It all started for me back in 1978, when I had my first programming experience with personal computers. Earlier that year, my good friend Brennan Hildebrand and I had each moved away from East Lansing during the summer. His family moved to Southfield, Michigan (near Detroit) and I went to Houston, Texas, but we visited each other whenever possible.
During the next couple of years, although I did not have a computer of my own, Brennan and I used the Apple ][+ that was in his house to learn programming and play computer games when we were there. I bought him a copy of More BASIC Computer Games, by David H. Ahl, for his birthday, and we spent untold hours, and many late nights, typing in listings and modifying them for our own amusement.
While in Houston, I met and became friends with Eric Comstock, who had a TRS-80 at home, and we also spent time writing programs and playing games on that computer. Perhaps more importantly, though, we worked together to encourage The Awty School, which we both attended at the time, to purchase its first (three) Apple ][ computers. The computers only arrived a few months before we both left (in 1981), but we both made great use of them during that time.
Throughout these years, we all talked about how we could program and sell computer games ourselves. Remember, this was back in the day that games and other software often were little more than a floppy disk and a thin manual inserted into a plastic bag that computer stores stocked by hanging on a peg board. Even when I did not have access to a computer, I “programmed” in pencil, writing out long BASIC listings on paper. Finishing and distributing one of these games seemed within reach.
I finally decided that it was time to stop talking about how cool it would be to sell the computer games we created. In late 1981, I decided that we needed to finally take action, so Brennan and I brainstormed about the first step to take: decide a name. We came up with and decided upon the alliterative name, Sophisticated Software Systems, and also sketched out several “logo” ideas, one of which did actually end up on our first letterhead many years later.
Unfortunately, there were two marketing problems with the original company name that I only learned several years later. First, there were a few “Sophisticated Software” companies that sprung up over the years. We very well may have been the original (and the only one with “Systems”), but that did not prevent the occasional support request for software we had never heard of, and as late as 1999 we received letters demanding that we certify that programs from a different company were Y2K compliant. The second issue, simply, was that we wanted to make games, yet the name gave no clue to that at all.
I did the research to find out how to create a company, which turned out to be much easier than I had imagined. So, I picked up the paperwork for creating a partnership at the county clerk’s office, read it through, and then waited for the next opportunity when my friends and I would be together to sign it. It was at this point that my father gave me my first piece of excellent business advice: Don’t wait!
Acting on this advice, I instead filled out the paperwork for a sole proprietorship, got it notarized, and on January 13, 1982, walked into the office of the Ingham County Clerk, paid my $10 (after waiting for the couple before me to be married), and formed Sophisticated Software Systems.
As it turns out, Brennan and Eric never ended up joining me at Sophisticated Software Systems, but both are successful software entrepreneurs in their own rights, albeit not in computer games.
Next: Part II: The Early Years…