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Terry Cunningham’s Adventures: Crystal and Coral8 (Part 1)

Posted on Wednesday, Apr 22nd 2009

SM: Let’s start by talking about your background. Where are you from?

TC: I am from Vancouver, Canada. My family grew up in Montreal and my father moved to the west coast in the 1960s. In Montreal there was a group called the FLQ [Front de libération du Québec] that started to terrorize the city for the French separatist movement. It got ugly, so in 1966 he decided to move.

He had seven kids and threw us all in a station wagon, drove across the country, and started a business. He was involved with deep sea shipping. He would broker Canada’s massive resources. They would export logs and coal. He worked the phones and traded ship space.

SM: So he worked in chartering?

TC: Exactly. He was a ship broker and agent in Vancouver. I ended up working in the family business for a little while. I learned that the middle man was dead. When I was graduating from college I said, “the computer is going to put you guys out of business. The broker is dead!” They are still ticking, however.

I went to college at the University of Waterloo in Canada, which is a computer science school. It has become the number one school for Microsoft. They hire more comp sci grads from there than from any other school in the world.

I went there to study mechanical engineering. I didn’t know what a computer was. This was in 1978, so everything was punch cards. That is where Fortran came from. Their computer science program was amazing, and it affected us as engineers. We did finite element analysis on a mainframe. We ran the math on the computer. On an IBM 360 it would take three days for the model to run and the lights would dim, and that was just to model the wing on an airplane.

SM: Did you ever work as an engineer?

TC: No, school was fun but I knew enough to know that I would be a lousy engineer. My buddies were all brilliant engineers at the top of their class. I knew I could not do that, but I also knew I could sell stuff. I could talk to people. Everyone would joke with us that we should go into business together because they were so technical and I could be the front man.

When I graduated I started a consulting business. It was 1983 and the IBM PC had shipped nine months before. I started consulting to small businesses who wanted to buy a computer and do their accounting on it. It was a lot of fun, and I learned a lot about small businesses.

The most famous customer was Louie D. I was doing all of his books, and he was selling jewelry from the Philippines. When the jewelry would arrive we would write purchasing modules, receivables and everything else. After six to eight months I told him he was not paying anyone. He was selling but he was not paying anyone for his goods. He told me not to worry about it. This went on and on, and I was trying to figure out how this worked.

I was sitting at my kitchen table one morning reading the Vancouver Sun, and there was Louie. He was the ex-finance minister for the Philippines, and he had escaped. He was accused of escaping with hundreds of millions of dollars, and he did not get out of the country with everything. His sister still lived in the Philippines, and the jewelry shipments were how he was getting his money. She would take the money, buy jewelry, and he would sell it in North America and take the cash. He ended up going to jail. He was my first paying customer, and he was the best one. He never questioned my fees and he paid in advance.

That was the start of my company, Crystal Decisions. I would run around all day saying yes to the customer, but the accounting products we were using did not have a lot of features. I would then go home and write code to get that functionality in there, and I was a bad programmer. I was up until 4 AM and figured sooner or later it would kill me.

I figured that I was better at getting the customer to say yes than I was at writing the code. I hired a couple of contract programmers. This was in 1986. There were probably 10-15 people. I finally got the brain wave, after four or five of the customers asked for the same thing, that I should make a product.

This segment is part 1 in the series : Terry Cunningham’s Adventures: Crystal and Coral8
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