Written by David Tebbutt, MicroScope 04/83 item 02 - scanned
LITTLE FUN AT THE FAIRE (column)
I've just returned from what has become my annual pilgrimage to the West Coast Computer Faire. This year's show was something of a disappointment from the point of view of new product announcements and, in my view, the fizz has gone out of the event too. The pioneering spirit which used to be such a dominant force is being dissipated as the megabucks roll in from venture capitalists and everything is becoming more serious.
In some ways my changing role has affected the way in which I see the Faire. I first visited the Faire in 1980 as a PCW Editor and everything was new to me - the Faire, America, Silicon Valley and San Francisco. The business was just beginning to boom and it was a very exciting time to be over there.
This year Caxton made its second visit with clearly defined objectives and most of our efforts were devoted to pursuing activities and opportunities which led us nearer those goals. Time-wasters were despatched with the greatest courtesy, children were moved on with a free Caxton badge, dealers were grilled about their favourite distributors, distributors' were courted assiduously and manufacturers' boots were licked if there was a chance of them publishing our products.
A number of new companies have sprung up in the last year dedicated to software merchandising. They provide dealers with point-of-sale material, display shelving and their own packaging around other people's software products. The deal with software publishers is that the merchandiser is given non-exclusive production and distribution rights on acceptable products. Acceptable means that the merchandiser evaluates the product thoroughly before deciding whether to take it on. You'll find, if you exhibit at any American show, you will get dozens of people coming by for free evaluation copies of your products. If you think they're flaky, ask them to write to you in the UK giving their reasons and evidence of their bona fides. This is where a few thousand miles of Atlantic works to our advantage. Usually though, it is the biggest single source of frustration to us. It's an odd thing, but cheques always take several weeks to find their way to Britain whereas bills take only a few days.
Patriotism, too, is a bit of a problem. It's something I had noticed on previous visits but, now my livelihood is directly affected by it, this visit brought it home with renewed force. Americans would prefer to buy home-grown products far more than we in Britain do.
They buy lots of Japanese goods because the quality is undeniable and they buy the outpourings of a number of British recording artistes because no-one in America can produce the same sounds. In the same way they will buy British computer products but first they must be convinced that these products truly deserve their favour. They are far less critical of home-grown products, perhaps because they know there is a home-grown backside they can kick if things go wrong. It is interesting to note that MicroFocus has set itself up as an American Corporation operating out of Palo Alto while Sinclair has licensed Timex for its products.
Other forces conspire against you if you want to do business in America. One of the most irritating things concerns staff mobility. Because of distance, all negotiations tend to take longer than they would if you were actually there on someone's doorstep. What we didn't realise at first is that people in just about any position in any Silicon Valley company are inclined to change jobs, responsibilities or companies at the drop of a hat. We were well down the line with a Mr Snowball (I changed his name, though I'd prefer not to) who was in charge of software procurement for a fairly professional manufacturer. Within a week or so of a visit to him, we called his office to be told "he doesn't work here any longer". Not only this, but all traces of our product, our visits and the associated deal had disappeared with him. A few weeks later we called another company, with whom we were developing a deal, to be told by our contact that there was so much work that they had taken on someone specifically to handle software procurement - our old friend, Mr Snowball.
That is just one example of the frustrations of dealing with the Silicon Valley community. It also hints at another thing to beware of: incest. Most families and social groups have members working for several different microcomputing companies and you have to be very careful what you say to whom.
On one occasion my partner gave someone a bit of a tough time over an overdue payment and a few weeks later he was talking to one of our favourite American customers. The customer said "I hear that XYZ has been screwing up your payments." Bill said "How do you know about that?" The customer said "The lady you chewed off is my sister."