TweetFollow Us on Twitter

Jun 86 History
Volume Number:2
Issue Number:6
Column Tag:Historical Computing

Confessions of a Computer Store Junkie

By Dick Heiser, Industry Pioneer, On the Great Peace March

Dick Heiser is one of the more famous individuals in the personal computing industry and rightly so. He started the first Computer Store in Santa Monica and his vision has influenced virtually every computer store since. In this third column, he shares with us some of his thoughts on what he learned about business from the Computer Store.

The Right Stuff

According to Tom Wolfe, the Mercury astronauts showed the Right Stuff by staying calm in a crisis and by acting correctly, immediately, effeortlessly. Unconventional business practices that succeed carry a similar feeling of style, of the Right Stuff.

Michael Phillip's book Honest Business shows small businesses how to have the Right Stuff. He recommends investing money slowly, paying bills immediately, telling the truth, not having secrets, and keeping the focus on people rather than on goods or money.

Carbon Copies

Many business practices become "de facto standards" because everybody copies what the first guy did. Sometimes that's smart: Kaypro copied Osborne's portability and price because Osborne had proven his new ideas. In my store, I copied the IBM "solution sell" because it's the proper way to treat a customer.

The "solution sell" is more like counseling than like persuading, and it requires enough time to identify the problem or requirements, develop a solution, and explain it. The "solution sell" is harder to copy than other practices- which makes it a good competitive strategy.

Sometimes copying can get ridiculous. At first, my store was open very late. I liked to jog at noon, and wanted to be open after work for computer hobbyists. Can you believe it? Other stores copied my hours! For years, most computer stores were closed on Monday. Why? Because I wanted to be open on weekends instead! Other times the Right Stuff is so strange that competitors wouldn't touch it with a ten-foot pole!

Hire the Hacker

Hackers have been the best employees by far at the Computer Store. They're easy to find, hard working, fantastically well-informed, and fun to work with.

In the fall of 1975, when I was busy with customers, my wife Lois (then a programmer for the RAND Corporation) would pitch-in. Often people wouldn't let her help them, under the assumption that a woman couldn't master technical material.

At times, customers had to help each other. Mike Eusey helped other customers a lot. He built his Altair computer from a kit, and learned how it worked. He began hanging out at the store more and more. Lois, expasperated at trying to help uncooperative males, suggested we hire him. He already knew what to do: he'd been doing it for free! Mike and I worked together until I left the store in the spring of 1981 when I sold the store. Mike is not a stereotypical hacker; he's quiet, neat, and sleeps at night. He's a real hacker though; he's an information collector, precise, and he knows five ways to do anything. Lately, he's been answering customer questions about Telo's Filevision.

Steve Zook was another famous fixture in the early days of the world's first Computer Store. Steve was a freshman at UCLA when he built his Altair. He loved to show off his knowledge at my store, and was hired soon after Mike. I can't remember Steve's electronics credentials, but he was appointed repair technician immediately. I was useless with electronics and needed his help desperately. Steve fixed a lot of broken and mis-assembled kit computers [including mine! -Ed.], but upset some customers by casually referring to them as "turkeys". He could operate the bit switches on an Altair so fast you couldn't see his hands move, and he was hardly ever stumped. In his spare time, he rewrote the Processor Technology monitor/editor, and it gradually evolved into the Microopolis Disk Operating System. Micropolis then hired him so they wouln't have to shell out so much for their next operating system. What a talent! What took me fifteen years to learn, was "obvious" to him.

The wonderful hackers who have worked at The Computer Store have so much Right Stuff, that I'll just have to keep some more stories for later.

Own What You Sell

The few times I hired a non-computer-owner to work in my store, I regretted it. Computer owners are the right kind of prospective employees because they have already shown sincere interest in the computer, and they already understand how it works!

Owning what you sell today is harder than in the days of the Apple II. How many salespeople would want to buy an IBM PC-AT, or could afford one? Today's business-oriented computer sellers probably don't own any computer, much less the one they recommend.

I enouraged employees to expand their computers by selling them equipment at cost. I was a bad sport about upgrades, though. I thought frequent equipment turnover would be a problem. Now I see that the best employees are only happy if they have the latest model, and I should have let them upgrade frequently.

Apple Computer has a great employee ownership plan too. Their best idea is the Own-A-Mac program. This plan took the initiative to provide discounts for store empoyees everywhere. This is absolutely the Right Stuff. It's generous, makes people happy, and promotes Apple products. Perfect!

Open Door Policy

When I owned the Computer Store, every employee had a key to the door and to the burglar alarm. To me, the store is a big toy factory, and I want everyone to be able to play with the toys as often as possible. Giving out so many keys increased the chance of something being taken, but I don't believe anything ever was. Instead, everyone responded with a sense of responsibility and pride, and they mostly cleaned-up late night messes. Some of the late night sessions led to interesting software such as PDS-1, ModMon and VTL-2; other sessions were just for fun or for exploring. I'm glad insurance companies didn't think to ask "How many keys are in use?" back then. They'd never have understood how much fun it is to have your own key to the door!

Kids Welcome

Some kids were timid about approaching the computers in the store. Most weren't. Kids exemplify the hacker ethic: they're hands-on-oriented, patient, and insatiably curious.

Many adults are encouraged by seeing kids use computers. We tend to overlook the fears and inhibitions other people have about computers. One adult explained "We've been told too many times not to break things, so we're afraid to play with them". Another adult suggested that we're afraid of getting beeped-at for a silly mistake. "Getting his hand slapped" for doing something invalid really makes him irate. Non-hacker adults have no idea how much you can learn by experimenting.

When I teach adults to use computers, I tell them that teenagers make the best computerists. I encourage adult students to imitate teenager's curiousity, tenacity, and aggressiveness. Some of our customers were put-off by the "unbusinesslike" informality of kids using computers in the store. Other propects got the intended message: computers are interesting and fun to use.

Great Books

Selling books served many purposes for us. First of all, the books contain essential information. We sold how-to books, reference books, and software manuals. This saved a lot of time with propects who ask, "What's this all about?"

Second, we sold textbooks and monographs. We were one of the better local sources for computer science titles, and we stocked some exotic stuff as well. Often there was a "free University" atmosphere in the store, when a local expert would sound-off.

Third, we recommended books that promote a special viewpoint. Computer Lib by Ted Nelson is my favorite, and a new edition may appear later this year. The Psychology of Computer Programming by Gerald Weinberg is the proper orientation for a new professional programmer. Travels in Computerland by Ben Schneiderman is a unique and funny description of what can happen when you decide to computerize.

Lois Brand of Peoples Computer Company told me about the American Booksellers Association. The ABA's big red bok is essentail for dealing with book publishers. Selling books is hard work, and discounters are wiping-out some interesting book dealers.

Sometimes the Wrong Stuff hurts you just as much as the Right Stuff helps. When I bought some remainder books cheap from the Library of Science, I priced them too high. Instead of bargains for customers, we had books to count and to dust for years and years. The Wrong Stuff clings; it takes prompt and decisive action to drive it away!


Before winding up this list of proper ideas, I'd like to mention some Right Stuff for computer hardware and software. Once in a speech, I claimed that IBM will spare no expense to put reliability and error checking into your computer. I got a laugh, but I was perfectly serious! For example, all IBM computers have memory parity checking. Sure enough, a few years later, IBM's personal computer became the only personal computer with parity memory. Surely I told myself, parity will now become a universal feature. Unfortunately, it hasn't.

Some people even object to parity, mistakenly thinking it's making them wait for the power-up memory test. That memory test itself is annoying and can't be turned-off so it's very Wrong Stuff indeed. Some day memory parity checking will catch on. Maybe by then we'll have memory error correction as well as detection. In the meantime, it's an interesting exception to the rule, when IBM struggles without success to give us the Right Stuff.

Think too about open hardware and software architecture; how do you know it's the Right Stuff?


When I write some software, I want to sell it as Shareware, like Bob Wallace does. Shareware, user-supported software, and Freeware don't need intimidating license "agreements" or copy protection schemes. The customers, instead of being the "enemy", are the primary marketing force. Conventional publishing and distribution absorbs 93% of the selling price, so the poor conventional software author can't even afford to offer a refund to the customer!

Software distributed via Compuserve and through user groups can be updated smoothly and often. Switcher and Red Ryder have both been much more dynamic and more responsive to user feedback than more expensive store bought software. If Smartcom were user-supported, like Red Ryder, would they ignore it's incompatibility with the Tecmar Hard Disk? Big software companies generate so much momentum and inertia, spending that 93% of the revenue, that it's no wonder they're unresponsive. Some "marketing expert" who doesn't understand the problem and who probably can't even use the program decides what's important. [So that's why Microsoft is having such a hard time figuring out how to make Fortran work on a Mac Plus! -Ed.]

Bob Wallace, on the other hand, is fully in charge of his software as well as his company. He updates his product often, and can afford to hire a few talented people to help him. He's close to his customers, so he knows what's really important to them, and he had the pleasure of knowing that all the revenue comes from already satisfied customers. By designing his own business arrangements, Bob is way ahead of authors who turn their programs over to conventional publishers.

Do it Yourself

Many of these ideas are good not only because they work, but also because they deserve to work. Computerists, like other technologists, face choices between good and bad. Plastic guns for airplane hijackers, and teflon bullets are technical innovations that can be imagined but should not be developed. Choosing between good and bad isn't hard. It just requires the confidence to follow your own judgement. The Rotary International "four way test" is a good starting point when you're thinking about your own Right Stuff:

1. Is it the truth?

2. Is it fair to all concerned?

3. Will it build goodwill and better friendships?

4. Will it be beneficial to all concerned?

Not only is this a good creed for the personal computing industry but individuals and nations as well. And now for me, it's back to the Great Peace March to emphasize my belief that peace is definitely the Right Stuff!


Community Search:
MacTech Search:

Software Updates via MacUpdate

Chromium 54.0.2840.71 - Fast and stable...
Chromium is an open-source browser project that aims to build a safer, faster, and more stable way for all Internet users to experience the web. Version 54.0.2840.71: Release notes were unavailable... Read more
Firetask 3.8.1 - Innovative task managem...
Firetask uniquely combines the advantages of classical priority-and-due-date-based task management with GTD. Stay focused and on top of your commitments - Firetask's "Today" view shows all relevant... Read more
Yep 3.8.0 - $23.99
Yep is a document organization and management tool. Like iTunes for music or iPhoto for photos, Yep lets you search and view your documents in a comfortable interface, while offering the ability to... Read more
Data Rescue 4.3.1 - Powerful hard drive...
Use Data Rescue to recover: crashed, corrupted or non-mounting hard drive deleted, damaged, or lost files reformatted or erased hard drive One powerful new feature found in Data Rescue 4 is... Read more
Yep 3.8.0 - $23.99
Yep is a document organization and management tool. Like iTunes for music or iPhoto for photos, Yep lets you search and view your documents in a comfortable interface, while offering the ability to... Read more
Data Rescue 4.3.1 - Powerful hard drive...
Use Data Rescue to recover: crashed, corrupted or non-mounting hard drive deleted, damaged, or lost files reformatted or erased hard drive One powerful new feature found in Data Rescue 4 is... Read more
PDFpen 8.2.1 - $74.95
PDFpen allows users to easily edit PDF's. Add text, images and signatures. Fill out PDF forms. Merge or split PDF documents. Reorder and delete pages. Even correct text and edit graphics! Features... Read more
TextMate 2.0-beta.12.25 - Code/markup ed...
TextMate is a versatile plain text editor with a unique and innovative feature set which caused it to win an Apple Design Award for Best Mac OS X Developer Tool in August 2006. A rapidly growing... Read more
TunnelBear 3.0.4 - Subscription-based pr...
TunnelBear is a subscription-based virtual private network (VPN) service and companion app, enabling you to browse the internet privately and securely. Features Browse privately - Secure your data... Read more
QuickBooks R9 - Financial ma...
QuickBooks helps you manage your business easily and efficiently. Organize your finances all in one place, track money going in and out of your business, and spot areas where you can save. Built for... Read more

Latest Forum Discussions

See All

Best Fiends Forever Guide: How to collec...
The fiendship in Seriously's hit Best Fiends has been upgraded this time around in Best Fiends Forever. It’s a fast-paced clicker with lots of color and style--kind of reminiscent of a ‘90s animal mascot game like Crash Bandicoot. The game... | Read more »
5 apps for the budding mixologist
Creating your own cocktails is something of an art form, requiring a knack for unique tastes and devising interesting combinations. It's easy to get started right in your own kitchen, though, even if you're a complete beginner. Try using one of... | Read more »
5 mobile strategy games to try when you...
Strategy enthusiasts everywhere are celebrating the release of Civilization VI this week, and so far everyone seems pretty satisfied with the first full release in the series since 2010. The series has always been about ultra-addictive gameplay... | Read more »
Popclaire talk to us about why The Virus...
Humanity has succumbed to a virus that’s spread throughout the world. Now the dead have risen with a hunger for human flesh, and all that remain are a few survivors. One of those survivors has just called you for help. That’s the plot in POPCLAIRE’... | Read more »
Oceans & Empires preview build sets...
Hugely ambitious sea battler Oceans & Empires is available to play in preview form now on Google Play - but download it quickly, as it’s setting sail away in just a few days. [Read more] | Read more »
Rusty Lake: Roots (Games)
Rusty Lake: Roots 1.1.4 Device: iOS Universal Category: Games Price: $2.99, Version: 1.1.4 (iTunes) Description: James Vanderboom's life drastically changes when he plants a special seed in the garden of the house he has inherited.... | Read more »
Flippy Bottle Extreme! and 3 other physi...
Flippy Bottle Extreme! takes on the bottle flipping craze with a bunch of increasingly tricky physics platforming puzzles. It's difficult and highly frustrating, but also addictive. When you begin to master the game, the sense of achievement is... | Read more »
Plants vs. Zombies Heroes guide: How to...
Plants vs. Zombies Heroes surprised us all, presenting a deep deck building experience. It's a great CCG that stands up well to the competition. There are a lot of CCGs vying for players' attention at the moment, but PvZ Heroes is definitely one... | Read more »
Arcane Online takes Online RPG’s to anot...
If you think that you need a desktop to enjoy high quality MMO gaming then Arcane Online hopes to prove you emphatically wrong. An epic fantasy Online RPG set in the land of Eldine, Arcane Online offers an abundance of features and content that... | Read more »
It’s time to step up and start your spoo...
So you’ve just downloaded Seekers Notes: Hidden Mystery, and you obviously want to hit the ground running. Well you’re in luck because you just so happen to be reading our very useful guide to playing. First released in July last year, the game has... | Read more »

Price Scanner via

PixelStyle Inexpensive Photo Editor For Mac W...
PixelStyle is an all-in-one Mac Photo Editor with a huge range of high-end filters including lighting, blurs, distortions, tilt-shift, shadows, glows and so forth. PixelStyle Photo Editor for Mac... Read more
13-inch MacBook Airs on sale for $100-$140 of...
B&H has 13″ MacBook Airs on sale for $100-$140 off MSRP for a limited time. Shipping is free, and B&H charges NY sales tax only: - 13″ 1.6GHz/128GB MacBook Air (sku MMGF2LL/A): $899 $100 off... Read more
2.8GHz Mac mini available for $988, includes...
Adorama has the 2.8GHz Mac mini available for $988, $11 off MSRP, including a free copy of Apple’s 3-Year AppleCare Protection Plan. Shipping is free, and Adorama charges sales tax in NY & NJ... Read more
21-inch 3.1GHz 4K on sale for $1379, $120 off...
Adorama has the 21″ 3.1GHz 4K iMac on sale $1379.99. Shipping is free, and Adorama charges NY & NJ sales tax only. Their price is $120 off MSRP. To purchase an iMac at this price, you must first... Read more
Check Apple prices on any device with the iTr...
MacPrices is proud to offer readers a free iOS app (iPhones, iPads, & iPod touch) and Android app (Google Play and Amazon App Store) called iTracx, which allows you to glance at today’s lowest... Read more
Apple, Samsung, Lead J.D. Power Smartphone Sa...
Customer satisfaction is much higher among smartphone owners currently subscribing to full-service wireless carriers, compared with those purchasing service through a non-contract carrier, according... Read more
Select 9-inch Apple WiFi iPad Pros on sale fo...
B&H Photo has select 9.7″ Apple WiFi iPad Pros on sale for up to $50 off MSRP, each including free shipping. B&H charges sales tax in NY only: - 9″ Space Gray 256GB WiFi iPad Pro: $799 $0 off... Read more
Apple refurbished 13-inch Retina MacBook Pros...
Apple has Certified Refurbished 13″ Retina MacBook Pros available for up to $270 off the cost of new models. An Apple one-year warranty is included with each model, and shipping is free: - 13″ 2.7GHz... Read more
Apple refurbished 15-inch Retina MacBook Pros...
Apple has Certified Refurbished 2015 15″ Retina MacBook Pros available for up to $380 off the cost of new models. An Apple one-year warranty is included with each model, and shipping is free: - 15″ 2... Read more
Apple refurbished 11-inch MacBook Airs availa...
Apple has Certified Refurbished 11″ MacBook Airs (the latest models), available for up to $170 off the cost of new models. An Apple one-year warranty is included with each MacBook, and shipping is... Read more

Jobs Board

*Apple* Retail - Multiple Positions- Napervi...
Job Description:SalesSpecialist - Retail Customer Service and SalesTransform Apple Store visitors into loyal Apple customers. When customers enter the store, Read more
Security Data Analyst - *Apple* Information...
…data sources need to be collected to allow Information Security to better protect Apple employees and customers from a wide range of threats.Act as the subject Read more
*Apple* Retail - Multiple Positions (Multi-L...
Job Description: Sales Specialist - Retail Customer Service and Sales Transform Apple Store visitors into loyal Apple customers. When customers enter the store, Read more
*Apple* Retail - Multiple Positions- New Yor...
Sales Specialist - Retail Customer Service and Sales Transform Apple Store visitors into loyal Apple customers. When customers enter the store, you're also the Read more
*Apple* Retail - Multiple Positions- Yonkers...
Sales Specialist - Retail Customer Service and Sales Transform Apple Store visitors into loyal Apple customers. When customers enter the store, you're also the Read more
All contents are Copyright 1984-2011 by Xplain Corporation. All rights reserved. Theme designed by Icreon.