In the late 1980s' and early 1990s I was a network engineer at the Thomas-Conrad Corporation(TCC), responsible for the testing, implementation, training and support of the companies line of networking cards, hubs and other devices. TCC was a small company on the leading(or bleeding) edge of networking technology competing with companies such as Cisco Systems and 3 Com. Computer networking, the linking of many disparate computers into a web of interconnected machines to share data, wasn't a new concept, but it wasn't until the advent of the personal computer and it's acceptance in the business environment as a replacement for or as access to mainframes that the need for local area networks and wide area networks arose. The basics of the internet existed, but access was limited to government entities, research facilities, the military, and the few technology companies supporting the early networking efforts.
One of my responsibilities at TCC was to run the companies BBS (Bulletin Board System), a Wildcat BBS that I took over from another staffer. Used to provide customer and in house support, people would dial in, modem to modem, and download drivers and other files at the blinding speed of 2400bps. Run on an MS-DOS 3.3 platform, hooked to an annoying monochrome monitor with a flickering orange screen we could accommodate 2 users at a time and downloading a driver file could take hours. But it did put me in the back end of BBS technology and soon I was looking into what others were doing with it, more for entertainment than business. I checked out AOL and Compuserve, and local BBS's, downloading programs, images, and games because the local calls were free. I also checked out some out of state BBS's like "The Well" of the Bay Area, and then found the only reptile BBS, Mark Miller's Herp Net out of Philadelphia. There a small number of digital reptile keepers, rare at the time, would exchange photos, swap photos, and share experiences. I was doing a lot of field work with kingsnakes at the time so I started posting field reports detailing what I saw in South and West Texas and soon attracted a small following. But dialing into Mark's BBS was expensive, incurring per minute long distance fees, so everyone's ability to participate was limited. There had to be a better way.
There was, and it was right around the corner. And little did I know but I was right in the middle of it.
In 1985, the United States' National Science Foundation (NSF) commissioned the construction of the NSFNET, a university 56 kilobit/second network backbone, using technologies based on the original ARPANet research network, and the TCP/IP communications protocol. In 1988 US Federal Networking Council approved the opening of the NSFNET to commercial entities and in 1989 the first commercial connections were made. Used to send email and other text and binary files using protocols such as FTP and Telnet, it was fine for sharing small bits of data, but aside from not having to dial long distance it wasn't a major improvement over the BBS technology. It lacked two things to really pull it all together.
On 6 August 1991, CERN, a pan-European organization for particle research, publicized the new World Wide Web project, invented by British scientist Tim Berners-Lee in 1989. Run on top of the internet and it's standardized protocols, and using Hyper Text Markup Language (HTML) it created the "face" of the internet as we know it today. The last piece really needed to put it all together, the web browser, showed up in 1993. Mosaic was developed at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and is the web browser credited with popularizing the World Wide Web. Mosaic still survives today, in a fashion, as Mozilla is it's direct descendant.
It was in 1993 that Thomas-Conrad Corporation launched it's first web site, to replace it's Wildcat BBS, and I was assigned the role of "webmaster", tasked with designing, building, and running one of the first web sites on the internet. I had received very basic WWW training at a Technical Support Alliance Network meeting, but everything was new for everyone and we all had to learn everything as we went along, trial and error. No one knew what the internet would be, many said it would be just for "techies", others called it a fad that would pass and not worth investing in. I knew the minute I saw my first web page that a new media and medium had been born, and that it would change everything. I read everything I could find, but aside from Wired Magazine no one seemed to "get it". My bosses were hesitant to allow me the carte blanch to explore to capabilities of the web at work so soon I began to look for something to make a personal web page about. More about playing with technology than anything else, I soon ended up back at my reptile hobby for inspiration. It could have been any of my interests, music, cars, airplanes, girls, but in the end I chose snakes to be the topic of my first web page. Little did I know and never did I imagine what and where that choice would lead.
It was early 1994 when I approached Joe Forks and Gerry Salmon, two long time snake friends, and discussed building a page that would be the ultimate reference to the Gray Banded Kingsnake. First I had to explain to them what the internet and web was and how it was about to change the world, and I had to convince them. I was to repeat and refine that explanation many, many times to many, many reptile people for the first few years. Joe and Gerry took little convincing and with the investment in a flatbed scanner, the loan of hundreds of photos, I settled in and began building. By late summer of 1994 the basics of The Alterna Page were in place, though very crude by later standards. The simple text based interface on a gray background soon gave way to a image map based button system, like a large radio, and I made one of my first important discoverys about the internet. Web pages are never "finished" or "done". They were living, breathing digital creatures that had to be fed a constant diet of content, updates, fixes and upgrades. Attracting a small audience, the page was a hit among the limited number of reptile people on the web in the early days, with traffic and visitors doubling every week. Then I added the classifieds.
At first the classifieds were posted by hand, by me, once a month, then once a week, and originally it was just for Gray Banded Kingsnakes. Soon friends convinced me to allow other kingsnakes, then all snakes, and then finally "Buzz" Ross broke the lizard barrier with Bearded Dragons. Soon people I had never heard of, from all parts of the country, were asking me to post ads for them. This was starting to turn into work, and not what I had planned. It was staring to cost money, and more seriously, it was eating up all my free time. Up until that point I had been regularly spending 40-50 nights a year in the field chasing snakes, but the web site was starting to eat my weekends. And it was starting to impact my job.
In October of 1995 my employer, Thomas-Conrad, was swallowed up by the massive Compaq Computer Corporation based out of Houston. Our company, along with several others, were to provide the basic structure for Compaq's Network Products Division. I found myself spending a lot of time on the road between Houston and Austin, training Houston staff members on our products and working with the Houston based web team to develop our divisions internal and external web sites. I was also providing design, consulting, and training to special customers. I found myself flying out to Ft. Bragg to train troopers of Special Operations Command prior to deployment to Bosnia, working with the National Security Agency on secure network designs for the White House, and helping other various federal entities as they too made their first tentative steps out into the internet. The task was daunting. I was now programming for hundreds of thousands of people, in a huge corporate environment, with customers so diverse they included the President of the United States.
In an effort to ease my schedule I began to look for a way to allow people to post their own classifieds to the snake site. Casting about online I came across a kid named Matt Smith and his Script Archive. Using his Bulletin Board Software I set up a my first forum, the Gray Banded Kingsnake forum, and then by hacking out major chunks of the script was able to create a very basic classified ad program that allow my users to post their own ads. In the end it was that script that started the snowball downhill. At first there were a few people posting, not more than 10 or so, then it was 20, then it was 30, and very quickly the number of people posting that I didn't know outnumbered the ones I did know. Traffic was rising, more and more people were finding the internet, I was running out of disk space, and the site has less and less to do with Gray-banded kingsnakes, and in fact was so diverse there were more turtle ads than kingsnake ads. Then one day my ISP told me I had to move.
I was exceeding my disk space and my bandwidth on a regular basis. They had no options to upgrade me than to move me to a commercial hosting account, and at the time they were charging $1200 a month for those. It was time to decide. I either had to make this a business or stop doing it. After discussing the situation with my reptile buddies, everyone was encouraging but ambivalent. The internet was starting to show some legs, but was there really enough business to support a reptile web site? Coercion by John Cherry finally ended the matter, and a search of Network Solutions brought the name kingsnake.com to existence for the first time in February of 1997. Now all I had to do was find a web server to point it at.
Booted from my ISP & web host I started looking for a more reasonably priced solution locally. I wanted to avoid the big corporate giants moving into the arena if I could, knowing that a smaller provider would be more willing to grow with me, and would be more stable as a business in the long run. My hardware vendor AES Solutions and it's owner Jon Massengale soon pointed me to a solution in PrismNet, a local ISP and host that was part owned by one of his former techs. We started with a $30.00 a month hosting account and have been with them ever since.
Officially launching kingsnake.com in February of 1997, as a business, I offered web hosting and web design services. Classified advertising was free. Banner ads were not, and they were crudely built and crudely delivered. But there were few competitors. Sure there were great non-commercial sites like Jennifer Swoffords Basking Spot and Melissa Kaplan's site, but the only site that was being run as a business to service businesses and the community was a site called The Herp Mall. Expensive, and not very interactive, it did set the early standard for online reptile "community" sites, but the users and vendors were looking for more than what The Herp Mall offered. At the time it had no classifieds, no message boards, and vendor web sites for the most part were gray pages that contained lists of animals and prices, not far removed from the price lists first mailed in the 60's and 70s the faxed in the 80s and 90s. Still, in 1997 there were few people on the internet, the general public was just starting to plug in, and it's long term success far from certain.
kingsnake.com's launch initially offered little more than The Herp Mall, other than more colors, a single message board still focused on Gray-Bands, a single classified ad page, and a small list of vendors whose sites we hosted. But every day in every way the site got a little bigger, better, and busier. In the fall of 1997 I was invited to speak about the internet in general, and the reptile internet in specific at the East Texas Herpetolgical Society expo and symposium in Houston. By then the site had grown enormously, tripling the number of hosted vendor web sites, we now had 7 classified advertising categories just to handle the number of ads we were getting, and 20 or so message boards. That year I got my first user complaints and my first lawsuit threat. I was still working my full time job at Compaq during the day, but I would work til midnight every night on kingsnake.com. But no matter how hard I worked, or how many hours I put in, kingsnake.com sucked all of them away, and more. I didn't have time for a social life, and no longer had days I could devote to chasing snakes. Spring of 1998 put an end to my collecting.
I was spending my weeks vacation, the last for a long time, in Alpine Texas. Heading up into the Davis Mountains or down to the Christmas Mountains at night looking for kingsnakes. Internet access in rural areas such as Alpine at the time was very hit or miss, and even then was done by dial up modem, a very slow process. I would hunt all night, then get to the hotel after sunrise dial up and check my mail. After the third night into the trip, I dragged myself into the hotel, dialed up, and instead of a handful of messages, was swamped with complaints. Overnight someone had spammed the classifieds with hundreds of hard core porn ads. I spent a long day on that dial up, deleting each porn ad by hand. When I returned home I implemented a username and password system and also our first Terms of Service agreement. Though I would return to the desert a few more times, briefly, I have never made it back into the field like the old days, though I still feel it when the snakes are crawling.
This year would be watershed year for both myself and kingsnake.com, for in 1998 we both turned a corner that could never be turned back. The web site was starting to seriously impact my job, the traffic had exploded, and now so were my costs. PrismNet was having trouble with kingsnake.com eating up the available disk space on their server, and it was so busy it was slowing their other clients sites down. I was going to have to get my own server. And I was going to have to find a new job. Compaq had given me a choice, either my web site had to go, or I did. I was at a crossroads. We didn't make enough money off of hosting and web design to support either myself or the business. But the classifieds had exploded. Trouble was, they were free. With all the free classified sites now on the internet, would anybody pay to use ours? After discussing it with Dave and Tracy Barker it was decided to try it, charging a nominal fee of $20 per year. It was like adding fuel to a fire.
I quit my job at Compaq, leaving a job that paid close to $60k per year with neat extras like insurance and a growth path, to sell advertising to snake breeders on this new thing called the internet. My ex-co-workers thought I was nuts. My friends thought I was nuts. My family, though supportive, was concerned for a number of things including my sanity. I had a mortgage, and a car payment, I was lucky I didn't have a family to support. How I managed to live on 1998s revenues of $8800 I will never know, but I did, and amazingly kept a clean credit rating, though I ate a lot of ramen.
To be continued...
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