Sitting behind a neatly organized desk with a smile, Jeffrey Wilkins listened patiently as I stumbled through my initial greetings like “hello”, “thank you”, and the general statement of “it’s an honor to be here”. Even after his many professional successes, Wilkins politely waited for me to sit down then offered to get me a glass of water.
50 years ago he was embarking on a journey which would lead him to the pinnacle of emerging technology in a world that didn’t use the term “start-up company” as a term of endearment. The current CEO of FMX, Wilkins looked out of his glass office door and smiled when I asked him about the origins of CompuServe.
“How much time do you have?” he asked me with a laugh.
For our Millennials and Gen Z readers who might not be familiar with CompuServe, CompuServe was one of the first big three companies to provide the origins of email, internet, and internet services.
What started as the brainchild of Wilkins and his father-in-law, CompuServe began after purchasing a computer with the intention of using it to power an insurance company. After realizing the potential a computer had, Wilkins began selling the computer’s excess capacity to corporations. In 1978 this service was opened up to personal computers. The rest was history.
To put things into perspective, many of the internet’s capabilities and “first-times” were right here in Columbus, Ohio. To name a few milestones, the first online newspaper was brought to consumers by CompuServe (Columbus Dispatch), the first versions of email were developed here and used by corporations such as General Motors, and for those of you who send GIFs daily, you have CompuServe to thank for that.
Before rolling out personal computer services in 1978, CompuServe was a very successful B2B company. While some were realizing the potential personal computers would bring, not everyone fully understood the breadth of opportunity. One of the biggest challenges Wilkins faced in such a tumultuous time in tech, where many companies came and went in the matter of a few years, was staying ahead of the market.
“You have to stay above the mess as a leader,” Wilkins said. Finding ways to relieve key leaders of daily pressures and allowing them to stop and think was an important key to success. If he would have been in the daily grind of activity and constant firefighting, the opportunity to capitalize on the data and information network that was rapidly growing, would have passed over the midwest tech giant.
While the story of international technology invention and success may have started with Wilkins and his father-in-law, many other individuals were involved in the rise of CompuServe.
Our next installment will dive into the background of “the consigliere” of CompuServe, Rich Baker, and the legal mind who led the historic case to keep the internet un-regulated by the government, Kent Stuckey.