Written by David Tebbutt, MicroScope 02/83 item 02 - scanned
THE RISING STAR OF CAMBRIDGE (column) - forecasting a knighthood for Clive Sinclair
One or two journalists recently speculated on the possibility of Clive Sinclair receiving some sort of gong in the New Year's Honours. I must admit it didn't really cross my mind until, in early December, people at Sinclair suddenly became too busy to see me until the new year. On the day the honours were announced I bought the FT, convinced by then that something must be up. But, no, Uncle Clive didn't make it after all. If he had then I guess I wouldn't be writing this piece because you would have already suffered an overdose of Sinclair articles.
We all know about Clive's business background - technical writing, transistors, miniature radio and amplifier kits, hi-fi, the world's first pocket calculators, the Black Watch, the Microvision TV, scientific instruments, the MK14 and then the ZX series of computers. We are also aware that he is working on his so-called flat screen TV, an electric car and he has teamed up with Browne's bookshop in Cambridge to form Sinclair-Brown, a publishing company. I believe he'd also like to set up a robotics laboratory. Some of his activities can be considered successes and others, while possibly great technological breakthroughs, can only be regarded as commercial failures.
There's no doubt about it, though, Clive Sinclair has stamina and resilience of a very high order. He also has talent thinking big and the courage to spend his way into the big-time. In the ten years from 1971, he spent something like £2 million on advertisements. The result of his positive attitudes is that he now heads a company valued at £136 million.
The microcomputer industry is one of the few which is currently creating jobs. Sinclair is probably the most successful British microcomputer company to date and it has caused a whole supporting industry to come into being. Since the political parties seem to be obsessed with unemployment and since being unemployed is not at present a very pleasant experience. I think it is worth using Sinclair as an example of how we can start to dig ourselves out of the last few years of gloom and doom. Sinclair is an example, too, of how British companies can compete effectively on the world markets thus boosting the country's much needed income from overseas.
The most obvious increase in employment is within Sinclair Research itself, which has grown seven or eight times from its original seven staff. The distributor has taken on 30 extra staff simply to handle Sinclair business. Timex, the present (at the time of writing anyway) manufacturer, has 600 people building Sinclair computers. So you see between six and seven hundred jobs have been created as a immediate result of Sinclair launching his range of computers. And it's unlikely to stop there. More computers require more staff to build them, to service them and to sell them. Apply this principle to all the other British manufacturers (Acorn, Casu, Comart, Dragon, Camputers, Gemini, Nascom, Newbrain, Rair, Research Machines, Torch and Transam to name but a few) and you'll get a substantial increase in the level of employment. And that's only direct employment. Less directly involved companies who depend on the success of the Sinclair machines are software publishers, book publishers magazines and suppliers of components.
Psion, Bug-Byte, Artic, Melbourne House, Micro Gen and Mine of Information are all doing very good software business based on the Sinclair machine. I've no doubt that ICL is raking in a bob or two even though most of its Sinclair programs are terrible. Just go through a copy of PCW or Your Computer to find out how many businesses owe their existence to Sinclair. You'll have to agree it's an impressive number.
Sinclair machines are currently sold in over 30 countries and there's a fair chance that over a million will be installed by the time you read this. All this foreign activity has brought further benefits to Britain. It is giving us a new found prestige and credibility abroad.
Foreign manufacturers now believe that we can produce the goods after all and they're beginning to set up their own manufacturing plants in the UK. Once again, more jobs are being created which owe a lot to Sinclair's export activity.
Another thing that Sinclair has managed to get right is the pricing of his equipment. Last year he made a profit of £8,832,000 on a turnover of £27,623,000 so he not only got his pricing right to open up such an enormous market, he must have also got his costings right to achieve that level of profit.
He told me once that his biggest kicks come from doing for 10p what any fool can do for £1. It is good to see that he can make money at it too. The word is that profits are expected to be something like £14 million for the year to March and, short of a disaster, will continue to rise steeply for the forseeable future.
Of course, Sinclair's success hasn't been without its problems. When I was editor of PCW, we used to get a regular stream of letters from people who had ordered Sinclair machines but had almost given up hope of ever getting them. The fact is that rapid growth puts ridiculous stresses and strains on any business and something has to give. In Sinclair's case it was delivery and customer service. With a machine that gave more and cost less than anything else, people were prepared to wait even if they spent their waiting time moaning to the magazines. We were nigh on powerless to do anything. Sinclair always promised that things were on the verge of being sorted out so we published several sterile exchanges of letters between Sinclair and his public. The trouble with magazines is that they take a while to produce and a common line was that production and distribution problems would be sorted before the next issue of the magazine could be printed. It seemed to make sense at the time. Now we see that it is almost impossible for Sinclair to catch up with itself. The day it does is the day that sales start to fall off and problems of a different kind will appear. During the growing period it is important to try and anticipate the growth in demand and staff accordingly but not to the extent that you're left with extra staff if demand drops off. Sinclair says that demand has always exceeded expectations, hence the delivery problems. And, to be fair, the Timex walkouts must have caused a bit of a hiccup in an otherwise improving situation.
So it's not all been a bed of roses for Sinclair or for his public. In terms of job creation, exports and boosting British credibility around the world, Clive Sinclair really does take some beating. And, during IT Year, Clive probably did more for computer literacy and awareness than everyone else's efforts put together. On the other hand he probably generated more hours of frustration than anyone else outside the Civil Service. Thousands of Spectrum owners are still waiting for the launch of the promised RS232 interface and the microdrives. For many (including me) this was the blue sky we bought when we ordered our Spectrums. For all that, I think the good things outweigh the bad. To my mind, Clive Sinclair has set an example to us all of the sort of things Britons can achieve if they try. Well done Uncle Clive. I hope that in the next couple of years it will be Sir. You deserve it.