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Of course, we had some really good breaks. The Web was a huge one. When that developed, starting in 95, we jumped right on that. People were saying, What are you going to do You re all telephone-based technology, and here s this thing called the Internet. So we thought, It s just another technology. Having learned from Alliant about not moving quickly enough, we were on it right away. Campbell s Soup, for example, was one of our earliest clients, and the first time they had a corporate website was through us. If you look back at their annual report in, I think, 95, they said, If you would like shareholder information, please call 1-800-XXX-SOUP that was their Shareholder Direct line or visit our website at www.shareholder.com/campbell. So we started the web service and took it a day at a time, built the business up. We focused very strongly on client satisfaction. We d do everything it took to keep a client happy. And we focused on the bigger clients.
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Livingston: The Internet was just making a splash in corporate America. Was it
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hard to convince big companies to embrace the Internet
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Gruner: It really wasn t too hard. The initial costs were very low. We would go
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in and say, Look, we are investor relations specialists. We know this area very well and we know you have a web development team. But this is a very specialized area. If you want to do this well, you need real-time SEC feeds and stock quotes. When you put up a news release, it needs to be done even back then in a few hours. You can t wait a few days to put a news release up. So that wasn t too hard to sell.
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Livingston: They could outsource all these things to Shareholder.com Gruner: That s right. In the 80s and early 90s, the investor relations officer
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was really an underappreciated asset. They were understaffed and underbudgeted. So we would go in and say, Our job is to make your life easier. You send us the information; we ll take care of it. And we told them discreetly, If anything gets screwed up, we take the bullet. We re here to help you. Then we just kept adding functionality and functionality. And the government helped us too. We had three big breaks with the SEC. The first was in the early 90s when the SEC put out a comfort letter saying alternatives to the printed quarterly report should be considered, including 800-based telephone numbers. That s essentially like the SEC jumping up and saying, Go, go, go! That s about as aggressive as they get. We had asked for a comfort letter because some of the clients were saying, We don t even know what the SEC says about this. And the SEC said, We won t say yes or no, but we think it s an interesting idea. Regulation FD came along in 2000. It had pros and cons, but, for us, it opened things up tremendously. And then, of course, Sarbanes-Oxley came out a few years ago. All of those things basically said that it s much more important to communicate with shareholders uniformly and democratically. Because, believe me, even when I was at Alliant, and in the early 90s, it was very exclusionary who could attend conference calls, for example.
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Mark Coker, the founder of BestCalls, played a very important part in breaking that whole thing open. Back before Regulation FD, conference calls were by invitation only, for institutional investors. Unless you had a significant share in a company or were a recognized security analyst, you did not get an invitation to participate in a conference call. Regulation FD changed all that. Basically it said, if you ve got material information as a public company, you ve got to get that out to everybody, including the individual investor that might have a hundred shares. So that opened up the conference calls. And because it wasn t possible to have a conference call with 10,000 people on it, webcasting (fortunately that technology was becoming available) made that possible. At the same time that some people may be talking on the telephone, that conversation was being webcast live to anybody that wanted to listen to it. So that was a major market that opened up to us.
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Livingston: Did you know any of this was going to happen Gruner: No, of course not. In the early 90s, I just felt that there was an opportunity to somehow use technology to find a way to better reach out to shareholders and save money for companies. That was the basic concept. Just like 10 years before that, when I started Alliant, I said, There s this whole new technology, what was called parallel processing. There s been a lot of research on it. If we can commercialize that, it may be a really good business opportunity. That was the core concept of Alliant. That s how we left Data General, how we got started. That s all we knew. So that s how we got started with Shareholder.com, the notion of commercializing technology around shareholder communications. Livingston: Back to when you started Alliant, when the three of you who worked at Data General decided, We re going to start our own company . . . Gruner: Two of us left Data General at the same time. The third founder had
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