Technical Tools Tale (The Beginning)

By -

I decided to share a portion of my background that I thought some readers might find interesting; it’s lengthy, so I’ve broken it into three parts. I’ve also modified the names somewhat, with the exception of my own! So here we go………

The job market in the spring of 1991 was a weak one. The economy was in a recession, and the effects were felt particularly sharply in the Silicon Valley, where the novelty of personal computers had long since faded, and the need for high-tech marketing people – ostensibly my speciality – was modest.

In those days, before Craigslist, Dice, and all the other online tools that connect employers with prospective employees, it was a clumsy effort to hunt down a job. I spent most of my time scanning the classified ad section of the San Jose Mercury News. The challenge for me, frankly, was that my skill set was such a peculiar one, it made it tough to figure out where I should even look. I didn’t want to be a technical writer: the prospect of writing manuals for the rest of my life had no appeal for me. I wasn’t a programmer – – not a good one, at least. And I had no experience or interest in sales.

My strongest interest was in the realm of stocks and financial information, but Palo Alto was hardly the nexus of that industry. Had I been in New York City, or even Chicago, there would probably have been plenty of choices. In the Silicon Valley, however, the manufacturing of machines designed to process and store information didn’t necessarily mean that the information firms were likewise local.

I did find one interesting firm in town, Tibco, that was in the business of financial information, but the market they served was at a professional level, and there wasn’t really a fit there. In their lobby, however, there was a copy of Futures magazine, which I had never seen before, and it had a full-page ad for a data company called Technical Tools that was clearly focused on the retail market. I looked at the address of the ad and, incredibly. it was in Los Altos, California – practically next-door to Palo Alto.

I gave the company a call, and their president, Chris Cooper, said he’d be interested a resume. I mailed it to him, and shortly thereafter, he asked me to come in for an interview.

After three months of hunting for a job, this was the best prospect I had so far, so I was excited to have the chance to not only get a job at a firm in an area of interest to me, but to do so in a small outfit. The company was tiny – just nine employees – so when I got there, I had interviews with just two people: Gibbons Burke, who managed product development, and Chris Cooper, the founder and CEO there.

Gibbons was about my age, and we hit it off just fine. Technical Tools was in the business of selling historical financial data and daily updates to retail traders, almost all of them in the U.S., and they had reached a level of success that gave them the chance to hire a “real” marketing person (which, I hoped, would be me). In spite of being in the working world a number of years, the only “marketing” thing about me was my college degree, but between my book writing and my small business experience, I was able to put forth a plausible case for me doing the marketing for Technical Tools.

The company was located on the second floor of an office building at 334 State Street in Los Altos. The offices in the building weren’t designed to hold more than about seven people, so Technical Tools found itself split into two suites – – the larger one with Gibbons, technical support, shipping, and sales – – and the smaller one with the programmers: Rick Kitts, who was a little older than me, and Chris Cooper, who i guessed was in his late 30s. Gibbons escorted me down the hallway to introduce me to Chris.

Chris was a tall, almost bald, rugged-looking fellow who clearly had plenty of intellectual firepower. He spoke carefully, and plainly, and he had the kind of open and honest demeanor that quickly put one at ease. He had already reviewed my resume and liked what he saw, and he stated, regarding the prospect of hiring me, “I am inclined to say yes.” It wasn’t a job offer, but it at least indicated he was strongly favoring the prospect of giving me a job.

As eager as I was to ingratiate myself to him, I noticed an 8 by 10 photograph hanging on the wall behind him. My eyesight has never been perfect, but I could make out from the bald head that the black and white photograph was of Chris and some other person. I didn’t realize it at the time, but Chris was gay, and the picture was of him and his long-time boyfriend. He noticed me squinting at the picture (perhaps confusing my bad vision for discomfort) and said, “You should know that I’m gay, so you’d need to be comfortable with that.”

I had no problem with that at all, so I blurted out, rather clumsily, “Oh, not at all, my sister’s gay, and so I am.” What Chris heard was, “….my sister’s gay, and so am I.” to which he asked, “You are?”, swiftly followed by me clarifying what I said, trying desperately not to dig myself into some kind of hole.

A day or two later, Chris called me to let me know I had the job, and I was relieved and delighted. I had never been unemployed so long in my life, and I could confidently move forward with my plans to buy a house in Palo Alto, blessed as I was now with gainful employment.

Filling the Data Trough

In 1991, the component parts a retail trader had to put together to get his job done reflected how disjointed information technology was. There were basically four different elements a retail trader had to assemble: the brokerage, the charting package, the history, and the updates.

The brokerage was simple enough, because there were a number of firms that provided online trading services, such as E*Trade, Charles Schwab, Fidelity, dozens of smaller outfits. The charting package (assuming the trader in question used technical analysis) could be acquired from Equis International (makers of the Metastock program), Omega Systems (makers of Tradestation), or, again, any of a dozen other smaller outfits.

The charting program, however, was merely a window to the data, and without data, there was nothing to chart. The nature of time-series price data is that, as time goes on, it becomes stale and decreasingly valuable. For instance, if someone had data for IBM from 1960 to 1991, that’s useful for a person placing trades in 1991, but with each passing day, month, and year, the data becomes less relevant and useful for placing new traders. Therefore, historical data needs to be updated regularly.

That is where a firm like Technical Tools came in, because it could provide years (and, in some cases, decades) of daily historical financial data as well as the service to update it each trading day. Thus, a person using a charting package could be looking at up-to-date charts for whatever stocks, options, futures, or other financial instruments that might wish to trade.

Selling this kind of thing isn’t exactly sexy. I set about the task of putting together advertisements, a catalog, and materials for trade shows. People would call us, state their order, and we would copy the data onto stacks of floppy disks to mail out to them. There was no Internet, no web site, no email – – indeed, in spite of the relatively high-tech nature of our business, the way we went about marketing and distributing out product was no different than someone selling sacks of flour or boxes of nails back in the year 1900. They read about what we had on a piece of paper, placed a phone call, and were shipped whatever they bought.

The business itself had three different categories: the first was utility software, which were esoteric programs with names like Quote Butler and Quote Doctor, each of which had a very specific function relating to the formatting or arrangement of the financial data. That was a small aspect of the business, and Chris, being the principal brain behind the operation, had written all of these programs. The second was historical data, which was the simplest and most profitable, since we were merely reselling daily price data that was licensed from other firms, to whom we paid a small percentage of the sale.

The largest and most reliable revenue stream of the business, however, was the third one: daily updates. Each evening, after the markets had closed, we would take the end-of-day data dump from our own quote feed and transform it into a downloadable file. A small stack of modems would light up as people from around the country would dial our modem number and, bit by bit, update their historical databases. It was a crude, slow way to go about it, but the 1200 baud modems suckling from our data teats were about the only way to go back then.

I enjoyed my job, and my co-workers were all young, energetic, and fun to be around. I had never been in a small company before, since my experience to date had been either working completely on my own or, as in the case of Apple or Montgomery Securities, being surrounded by hundreds of co-workers. The beauty of a team that could, if necessary, all fit into a utility van, was that everyone got to know each other well, and everyone had a clear sense of their role in the firm. That was all about to change.