• Dr. Evil Laboratories

  • by kentsu

This blog recounts the history of Dr. Evil Laboratories, the creator, manufacturer, and retail sales of peripherals and software for the Commodore 64, including the Imagery! adventure game system, the SID Symphony Stereo cartridge, and the Swiftlink-232 cartridge.

Sep
22

All Good Things...

Dr. Evil Laboratories officially existed from January 1, 1987 through December 31, 1991--five years exactly. During that time, we served 1425 customers across 16 different countries, learned a lot, and had a lot of fun. Here's the story of how and why it all came to an end, and what happened to the products.

These previous blog posts described our major products:

Additionally, “Begin the Begin” and ”The Doctor's not Really Evil, Honest!” described the origins of the company. In this post, I will try to describe how the business evolved and changed, eventually resulting in the sale of our two hardware products to Creative Micro Designs in early 1991 and the closing of the business at the end of that year.

(By the way, almost 93% of the 1425 customers were from the United States and about 5.5% were from Canada. In third place was Sweden, no doubt due to Anders Reuterswärd’s nice reviews.)

Too much of a good thing

As you probably gathered from the previous posts, Ray, Roy, Rick, Bryan, Noel, and I had a lot of passion for the Commodore 64/128. It was a ton of fun to develop and bring to market a series of products that customers liked and that improved their computing experience. We were humbled by people’s positive reaction and their willingness to part with their money to buy our offerings. Customers’ enthusiasm for the SID Symphony in particular turned our “Wouldn’t it be cool if…” attitude, which had the spirit of being experimental and low-key, into a desire to exceed customer expectations. None of us was happy to hear from a customer who was confused or upset.

This higher standard meant that we expected more from ourselves, and the “more” translated directly into increased time and energy. We couldn’t let customers down but we also were designing, building, marketing, selling, and supporting Dr. Evil Labs products all on the side from our regular lives (first school, then jobs).

Especially once the SwiftLink-232 project went into high gear, Bryan, Noel, and I were working essentially two jobs. We were still having fun, but the pace was not really sustainable. The three of us were also very involved in the explosion of PCs and Windows software by working at Microsoft, and it appeared to us that the 16-bit PC was going to eclipse the 8-bit market. What exactly was going to happen was not immediately clear due to the revolving door of management at CBM, and our belief that the C-128 in particular had a lot of untapped potential.

Enter Creative Micro Designs

None of us can exactly recall where the idea came from for Creative Micro Designs to take over the SID Symphony and SwiftLink-232. We were familiar with, and very impressed by, their JiffyDOS product. In fact, Noel wrote a review of JiffyDOS that Transactor published in February, 1989. We were also amazed by the amount of serious technical and financial investment they were making in CBM 8-bit products, starting with their line of hard drives.

Bryan and I met Charlie Christianson Jr., and his father, Charlie Sr., at the Valley Forge World of Commodore show on September 15 & 16, 1990. I don’t recall whether CMD asked us about possibly selling some of our products or whether we approached them. Either way, discussions proceeded quickly. We had a series of phone calls and a rough idea for an agreement started to come together.

We knew we were in over our heads once the details of the agreement started to gel, so I started to search for an attorney to advise us. I had consulted with a family friend back in Indiana during Dr. Evil Labs’ early days (Jeff Linder) and was hoping to find another attorney who would work with us on reasonable terms. As luck would have it, my colleague at work, Amy Kanerva (Fleischer) had a close friend, Caroline Wanamaker, who agreed to help us at a rate we could afford.

With Caroline’s help, we reviewed and responded to the first draft of the SwiftLink-232 agreement (dated December 18, 1990), the second (January 23, 1991), the third (February 6, 1991), and the final (April 9, 1991). The reason for the gap between third and final is that CMD started circulating SID Symphony agreement drafts at the same time as draft 3 of the SwiftLink-232 document, so the two proceeded to conclusion together. And, letters accompanying the drafts mentioned that CMD staff was also very busy, which is understandable given the products they were releasing during that time (RAMLink, among other things).

I don’t recall now why CMD chose to start with the SwiftLink-232 agreement. Perhaps they were more interested in that product due to a somewhat-better alignment with the other products in their line-up. It could also be that the additional complexity due to the third-party software authors made them want to tackle the SL-232 agreement first.

In any case, Ray Moody, Roy Riggs, and I signed both agreements, in round-robin fashion via U.S. Mail, at the end of April / beginning of May, 1991. As you may recall from the SID Symphony and SwiftLink-232 posts, CMD started selling those products in January, 1991 (press release, sample online service notice from Q-Link), so for a period of time, both parties were technically at risk due to the absence of a signed final agreement. The trust between our two companies was high, however, so we didn’t worry. We focused instead on getting the agreements perfected. Also, CMD had some existing Dr. Evil Labs inventory to sell, so if everything had blown up, we could have unwound the agreement.

Somewhat oddly, Twin Cities 128 was the only magazine to publish info from the press release, in issue #29, published sometime in 1991. I’m not sure why the other magazines didn’t follow suit, although the original press release was mis-dated 1/7/90 instead of 1/7/91 – a pretty obvious typo, one would think.

To summarize the particulars of the two agreements:

  • CMD receives 10-year license to SID Symphony Stereo Cartridge and SwiftLink-232 Serial Cartridge
  • CMD pays 7% of selling price of all SID Symphony cartridges and SwiftLink-232 cartridges to named individuals, using the following breakdowns:
    • SID Symphony: 25% Bryan, 50% Kent, 25% Ray
    • SwiftLink-232: 33 1/3% Bryan, 33 1/3% Kent, 33 1/3% Noel
  • Sales to be reported and royalties paid quarterly
  • CMD has right of first refusal on any new product ideas that Dr. Evil might develop
  • Dr. Evil Laboratories copyright notices to be displayed on products

The rationale for the SID Symphony percentages was that Craig, Ray, and Kent had all contributed money to fund the SID Symphony project and had benefitted from the profits while Dr. Evil Labs was selling them. At the time of the sale to CMD, Craig bowed out and Bryan replaced him in the equation. We also made a lump sum payment to Rick as a final thank-you for all the great work he had done over the years.

Also, Ray, Roy, and Kent, being equal partners in Dr. Evil Labs, relinquished all rights, while Bryan, Kent, and Noel each paid Dr. Evil a small fee to account for lost interest on money Dr. Evil Labs provided to bootstrap the SwiftLink-232 project.

CMD sales

We provided everything we could think of to help get CMD off to a good start. In addition to completed inventory and parts, we also sent them schematics, circuit board artwork, documentation source files, templates for making labels, and even this set of notes on how to test the SwiftLink-232 and how to print cartridge labels. Advertisements from CMD announcing the SID Symphony and SwiftLink-232 first appeared in the March / April issues of Compute! (Gazette section) and RUN.

After some initial communication with CMD to answer questions, we went about the business of getting on with our day jobs. Sales statements with royalty checks arrived each quarter in 1991 (after initial inventory sold through) and again in 1992. Trouble started in 1993. CMD implied that they were really busy, which I am sure was true, but the health of the CBM 8-bit market was also in question. If their “ad buys” are an indication of healthy sales, the two-page ads stopped in Compute! after May, 1991. In fact, ads altogether stopped in that publication until near the end of the Gazette section. The ad from the December, 1993 issue (final paper Gazette) is just a short listing of products for sale.

The final year for royalty statements and payments was 1994, when they made one payment to cover the entire year, in December. We stopped hearing from CMD after that. During this time, however, CMD was publishing their own magazine, Commodore World (April 1994 – March 1999), and listed the SID Symphony and SwiftLink-232 every month, minus any description of the features or benefits present in the earlier Compute! and RUN ads. So, we know that the products were for sale at least as late as early 1999.

While we may not have a complete picture of SID Symphony and SwiftLink-232 sales by CMD, we can come up with at least a minimum number sold: 461 SID Symphony Stereo Cartridges and 741 SwiftLink-232 Serial Cartridges. Of note is that the sales numbers were nearly identical between the two products for the first three years, but changed substantially in 1994, when the SwiftLink-232 outsold the SID Symphony by almost 2.5 times.

Dr. Evil Labs production plus known CMD production yields at least 1478 SID Symphony cartridges and 952 SwiftLink-232 cartridges sold. It seems likely that CMD continued to sell at least the SwiftLink-232 until introducing the Turbo232 in 1997, so sales in 1995 and 1996 should have pushed the totals higher.

The final year

After the agreements were signed, not much happened for Dr. Evil Labs. The ledger shows 16 people purchased disks and / or manuals for C-64/128 Kermit during the rest of 1991. We also repaired a few SID Symphony cartridges – I assume they were version 1 units without the static protection. There were no sales recorded after October 26.

As the summer of 1991 drew to a close, Dr. Evil Labs decided to close its doors at the end of the year. I was happy to take on Kermit distribution personally, so there wasn’t really any reason to keep the company going, because CMD agreed to repair existing cartridges. Filing tax returns every year and paying business license fees, local business taxes, post office box fees, etc. all seemed unnecessary as well as somewhat expensive and time-consuming. We gave customers and magazines advanced warning via a press release issued on August 21.

Caroline Wanamaker once again helped us execute our intentions clearly and concisely. We hammered out the basics of the document on November 5, 1991, iterated on a draft agreement dated December 6, and received the final dissolution agreement on December 17. I returned to Indiana for the Christmas holiday and was able to see both Ray and Roy in person. Everyone signed before the end of the year. Dr. Evil Labs was officially no more, once the required legal notice had run in the Seattle Times and the 30-day required period, for potential creditors to surface and make a claim, had passed. None did. :-) Compute! and RUN both included notices this time, in their February, 1992 issues.

As part of the dissolution, I purchased the remaining inventory: Kermit disks, manuals, a few SID chips, a few Maxim MAX234 chips, and some other miscellaneous odds and ends. At the same time, we altered the agreements with CMD to cancel the requirement that Dr. Evil Labs secure copyright on the SID Symphony and SwiftLink-232 products. I don’t recall if that language was boilerplate in the original agreement, and we had overlooked it, or if CMD decided they didn’t need copyright protection.

Conclusion

Thank you for your interest in the history of Dr. Evil Laboratories and its products. Being a part of it was a privilege and I am happy to have had the chance to tell its history and help secure its place in the vibrant Commodore 64/128 scene 25 years ago. I look forward to hearing from you via blog comments, Facebook, or maybe even meeting you at a Commodore 8-bit retro computing event.

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Responses

HowlinAl 9/26/2013 9:18:00 PM

Thanks for these stories, I've enjoyed them a lot!