Saturday, July 25, 2009

The Story of StarText: 1985 - Part One

Note: This is one in a continuing series tracing the history of StarText.

It may not exist on the Chinese calendar, but by all counts 1985 was The Year of New Products for StarText.

While we pushed out a steady stream of upgrades, improvements and enhancements on a fairly regular basis, 1985 saw the largest number of "blockbuster" products make their debut.

The energy and excitement of watching StarText take root and grow the year before carried over and fueled the staff's optimism as the New Year started. All the leading indicators were pointing "up." StarText had become a real business, earning real money, inching ever closer to that magic "breakeven" mark -- something no other local online service had yet achieved.

It seemed like a good time to get the staff and subscribers together for an old-fashioned Town Hall Meeting. And that's just what we did.

We sent out an invite to all our 1,300-plus customers to join us January 16 at Tarrant County Junior College South Campus to meet the staff, ask questions and meet each other. More than 100 attended. These periodic staff-subscriber meetings were successful on several levels, not the least of which were the great ideas we gathered for improving the service.

Cardinal rule of business: If you want to make your product better, listen to your customers. It certainly was a major contributor to our success.

On other fronts, we introduced what StarText Director Joe Donth described as "our first true videotex service going beyond our news and information products" -- STARMAIL, our own electronic mail system.

Field-tested in Version 2, STARMAIL was greatly improved and expanded in Version 3. As you might expect, it was an immediate hit with the customers. In fact, throughout the entire history of online, from the BBS to the Internet, nothing has quite matched the "killer app" status of E-mail.

Wisely, Joe knew the downside of launching a new product that could become "too popular." Why? The StarText business model was built around how many customers a single phone line/modem could support. Other than staff, the major expense items for running StarText were the host computer, multiplexers, modems and phone lines. You wanted to have enough incoming lines to handle peak traffic load (6 pm to 10 pm) and avoid customers getting a busy signal. That ratio, proven over time, was 72 subscribers per phone line.

It sounds like a lot, but remember the gating factor is simultaneous usage. It isn't often all your lines are connected at the same time. Normally someone is hanging up as someone else is dialing in. If we started getting reports of busy signals, we knew it time to add another line.

Realizing STARMAIL could become our most popular offering (with both private party and business applications), Joe set some limits for its use. The first 100 messages a month would be free (as well as any messages sent to the staff), part of everyone's $9.95 subscription. The next 150 would cost a dime each. Anything over 250 would be a quarter each.

Based on activity logs, that meant STARMAIL would be free for over 95% of our subscribers, a fact that pleased Joe. He was very committed to keeping the value proposition high.

In the January edition of INK, I opined on the topic of "online advertising" in my "From the Manager" column, suggesting videotex offered a "revolutionary change" for advertisers. "Through videotex, ads can be directed to a very select audience, or audience segment. . .for the first time, an advertiser could know exactly how many times their ad was looked at based on keyword usage."

The idea was right, but it would be a long time before advertisers would begin shifting their ad budgets to digital in a serious way.

Besides distributing news, StarText also made the news on occasion. The local NBC affiliate, Channel 5, did a story on the online soap opera launched in late 1984, "As the CRT Scrolls." StarText was also featured on "Computer Corner," the long-running technology show hosted by Walt Zwirko on Channel 8, the local ABC station. Once again, we got more coverage in competing media than our own.

The other big news in January? We announced the winners of our Christmas Card Contest. The idea was create a Christmas card using just ASCII text characters. We got 26 entries and here are the winners in order: First Place - Jack Smith, Second Place - Rich Casey; Third Place - David Duke.

In February, our latest new product came from a somewhat unlikely source: The Internal Revenue Service. As part of a government research and development project exploring the feasibility of offering tax publications online, the IRS made available a "Videotex Tax Library," comprised of 70 different tax publications. (Almost 25 years later, it seems downright primitive not to be able to obtain this kind of information any other way.)

At the same time, the Fort Worth Police Dept. started testing the computer waters by updating accident locations and crime statistics, as well as hosting a column called "COPS," which fielded questions from readers. Our "two-way dialog" was expanding to include the the civic and government sectors. We even thought about inviting the mayor of Fort Worth to host a column that invited questions from the public.

Looming on the horizon was among the biggest, most ambitious, high-profile projects StarText would ever tackle.

To be continued ....