David John Pleasance, former Commodore MD, tells Martin Cooper MBCS about life inside one of computing’s most loved firms. He also explains why retro computing could be the key to getting a new generation of young people interested in technology.
Mismanaged from the hero to zero. That, in a way, sums up David John Pleasance’s take on how Commodore roared to a position of almost global dominance and then collapsed, just as dramatically, declaring bankruptcy on 19 April 1994.
A visit from the financial grim reaper might have spelled the end for Commodore as a commercial force but, if computing companies have a spirit, Commodore’s most certainly lives on. Today, the firm and its machines are the focus of a global retro movement that revives, restores, revisits and revels in classic Commodore machines, games and hardware. Through emulators, conferences, meetups, clubs and festivals new generations are discovering Commodore and its magic.
And Pleasance should know about all of this. He was one of Commodore’s longest serving employees, eventually becoming its UK MD. That gives him an unparalleled view of the tech giant’s rise and its eventual fall. It also affords him a great insight into why the 80’s and 90’s computers were so special.
Flukes and good fortune
‘My first job was with the business division, selling Commodore PETs into retail,’ Pleasance says. ‘My background has always been in retail. But they took me away from that role... the C64 was doing insane business. So, I got the job of national accounts manager for C64, looking after all the big guys: Dixons, Comet, Currys... Right from the start that move told me that they never had a business plan. I was given the job of selling the C64 because we didn’t have enough PETs to sell into retail.’
Finishing the point, he laughs and says: ‘I was hired to do a job that never transpired.’
After that shaky start, Pleasance didn’t look back. ‘We got computers - VIC-20s and C64s - into everybody. WH Smith, British Home Stores... I even sold into Tesco. We were good at selling and they were hot products.’
From there, he became Sales and Marketing Director for the UK, moved to the company’s European arm, spent a stint in the US and was finally moved back to England, as MD of Commodore UK. Describing his style of working and a taste for growing businesses, Pleasance says he’s ‘a hunter not a farmer.’
Despite all the ups and down, Pleasance states: ‘I consider myself to be an incredibly fortunate man. My whole life has been full of fluke circumstances that let me improve my career. Joining Commodore was absolutely one of those.’
Looking for inspiration
In his early years, Pleasance worked in Australia but decided, in 1983, to come back home to the UK. On the way, he travelled the world, looking around for what might be the ‘next big thing’. The tour forced him, inexorably, toward a conclusion: home computing was going to be huge. And so, he focused on finding a job in the computer industry back in the UK.
‘You’ve got to remember that there was no internet,’ he explains. ‘All the jobs that were worth getting were in the newspapers. There was a job selling computer services and I got on the phone to this guy, a recruitment agent. It took me thirty for forty minutes to convince him to interview me... I knew nothing about computers. My background was in retail. But, an interview I got.’
Right place, right time
‘I arrived at the building and as I was entering, a lady was leaving. So, I held the door for her. I remember it distinctly,’ Pleasance continues. ‘So, I had the interview with the guy and he said: “Well, Mister Pleasance, there is no doubt that you could do this job standing on your head. But, I’m not going to put you forward for it. You’ve got retail experience and it would be remiss of me not to use those skills.”’
Pleasance stood to leave and was called back. He recounts what the agent said next: ‘”Did you see a woman leaving as you arrived? She’s just given me a brief for a job. You’ve just arrived and I’ve not had time to write it up. You’d be perfect for it. She works for a computer company. They want to sell into the retail market and they’ve got a dilemma. Do they want a computing expert or a retail expert? My advice was get a retail specialist.” That was the job at Commodore and it never got advertised. Two days later I got the job.’
Much of Commodore’s early success, Pleasance says, can be ascribed to its founder: Jack Tramiel. Born in 1928, Tramiel was - according to Pleasance - quite a formidable man but some redemption came in the form of having his finger firmly on the public’s collective pulse.
‘He knew what trends were happening,’ Pleasance says. ‘He was always investigating. One of the first computers they produced was the put-it-together yourself KIM-1. It was the same kind of concept as Sinclair did, build your own computer. He then produced the VIC-20, a real entry level machine.’
Commodore however hit the big time with the Commodore 64. ‘It was the perfect machine in terms of cost and performance,’ Pleasance recalls. ‘But, it also hit at the right time. In Europe there was a generation of people looking for something new. We’d been to the moon. This generation of children... was hungry for something new. The Commodore 64 fitted the bill perfectly.’
‘There’s been a lot of conjecture about the volume of C64s sold worldwide, ‘ Pleasance says firmly, halting the conversation. ‘I can tell you categorically that the number was just a tad under 27 million. I can tell you that because, when we were thinking about doing a management buyout, we got access to all the figures.’
Commodore 64 and the Amiga
By the late eighties, the 8-bit Commodore 64 was starting to show its age and was running out steam. The problem was, the 16-bit Amiga, a machine that would eventually surpass the C64’s success, was still in the late stages of gestation.
‘Amiga wasn’t powerful enough to be a serious business machine,’ Pleasance recalls. ‘It didn’t have enough serious business software and it cost $1,000. So, it was too expensive to be a games machine. It fell between too camps. It wasn’t until 1989, with the A500, that we had a product that was a generation ahead of the C64... multi-tasking, colours and dedicated chipsets. It turned people on again, big time. I was easy to use and again, it went on to influence a whole generation of people.’
Despite Amiga’s promise, Commodore, Pleasance says, was in another phase of disarray. Back in 1987, Commodore UK had the next in a quick series of MDs: Steve Franklin. Pleasance says that Franklin’s first action - under orders from above - was to fire swathes of the existing staff in an effort shake up the UK arm of company. Two weeks into his tenure, the MD called Pleasance into his office. ‘It was bizarre, he didn’t talk to me for two weeks. Then, one Monday morning - “Pleasance, my office now!”’
Selling dreams, not computers
The MD told Pleasance that if he could, he would fire him. But, because he didn’t have an easy replacement, the salesman and marketing man could stay. Reluctantly.
‘He spent 20 minutes lecturing me about ethics,’ Pleasance recounts. ‘After all that I said: “Fine. Okay. I’ll make a deal with you.” He said, “you’re in no position to make a deal with me!” I said, “hear me out. I’ll put a proposition to you now and if it works, I’ll bring more business into this company than you’ve ever seen before. Or, if I fail, I’ll give you enough reason to get rid of me.”’
‘I pointed to his desk where there was an Amiga 500 and said, “what is that?” He said, “it’s a computer.” I said, “it’s a piece of plastic with some keys on it. From now on, we don’t sell computers, we sell dreams. It’s what that computer can do, it’s what that computer can bring into your life - that’s what we’ve got to market. I want to put a bundle together and the fact that there’s an Amiga inside will be irrelevant.”’
The discussion lead to what Pleasance happily describes as his proudest career achievement: bundles. The idea ran that an Amiga - or, for cash flow reasons, an aging C64 - would be packaged up with the latest must-have game, some productivity packages and also art software.
Including art software, Pleasance explains, was a sop to parents who viewed creative software as an educational tool. With it included, parents were more willing to pay for a new computer because they believed it offered an educational advantage and would be ‘for the betterment of the child’. You’ve got to market to the people paying the bills, he advises.
A huge bundle of results
The Commodore team put the plan into action, basing the first bundle around Batman the Movie. The game was going to be created by Ocean software, after it had paid one million dollars for the licence to use the name.
‘I went to Ocean and met up with David Ward and Jon Woods. I said “I’m going to put a proposition to you. You’ll either have the balls to go through with it or you’ll have me taken away.”’
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The proposition was to build a bundle around Batman the Movie and for Ocean to give Commodore exclusivity for two months. After two months the games firm could sell the game across the counter. Pleasance said he’d pay ‘tuppence’ per copy and would only commit to 10,000 copies. Ocean, understandably had some ‘concerns’ - mainly that dealers would be annoyed by not being able to sell the biggest game in town.
Continuing with the story he says: ‘I said, “I’m sure they will be hacked off. But, my guess is that they’ll be hacked off for maybe two days. But, they’ll be selling a four hundred pound product and not a forty pound product. And I know what I’d prefer to sell.” Ocean was also worried that it’d paid a million dollars for the licence and it would cost a million dollars to make the game. They knew how many they needed to sell and were worried that this activity would damage their numbers.’
In the end, Ocean agreed and as predicted, the dealers were annoyed - for a very short period time. ‘And yes, we did affect Ocean’s sales. They ended up selling five times more copies than their biggest estimate of sales. And I didn’t take 10,000 pieces from them. I took 186,000 pieces. That’s how many Amiga 500 Batman packs we sold in 12 weeks.’
Over the following years, this model was deployed many times and in partnership with many game makers. It boosted the Amiga’s sales and also kept the C64 selling far longer than it really should.
In many ways, much of Commodore’s success can be ascribed to its relationship with software companies. Commodore, Pleasance says, put a great deal of effort to work with - and not against - games makers. The computer maker originally made games but stopped. It also went on to be a member of FAST - the Federation Against Software Theft. Commodore engineers would also work closely with games firms, helping to solve problems, Pleasance says.
‘We had a good relationship with them and that was really important,’ he says.
Secret of success
This all leads to the million-dollar question: Why were these machines so inspirational and why are they so fondly remembered, today? Pleasance says: ‘In those days, nobody had a mobile phone. Now, everybody has one and they’re much more powerful than those early computers. Children, from the moment them come out of the womb, seem to be able to use smartphones. And it’s boring. It’s not even new anymore. So, in terms of inspiring young people into technology, [mobiles phones are] kind of passé. And there have been no major hardware developments that take your breath away - like the Amiga did - there’s been nothing like that for many years. People have become blasé about [new] computers.’
But, whereas Pleasance has little time for modern day mobiles, legions of fans most certainly do have time for names such as Commodore, Sinclair, BBC Micro, Atari and all the rest. And this army of retro fans grows every year.
‘You’ve just got to look at the community of Commodore and Amiga fans around the world,’ he enthuses. ‘There’s a lot of nostalgia. It’s unprecedented. I’m off to Pixel Heaven, a retro event in Warsaw. It’s a weekend event and last year 6,000 people went. It’s all retro based. Gamescom in Cologne. Last year 37,000 people visited in five days.’
And, it’s not just the older generation that attends. Youngsters are being draw in too - nostalgia is pulling legions of young people into technology, coding, making and doing. ‘I’m very closely associated with the retro computing museum in Leicester and with a museum in Holland,’ he says. ‘They bring classes of school children through and show them the C64, Amiga and the BBC. It excites the kids. What you can make with pixels on a C64 is nothing compared to a modern mobile phone, but it really opens up their eyes and their ears to what’s possible. And it’s accessible, not locked down like a phone.’
For all its success and its valiant failures, Commodore was ultimately doomed. And the reason for this, according to Pleasance, is the fact that the business never had a coherent business plan. ‘They used to stumble from one crisis to the next,’ he says. ‘There was a huge number of changes in senior management and every time somebody new came in, they had a different view. And the problem was, after Jack Tramiel left, none of them had any knowledge of the computer business. There was a guy from Coca Cola and a guy from the steal industry. The had no idea about the computer market and they never tried to learn.’
In early 1992, Pleasance was VP of Consumer Products and was based in the US. By December of that year he was ordered back to the UK. ‘Commodore was in its biggest financial crisis ever,’ he explains. ‘I had no choice. I was back in the UK. They said, “we know the UK is a strong business and we need you to bring some money in.” But, I’m not a financial person. I can read a balance sheet. Colin Proudfoot was the financial controller. I said, “make him and me joint MDs - he’ll look after the money and I’ll look after the sales and marketing.”’
In his book, Commodore: The Inside Story, Pleasance writes that, on 19/4/1994 Commodore International - the parent company - went into liquidation, but Commodore UK continued to trade. In the long turn however, the odds were against Proudfoot and Pleasance as there was so much debt.
In 1994 the pair decided to find out if there was a viable business to be resurrected from the Commodore assets that were soon to be auctioned-off. They spent several months devising a business plan and initially, it went well.
‘We raised £50m,’ Pleasance recalls positively. ‘We were going to produce just Amiga products and let other people licence the Commodore name and produce products. That would generate revenue for us. We used Coopers and Lybrand who had just done two major management buyouts. We pulled together a consortium. We had two high-net worth individuals and a Chinese manufacturing company called New Star Electronics. It was investing half the money - this meant we had our own manufacturing company that was on our board and were partners.’
More specifically, the plan centred around dropping the aging C64 and focusing exclusively on the Amiga. To replace the low price C64, the plan was to offer the Amiga A300. When people had bought into the Amiga family they could be encouraged to updated. More well-off customers could buy the Amiga A1200. And again, customers had an upgrade path to 1000, 2000 or 3000 motherboards and tower cases. Using this approach people could upgrade all the way to the Amiga 4000 – the top of the line model (source: Commodore: The Inside Story).
Sadly, just 36 hours before the asset auction was due to take place in New York, a key backer pulled out and the plan failed.
Today, Commodore exists but only as a jumble of legal fragments. ‘Trademarks and IPs exist all over the place,’ Pleasance says. ‘Several people have claims on logos and the like. There’s a firm in Belgium, I think... There are some lawsuits going on... There’s an Italian company that’s making mobile phones. The first one is called the Commodore Pet - good name for a mobile phone? Last year they won the rights to fonts and type faces and also the chicken-head Commodore logo, because nobody has used it for five years. It’s a problem because of the way Commodore was broken up... It’s nightmare to sort out.’
The origins of Amiga
Unlike the C64 and the VIC-20, Amiga wasn’t a home-grown Commodore product. Rather it was the child of Amiga Corporation and in its prototype days, went under the codename of Lorraine.
Initially, it was conceived, Pleasance says, as a business machine and in part, the Amiga Corporation funded Lorraine’s development with a bridging load from Atari Inc.
‘The concept was to have a multi-tasking machine with chips that were dedicated to specific jobs… there were lots of things that have never been done before,’ Pleasance explains. ‘But they ran out of money. Elsewhere, Jack Tramiel had left Commodore under a cloud. My understanding is that he wanted to put his three sons on the board but he held six percent of the company. He got overruled and so left,’ Pleasance recalls.
Lorraine was demonstrated at the 1984 Consumer Electronics Show in Chicago, in the hope of attracting investors. The demo given included stereo sound and also the classic Boing Ball demo. Investment wasn’t, however, forthcoming. Who would want to invest in a new computer company when the IBM PC was the dominant business machine maker?
‘Tramiel heard of Amiga and did a deal with them,’ Pleasance continues. ‘He leant them something like half a million dollars which they had to repay very quickly and if they couldn’t repay he would own the business. He gave them a cheque and immediately bought Atari. He paid a dollar for Atari as it had major debts.’
Tramiel’s idea was to use Atari as a vehicle through which to sell the Amiga. Fate, or a foe, had other ideas though: ‘The Commodore guys found out about the deal, went over to Amiga and gave them a better deal. When Tramiel found out, he went crazy, but they just gave him his cheque back. They never even cashed it. That cheque still exists somewhere.’
Image: Wikimedia - Playing Commodore 64 at Media museum Rupriikki