Interview The argument has been raging since Thomas Edison started General Electric: Is the technical brain behind a business or product capable or even competent enough to manage the operations and growth of that business?
Some people would say Edison was the “World’s Worst Entrepreneur“ and that without significant outside managerial talent GE would not exist today.
This is probably true.
Charles Moir was a British technology whizz-kid who was a witness if not active contributor and participant in the birth, infancy and early days of British technology. He was a 17-year old schoolboy at Oundle, near Peterborough, when Hermann Hauser and Chris Curry of Acorn fame came down to reconnoitre talent and gather intelligence on what they heard was a robust, early-days computer curriculum exciting the minds of youth.
Meeting these two (eventual) legends was a turning point for Moir. By age 21, he had written a word processing program called Wordwise which sold “many copies making me very wealthy.”
His software was “elegant” he says and perhaps this was the source of its wild popularity. “I’m a bit of a perfectionist and firmly believe in simple design over complexity,” Moir declares vigorously. Hmmm, is he a Mac man then?
“Yes, in some respects, though ironically our current products launch on Windows.”
Moir built his company, then called Computer Concepts by placing small ads on the back of computer magazines and then simply started taking orders for Wordwise and hiring staff, eventually building the company to around 40 people.
By age 23, Moir had enough money from his Wordwise invention to buy Gaddesden Place, a hilltop manor house designed by the notable James Wyatt in the late 1760’s.
To the manor born
That he bought this house in 1983 and still uses it as his home and office is the first sign that we’re not speaking with some tech geek spendthrift who buys a string of big houses and Ferraris until destitute as so many of the Silicon Valley and other tech oases’ moneyed did.
What a level-headed, financially-sensible investment for a young man.
But not all has gone according to plan for Moir. Zy.com was an online, web-based, website builder which at one point was getting more than 14 million hits per month. Moir says, "The 'Dot Com Crash' came and we couldn't get new investors - they backed out at the last minute." El Reg has covered the collapse of this dot-com business here and here.
Moir wrote Wordwise especially for the BBC Micro. Not the Sinclair, the Macintosh or the IBM PC which was then coming out strong. “The IBM PC was not very popular over here,” Moir observes, “it was too expensive, clunky and not homegrown. The IBM PC was inferior in almost every respect to our British computers.”
When asked which characterization he though applied to him most, Entrepreneur or Techie, his reply is, “I sit in both camps really. I’m the classic tech guy who started his own company.”
“I’m a geek at heart,” says Moir unabashedly almost as a challenge to duel, “and my move from geek to manager happened very organically.”
How were your entrepreneurial and managerial skills then?
Here, Moir gets brutally candid, “I wasn’t very good at dealing with non-technology employees, I certainly could’ve improved my relationships and managing of staff,” he says somewhat repentantly.
From little acorns
Does he have any other regrets? “Well, I’m not the type of guy who goes around regretting things, but I do wish we moved our Wordwise software onto the PC and Mac platforms instead of waiting. We saw Acorn was going to be in trouble but like many small companies didn’t have the money to port to Macs and I didn’t want to port to the PC platform. The IBM PC was terrible. Their Intel processors 8086 and 8088 were nasty.”
"The Acorn RISC PC however,” he continues, really picking up momentum, “was a great modern desktop that provided features which took years to finally come out in Windows.”
But much to Moir’s chagrin, the Acorn and virtually every other British-built computer started to disappear.
Here Moir has an anecdote to share. When Jack Tramiel, the bombastic founder of Commodore computer company and subsequent chief of Atari, got wind of Moir’s software antics from the other side of the Atlantic, he came-a-calling for a visit to Moir and Gaddesden Place.
Tramiel, who famously stated that “Business is War,” also subscribes to an aggressive competitive strategy and feeling very threatened by what he'd heard about the BBC Micro decided to check it out personally.
He came to Gaddesden Place with the Atari UK MD. When Moir opened up the Acorn, what the visitors saw amazed them: “Just four chips, some RAM and that’s it!” says Moir.
Tramiel bellowed, “OK, these guys can destroy us!!”
The Atari UK MD quickly reassured the American legend who earlier had created the Commodore 64 (the Yank equivalent of the BBC Micro) selling millions of units and according to Moir “started a revolution.” The Brit calmly pointed out, “This is Acorn. They’re not a threat. They’ll screw it up; they always do,” he said.
Moir agreed with that assessment both at the time and, certainly, today given the Acorn brand has been wiped off the face of the Earth. But he was sad to see the elegant machine go.
With a grand old pile and funds to go through a comfortable, cavalier life, why does Moir continue to work in technology?
“I’d get bored as hell if I didn’t do something,” he says, more like a recent retiree than a man in his productive prime, “Tech interests me. I’ve never worked for anyone else. I’ve never had a job.”
The “something” Moir does now is called Xara and is first and foremost a software development company. This he says, is the core business which generates the lion’s share of revenue and blasts out “mass market” software products which are diverse but also mainly graphics-oriented. “In many ways, Xara is a product-line extension of Wordwise. In fact, I think if you were to call us up we might be able to find a copy and sell it to you,” he said chuckling.
A second business is the online distribution arm which markets software which allows the user to establish a web site efficiently. During the giddy dot-com days, this type of product was the Holy Grail because of the gold rush mentality to go online. So while the general software sector languishes with limp sales and no more VC exhilaration, this area is still the high-potential one for Moir. "This side of the business sits there, not a serious revenue-generator. We watch it and are ready to rebuild it if the time is right—but it’s a matter of focus.”
Moir’s current focus is on a new product called Xara Xtreme, which Xara calls “the fastest most versatile graphics software available.” Hype? Moir says not. “This general purpose graphics software competes with Corel Draw and Illustrator,” he says, while this new product is also looking forward to a head-on collision with Microsoft’s new Expression Graphic Designer software, part of Vista. Moir says it’ll issue a wake-up call to the world’s leading consumer software company. “No one competes with Microsoft and takes it lightly,” he adds ominously.
While certainly true, Microsoft will be scrutinizing another aspect of Xara Xtreme even more closely: a recent Open Source launch of Xtreme which will threaten the big, monopolistic company on a second front.
Is Moir a Linux devotee? “The evolution of the Linux desktop over the last few years has been incredible,” he gushes. All systems at Xara, he says, are dual-booting while he tends to boot up the Windows side more regularly because they develop on that dominant platform. That may change dramatically he is quick to point out.
Does he believe that over the next year or two, he’ll be booting up Linux more and more while booting up Windows less and less?
Bill Robinson has appeared on CNN, PBS, Bloomberg and had his own segment on SKY News commenting on high-tech and marketing issues and has written columns and articles for FORTUNE Small Business, The Financial Times, Marketing Magazine (UK), Forbes.com, The Moscow Times, Cisco Systems iQ Magazine, United Airline's Hemispheres Magazine and Upside Magazine. Bill may be reached at: email@example.com