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How I got here in the end, part six: the second startup death march

... Or: how usenet got me a job.

The world wide web is not the internet. The internet actually predates the web by more than two decades; I've been online with a connection to the net pretty much continuously since late 1989, except for a nine-month outage between university and the job at SCO. And since late 1991 I've had access to usenet. Usenet — the vast distributed discussion system — is but a shadow of its former self, largely killed by spam and ignorance ... but back in the day it was where folks networked on a one-to-many level, and it's probably where I first ran into Fearghas.


(One thing I'd better make clear at this point is that I still go drinking with some of the folks in this bit of the memoir, still live in the same town, and am therefore disinclined to piss in the paddling pool we all swim in. So you're not getting the full story, from this point on: I'm going to discreetly pass over certain points, at least until the parties concerned are dead and the statute of limitations has expired. And if you were there, and I misrepresented something, please let me know so I can correct myself.)

Okay: let's rewind the clock from SCO disappearing into twilight zone territory in early 1995, back to the halcyon days of mid-to-late 1993.

I wanted to be on the internet at home. I first got a net connection in 1991, via UUCP (the story of where the "antipope" handle came from is here). In 1993, a small firm of UNIX consultants in London decided that enough of their friends wanted real home internets rather than warmed-over UUCP that there was a market; they bought in a dedicated leased-line internet connection and installed a bank of modems, configured for SLIP (and later PPP) dialup, and started selling accounts for a tenner a month in 1992. They went on to become Demon Internet, and while I didn't sign up with them in their first year, I was one of their first 2500 or so customers (I believe it was the first dialup ISP in Europe).

Having home dialup internet in those days was a bit freakishly weird, so geeky that most folks didn't even know what you were talking about. There was a lively culture on the demon.* newsgroups; and then someone had the bright idea (in late 1993) of inviting other demon customers to a pub meet-up in central London. That meet-up was a significant, if undocumented part of the history of the British internet; as my friend Simon put it some years later, "you know, I don't think anyone who was at that event didn't subsequently go on to a career in the industry." (At the precise time he said that, he was the network architect at ISP UK Online; I was programmer #1 at Datacash.)

Among the folks I met over a pint of beer that evening was Fearghas. F., from Edinburgh, had a number of strings to his bow; most significantly he'd suggested the idea of a Scottish point-of-presence (modem dialup rack) to Cliff Stanford. Back in the early to mid 90s, national distance trunk phone calls were charged by the minute and cost a fair bit; Demon were obviously going to have to roll out some sort of distributed architecture, and so in mid-1994, F. got a 64K leased line into his family house, and 16 bundled ordinary phone lines, a bank of modems, and a SPARCStation IPC in the attic. He also got a bunch of contract work from Demon, because he was sitting on a node on their backbone and the guys in Hendon had more work on their hands than anyone had expected. In particular, businesses by late 1994 were asking Demon to host web sites for them — there was a need for consultancy and web design work, and F. began to pull in more business than he could handle on his own.

I was not F's first hire; I was something like warm body #3 or #4 on the payroll, a few weeks before he paid for the papers to form the limited company. (I had, however, been helping out with some perl coding work from home since late in 1994.) The details are a bit vague at this point — I'm working from memory, fifteen years down the line — but the perspective I have on it at this point is that I don't think F. ever really planned in advance to form a company, but was overtaken by a mushrooming business and kept scrambling to stay in front of it. By the beginning of 1995 he was juggling more work than he had hours in the day, and the effusions of WIRED and the smoke signals from across the Atlantic suggested that there was money in these here internets; we were all a bit madly optimistic in the early days of the first dot-com boom.

I arrived about a week after Libby and Dave — Libby was handling admin and Dave was another programmer (and, later, my boss in his role of CTO at Datacash). At the point when I arrived, the company had enough money in the bank to pay the end-of-month wages, and about half a cup of coffee more (although more revenue was on the way). F. had somehow convinced Cliff Stanford to give him the contract to provide tech support for Demon Internet's business-oriented web farm; for much of spring and summer of 1995, Dave and I were the CGI programming tech support folks for what amounted to the British commercial web business.

It took me a week to find somewhere to live, prior to which time I was crashing in F's spare bedroom. My office ... well, FMA Ltd started life, like many a start-up, in the attic of F's family house. My office desk was in the attic room next to F's bedroom. I had a desk, with a 486PC running Linux, between a ski rack and the sauna hut. On the other side of the sauna hut, under the eaves, sat Demon Internet's Scottish point of presence, a small 19" rack unit stuffed full of modems, sitting beside a dusty SPARCstation.

This being a family house, it had pets — specifically, half a dozen cats, who had staked out different floors as their territory. F's bète noir was Danny, a beautiful (and un-neutered) Abyssinian tomcat, who considered the attic to be his turf. F. and Danny resented each other furiously, and Danny demonstrated his contempt for the CEO in his own inimitable manner, by pissing on F's possessions. We lived in collective terror of Danny 's potential for havoc leading Malcolm Muir of Demon to send out a service interruption apology ("Demon regret to announce that customers in Scotland experienced a six hour outage today because ..."), so part of my official job description was to keep Danny the tomcat from pissing on the modem rack. (Which I mostly did by letting him sleep in my lap while I talked customers through configuring their CGI scripts and troubleshooting problems. I get on well with cats.)

FMA grew extremely rapidly, but also haphazardly. F. wasn't an experienced manager; in fact, I believe it was his first company. He was an excellent salesman, and a good poker player, but not as tech-savvy as a company in that place needed: we were all learning on our feet, but he was coming from a theatre production background, and in some cases we ended up taking pratfalls. The range of work was broad but not deep: we had folks doing HTML coding, graphic design, and CGI programming. As one of the first two or three programmers on the team, I ended up doing a fair bit of domestic flying, down to London to talk to customers such as DHL.

On one memorable occasion we had an enquiry from the Conservative Party, as to whether we could set them up with a secure email system for their constituency party offices (this to a firm in Edinburgh, where 75% of the staff were Labour Party supporters in those pre-Blair days); on another occasion, a group of Iranian exiles wanted us to register the top level .ir domain for them. (In both cases, we ended up saying "no" — despite the cash flow headaches some jobs just aren't worth taking. The Tories in particular wanted us to do the work for the recognition and maybe some vestigial sense of patriotism, thereby demonstrating the degree to which they had their fingers on the pulse of Scottish public opinion.)

After about six months, FMA was bursting at the seams. F's ancestral pile in Trinity was large, but not large enough to cope with a dozen people tramping up the staircase and frightening the cats every morning. But our cash flow was finally catching up with the business; so F. splurged on a five year lease of an abandoned railway workshop in Canonmills. Structured cabling was installed, then a really early E1 line — F. had a knack for landing connections; in this case we were beta-testing Telewest's business internet services in Scotland — and finally a bunch of desks and workstations. We were still growing, adding bodies at a ferocious rate, recruiting via word of mouth: "I know X., X. is bored with his job, why not make him an offer?" F's management style was somewhat arbitrary, and along the way he drove out some good talent: Dave, for instance, left under a cloud after four months of increasingly violent personality clashes.

I got very little creative writing done during this time. What writing time I had (between working 12 consecutive days on the support desk) ended up going into the increasingly late "Web Architect's Handbook" I'd unwisely agreed to write for Addison-Wesley. It eventually came out in April 1996, twelve months late, and eight months too late to make an impact on the field. (If I'd delivered it on schedule ... well, paint me blue and call me David Pogue.) I was still dashing off odd articles for Computer Shopper, but I think I wrote about two short stories in that time, and a broke-backed novel that, after submitting to John Jarrold at Earthlight, I shit-canned. (John wrote back a very thoughtful, perceptive rejection letter that diplomatically explained why it was unpublishable. He was right, I could see that he was right, and the salvageable bits ended up going into "The Atrocity Archives", five years later.)

Then, while I was busy on a long consulting gig (trying to set up a web search system for Hampshire County Council, who in a fit of uncharacteristic future-mindedness had splurged a quarter of a million files from their mainframe repository onto a small Sun workstation: then wondered why they couldn't find anything in it), disaster struck.

Despite all the small contract jobs, FMA's bread and butter was still the big Demon gig. And Demon had noticed the way in which the web business was growing. One summer morning, Cliff Stanford took F. aside at a meeting in London, and made him an offer he couldn't refuse: 51% of FMA, in return for what looked like a metric shitload of cash. F. then made a classic mistake (not unusual in first-time startup management): he tried to hold out for more. And Cliff turned him down, and Demon Internet set up their own internal web support division, and FMA Ltd was out in the cold. Doubtless it cost Demon a bit more to do that than it would have to have taken a 51% stake in FMA, as offered ... otherwise they wouldn't have made the offer in the first place. But in the long term, bringing their commercial web support business in-house made sense for Demon.

That one fateful meeting spelled disaster for FMA. About 80% of our revenue stream was still coming from that one gig. I was out of the office most of the time, working down in Hampshire; I just caught the overspill. There's a curious fatalism that creeps over the people in a small business that's going down in flames in a steep nose-dive. FMA was still looking for more work when everything hit the buffers; the company secretary resigned: the bank accounts emptied out: and at the end of month 15 or so we turned up to work to find no pay cheques and no office.

Disaster, in other words, had struck.

(To be continued ...)


32 Comments

1:

And in those days, employees were lumped in with other unsecured creditors (and very much after the tax authorities) when you liquidated a UK company.

(This has since, sensibly, changed.)

3:

Charlie, this makes for very entertaining reading, and the last few posts in particular have me intrigued about the buildup to the interpipe as we know it today - can someone recommend a decent "history" of the whole shebang (tangential to Charlie's purpose, I realise, but...)? I mean the dead tree sort of history, that I can read whilst flaked out on the sofa. I know I *lived* through a lot of this, but not being an enthusiastic early adopter, it feels like a lot of interesting stuff passed me by.

4:

It is indeed very interesting reading, and methinks certainly worthy of a book. If one doesn't exist, I would suggest Charlie to write one !

5:

In 1991 I was helping a guy called Jamie Allen run a service call "Spuddy's Xanadu"; free email and usenet for the UK. This was an old network of Sun's with wierd modem combinations. It ran by UUCP (spuddy.uucp) via BT's axion server. I took over running it in 1994, and bought a Sparc IPC and 4 Hayes Optima 28.8 modems (all on the same number! Woo!) which I ran from a spare bedroom in my parents house. The BT engineer installing these lines claimed I had more than some local businesses ('cos I also had dialout, voice lines and later ISDN). We got reviewed in one of the fledgling Internet magazines and scored 5 out of 5. Well, we were free :-) Heh, here's the web site I eventually built for it: http://sweh.spuddy.org/old-website/

In 1995 I got a job in the web publishing industry (MatriX Publishing Network; part of VNU) as an SA/developer. I'd replied to a job posting in uk.jobs.offered and my work on Spuddy really sold me to them :-)

So usenet and UUCP were very helpful in me getting my second job.

(I have stories of MPN and the web industry of the time but, hey, this is your story not mine :-))

My email still goes via UUCP (over SSL over IP, rather than dialup). I _like_ UUCP!

6:

@5: Spuddy? By 'eck, I had an account on Spuddy at one time, to get access to Usenet. Early 90s, I think, or maybe even earlier.

7:

I'm fairly sure I had a Spuddy account too. (Not to mention a Tardis account.)

8:

Charlie&Robert... do you, by any chance, remember the number you called? 0203 would have been in the early days when Jamie ran it; 01268 was during my guardianship.

Spuddy may have a little small home BBS style system, but I like to think it had an impact on the early UK internet :-)

9:

Internet history, Christ... the internet didn't even ARRIVE in New Zealand until 1992. I assume they're keeping it for historical kicks, but this is still the motd for ftp.mcs.vuw.ac.nz:

+---------------------------------------+
| FTP Archive Server |
| Department of Computer Science |
| Victoria University of Wellington |
+---------------------------------------+

If you have problems, please try using a dash (-) as the first
character of your password -- this will turn off the continuation
messages that may be confusing your ftp client.

If you are connecting from outside New Zealand, you may use our server
but please note that this machine is at the end of a relatively slow
satellite link for which we pay volume charges. Most of the files have
been copied from archives which are almost certainly "closer" to you.
Please use these facilities sensibly.

(doesn't survive the transition from a non-fixed font very well, such is progress)

10:

I signed up with Demon towards the end of the early period, when they were still using a few local Points of Presence. My local one was in Hull, that hotbed of BBSs and free local calls, on the only non-BT public telephone exchange in the UK.

The Hull PoP had people connecting for a very long time. Hazy memory suggests somebody connected for a week.

Luckily for my bank balance, Demon did a deal with one of the new telcos, which gave them local numbers which connected to a central Demon modem pool. They covered Hull from an adjacent BT exchange, and there was much rejoicing. Except in Hull.

In those days, there was a distinct Demon number for each exchange, which could be useful. There were still pre-digital lines connecting some neighbouring exchanges, and some dialling codes where split into more than one charging group.

Time passed. Modems got faster, and eventually Demon got a single national, local-rate, number.

Oh, and my first U

11:

Another fairly early Demon adopter here: late '93 early '94 IIRC, when I had a flat in Edinburgh. I definitely connected via the local PoP, on an old IBM 286 bought second-hand down Leith Walk on the recommendation of a mutual acquaintance of ours.

I still have the keyboard somewhere...

12:

A now sadly deceased colleague visited Demon Internet when it was a brand new startup in the wilds of Finchley. Its two Sun workstations were apparently perched, one on top of the other, on a chair, and the top one chose the occasion of the visit to fall off. D. observed out of the side of his mouth, "I think we've just seen half the network fall over..."

13:

Ah, Spuddy! Yes, I got my first internet access via Spud's Xanadu, and wrote a DOS-based, off-line reader package for it (mail + usenet).

Prior to that, most of my networking had been via Fidonet (and other FTLs) and the Franchi's "midnight line", some kind of fixed-cost dialback arrangement that would frantically poll the major BBSen across the country between midnight and 6am every night, swapping long-distance email and echoes (FTL equivalent of newsgroups) free of charge. Which worked, in a marvellously Heath Robinson sort of way, but kinda stalled at national boundaries. Spuddy really opened up the rest of the world.

14:

God, this has brought back Fidonet to mind for the first time in years. I must have been, what, 14, when the enthusiastic kid basically running the school's Novell network excitedly introduced it onto the system.

(Course, this was about '92-'93? At that point, I'd never even heard of what was coming round the corner.)

15:

Charlie Stross writes:
"(I believe it was the first dialup ISP in Europe)."

SWIPnet (now part of Tele2) was incorporated and working as a dial-up ISP from then. It was actually formed from the non-university IP customers of Sunet (the Swedish academic network). Hm, I can't actually recall if they did SLIP, though (you could definitely have dial-up UUCP mail delivery from them, making that work for the Stockholm Healthcare was how I learned the ins and outs of Sendmail and pre-DNS hierarchical mail routing, back in 1992).

16:

@3 Bernie - For the *early* history of the Internet, try 'Where Wizards Stay Up Late: The Origins Of The Internet': http://www.amazon.com/Where-Wizards-Stay-Up-Late/dp/0684832674/ When I worked for BBN/GTEI they issued a copy to each new employee (since it is largely about BBN and their work), not a bad book. Though it covers the period before the 90s boom.

The mid-90s were a wild time to be in the industry, I have some great memories and experiences from that period.

17:

> brought back Fidonet to mind for the first time in years.
Oh yes, didn't think of it for years. I remember operating Fido-Point 2:245/8.22, having a computer with generous 1MB of RAM and a harddisk of 20MB. And later a speedy 14k4 modem that was illegal to operate in Germany. I think it felt good, more romantic.

18:

I did of course mean FTNs (Fido Technology Networks -- there were dozens of competing networks using the same underlying technology but different organisational rules). I blame the ambient environment ;-)

(Course, this was about '92-'93? At that point, I'd never even heard of what was coming round the corner)
I'd heard of it, and there were even some clunky FTN->internet gateways running -- but you could expect it to take a week for a message to get through due to all the intermediary hops, queues, services only available at certain hours, etc. But direct access was a pipedream for me at the time, seeing as how I could only just afford the phone bills, and adding a Demon subscription on top was out of my league at the time.

So Spuddy was an excellent intermediate step, giving "store-and-forward" access, until such time as I could get away from home and find somewhere with a leased line, and later, dialup via local cable (POTS, not broadband -- but the cable companies often provided free calls to other local numbers on the same cable co, breeding dozens of ISPs sticking their access points on the same network -- many of which did pretty well until the "call dumping charges"-funded free dialup stomped all over their business model. But by then I'd lucked into one of the first areas to trial cable modems.

I remember operating Fido-Point 2:245/8.22

Funny thing is, there are still old, archived nodelists out there, you can look all this stuff up. So, your upstream node was operated by one Peter Kaszanics, I expect.

:)

19:

I actually can remember the first time I'd heard of the Internet. There was an article in the Guardian's IT section discussing it, and I remember confidently thinking (as only 14-year old boys can summon up) - 'that's just Fido.Net, isn't it?'

(Depressingly, the only other thing I can remember about the article is the quote from one of the Usenet groups discussed that 'happiness is a warm puppy'. I apologise, in the offchance, to anyone who can remember the context.)

20:

well... it's pre-internet, but while we're reminiscing about the the high-tech gravel we ate in our youth, I vaguely remember my old man bringing home a dumb terminal from his work that had an acoustic coupler modem (you plugged your handset into it) and it's "screen" was a roll of of thermal paper... pretty sure that was 1200/75 baud unless 300/300 pre-dated that. And the pinnacle of 1970's software development:

Hunt The Wumpus. For an 8 year old in 1979 (give or take a year or two, it's a long long time ago)...

Funny what you remember. The keys on the keyboard were lots of different colours. The smell of the thermal printing. And the *sound* of the wumpus sneaking through the dripping caves, the *whoosh* of the air... the quiver on my back... sneaking from room to room... sshhhh! quiet... the *fear* of being caught by the terrifying, uber-post-Lovecraftian Wumpus?

Don't you wish you were 9 years old again? Just for a minute?

21:

@17: Yepp, the mailbox was Peter's Apolonia and I remember The German Fidonet being split by a nightly, secetly prepared nodelist-update that changed, maybe optimized the topology but completely ignored social factors.
And gateway adressing was a game, I think you could make your netmail (?) do roundtrips.
Didn't The Usenet have different email addresses back then?

Oh, I think I have to bore a young person now with all these ancient stories :-)

22: This meant amck at tcdmath (maths dept, TCD, Ireland) via ukc (Uni. Kent at Cantabury) via one of (Maths Centre Vax in Holland, Seismo in California, and kgbvax in um...)

So, yes, you could do loops :-) Nodes were reached by dialup, or X.25 or whatever, and 'knew' a small number of local nodes, hence the need for the list.

Still keep the UUCP code handy in case DNS ever gets hijacked ...

23:

<old-fogey-mode>
Yes; with UUCP prior to DNS, you would explain a route to your email. For example, mine was
amck@tcdmath!ukc!{mcvax,seismo,kgbvax}

This meant amck at tcdmath (maths dept, TCD, Ireland) via ukc (Uni. Kent at Cantabury) via one of (Maths Centre Vax in Holland, Seismo in California, and kgbvax in um...)

So, yes, you could do loops :-) Nodes were reached by dialup, or X.25 or whatever, and 'knew' a small number of local nodes, hence the need for the list.

Still keep the UUCP code handy in case DNS ever gets hijacked ...
</old-fogey-mode>

(Bug: preview undoes ampersand-coding, destroying the point of previewing. It should be idempotent).

24:

SteveG @20, you guys are so young. I used a dumb terminal with acoustic coupler at 300/300 to connect to The Source (which was later eaten by Compuserve) for my consulting business in 1980-1983. I carried the damn thing all over the US along with my luggage and other work material.

25:

For a really early, low level history, "Elements Of Networking Style" is a fun read. The dawn of the ip protocol suite, with snark "Low Standards: A Critique Of x.25" is one chapter. From the days when people took the iso networking standard seriously (did you know that the ip protocols violate it?).

Good fun and recommended.

For a very deep review:
http://www.cisco.com/web/about/ac123/ac147/archived_issues/ipj_5-2/book_review.html

26:

According to my info, the dutch Hack-Tic started their xs4all dial in server in may 1993. They had 500 customers in a day. That may well be earlier than Demon. And, two years ago, Xs4all (as they're called now) (currently a owned by the former PTT) bought Demon NL.

27:

Ah, net history. And Fidonet, definitely. I was 1:282/341, and I moderated the SF echo, and founded and moderating the WRITING and MYSTERY echos. I'm not sure when exactly I took on the SF echo; the other two were somewhat later. I started the BBS in 1986, and shut it down in 1996.

I got into Fidonet because it was the closest thing to Usenet I could get as an individual at the time (with my connections and financing). I'd been using Usenet out at DEC Marlboro since something like 1981, making me not a terribly early adopter.

Usenet was still the best online discussion system I've ever used, with the right software to read through and the right tactics.

28:

Olaf @26: Demon officially launched on June 1st, 1992. Their Netherlands subsidiary didn't get off the ground until after xs4all, however.

29:

You may find the UKNOF Internet History Project handy to adjudicate your competing claims for mana status.

30:

David@27 Usenet was still the best online discussion system I've ever used, with the right software to read through and the right tactics.

Preach it, brother!

31:

Alex#29 Fascinating isn't it, we have lived through a time which saw the birth of something which has and will continue to fundamentally change our culture yet which is only gradually being written about weighted with that nostalgia and importance. Documents like that and diaries like these will surely be crucial to envious future tech historians looking at the evolution of 'the thing they are using that bears only the very slivers of resemblance to how it was'.

32:

God, I miss the pre-original-Green-Card-Lottery-spam Usenet.

And my Demon account.

And my BLAZING FAST 2400 baud modem.

Anyone but me feel cynical and bitter after this discussion?

~sigh~

It's just me, isn't it?

heh

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This page contains a single entry by Charlie Stross published on June 22, 2009 10:38 AM.

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