"The Radius Must Authenticate to the Sparc"
My first day at Telalink Corporation, October 11, 1995, was fascinating. I had not been in the office for more than an hour when I received my first phone call. Actually, my desk, computer and phone were not actually set up yet so Mary Watkins, Bill’s mother, took the call. “It’s someone from the Winchester Police Department. Evidently, the neighbor whom you paid to clean out your basement and garage broke into your house and stole a window air conditioner,” said Mary. “The policeman wants to know if you want to press charges.”
One of my neighbors was battling a drinking problem. When he was sober, he was a great guy. When he got drunk, he became somewhat mischievous. I gave a hundred dollar bill to another neighbor who agreed to be the escrow agent. If neighbor #1 (the beer lover) cleaned the basement (it was really a cellar. This was a century old house that had belonged to my grandmother) and hauled off all of the trash, neighbor #2 would transfer the $100 to him. Neighbor #1 performed to expectation. Neighbor #2 paid neighbor #1. Evidently, neighbor #1 then proceeded to liquor store #1 and perhaps liquor stores #2, #3 and #4 where he proceeded to convert the $100 into another form of liquid asset. He imbibed the rest of the day and found the courage to claim a small window air conditioner as a bonus. Neighbor #2 was able to watch neighbor #1 break into my house and find his way to a second floor bedroom before the commotion erupted during the air-conditionerctomy.
“No need to press charges,” I said. “Tell him to put the AC back and stay out of my house. I’m about to rent it out and if he does something like that again, I’ll have to take a more punitive approach.” Sadly, my new renter proved to be a colorful enough character in her own right but I will save that for another day.
Much was happening at Telalink in those days. Joel Moses was dedicating his weekly column in the Nashville Scene to all things Internet. He was giving Telalink plenty of good coverage and Channel 4 (WSMV) traded out commercial spots (“Internet! Twice the Speed! $35!”) in exchange for their own website and access. In fact, not long after the web came along, local news stories about porn on the web were gaining in popularity. It seemed like Tim, ordained by the Nashville media as the foremost authority on Internet porn, was always on the news, discussing the latest trends in the more salacious content on the ‘Net. Bill once commented that he knew that we were on to something when pornographers, gamblers and churches all wanted on the Internet.
By this time in the story, Tommy was out, although he was still in. Still an equal shareholder with Tim and Bill, and still a resident of 110 30th Ave N, Tommy decided that this was no life for him and he opted to take a full time job with Vanderbilt. Not long after I arrived, we all agreed that the best arrangement was for me to simply buy him out. That would free him of any responsibilities as a principal and it would validate the importance of my position, not only as the financial officer, but hopefully as leader, negotiator, organizer, and strategist. For example:
Issue #1: ITS Communications found out about Telalink and approached Bill about reselling Telalink service as its own service in the Nashville market. Telalink would get paid $10/month per customer. ITS would sell and support the service. While this sounded like an easy deal, ITS sold the hell out of the service and, if I am not mistaken, they sold it unlimited internet access, a still-new concept. Telalink customers were only allowed 30 hours a month but that was soon doubled to keep up with the competition. You see, unless we had an available phone number for every customer to be able to dial into our service at the same time, the first hapless soul to dial in when all of the lines were occupied would get a busy signal. Remember the early ads “no busies?” So, part of the challenge was to limit usage and kick people off after a certain amount of time online. We also gambled that not everyone would dial in at the same time. However, when ITS private-labeled Telalink service, the model was nearly blown up because they were selling accounts faster than we could add phone lines and ITS support was terrible. Back then, customers needed a lot of help, and some luck, to get online. Telalink had created an installer kit that got users set up and it included a free version of Netscape Navigator. ITS customers started to figure out that they were actually just dialing into Telalink and, because they could not get adequate assistance from ITS, they would just call us. Bill was not happy with the arrangement so I read the contract that they signed. It looked pretty simple to me. All we had to do what was give ITS 60 days notice of our intent to cancel. So, I wrote a letter to ITS, referenced the agreement, sent it overnight and added that we would only agree to renew at $35/month per customer. We got an instant response. They argued that this was the same price at which they were selling the service and this would kill their model. We agreed but showed no signs of letting up. If I recall, we were able to triple our ITS revenue for about 4 months while slowing down our phone line orders to a more reasonable level, not that Bellsouth was cooperating with our requests anyway (see paragraph 5 of http://www.thomasbconner.com/post/2013/02/28/whats-an-internet-again.582282). ITS decided to leave us and we were happy to dissolve our association. Suddenly, we had plenty of capacity to grow our customer base.
Issue #2: As I recall, Bob was traveling back and forth to “Convent Place” quite a lot in my first few days at Telalink. Part of the reason was related to sheer brilliance. Telalink worked a deal with Charles, the owner, who had converted an old convent into an eclectic assortment of offices, yoga, banquet space, etc. The deal was that we would feed the entire building with a big pipeline of dedicated internet access and then break out lines to individual subscribers throughout the building. It would be a very cool amenity- one of the first “wired” buildings in Nashville...and Telalink’s margins would be very attractive. The not-so-brilliant part was the idea that we would move half of our personnel to Convent Place. Now, at the time, Telalink occupied two condos, conjoined by an enclosed upstairs landing. That’s a total of two kitchens, 4 bathrooms and total of 7 rooms (one was already our server room) that could be used for office space/work stations. Why would we need to split up our team and occupy space in another building? While it first appeared that we had no room, it was also true that Tim and Timmy still lived there. Bill moved out and his bedroom became our shared office along with Scott Holden, “aka Splotchy.” To learn more about Splotchy, go here. In addition, Vanderbilt friend, Dave Tempero (currently IS Business Manager for Network Systems at Nintendo), had his consulting business, Sector 3, operating out of one of the rooms. Finally, there was one more consulting company called Nvision, owned by Shawn Yeager, and I really never knew him or what his company did. He was sort of like Lazlo from Real Genius. Ever so often, I would see Shawn come and go with nothing more than a “Hey, how are you?” and then he would disappear. My point was that it seemed really important to me that we should try to work near one another (i.e. in the same office space), at least until I got a little more familiar with the basics- the who, what, where, when, why, and how of Telalink. In other words, it might be time for some other folks to move out so that we would have enough room for Telalink staff. No move to Convent Place.
Issue #3: No insurance. None. On anything or anyone. All I can say is that the first insurance sales person who cold-called me was a lucky man. Until I could get a business commercial liability policy, workers compensation insurance and health insurance coverage for everyone, I went to bed dreaming of catastrophes, injuries and other unsavory workplace disasters that would render Telalink to the status of defendant or debtor.
Issue #4: No staff meetings. What I remember were one-on-one conversations and debates between Bill and Robert Beckett, Bob and Robert, Bill and Bob, Splotchy and “the fat guy,” as he was occasionally called and almost everyone had some kind of crude comment to share with Tim in the event that Feisty (Tim’s cat) pooped on a cable or someone’s work area. Izzy, the other office cat, was generally well liked, as was Feisty, but Feisty was unbelievably artful in her fecal distributions throughout the office. I decreed that we would have weekly, face-to face meetings and, accordingly, would take notes. This proved to be a challenge. First, Bob spoke too fast. Secondly, it seemed like everyone spoke in code with letters: TCP/IP, HTML, ISDN, T1, T3, FTP, 56K, 28.8, Bitsurfr, blah, blah blah. At one point, in the midst of a spirited debate between Bill and someone, probably Bob or Robert, his passionate argument boiled down to one Shakespearean moment when he declared, “The Radius MUST authenticate to the Sparc!” He even used hand gestures. I had scribbled indecipherable comments throughout our first staff meeting but there was one thing that resonated, “The Radius must authenticate to the Sparc.” I thought to myself that if there is one thing that you take away from this meeting today, you will believe with all of your heart and all of your soul that the “Radius must authenticate to the Sparc.” The moment came for the scribe to report what was said earlier about something so I re-read my notes. “Bob said something about something that I did not understand. Bill disagreed. Robert disagreed with Bill but said Bob was wrong too....Let’s see, something, something, something and, oh, Bill says, ‘The Radius MUST authenticate to the Sparc.’ That’s really all I got.” Everyone laughed. It must have been funny. Don’t ask me why. Seventeen years later, I still don’t know what they were talking about. By the way, Robert Beckett is now Services Technical Leader for Cisco Systems. You can see him, still talking code, here.
Our meeting adjourned and we reconvened at either Harvey Washbanger's or Rio Bravo. I forget which but it HAD to be one or the other.
AUTHOR: Thomas Conner
Thomas Conner is the co-founder, president and chief financial officer of Sitemason, a hosted, supported alternative to Wordpress and Drupal, built for agencies, freelance designers and developers.