Beautiful, Bountiful 1997. Hateful, Ugly 1998.
Telalink was on its way to hitting $1 million in sales in the fall of 1997. Not too shabby for a hardly-3-year-old industry. To celebrate, I called a surprise meeting one evening, announced that we had officially become a $1 million company and invited everyone for dinner at Amerigo’s by way of the longest stretch limousine that I could find in Nashville. A million dollar sales seemed like such a landmark, and yet, we felt that we were just at the beginning. It was hard to look beyond Nashville with all of the opportunities in front of us.
What kind of opportunities? Well, for one thing, we were having a full-fledged love affair with Nextlink (currently known as XO Communications). That all started with the Telecommunications Act of 1996 which changed the landscape of phone services in the US. You may recall that until the law passed, there was generally one monopolistic provider in each market. In our region, it was BellSouth. If you wanted phone service, you bought it from BellSouth. If you did not like the service (and Bill frequently made his dissatisfaction of such known), then you had the choice of.....using BellSouth. There were no competitors but we absolutely needed BellSouth to keep adding more and more phone lines in order to accommodate our ever-growing connectivity business. I don’t even remember how many lines we had but there were enough that we ended up with the phone company just installing what looked like a rack of phone wires and various doo-dads to make it easier to turn on more lines for us.
So, when the 1996 act was passed, suddenly, there could exist what became known as CLECs (competitive local exchange carriers) and the ILECs (incumbent local exchange carriers- BellSouth, which became ATT) HAD to accommodate them in various ways, even if it meant that they had to allow the CLECs to use some of their fiber to connect a customer to their phone lines. Tricky, confusing and complicated but that was the new law. When Nextlink came to town and launched their Nashville operation on July 4, 1996, Bill and Bob were most excited. Why? Well, for one thing, Nextlink had no plans to sell Internet services. Therefore, no competition with Telalink. BellSouth was already in that business. Secondly, as the CLEC that wanted to compete head on with BellSouth, they wanted to do whatever it took to get happy customers. Bill and Bob were all to eager to let Nextlink cater to Telalink’s needs.
Before they went live, the Nextlink team, led by Don Hillenmeyer, hosted a reception to introduce themselves to the Nashville market. Bill and Bob, wearing the standard Telalink “uniform” of t-shirts, sneakers and khaki shorts, attended. While it was, at first, a little deflating to the Nextlink execs that Bob won the door prize (I think it was one of those new-fangled IBM compatible laptops but I can’t remember), thinking some college-age punk with no real business potential was winning the prize, they could not have been happier to find out just how much business the shorts-wearers represented for them.
As soon as Bill and Bob confirmed Nextlink's viability, they approached Jeff Lovejoy, a Nextlink sales executive, and said, “We can do two things for you. First, how would you like to sell your phone lines to Telalink? We need a few hundred so we can tell BellSouth to go to hell and die a long, painful death. Second, EVERY customer we have would probably be interested in moving THEIR phone services to you. Did we mention that we have a bunch of customers in Nashville and that we remind them of the hatred that we all share for BellSouth all the time?”
And just like that, Telalink became one of Nextlink’s number one customers if not THE number one customer, as well as the best referral source for Nextlink. Once again, the Telalink team was first to jump and the payoff for everyone was that much sweeter. Soon after, other CLECS came to the market and it wasn’t too long before we had racks in our “server room” with BellSouth, Nextlink and Adelphia all standing next to each other, almost like Coke, Pepsi and Dr. Pepper machines in a snack room. Of course, over time, the BellSouth rack was just a skeleton, sitting all by its lonesome, a relic of the past....and while I can’t say for sure, I would not be surprised if Feisty had not found it particularly enticing to find her way into the server room with a “Jackson Pollock-esque” turd spattering on the BellSouth rack. Sorry for that mental image.
It turns out that Nextlink was an excellent referral source for Telalink. "Hmmmm, a marriage made in heaven? Maybe Nextlink would need to buy Telalink one day? Just maybe,” Bill Butler thought to himself.
As we were booming in 1997, we also decided it was time to install a billing system. Until then, we were using a rather masterful program that was designed by Bill in Filemaker Pro. It was, however, getting slower and slower and I was getting concerned that there were some potential deficiencies from an accounting perspective (although a full IRS audit of 1997 proved that we were clean as a whistle). With all of our best minds, we settled on a program called Expansion, which was built by former ISP people for ISP people. We had found our solution....so we thought. After a rather unhelpful week of training in Glendale, California, where Bill and I discovered the new swing movement at the legendary Hollywood Brown Derby bar (of Swingers fame) and Kelly discovered Pappy’s strip club, we were ready to launch on January 1, 1998. It was a complete and utter disaster. Nothing worked. EVERY single bill included a charge for bobparks.com. “We can’t send these bills out like this!” I screamed. “Nothing is right. The amounts are wrong, the services aren’t all included and the only customer who should be paying for bobparks.com is BOB PARKS!”
It’s funny. 1997 was profitable, peaceful, exciting and rewarding. It’s as if someone had flipped a switch over night and 1998 was lurking around the corner, ready to work some evil magic on us. Personally, I was starting to feel it. I had bought a condo and rented out the extra room to a Vanderbilt business school student. Around the end of 1997, he was exhibiting more and more signs of paranoia, OCD and germaphobia and his actions and demeanor were getting more and more bizarre. For example, he would use a whole roll of paper towels to wash and dry his hands. Rather than throw the paper towels away, he would hide them behind the books in the living room bookshelf. He blocked the entrance to his bedroom and bathroom doors with jugs of chlorine. He put socks on the door handles. He bleached his clothes so much that one day, while he was leaving, I noticed that the entire back of his shirt had flaked off. He stopped driving his car and only rode his bike wherever he went with a garbage bag covering himself. He only used a bar of soap once and then left it on the shower floor- something I only discovered after he moved out. He acted very angry around me all the time. He would yell at me about irrelevant things and I think he threw objects at my cat. Not a pleasant environment to go home to but it took until May to get him out.
I also started out in 1998 moving my office, and only my office, to Cummins Station. Our friends, Dave Tempero and Stan Wilson, had closed down their business but they still had a few months left on their lease. They also had a bunch of furniture and equipment for which there was not an immediate home. So, they left everything as is and we, without enough space, decided to at least temporarily borrow the space for the time being. I was miserable and lonely down there. I was by myself most of the day until Jay Hawthorn would show up after class to help with accounts receivables.
It was the dead of winter; we weren’t able to bill for 40 days; I was sick; my roommate was showing some pretty clear signs of mental illness that was going untreated; my office was far away from everyone else; what else could go wrong? It wasn’t until the weekend right before February 9 that great programming minds of Telalink finally got Expansion billing software to work. At least, it wasn’t going to get any better than what we finally got. I remember asking for all able-bodied staff to show up on that Saturday to be prepared for a massive effort to print and fold bills (you didn’t email invoices back then) only to discover that we were still having problems. bobparks.com was still spooking our system among other things.
Jay finally came up to me and said, “What do you need for me to do?” I looked at him and said,”Take this cash, go to the Target and buy me a wooden, Louisville Slugger baseball bat. NO! Buy TWO baseball bats!”
“Seriously,” Jay said. “What can I do?”
“Seriously,” I calmly said. “Get the bats, now.”
Jay returned from Target with the bats just as I ordered. I took one grabbed some boxes and said, “If anyone cares to join me, I’m going outside to work out some of my aggressions. This feels like the least dangerous thing that I can do.”
I don’t really recall who joined me but I beat more cardboard boxes to a pulp that day and, I have to admit, it felt pretty good. Whether I, in any way, inspired anyone, or not, the billing system churned out its first bills on February 9, 1998. Cashflow was everything in those days and it turned out to be the beginning of time when the stakes felt a little higher, the risks a little more riskier and the pathway a little more perilous.
One Louisville Slugger remains within arm's reach in my office to this day. The other is at home.
Oh 1997, we didn't know how good you were to us.
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.