Saturday, July 14, 2007

Semi JimVention - The Best of the Best

Way back in 1994, I was working at Ameridata, which was a computer reseller. There was a consulting business in there too, but I was steadfastly in the reseller side: They did corporate computer configuration and support. Which is sort of funny to think of in a 2007 mindset, but back in 1994, it was a thriving business - you called "your computer guys" to come in and set things up.

In the future, I will have some amazing corporate hell stories about my days at Ameridata, but today is not that day. Today I tell you about my friend Eh Xiong and the JimVention that almost was. I should also remind you that Eh was also a conspirator in the "Get me out of" idea from that time (JimVention Post: HERE)

Eh was (I use past tense only because I have not kept current with Mister Xiong, not because he has passed) a first-generation Laotian immigrant, coming to America in the late 1970s when he was less than 12 years old. His name is "Eh" because that was his nickname, and his big sister told the immigration people to use that. He was doing Access programming on a system I had no idea about, but we sat near eachother, and identified ourselves as allies in this hostile environment. There were two other allies - Jason the DBA, and Karen the Project Manager. My dad also worked there, but gave us kids some room... and that was pretty much it. The rest was horror. But that again is another story. We stay with Eh.

Eh and Karen and I would frequently go out to lunch, and Karen was sort of a "gee whiz" megasquare girl who loved to hear MY stories about working nights in nightclubs and my band days. And Eh was full of stories about "His Culture".

See, in almost ANY situation, Eh could listen to an anecdote, and then would tell one even better with the preface "In my culture..." This is how I learned about the Hmong focus on owning four-plexes, the new year celebrations, dating rituals and the importance of chaperones, the "locked door rule" which can lead to marriage (you REALLY don't want to bring a traditional Hmong girl home late from a date - her parents MAY lock the door, and if she isn't let in for 3 days, she's YOURS.) He also told us about his childhood in Laos - chasing monkeys, eating monkeys.

It's ENTIRELY possible that Eh was having a lot of fun at our expense, because as he would tell these stories, Karen's eyes could turn to saucers and she'd gasp.... Lunch with those two was always memorable.

Eh and his brothers are big fans of computer games. This was 1994 I remind you, so gaming was pretty much Nintendo, Sega Genesis, and PC games. Doom had just come out for PC. PCs were still very expensive for the sort of unit that would run games well. It was a high geek realm.

Eh and I would talk about games, and honestly I wasn't much of a player at all (I never cleared the first level of DOOM, and have remained fiercely luddite in gaming lore ever since... with the exception of Nintendo Mario games). But Eh was a big fan. The internet was only just getting started, multiplayer via the net wasn't possible, but Doom did have a feature: If you networked two computers, you could play against one another. It was called "Deathmatch Mode".

We hatched a scheme: What if we had a video arcade, but instead of arcade games, it was a room full of GOOD computers, and they were loaded with EXCELLENT games? And as you played, your score would be saved, and we would keep a big bulletin board with the names of the BEST players - the "Best of the Best" as Eh liked to state, sometimes shaking his fist for emphasis. I think there may have been something cultural there. But even better, we could set up a NETWORK, and have head-to-head deathmatches in the DOOM games, which would REALLY show who was the best of the best. We would have the big board of our rankings for the deathmatch champions.

We would then hold contests with prizes. We'd run extra monitors off of their computers so people could stand around and watch the deathmatches in progress. This would be a destination for people.

Eh and I got pretty far with this scheme: We priced out the necessary hardware (with the need to upgrade frequently to make sure we had the best of the best for people), got initial rent prices for a strip mall, ran a few models on how much we'd have to charge per hour to make it work.... And at that point we realized this just couldn't work. We'd have to charge more than $15/hr to make ends meet, and would gonzo gamers really invest THAT kind of money just to say they were the best?

Stymied by the lack of a viable profit model, our plans fell by the wayside. We didn't pursue the concept.

BUT... Let's take some 20/20 hindsight. In 1994/1995, the internet was only JUST starting to take off. Assuming we had opened a place with 12 networked computers with a T1 internet connection. What OTHER business could we have actually been running?

An internet cafe. We would have been the first Internet cafe in the area, and yes, we COULD have charged $20 an hour for computer usage on a high speed internet line - that was the going rate. And we could have built a brand and ridden that sucker HUGE for at least 8 years, until 2002 when bandwidth became so ubiquitous that charging for connectivity just seemed mean spirited (I'm looking at you Starbucks). The gaming component would have been an add-on, but the core business would have been Joe and Jane "want to use the internet" people.

So sometimes, a JimVention is a good idea in itself that I'm not able to see the appropriate context for. I don't REALLY think I missed a big opportunity here, but it's an interesting story. AND I got to tell you a bit more about Eh.

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