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Times you thought you were dead
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Gruner: At Alliant, we had dozens of people working and we had lots of money,
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so once we got past where we could take a program from a Vax and run it on our computer, we weren t too concerned that there was some bullet that could put us out of business. We had done enough work with the marketplace. We had a number of key customers lined up: Bell Labs is an example. The University of Illinois was going to use our computers in their future research projects. So we could see, even in early 85, $10 million of business lined up, and, if we could deliver the computers, we d be in good shape. The scares that I had in my career came at Shareholder.com.
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Livingston: OK. Let s jump ahead to Shareholder.com. Gruner: Shareholder.com was a whole different kind of thing, because the first
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few years there were only three or four people, including myself. We were delivering news for public companies that was very visible, under scrutiny. If you screwed up, either by being late or by getting the wrong information, you were in big trouble. We had a couple of things that scared me to death. I think the one that was probably scariest, that definitely could have put us out of business, happened in 94 or 95. A very large pharmaceutical company had decided to go with us. We had everything underway, and they were going to announce this new service on their annual report. Everything is fine except that I get a call one afternoon saying, Ron, we ve got a really serious problem. The annual report has come out and it s got the wrong 800 number on it! They were frantic. There were two issues: one, they had printed over a million annual reports loaded on pallets at the facility, and two, they had a legal requirement to distribute the reports 30 days before the annual meeting. The reports and the proxies had to be in the shareholders hands at least 30 days
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before the annual meeting, so they were really under the gun. As I recall, they had 5 or 6 days to get those reports in the mail; otherwise they had to reset the annual meeting, and it would have been a huge disaster. It would have clearly put us out of business instantly even though we had told them the right number and we could prove it by showing them the fax we sent them. So I called the 800 number and it was going to somebody s pager. Back in those days, you couldn t leave a voicemail. It just said, Please leave a number to call. So we did that. Nobody ever called back. Because we had a good relationship with AT&T, we identified who owned the 800 number. It was a paging company down in Dallas, Texas. We called the paging company and without revealing what the situation was specifically, we said, We have a situation here where we got a number mixed up and your customer will be getting a lot of phone calls he doesn t want to get. We d like to make it right by him and by you. The company wouldn t give us the time of day. They said, No. Because of privacy issues, we won t contact him and you certainly cannot contact him. All you can do is leave a message. So we tried and tried, and worked it up the ladder. They wouldn t budge. They were just intractable. This consumed about 2 days. Then Josiah Cushing, one of the college grads I had hired, during our staff meeting said, Ron, why don t you try hiring a private detective I said, Well, let s try this. It s an interesting idea. So I went to the Boston Yellow Pages, looked under private investigators, and found an ad that appealed to me. I called the private investigator and I said, Here s an 800 number. It belongs to somebody that has a pager. All I need from you is to know the name and the personal phone number of this person. He said, No problem. It ll cost you $100. And I said, That s fine. How long will it take He said, It will probably take about 4 hours. I thought that was pretty impressive. He calls back 3 or 4 hours later and said, Ron, I ve got good news and bad news. I said, Give me the good news first. The good news is I ve got who it is. Well, what s the bad news It s going to cost you $200, because when we got the name of the person, he had an unlisted number, so we had to do two searches. I said, Fine. We ll send you a check for $200. It will be in tonight s mail. I then call the person up. He is in Dallas, Texas. The whole company was hinging on this, plus the situation with the pharmaceutical company, and I was scared to death about how to make this call. So I just thought, Be as honest as possible, and I said, Look, I represent a company that s printed your number in a document that s going to be very widespread shortly. Otherwise, they have to republish the whole thing, and it s a real mess. What I d like to ask you is: we d like to acquire your 800 number. Give us the right to that and we ll do whatever we can do to make it right for you. All you have to do is tell us what you d like to have us do. And he said, I understand. I ll be happy to help you out. If you could buy me a years worth of pager subscriptions, that will be fine. That was like $400. He could have said $100,000, and they would have done it. He actually said a year, but I said, No, we ll give you 2 years. We ll be happy to do that.
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