IN THIS CHAPTER:
- Dragon 32
- Epsilons’ Electronic Emporium
- Electronic Insight
- Micronet 800
- Micronet and Sinclair
AGENDA – ANSWERERS/CORDLESS/EUROC/TANDATA/ORIC/EPSILON
I registered my own off-the-shelf limited company, Anglereed Ltd and traded as Agenda Marketing with, what is now, an embarrassing logo, perhaps it was then too? This became my vehicle for a number of years selling and distributing a range of different products. Agenda pursued a number of direct sales businesses, a catalogue sales operation (Epsilon) and became the vehicle for several personal consultancies.
The very first Agenda product was the Pacer range of cordless phones. This proved to be the perfect direct sales product, because it sold between £150-£200. For these small businesses could make an emotional buying decision without protracted budget considerations.
Based in Bedford I had much success among farmers and car dealers. You wheeled up to their business, wired the base unit into their BT phone and showed them how they could use the phone for 150-200 metres from that base. Farmers could use it around their yard and car dealers around their showrooms. The local advert below unashamedly stated ‘Not G.P.O. approved’ – this was a clear selling benefit, because the purchasers enjoyed the fact that it was ‘anti-establishment’.
I would demo one, suggesting the prospect try it by calling a neighbouring farm or customer, complete the sale to them, then drive on to the individual they had phoned, to do it all over again. I could sell five or six a day that way and was making the best part of £100 on each.
There was however an inherent flaw – they had only six different frequencies. While I was working my patch alone, I could keep a log and spread out the various frequencies so that there was no issue. But, when others started selling similar systems in the territory on the same set of frequencies, control became chaotic.
Later there were encrypted versions released but by then the issue had stopped my momentum. The encryption allowed these ‘out-there’ products to become mainstream and be sold by retailers
As I had developed a local reputation for comms it was a natural next step to move into selling call diverters, answerers and other comms devices. I signed an agency deal to represent Answercall, offering a broad range of quality system. These products had the same no-budget-concern price-point. Importantly there was no commitment to pre-purchase units and no pledges to sales targets – so no stock, no pressure, and easy sales.
I took on a part-time role as the Director of Sales and Marketing for Mettoy’s venture into computing.
ASIDE: I recall travelling on a motorway with the sales manager at Mettoy for Corgi cars. They were currently having a major slump – part of their reason for moving the business into computing. I asked him why this long-term success story was having this slump in sales. He pointed out several cars on the other carriageway and asked me to identify them, I had limited success. He explained that wind-tunnel design of current cars was making them all look the same and reducing the interest in collecting replicas. As a child the old Dinky toys had been an early pocket-money collecting habit. Who could resist the variety – a Beetle, a Mini, a Morris Traveller, a Land Rover, a Citroen DS, an E-Type, a Roller…
One of Matt’s favourite toys was a Corgi James Bond Aston Martin DB5 with ejector seat, bullet shield and machine guns. This rich variety on our roads was disappearing quickly.
However, my role at Mettoy was to help define and launch its 6809 Dragon 32 computer. The name had to some extent been obvious when the production facility was based in Swansea.
One of my first decisions, following on from my experience with TI, was to balance the then still slightly forbidding term ‘computer’ by declaring the Dragon was the ‘family computer’.
One of its problems was that there was very little inside its case and so a weighty material was sealed into the plastic casing to give it some heft. However, there was a large following for the benefits of the Motorola 6809 processor that was a step function better than the 6800 and 6502. It had two 8-bit accumulators that could be combined to give it some 16-bit features. It was the same processor that Commodore used in its SuperPET, and that Tandy used for its TRS-80 Color Computer, Tandy’s move to overcome its mono system that had become known by hobbyists as the ‘Trash-80’. Tandy in the UK never quite achieved the status it enjoyed in the USA.
Because it could not display lower-case letters, among other shortfalls, it never really took off and the production line was sold later to a Spanish operation, Eurohard SA. Eurohard went into receivership in 1987 and I was approached to assist in selling the whole on to a Chinese organisation – when Dragon would again become an appropriate name. I chose not to get involved and it appeared to disappear into the mists of time – as dragons often do!
One of my retail customers from Tottenham Court Road, Euro-Calc, came to me with an interesting project. An Isle of Man operation had developed a small-business accounting software system based upon experience of running systems in Africa with groundnut schemes. For that market it had to be simple and accurate, they had knocked all the ‘edges’ off it there.
They had designed a mini-computer hardware and software system, similar in approach to TI’s 99/7 objectives. It was manufactured for them by Plessey Microsystems. It was competitively priced, for its time, at £7,995 exc VAT. It offered simple routines to integrate Cash, Sales, Purchase and Nominal ledgers, it would produce an aged Debtors and Creditors report, and provided a suite of management reports. It could be updated to run Payroll and Stock Control routines.
ASIDE: I am confident it was not in any way a Euroc invention, but around this time the notion evolved that information for information’s sake was pointless, it needed to be qualified. This suggested that information provided by computers was only valuable if it was not available through simpler manual processes, was produced in a timely manner, and was used to prompt actions that weren’t previously possible – a big ask.
Part-time I headed up a small team to sell this in to small businesses. We sold a few but the market was moving far too fast in this sector, mini-computer prices were soon superceded by compact micro-computers with greater capability and lower prices.
Epsilon’s Electronic Emporium
I was split in terms of my commitments to a range of small business products from answerers to small-business systems, and was embroiled in a number of new consumer computer opportunities. I wanted to find new and simpler ways of reaching businesses and so published my own catalogue called Epsilon’s Electronic Emporium it listed all my agency products but it was augmented by a raft of other products on which I had looser supply arrangements, but overall it appeared that I was a broad turnkey provider.
I was by then very enthusiastically selling Tangerine’s Tandata viewdata adaptor, which was the vital link between the telephone and television for Prestel. Until this point much of the attention was on building the facility into large-screen televisions – they had Ceefax and Oracle and now they were going to add viewdata. Buy this meant the entry price was high. The Tandata plugged in to both TV and phone, accessed BT’s Prestel viewdata service by phone and displayed the material of on your home or business TV set.
Priced at under £200, the Tandata was of interest to those businesses wanting low-cost access to early applications on the new Prestel viewdata facility, particularly true for those in travel. The Ely-based team also had an early kit-computer the Tangerine and would later launch the 6502A Oric-1 computer.
Naturally, I went further and linked up my catalogue with Prestel, by becoming a Prestel information Provider. I rented a Bishopsgate terminal to design my own pages and put all my products up on Prestel, so potential buyers could see pics, specs and pricing and contact me to acquire them. I called this Electronic Insight and held a formal PR launch at Mullard House off Tottenham Court Road – then the UK’s ‘Electronics Central’.
At the launch I met the next individual to have a significant impact on me, Richard Hease. As Chairman of several publishing operations he was beginning to feel remote and out-of-touch so selected several press conferences to attend – and turned up at mine.
In my pitch I outlined my thinking for the future. After the formal session Richard approached me and kept saying he agreed and wanted to pursue the same thinking, my reaction was don’t give up your day job, assuming he was a magazine journalist. He got his secretary to call me the next day and underline his actual role and invited me to a meeting.
It was a meeting of minds, he had by then launched many of the UK’s computer magazines and I had been involved in the sales/marketing of a number of personal computers, without our paths having crossed. We had both set aside an hour, but spent many hours establishing that our assessments of where the market was headed were very similar, and we saw the benefit of joining forces to help to move this forward.
The outcome was that we formed a joint venture with an off-the-shelf company called MicroRental (London) Ltd. He, as Chairman of EMAP’s Business and Computer Publishing arranged for EMAP to buy my Electronic Insight and hire me to change the direction of its Telemap.
Telemap was EMAP’s Prestel division, then aimed largely at horticulture because EMAP had a number of titles on the subject. But, Prestel terminals were not really a hot topic for horny-handed horticulturalists.
EMAP’s name opened the doors at Prestel and we negotiated a monopoly of personal computing on their service. Prestel’s other big partner at this time was Nottingham Building Society’s ‘Homelink’ service. It was seeking to become a major player without opening hundreds of branch offices, instead it would use Prestel to interact online with its clients. Compared to them, we were treated like ‘trade’, though not actually asked to use a rear entrance. But, Micronet put on 25,000 Prestel users and the building society didn’t. I see today it does have a number of branch offices.
We developed with EMAP the notion for what we called Micronet 800, to be the Prestel hub for all things computing. The 800 referred to our Prestel home page, #800. Which would have news and views on personal computing. By courtesy of my trawl around computer user groups like BASUG (British Apple Systems User Group), it would offer telesoftware opportunities too. This was a technique for software to be encoded on Prestel pages such that these could be read and downloaded by the user onto their PC. These were initially simple utilities and games supplied by the user groups, but would grow. There had been two competing telesoftware systems, but we became sufficiently significant that we ensured the CET version (Council of Educational Technology) become the approved approach.
With my ACE/Dixons experience I urged that we corner the UK market in the new single-chip modems, but EMAP wanted no part of equipment stocks and sales. So they agreed that Richard and I should do this through our own company.
There were just two UK suppliers of single-chip modem systems at this time and we needed to build volumes to close them out, so we set about creating turnkey modem/software packages for every personal computer of the time – a big undertaking!
The user groups proved invaluable in producing the necessary software and we bundled it with the necessary cables and a modem, all in the one box. We called these Viewdata Network Adaptors and we had versions for the BBC, Apple, Pet, TRS-80, ACT Sirius…
Micronet 800 launch
We had some hairy moments. For example, when I was invited to present Micronet 800 on Pebble Mill at One, on the same day that its funding was to be voted upon by the main EMAP board. Richard arranged for a large screen TV to be set up in their boardroom so that they could pause and watch me on live TV.
Much of this Pebble Mill programme was dedicated to computer developments and of course being live added tension to the occasion. Imagine my horror when I tried to use an acoustic modem and when I logged in, was rejected on live TV. I managed to bluster across that attempt and tried again. I was rejected again. I was the only one in the studio who realised that a third rejection would be final. Fortunately, I got in at the third attempt.
Intriguingly friends, family and the EMAP Board were all the more moved by the emotion of the problems and would have been less impressed if it had all gone off slickly. We got voted the money.
ASIDE: Robert Carrier, the American chef and restaurateur, was on the same show and we met in the green room. He asked, as I was clearly into technology, what video recorder should he buy? I explained that it depended on the number of programmes and the time period he wished to cover. He was confused by that and asked why. I said the programming could be just one event, or multiple events across say a week or fortnight depending on the choice. He smiled and said that he didn’t need that, he just instructed his valet to switch it on and off as required! I realised that there was no appropriate advice I could offer him.
One of our first tasks was a formal launch and we booked BAFTA in Piccadilly for it. We had decided that humour would help to get across the fairly complex technologies and booked Kenny Everett for both a video and for being involved in the live launch.
Kenny was amazing, but he had some foibles that you may not have noticed, he disliked sharing a stage or a set with anyone. So we had to create approaches where he was on screen, or I was, but we were never on-set together. This led to interesting out-takes which I still have. Several include him telling a lewd joke to warm me up before a segment.
But this was as nothing compared to the live launch. The set-up was that we would play the video and he would come out on stage and do a stand-up routine. I would then appear on the big screen behind him and we would have some banter, stage to screen. I would then, still blinded by the camera lights, run down a dark stairwell onto the set as he left it. He would be up behind the audience and when I said ‘So there you have it’ he would call out to me and this would culminate in me introducing the next speaker.
Just prior to going on Kenny held out his hand and showed me that it was rock steady, he got me to do the same, and there was an evident tremor. He smiled, and it was clear he had something planned. We did our on-screen bit and I made it down the stairs onto the set.
He was throwing press kits out into the crowd, I waited until this subsided and did my rather dull technical bit, particularly dull after all his anarchy. I delivered his cue and looked up to the back of the audience to see him there. He slowly counted on his fingers to ten, it felt like time had stopped before this large and prestigious audience. Eventually he asked, ‘Would you like me to say, hey Bob just who is the star of this show’ and I breathed out saying ‘Yes please’. He delivered it again and I introduced the speaker from Prestel, then quickly got off.
ASIDE: While in the midst of launching Micronet 800 I noticed that the number-plate RSD800 was available for £595 and bought it. It has been on every car since, including several of Matt’s cars while we lived in Spain. On a plate this number is very balanced, and of course it means I have never had to learn a new number for over 35 years.
Micronet and Sinclair
One key PC player initially proved more complicated for us and our Micronet plans. We wanted to be able to connect the Sinclair ZX81 with Micronet 800 but the contents of their ROM were as yet unpublished. We ran a competition, offering a £1,000 cash prize for anyone who cracked the code to enable a modem to be attached to the ZX81. We ended up with two credible solutions, but still wanted some formality with Sinclair.
Richard published Sinclair User and Sinclair Programmes at this time, so he got me an appointment with Clive Sinclair (not yet knighted). I laid out my thinking and where I needed his help. A man who uses silence as a weapon, he pondered this and eventually concluded that he wanted to do this himself.
ASIDE: I once took a sales guy from my team into a meeting with Clive and advised the guy not to try to fill any silences. I asked Clive for something and the sales guy was in a perfect position to time the resultant silence – it went on for eighteen minutes! Neither of us spoke, soI did get what I had asked for.
I explained the power of EMAP and Prestel, rather overstating our central role of course and said we were already doing it. When he repeated that he wanted to do it, I asked what was in it for us if we backed off.
This proved to be fortuitous timing because he dealt then only with mail order and a handful of multiple retailers, he had ramped up production to satisfy these retailers and that very day Dixons had rejected a shipment leaving him embarrassed with stock. This had happened to him in a previous enterprise and the operation crashed, so he was worried by this live development.
He knew of me from my ACE days and so replied that he was prepared to offer me a distribution deal – we would turn this aside into a business that over the next three years would turnover £90m!
The product of that meeting with Clive was a scrap of paper on which I agreed to buy 1,000 ZX81s a week for the next twelve weeks, together with agreed proportions of peripherals and software. I would pay for these 28 days after delivery. In return I was to be exclusive in the UK except for his current direct clients (five or six major retailers) and the direct mail business.
On Micronet, with Clive’s support, and access to his ROM, we later produced the VTX5000 modem to connect ZX81s. But the Micronet significance of our deal proved as nothing compared to this distribution deal.