The Computer Grocery

When I arrived in San Francisco on Thanksgiving Day of 1981, I had very high hopes for a career in High Tech.  The many contacts I had made working for Hybrid Technology Corporation (HTC) back in Concord MA seemed to assure an easy entry.  

HTC manufactured equipment capable of soldering many circuit contacts simultaneously, utilizing an amazing proprietary heating process called Vapor Phase Reflow.  Instead of the heat lamps or solder baths that were then commonly in use, we boiled a special liquid into vapor, in devices that looked kind of like a cross between a vegetable steamer and a washing machine. Whereas a vegetable steamer boils water to the exact temperature of 212º, ours boiled at 419º, the perfect mid-point between solder (385º) and plastic (approx 600º).  So when the vapors condensed on the circuitry, giving up their “latent heat” at the moment of phase change,  connections were fused assuredly, while plastic (and the new ceramic) circuit boards were not damaged.  It was a revolutionary process, and drew much attention from scientists and production engineers in Silicon Valley.   We would show the equipment at PACKAGING trade shows across the country.  A whole other kind of packaging than we normally think of !   This was the process of mounting integrated circuits and other electronic parts into boards.  Or, onto ceramic boards, as our target clients did with the new surface-mounted components, that were used in expensive, high-reliability medical and aerospace applications.  

I worked the booth, made the pitches, shook the hands, and collected the contacts for later follow-up.  

So I was armed with a full Rolodex by the time I hit California.  Many trips were made down 280 to interviews in  “The Valley”.  One memorable one was with Kyocera, a 600-year-old Japanese electronics firm !  They started by making plates for the Emperor, moved into ceramic insulators early in the 20th Century, and then, relevant to me, to the kind of multilayer ceramic hybrid circuit boards and chip carriers we processed at HTC.  But no job for me.  There, or any of the other companies where I interviewed.  There was an economic slump at the time, and I was possibly too East Coast for some people.  I actually became homeless and traded my valuable 78rpm record collection bit by bit for couches to crash on while I figured out my next step. 

I was always a networker, then and now, and asked everyone for ways they could think of for me to get a job.  Someone suggested The Jewish Vocational Service, if only to get some career counseling.  I was never very Jewish, but willing to give anything a try at that point. I went to their office on Market Street in San Francisco and found they had binders full of listings for jobs.

One listing intrigued me, for a Computer Supplies salesman.  

I had no idea what that meant.  Previously my only connection to the world of computers was through some of the component assemblies that engineers were trying to establish viability for the processes we offered at HTC.  The position available was for a sales trainee to eventually cover a tiny territory 10 blocks by 5 blocks in the San Francisco Financial District.  Turns out, it included the tallest buildings in California, and thousands of potential customers.  I had an interview with Mike Pinelli and we got along like brothers from different mothers ~!   Great sense of humor and style and I could immediately see that IF I got the job, he had a LOT to teach me. Mike had not placed the listing with the JVS, and had no idea how they knew there was a job opening. The company I would work for, ForceFour, was based in Portland OR.  I did get the job.  We’d meet downtown in coffee shops and hotel lobbies and he took me around to see his customers, their mainframe computer rooms, and demonstrated how to serve their needs and treat them with respect.  We had no office, but occasionally mooched space for receiving packages or meeting with vendors from his friendly customers.  That’s really the core of what he taught me: make FRIENDS out of prospective customers and they’ll stick with you for life.  At that time, NO one bought anything from ANYONE if they didn’t have lunch together at least a couple of times a year.  Sadly, that concept was totally gone when the Dot-Bomb dropped 20 years later, and people could get fired for having lunch with a vendor.

I had such fun being a salesman.  A very free, “do it your way – make your own rules” way to make a living.  Years before, while at HTC, I had been working an entry-level job as stockboy and purchasing agent.  Right before a key trade show in Philadelphia the quirky sales manager quit and the owner could not run the booth alone.  I was a scruffy hippie with a long beard, but quickly volunteered. The boss was skeptical, but agreed to give me an intensive technical training on the equipment and send me to Dale Carnegie sales school.  Sounded hokey, but if it got me a move-up in my career, I was all for it.  

Turns out, I learned some of my most important life’s lessons there.  Making friends with customers was at the core, but cultivating empathy, and careful, attentive listening were universal good things. The art of asking questions and finding what others really love, and then getting them to talk as long as they wanted about that.  You’d think a sales guy would want to make his sales pitch as soon as possible and move on to the next call, but WRONG. Not if you’re developing a territory where it’s not one sale/one product you’re offering, but permission and welcome to come back every month and visit with a “work-friend”. If a need came up, during the meeting, or anytime between, of course, you’d be the guy they’d ask to supply their specific need.  And price is not so central if they are buying from a friend, rather than some sleazebag salesman.

One of my favorite games I’d play with my very diverse clientele was “how do you say ‘blah-blah-blah’ in your native language” ?  The purchasing and data center managers in the Financial District at the time were like The United Nations. Surprisingly, a huge majority of folks were from the Phillippines. So I learned magandang umaga right off the bat. Another phrase I loved to learn, in as many languages as I was exposed to, was “What’s happenin’, Man ?”.  The roll and wave and beat in Tagalog was just super in Anong Balita . You had to kinda swallow the “g” on the first word. People responded well to my honest interest in them, their culture and stories of their homeland.  I was shocked to learn that one of my best customers had grown up quite wealthy in Manila, with servants and such.  She was kidnaped when she was five years old, but got free, unharmed, after the ransom was paid !  I was told lots of stories like that, because folks felt safe with me and treated me like a special uncle.  That became another life’s goal for me: to be seen as avuncular. It served me well 30 years later when I was an elder on my commune in Sonoma County

I made some great sales in that early time with ForceFour.      

One totally cold call on Tri/Valley Growers brought me face-to-face with DP manager Bill Brown.  He and I really hit it off and he gave me an order on the spot for a dozen $1000 300 MEGAbyte disk packs !!  Can you imagine when it cost that much for storage ?  That would translate to $53,330 for the 16gb thumb drive I’d buy today at Office Depot for $5.

That sale got them buzzing at the home office in Portland.       

I’d been on the job only a few weeks and I think they were impressed.  They sent down this peddler’s award pin for me. 

Sad to say though something about me wasn’t right for them. After 3 months they asked Mike to let me go.  I didn’t get it. 

When we had our talk he was really sorry, and said, “If you don’t find something else in 3 weeks or so, let me know.  I have a friend who is starting a new business.”  I did, and that friend was HIM !

He & I both had problems being San Francisco peddlers of extremely time-sensitive products that were needed NOW, but had to be shipped from our warehouse 1000 miles away. He had argued with the home office frequently asking them to let him create a local warehouse, for those kinds of items, like 300mb disk packs, for example.  Their response was totally unreasonable and STUPID.  “Sell what we have” was their motto. Not exactly customer or service oriented, to say the least. So Mike had a dream he was going to make reality.

SO, it would be a warehouse of computer supplies we could draw upon, and deliver same day from right in the middle of downtown. And then, he thought, why just a warehouse, we could open it up to a retail trade and have a STORE !

One of Mike’s favorite things to do was to invite 6 or so customers and their spouses to go wine tasting in Sonoma and Napa Valleys.  His friend Andy had just quit his corporate job, bought a big van and was the first person we’d ever heard of who lead Wine Country tours.  People loved it.  They could get drunk on the best and not have to drive back to the Bay Area.  One of the favorite non-wine stops was for lunch at the gorgeous Oakville Grocery.  Mike particularly loved their layout, fixtures and retail displays, all in the best of taste.   SO, we studied their decor assiduously, down to the floors and up to the lighting and especially, the shelving.   I was good at sourcing and working with decorators.  My initial job was to get all these things together and installed in the wonderful space Mike had found South of Market at 2nd and Mission Streets.   Inspired as he was by the Oakville Grocery, and the fact that we were selling the “food” for Data Processing, THE COMPUTER GROCERY was born ~!!!

It was an immediate success. Not only could we meet all our original clients emergency, and non-emergency, needs, we could meet many curious new customers on our own turf, prove ourselves, and arrange to visit them in their offices. 

Also, there were several new trends in computing that converged to make the timing of our venture nearly perfect:

Mainframe computers were stable in their large corporate niche, but now smaller firms, in Law and Finance and Engineering were getting refrigerator-size MINI-Computers. Companies like DEC, Nixdorf, HP, Wang and others were providing great bang-for-the-buck systems, some of which were marketed for specific markets and applications. Wang Computers were found more and more in Law firms and in the Word Processing Departments that had replaced the Typing Pools. IBM came out with a series of “smaller systems” that developed from the S/1 to Systems36 and 38 and eventually the AS400. We got a System36.

They became our family and we courted all the members of the club, attending all the meetings and advertising in their newsletters. 

Oh yeah, there was also Gus the Goose, who was our mascot. A real hit and a half, was he !  We advertised often and early, and he was central to every ad.  We had him stuffed, too ! 




Yeah, Mike and I really looked like brothers !

The manufacturers whose products we were selling were very excited by what we were doing as well and gave us good press.

Things were going well, indeed.  

We grew and added staff. 









Oh.  There were also the first personal computers that people bought for their homes and then for their offices.

Much diversity there, as it was not only IBM and Apple jockeying for this business, and all the peripherals utilized unique printer ribbons, back-up media and more.  So having to keep up with an ever-widening assortment of things was challenging.  

San Francisco was at the forefront of worker safety, and that was just extending to office workers, as well.  I visited many firms to get their workstations compliant with the new codes and made ergonomically correct.  Luckily, I was one they called when new computer rooms and data centers were being built to these specifications and requirements.  Also, this town as a whole saw value in providing comfortable working conditions and realizing how that could foster greater productivity and innovation.  And then, came the Dot-Com era ~!

It was many things for many people.  Money was flowing faster and faster from the Venture Capital folks down in Palo Alto and into the many smaller office buildings surrounding us in the South of Market.  For the first few years, no one cared how much anything cost, and played Foos Ball and with the dogs under the desks all day.  It was good, but ultimately went down, and brought a lot of legitimate businesses, like ours, down with it. 

There were these things above the content that the websites were supposed to be about called “banner ads”.  This “new economy” would sell these ads for big bucks because of the many eyes that would see them when searching for the information they wanted a few inches below. Selling ad space became THE game.  Even if the products that the company’s website were sold at a LOSS, money could be “made-up” by adding the advertising revenue to the bottom line.

This, in fact, is what killed The Computer Grocery.  We were a real business.  I bought stuff, and sold it to customers, who paid me some % more than my original cost.  It’s called margin or profit, and makes the business world go ’round.  It’s thousands of years old.  The problem was, this was the dawn of the “Greed is Good” times.  My customer’s bosses found no value in the “value-add” services I was bringing to every sale, and ordered them to go out on the internet and find the products that I might have researched and sorted and organized for them, at the lowest price that could be found.  Often, they found them at sources that did not maintain stock and were selling them below their own cost, hoping all was supported by ad income.   End of story.