Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Thirty Years Of Jobbers - Chapter 1.1

Barry Markel sat in my office squirming in a metal, folding-chair as he tried to make himself comfortable. The young fellow had recently been assigned the awesome responsibility of finding a computer system to automate his dad’s oil jobber business and assist him in carrying on after his father's retirement.

His predicament was made more intense after his dad acquired the company’s first twenty convenience stores. As his struggled, he faltered as he tried to explain the complicated issues of prepaid fuel taxes, gross and net temperature conversions, drops, consignees and tank charts.

I had started my computer business the year before in 1978, and desperately needed a sale, so, naturally I gave him my full attention. Before the meeting had ended, we both came to the conclusion that neither one of us knew what we were talking about. We shook hands and agreed to meet again later… but we never did.

Launching my computer company started out as something else entirely. I had been investing in real estate and needed a way to analyze income producing properties that appeared on the market each week. The term ‘PC’ had yet to be invented as IBM held to the common belief that microcomputers were electrical toys for college students and engineers to tinker with, and in their minds, it was doubtful they would ever become useful in any kind of serious business environment.

A friend of mine opened a retail audio store and employed two technicians who had somehow convinced a young widow to loan them $5,000 to purchase and build a Heathkit H8 computer so they could sell it for a profit. Actually, they wanted it to play a computer game called ‘Star Trek’ and had no idea what to do with it after that.

I learned about it one night when my friend invited me to accompany him to a gathering where the boys wanted to demonstrate their accomplishment. The young widow came along, not because she wanted to see the computer game; she only wanted to get her money back. The entire session was extremely boring as it reminded me of the electronic ‘Pong’ game without the action. Nevertheless, I was hooked. I immediately envisioned this tiny computer as my answer to automating six-hours of manual calculations for my real estate ventures.

Up until then, I had ran through two, expensive Texas Instrument calculators. I had programmed each in ‘machine language’ and never could get all the calculations in either one of them at once. When I offered the young widow $35 a month to rent the machine, she jumped at the offer and helped me load it in my car. The days of playing ‘Star Trek’ came to an end.

The computer came with a two inch thick programming manual, a keyboard, a monitor, and a little cassette recorder to save the programs before you turned off the power. By the end of the first six months I had buried myself into the world of data processing, upgraded to an advanced machine and began building them in my basement. Over the next twelve months, I built, programmed and sold twenty computers, and I lost money on each and every one of them.

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