Starting a New Chapter in Life…

Those of you who follow my blog are aware it has been a long time since I’ve last posted. Some of you already know what has been going on in my life, but most of you don’t. For those of you who do not as well as the rest of you it’s time for me to fill you in. 

But let me start with some background. Back in 1994 I founded Xtras, Inc. (then as VBxtras, Inc.) and I proceeded to grow it like mad. Then in 1999 Inc. Magazine honored us with their award for fast growth, placing us as #123 out of 500 on their Inc 500 list. It was a wild ride and I loved almost every minute of it!

Probably the best part were the people who honored me by working for Xtras during that period. I’m going to name a just few of them; the ones who contributed something so critical that Xtras would possibly have never succeeded had each of them not been involved (I’ve linked to their website or blog if I was able to find one):

Without each and every one of them, Xtras would never have reached the levels of success that it did. They helped me fulfill a dream; I thank them so muchl.  But there were also many other fabulous people who worked for Xtras from 1994 on, and I value every last one of them too. So if you dear reader are any one of them, please accept my thanks and forgive me for not mentioning you personally; you were very much appreciated.

In addition, there are also many fabulous vendors/catalog advertisers that Xtras dealt with during the VB3/4/6 heyday (1994..1998) when there was so much energy surrounding the Visual Basic industry. There was an almost all-for-one-and-one-for-all kind of feeling in the industry during those early days, which unfortunately does not exist in the Microsoft add-on vendor community now. To find something similar, sadly you have to go to the Web 2.0/Ruby on Rails crowd to get the same vibe.

Back then it was the people that made it so great, back before everyone started guarding their vested interests, back when it was Sheridan Software and Crystal Reports, not Infragistics and Business Objects, for example. Back when we were all about building an industry together. So I’m going to name the names of the people I remember, but there’s a good chance I’ll screw up and forget somebody because there were so many more people involved back then. So here goes, with links to their current blog if I could find one, including their company at the time (and the company it became if applicable), with links to whatever companies still exists. In no particular order, of course.  And anyone that’s forgotten, I apologize in advance:

Anyway, about the same time Xtras’ growth spurt peaked (around 1998/99; Xtras having been underfunded, I might add), the dotcoms boomed and, as I’m sure everyone remembers, VCs threw far too much money at companies without business models, none of them having being Xtras. This led to Xtras’ stasis; our inability to grow Xtras’ business and for the next six, we just operated pretty much doing the same thing over and over, day in and day out. Of course I wanted us to try new things, but we someone never managed to have the resources, and/or I could never manage to rally the troups.

So in May 2006, I left Xtras. I left to decompress and to clear my head. After a little over twelve (12) years of running Xtras I made a deal with one of my shareholders to buy my stake in the business and now Bill Kaylor has taken my place as president of Xtras. I wish them luck, but at this point I have no involvement and absolutely no financial interest left in Xtras. Of those twelve years, the first five (5) were some of the best years of my life, and last seven (7) were some of the worst. Be that as it may, plenty of fodder for future "lessons learned" blog posts. Although I have been working a little since May, I’ve mostly been catching up on things I neglected for so long, including renewing old friendships and cultivating new ones.

But now that I’ve had a short breather, I’m ready to leverage both my 19 years of business and marketing experience and my 21 years of technical/developer experience to pursue exciting new ideas and to once again work with the bright, enthusiastic and highly motivated people that make work so much fun. But you might ask why leaving Xtras will allow me that? 

The plain fact is a reseller like Xtras has a high number of customer transactions, is capital intensive, runs on low margins, and is held in pretty low esteme within the industry. In the early days we published a printed catalog which was the guide for the industry, but the Internet and Google replaced the need for that, so we devolving into being "just a reseller." After many years of metaphorically banging my head against the wall I realized it was virtual impossible for me to devote the time, find the funding, and/or gain interest from the people needed to form the loosely-coupled business relationships.that work so well to pursue the incredible Web 2.0 opportunities that are presenting themselves today. So it was better for me to just leave Xtras in other’s hands and start anew.

In what areas do I want to focus? I want to improve the world! I want to make things and life better, faster, cheaper, easier! Heck, if I could devote my life to world peace with 100% certainty, I would do that!  I have several projects in mind, some are for profit and some I have absolutely no profit motive whatsoever. For the latter I want to be a catalyst just to see them happen as I believe my doing so will improve some aspect of an industry or of life in general, depending on the project. And for almost all of these projects I want to work collaboratively with partners, anywhere from a loose open-source collaboration to jointly-owned companies.  And I will be able to be far more open and share my ideas on my blog unlike the past five-plus (5+) years as I won’t have the constraints on me that I was under while president, CEO, and fiduciary of Xtras.

So I am idealistic, but I am also pragmatic. This time I want to make sure my ventures are cumulatively far more profitable than Xtras was during my tenure. I’m not twelve years more experienced, and hopefully twelve years wiser. I want to accomplish my idealistic goals, not just dream about them. But I’ve learned the world does follow "The Golden Rule," just not the one they taught about in Sunday school. I’ve learned it is far better to be the one holding the gold otherwise you get stuck following someone else’s rules. :-)

For those of you who are interested, stay tuned to my RSS feed. I’ll be posting more about my upcoming adventures shortly.

A little background is in order…

As my second post I guess I’ll tell potential readers a little about myself and my company.

I live in Atlanta, Georgia USA where I have lived most of my life. From 1981 to 1988 I attended Georgia Tech to get a degree in Mechanical Engineering, and an "honorary" degree in Computer Science. I gave myself that "honorary" degree because I found out too late that I loved computers and hated engineering. I took many ICS[1] classes and aced all of them except in assembler (I choked on the final and got a "B"), but none of my ICS classes counted towards my ME degree. My grades in my ME classes were, shall we say, less than stellar; I had a mantra as my academic career started coming to a close: "D" for "D"egree!  If only I had switched my major early on…

From 1987 to 1990, I together with two others formed a partnership called The DSW Group for consulting and training Nantucket’s Clipper, now a product of Computer Associates[2].

Clipper was/(is) a DOS-based programming lanaguage that evolved from its humble beginnings to become quite an interesting language. It’s main competitor was FoxPro, and I cried when CA bought Nantucket, and Microsoft bought Fox instead of Clipper.

While at DSW I focused on having DSW become the leading training and consulting company in Clipper. In those days, I was very much a head’s down programmer and very pendantic about "my" Clipper language and the “right“ way to program. Let’s just say a mere mention of FoxPro by a visitor almost got him chased out of the office!

Around 1990 I developed wanderlust and, leaving The DSW Group in the worthy hands of my former partners Terry Dietzler and Ed Weber, went to the Washington DC area.  In northern Virginia, ironically my birthplace, I went to work as Director of Training for Financial Dynamics (FDI) with Michael Horwith and Steven Delbianco (now VP for Public Policy at ACT.)  FDI was acquired by Spectrum Technology Group in November 1997.

While in the DC area I met John Kaster (John is now with Borland Developer Relations) and he agreed to put up with my perfectionism and help me finish a book[3] on Clipper to be published by Addison Wesley. After what appeared to be eons Programming in Clipper 5 was born, which achieved critical acclaim but alas reached the market far too late to be a commercial success.

After a year in DC, I guess I became homesick and decided to head back to Atlanta. Though I loved working with Michael and Steve at Financial Dynamics, I felt the need to start a gig exclusively my own, which I named Expert Education (EEI).

I ran EEI as a Clipper training company until the end of 1994. By that time nobody wanted to be trained on Clipper anymore. This was sad because Clipper had some awesome language features, some of which are just starting to show up in .NET, and the Windows version which they called Visual Objects was even far cooler, but alas it was being planned and marketed by Computer Associates, not Microsoft. You get the picture.

However, in late 1993, having been frustrated with EEI’s inability to market our training classes w/o the use of CA’s mailing list (sometimes they would let us use it, other times they would not), I recognized something special in the Clipper-Only Tools catalog of 3rd party tools produced by a company called Zac[4]. Within six months they practically owned the ability to market to Clipper developers. Knowing I could not compete with them in Clipper, I (thankfully) decided to target a market for 3rd party tools for a product I knew absolutely nothing about how to program: Visual Basic!

So in March 1994 I formed a seperate company and named it VBxtras to produce a printed catalog of tools for Visual Basic developers. We christened it “The Ultimate Tools Catalog for Visual Basic.“  And it was.  One of the main reasons to start VBxtras was to promote Expert Education’s new Visual Basic training classes. Of course after little more than six months I decided to heck with training and to pour everything into VBxtras.

I took off my programmer hat and put on my marketer hat. We launched the first catalog in June/July 1994, and accelerated from there. How did it do? Well, I was lucky enough to put together a great team and, let’s just say, we took a wild ride all the way by 1999 to be listed as #123 on the Inc 500 list. Of course we changed the name to Xtras, Inc. in 1995 in order to dabble in other things besides Visual Basic, but none of them went anywhere so in 1999 we decided to focus back exclusively on Visual Basic developer tools.

In 1994 we offered tremendous value to both developer and vendor. We made a market where one had not previously existed as resellers of the day were paying no attention to “that toy language” Visual Basic. With VBxtras, I was a developer who liked "toys" (the components, not the language) and I wanted a reference guide that helped me quickly find and select from every single one available. In those days I didn’t worry much about profit, I just worried about getting every single vendor’s products into our catalog, and about providing as much information as possible that a developer would want so he could choose to which one met his needs the best.

That is until Microsoft decided to start promoting .NET. As I learned about .NET, my desire returned to program full time (though I doubt I ever will (be able to.)  .NET had most of the cool things that Clipper and Visual Objects had, but it came from Microsoft, and was (at least partially) designed by Anders Heilsberg, the man behind both Delphi and Turbo Pascal[5].

But .NET concerned us as we feared it could badly affect our business model. After all, "C# programmers are never going to buy tools from a placed called ‘VBxtras.’" So we decided to launch a new product line complete with a new name: Xtras.Net. We dubbed Xtras.Net "Your Resource for Quality .Net Tools" and launched a huge printed catalog of 3rd party tools for .NET in 2002.  So how has Xtras.Net done thus far? Well, frankly, not as well by comparison as did VBxtras during its first few years.

With Xtras.Net we had 8+ years of experience, but also 8+ years of baggage. When we started VBxtras, we had nothing else to distract us.  With Xtras.Net, running VBxtras distracted us.  Plus, when we started VBxtras the whole company had that "new start-up smell!" The staff when we started Xtras.Net had been here a while and was no longer a start-up staff.  It wasn’t possible to get 5+ year employees to put in all 16 hour days for months on end so that we could achieve the same goals we had for VBxtras in the beginning: to be The #1 Reference Guide for .NET.

So we haven’t done as well as I would have liked. Plus the world has changed greatly. In 1994 developers could not go from Google straight to a vendor’s website, pay for software on the spot , and download the bits and an unlock key. But today they can[6]. And in 1994, we didn’t have to compete with a venture capital backed dot-com that probably lost a dollar on ever dollar in sales for its first five years in business, all while we had to break even each month[7].

But we also haven’t done badly either, it is just a new world. I’m frustrated because we could have made a much greater positive impact for .NET developers than we have thus far, but by other’s accounts, we’ve done quite well.  We, like everyone else whose business has been negatively impacted by the Internet, have had to evolve, and will continue to evolve a lot more in the coming years.

As a matter of fact, some of the things we have planned for our evolution and that we are finally close to implementing have me tremendously excited. They excite me because I believe they can allow Xtras to transcend its current business model, and more importantly, impact developers and development in a very positive manner over the next several years. How do I know these things would be positive? Because I’m a developer at heart, and the things we have planned are things the developer in me would desperately love to see come to pass.

So thanks for reading, and stay tuned. Xtras next 10 years should be an even wilder ride than the last. In a good way, that is. :-)

 Footnotes

  1. ICS: Information and Computer Science
     
  2. Computer Associates: Where old software goes to die.
     
  3. Programming in Clipper 5: Of course Amazon has continued to this date to list the authors as me, Ed Weber, and Terry Dietzler even though the latter two dropped out at the beginning and John, whose name is on the cover, is the real co-author. I’ve even contacted Amazon about this, but to no avail.
     
  4. Zac Software: Since acquired by Global Computer, and about a year later, unceremoniously closed.
     
  5. I cut my programming teeth on Turbo Pascal in college.
     
  6. Google: Developers that go straight to vendors and by pass resellers pay full price, and don’t gain any of the benefits resellers offer. One of those benefits is resellers will act as their advocate when they have a problem with the vendor, among other things which I’ll cover over the coming months in future posts. I know this may sound self-serving, but hey, it’s my blog! Seriously though, if you’ll give me the benefit of the doubt and keep up with the subject over the next several months, I might be able to cast a different light on it for you. And I promise you, it won’t be my only topic (not even close!) as what I really want to talk about is programming in .NET and related.
     
  7. VC-backed dot-com: Yeah, but now they’ve run out of all that outlandish VC and they actually have to make profit! Ha! Let the games begin!