Monday, January 14, 2008

I Coulda Been a Contenda

I was a technology analyst for Morgan Stanley in the late 1970s, about the same time that personal computers were introduced to the world by Apple, Radio Shack and Commodore. Settling on an Apple II in early 1978, I became an indefatigable proselyter for the PC. When visiting institutional clients, a regular part of my job, I was paid to talk about tech stocks. But all I wanted to talk about (and demonstrate) was the miracle of the personal computer -- to the chagrin of clients and my employer.

The first PCs had few applications available other than games, but I was determined to demonstrate to all who would listen that many more practical tasks were possible. When challenged to show them a “practical task,” my pitch became a little more difficult. Remember, this was before any decent word processor or database applications, and a year before invention of the VisiCalc spreadsheet, the program (with its successors) that did so much to legitimize the PC industry.

So I decided to create my own useful application, or at least something that I thought would impress my audiences. I took a primitive list manager and fed it with information about 60 New York City restaurants – their names, locations, cuisine types, price ranges and phone numbers. Moreover, I even appended ratings of to four stars. And the list could be searched or sorted in any variety of ways – how about a moderately priced, three-star French restaurant in the East 40s? A few clicks, and voila.

Well, the application and its hard-copy printouts became popular around Morgan Stanley. Some of our salesmen used to carry them around as they scheduled their client meetings.

But soon after I left Wall Street for venture capital, my PC-based restaurant application had become but a faint memory as I focused my efforts on creating technology start-ups. In fact, I thought everyone had forgotten about that restaurant application. But then a few days ago this scan of a yellowed printout appeared in my email:

Restaurants List 1980

It was sent to me by that venerable Silicon Valley dean of technology marketing, Regis McKenna, who apparently forgets nothing and throws away less.

Today, my restaurant list appears rudimentary, crude, totally worthless. Restaurant information floods the Web, and Zagat Guides in particular are not only ubiquitous, but are the basis of a good-size business, both on- and off-line.

So here’s my point. Having had this idea a year before Zagat started, I should have given up Wall Street, I should have foregone venture capital and instead entered the restaurant-information business.

I was first! I was computerized! I was ahead of Zagat! The business could have been, and should have been, mine!
 The Rosen Restaurant Review! It’s even alliterative. And Rosen is a lot less ambiguous to pronounce than Zagat (which syllable is the accent on, anyway?). Well, next time around, it’s gonna be different.

By the way, I’m not alone in making the wrong choice. Remember Pan American World Airways? It sold its eponymous building on Park Avenue to Met Life in 1981 for $400 million, with the proceeds helping it to remain in the airline business. Well, ten years later Pan Am shut down. Oh, and in 2005 the building was resold for $1.5 billion.

Better they had stayed in real estate and forgone flying. 

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