We called our new operation Prism Microproducts. This was selected because we didn’t currently have a deal in place for the ZX Spectrum and retailers would want to buy that product from us too. We developed a response that asked, ‘Where do you get a Spectrum?’ answer, ‘Through a Prism’. Though it was several months before we did add the Spectrum to a more formal Sinclair agreement, retailers proved uncharacteristically patient for what became a commodity product.
If ever I had an example of the significance of a database this would be it. I prepared a mailer and sent out a series of turnkey packages (hardware, software and accessories) to every appropriate retailer I could acquire. I recall various guides like the weighty Retail Trade Directory and others, that were avidly subsumed into our database – it worked!
|ASIDE: As I write this the current season of The Apprentice is being aired. One constant failing of these hopefuls is that they forget that retailers self-evidently need to understand what the retail price will be and what margin they might expect to achieve before making a decision. This was placed at the very centre of our offer by offering three packages at different levels of cash commitment, but the higher they went, the better the margin. Not rocket science or brain surgery, but computer logic.|
What a ride, Prism ‘grow’d like Topsy’. We shipped ZX81s and Spectrums by the thousand, we sold other brands, we launched modems, robots and our own luggable, the Wren.
From a standing start, we achieved £10m turnover in our first year, £30m in the second, £50m+ in the third. Distribution of the Sinclair product operated on very slim margins, but the volumes carried us along a rapid growth.
Grabbing the tiger by the tail
The first 1,000 ZX81s were delivered from Sinclair to my double garage at Carlton in rural Bedfordshire. I got caught up in London and called Jane to say a small transit would arrive, would she direct the driver to put them in the garage. I got back to a family rebellion, the single driver of the rather large truck would not do the off-loading, so Jane and the children had to do it, By the end of the process they had filled not just the double-garage, but our dining room and much of one bedroom with stock. They were none too impressed with me.
Fortunately, we sold them through quickly. It felt a lot like Arthur Daley from Minder as cars and vans turned up at all hours of the day and night to collect their packs. They were in such demand that very few had to be couriered, the buyers were prepared to collect.
I couldn’t use my home again, so I negotiated for a lock-up area within a large covered garage in Islington. This was around the corner from Richard’s Camden Passage offices – I had by then taken over a small cupboard in the office as Prism’s base. The garage was large enough for us to pick and pack, but unfortunately we could not get insurance for the building. Weekly shipments arrived on a Thursday, so I had to sleep in the garage until we had shipped most of it out.
|ASIDE: One of my memories of our cupboard office, was one of our first temp-staff members. She was a resting actress with a great series of voices and accents. The only chair we had for her was a bog-standard fixed chair that was missing its back. She happily sat there and fielded our calls. She would answer with a character voice, then suggest that she needed to put them through to another department, tapped the handset on a filing cabinet and then answered with a second voice from some mythical department. She did it enough to be hilarious but remained business-like otherwise.|
Within weeks we had accumulated £1m in our account and I freely admit that Richard and I did sit down briefly to consider if we should just draw it all out and run!
A few months later Clive was doing a placement with Rothschilds and during their due diligence they noted we owed Sinclair some £1.7m and yet were only an off-the-shelf £100 limited-company with only two shares at issue. They naturally expressed concern.
|ASIDE: Clive’s placement through Rothschilds made him very well-off, I seem to recall that it was £120m+. A few days later I was staying at his apartment in Chelsea and we went out to Annabel’s club. He had enjoyed Blackjack but that evening it dawned on him that his new personal worth made this level of gambling absolutely pointless. He threw his chips to the croupier and left the club disappointed that this form of enjoyment was now closed off for him.|
As a result of Rothschild’s concerns, we formalised our contract and included future products. We were now locked in to each other, so that if Sinclair refused us supply then they lost distribution and their stocks would mount. They came up with what was termed a ‘Romalpa Turbo’ clause. Romalpa establishes that the title to the goods supplied remain vested in the seller until certain obligations (including full payment of the purchase price) are fulfilled by the buyer. Romalpa Turbo extended this so that if we should default then Sinclair had not only rights to recover our stocks but also to take over our receivables. With this in place we established that we paid 28 days after receipt of goods, and on that receipt Sinclair released our next shipment – this would work well for both parties for three years.
To mull over what was happening and get our plans together, four of the group’s senior managers went to Marbella, because Richard had a villa near there. We talked of future arrangements and organisational structures to continue our momentum.
On the return journey, I called home and was surprised when a neighbour answered Jane had written off my red BMW 635CSI the day before, she and the kids were traumatised but otherwise OK, but the dog was gone – I had a horrible journey home from the airport.
Jane had been travelling home from her parents in Bristol to Carlton. Turning off the M4 at exit 13 (Newbury) there was light snow falling. In those days there was seldom anything on the roundabout below the motorway – today its is a major junction. Jane braked and the early 635, pre-ABS, pirouetted. The car, rear-end first, entered the roundabout where a large truck tried to climb over the car. The BMW cage held firm and it was spat out and spun so that the front-end went under the rear wheels of the truck, the cage securing them again.
Because it was a rotational accident the only personal injury was when the kids’ heads hit the side windows. Matt admitted years later he had been asleep and one lasting effect was that he was unable to sleep in a car thereafter.
The back window had popped out and Toby, our Cavalier King Charles spaniel, jumped out of the back window like a scared rabbit. Being a typical spaniel he pulled against any lead, we therefore had to use a choker chain, but this had been removed while he was in the car – he had no name tag, and ‘chipping’ pets was not yet a thing.
Jane had called a friend in Carlton who came to collect her, the children and the luggage. So when I got back I went home to console them, particularly to dismiss Jane’s apologies for writing off my car, the first car to sport my RSD800 plates.
The next morning I set off, ostensibly to the office, but found myself driving to that motorway exit and I spent the day trudging up lanes to ask the sparse population if they had seen Toby. We used a Dog Rescue line to hit local radio but never had a word of what happened to him. We knew however that anyone who fed him would achieve owner-status, loyalty was non-existent, so we conveniently assumed that’s what happened.
|ASIDE: Carlton had a dining room with a stairwell and ‘minstrel’s gallery’ landing so it had double-height walls. I had some box scaffolding and erected it to wallpaper this area. Jane knew enough about my approach to decorating, which usually involved a lot of expletives, so she took the kids out – out of earshot.|
I needed to get this huge fifteen-foot drop marked up accurately and equipped myself with some cord and a heavy weight to act as a plumb-line. That left some means of imbuing the cord with a material that I could ping to make a line. I searched in vain for chalk and resorted to some gravy browning from the kitchen.
I clambered to the top of the scaffold and dropped my plumb line. I had given no thought to Toby, our voracious spaniel, who wanted to get at the string and no amount of expletives from the top of the scaffold would get him to stop. I had to clamber down and lock him out in the garden to get it done. If a sit-com had developed this story-line I would be amused but would think it too implausible a story-line.
Carlton village was often flooded when the meandering Ouse was added to by Newport Pagnell opening its sluice to solve their high-water issues, but with no seeming regard for downstream villages. Our bedroom was downstairs with an en-suite and I recall gettng more and more annoyed one night when the adjoining loo kept gurgling all night. When we woke in the morning we learned that an elderley neighbour (just three doors away) had to be evacuated from her upstairs window, the ground floor badly flooded. The land rose aenough between us that we jyst had gurgles.
That downstairs room had one other incident worthy of mention. Jane’s mother had a clerical role with a biscuit company and she would often give us quantities of packs for her grandchildren. We used to put these out of their reach on the top of our wardrobe. The kids couldn’t get to them but we had reckoned without other pests. We kept hearing something rustling behimd the wardrobe. This could be quietend by throwing a slipper at the wardrobe. It became more and more annoying and I emptied one of the wardrobes to investigate. A pack of jammy dodgers had fallen behind the wardrobe and we found a mouse had eaten a bore hole right through teh centre of the pack!
We turned over big numbers, we had other contributing divisions, but despite our attempts to diversify, the Sinclair turnover remained our dominant contributor. We had a drinks party at the first million, another at five million, and the novelty then wore off. It is amazing how you learn to accommodate new behaviours.
|ASIDE: Our bankers, NatWest, were keen to fete us given our meteoric rise. We were invited to luncheons at their headquarters and asked our opinions on the financial issues of the day. Rather more interesting was that we shared the same branch with the writer Douglas Adams, something of a hero for me at the time, I avidly consumed all five of his Hitchhikers Guide ‘trilogy’, both of his Dirk Gentlys and even his Meaning of Liff. He too was based in Islington, Arthur Dent met Trillian Astra at a party there, the loudest band in the universe was Disaster Area, their guitarist frontman was Hotblack Desiato, this name derived from a real Islington estate agent.|