About me and Xtras, Inc.

Logo for Xtras.Net
Logo for VBxtras
Logo for Xtras, Inc.

A little history about me. In March 1994 I launched Xtras, Inc. as VBxtras, Inc. VBxtras was a catalog/mail-order reseller of 3rd party components and tools for developers using Visual Basic versions 3.0 through 6.0. I later changed our brand’s name to "Xtras.Net" as an Internet reseller of 3rd party components and tools for .NET developers, especially VB.NET and C#. During the time I ran Xtras it was recognized in 1999 as #123 on the Inc 500 which is Inc. Magazine’s annual list of the 500 fastest-growing private companies in the USA. That is a recognition for which I am still very proud.

NOTE: I wrote this blog post because I want a URL I can reference in the future whenever I want to mention Xtras and provide some background about it but without constantly repeating myself! I may also update this post from time to time if I realize I need to add and/or clarify something about what I wrote.

Conventional Wisdom, Assumptions, and Pot Roast

Pot Roast

Conventional wisdom is filled with assumptions. One of the things that makes conventional wisdom right most of the time is that those assumptions are usually valid. But sometimes they are not. One of my favorite little anecdotes that illustrates this is the tale of the pot roast:

A newly-wed husband noticed that every time his wife cooked a pot roast she would first cut an inch off either end before putting it in the oven. When he asked why, she said “Because that’s how you are supposed to cook pot roast.” Unsatisfied with her answer he pushed until she admitted that she learned it from her mother.

Waiting until a visit with his wife’s mother, the husband asked “Your daughter tells me you taught her to cook pot roast by first cutting an inch off each end?” to which the mother replied “Well of course, that’s how pot roast is cooked.” But the husband was not to be deterred, and after pressing his mother-in-law on the subject she finally admitted that she’d learned if from *her* mother.

This meant the husband had to ask the wife’s grandmother. When he finally got his chance he asked: “Your granddaughter’s mother told me you taught her to cut an inch off each end of a pot roast before cooking. She swore it was a requirement, but I’m dying to know why? Is there any sane reason to throw away two inches of perfectly good meat in order to cook a pot roast?!?”

Laughing, the grandmother said “Oh, heaven’s no! You see in those days we were very poor and didn’t own much cookware. I cut the ends off the pot roast so it would fit in my only pan!”

And so ends the story…

To me the moral here is that whenever someone starts quoting dogma you really should try and explore its origins. You may find that those firmly-held beliefs are based on mostly unconscious and invalid assumptions.

An honest history of Xtras, plus a glimpse of what’s to come

This past March my company Xtras, Inc. had its ten (10) year birthday. We’ve come to a crossroads of sorts and I thought it would be a good time to document those past ten years, and provide a glimpse of our future.  I’ll do my best to describe things as I remember them, but I’ll leave out details that are too complicated or that I’m contractually obligated not to disclose.

I’m a developer, always have been, and always will be. Prior to Xtras for almost ten years I taught developers to program in a tool called Clipper which was a dBase compiler running on DOS. When Clipper training started dying, I became interested in Visual Basic but realized I couldn’t replicate my training business so instead I founded VBxtras which was based on a simple idea: To create a "complete reference guide" catalog of components and tools for Visual Basic developers (I later changed the company name to Xtras.)  As a developer trainer I always liked to provide my students with information about 3rd party tools, so this was a natural segue.

I started VBxtras with no capital besides my AMEX card, and was lucky enough to hire a great team (with the exception of the finance area) and we grew like a weed in the shadow of our public company competitor. We filled the vacuum of demand for VBX and later OCX components for Visual Basic that our competitor ignored, and became the "best friend" for both developers and vendors.  Unfortunately we also took on a lot of debt while we grew.

The dotcom years brought people with more money than sense who funded companies run by those whose main goal was to get rich off an IPO, and during 1999 through 2001 we were treading water as we tried to survive against well-capitalized competitors, both public and private.    Millions of dollars were used to drive a wedge between us and our vendors with whom we once had only great relationships. I’m sure our competitor’s first priority is to make lots of money off developers for their shareholders, not necessarily to improve the lot of the developer. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, it is capitalism at its finest, but I believe developers deserve better.

That period of my life was especially excruciating not just because of the financial strain but also because I wasn’t building anything. My goals have always been to build things that can provide benefits for both me and lots of others.  We built the complete reference guide of 3rd party tools for Visual Basic developers (VBxtras) and I know for a fact it helped hundreds of thousands of VB developers find the best tools available. Building things is what makes me happiest.

In 2002 we stumbled across something that actually made us extra profit which allowed us to pay towards our debt. We found Microsoft-centric developers were fascinated by the XBOX, and we could get them to buy a Microsoft MSDN Universal subscription if we bundled. It is difficult for a reseller to make a lot of profit margin when selling Microsoft products but since MSDN Universal costs $2000 or more we found we could make enough to pay for an XBOX plus keep a little for ourselves. 

Also in 2002 we started working on an Xtras.Net printed catalog. However we found the world had changed in eight years. Vendors preferred online advertising to print advertising so most were unwilling to advertise in a printed catalog.  Though we did produce an Xtras.Net issue #1 printed catalog, it was a huge disappointment to me.

For .NET, our Xtras.Net printed catalog was not a "complete reference guide" like the VBxtras catalog had been for VB3 as there were many .NET products not included in our catalog. Also I had questioned my own intuition and I had hired a marketing consultant to design the catalog instead of designing it in house and, quite frankly, many customers told me the Xtras.Net printed catalog didn’t have the soul found in the original VBxtras catalog.  I decided if vendors and developers weren’t passionate about our catalog, I didn’t want to publish it (though we do plan to continue publishing it, albeit in a different form; more on that in future posts.)

So in 2002 and throughout 2003 we focused a lot of our attention on our MSDN+XBOX promotions because they generated the revenue we needed to cover overhead and pay off our painful debt. Sometimes my marketing manager promoted so heavily I cringed at how spammer-like we were becoming. But the MSDN+XBOX promotions allowed us to survive and, allowed us to pay off over half of our old debt. Still I hated that period because we were not on a mission, we were not building anything; we were just moving boxes.

Even though I was unable to pursue "construction" of anything new, different, and valuable for developers during 1999 through 2003, it didn’t keep me from dreaming. I had literally hundreds of ideas, most of them not worth remembering, but a few were really standouts. And a handful, if pursued, would significantly improve the lot of the .NET developer while giving my company a new mission and renewed vigor.  Alas we were unable to pursue any of them during that period for financial reasons.

In late 2003 after getting our financial house in better order it became viable to pursue some of my dormant ideas. As we discussed them internally, they began to gel into a cohesive plan and strategy, and that strategy had a clear mission:

To Empower Serious .NET Developers

While that might sound a bit obtuse right now, you might recognize that phrase as the tagline for our The Xtras.Net Developer Network.

The launch of XDN in January 2004 was the first initiative launched that is part of Xtras’ future strategy. Today XDN is a membership program with two levels: Basic and Professional. XDN Basic membership is free and gives access to download demos from our websites; in the future XDN Basic will give access to a whole lot more. XDN Professional offers members (at least) one free commercial .NET developer component or tool per month, and three of our best sellers at ½ off our normal price. 

In the future we will still operate our existing core business, but our vision extends way beyond what we are doing today. 

So to wrap up the past ten years in a nutshell, we created an icon in the industry but they we went through hell, but came out the other side as survivor.  As for our next ten years and beyond, I can say the following with almost 100% certainty, if you are a .NET developer and we are able to execute our strategy, you will be very glad we did.

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!