Robelle 15th Birthday Party (1992)

Happy Birthday to Us

By Robert Green

December, 1992

My decision to found Robelle occurred when my employer, a distributor of nuts and bolts, sold twenty copies of a transaction logging program that I had written. He got $1000 for each, and did it in less than a year without doing any sales work. "Wait a second", I thought, "What's wrong with this picture? You write a program once, then sell copies of it, each time charging $1000 for a $12 magnetic tape. That beats working for a living."

Incorporating Robelle Consulting Ltd. in April 1977, I rented myself back to my former employer and set out to write a software product. Since my biggest frustration with the HP 3000 was the Editor, that was a natural target. Our little 128K-byte HP 3000 supported 35 users. If I Texted a file, response stopped on all the other CRTs. I often came to work early to Text in my file, then waited until lunch to compile. Qedit's design goal was the fastest possible program editing with the lowest possible system load.

We probably owe the success of Qedit to a one-time HP employee named Fred and HP's reluctance to fire anyone. In the sixties, Fred had been a student radical at UC Berkeley. He came to work in the publications department of HP Cupertino, where I was also writing user manuals. Unfortunately, Fred could neither spell nor understand grammar. Naturally, HP transferred Fred to the programming group. All the good programmers were busy on the exciting parts of MPE such as the memory manager and the dispatcher. No one wanted to work on anything as dull as a text editor. Fred had never programmed before, but he created Edit/3000 and HP has been stuck with it ever since.

An informal survey of HP sites revealed that most DP managers could spend about $1000 without approval, so Qedit's yearly rental was set at $960. My goal was to sell twenty rentals, then sit back and live off the income. I convinced Annabelle Green, my wife at the time, to join the company and do the administration: "one or two invoices a month, no big deal". By the time she retired in 1991, Qedit was installed on over 3200 systems in every corner of the globe. By the way, the company name comes from Rob + belle.

The first version of Qedit was written in four months, working nights and weekends through a 1200-baud acoustic coupler. It was blazingly fast and I could edit programs during the day shift again. It was quite a shock to find that Qedit did not sell itself. As a naive computer nerd, I expected people to beat a path to my door. After 6 months, not even a nibble of interest. That's when I came up with the Robelle marketing strategy: write entertaining technical papers showing how to solve widespread performance problems, then present the papers at any meeting of ten or more users, slipping in a few discreet references to Qedit.

One of the high, and low, points of our early marketing was selling a corporate license for Qedit and Suprtool to Hewlett-Packard. For a small fee (don't ask how small), HP obtained a perpetual right to use the software on any HP 3000 they owned, anywhere in the world. The extra credibility for Robelle and the small army of boosters we gained were great, but we never imagined how many CPUs HP would eventually acquire. If only we had put some upper limit on the contract, any number of CPUs, no matter how outrageous, then we could have renegotiated the deal later. Ah well, ... sigh.

In those days I didn't realize that it was impolite to steal employees from your customers. I met David Greer at a consulting site, where he did COBOL programming while finishing his Computer Science degree. Despite being part-time, David produced more working code than the full-time programmers. This was a brain that we could use at Robelle. When he finished school, we offered him a job and David jumped at the opportunity to do systems programming.

By this time our installed base had shot way past the original goal of twenty customers and the number of envelopes to be stuffed each month was out of hand. I didn't think that folding and mailing What's Up Documentation newsletters was a suitable task for the company president. Having worked with Kerry Lathwell for six years at the nuts and bolts company, I knew her brilliant organizing skills. I talked her into coming to Robelle by offering her a desk by the window (she had always worked in a windowless room) and promising her she would never have to work with numbers. Kerry now runs our entire administrative operation, including financial management and accounting, but she still has a window.

With four people, we moved the office to a horse farm. The location was idyllic: a log chalet with a panoramic view of the rugged coastal mountains from a high river bluff. Instead of bartering our software for computer time with local users, we bought our own HP 3000 minicomputer.

David and I did the programming, the technical support and the marketing, plus found time to write countless technical papers. Do you remember the Image Handbook and the Smug Proceedings? When we finally decided to expand the technical staff, we didn't do it the easy way. We went across the continent to Montreal to snatch Mike Shumko from a Qedit shop where he caught our attention by asking the most cogent tech support questions. When we needed another "techie", we tracked down a former user who was on a year-long trip around the world. We left messages in India, Tibet, and Turkey. We finally caught up with him in Portugal, where he agreed to work for Robelle, if we would wait three months for him to finish his travels.

My goal was always to keep Robelle small and simple, but I also traveled to users groups. It seemed like every time I went on a trip I came back to find that we had hired another new person to stuff envelopes. For example, Annabelle met Marie Froese at the riding stables and enticed her away from a tack shop. But secretly, Marie had a University degree and is now our Sales Manager.

By 1991 we had grown to twelve people and three HP 3000s and were forced to give up our 450 square-foot log chalet. Robelle now resides in a brand new office building with a window for every employee and a mauve color scheme. Of course we still do things in a Robelle way. We had a full kitchen installed, just like on the farm, and the job of making lunch rotates from person to person (company-paid lunch is an unusual employee benefit at Robelle).

I still do the programming for Qedit, working from home or my summer cabin, but it means aggressively delegating administrative tasks. I call this "enriching your job". David Greer programs Suprtool and Xpress, and is in charge of the overall R&D effort. When Annabelle retired, David bought her share of Robelle, which means that he now manages administration too. Once again, I was saved from that fate.

Robelle remains a technology-oriented firm. David and I spend most of our time programming. Financially speaking, this policy has worked extremely well. And it means we hit the floor running each morning, eager to get to work.

After 15 years, we still strive to keep our administrative overhead low. This way we can maintain reasonable prices while providing excellent support and the occasional bonus surprise such as the Spelling Checker and Fortune Cookie. This formula has served us well, along with hard work, a dash of good luck, and incredibly smart customers. And wherever you are today Fred, thanks.