Memories of the Akron-Canton Connection

David Eid’s death has brought back a lot of memories of Akron-Canton Connection, the long-distance telephone company I ran from 1993 to 2005. It may take some time to finish this because there are a lot of things I’d like to include.

In 1990, I was getting tired of the home inspection business (a franchise of HouseMaster of America) that I’d been running since 1985. I began looking around for other business opportunities and came an ad for “Watson”, a personal computer with “voice” features. The company boasted that there were over 20 ways to make money with their product. As a computer nerd I was intrigued.

It turned out that most of the 20+ ways to earn money involved auto-dialing phone numbers and playing recorded messages. Despite the promise of this opportunity, I was put off by the business model, not wanting to irritate people with annoying robo-calls. However, there were a couple of their business ideas did not involve high volume outbound dialing which kept me interested, but I also started looking at other vendors and opportunities.

This is was before the Internet so a search was quite a bit more tedious. It involved using the newspaper, phone book, magazines, and reference books at the library. At length, I came across someone named Andy who was selling something similar to the Watson, but the focus was on offering what I would call a voice mail answering service with the answering done by a computer instead of live people. The advantage was lower cost, 24-hour availability, and the ability to automatically route calls to suite the customer’s needs.

Andy was also willing to offer quite a bit of support in setting up and programming the system. The system cost $6000 which I couldn’t afford at the time so I asked my brother, Matt, to loan me the money which he did. The system consisted of a personal computer, a “voice” board manufactured by Natural Microsystems, and software that allowed me customize the way phone calls were handled.

In early 1991 I decided I needed to move my office out of the house. It was getting harder and harder to run a business out of the house. I found a tiny room, not more than 10’x10′ in an office building at 800 W Maple St in Hartville. The owner, Ellis Erb, said I could have it for $100/month.

For a time I ran both businesses out of this tiny room (home inspections and voice mail). I hired a girl to answer the phone for both, but she didn’t last long. I returned to the office one day and discovered that she’s left a note saying she just couldn’t handle the job. I sold the home inspection franchise (HouseMaster of America) to Chuck Witmer later in 1991 and continued to perform some inspections under his supervision. Together we decided to move the office to another larger location in the same building and shared the space.

1991 and 1992 were especially difficult years as I struggled to transition from home inspections to voice mail services. During this period, I got part-time work delivering phone books, helping perform retail store inventories, and finally, delivering pizzas for Dominoes.

I called my voice mail service “VoiceCenter” and came up with a nice logo and brochure. I tried to find small business customers who needed an answering or paging service. I remember having one customer for a short time, but soon became discouraged with that business model, but continued to learn how to program my equipment and began to think of other ways to use my equipment and software.

I created the “Home Alone” calling service, naming it after a popular movie of the same name that had come out a recently. The idea was to automatically call elderly or otherwise homebound people once a day. If they answered, the system would play a simple message and hang up. If they didn’t answer or if they pressed a particular button, the system would automatically dial up to 3 other people to let them know that their loved one might be in need of assistance.

I figured that the name and novelty of the service might get me some free publicity so sent out press releases to the local media. I was right. I received a call from a Cleveland TV station and ended up being interview live. I think I received one or two inquiries from that, but no customers. I did set it up for my mother since she was mostly alone on the farm and she used it for at least a few months. She later said she enjoyed hearing my recorded voice every day. That was all fun, but didn’t help my bottom line.

Next, I got the idea of starting a much more elaborate and complicated service called Voice-Ads – classified ads over the phone. I spent months, writing the software, creating the categories (e.g. cars for sale, homes for sale, jobs, services, etc) and hiring a woman to design a brochure. This woman ended up also trying to hire and train salespeople to go out into the community to sell the service.

I also paid a visit to WAKR, a popular radio station in Akron and met with Fred Anthony, the general manager. He was kind enough to offer to promote Voice-Ads as kind of a public service. As fate would have, though, right at the time that I was finally ready to begin offering the service, the general manager took another job and his replacement wasn’t interested in working with me.

In the end, Voice-Ads never got off the ground. I didn’t have the money to promote it properly, but chances are it would have never worked for other reasons as well. Can’t quite remember, but I may have also tried to sell it to local newspapers as an add-on to their classified ads business.

Next up was something I called “Service Connection”, which was basically a watered-down version of “Voice-Ads”, but for only for promoting service businesses such as plumbers, roofers, heating contractors, etc. Once again, though I had no advertising budget or sales skills so the idea went nowhere.

At some point during all this, I got the idea of trying to meet up with my competitors to see if there would be any value in partnering up to help each other out. I was selling voice mail as a monthly service so decided to look up companies that were selling the equipment, thinking that we could refer each other depending upon the needs of the customer.

I looked in the Akron phone book under Voice Mail Equipment and found Amerifax. I called up and talked briefly to the owner, David Eid. He invited me to his Akron office which was not far from downtown. His office was modest, but larger than what I was working out of.

David was a large man – probably 6′ 4″ or so and over 300 lbs. I was a bit intimated at first, but his gentle demeanor put me at ease. We shared information about our businesses. I told told him about Voice-Ads and mentioned that one of the features was call transfer.

For those unfamiliar with local, toll, and long distance calling, the phone company had long ago set up a system of phone “exchanges”. These were simply the 3 digits in a phone number which followed the area code. Then they set rules to determine the cost to call from one exchange to the other.

Every exchange was allowed to call certain selected exchanges at no cost, while other calls were “toll” calls with the cost to call as high as 20 cents/minute.

The rules were hardly fair or sensible. Oftentimes, people in adjacent communities had to pay toll charges to call one another. Hartville, with it’s 877 exchange, had the unique advantage of being able call both Akron and Canton at no cost. This was something I had discovered when I was trying to select a location to live and start our home inspection business. I knew that this could be a huge advantage in allowing us do business in both cities. Despite this advantage, there were closer areas that were a toll call for us. And other communities had similar or worse problems.

Anyway, back to my story about my first meeting with David Eid. As I mentioned the call transfer capability of my equipment, I also mentioned the fact that Hartville had an exchange that was a “local” or free call to both Akron and Canton which meant that I could transfer a call from Akron to Canton toll-free. His eyes lit up when I mentioned this and he asked for confirmation. “You can transfer a call from Akron to Canton?” I said yes and he immediately responded with “well that’s the service I would offer then”.

I thought about it for a moment, but not understanding the potential, I dismissed the suggestion as impractical, thinking there wouldn’t be much of a market for that. I set the thought aside, and the conversation moved on.

Nevertheless, the idea was an intriguing one and kept coming back to me over the next few months, but the best scenario I could imagine was finding businesses who needed to make a lot of call between the two cities, and it just seemed way too hard to find such businesses and sell to them.

Then one fateful day I was visiting Ron and Debbie Shatto. They were members of our church and I had been assigned to visit them (aka “Home Teaching”). They lived in North Canton and during our conversation mentioned that it cost them a lot to call Ron’s mother who in Uniontown, just a few miles away.

It then that the light bulb finally went on for me because I realized that I could help them dramatically reduce their calling costs using the call-transfer feature built into my equipment (to clarify, my equipment needed to be connected to a certain type of business phone line called “Centrex”). I also knew that if Ron and his mother needed this there were probably many other people that did as well.

This was in March or April of 1993. I immediately began programming and testing my equipment to handle these calls. Ironically, this phone service was far simpler than the Voice-Ads concept that I had spent so much time, money, and energy on. The name for the new business seemed obvious – the Akron-Canton Connection.

By early May, I was ready to launch. I had completed the necessary programming and testing, designed a simple brochure, and mailed it to a few areas in Uniontown.

The title of my brochure was “How to save up to 90% on long distance”. Inside I gave several examples of potential cost savings, comparing current toll charges for a 10-minute call with my charges which were 29 or 39 cents per call with no time limit. The 90% was hardly a precise number. On short calls, the cost could be higher, but on long calls, the savings could be over 90%.

Almost instantly I began receiving inquiries from people who were willing to give it try. I had decided to make it a pre-pay service. I can’t remember the exact amount that I asked customers to deposit, but I think it may have only been $5, and of course it wasn’t all profit. But despite the small amounts of money I was collecting, I was elated, feeling certain that I had finally found success.

I was still performing home inspections for Chuck Witmer and working part-time for Dominos when I started the Akron-Canton Connection, but it wasn’t long before I felt confident enough to drop the first two and focus 100% of my time on the new business.

Emily was born a short time later on July 13th. The timing was good. We were dead poor, but the new business had the promise of a bright future. The next 12 years were very good for us, financially, but it seems that when one part of your life starts to improve, something will go wrong in another. That’s a story for another time.

Here’s what the caller experienced when they used our service: when he wanted to make a call, he would start by dialing a Hartville number (877-4000) which would be answered by my computer which would then play a recorded message, “Welcome to the Akron Canton Connection!”. Please enter your code.” The caller would enter their customer ID. Then the computer would say “Please enter the destination number.”, at which point the caller would enter the phone number of the person they were trying to reach. Then another recording was played, “Please hold while we connect you.” The caller would then hear some clicks along with moments of silence lasting several seconds while the computer put the person on hold, dialed the destination number, then hung up when it detected ringing at the other end, allowing the first person to hear a bit of the ringing then the person at the other end answering the phone.

By the way, Therese made all of my recordings.

It took some trial and error to get this to work smoothly. Sometimes the caller wouldn’t hear any ringing at all before the other person picked up the phone. In fact they might not even hear the “hello”. There was also a chance that the call would get dropped if the computer hung up prematurely. When I first started the service, the transfer was pretty clunky and noisy, but fortunately, it wasn’t long before the phone company upgraded their equipment so it happened much more smoothly.

I soon found that I needed some help with my business so I hired a girl to answer the phone and sign people up. She didn’t last too long either though. Don’t remember exactly why not, but I hired someone else, then another and another. The business began growing rapidly, although it still took a while to see any profit.

I started riding my old Schwinn bike to and from the office, complete with a child seat on the back. I have a memory of riding home on the bike one day in 1994, when the business was close to year old, and feeling a bit sorry for myself because we were still pretty poor. I was wondering when or if the business would ever produce enough to allow us to get ahead.

About that time, I also started thinking about expanding the business. I had only one computer handling phone calls at the time. It was located in the office in Hartville. I though, what if I set up additional computers in Akron and Canton? Would it then be possible to transfer calls between computers, thus expanding our calling? In order to call these new area, the system would be what I called a “double-bounce” – calls that would go through two transfers (and two computers) before reaching their destination. This new system would, for example, allow someone to call from Alliance or Massillon to Kent or Hudson.

I don’t remember the cost for this expansion, but a couple thousand dollars was prohibitive at the time. So I called up David Eid. We had slowly been establishing a friendship by meeting up for lunch every few months, but now I had a business proposition for him. Would he be interested in a partnership? The requirement would be investing in the necessary hardware and software to expand to the new areas.

His response was no, unfortunately. I’m not sure of his reasons, but I know he was leery of any type of partnership. He enjoyed making all the decisions himself in his business. Frankly, I can’t say I blamed him. I felt the same way. And in hindsight I think it was good that he didn’t want to become my partner. Business partnerships can sometimes ruin perfectly good friendships.

Despite David’s refusal to partner with me, he was keenly interested in my business model, especially when he saw how many customers we were adding. Ultimately he decided to jump in himself with his own version of the call-transfer business. He named it CallNet, and instead of competing directly with me, he did transfers between Akron and Cleveland. This permanently bonded the two of us together and linked our futures.

Eventually I met a man named Tod who helped fund my expansion, but I had found him when I was looking for some help with the installation of a backup drive on my computer to avoid the loss of important data. He offered to provide a computer and location for the equipment in exchange for a monthly rent payment. I eventually grew dissatisfied with that arrangement for various reasons, and decided to install a different computer inside David Eid’s office, and then do an unannounced switchover of the call traffic to that computer.

That didn’t sit very well with Tod, but sometimes you have to do uncomfortable things when you’re running a business. In fact over the years, there were many things that happened that were uncomfortable for me. The number and size of the challenges grew as the business did.

Service Outages

Service outages were an issue throughout the life of the business. The first one I remember happened during the days of VoiceCenter when I walked into the office one morning and discovered that the computer was dead. I only had 1 or 2 customers at the time, but I felt a very urgent need to get it fixed because I was trying offer a 24-hour service.

The reason for that outage turned out to be a dead power supply which I as able to fix by taking the computer to a repairman who happened to have the needed power supply and was able to quickly install it. I was back in business with a few hours. Other outages lasted longer and sometimes involved thousands of customers, but the stress was pretty much always the same.

Sometimes the outages were the result of mistakes I made in the programming. Other times it was power failure or hardware failure – mine or that of a company that was supplying service to me. Sometimes the outages were more or less planned because we needed to change or move equipment.

I remember one occasion when I had to change out some hardware in the Hartville computer. This required turning the computer off and then working feverishly to restore service. I had to remove the cover and pull a “voice” board and replace it with another. I did that pretty quickly, put the cover back on, plugged in the phone wires, and restarted the computer. But something was wrong – it didn’t answer the calls as expected. Now it was time to panic. I took everything apart again and double-checked everything I could think of.

Customers began to call our office number, reporting that they couldn’t make long distance calls. I had a small staff at that point of probably 4 or 5 people, some of which were answering the office phone. One caller was particularly aggressive, and asked to speak to the owner. So the employee asked me if I would take the call. I did and tried to calmly explain to the man that the sooner he let me go the sooner his service would be restored. I hung up and went back to work, eventually discovering a setting that needed to be changed which I did and all was well again.

Invariably when we had these outages, customers would call to complain that they had to make a call the old-fashioned way – through the local phone company – and wanted compensation for the high price of that call. Of course, we couldn’t help them because it wasn’t us that had overcharged them. And since there was no monthly charge for service, only a per call charge, there was nothing to return to them.

Of course, I was constantly concerned about outages and worried that they could happen without my knowledge in the evenings or weekends. In the beginning, I used to dial the computers periodically just to make sure they were working, but I got tired of that so eventually wrote a special program that had the computers calling each other just to check on them. If a computer didn’t answer, the first computer would then call me to report the problem.

I have memories of more than one sleepless night when service was out for one reason or another and I was anxiously making calls trying to get someone to help fix the problem.

When I started the phone business I was sharing office space with Chuck Witmer and his scheduling assistant Gloria, but not long afterward, he decided to move his office to his home in Fairlawn so I had the office to myself. It consisted of one large room in the front and a smaller room in the rear. That worked for a couple years. I took the smaller room at the rear and had people at the front answering the phone, and printing statements, stuffing envelopes and mailing them.

For a time, we got by with a couple non-networked personal computers, but soon realized that we needed to add more people and computers which required networking the computers together. I learned that Ladd Kopp in our ward ward was good with this sort of thing so hired him to set it up.

I remember thinking in the beginning that it would be great to have 10,000 customers. We reached that goal at probably around year 4. Eventually we topped out at over 21,000 customers around 1997 to 1999. Although the number of customers began to decline after that, our revenue continued to increase, albeit somewhat slowly. That was due to the fact that we gradually added services – dialup Internet around 1997, nationwide long distance around 1999, and local telephone service around 2001.

I was constantly trying to find ways to expand or diversify the business. Our call transfer service was built on the back of the local phone company, and they were the sole provider of this service. Since we were both relying on them and competing with them, that put us in a very shaky position. For a number of years we were able to operate “under the radar” so to speak, and were left alone. But things began to change in 1997.

Ameritech/PUCO Threat

As it turned out, we were lucky that the phone companies were regulated by the government because this provided a buffer of protection for us. And the longer we were in business and attracting new customers, the more difficult it became to put us out of business. Nevertheless things did eventually come to a head.

In addition to us and David Eid, others were jumping into the call-transfer business. One company was Ohio Direct which David had actually helped to get into the business without really knowing what their business plan was. They were, in fact, competing directly with David. But while David and I kept a fairly low profile, Ohio Direct seemed to attract trouble very soon in it’s existence. While my service was built on Ameritech’s network, theirs was built on Alltel’s network and it didn’t take long for Alltel to discover what they were doing and ask the PUCO (Public Utilities Commission of Ohio) to allow them to disconnect their service.

Their case drew David and then me into the fray. We were both obliged to hire attorneys and forced to plead our case before the PUCO. We even made a trip to Columbus and met with one of the commissioners as they were deciding our fate. The size of our customer base made an impression and seemed to work in our favor – our company had the largest. The commissioners were not eager to annoy 20,000+ people.

The process went on for a number of months before the PUCO finally ruled against us. They did give us a way to stay in business, but it involved paying for service by the minute instead of by the call, and we simply weren’t set up to operate that way.

I’m not sure how David did it, but he was able to continue remaining under the radar for a number of years. We, on the other hand received a letter from Ameritech giving us an ultimatum – comply with the PUCO’s order or be disconnected. After some soul-searching, I decided to end our call-transfer service and try to replace it with nationwide long distance service.

Nationwide Long Distance

Perhaps the threat of disconnection was blessing in disguise. If we could successfully transition to long distance service, we would be in a much stronger position going forward.

So we began the process in earnest. I had to find a long-distance “switch” which, despite it’s unassuming name, was a very expensive piece of equipment. I eventually settled on one manufactured by a company in Provo Utah. Having lived in Utah for a time, and still having a soft place in my heart for it, the company had an automatic advantage. When I learned that the salesman was LDS I was pretty much sold. I made arrangements to finance the purchase of this $400,000 piece of equipment and travelled to Utah for some training.

While there, I took the opportunity to visit old friends, particularly Roger Fulwider, who lived near the company’s office.

Growth

We kept growing so eventually I felt it would be a more efficient use of space to divide the larger room up by turning one side into 2 small offices. I asked my brother Doug to take the project on and he did a very nice job. I took one of the small offices and the other was occupied by various people depending on what stage of growth we were at.

A year or two later, the adjacent suite became available so we decided to take that space as well. At that point, I probably had about 10-12 employees. I remember having fairly steady growth for a number of years, adding about 500 customers every month.

Moving our long distance switch

Adding Local Phone Service

Moving into our own building

Fire

Sale to First Communications

AkronCanton.com

Employees

HiRoad Internet

One of the biggest disruptions we had was when we had to move a very expensive telephone switch from one building to another in downtown Akron. I’m jumping several years ahead here, but thought it best to

To be continued…

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