I survived high school by doodling during many of my classes, and I always wanted to create my own comic strip. So I finally gave it a try. My daily comic strip Dexter appeared in the student newspaper at the University of Tennessee from 1989-1991, and I had a blast doing it. The strip won several awards during its short run, so I had high hopes of turning it into a career.
As luck would have it, my first job out of college was as an editorial cartoonist for a local newspaper. It didn’t last long (the paper went belly-up), but it did enable me to hone my skills a bit. At the same time, I submitted “Dexter” to various comic strip syndicates, hoping it would catch the eye of an editor.
After months of submitting my work, I received nothing more than a pile of rejection notices. Realizing that it might be a while before my comic strip career took off, I found a temporary job to pay the bills. And that was a lucky move for me, since the temp job had me surrounded by “modern” PCs – and this was 1993, right when the web started to take off. It struck me that the rise of the web meant that I didn’t really need a publisher for my work. Why submit my comics to syndicates when I could publish them myself?
I decided to jump back into the computing world to figure this web thing out. Most nights I stayed after work to teach myself how to use a PC, and I remember convincing my supervisor to upgrade from DOS to Windows 3.1 so that I could experiment with Windows programming. I also remember that during the day, I had to use a really badly-designed data entry program – it was an awful, painful, incredibly user-unfriendly piece of software, the kind that you write not to help people but to punish them. To this very day I’m fueled by the memory of that exceptionally bad software and the effect that it had on those forced to use it.
Anyway, I learned enough HTML to create a bare-bones site for “Dexter,” and I still remember the thrill of seeing the site in Mosaic for the first time. Cliché as it may sound, that was a life-altering event for me. Self-publishing – which used to be an expensive, time-consuming process – was now cheap and easy.
Every week I’d post a new cartoon (actually, they weren’t really new – they were the same ones I created in college), and the strip gained a decent following. But a few months into it, I started running into problems maintaining the site. Notepad just didn’t cut it, and none of the HTML editors I tried did what I needed, so I decided to write an HTML editor that did what I wanted it to.
Now, I’d like to report that I immediately created a useful tool, but the truth is that my first attempt was pretty lame – it was an ugly, slow application that was only a cut above Notepad. But I kept at it, and soon felt confident enough in my programming skills to leave my temp job and seek a full-time programming position. I’ll skip the details of the various projects I worked on, but suffice to say, I didn’t really enjoy them (think “Dilbert” without the humor). It bugged me how I’d be handed a list of requirements for a specific application, yet I never got to talk with the people who would actually use the finished software – I knew my work didn’t meet the needs of the people using it, which bothered the hell out of me. I decided that if I was going to be a career programmer, I should at least like my work, and I should feel that I was spending my time doing something useful.
With that in the background of my thoughts, I started over with my HTML editor project, rewriting it in Delphi to make it faster and more compact. One night, I decided on a whim to make my HTML editor available for download from my comic strip site, and I let a couple of shareware sites know about it before going to sleep. When I awoke the next morning, I was shocked to find that over a thousand people had downloaded it.
The HTML editor, of course, was HomeSite – and it turned out to be far more popular than my comic strips. Almost immediately, HomeSite seemed to be everywhere. I was completely unprepared for the success of HomeSite, and I remember it being an exciting but very sleep-deprived time for me. I had a full-time programming job and a comic strip site to maintain, and suddenly I was receiving a couple hundred emails a day about a program I’d written for myself.
I couldn’t work and support HomeSite for free, so I decided to create a for-pay version of HomeSite, hoping I could use it as a way out of my day job. My memory is a little hazy about the numbers, but I think it sold something like 200 copies the first day it went on sale – more than enough to justify quitting my job and jumping head-first into the world of shareware.
But despite being focused on HomeSite full-time, I still found it impossible to handle the amount of email I received. Email just didn’t cut it for tech support, so I switched to web-based forums and soon a lively community of HTML coders sprung up. That, to me, was great – unlike my previous programming jobs, people who used my software were providing direct feedback and discussing features that would make their lives easier. Before long I was conducting “feature votes” where new features suggested by customers would be voted on by other forum members, and the results determined what to add to the next version of HomeSite. That experience taught me the importance of involving customers in the evolution of a product, and ever since then I’ve provided a public forum for those who use of my software.
It was still too much work, though. I was overwhelmed with the demand for HomeSite, and knew I’d need to either hire people or seek acquisition from a company that could support it. I still wanted to code full-time, so I took the latter route. The first suitor was Microsoft, who wanted to acquire HomeSite and have me work on their Visual InterDev project. My visit to Microsoft was a good one – I liked the people I met, and I liked how they worked in small teams despite being a huge company. I also liked Seattle, but my wife’s father had become very ill, and we didn’t want to move hundreds of miles away from him.
Before I could accept or decline Microsoft’s offer, a Dot-Com startup named Allaire Corporation made a counter-offer which would enable me to work from home. I met with Jeremy Allaire, and soon afterwards I accepted their offer. HomeSite was re-branded as an Allaire product, and for the next 18 months I was an Allaire employee.
OK, I just took a breather and I’m now realizing how long this post is – talkative little geek, aren’t I? I’d say this is a good place for me to stop, since the rest of the story is fairly recent history which I can write about when I’m older and wiser :)