Hair Raising

Fears that Digithurst GmbH would lack the eccentricity and vibrancy of our office in the UK were dispelled as soon as I drove into Mettingstrasse. Rainer had rented what once had been a large, semi-detached town house which now, thanks to the RAF, was fully detached. Many of the staff were veterans of SMV. Kasten Schlabritz insisted on selling MicroEyes in the style of a Prussian aristocrat, while Lothar Faber-Castell, of pencil manufacturing fame, saw no reason why he shouldn’t arrive at meetings in traditional Bavarian attire. Martin, the rather shy programmer, would sink down behind the bank of PCs on his desk whenever shouts from the demonstration room suggested his software had crashed. Kasten was known to throw a 3.5’ disk on the floor and grind it into the carpet with his heel. For Hans Rose, who previously worked on salon administration software in SMV’s office, Mettingstrasse was an opportunity to extend his horizons. Already, he was working on database software that would take Digithurst in a whole new direction.

- 00110010 -

Nurnberg was three days ago, possibly two; it was hard to keep track. A plume of spray rose from the East River and drifted over the runway of LaGuardia airport. The Delta Airlines flight to Miami was delayed, the DC9 still at the gate waiting for the wind to drop. The person two seats in front was wheezing into a deployed oxygen mask. Taking the ticket from my pocket for the third time, I checked the time of the connecting flight again; another 10-minute delay and there was no chance of meeting it.

The aircraft rocked and slewed down the runway, then strained into the air. Suddenly a sharp pain; a blow to the head. Disorientated and sliding down into my seat, all I could think of was that hammer.

- 00111001 -

The hammer had landed with a thud on the carpet, just four metres from the table where we sat eating breakfast. It had been preceded by a shower of nails and screws from builders scaffolding six storeys up. David Russell had joined me, the last chance to talk before my flight. Conversation, frustrated by the clatter of cutlery echoing in the glass-clad atrium, became impossible when the pianist started playing. Both of us agreed first-mover advantage obviously didn’t apply to guests in recently opened hotels. Discussion turned to Black Monday and the impact it would have on sales of IDR terminals. Shouting above the noise gave the impression we were in a state of panic. Perhaps we were; perhaps that’s why Peter Kreischer had been invited to give one of his hyperactive presentations of SMV’s hairstyling system to an audience more used to dry explanations of information flows across trading floors. That was the second occasion Black Monday had been mentioned over breakfast; the first was in back in Nurnberg at the Zirbelstube Hotel.

- 00110011 -

Meeting Huber hadn’t been part of this complex business trip, which saw me driving to Hannover, Nurnberg and then Frankfurt before flying to the Bahamas via New York. However, by chance, he was meeting Peter Kreischer on the same day I met Rainer in our new offices in Mettingstrasse. So, we found ourselves staying in the same hotel ten kilometres south of Nurnberg. Huber had been instrumental in reshaping the Volkswagen Beetle so it could be marketed as the Porsche. A businessman first and an engineer second, he knew how to make money out of bare metal. When the sales of soft drinks cans were temporarily prohibited in parts of the US, on the grounds that ring pulls were encouraging litter, Huber came up with the push button can top. Rather than bill companies for the design, he asked for a royalty on each can. Sharing the risk, he explained, and the enormous revenue. Then he mentioned Black Monday, the near vertical dive in share prices the previous October. His losses during the first 30 minutes of trading were roughly equal to Digithurst’s annual profit.

Huber had also been partially responsible for the business model which made SMV’s video hairstyling system look like commercial alchemy. The equipment and software were purchased from SMV by manufacturers of hair care products: Wella, Schwarzkopf and L’Oréal. These three companies leased systems to salons on generous terms: interest free with repayment via forgone discounts on haircare products for the duration of the lease. SMV and the cosmetics companies generated the publicity, which drove customers into the salon. As it was both novel and visual, TV stations, newspapers and magazines were keen to feature the system; there was a lot of editorial coverage, also advertorial in the form of vouchers for free video hairstyling consultations. For those who somehow missed out on one of these offers, the consultation typically cost 10 marks, which the salon deducted from the cost of the restyling. Basically, wherever you were in this deal, video hairstyling appeared to cost nothing. Only salon owners who hadn’t yet bought a system felt they were losing out.

- 00110001 -

There should have been plenty of time to drive from the hotel to Frankfurt, but I had to collect my father. He was accompanying me on the trip, at least as far as Frankfurt, and was now waiting for me in Roth, a small town ten kilometres to the south, where he had spent the night with friends. The plan was to drop him at the airport railway station, then meet up with him again at Gerde’s apartment in Köln at the end of the week. This added complication resulted in a sprint to the departure gate, where an anxious Peter Kreischer was waiting. Peter was a teacher by profession and his ability to hold the attention of a room full of people was put to good use when he and Jürgen Roth formed SMV. Initially, the company sold turnkey salon management systems. The arrival of Digithurst’s video hairstyling system saw Peter becoming less of an educator and more of a showman. The teacher was still there and, under all that boundless energy, resided a highly-motivated control freak.

Rainer sucked air through his teeth when he heard Peter was accompanying me to New York. Surviving the flight would be the hardest part.

Seven hours,’ he sighed sympathetically, shaking his head. He was right, because rather than sleeping, Peter repeatedly dismantled and reassembled the video hairdressing concept like a child playing with Lego. By the time we landed at JFK, Peter was on the point of launching a 3D system that performed automated hair implants …

... (An extract from The Ghost in the Labyrinth by Peter Kruger)

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