Originally published in Business Digest, August 1997

Getting Together on the Net

by Craig C. Bailey

Take a look into the history of any major player in the ever-expanding frontier of the Internet, and you're likely to find an unlikely beginning. Together Networks, one of only two Vermont Internet service providers (ISPs) offering dial-up service for all of the state with a local call, evolved from a non-profit environmental organization to become a $4 million a year Internet business serving northwest New England. Helping navigate the Burlington firm through the swirling waters of rapid expansion, increasing competition, and an evolving customer base is chief operating officer Robin Lane.

If telecommunications T-Rexs like AT&T and MCI threaten to swallow smaller, regional ISPs gulp by digital gulp, Lane, 35, doesn't seem particularly worried. Apparently Together Networks has a secret weapon so ironically non-secretive that it's right there in the ISP acronym: service.

"It was a tense time," Lane says. Together Networks was planning to establish points of presence (POPs) throughout the state to allow anyone within Vermont to access the Internet through a Together Networks account with a local phone call. With POPs already active in Burlington, St. Albans and Newport, it was a move, eventually rolled out May 28, 1996, that promised to seriously expand the company's customer base, and eventually led to the firm's approximately 11,000 subscribers. In the middle of the hoopla, AT&T announced it would be throwing its hat into the Net access ring.

With $19.95 a month for unlimited Net access as the unwritten norm in the ISP world, AT&T's lowball offer of approximately $5 a month to add Net access for its phone customers led many Internet insiders to declare regional ISPs an endangered species.

"The reports of our death are greatly exaggerated," Lane says, somewhat relaxed a year after she registered for an Internet account with Ma Bell to gauge the competition. "Six and a half weeks after I called AT&T to get an account, I got a postcard from them saying that my order was being processed and that within four or five weeks I should have my account," she says. "At that point I'm sort of thinking, 'Maybe they don't quite get this.'"

Together Networks' most serious competition is America Online (AOL), the Dulles, Va., online service that users and non-users love to complain about. With several million subscribers and growing, AOL is a 600-pound gorilla sitting in Lane's lap. Still, she fully realizes that AOL provides a stepping stone for people to graduate to a full Internet account, like the $19.95 a month accounts that are Together Networks' bread and butter. "I think America Online did more for our marketing efforts this year than we did," she adds.

Ultimately, Lane sees Together's ability to provide personalized service to its customers as the firm's edge over larger, national providers. When heading a regional ISP means occasionally meeting your subscribers face-to-face at trade shows, grand openings and the like, the incentive to provide reliable service is built in. "We find that if you offer a good quality of service in a small town, people talk about it," she says.

With more than half of its new customers coming from current client referrals, keeping customers satisfied is paramount, even if it means the Together Networks' system occasionally needs to page network manager Zach Chambers to spend the early hours of the morning working to solve an unexpected crisis.

"When it's 3 o'clock in the morning and AOL's Burlington POP is down, is anybody at AOL losing sleep?" she asks. "Probably not. And not because they don't care about their customers. But because there's a different mentality about it."

Providing access and keeping people wired: It's a world of difference from the company's beginnings providing content and keeping the world green, some six years before Lane would join the firm.

Together Networks grew out of the Together Foundation, a non-profit organization founded in 1989 by Ella Cisneros, who runs businesses and sits on non-profit boards in the United States and Venezuela. Cisneros, who Lane cites as having "the vision, business acumen and financial commitment" that has allowed the firm "to soar rather than sprint," remains CEO and board chair of Together Networks.

The Together Foundation's mission was to provide other non-profits with environmental information. In the late '80s the foundation established EcoLine, a WATS line that allowed callers to request data that operators would retrieve and distribute. "Remember this was before there was a World Wide Web," reminds Lane. "The issue of putting databases online was nonexistent."

The concept of EcoLine became more advanced and automated in 1992 with the introduction of TogetherNet, a computer bulletin board system (BBS) running FirstClass brand software. Subscribers could dial the TogetherNet server directly to access the Together Foundation database. The BBS would eventually boast 5,000 subscribers, a number that has been reduced to 1,500 since the Internet has became popularized. The server still resides in Together Networks' South Willard Street building.

In mid 1994, "Ella decided that the foundation should get an Internet dedicated connection," says Lane. At the time, purchasing a single account for the foundation simply wasn't an option -- a key factor in the development of TGF Technologies, later named Together Networks. Instead, the organization rented its own dedicated 56k line from the University of Vermont.

[photo] (From left) Matt Lipstein, Gwen Landis, Bob Allan, Lorei Dawson, John Walling, and Karen McGowan from the billing and customer service departments. Together Networks recently moved its administrative offices to Flynn Avenue to give it room to grow. (Photo: Jeff Clarke)

Eventually, "the decision was made to get a 256k connection, and see if we could help defray some of the expenses of the foundation by seeing if there was any interest in a few commercial Internet accounts out there in Burlington." Later that year, she says, "the fateful decision was made to start providing Internet access."

Soon after, the company decided to spin off its Internet service business and move the non-profit Together Foundation to New York City, where it could be closer to the United Nations with which it was so closely involved. The remaining Internet business was incorporated in Vermont on Jan. 1, 1995, as TGF Technologies Inc., and later renamed Together Networks when it went statewide 16 months later.

In 1992, Lane moved to Vermont from her native Florida. After studying 17th century metaphysical poetry at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass. -- "I don't know what I was thinking!" she exclaims, anticipating a perplexed follow-up -- she had spent several years working in Tampa for Personal Computer Peripherals Corp. (PCPC), a now-defunct manufacturer of computer hard drives.

Her role evolved into a tech support position working with Dave Winzler, a Stafford Springs, Conn.-based programmer working for PCPC on a back-up utility to be bundled with the firm's hard drives. Lane says the company, more concerned with solid, tangible items like hardware, didn't put much value in anything as ethereal as software. "It was really frustrating to be putting all of this energy into something that literally had the value to the company of a doorstop," she relates.

In 1987, she says, "We both left, deciding to spin off and start our own company, because we thought in our naiveté, we could do this ourselves. ... If I had known then what I know now about how risky and crazy it was to believe that we could pull this off, I'm sure I wouldn't have had the courage to do it."

With an amicable departure from PCPC, the duo formed Microseeds, and continued to develop Macintosh software utilities -- "the socks and underwear of the software business," according to Lane -- with Lane in Florida and Winzler in New England.

"At the time the software industry itself was minuscule," she says. "When we first started going to industry trade shows, you knew every single person who worked in your industry. A lot of people would ship discs and Xeroxes in Ziploc bags."

While Microseeds eventually received favorable product reviews in some major Mac magazines, and the company had teamed with a popular hard drive manufacturer to distribute its products, the sands were shifting. Smaller software companies were being bought out by larger ones, and the pair decided their adventure was simply no longer fun. Fearing potential strains on their new romantic relationship, one fostered by countless hours spent on the phone, Lane and Winzler decided to sell their product line to a Boston company in 1992. A short time later, Lane moved to Burlington, where Winzler had been living since '91.

Lane naturally gravitated to the Internet, and established an account with the Together Foundation. "I was one of their first subscribers," she recalls. "It became fairly clear to me, because I was always the first person to ask whatever question I had. And I'm sure they grew to hate me. I could hear the groans when I called them," she laughs. "I remember thinking to myself, 'All right, I'm not going to let this distract me from finding a job.' And to the contrary, it led into the next generation career," she says.

Eventually, Lane began making plans for a venture of her own -- giving tours of the Net to curious newcomers. Her pitch to Together to allow her to resell Internet accounts for the firm was well-timed. "At the same time they were thinking we should get somebody who could think of ways to get people to buy Internet accounts," she explains. In March 1995 the Together Foundation made an offer, and Lane became director of marketing.

"I was so excited. I was ecstatic," she recalls. "It was a second home pretty quickly."

Only four months after being hired, Lane placed her bid to become an executive of the company. In July '95 she was named chief operating officer, adding a second Robin to the higher echelons of the company alongside Robin Rugg, a native of England, who has lived in North America for 40 years. As director of development, Rugg works with telecommunications providers to keep the ISP abreast of new developments and strategy.

"She hadn't been on board very long, but she had shown a lot of enthusiasm," Rugg says of Lane's promotion to COO. "She'd shown some very innovative and imaginative new ideas. And she had a very strong feel, if you like, for the Internet. ... We just felt she was the right person at the right time to help us move forward."

June 1997 was a busy month for Lane and the more than 30 Together Network employees. On June 30, the company moved its administrative offices to 208 Flynn Ave., Burlington, space previously occupied by Boise Cascade/McAuliffe. Four network managers continue to staff the 130 S. Willard St. location, where all telecommunications lines remain. The company plans to lease space there to businesses requiring high-speed Net connections.

Also in June, the company added three New Hampshire POPs to its three existing ones in New York and the six in Vermont, part of an all-digital network constructed for Together Networks by Nynex.

On June 21, Winzler and Lane were married at the North Hero home they share with Winzler's daughters, Katy, 16; and Julie, 12; and the couple's son, Calvin, 5. Winzler, who continues to conduct business under the Microseeds name from the home, has gone into Web design. "It's the best of both worlds, because we understand each other," says Lane.

From a spacious conference room at the company's new offices, Lane capsulates her feelings on Together's focus. "People have a number of choices for Internet providers, but they don't have many choices for Internet service providers," she says. "And that may be the distinction."

If the ranking of ISPs at the CNet website is any indication, its doing something right. Together Networks subscribers visiting that national television program's website have ranked it 24 out of almost 840 providers across the country included in the survey. But in a business that measures change hourly, the ranking is sure to change soon. Lane and company are working to make sure that change is a positive one.


Subject: Internet

Together Networks chief operating officer Robin Lane offers views on some Internet-related topics in an email one-on-one:

Secure transmissions

I'll use my credit card online with a company I know and trust. That happens to be the same rule I use for using my credit card over the phone. I don't spend a lot of time worrying that my credit card will be intercepted by hackers while it's beamed out across the Internet any more than I worry about my phone being tapped. There are much easier ways for people to get my credit card number. For example, forget the Net for a minute. If I use a mail-order catalog to phone in an order, what happens to my credit card number? I'm pretty sure it gets typed into a computer on the other end. What assurances do I have that the company ensures the safety of my credit card number? In a word: none. Do I lose sleep over this? No. Does it make me careful about when and where I use my credit card? You bet.

Online commerce

It already has enough momentum that major commercial entities have huge stakes in it. For example, Barnes and Noble saw what Amazon was accomplishing and decided that online commerce was real enough for them. I think online commerce will get bigger still.

Spam

Sending unsolicited email (a.k.a. "spam") is just not smart. You will inevitably make some sales with this scattershot approach. However, you will annoy many, many more people. And every marketer knows that a negative impression is more powerful, travels faster, and lasts longer than a positive impression. I don't care how easy it is to send spam, how cheap it is, and how few trees it kills -- these are all pitches the spam-enabling companies churn out -- it also wastes the time and goodwill of more people than it pleases. And that has its own costs.

Internet backlash

I think there's some negative reaction to the Internet out there already, what with the concerns about pornography, fraud, and hackers in general. But I don't think there's much concern about it being over-hyped. I suspect most people who climb on to the Internet now are amazed that there's so much more to it than they ever expected to find. Even people who don't have a need to use it every day seem to find it worth the modest price, just to have access when they need to.

Bringing people together

I definitely believe the Net can bring people together, and that technology can assist interpersonal relationships. I can't tell you how many people I know who keep in closer touch with family and friends because email is easy, fast, and cheap. But technology can also be divisive. When my family fights over whose turn it is to use the phone, computers, or TV, I am not in touch with the feeling that technology is enriching our time together. At my house, we tend to be infotainment junkies: We work at overcoming the temptation to couch-potate via the Net, computer and video games, and books. We take turns snapping each other out of it: "Hey, have a conversation with me!" That pull is stronger than any technology.

-- ccb