San Francisco, 1987: The last few years, at the answering service conventions, the new voicemail machines were displayed, with big price tags. A few owners bought them, then tried selling voicemail for $30-$50 per month. I thought it was coming, but it wasn’t here yet.
Until I got a call from Judy Laurence.
She asked me if I wanted to buy her voicemail business. She’d looked us up in the yellow pages, and because I’d entered the name ‘A Budget Answering Service’, starting in the A’s, I was the first person she reached.
“Sure,” I said, and then when I got her proposal, I discovered it was a lot of money. She wanted $64,000 for a Centigram machine, including her business with some clients. Why was she selling?
She worked in Silicon Valley. Her friend had set up a voicemail service and did well, and, on her request, he’d set her up the same way. They had a paid person to sign up customers. Only problem was, although his voicemail service had hundreds and hundreds of clients, hers had few. After making her note payment on the machine, and paying the salesperson, she was making zip. Nada. Bupkis. Zilch.
She wanted a big down payment, and this, and that, and I knew the she didn’t really expect to receive the price she asked. When I met her at Mel’s on Geary Boulevard, just across the street from our office, I looked her in the eye.
“It’s a lot of money,” I said, as we sat down in the booth. She nodded, expecting a haggle on the price.
“I’ll pay your price,” I said. “Here are my terms.” I spelled out a payment plan that included mostly nothing up front, and for the payments I’d use the funds coming in from the customers she already had.
This acceptance of her entire price threw her completely off. It was impossible for her to turn down my terms. She accepted.
Then we were in the voicemail business. I stopped using the salesperson she’d shared with her friend, then changed the policy so that people had to pay to start. Her salesperson was signing up people without collecting money, then they stayed on service, unpaying, for 3-4 months, and when kicked off, signed up under another name. This gave nice commissions to the salesperson, but it turned out there were only about a hundred actual paying clients. The deadbeats squealed and complained when their free ride was turned off! It was pathetic.
At first, I sent the salescalls to my salespeople, but in a couple of weeks it became clear that they spent all day explaining voicemail to callers, and they now sold only voicemail, meaning we no longer had any signups for our answering service!
I changed to a system where I recorded expanded audiotext on the main voicemail number, explaining in detail how it worked, and only after hearing this did the caller get a number for signing up. I altered the salesfolks commissions so that they made more on the more expensive answering service sales. This all worked fine. Our sales expanded for both services.
Judy Laurence’s machine was in a share-an-office suite run by two womean. One was Fay Faron, who became a private investigator known as Rat Dog Dick, and later became my mentor when I became a private investigator at The Ashford Agency. I met Fay when making these arrangements to move the machine from the share-an-office to our location on Geary Boulevard.
The big day came, and the phone company was ready to move the lines, so I went to the share-an-office with my sales guy, Gil Pumar. Once there, we discovered that the machine was anchored to the wall with a combination-lock cable. A call to Judy Laurence revealed that she’d forgotten the combination she’d chosen.
“Don’t give up,” said Gil. “She probably chose some number around here.” So we tried the office and the suite number and her phone number. I was about to give up when he tried the phone number of the modem line. When he used the last four numbers, reversed, open popped the combination lock!
So we carried the machine to Geary Boulevard and plugged it in and soon it was working swell. Years later after we’d sold the answering service, the voicemail company still chugged along. I became a private detective, then stopped being a private detective, and, losing our office space, moved the machine downtown again, where it remained until the voicemail business was sold off.
I’ve started several voicemail companies since, and I’ve bought several voicemail machines. All of them cost a fraction of that first machine from Judy Laurence.
But then, I didn’t have to pay for it with my money.