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Graham: Our first customers were a pair of technical bookstores. Robert actu-
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ally went with me on the sales call to the first one. He just sat there absolutely silent through the whole thing. I think both of these bookstores were frightened of Amazon. Most people back then, you had to kind of twist their arm to get them to sell online, but not people in the technical book business.
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Livingston: Tell me a little about your relationships with your first customers. Graham: We felt like we had to have five or six customers to launch. And for
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these first customers, we basically would do whatever they said in order to get them as customers. We gave them the software for free for as long as they wanted. We built their sites ourselves. If they needed to have images in them, we would scan the images. We were basically web consultants, because we needed users; you can t launch a thing like this without having any users. That s one of the problems with web-based software. If you re making desktop software and you launch the thing, no one can tell how many other users there are, right But if you re making web-based software and you re hosting the websites that these guys build, then if you don t have any users, the entire world can see that.
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Livingston: Were most people that you tried to pitch your software to online
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retailers Were there things that they misunderstood
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Graham: One of the big things we got wrong was that we thought our users were going to be catalog companies. Now all the catalog companies are online, but back then, they just didn t want to hear about the Web. This was late 95, early 96. A lot of people didn t even have web access yet. So these middle
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managers at the catalog companies we called up, at that point they just wished the Web would go away. It was just making their lives more complicated. We would call them up and tell them how we could solve all their problems and make an online store for them, and it was kind of like the dentist calling up and saying, Why don t you come in for that root canal The people, it turned out, that really wanted our software were individual merchants guys who had some kind of specialty store selling antique chess pieces or something like that, and up till now had relied on people coming to their shop to buy stuff, or maybe occasionally they would mail out a xeroxed price sheet. For these guys, the Web was huge, because it allowed them to have what the catalog companies had. Those users loved us.
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Livingston: Why did users like Viaweb Graham: I think the main thing was that it was easy. Practically all the software
in the world is either broken or very difficult to use. So users dread software. They ve been trained that whenever they try to install something, or even fill out a form online, it s not going to work. I dread installing stuff, and I have a PhD in computer science. So if you re writing applications for end users, you have to remember that you re writing for an audience that has been traumatized by bad experiences. We worked hard to make Viaweb as easy as it could possibly be, and we had this confidence-building online demo where we walked people through using the software. That was what got us all the users. The other thing was, we had good graphic design. Our secret weapon was that we knew that e-commerce was really about graphic design, not transaction processing. Unless you had a site that could convince people to buy, you didn t have a transaction to process, and what convinced people to buy was how good the site looked. So we made sure that our software made great-looking sites not just better than our competitors, but better than most of the sites that big companies paid web consultants half a million dollars to make for them. We didn t even process credit card transactions till about 2 years in. We would just forward the order to the merchant, and they d process it like a phone order.
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