One of my fellow Nebraskans recently stepped down from his position at a cutting edge Internet company. Seeing his name again reminded me of the incredible impact that one person can have on our lives. I can trace my roots in the Internet industry back to a single encounter in 1993 that changed my life forever. To tell this story, I have to take you back in time, when the dialup modem was still an expensive option on personal computers, a time…
Before the Internet.
It was the summer of 1993. I had graduated in December of ’92 with a degree in Broadcast Journalism, and no real desire to find employment in that field, so I moved back to my hometown and started work as a commodities broker. I did very well on my broker’s test and was competent, but did not have a very good mindset for the work. The financial and commodity markets looked like a giant casino to me, and it wasn’t very long before I became frustrated with the work.
While in college, I had taken a couple of classes in video production and worked summers at the local tv station running cameras. I did well in the classes and enjoyed working with video and early computer based video systems like the Video Toaster, so I started to look into the possibility of setting up my own video production business. Nowadays, I could spend a few hours on Google researching cameras, business models and promotion methods, then plug into a group of like-minded folks and learn as much as possible from them. Back in 1993, you bought a magazine about the subject you were interested in, so I bought a copy of “Video” magazine at a newsstand and read it cover to cover to try and figure out how to create this business.
Some of you might remember publications of yesteryear, like Byte Magazine, that had a big card in the back with numbers on it. Each advertisement in the magazine had a little number at the bottom. If you wanted to get more information about a product, you could circle the numbers and send the card in. A few weeks later, those companies would start sending you information about their products. When I was a 12 year old farm kid, the highlight of my week was getting mail with pictures and information about CP/M computers and ads for Kaypro portables. I was a serious farmnerd, but I digress.
The “Video” magazine that I had purchased had a customer inquiry card in the back. I went through the ads and circled several that had to do with cameras and editing equipment and other such items. I also came across an ad with the heading “Make $10,000/month With Your Video Equipment”. The ad was pretty basic, with just the teaser headline and an address to contact. I circled the number, and figured there was nothing to lose by seeing what this was all about.
A couple of weeks later, I started getting my information back. Interspersed with the camera and equipment literature was an 8 page letter about how this guy was making all of this money with his video equipment by making how-to videos. The letter caught my attention and soon I was focused on the possibilities that it presented. The letter as a solicitation to purchase a series of videos and a subscription to “The Video Letter” which was a monthly publication put out by a dude in Arkansas who made videos. I believe the cost of the package was around $200 or so, and I figured I would take a shot and get it.
I ordered the package and received it a couple weeks later. The material was pretty good, but it was a little bit weird. The production values were pretty basic, and the producer’s main claim to fame was that he had made a video on how to build your own satellite descrambler box, which ended up selling several thousand copies at $50/copy. Never mind that it was illegal to build a descrambler – he just videotaped the guys that were doing it and sold the information, which was apparently not illegal. The gist of his plan – the “$10,000/month with your video equipment” was that by making a series of “How-To” videos, and selling them for $50 each you would do the work once and get paid for it many times over. I could see some possibilities with this line of thinking, but I had a lot of questions and wanted to get some answers – this was before Google, usergroups and listservs, so I was going to have to talk to a real, live person.
To my surprise, the inquiry address on my package was in Central City, Nebraska. That was several hours away from Scottsbluff, but I had to take a business trip to Grand Island later in the summer and decided to contact the guy who I had bought the package from. The guy was a little bit weird on the phone, as he didn’t seem to know anything about video production and was kind of reluctant to have me stop by. I was persistent, and he finally agreed to meet with me at his parent’s farm near Central City.
When I finally met him, it was kind of like the scene in the Wizard of Oz when the almighty wizard turns out to be the guy behind the curtain. I was expecting to find this successful guru of video production and marketing, but instead I found a guy who was my age, living in his parent’s basement and selling packages of “how-to” information on about 25 different subjects. He would place ads in “niche” magazines, use direct mail to followup and sell his information packages, and collect about $190 in profit for each $200 package. This was kind of interesting, but I was disappointed to find out that he didn’t really know anything about video production.
Disheartened, I gave up on learning anything about video production and our conversation turned to computers. After about five minutes, he stopped me and said “Dude, you really need to get online!” I wasn’t sure what he was talking about. “You mean, like Prodigy?” I asked. “Way better,” he said as he cranked up his modem, “check this out!” And over the next hour he showed me newsgroups, gopher, Delphi, CompuServe and America Online. He did more than just show me, he also explained why this kind of connectivity was so important and how it was going to revolutionize the way people interact and how marketing would completely change. It was clear that he had a vision of how the world could change with the spread of this kind of connectivity and interaction. Instead of being disappointed, I left our meeting energized and excited about the future, and wondering how I could get involved in this ‘Online’ thing.
I went back to Scottsbluff and bought a brand new, 486sx computer with a 14.4k modem, subscribed to AOL, Compuserve and Delphi, and immersed myself in all things online. At first, I focused mostly on using it to help further my video production business. I did end up making a “how-to” video with one of my customers from the commodities office – “Raising Cashmere Goats for Fun and Profit” – and I actually made $7500 in sales from the video over the next couple of years. Customer #1 for that video was a programmer from Digital Equipment Corporation, who had found it on an alt.goats newsgroup. Strange, but true.
In January 1995, I quit the commodities office and moved to Fort Collins, Colorado to pursue my video production business. While in Fort Collins, I decided to get involved in a group called “FortNet” which was a community ISP, using bandwidth and phone lines donated from Qwest, servers donated by Hewlett/Packard and volunteers from the local college. I went to the first meeting and sat quietly in the back of the room, listening and not quite understanding the “unixspeak” of the computer science majors and systems analyst types around me. They were pretty excited about a new program called Mosaic, and I had read about that in a computer magazine. When the Q&A session at the end of the meeting started, I raised my hand and asked “What is the command to download Mosaic?” Hundreds of eyes rolled, and a few snickers came out. Finally a guy sitting a couple of chairs away from me sighed and said “sz”. I said “Thank you” – went home and downloaded Mosaic and spent a large portion of the next month absorbing as much as my 14.4 modem would download.
Within a couple of months, I had learned enough to hang with the unixspeakers and by the end of the year I was an assistant sysadmin despite my lack of formal background. I had started doing some web page design work and even built my own linux box out of old PC parts so I could host my own websites. I stayed in touch with my friend who had originally told me to “get online” as he moved on from direct mail to web page hosting and design. He called me out of the blue one day and asked if I wanted to buy his hosting business, as he was heading to California. I had my money tied up in video equipment at the time, so I was not able to buy his business, but I did wish him good luck in California.
By the summer of 1996, I gave up on the video production business. Fort Collins was an expensive place to live, I didn’t know many people and my friends were all in Scottsbluff, so I moved home. After driving a payloader and working cattle at my father’s feedlot for a few months, I decided to start an ISP. My dad and three of his friends put in enough money to start an ISP/computer store and I put my efforts into making it work. After a year, we dropped the computer sales and focused on the ISP. By end of 2000, the ISP had 3500 dialup subscribers, and another 200 dsl and wireless customers. For a rural area, this was a very successful business and we sold it very close to the peak of the market in November 2001.
I stayed with the company that bought my first ISP for a couple of years, then decided to leave and do my own thing. I started another ISP, this time focusing primarily on wireless broadband. Despite some rough patches here and there, it has also been successful, and we are providing service to over 2000 customers in some very rural areas.
Since selling my first ISP, I had thought to myself that I had done pretty good for a dumb farm kid. But there is another one out there who has done even better. One day, as I was going through a Wired magazine, I came across an interesting interview. The subject of the interview mentioned his background growing up on a farm in Nebraska, and after checking out the picture, I realized that I had come across my old friend once again. His trek to California had taken him to some strange and amazing places, from the lowest of the lows – where he spent several months with no money, no support and little more than faith to keep him going – to the sale of his company for millions to Google. Not one to rest on his laurels, he went right back to work and helped to create a social networking powerhouse. Last month he stepped down as CEO and I hope that he enjoys his time with his family.
Evan Williams, thanks for telling me to “get online!” I am eagerly awaiting your next big idea.