Story Of The Decade

It must have been about a decade ago. I was still writing for a local magazine and got the opportunity to call on the Modem King.

Dennis Hayes was his usual quiet, intense and charming self. He had a new marketing guy with him, and the relationship looked uncomfortable. The marketing guy talked about image, and organization, and brand. When I left I guessed (but didn’t write) that their relationship wouldn’t work out, and my guess was right.

You probably know the rest of the story.

Dennis Hayes went down with his ship. He’s now running a heavy metal bar in the Atlanta suburb of Norcross. And the marketing guy is moving back to town. His name was Garry Betty. He’ll be the new CEO of EarthLink-MindSpring (EarthSpring? MindLink?), and when the merger’s complete he should be worth about $30 million, give or take.

What happened? I’d say the ’90s happened.

Dennis Hayes was an engineer, devoted to engineering values. His Hayes modems set the standard in the industry’s earliest days, and throughout the 1980s they carried a premium price. But when it seemed that 9,600 baud would be the analog speed limit, he bet his company on a newly engineered technology called the Integrated Services Digital Network, or ISDN. ISDN could do fast perfectly, and Hayes was a perfectionist.

On that day 10 years ago he showed me a new ISDN modem. It was bigger than his regular products, and would require phone company help to install, but it could run at an insane speed of 64 Kbps, while you talked on the same phone line.

Now Hayes made some other mistakes. (At the time, I thought Betty was a mistake — I’m not half as smart as you think I am.) He insisted on maintaining absolute control of his company, and never went public. He was more interested in quality than price or speed to market. He may have made other errors, but I could only watch from afar (being a journalist) so I was never privy to them.

When he was working for Hayes, Betty emphasized such things as brand, customer service, organization and marketing. He took those values to the West Coast, where he went to work with Sky Dayton in the mid-90s at EarthLink, then a tiny local ISP.

I like to think Betty brought with him the lessons of another Atlanta outfit, the Coca-Cola Co. People deride Coke as selling fizzy water, but the company put money into things like water purification as far back as the 1920s.

It made sure quality would match the claims, that every glass of “CoCola” (that’s how Southerners pronounce it) would taste like every other glass, anywhere in the world. Only then — when they could match their claims — did they market the heck out of it.

EarthLink is a lot like CoCola in that way. They treat customer service as an opportunity, not just a cost of doing business. It’s because quality meets expectations that they can market the heck out of it. It will be interesting to see if America Online can beat them back.

Here is the moral of the story.

The days of pure engineering are over. The days of the lone wolf are over. Quality matters, but what you offer must meet customer expectations, what you promise must be under your control, and at that point marketing wins. If you’re just about engineering, and you insist on running your own ship, somewhere there’s a bar rag with your name on it.

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