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July 13, 2005

Rent-A-Wreck, VisiCorp, and Me

The first programs I wrote for personal computers were add-ons for VisiCalc – itself the world’s first spreadsheet program for those of you too young to remember.  Vis\Bridge/Sort (not the best name I ever came up with) made it possible to sort the rows or columns of a spreadsheet and Vis\Bridge/Report enabled creating sorted reports from your spreadsheet.  The programs were available for the TRS-80s II and III (Tandy RadioShack’s then very popular personal computers) and the Apples II and III, later the new IBM PC.

Solutions, Inc. was in our house in Vermont then.  We duped our own floppy disks and a local printer copied our word-processed (Scripsit was the program) documentation.  Our kids pasted pockets for the floppies into the back of the loose-leaf binders and inserted the documentation; I think we paid them a $.01 each for pasting and an additional penny for adding the documentation.  Had to keep the cost of goods down.  A couple of part-time employees took phone orders and provided customer support.

VisiCalc, as I’ve blogged before, was invented by Dan Bricklin and implemented by Dan and Bob Frankston.  Their company was Software Arts in Massachusetts.  VisiCalc was marketed and distributed by VisiCorp which was located in Silicon Valley.

We thought that it would be a good idea for VisiCorp (who had already threatened to sue us for using “Vis” in our product names) to market our programs as well. Mary can get through to anyone on the phone and finally reached Daniel Flystra, the founder and CEO of VisiCorp, and arranged for him to see me – “Just fifteen minutes; I’m very busy” – at his office in San Jose the next day.  I was in San Francisco consulting to someone or other at the time so all I had to do was rent a car and drive down US 101 to San Jose.

Not so easy.  Something was going on in San Francisco and Hertz, National, and Avis were sold out.  Finally I found a Rent-A-Wreck location a short bus ride from my hotel that had one car left.  They honestly warned me that the car was not in great shape – even by Rent-A-Wreck standards - but I had no choice.

“The driver’s door don’t work so you’ll wanna use the passenger door,” the attendant briefed me.  “You don’t wanna go too fast either.  There’s a little shimmy.  Don’t got no air either.”

“Right, right,” I said.  I was late and in a hurry.  I was also in a suit which was what East Coast and mainframe people wore on sales calls in those days.  It did get hot as I left the cooling fog of San Francisco and drove towards perpetually parched San Jose.  The car did shimmy and shake as I tried to hurry to my appointment.

Years later I could have navigated the Valley blindfolded but back then in the days before MapQuest and NeverLost – I was lost.  I got hotter and hotter as I shimmied around in circles trying to find the right flat one-story startup-stuffed incubator which housed VisiCorp.  Finally got there with five minutes to spare.

There was an open spot right next to the handicapped spot at the front door.   My Rent-A-Wreck didn’t quite look right among all the new BMWs and even Ferraris in front of VisiCorp but no time to hide it around back. I slid over to the passenger slide to disembark and then disaster – that door handle came off in my hand.  I tried to push it back on its shaft but the shaft receded unreachably into the door.

I rolled down the window and reached for the outside handle.  It clattered to the pavement.  Apparently the inside door handle is attached to the outside door handle.  Pounding did nothing to open either door.  I had no choice.  Sweating profusely in my suit – I weighed 250 lbs then – I maneuvered so that first my feet came out the window, followed by my butt.  My stomach got a little stuck – I tried not to think of Winnie the Pooh or to hear the people laughing around the front door – and my legs kicked in the air as I forced myself slowly out.  I hit my head on the top of the window frame as I fell the last few inches to the ground.

“I have an appointment with Mr. Flystra,” I said to the receptionist trying to present only my untorn pants leg.

“Your name is?” she tried to ask but she couldn’t stop laughing.  “You’re the guy with the…”  She collapsed in laughter.

“Tom Evslin.  From Solutions, Inc.  I’m the guy with the car, yeah.”

An hour and a half later, when Flystra finally saw me, I was pretty sure he was one of the people who’d been watching me at the door.  Neither of us mentioned it.  I didn’t make the sale, probably more because I didn’t present him with a clear proposal (see post full of good advice on that) than because of my unseemly arrival but I’ll never know. He told me that these capabilities would be in “the next release” and I hadn’t thought through the answer to that.

At least I didn’t have to climb back into the window; I managed to insert the handle and shaft on the ground into the door frame and turn it.  I then put it in the car on the seat for my exit in San Francisco.  Hated telling Mary that I blew it.

Next week I’m doing a podcast with Dan Bricklin which is what reminded me of one of my worst days as a nerd turned CEO.

This post is available as a podcast. 

Update:  The podcast with Dan is now available here.

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