History of The Last Word: a personal memoir by founder, Bill Sell
I learned to type on the Remington Portable, back in the day. I wanted to be on the high school newspaper so I taught myself touch typing—there was no such course in an all-boys school in those days. Uncle Eugene loaned me this baby while he was in college.
The Smith Corona portable electric lifted me through graduate school. I finished typing my masters dissertation on the kitchen table while I lived in a slum, unemployed and laughing at the irony.
Uncle Eugene's older brother, my Uncle Arnold repaired Remington typewriters, so in a way I was well fixed for this business long before I ever thought of myself as a business person. Back in the day, secretaries were female; rarely did men step into this role. I figured being male was a negative in this business and was at pains to hide my gender in our promotions. Thank feminism for liberating some men; the echo of old men is sliding away. No more this: "Could you have your girl type ...?"
Our company, The Last Word, began with a gift from my dear friend, the late Dick Noll—actually it came from his father's estate. One day, Dick walked into my apartment with a check for $800. He announced that he believed I would put this money to good use, and make his father's estate work for some larger purpose. Something, he said, about a New Testament parable (look it up).
With cash in hand, I purchased the sleek second-generation the state-of-the-art (at the time) IBM Selectric II. It allowed me to produce the best looking term papers and resumes, and even a schedule for a guitar school.
My business goal was simple: I wanted to work with my hands and be self-supporting. First thing in the morning, I would do my own writing. I toyed with the idea of academia as the usual path for many writers (that doctorate in English or Philosophy), but I wanted to write, not teach, and I knew I could make it on my own.
I studied Gregg Shorthand, and immediately forgot everything. Times had changed before the class was over. Dictation devices were replacing shorthand.
After a few months with the Selectric, I was able to get a loan on a new car, and an occasional sandwich at a restaurant. I was in heaven—independently employed. About two years later, I saw an ad for a word processor demonstration in a hotel. Why, this gadget had a memory of over 25 characters, and a screen on which you could look at what you typed and correct it, before sending perfect text to the paper, which was still rolled up on the old-technology typewriter spindle.
I was hooked. But the price was $10,000. The numbers simply did not work.
Word Processing is Born
A few months later the computer-based word processor appeared in hotel rooms all over the city, like robins in the spring, chirping about Copy, Paste, Undo, File, and a television tube through which one could view and edit about a half page of typing. The prices were awful enough, but no one had any idea how fast these babies would depreciate in the near future. The Lanier, Burroughs, and IBM versions each had a particular bell or whistle, but I procrastinated.
When the Wang System 5 appeared, something clicked. I was fascinated by the programming capability and I jumped in.
An early advert by Wang Laboratories for their newfangled word processor suggested a name for the now-computerized business. As the years wore on, this cute name later earned its keep, not knowing our 21st century word for the action—I was "branding" my skills.
The price for the "5" in 1979 was astronomical by all standards, past present and future. M&I Bank offered me a loan I could handle, and so I put in my order. About the same day that Wang called to tell me that the three(!) huge boxes were going on the truck, my banker called to say there would be no loan, but that he had "worked something out" with the M&I personal loan officer.
"Be sure to call him. Bye-bye, Bill." -Randy
No Se Puede
The personal loan officer would tell me “No, Bill, you have no collateral.”
“But,” I said, “that machine IS the collateral.” Well, that’s not how it worked in those days and I was out of luck, with a debt large enough to buy a duplex. Randy never returned another phone call.
Dear Dad bailed me out with his nest egg. He had just retired, and he gave me that quiet worried look that a loving father delivers to a fully grown son who appeared to be drifting. (Yes, thankfully, I paid it all off on time.) Today, when I hear how that Famous Loan Officer is esteemed by bankers and civic people all over the city, I keep in mind that on top of fame, there may be bodies buried somewhere.
Expanding the Service
The new asset put me on several new learning curves. My friend, a history professor, said, “Ah yes, Bill, ‘Capitalism's Challenge,’ after the acquisition of an asset, is to keep it running 24/7.” Quite true. There was no point in having an expensive box locked up in the house paying its way only eight hours a day.
Enter employees. Exit the office from my apartment (and I’ll never go back). But the change gave me a chance to leave work behind at the end of a day.
Early on, we were the "only" publicly available computer in town; business expanded into a downtown office.
Word got out from monthly dinners with fellow word processors. We would gather in the excitement of these new machines. I would talk about the Wang and its programming ability because I did not have the hundred-dollar suit that created an aura of authority around other men. Barbara Olson took my stories back to Johnson Controls and I soon found myself invited by a manager to visit the battery plant on Keefe Ave. Al Barry wrote purchase orders, one after the other, allowing me to write elaborate bills of materials programs on their “large” (40MB) Wang system. I was making money and getting spoiled by the speed of the hard disk, always calculating how long this gig would last, and could I afford a larger system? (The Wang in my office ran on two floppy disks, with about 380K of file capacity.)
Soon, I was recruited to write sales scheduling programs at WISN-TV where I met the stomach of the ever-hungry television industry. St. Joseph Hospital followed, and then a medical transcription company, where I wrote software to help the manager count word processing lines—the basis for all medical transcription wages.
Not for me; I quickly realized what an oppressive scene "medical" was for the transcriber, trapped to a workstation for eight straight hours, and working for pennies a line, while listening to polysyllabic medical terms clouded with accents from all over the world. Never mind the life and death burden of errors.
Finding My Peers
About this time, I met the brain of Paul Novitski who had introduced two or more programming languages to the Wang Word Processor. With his holy-card long hair and beard, he was viscerally non-corporate, generous, and a terrific companion when we went to stuffy corporate shows to explain our work. His mentoring was the kind of mentoring we all wish for in a competitive environment—a true leader who discovers and shares.
John Faragher, my gifted, life-long mentor introduced the first PCs to the Brookfield/Elmbrook High Schools, as their science teacher. We collaborated in Basic to market hospital software for the Wang.
As a programmer I found myself in a unique niche, writing a column for Access, a monthly magazine for workers and managers of Wang systems, and the happy understudy to Novitski. This launched my brief career as a convention lecturer. I hit two cities: Los Angeles and London.
Underestimating the marketing power behind IBM's new PC, Wang continued to produce the Wang PC based on a different chip. Wang focused its energies on a data system that was too much like the IBM, yet not different enough. Software writers became employment migrants or subcontractors, gravitating to the heaviest planets. In a final gasp of word processing leadership, Wang developed a brilliant word processing software for the PC, but eventually sold it to Lotus, thereby surrendering its global lead in its primary market: Word Processing.
World Without Dubbing
The Last Word left the Wang system in the early 90s. The PC that Wang built for us was completely replaced, part by part, with new everything, from motherboard to mouse, over a period of years. Two serviceable Dells followed. I continued loyalty to Dell until they delivered two state-of-the-art computers with Windows Vista.
What went wrong? Transcription means working with sound. Sound today in the modern world is the alphabet soup of extensions: wav, mp3, dss, ogg—and that’s just for starters. Vista (or was it Dell?) did not allow me to dub sound. Dell techies found my need to dub sound confusing; the book they were using seemed to have a page ripped out. I believed that I had bumped into a cabal controlled by RIAA which was so intent on world domination of sound recordings that they somehow inveigled Microsoft to support their perceived legal rights by degrading Windows audio. What I could do in Windows 98 I could not do in Vista. And Dell could not deliver 98.
I understand the debate about dubbing sound and how peer-to-peer networks struck fear into the boardrooms of the recordings industry, with contracts that would own the artist and her materials. I had no interest in that. To do our assignments, I needed to dub recordings to suit the newly developed transcription software. These recordings are owned by my client. It is as if Engulf and Devour, Inc. managed to patent the COPY key and was able to order software companies to strip COPY from their products. I pulled both computers out and shipped them back to Dell on the 30th day of the money-back guarantee. No regrets. I never looked back.
Romaine Wood, our computer maker lives down the street here in Milwaukee—historically famous for the invention of the first commercial typewriter. Romaine's Circuit-Tree has been my sturdy partner now since 2007. His desktop is a magnificent marriage of design, technology and power. And they continue to hum, to manage many open files - audio, video.
The Team Grows
Truth to tell: I was not looking to transcribe. Transcription can be extremely intense work. I believe that more than four hours a day of transcription is a strain, maybe not a career, and not a good idea for solo self-employment. In my humble opinion, transcription is unsuitable for 8-hour days and 40-hour weeks. This reality pushed me to rethink an effective business strategy: quality over production was the obvious component. But I needed to learn from my future workers how to make it work.
Without help, I had just completed 20-some hours of a foundation's discussions from very low-quality tapes, when "out of the blue" I received calls, first from Carla, and then from Sherry and Lyn. They offered to take in any transcribing that I might not be able to do myself. I nearly said No, but wrote down their numbers and one day called them back. This was probably the best business decision I ever made in my life. Today I have a small team of part-time people so qualified, though Carla and Sherry have moved on.
So, Bill, what exactly do you do?
I don't suppose I should admit this here, but as a matter of policy and personal preference, I no longer transcribe anything longer than 3 minutes. My teammates are the best, and I want to keep them as close as I can, even through that recession. My function is to answer the phone, quote, manage, schedule, juggle schedules, review quality, revise, and to say NO when a new project tempts me to bump a committed job for a new one.
I encourage each transcription helper to think of themselves as business owners, and to take work that comes to them from any customer. I encourage workers to say No to a job I offer if they cannot meet our client's deadline, and I work with the client or shuffle assignments if the transcriber comes down ill. I would imagine that in the typical office, where someone tosses a tape to a receptionist to transcribe in his "spare" time - well, that’s the real nightmare job. At iTranscribe, I’m the buffer to the telephone. I ask our transcribers most questions by email, giving a worker time to think through an answer is just good management.
Today, with thousands of hours (every year) of combined transcription experience, I humbly believe we might be the best. With my trusted team, I have not hesitated to guarantee our work. Because of my several years as a programmer, I have the personal confidence to sell in novel situations.
For example, years ago I received a call to type sound bites into a spreadsheet. The spreadsheet cell is unfriendly to text; working in the cell is quite like typewriting—no Copy, no Paste, no Replace—one error and you lose the cell. I devised an efficient way of doing the task in Word, importing it to Excel, and profitably working with the client for 18 months until their technology goals were achieved in another format. The client told me later that my bid was much lower than any other bid, but from our point of view the job was golden—it was an everyday job for 18 months. I connect these skills to my fascination for technical solutions, which had come to life using the Wang System 5.
I do not believe in the myth of the "self-made man." I connect my business success with heartfelt gratitude to Dad, Paul, John, my Uncles Howard, Eugene and Arnold, my brothers George and Robert, to Susan Bednar who raised the business to a high level of maturity, and, in the last several years, the men and women who have professionally accepted assignments and performed beyond our client expectations.
Before Dick Noll passed on I assured him that his gift contributed to many worthy community causes, such as address lists for fledgling nonprofits, a foreign student with English challenges, the earliest newsletter for Milwaukee's fabulous Urban Ecology Center, and that wonderful give-back to this business person who wanted more than anything the leisure from work to contribute time back to the local community. And then gave back to me a thousandfold.
So all this is why I am confident - we survived serious recession. Our work calendar is steady, sometimes crowded, and sometimes days without a single call. My business goal is simple: to perform or over-perform in such a way that the client returns.
And as I finish this, the phone rings.
~Bill Sell, Principal