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 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…
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 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. 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.
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. 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.
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. :-)
- ICS: Information and Computer Science
- Computer Associates: Where old software goes to die.
- 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.
- Zac Software: Since acquired by Global Computer, and about a year later, unceremoniously closed.
- I cut my programming teeth on Turbo Pascal in college.
- 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.
- 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!