Office 2.0

We were still working from my living room. Not unusual in the IT sector during the 1980s. The headquarters of a ‘major’ home computing peripheral supplier was actually a terraced house. Our camera supplier, Josh Caplin, also operated from home. There were PDP 11s and even flow solder machines set up in lounges across Britain. My house was based on an upside-down design, with the living room on the first floor to take advantage of the view across open countryside. This meant customers had to walk through the house, negotiating children’s toys spread across the hall, and up the stairs. Then they arrived in Digithurst’s reception, which was also the main office and demonstration room.

A visitor once a week had been OK, but now we were giving up to three demonstrations a day. The house was beginning to suffer from the wear and tear of a constant stream of scientists and PC dealers. A settee that customers insisted on leaning against during presentations collapsed under the weight of one of our larger visitors. Stephen’s desk was now in a spare bedroom, which doubled up as workshop and stationery cupboard. In the meantime, living space shrunk each time we interfaced the MicroEye to a new PC.

As a result, we built new premises and became the only company in Cambridgeshire to expand into a garage rather than out of one. Having run out of both time and money when building the house, the land earmarked for a garage remained an open space at the end of the drive. This seemed an ideal time to put this right. But, what we built was not a garage; the up-and-over door was a sham, because it hid a small workshop behind which were two offices: one for sales and software design, the other for hardware development.

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Jean, our secretary, retired and Sue Pateman took over as receptionist and office manager. The new building seemed excessive for just three people. Also, over the next few months a large part of our business simply disappeared – or, rather, we had to put less effort into generating it.

Agricultural researchers used our equipment to monitor crop damage. A company called Skye Instruments asked us to produce a software package for the BBC Model B, which would measure mould and insect damage on leaf crops. As Stephen was fully occupied working on Sirius-based image processing applications, I wrote a stripped-down version of MicroScale for the BBC Model B. When complete, this software was resold exclusively by Skye Instruments. Although sales to the agricultural sector dried up following Skye’s launch of its leaf and root measuring system, revenue from the first of our many OEMs more than made up for it. Luckily, our pricing structure supported a distribution and dealer network – something competitors, stuck with those with sub £100 products, missed out on.

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Pricing became even more important as we started exporting MicroEyes. ACT took advantage of IBM’s delayed launch of its PC outside of the US. European microcomputer dealers, looking for a 16-bit computer to replace ageing 8-bit models, were limited in their choice and many turned to the Victor 9000. This also boosted the overseas readership of the UK-based magazine 16 Bit Computing in which we advertised. Our European exposure was also boosted by two mentions in Byte magazine’s international section.

Our first overseas enquiry came from Esselte, a Swedish office equipment supplier and distributor of the AutoCad software package. The company wanted us to demonstrate the MicroEye on the Victor at an exhibition in Stockholm. All the arrangements were made by one of their dealers, Epoc System. We explained that the MicroEye would not digitise drawings; it was our fault that people thought different. In that article written for Practical Computing, we made a reference to CAD. Also, we listed AutoCad as a supported application. So, Bernt Bostrom, CEO of Epoc, insisted I visit Stockholm; his company would even pay for the airfare and accommodation …

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

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