Ben and Larry are longtime owners of two different music-related businesses, a payroll service for musicians and an auctioneer of rare classical LPs. They don’t know each other, but they have something in common: They’re both still running their businesses on custom software written in the 1980s by the same developer. This episode features the soothing, nostalgic hum of a dot matrix printer, variations on “Three Blind Mice,” and more!
WAILIN: Do you remember your first computer? Ben does. He got his first computer in 1986, when he hired a programmer to write some custom software for his business.
BEN: I was frightened beyond reason and little by little, I got the hang of it. Those computers at that time were just old DOS machines.
TROY HENIKOFF: It was a Compaq desktop, and the reason it was a Compaq was because the IBM PC ran at 4.77 megaherz, but the Compaq ran at 6 megaherz. So it was original Compaq with a 20 MB hard drive in it and an amber monitor. The amber monitors were the best. They were better than the green ones.
WAILIN: That’s Troy Henikoff, the programmer who wrote the software that Ben started using in 1986 — and still uses today. Welcome to The Distance, a podcast about long-running businesses. I’m Wailin Wong. On the last episode of The Distance, you heard about how Troy ran his software consulting business for six years before selling it to a big corporation. On today’s show, you’ll meet two of Troy’s earliest customers who are running their businesses on 30-year-old software.
TOM: The Distance is a production of Basecamp. I’m Tom, a programmer at Basecamp. Basecamp is the better way to run your business. It’s an app for communicating with people and organizing projects and work. If you’re feeling overwhelmed by email, chat and meetings, give Basecamp a try. Sign up for a 30-day free trial at basecamp.com/thedistance.
BEN: I’m a musician and 95 percent of my tax clients are musicians: Chicago Symphony, Lyric Opera. I’ve worked for local orchestras. They wanted someone who can work on musicians’ tax returns, who knew the types of deductions they would be able to take, and by word of mouth I got another phone call, another phone call, another phone call, and I got all these clients.
WAILIN: Ben, who asked that we not use his last name, has a one-man business in the Chicago area doing payroll and taxes for musicians. He estimates he’s been doing this for around 45 years, but he doesn’t remember the exact year he started his business. It’s called Tempo, which stands for The Equitable Musicians Payroll Organization. When Ben got introduced to Troy via a friend in 1986, he was about a decade in and using a typewriter.
BEN: People kept asking me, “Why are you doing this? Why don’t you get a payroll program? Why don’t you get a computer?” I didn’t have anything. I just used a typewriter. They told me that Troy graduated from Brown with an engineering degree and he’s going into IT so I gave him a call.
WAILIN: At the time, Ben also owned a currency exchange in Chicago and Troy went there to meet him. He was Troy’s first customer.
TROY: So I had never been to a currency exchange, and the currency exchange, of course, has bulletproof glass, but you have to be able to get behind the bulletproof glass and they have a thing — I think it’s called a gang door. Apparently, this is to prevent like a gang of people from rushing the back of the, of the currency exchange. There are actually two doors and the space in between the doors is only big enough for one relatively slender human, and the first door has to be closed before the second door is physically able to open. And so he’s trying to explain to me that I’m gonna go into this gang door in order to see him and he’s yelling through the bulletproof glass, “Go over there! Open the first latch!” And then I get in and then the door closes and you’re totally claustrophobic. And then I sat down with him in the back of this currency exchange and he’s helping customers and then he’s interrupted and he’s trying to explain to me about union reports and W2s and 1099s and I knew nothing about any of it. But he just gave me a bunch of sample reports and said, “Look, it has to look like this.” And I asked a lot of questions and if you ask enough questions, you start to understand. I laid out a system for him, gave him a quote, and went back and programmed it.
BEN: He set up a program on DOS, MS-DOS, before you were a gleam in your mom’s eye. That’s when I started to use it and it was marvelous.
WAILIN: Not long after doing the job for Ben, Troy was introduced via a string of connections to another customer with a business called Polyphony.
LARRY JONES: I’m Larry Jones and I sell out-of-print classical recordings. I’ve been doing it since 1978, so in my 40th year now. I think anybody who begins selling things to collectors began as a collector him or herself. I don’t know why else you would do it. I began collecting classical recordings in my mid teens and by my late 20s had a fairly substantial collection.
TROY: Larry had a very interesting business. So most of the businesses that we were writing software for in the early days were businesses that were very unique, where there wasn’t something off the shelf that would help them accomplish what they needed to do.
Larry started Polyphony with just a typewriter and a record collection in a small office. Several times a year, he would print up catalogs and mail them out. Customers mailed back their bids, indicating how much they were willing to pay for the records they wanted. Larry would then figure out who had the highest bid on each item, fill out invoices for the winning bidders, collect payment and mail out the records.
LARRY: It took off very nicely. There was a lot of demand for these things at that point and a lot of responses to advertising in various musical publications and I developed a clientele. Iit was profitable from the start. This was my very first catalog, miserable little thing here. How many items were on this one? 265.
WAILIN: By the time Larry met Troy, around 1987, the Polyphony catalogs had gotten much larger. But Larry was still running his auctions with pen and paper. He showed me a file for the last one he did before getting a computer.
LARRY: 2,600 items on this catalog. This graph paper lists every one of them. At the end of the auction, I have circled the winning bidder and his, his or her, although it’s usually males, also on graph paper, it’s very well organized, you see? This was back in the day when I had 700 people bid on that catalog, nothing like that anymore. But! Then, that’s what I had to do is go back to somebody’s bid sheet. I fill out which ones they were successful on and which ones they were not. Here’s a total, a subtotal, a postage fee and a grand total, I mail that back to them with a return envelope and they send me a check. That is what ended up being computerized a year later, and it was just night and day. It knows who bids what and it figures out who won what for me. I hit a button that says create invoices and there they are! It’s just spectacular compared to what I was just showing you.
WAILIN: The new software meant that Larry no longer had to sit hunched over a piece of graph paper, writing down bids from hundreds of people and scanning the sheet to figure out who won what. The program also digitized his inventory so he could search his collection more easily and spend less time recording information for each new LP that came in. With the time savings, Larry could run six auctions a year instead of four.
LARRY: Well, it was just a matter of volume, really. They asked me at one point, maybe a year or two in, could I quantify how much this had sped up my process. And I think even at that point, I said it had doubled my speed, and that was really before the inventory had kicked into the point where it was recognizing thousands of things.
WAILIN: Ben and Larry were satisfied with their software — so satisfied, in fact, that neither of them wanted to upgrade, even as MS DOS started to become obsolete. They would get new computers over the years, and today Larry runs his program on a virtual machine on his Macbook Pro, where he presses a button and the display switches over to the vintage blue screen of his DOS program. But neither Ben nor Larry were interested in new software. That’s what they told Troy when he called to check in, sometime in the late 80s or early 90s.
LARRY: I heard from Troy saying, “You know, we’re not gonna be writing DOS programs anymore. Windows has taken over, so this is your last chance for any changes or anything you want to do.” I think I asked him at that point, “Does it make any sense for me to go to Windows?” They said, “We can’t retrofit this. You’d have to start from scratch and it’d be very expensive.” I was like well, why would I change something that’s working just fine as it is and getting faster every time there’s a new upgrade with respect to hardware speed?
BEN: He said, “Listen. I can’t run your program anymore because we’re switching up to Windows and DOS is no longer going to be a very popular item. It’s going to be very expensive if you want to switch, and I wouldn’t blame you if you didn’t want to switch because I know you know the thing inside and out and you’re so comfortable you could do it in your sleep,” and he was right. So I kept doing it and I hadn’t seen him for maybe 15 or 20 years since then until my printer broke down.
WAILIN: In those 15 or 20 years since Ben and Troy last spoke, Ben had kept going with Tempo, his payroll business, while playing clarinet and saxophone on the side. Troy had sold his software consulting firm to Medline, a big manufacturer of medical products, and become a venture capitalist and mentor to tech startups. But earlier this year, Troy got a call from his first customer.
TROY: Ben called me frantic. And he was frantic because his checks weren’t printing right. And he couldn’t really articulate for me what was wrong, but they weren’t printing right and when I tried to ask him, he just got, he got a little bit flustered and he said, “You have to come over.”
BEN: The printer broke down and I couldn’t make a connection and I was out of business for God knows, about a month. So I called him, you’ve got to help me, I’m in terrible shape here, so he came over.
TROY: And it turned out that it was really just a simple hardware problem. He had a combination of a printer that was 30 years old and the tractor feed wasn’t feeding very well, so he needed a new tractor feed and a switchbox — those old mechanical AB switchboxes to switch between printers? Those wear out after time, and so the switchbox wasn’t working. I had an old parallel printer cable that I knew worked and we connected it directly and everything worked. We ordered him a new switchbox, got him all set up. Oh, it was amazing to see it still running. I mean, to see the text screens of the DOS and to hear the printer printing,
WAILIN: Ben actually has two dot matrix printers. I asked to see them in action, so he fired up Troy’s program on his desktop and filled out a sample check, made out to my name.
BEN: 2017 is the year, and then I go to banking. And my password. And there’s today date…and Wong. Save the above check, yes. Press P to print the check. That printer selector is marvelous.
WAILIN: In the bottom right corner of the check, there’s a musical staff with Ben’s signature overlaid on it, a little visual flourish that Troy programmed into the printer itself back in 1986.
TROY: When we wrote the program, he didn’t like having to sign the checks manually. It’s an OkiData printer and it had this graphics mode. I learned about it and I made it so that the printer it actually prints his signature using the dot matrix graphics mode, which I’m sure no other company ever supported, and so if he can’t find a replacement OkiData printer, he’s gonna be out of business. Like you can’t just run that on anything. This is running in MS DOS and so even if his computer dies that he’s running it on, it will be difficult to find a computer that we actually can still run MS DOS on. While it’s great that it’s been running for 30 plus years, it’s a little bit risky at this point.
WAILIN: Ben’s not too worried. He’ll probably retire within the next couple of years, and he’s stocked up on both ribbons and paper for his dot matrix printers. He found the ribbons at Office Depot.
BEN: I bought a whole case of it because I knew that eventually I was going to run out. It’s right down here, take a look. And here’s some ribbons. For example, I have some extra ribbons for the Epson, which is that one there. Here’s some mouthpieces for the saxophone, and I have other ribbons for this one.
WAILIN: Larry is getting ready to retire too. He’s had a good run, continuing with his auctions even though he estimates the market for used classical recordings peaked in the mid 90s. He’s been paring down his inventory, getting rid of the items he knows won’t sell.
LARRY: There was a very famous — famous among the aficionadi, but not well known otherwise — Russian conductor named Nicolai Galavanov who made some very obscure recordings in the early 50s that were available at that time really only on very hard-to-find imports. They were not regularly distributed in this country. And when I began, if I had a collection or someone had managed to get ahold of some of these things, they were very, very valuable, even crummy Russian pressings which were not frequently very good. So I found a group of these in a collection that I acquired, maybe 10 years ago, and I was real excited because I hadn’t seen very many of these things. But then I thought, I wonder if these things have been digitized? My wife has Spotify and I said I’ll type this guy’s name in. They all had been digitized! Unless you really want a poorly pressed Russian record from 1955 because that is exciting to you in and of itself as the object, you’d rather listen to a nice digitization of it on Spotify, you know? So that’s the sort of thing that’s happened in classical music. Subsequently, it got to the point where I was buying a record collection, I was donating or discarding two thirds, three quarters of it because it simply had no value in the current market. And that’s very much the case now. The market is very, very narrow and very quirky. But I still get a huge kick out of it. I still go into somebody’s basement and look at a couple thousand records and it is just very exciting. Maybe I’ll see something I’ve never seen before.
WAILIN: As for Ben, he loves playing music, which is what he wanted to talk about instead of his payroll business. Ben’s father played violin to accompany silent movies, and after the advent of the talkies, switched to playing clarinet and saxophone in an ensemble for weddings and bar mitzvahs. Ben learned clarinet and saxophone too, and found his passion.
BEN: I was drafted into the army. I auditioned for the Army band and played in the Army band for two years in Fort Carson, Colorado. See, this is much more interesting than doing payrolls!
WAILIN: What year were you in the Army?
BEN: ’57 to ‘59 — that’s 1857. So then, one day I was in the band room and there was no one in there and there was a piano in there and I didn’t know anything about piano, so I sat down and I kind of played with the keys and everything and I realized, my God, I found myself playing Three Blind Mice. And then as I was sitting there, I started making variations on it and I’ll play it for you.
TAPE — LARRY — When I was 28 years old or whatever, the notion of doing anything 40 years later was completely so far beyond the horizon that I don’t think I had any concept of it. If you had asked me, is there something else that you want to do? Is there something you would prefer doing, I don’t think I ever felt that way, no. I like what I do. I liked it and I like it.
The Distance is produced by Shaun Hildner and me, Wailin Wong. Nate Otto does our illustrations. Big thank you for Troy Henikoff. He put me in touch with Ben and Larry, neither of whom he had spoken to in a while, and I’m very appreciative of him making those connections so we could get this fun story done. You can find The Distance on Apple Podcasts, on Google Play Music, Stitcher, or wherever you find your podcasts. We’re on Twitter. I’m @VelocityWong, Shaun is @shildner, that’s S H I L D N E R, and The Distance the podcast is @distancemag, that’s at distance M A G. The Distance is a production of Basecamp, the app for helping small business owners stay in control of projects and reduce email clutter. Try Basecamp free for 30 days at basecamp.com/thedistance.