Telalink Sales- Omelets to Order, Frozen Shoes, a Hockey Stick, a Beach Ball and the Cuss Jar
In the early years of Telalink, sales just happened, almost unexpectedly. Bill and Tim placed a cheap ad in the back of the Nashville Scene, where the more risqué ads were, in the fall of 1994 that read, “Internet. 30 hours a month. $35. Call 615-321-9100.” Before they could really set up a system for managing sales, they were inundated with calls from Nashvillians craving the service. It was a powerful intoxicant and everyone wanted it. Such great demand with such limited supply was a good thing but it did present its own challenges.
Soon after Telalink got off the ground as an Internet enterprise, Bill’s mom, Mary Watkins, joined the team to handle all things related to sales and administration. During my "orientation," Mary showed me how every day she would call the bank and inquire as to the balance for the three bank accounts- one for Telalink; one for Telasar, the original consulting company that spawned the internet company; and one for Telaland. At times, when something needed to be paid for, it was not uncommon for funds to be co-mingled. The banker in me was somewhat mortified by the cash management policies but it’s what kept things going in the early days. Mary had no way of knowing what checks were being written by Bill or Tim so she took her chances on going with what the bank said was in the account for that day.
Sales was not a big challenge. Phone calls came in and orders were placed. I remember early on that Telalink required a copy of a subscriber’s drivers license. This was to have proof of age so that we could provide access to Usenet newsgroups in the “.alt” category. Within the .alt category, one could find adult themed subject matter, much of it related to unsavory or offensive content like porn, violence, pornographic violence or violent pornography. Oh, there was porn and quite frequently porn in the .alt newsgroups. You get the idea.
Upon presenting the proper credentials (generally by fax because until then, no one had an email account) and paying a $25 start-up fee, subscribers were provided with a floppy disk with an installer kit which included programs that you had to have for computers of that era to know how to handle an Internet connection. Trumpet Winsock and MacTCP were the programs required for this. In addition, the installer disk included a browser called Netscape Navigator (this was right before Microsoft launched Windows Explorer or at least before it was in demand) and I suppose it also contained an email program, called Eudora so you could use email.
With a username and password, you were set to go. You got an email address and a website that was essentially appended to telalink.net. So, my email address was [email protected] and my first website was www.telalink.net/~thos. I decided to go with “thos” instead of Thomas or Tom because I had all but stopped using the name Tom after college and Thomas felt too long for an email address. I was still stuck in “the fewer characters the best” world with Microsoft files at the bank. Thos. B. Conner was how my grandfather signed his name and I decided that I needed something from my family past to hold on to as I found myself being hurled into the wild frontier of the internet.
As sales grew and Bill was generating bigger and bigger plans for more advanced, commercial-level accounts, we brought on Michele Watkins. Michele had amazing culinary talents and had relocated to Nashville in early 1996. Besides her love of preparing delicious meals, she had an affinity for “twang.” Think banjo, mandolin, plenty of fiddles, stand-up bass, acoustic guitar, rich harmonies and frequently energetic tempo. Genres like bluegrass, folk and Americana are often mixed in to describe twang and Michele really fancied it. She introduced me to twang or at least instilled an appreciation for a style of music to which I had not previously paid attention. Michele sold Telalink services during the day and usually found a live performance to attend at night. Music City is filled with opportunities to hear live music and “Meshel,” as she was also called, would often send out an email message inviting everyone to go out to a show. It didn’t matter to her if anyone joined her or not. She wasn’t going to allow the absence of a colleague to spoil a night of live music. Looking back, I wish that I had taken more time to join her. Michele always picked the best performances in town.
It was not uncommon to walk in to the office and have Michele say, “Good morning. What do you want in your omelet?” For me, she would even say, “I’m preparing a “Thomas-sized” omelet. Do you want cheese and spinach?” That meant she cooked a smaller sized omelet since I frequently struggled eating everything on my plate. Or, there was the occasional meal in which she would say, “This one is ‘Thomas-spiced’...” meaning it was not nearly as spicy as everyone else’s. There’s no other way to describe my eating style as anything but dainty. I realize that most people would not characterize this as the most masculine trait but I guess I’m okay with owning up to my daintiness.
It took hardly any time for Michele to hit her stride but, soon, our growth necessitated the addition of even more sales people. By late 1996, we added Hagan Rose. I had known Hagan since he was a pup growing up in my hometown of Winchester, Kentucky. Having dated his sister many years and remaining close to the family, I discovered that Hagan was looking for a new challenge after working in Kentucky state politics for many years. He met the love of his life in Nancy and they decided that a move to Nashville was a good idea. Next came Dana Haddock who also assisted me with HR responsibilities. Mary Mancini joined our staff in 1998 as our office manager after she sold the legendary Lucy’s Record Shop. After she sold the store and called to cancel her Internet account, we decided she was perfect fit for the Telalink culture and offered her a job. Brysson Curtis and Jeff Fink were also part of the sales team at various stages of the company.
As the sales team grew, it really developed its own sub-culture of eccentric behavior. For example, and I never really did know why, Hagan had a pair of loafers that he frequently removed and placed in the freezer during the day. Also, to this day, he calls me his Nubian Princess and I don’t remember what I did or said to have earned such an endearing title but, sometimes, I think you just have to let things be as they are.
I recall taking part in “sessions” where, usually in the sales office (which was really the old video game living room area in suite 6) we would get in a circle and bat a beach ball around. There were various rules. For example, you had to name someone who had really pissed you off recently before you could hit the ball so you had to enter the game with some aggression and an extensive list of the freaks who had somehow complicated your life. There was a constant flow of people in and out of the Telalink world who were hard to please, clueless about the Internet business and what we did, were fiercely competing against us at various levels...you name it. Let’s just say that, in the “Mean People Suck” culture that was part of the late 90’s, our sales team was quite adept at ritually “beating in effigy” all of the mean people by virtue of a ceremonial ass-kicking of the collective list of the condemned, all represented by the multi-colored orb of hate. We went through a bunch of beach balls. Usually, we were able to replenish our beach ball stash at the annual ITEC Expo which was a huge event at the Nashville Convention Center. Since it was a two day event (maybe it just felt that way), you could easily grab a dozen or so un-inflated beach balls at some booth where they were being given away as schwag items.
Then, there was the hockey stick. I assume this was introduced by Mary but surely someone else knows better the story behind that. Basically, the beach ball arena turned more and more into a street hockey space and sales team members would take turns trying to score a penalty point from one end of the room to the other with another sales team member defending the goal. Instead of a puck, they used rubber balls. Again, some random company’s schwag item that multiple Telalink members procured throughout the day at a business expo. You had to cautiously peek in the sales room before you entered, lest you get whacked with a beach ball or rubber “hockey” ball. The hockey stick sits outside my office as I write this blog.
The, there was the “cuss jar.” With such a colorful team, it was not unusual for the daily interaction among these folks to be laced with obscenities. However, when Dana got pregnant, she proclaimed that she did not want her fetus exposed to such an environment and she introduced the “cuss jar.” It was intended to be a deterrent. For every curse word that one uttered, one was penalized and forced to pay a quarter into the cuss jar. It reminded me of when my 4th grade teacher made children pay a nickel in the “ain’t jar” when invoking the colloquialism.
It didn’t quite turn out exactly how one might imagine. In fact, the presence of the cuss jar likely contributed to even more salty sailor language. Most everyone in the office would just dump their unwanted extra change in the jar. While that seemed a convenient service, it also emboldened some to simply pre-pay for use of their cuss words later. No one really enforced the cuss per quarter policy and by the time the jar was overflowing with coins, most everyone would claim that they were more than paid up, usually accompanied by an expletive- “I paid a _____-full of _____ing quarters last week so I’m probably good for at least another ______ing week or two. ______, if you want me to throw some more god ______ coins in, just say so......” While I am not sure that anyone actually went to the bank to cash in for rolls of quarters, it got pretty full. I remember one staff member brought a bucket full of change to dump in the jar and, of course, the result was that there were enough coins to fill at at least 5 cuss jars. Now, I’m not proud of any of this but I also didn’t think I could intervene so I just let it be. However, the question finally arose- “Now what do we do with the money?”
One might think that our beloved sales team determined that they could take all of those coins and do something virtuous. Maybe buy something for Dana’s baby shower or donate the money to charity. No. What it became was a jackpot. Each “player” had a day of the week that was his or her day- Monday through Friday. Given the proliferation of car wrecks that were occurring on West End Avenue between 29th Avenue and 30th Avenue, it seemed likely that there would be enough car accidents to keep the pot emptying fairly quickly. Basically, if the car crash happened on your day, you won the pot and it started all over again. All if this in the interest of ensuring that Dana’s unborn child was not prematurely exposed to vulgar or corruptive influences.....the wholesome, Telalink way.
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.