|Speakeasy Software was founded at the dawn of the personal computer era, in 1978 by Brian and Toni Beninger. The company was based near Kemptville, Ontario, Canada. For nearly two years, Speakeasy released software on tape for the Apple II, TRS-80, and Commodore PET machines. Spekeasy also had the distinction of publishing Wheeler Dealers, game-design legend Dan Bunten's first title, and the first computer game to be packaged in a box. |
Brian Beninger tells the story: "In 1970 I invented a financial board game called "Bulls and Bears" and actually self-published about 100 copies. A few dozen were sold in game stores in Ottawa and Montreal. In real life, I worked in the first Canadian computer timesharing firms, Dataline and IP Sharp. By 1977, I was employed by the Federal Government in Ottawa and was a manager at Statistics Canada.
It was there that I first became interested in the new microprocessors coming out in the States. I just had to find out more for myself and so took off to Pasadena, CA for what was billed as a "personal computer show". It was just a small bunch of guys and a few tables in a hotel, but it was all I needed to convince myself that this was the future.
So back home in Canada, I managed to buy one of the first 10 Apple II computers, followed a bit later by a Commodore PET computer with a whopping 8k of memory, and then a Radio Shack TRS-80.
We started on our dining room table in a little log house we built for ourselves out in the countryside near Kemptville, Ontario - some 30 miles south of Ottawa. The first title, not surprisingly, was "Bulls and Bears" based on my earlier board game. At first, as I wrote the games, a chap from work, Randy Pack, programmed them in Basic. Then my wife, Toni, became the main programmer.
By early 1978, we had four titles ready for the Apple II - "Bulls and Bears", "Warlords", "Microtrivia" and "Kidstuff". Trying to fit them into 16k and make them worth buying was certainly a challenge. This was before floppy disks! The only means of reproduction was audio tape. I found a company in Ottawa that produced educational audio tapes for doctors and talked them into replicating our tapes. The only problem was that only 50% of them worked and we didn't know which 50% they were! So our 8 and 10 year old kids would load them one at a time on our home machine and pick out the good ones. Talk about cheesy technology.
It was a cold winter day in early 1978 when I put everything to the acid test. I took a day off work. I had a list of some 30 computer stores across North America (basically all I could find from early Byte magazines) and I had my four titles ready. Of course, I needed a marketing name and "Speakeasy Software" was it. I suppose I was just fascinated by the old cars and gangster stuff from the 20's and 30's and I wanted a name that would stand out from the others. I sat down that day with my list and began cold calling every store on that short list. I told them I had packaged software for the new Apple II computers and asked them if they would like to buy a starter pack. Over 80% said yes and by the end of the day, we had our first $3,000 in orders.
Two days later I quit my high-paying and secure job with the Feds and became a full-time entrepreneur. By that summer, my wife Toni, quit her teaching job and Speakeasy had two full-timers and two kids who probably thought their parents were nuts. Our parents were absolutely certain that we had both taken leave of our senses. Our family St Bernards didn't care what we did as long as the food bowl got filled twice a day.
Speakeasy Software was open for business.
As 1978 got underway, we had our first products, our first customers, and a whopping $3,000 of working capital. Clearly, it was time to go international.
One spring morning, Toni came back from the post office all excited. Right there in her hand was a cheque for $340 from Australia. If we were going to conduct business internationally on such a grand scale, then it seemed imperative that we discontinue putting our software in plastic lunch baggies and move up to real packaging. So we had a red cardboard folder printed and die cut into which we could fix a clear hard plastic front to hold the cassette and booklet. As the kids stapled these together by the dozens, we made big plans.
The first step was to get a real office. Having outgrown the dining room table, we moved into a 200 sq. ft. one room space in a woodworking shop on the outskirts of Kemptville.
We also incorporated as Speakeasy Software Ltd. and doubled the capital of the company when a local doctor invested $3000. We didn't know it then, but we had our first "angel investor".
The first West Coast Computer Faire was announced and I headed off to California with three suitcases full of our games in their new packaging. Now we had our own folding table with blue bunting around it and two folding chairs. This was the big time! Within the first couple of hours, the two Steves came by and introduced themselves. They had already heard about the Apple software developer from Canada and thanked me for supporting the cause. I told them I liked their new t-shirts and was happy to be involved.
I sold out my suitcases full of software and took orders for more. Some guys from Byte Industries came by and said they wanted to talk to me about a big distributing deal. As it turned out, my next-table neighbor at the Fair was a lawyer from LA named Michael Scott. We got to know each other over those few days and I asked him to help me with the Byte deal. He did and we became life-long friends (Mike became a top technology lawyer and a leading author in the field of software law.)
Things were rolling by that summer and we moved into larger quarters in an old bank building in downtown Kemptville. The local bank manager even granted us a $25,000 line of credit to bankroll growth. You know you've arrived as an entrepreneur if they let you get hopelessly in debt.
It was about that time that Commodore and Radio Shack decided to muscle in on the good thing Apple had created. Yes, there are been other microcomputers such as the Altair but Apple was the first to understand the power of the consumer market. They put the "personal" in personal computing. Now these Big Boys wanted in. That turned out to be good for us because we had games that their new models could run. So we converted our first titles over to those machines.
Radio Shack ordered 5,000 copies each of "Bulls and Bears" and "Warlords" - some for every store that was going to sell their new machine! This was huge for us. I'm not quite sure why, but we leased a Dodge van after that with four bucket seats.
We were rolling now!
Sometime during late 1978, I became aware of another personal software company called, amazingly, Personal Software. To my delight, one of its founders was a fellow Canadian. Peter Jennings was out of Toronto and had hooked up with Dan Fylstra of the Boston area. At a show down that way, they introduced me to a couple of wild-looking Harvard MBA geeks, called Dan Bricklin and Bob Franklin. Dan and Bob were working on something they called "Visicalc", the first spreadsheet program for the personal computer. Personal Software was going to publish it.
Peter was looking for money to bring it to market and asked me if I had a spare $100,000 lying around. I wanted to invest because I actually understood the power of their concept but I was a little short of ready cash. About $95,000 short as I recall.
Nevertheless, we did do some business with Peter and Dan. By this time, Speakeasy was working on a new series of health education programs with the unfortunate name of "VitaFacts". We had been getting our cassettes duplicated by an Ottawa company called Medifacts and they ended up investing in us. One of their older principals, Gerry Waring, took a shine to us and became a mentor and friend. Medifacts supplied the development money and the medical knowledge and we handled the programming and marketing. It was one of the first serious efforts in this new industry to supply adult education titles. VitaFacts topics included heart issues, birth control, and a host of other serious medical topics aimed at the home market.
By early 1979, Peter and Dan were working hard to bring VisiCalc to the market and to the newly improved Apple II with a whopping 48k of RAM. But it was taking them a lot of time to do it right. They were moving from Boston and setting up in the San Francisco area and changing their name to VisiCorp. In the meantime, they needed more titles to sell and it was decided that they would distribute our VitaFacts line.
There was a computer show coming up in Anaheim, CA that year and they wanted me to come out and join them to announce our deal. They offered to put me up in a hotel but I had to share the room with another guy they were involved with. No biggie, I said, and hopped on a plane to Disneyland.
My roommate turned out to be a young fellow from Boston called Mitch Kapor. Mitch was another liberal arts type, part-time DJ, and self-made programmer who had come up with something called Tiny Troll. We got along fine that week but kind of went our own ways during the day. The highlight of that week was when Apple rented Disneyland and invited us all to a party. What a hoot to see all those nerds jumping on the rides at will. My favorite was Pirates of the Carribean.
Mitch ended up doing a license deal with for his graphing add-on to Viscalc and accepting a job offer from VisiCorp.
Funny how things turn out.
Our VitaFacts titles were of high quality for the time but nobody bought them. In those days nobody over 30 owned a computer and everybody under 30 didn't give a damn about their health.
On the other hand, Visicalc took off like a rocket ship. Mitch made a bundle from his royalty deal. VisiCorp paid him over a million dollars within a year to buy him out. Mitch went back to Boston and used their money to start a company called Lotus. Lotus came out with a super spreadsheet called 1-2-3 and put VisiCorp out of business. IBM bought Lotus and Mitch ended up with all the marbles.
As the 1970s were ending, the first chapter of the "personal computer" industry was also drawing to a close. The word was spreading that the forces of darkness were gathering: that Microsoft and IBM were joining forces to reclaim the ground lost to the upstarts like Apple and Radio Shack and Commodore. In such a world, small players like Speakeasy would be pushed to the edge of the playing field.
The elephant doesn't set out to harm the mouse when he walks through the jungle eating everything in his path. But if he steps on the mouse, the mouse still ends up dead.
It was time for a new plan.
At about this time, the principals of Speakeasy happened to meet a small group of programmers who were working on a CAD/CAM system in Ottawa, lead by a chap named Gordon Short. It seems the Canadian federal government had invested over $10 million in an attempt to see a mini-computer based CAD/CAM system developed locally. The original development company had failed and Gordon and a few buddies were trying to keep it alive with no resources but their brains and their will.
I suggested that they combine forces. So Speakeasy acquired the team and its software and the merged group re-started life as Omnitech Graphics Systems Ltd. I handled the financial and marketing side of things and Gordon carried on with the development. The market for the original Speakeasy titles came to a natural end, hurried along by the decision to invest exclusively in the CAD/CAM systems, which sold for around $100,000 each.
New and bigger offices were secured in Ottawa and Speakeasy said goodbye to Kemptville. Within a year, sales had increased to a couple of million dollars and the staff numbered over 30. Toni and I even opened a sales office in Calgary to take advantage of the oil boom there at the beginning of the 80s.
Like Steve Jobs, I decided I had to hire a more experienced management team. As with Steve Jobs, that management team kicked the original team out. Like Steve Jobs, I started another company. But that, as they say, is another story!"
Regarding Wheeler Dealers, Brian also explains: "Dan called out of the blue one day and spoke to Toni. She had never experienced an accent from the southern United States and had trouble understanding him... but he sent a prototype which featured this weird joystick that allowed four people to play. It was a bit radical but also kind of cool. We had to go to a box in order to provide the joystick and that set a trend that continues to this day. I don't recall how many copies we sold, but I do remember that we never needed more than the first set of controllers."
Speakeasy's two best-selling titles were Bulls and Bears and Warlords which sold some 7000 copies each. The others titles probably sold under 1500 each and a few stinkers were under 300.