• Paul Rutherford


Updated: Jun 10

The names have been changed; everything else is true.

In Orwell's 1984, we learned that Big Brother knew everything. And in that year, I learned that I knew nothing.

It was a time when suits were cut wider than Quarterbacks' shoulders, suitcases didn't have wheels, and luggable 'phones were house bricks connected to hod-size batteries.

The world was shining and new. I had a new job, a new car and a new degree in Business. On top of that, the agency I joined had a new client with some technology that was going to change the world.

Because no-one - outside the military and tech corporations - had email.

Existing protocols didn't talk to each other, PCs were only used for spreadsheets, and the 'phone network was used for just talking. Even if you had a PC and a line, you'd need an modem to connect them (whatever that was).

So imagine the excitement when Derek, the agency owner, was called by his techie friend Richard, to tell him about his new job. He had joined a venture as Sales Director to launch a public messaging service using the Simple Mail Transfer Protocol.

Or as he said: "SMTP". That's why tech sales needed marketing support.

The main competitor was British Telecom (as was), with its network, its brand and its universal reach.

Could an upstart make enough waves? Richard's boss - Tom, the Chairman - certainly thought so. Tom was the drive behind the start-up. He had previously been running media ventures in the north-west of England, and had recently come to London with his Mancunian accent and a Rolodex of investor names. His goal was to give BT a good kicking, which meant making a lot of noise.

"I want lots of bloody press and lots of bloody case studies. I want lots product glossies and lots of events. The more the better. And I want it all bloody yesterday," he told us, between a money coffee and a money lunch.

After all, it was the booming '80s.

The agency started work in August, running hell-for-leather to get the company and the service launched.

By mid-December, we had done at least nine-months of work, and were out of breath. Thank heavens that Christmas was due. To close the year, all we needed to do was chase for outstanding payments - fees and production costs.

So it was a pleasant surprise that Richard called, telling Derek that he was driving past our offices and wanted to 'pop-in'. Usually that meant more work to be done (for Tom); perhaps this time it was to bring Christmas spirit?

But when Richard arrived, he didn't look happy. His rictus smile, his shifting posture; something was not right:

"Derek. I wanted to tell you directly. Personally. I wanted to tell you because I owe it to you..."

Perhaps Tom wasn't happy with us: Had he told Richard to fire us?

A pregnant pause.

"Derek... We're out of cash. I think we're about to go bust."

In a memory from so long ago, the next few minutes of the story are blurred. Maybe I tuned out, trying to figure out something that didn't appear in the text books.

But there's one moment that I still carry as if it happened yesterday: Derek swiveled his chair, looked out the window at the High Street festival lights, and said:

"It's the week before Christmas and I'm about to go out of business. What shall I tell my wife and children?"

Another silence, except for traffic and a distant brass band playing a carol.

Richard reached into his jacket and pulled out a wedge of folded papers. He flattened them onto the desk in front of him.

"I asked the accounts people to give me a copy of all your outstanding invoices. Adding it up, we owe you thirty-three thousand pounds." (For inflation, that would be £100k today.)

Derek shrugged, as if it were now theoretical information. Richard continued:

"I didn't drive here today in my BMW. If you look down the street, there's a large white lorry that I drove here instead. And in the back is some £30,000 worth of modems. Would you accept these in lieu?"

Derek sat still for a moment, trying to weave it all together. Richard was in action mode, so didn't wait for a reply:

"Come on Paul; let's get them into the office, while Derek figures out what to do next."

There were 300 boxes in total, retailing £100 each. Richard and I carried them in batches from the lorry, up three flights of stairs to the office, and built a wall of them in front of filing cabinets. By the time we finished, Derek had spoken to his accountant, who had doubts about the legality of accepting payment in lieu.

"If a business goes go bust, all creditors need to be treated equally, and we won't be first on the list," Derek summarized the conversation. "I'm waiting for our lawyer to call me back."

Midway through our obligatory cup of tea, the lawyer was on the line. For 15 minutes, he and Derek agreed a plan.

"We have to show paper evidence," said Derek to Richard, me and anyone else in earshot. "We need to show that we have put pressure on your company to be paid, and have suggested that we'll accept product in lieu of money."

"So you have two advantages," smiled Richard, for the first time since arriving. "As our media relations agency, you have reams of our stationery with our logo on it. And two, I have the authority to sign letters on behalf of the company. What do you need me to say?"

It brings another vivid image to mind of that 'I know nothing' afternoon. Richard may have been a technocrat, but was an exceptionally well-dressed technocrat. As we created a stock list to accompany his 'offer' to the agency, he laid on the floor reading out part numbers from modem packaging. I could see how unscuffed the soles of his Sales Director shoes.

By the end of the afternoon, with correspondence signed and copied between both parties, we agreed that: A) the modems wouldn't get sold before Christmas and B) they shouldn't be kept in our offices over the holiday period. And so we did the obvious:

We moved them to the basement of a friend's wife's florist shop.

* * *

Family Christmases came and went. Over the ten days we shared our sense of relief about the money we were owed, and uncertainly about how much real cash we'd generate, how much loss we'd take.

And beneath the financial escape, a feeling of gut-wrenching disappointment. We'd put in so much time and thought and energy.

Yet we weren't going to change the world after all.


On New Year's Eve, Derek picked up his house 'phone and heard a strong Mancunian accent.

"Greetings from America," said Tom."Happy Christmas to you and yours."

What's that supposed to mean?

"Thought I'd let you know, we're still in business. I've just sold the company to one of the AT&T break-up Baby Bells. They really want to make a go of email. Their money's in our account, so I'll pay your bills by next Monday."

Derek stumbled, mumbled, thanked. Tom continued:

"You could have taken us down any moment. Just a one-page letter from your lawyer could have stopped everything. I want you to know that it means a lot to me.

"So in addition to paying your bills, I'm setting up an account with fifty thousand that will always be there to ensure that you're paid. If it goes below thirty thousand, we'll make sure that it's topped up. I don't want you to be worried about us again."

Silence down the phone.

"Happy New Year" said Derek.

"Happy New Year" said Tom. "And make sure you send back my bloody modems."

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#work #business #people #trust

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