An Eclectic Career In The Fast Lane
The World of Mainframes and Emerging Technology
Mike Harvey, the founder and publisher of Nibble, already had a successful career in high technology and computers before the morning when he decided to start Nibble. He had spent five years in sales with IBM and had the top sales record in the company his second year on quota. He moved to headquarters marketing with Burroughs, and was recruited to head up marketing and planning for a new diversification division of Xerox in 1968. During his six years with Xerox, he had planning and product management responsibility for laser printing, facsimile, word processing and micrographics. He recalled seeing the first mouse-based graphics at Xerox PARC in 1972, nearly twelve years before Apple introduced the Macintosh. He recognized early that software, not hardware, was the way of the future and wrote a number of white papers trying to persuade Xerox to build that business. (It didn’t.)
He went on to become President of University Computing Company, a 35 million Dallas-based software company. In 1978, he became President of Inforex, a 70 million Boston-based data entry company.
During that time, he continued as a computer enthusiast and a self-taught “closet programmer”. He bought one of the first TRS 80s when it came out, and followed shortly with his first Apple II. Weekends were spent writing all kinds of games and utilities. He wrote a word processor for his own use, a personal finance program, and a database management program, among others. He was fascinated figuring out new ways to get more out of his Apple.
Starting Nibble in the Family Room
He had begun selling his programs to computer magazines in 1979, but in late 1979 he left Inforex and decided to start his own programming publication – Nibble. He bought back the programs he had sold, and spent two months writing the first four issues of Nibble and scrambling to publish the first issue in 90 days from the time he conceived of the idea. In February of 1980, he published the first issue of Nibble and simultaneously accepted a job as President of Verbex, a voice recognition subsidiary of Exxon Enterprises.
He recalls that one of his biggest concerns was finding free-lance authors who could continue filling Nibble after he ran out of his own work. So he wrote letters to every author he saw published in other computer magazines, and persuaded several to start writing by the time his fifth issue was published.
For the next year, he got in the habit of waking up at 3 am, working on Nibble for 4-5 hours, and then going to his “regular job” for the full workday. In the evenings, he worked again on writing, answering customer calls, and writing the programs to manage the growing publication.
He recalls setting a “drop dead” target of having 1,000 subscribers in six months or else folding the publication. At the six month mark, he had 6,000 subscribers. At twelve months, he had 19,000 subscribers and had begun hiring office help … working out of his home.
At the twelve-month mark, he resigned from Verbex to manage Nibble full-time. And Nibble grew and grew. Through the next 12 years, we grew the company with a young, enthusiastic group of more than 30 people who really became dedicated to the concept of what we were trying to do — help our readers learn and use the Apple productively, and have fun doing it. [There’s a much more complete history on the Nibble Magazine website, and in particular, see the “Nibble – The First 10 Years” for a writeup, photographs, and background on the authors and staff who helped Nibble be a success.] During that time, company was self-financed with no debt and no outside investors. Mike said, “that was the best twelve years of my life. I couldn’t wait to get to work in the mornings, and continued the 3 am schedule. It was a labor of love.”
In 1985, he had offers from Ziff Davis and International Data Group to acquire Nibble. He recalls an afternoon when he sat out under a tree in his backyard and made the decision not to sell. “I remembered that I started Nibble to be independent and not have to be accountable to corporate bureaucracies. I realized that if I sold, I’d want to start over again doing what I was doing. I was having too much fun to go back to the corporate life.”
In the late 80’s he added a magazine for the PC and another for the Macintosh. And Nibble grew to a circulation in excess of 100,000 subscribers. The company was operated using a comprehensive order processing and subscriber fulfillment system that Mike personally developed along the way. He recalls in the early years, facing the challenge of how to sort 30,000 subscribers on an Apple II with floppy disks. His subscriber files spanned 36 diskettes and he had an Apple II with 12 floppy drives stacked up around it. He’d process the sort in groups of twelve diskettes and it took nearly 20 hours to run the job. Eventually, the advent of “hard drives saved the day just in time” he said. The systems he developed ran on a network of 20 Apple II systems interconnected to 300 megabytes of hard drives.
The Handwriting on the Wall
In the late 80’s he could see the handwriting on the wall. Large publishers entered and dominated the industry and he saw he could no longer compete at that level. So he began systematically selling the magazine assets to larger publishers. Nibble was the last to be shut down in 1992. Mike said, “when we spun off the Nibble subscribers and closed the company, it was terribly sad – like the death of a family member.”
At that point, he decided to reengage the mainframe software business as a consultant. “It was quite a challenge getting back up to speed after twelve years in the microcomputer business,” he said. He used the same marketing methods he’d used to build Nibble, only now he was selling himself.
Back to the Mainframe
Over the next three years, he built a small client base in New England. One of his clients was Sterling Software a very large multidivisional company in Dallas. Twenty years earlier at UCC, he had managed several executives who went on to found Sterling, and among them was Sterling Williams the CEO. In 1996, Sterling put Mike on retainer as a consultant, and in 1997 asked him to become an Acting Group President over the Applications Development Group in Atlanta. Mike spent a year commuting back and forth between his home in Boston and the offices in Atlanta.
In 1997, Mike played a lead role in Sterling’s acquisition of the software division of Texas Instruments and the company asked him to join Sterling as the Group President to manage the combined companies. He ran that group for two years, and was asked to move over and become Group President of the Systems Management Group. This group included three product-focused divisions in Network Management, Storage Management, and Internet Management, and three international divisions covering Europe, Asia, and So America.
In the next two years, he accomplished six company acquisitions and grew revenues 40% from $205 million to $290 million, while maintaining 40% profit margins. In that brief time, he logged more than a million travel miles travelling around the world for direct hands-on management of his enterprises. In early 2000, Sterling Software was acquired by Computer Associates and his Group played a pivotal role in the acquisition. The acquisition enabled Mike to comfortably retire, but he has continued to work part-time as a consultant. He currently resides in Dallas, Texas and has become expert in Internet marketing and web site development.
Of his career, Mike says, “I guess my career has been pretty eclectic – from mainframes to micros and back again. I’ve been there when the President empties the trash at night and changes the water in the water cooler. And I’ve been there in the board room of major NYSE companies as part of the executive team. It’s been a helluva ride… and still is.”