Sunday, November 25, 2007

A Cleveland Evolution

A tenth anniversary is a significant thing, and I couldn't let a special date pass without notice.

At 4:00 PM on Friday, November 21, 1997, I slipped my time card into the clock  at Gleasel String Instruments, on the fifth floor of an ancient industrial building at East 36th and Superior, and punched out for the last time, ending a 25-year span of mostly blue collar jobs.  At 8:30 am the following Monday, November 24th, I took a seat in a cubicle on the 18th floor of what was then the Bond Court building, on 9th Street at St. Clair, and officially entered the Internet economy.

On Friday I was spraying lacquer finishes on cellos. On Monday I was writing capsule reviews and creating other Web content for one of the first online retail sites.

The unobtrusive sign on the office door said "Book Stacks Unlimited."  On the other side of that door, in small offices and cubicles, the smartest, funniest, most passionate group of people I have ever encountered spent their days hunched over computer keyboards, engaged in the various tasks necessary to keep the world's first online bookstore up and running.  I took a $6K annual pay cut to make that career change. I'll never make a better investment.

Books Stacks Unlimited began doing business as a TELNET site in '91 or '92. Connecting to Book Stacks in those early days was a have-your-modem-call-my-modem deal, with nothing on the screen but plain text. But it wasn't long before Book Stacks launched a Web site,, nearly two years ahead of Amazon.

Books Stacks was founded by Cleveland entrepreneur and Internet pioneer Charles Stack. Stack holds  three patents for e-business applications, and in 2000 was named to InfoWorld's Top-Ten E-Business Innovators, a list that included Tim Berners-Lee, the guy who pretty much invented the World Wide Web.

Book Stacks was acquired in 1996 by a big fish, which subsequently merged with another fish to form Cendant, which eventually closed  Book Stacks in November of 1999.  The URL was purchased by Barnes and Noble, but the Internet Archive's Wayback Machine still offers vestiges of the old site.

When Book Stacks closed, I was offered a job at Flashline Inc., a company Charles Stack started in 1998. I moved from the Book Stacks office on Bond Court's 18th floor to the Flashline office on the 13th floor in the same building -- along with several other people from Book Stacks. Flashline eventually outgrew the cramped quarters on the 13th floor, and moved to a larger 16th-floor suite with ten times the space. 

Charles Stack's original idea for Flashline was as an online retail site for anything that could be sold in digital form:  ebooks, music, movies, software, whatever. The focus quickly narrowed to software components, chunks of computer code that could be wired together into new applications must faster than developers could create the new code from scratch.

But Flashline continued to evolve.  What was once an online store where developers could buy and sell software components quickly became a software development company producing a product that provided its growing list of Fortune 1000 customers with the means to manage and control all of their software assets. It is with good reason that that product has been compared to an online bookstore.

The environment at Flashline was what you'd expect for a start-up -- fast and frenetic. Job titles and job descriptions didn't mean a hell of a lot -- everybody wore multiple hats, everybody worked hard, and everybody worked together. Even long after the DotCom bust, Flashline maintained the atmosphere and energy of the early Web companies. 

Flashline's flagship product eventually drew the attention of another big fish, as was the objective all along. BEA Systems, a 5000-employee Silicon Valley software company that itself began as an tiny start-up in the early days of the Web, acquired Flashline in September 2006. Most of the Flashline team, myself included, went to work for BEA, remaining in same suite on the 16th floor of what is now the Penton Media Building.  After the acquisition, the office was re-christened BEA Great Lakes Engineering, largely because the initials spell out BEAGLE.

Charles Stack, whose laurels have never done duty as seat cushions, has moved on. He's now working with two former Flashline execs, looking at investment opportunities in the next generation of Internet start-ups.

As for me, I'm now a 53-year-old geezer with grandkids, a 10-plus year veteran of a World Wide Web that evolves so quickly now that I'm beginning to question the wisdom of trying to keep up. Over this past weekend I watched the 1998 Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan romantic comedy "You've Got Mail," and couldn't help but laugh at the modem tones that announced another syrupy message exchange between the main characters. That technology seems so old now, but I suspect that in far less than another decade today's Web will seem as outdated as dial-up.

But it's the anticipation of what's coming next that keeps me hooked. I'm glad to be a part of it, and I'm especially glad that my wife found that little ad in the PD's Help Wanted section in the fall of 1997.  That ad led me into a new career and a new life, and put me in the company of some truly remarkable people, too many to mention here. It has been an extraordinary ten years, and it all happened right here in Cleveland.


vim said...

That is a nice look back at it all Mr. Rhubart, but has it really been that long? It has been quite a strange, long, often terrifying, but always fun trip. Here's to ten more years.

Tim Ferris said...

nice piece of local history...