or requirements, develop a solution, and explain it. The "solution sell" is harder to copy than other practices- which makes it a good competitive strategy.

Sometimes copying can get ridiculous. At first, my store was open very late. I liked to jog at noon, and wanted to be open after work for computer hobbyists. Can you believe it? Other stores copied my hours! For years, most computer stores were closed on Monday. Why? Because I wanted to be open on weekends instead! Other times the Right Stuff is so strange that competitors wouldn't touch it with a ten-foot pole!

Hire the Hacker

Hackers have been the best employees by far at the Computer Store. They're easy to find, hard working, fantastically well-informed, and fun to work with.

In the fall of 1975, when I was busy with customers, my wife Lois (then a programmer for the RAND Corporation) would pitch-in. Often people wouldn't let her help them, under the assumption that a woman couldn't master technical material.

At times, customers had to help each other. Mike Eusey helped other customers a lot. He built his Altair computer from a kit, and learned how it worked. He began hanging out at the store more and more. Lois, expasperated at trying to help uncooperative males, suggested we hire him. He already knew what to do: he'd been doing it for free! Mike and I worked together until I left the store in the spring of 1981 when I sold the store. Mike is not a stereotypical hacker; he's quiet, neat, and sleeps at night. He's a real hacker though; he's an information collector, precise, and he knows five ways to do anything. Lately, he's been answering customer questions about Telo's Filevision.

Steve Zook was another famous fixture in the early days of the world's first Computer Store. Steve was a freshman at UCLA when he built his Altair. He loved to show off his knowledge at my store, and was hired soon after Mike. I can't remember Steve's electronics credentials, but he was appointed repair technician immediately. I was useless with electronics and needed his help desperately. Steve fixed a lot of broken and mis-assembled kit computers [including mine! -Ed.], but upset some customers by casually referring to them as "turkeys". He could operate the bit switches on an Altair so fast you couldn't see his hands move, and he was hardly ever stumped. In his spare time, he rewrote the Processor Technology monitor/editor, and it gradually evolved into the Microopolis Disk Operating System. Micropolis then hired him so they wouln't have to shell out so much for their next operating system. What a talent! What took me fifteen years to learn, was "obvious" to him.

The wonderful hackers who have worked at The Computer Store have so much Right Stuff, that I'll just have to keep some more stories for later.

Own What You Sell

The few times I hired a non-computer-owner to work in my store, I regretted it. Computer owners are the right kind of prospective employees because they have already shown sincere interest in the computer, and they already understand how it works!

Owning what you sell today is harder than in the days of the Apple II. How many salespeople would want to buy an IBM PC-AT, or could afford one? Today's business-oriented computer sellers probably don't own any computer, much less the one they recommend.

I enouraged employees to expand their computers by selling them equipment at cost. I was a bad sport about upgrades, though. I thought frequent equipment turnover would be a problem. Now I see that the best employees are only happy if they have the latest model, and I should have let them upgrade frequently.

Apple Computer has a great employee ownership plan too. Their best idea is the Own-A-Mac program. This plan took the initiative to provide discounts for store empoyees everywhere. This is absolutely the Right Stuff. It's generous, makes people happy, and promotes Apple products. Perfect!

Open Door Policy

When I owned the Computer Store, every employee had a key to the door and to the burglar alarm. To me, the store is a big toy factory, and I want everyone to be able to play with the toys as often as possible. Giving out so many keys increased the chance of something being taken, but I don't believe anything ever was. Instead, everyone responded with a sense of responsibility and pride, and they mostly cleaned-up late night messes. Some of the late night sessions led to interesting software such as PDS-1, ModMon and VTL-2; other sessions were just for fun or for exploring. I'm glad insurance companies didn't think to ask "How many keys are in use?" back then. They'd never have understood how much fun it is to have your own key to the door!

Kids Welcome

Some kids were timid about approaching the computers in the store. Most weren't. Kids exemplify the hacker ethic: they're hands-on-oriented, patient, and insatiably curious.

Many adults are encouraged by seeing kids use computers. We tend to overlook the fears and inhibitions other people have about computers. One adult explained "We've been told too many times not to break things, so we're afraid to play with them". Another adult suggested that we're afraid of getting beeped-at for a silly mistake. "Getting his hand slapped" for doing something invalid really makes him irate. Non-hacker adults have no idea how much you can learn by experimenting.

When I teach adults to use computers, I tell them that teenagers make the best computerists. I encourage adult students to imitate teenager's curiousity, tenacity, and aggressiveness. Some of our customers were put-off by the "unbusinesslike" informality of kids using computers in the store. Other propects got the intended message: computers are interesting and fun to use.

Great Books

Selling books served many purposes for us. First of all, the books contain essential information. We sold how-to books, reference books, and software manuals. This saved a lot of time with propects who ask, "What's this all about?"

Second, we sold textbooks and monographs. We were one of the better local sources for computer science titles, and we stocked some exotic stuff as well. Often there was a "free University" atmosphere in the store, when a local expert would sound-off.

Third, we recommended books that promote a special viewpoint. Computer Lib by Ted Nelson is my favorite, and a new edition may appear later this year. The Psychology of Computer Programming by Gerald Weinberg is the proper orientation for a new professional programmer. Travels in Computerland by Ben Schneiderman is a unique and funny description of what can happen when you decide to computerize.

Lois Brand of Peoples Computer Company told me about the American Booksellers Association. The ABA's big red bok is essentail for dealing with book publishers. Selling books is hard work, and discounters are wiping-out some interesting book dealers.

Sometimes the Wrong Stuff hurts you just as much as the Right Stuff helps. When I bought some remainder books cheap from the Library of Science, I priced them too high. Instead of bargains for customers, we had books to count and to dust for years and years. The Wrong Stuff clings; it takes prompt and decisive action to drive it away!

Parity

Before winding up this list of proper ideas, I'd like to mention some Right Stuff for computer hardware and software. Once in a speech, I claimed that IBM will spare no expense to put reliability and error checking into your computer. I got a laugh, but I was perfectly serious! For example, all IBM computers have memory parity checking. Sure enough, a few years later, IBM's personal computer became the only personal computer with parity memory. Surely I told myself, parity will now become a universal feature. Unfortunately, it hasn't.

Some people even object to parity, mistakenly thinking it's making them wait for the power-up memory test. That memory test itself is annoying and can't be turned-off so it's very Wrong Stuff indeed. Some day memory parity checking will catch on. Maybe by then we'll have memory error correction as well as detection. In the meantime, it's an interesting exception to the rule, when IBM struggles without success to give us the Right Stuff.

Think too about open hardware and software architecture; how do you know it's the Right Stuff?

Shareware

When I write some software, I want to sell it as Shareware, like Bob Wallace does. Shareware, user-supported software, and Freeware don't need intimidating license "agreements" or copy protection schemes. The customers, instead of being the "enemy", are the primary marketing force. Conventional publishing and distribution absorbs 93% of the selling price, so the poor conventional software author can't even afford to offer a refund to the customer!

Software distributed via Compuserve and through user groups can be updated smoothly and often. Switcher and Red Ryder have both been much more dynamic and more responsive to user feedback than more expensive store bought software. If Smartcom were user-supported, like Red Ryder, would they ignore it's incompatibility with the Tecmar Hard Disk? Big software companies generate so much momentum and inertia, spending that 93% of the revenue, that it's no wonder they're unresponsive. Some "marketing expert" who doesn't understand the problem and who probably can't even use the program decides what's important. [So that's why Microsoft is having such a hard time figuring out how to make Fortran work on a Mac Plus! -Ed.]

Bob Wallace, on the other hand, is fully in charge of his software as well as his company. He updates his product often, and can afford to hire a few talented people to help him. He's close to his customers, so he knows what's really important to them, and he had the pleasure of knowing that all the revenue comes from already satisfied customers. By designing his own business arrangements, Bob is way ahead of authors who turn their programs over to conventional publishers.

Do it Yourself

Many of these ideas are good not only because they work, but also because they deserve to work. Computerists, like other technologists, face choices between good and bad. Plastic guns for airplane hijackers, and teflon bullets are technical innovations that can be imagined but should not be developed. Choosing between good and bad isn't hard. It just requires the confidence to follow your own judgement. The Rotary International "four way test" is a good starting point when you're thinking about your own Right Stuff:

1. Is it the truth?

2. Is it fair to all concerned?

3. Will it build goodwill and better friendships?

4. Will it be beneficial to all concerned?

Not only is this a good creed for the personal computing industry but individuals and nations as well. And now for me, it's back to the Great Peace March to emphasize my belief that peace is definitely the Right Stuff!

 

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