I wrote software while conducting tech support calls for a major computer equipment
manufacturer (AST Research) in the late 1980's. As I evolved into assisting in the adminstration of their international
dial-up bulletin board systems (BBS) that allowed customers to obtain product
information, drivers and answers to their customer service questions. They ran
some 20 different systems around the world to provide customer service options
for customers all over. During my tenure at AST, I discovered chat rooms and the
incredible social advantages of the online world - nearly ten years before the World
Wide Web was be born.
My next career move was to take on the Lead Software Engineer role for Southern
California's largest dial-up online system (MedCom BBS) in 1988. They had an
unheard of 105 incoming phone lines for their customers, X.25 network connections
and several T1 lines allowing customers to login to the site. It was an incredible
experience, and I learned an immense number of skills that helped forge the
foundation for my future career.
When MedCom BBS shutdown in 1990, my future wife and I decided to fill the gap in
the local "social networking" scene by creating ArenaBBS. Based in Orange County, CA,
ArenaBBS became one of the premier subscription-based, family oriented entertainment
social networking sites of the time; not only for Southern California, but also holding a
noteworthy place in the nation's pantheon of major online systems in the early 1990's.
With 32 incoming phone lines, and local access dial-in numbers throughout the majority
of Southern California, we had unprecedented exposure to a huge population of would-be
customers. In our "hey day", we had local dial-in numbers throughout Orange County,
a big chunk of Los Angeles county, some in San Fernando valley, Riverside county, and
a major dial-up portal stretching halfway down the coast to San Diego. In effect, we
had local dial-up coverage over many thousands of square miles. Not bad for a server
that was physically only two miles from the beach, with half of it's local dialing area
spread out over the Pacific Ocean!
We pioneered new chat room concepts that are in-use to this day, and even developed
software products other sites could use for their systems. By mid-1992, I had a
healthy product line of software products for the GalactiComm MajorBBS platform we
were using. The CovyWare product line sold well, and was often imitated by
competitors in the marketplace. In fact, ArenaBBS proved to be a "proving ground"
for new online social networking concepts that had many a corporate spy evaluating
our innovative technologies, and in some cases, stealing our ideas to create their
own software products.
In late 1992, the local BBS market changed. The server technology changed such that
people with a few thousand dollars could start their own systems. They took our
business model and started their own sites. Our customer base began to dilute. In
an effort to create something that would draw customers to ArenaBBS, I invented a new
"graphical" interface for our site. The goal was to have something nobody else
had. All the BBS systems of that age were text-based environments, and Microsoft
Windows 3.1 was just starting to become popular. The era of a graphical "point-and-click"
interface was gaining ground with a population frustrated with difficult
DOS-era text interfaces. More and more users were expecting an easy to use graphical
interface, often shunning the older "text-based" DOS-style computer model that
had dominated the 1980's. ArenaBBS was ground zero for the first-ever majorly accepted
graphical user interface for online systems.
The technology I invented was called
RIPscrip, which was short for "Remote Imaging Protocol Script".
The original intent was to use RIPscrip only for ArenaBBS - to bring
new customers expecting an easier interface to our site to build our business model.
As RIPscrip evolved, it became clear very quickly that it was a groundbreaking
technology - potentially a "game changer" for the online world. It wasn't long after
that realization that we formed the TeleGrafix Communications corporation to take over
the development of the technology for the betterment of the online world.
Formed in late 1992, TeleGrafix debuted the RIPscrip technology at the first ever
online convention in Denver, CO (OneBBS Con 1.0). Founded by myself, Mark Hayton, Jim
Bergman and Mara Ward, we didn't know how things were going to pan out. We didn't know
if another company was going to have another technology that was vastly superior to
our's, or if we had something that was truly unique.
When we showed up at the convention, a friend of our's had a booth at the convention
showing off another graphical BBS technology that was based on the Macintosh platform
(ResNova Software). They graciously donated an 8x8 section of their booth for us to
show off what we had. They were incredibly good friends to ArenaBBS and the goals we
were trying to achieve, so I have nothing but the highest praise for their vision in
sharing their convention booth with us.
It was an interesting week. I was actively working on finishing up the dial-up terminal
software for the convention in the basement of my dad's house in Evergreen, CO for two
weeks before the show. The product's code just "flowed" out from my fingertips like magic.
When my partners arrived the day before the show, things were ready to rock and roll for
the show. When the convention show floor opened, RIPscrip got an intense amount of
attention. I won't go into the details about the bug-fixes we were making right there in
the booth as we discovered gltches during the convention.
As the convention unfolded, another company was promoting a graphical technology known as
NAPLPS which was a free internationally approved (IEEE) standard that hadn't found much
of a following except as the foundation for the graphical presentation of the now defunct
Prodigy online service. It was particulary low-tech, with klunky graphics that eventually
led to the downfall of the service (IMHO).
At the end of the convention, we had one company (GalactiComm) that was so enamoured with
us, they offered to buy us out entirely and give all of us full-time jobs. My partners
and I told them "No" right there on the spot. We had just invented something so mind
blowing, the possibility of not pushing it forward on our own, without corporate
interference, was unacceptable. We wanted to forge our own way in the world, and make the
online world a better place without external corporate special interests interfering. Our
champagne celebration on the balcony of our hotel room after that was much more than a
vindication of our efforts - it was a testimony of how the "little guy", with a great idea
can actually make something of themselves.
Over the next year, building up toward the next BBS convention, we formalized our
TeleGrafix corporation and entered into strategic parternships with several consumer
dial-up terminal software vendors, and the big BBS software vendors of the day. The
biggest partnership was with GalactiComm, who embraced our technology with open arms. I
spent several weeks working onsite at their headquarters to spearhead serious integration
of our technology with their server systems. The endeavor proved incredibly successful.
Within weeks, we were pumping out products for their server platform that generated lots
of cash for TeleGrafix.
TeleGrafix was founded on a mere $10,000 investment from a founder's family member in late
1992. Within three months, she was paid off in-full and the company was already turning a
profit. In the first fiscal year, TeleGrafix went from working out of my apartment, to
having its own corporate offices (900 sq. ft), with six employees, and still netting over
$20,000 a month in revenue a month! That doesn't happen very often with a startup.
When we showed up at the next annual BBS convention (OneBBS Con 2.0) at the Broadmoore
Hotel in Colorado Springs, CO (Aug 1993), things had changed dramatically with the
online indsutry. RIPscrip was the celebrity technology of the show. Compared
to the previous year where only a single booth was debuting the technology, a full 70%
of the 200 boothes at the new convention were showing off systems that used our
We felt like celebrities. Our strategic partnerships were paying off "in spades".
Everybody we spoke with was ecstatic with what we had, and the line at our booth to
purchase the next generation of our product line stretched down the convention booth
isle. I praise my wife for efficiently handling all the purchases. It was a major job.
Our booth was something to behold. We didn't want to do things "like other people". We
constructed our own booth on our own. We had a 20'x10' spot in a key location near the
entrance of the convention entrance. We decided to do something "outlandish". We built
a booth that was formed with black faux marble walls, a trellaced ceiling, shiny black
cabinets, a nifty computer display pillar to show-off the next-generation RIP-2
technology, and projector wall (that is standard now-a-days), and tons of chairs for
presentations. Our apartment landlord didn't appreciate our using the parking lot for
construction of the booth frame for a couple days. I can only hope that whent we left
the booth material behind after we moved out, she was able to reap some kind of profit.
The booth was awesome. Nobody else had a booth that could rival our's from a visual
perspective. Unfortunately, the goal we set for our booth was only matched by how long
it took to set it up. Unlike our neighbors, who were able to setup their boothes in
4-6 hours, our's took some 18 hours to setup. Luckily, friends from parter companies
chose to help us out after they were done with their boothes. That was a favor I won't
soon forget. It didn't help that the company that crated-up our booth for shipment
botched the job. Wall components, trellace pipe segments, and various connectors
weren't properly labeled. That made the booth setup go from about 6 hours to nearly
18 as "trial and error" assembly became necessary. During construction, a delivery of
Popeye's Chicken caused me to break a tooth, which made me look like a "toothless hick"
for the duration of the convention. It's always something.
Before we traveled to the convention site, we got a phone call from a manager of the
"Dvorak/Zoom Award" adminstrative body. We were told that TeleGrafix was nominated
for the "Dvorak/Zoom" award for Technical Excellence. We told them we wouldn't be
attending the award ceremony - that there was no point, as we didn't feel worthy of
such an award. The representative told us, "You need to be there."
At the awards ceremony, we got called up to the podium to receive the 1993 Dvorak/Zoom
Award for technical excellence for the creation of our graphical online technology.
To us, John Dvorak was a God. At the time, he was in the same league as Peter Norton
who invented Norton Utilities (now Symantec) which was probably one of the most
important software products for DOS-based systems in the early 1990's.
In his speach before presenting the award, he told the audience that our RIPscrip
technology caught on like a brushfire that he hadn't experienced since the invention
of the PK-ZIP file compression technology. To say we were deeply humble and in
abject disbelief was an understatement.
The person who won the Dvorak award immediately before us was John Hayes, the inventor
of the modem. He won a Lifetime Achievement award for his invention. To say that we
were humbled beyond words would be an overstatement. We never believed that our
invention of RIPscrip would garner such a following, let alone massive
international recognition. Needless to say, we had no acceptance speech prepared.
We planned to hold a Hospitality Party for all our supporters. Our primary strategic
parterns (DeltaComm [Telix], and GalactiComm [The MajorBBS]) co-sponsored the party
with us. These two companies were our most important strategic partners, and we
shared a lot of common interests (both business and non-business), with
a shared afinity for Monty Python being the biggest. The party was probably one of
the most enjoyable moments in my life. We relished in our achievements, and the
table the key players shared, with tons of pitchers of beer, and the unending
spouting of Monty Python quotes, were something that I'll never forget.
It didn't help that the neighboring Zoom Modem hospitality party ran out of beer,
and their people came over to our party to grab mugs off our keg. We quickly ran
out of beer, and there were no more kegs available in the hotel. Party crashers
A month later, after OneBBS Con 2.0 completed, TeleGrafix was awarded a commendation
from the city of Diamond Bar, CA for our participation in creating a graphical
interface to provide their public city records to the population through graphical
point-and-click interfaces using kiosks throughout public city facilities. We donated
our client software to the city's population so they could access the same records
from the privacy of their homes. In the end, public city records were available to
the population through a variety of easily accessible sites.
During our attendance at OneBBS Con 2.0, we held roundtable sessions with customers
to obtain feature requests for the upcoming RIPscrip 2.0 technology. Like
any "feature request sessions", the public asked for the kitchen sink to be added.
This is where TeleGrafix faltered. We attempted to add all the features the
customers demanded. It wasn't a simple matter of easy feature requests. They
requested high-end user interface concepts like window-based interfaces, major
audio technologies, and a whole laundry list of additional features. We spent the
next 18 months trying to address these requests.
During that time, the World Wide Web emerged. All of a sudden, our graphical
technology became something of a non-sequitor. Nearly every manager of tech
companies demanded that all future engineering efforts revolve around web-based
interfaces - even if it was too soon to cross that bridge. The marketing hype
of the World Wide Web was so intense then, our business model literally evaporated
under our feet in a single quarter. We went from being majorly profitable, to
posting serious financial losses within 90 days! It was like God reached down and
turned off the "money spigot".
Soon after, we had to start laying off friends and family that had formed the
backbone of our company. It was extremely painful. Very quickly, the executives
(myself included) had to forgo salaries. All of a sudden, any potential contract
or accounting receivable became of paramount importance.
Luckily, we managed to land a major contract right about then. We finalized a
contract through a representative of the government of Japan to modify our
software technology to support Japanese languages for the purpose of enhancing
Japan's largest online system for a graphical user experience. Until then, the
system in question was text-based, and shedding users at a fast pace. The
Japanese system was the size of CompuServe, with millions of users. It also
embodied their national news service, so it was a huge boon to TeleGrafix. It
was an opportunity we couldn't pass on.
After nine months of negotiations and due dilligence, we finalized the contract.
You have no idea how tough business negotiations can be until you've spent nine
months haggling with Japanese businessmen. They will quibble about the smallest
of details for days, trying to gain a millimeter of ground in the negotiations.
In the end, after the contract was finalized, we found out from the US State
Department that our company was the first American software company to ever get
venture capital out of the government of Japan. Apparently they realized it was
cheaper for them to pay us for the job then to re-invent the technology! That
doesn't happen too often.
We made the investment from this project last for a couple years. But as
the World Wide Web gained a head of steam that nobody expected, our market
vanished very fast. We tried to re-tool our RIPscrip technology for an
Internet-centric world by developing a graphical Netscape plug-in (think Flash
about ten years ago). Unfortunately, that didn't go very far. At the time, Netscape was
the only real web browser available to the public. By the time we finished our
plugin, Microsoft introduced Internet Exploer, starting the "browser wars" of
the late 1990's. Macromedia paid huge prices to both Microsoft and Netscape to
bundle their Flash plug-in with their browsers to gain serious marketshare.
We couldn't compete with that. Rumor had it that Macromedia paid Microsoft
something like 10 million dollars to bundle their plug-in with the new
Internet Exploer. Being a struggling small company, we had nothing to do but
re-think our business model.
Back then, interfacing large-scale corporate databases to the web required a
"spit and bailing wire" approach to web interfacing. Making a large-scale
system work on a wide-scale web interface was extremely difficult, and was
fraught with numerous pitfalls, interface problems, and network connectivity
dilemmas. We thought that using the well established Telnet Internet
protocol would be a great way of allowing companies to easily serve up their
corporate data to the masses through a graphical interface (ala Windows) with
minimal modifications to their back-end server systems. It had the advantage
of being a service they already provided, with the data they wanted to share
with their exising customers not requiring much additional effort. We created
the RIPtel product to further this business model. It turned out to be
an awesome Telnet client, with a lot of features that would be useful to the
consumer... So we thought.
What we didn't plan on was that the World Wide Web would gain even more
momentum. It seemed that all IT/MIS managers wouldn't even consider a Telnet
solution under any terms. All they wanted was something that had WWW tacked
onto the front of the business proposal. Our business withered at a furious
rate at this point.
In 1998, TeleGrafix luckily landed a contract with a company in Australia that
had the nationwide rights to all real estate property boundary data for online
use. Their contract with the government granted them the exclusive rights to
use property data solely in the online world. Until then, real estate offices
in the country had to rely on paper reports, or other such resources. The
company we forged a contract with wanted to use our technology to allow real
estate professionals, and consumers to view property information online using
our graphical technology. This allowed them to show customers propery
boundaries, topological maps, and other important information online in a
user-friendly way that wasn't available through the traditional brick & mortar
real estate offices.
TeleGrafix licensed its software to their Australian partners for over
two years. The Netscape RIPscrip plug-in was extremely important
to this business model, and helped keep the company alive for a couple
From about 1998, the BBS industry was in shambles. The few companies that
still maintained their BBS server products were dying quickly. Many of them
were looking for companies to purchase, or outright take-over the
responsibilities for their products to get out from under their long-term
responsibilities. TeleGrafix purchased, or took over long-term licensing
arrangements with a number of these companies.
Most notably, Searchlight Software sold their product line to TeleGrafix
in 1998. They turned over their Searchlight BBS and Spinnaker Web Server
system to TeleGrafix. The Searchlight BBS was a very popular BBS server
platform throughout the 1990's with its intuitive interface and user
following. Their Spinnaker Web Server system was probably before it's
time. Spinnaker was a database-centric web server with inline scripting
that was years ahead of it's time. Today, web server systems with PHP,
ASP or ASP.Net are commonplace. Back in 1998, Spinnaker pioneered the
same concepts long before these features were readily available.
Unfortunately, the server system didn't catch on for reasons that will
probably be up to historians.
In 1999, TeleGrafix acquired the assets of the ProBoard BBS system. This
was a BBS server system that had more of a cult following than the more
commercial systems. It had a pretty solid following in Europe, but in
the United States, it wasn't used much.
In 2000, TeleGrafix began to face the inevitable. The BBS market was
utterly dead - superceded by the World Wide Web and the global reach
that it offered. Nobody was interested in BBS technology, or terminal
emulation technology. In May 2000, I left the company to find another
career. It was a painful decision that was years in the making. To
quote Danny DeVito in the movie "Other People's Money", "The surest way
of growing broke is to get an-ever increasing share of a shrinking market."
TeleGrafix certainly embraced that approach. We held on long after the
writing was on the wall in the latter 1990's. We snatched up the assets
of BBS companies that simply "wanted out" of the business. We developed
technologies that ultimately proved untenable. We laid off friends and
family to keep the doors open. We even paid corporate bills off of our
personal assets to keep things alive.
The ultimate demise of TeleGrafix was an utterly bitter experience from my
perspective. Being the founder of the company, and one of the very
last people left keeping the doors open, I narrowly avoided personal
financial ruin before I got out. I was so utterly in denial about the
inevitable failure of the company, that I held on to my dying breath.
I can just hope that others with similar aspirations don't face the
same impossible choices we had to face, and that they have the sense
to get out before it's too late.
I must say, my partners who created TeleGrafix back in 1992 (Jim Bergman
and Mark Hayton) had the sense to get out while they could keep their
hides intact. My wife rode the roller coaster all the way to the end,
and I'll love her forever for that.