Mackerel: Burying the Fish
Wired, never published
This article was a heart-break. It was commissioned by an editor at Wired, after I told him about some friends of mine who'd started one of the very first multimedia firms, spent years looking for a backer, found one, then everything fell apart. I spend an entire month collecting over a hundred hours of interviews, reviewing their software, and writing the thing.
Then the editor quit Wired. I got bounced from editor to editor for eight months, before they finally turned it down. I got a nice kill-fee, but sad to say, the article never saw print. The Mackerlites were pretty pissed -- they all had their hearts set on finally getting some recognition.
article as a
Over the course of its nine-year run, Mackerel essentially invented the market for interactive in Canada. It was the definitive multimedia start-up: cash-strapped and crazy, the living embodiment of every art-geek's revenge fantasy.
They toiled in the wilderness, inventing beautiful interfaces, ultra-clean designs. They were interactive artists.
Who says artists know squat about running a business?
Art school graduates. Whaddya gonna do? I mean, here you've got this nifty diploma in "Photoelectric Arts" or, God help you, "Fine Arts," and you've got a zero bank-balance and you've got a burning need to find a job. Any job.
In Toronto, in the mid-Eighties, that job was Colorization, the twisted love-child of Ted Turner. Hour upon hour of mousing over frame after frame of black-and-white classics, turning Jimmy Stewart an unhealthy shade of green, making Laurel and Hardy crayon-pink. If you're not totally mind-numbed by this, if you show any spark of human spirit, you'll get promoted. Oh, boy.
Kevin Steele and Gord Gower knew they'd had enough. Kevin's mom, a radical expelled from the University of Minneapolis with Kevin's Trotksyist father, and deported to her native Canada as an Undesirable Alien in Kevin's infancy, had a Mac 512KE. She upgraded to an SE, and Kevin inherited the spunky little thing. Gord, in a fit of jealousy, bought a MacPlus with a 20MB harddrive.
What the hell? They quit their day-jobs.
Kat Cruickshank, Kevin's future spouse, heard about their grandiose plan to start a desktop design studio, and suggested the name Mackerel. There's no one reason for the name, except that it was fun, and Kat drew great fish, and it kind of sounds like "MacWorld."
The two rented a back room in the offices of Our Times, a labor paper, where they chain-smoked and built beautiful pages in PageMaker. They never called themselves desktop publishers: they were desktop designers. The Mac revolution was all about non-geeks coming into the computer fold, and that was them. The two had worked on Fishwrap, a student paper that Kevin founded at the Ontario College of Arts, and for Kevin, the Mac was a revelation: "I was stunned that I could be playing with PageMaker and doing work -- laying my galleys, stuff I'd done in the real world with real objects -- and when I went home at night and remembered what I'd done that day, I remembered working with my hands. I didn't have this image in my head of this digital text block being moved by a cursor. In my mind, I was grabbing galleys and sticking wax on them and laying them down. To me, working with a good interface is working with my hands."
Business took off. Dave Groff, the grandson of an excommunicated Mennonite whose sin was building a house that was too worldly (it had curtains instead of blinds) came to work for Gord and Kevin. They knew him from art school, where the naive small-town boy would show up at Kevin's parties at 8PM -- "When you had a party out in the country and it started at 8, you showed up at 8 and they went home at 11 or 12. So I would show up at 8 and the next guest would show up at 10:30. The majority of people would show up at midnight. I did this consistently, like two or three times, until I clued in." Their first formal meeting was when Dave was chilling out front of the school, smoking a cigarette and trying not to look like he still had cowshit between his toes. Kevin walked by, took one look, and collapsed laughing. Dave's cool quickly deflated, and Kevin clapped him on the shoulder, saying, "There's a tremendous responsibility that comes attached to smoking a cigarette and acting cool at the entrance of OCA." The two became fast friends, and when the Gord and Kevin needed a freelancer to handle the overflow of the desktop revolution, Dave was a natural.
Dave moved his computer into the Our Times office, and worked through the regular crash of the sheet-metal guillotine downstairs that would shake brick dust and nicotine loose from the walls and shower the computers with schmutz -- by the time the boys moved into nicer digs in Parkdale, Dave had the only working floppy drive in the shop. They all hooked up to the LaserWriter and they all ate lunch at the local, Burnett's, every afternoon. They drank at Burnett's all night, every night, and worked all day, every day. 70 hours a week was average, 50 felt like cheating, and they never had more fun in all their lives, before or since.
Kevin, someone who doesn't think of himself as a computer guy, somehow ended up the in-house sage on matters digital. Periodically, the boys would ask him, "What is this icon on the desktop, HyperCard?" To which he would always answer, "That is a black hole from which we will never return."
Then they got hold of the Emigré Font Stack, an early HyperCard effort from the people who invented the market for digital fonts. One look at it, and they were hooked through the bag. The Mackerel Stack was born.
Kevin and Gord built it during an all-nighter, Kevin coding away and Gord shoulder-surfing in his big black chair. Together, they built the first iteration of a project that would go on to virtually create the market for multimedia in Canada. They laughed. They smoked. They blew a bunch of doobs.
For Dave, the Mackerel Stack was a life-changer. "I had read some McLuhan and Stuart Brand's The Media Lab. The thing I remember from it was that he said to watch out for the convergence of the television, the telephone and the computer. This was the first hint I saw of what that convergence would look like, and I went apeshit over it and I took works in progress and I showed my boss at a freelance job and he went, "Well that's really neat, but what would we do with it?'
"I showed it to some clients, one guy who did corporate videos. I said, 'Look at this, it's related to corporate videos and it's just on a little floppy disk, imagine what you can do.' He said, 'I don't think I could use it.'"
The Mackerel Stack stands out as a truly designed piece of interactive, with professional-quality illustration and layout and a functional interface. As Kevin says, "Function is beautiful, but beauty is not overrated." Above all, there was a sense of playfulness, an unashamed delight that informed Mackerel's design sense in the years that came.
The best-known element of that original stack was the "Fish-Eye." When an unsuspecting user clicked the fish's eye, a dialog box appeared onscreen saying, "Ouch, that hurts!" and the only possible response was, "Sorry." Another dialog sprang up then, "How would you like it if I poked you in the eye?" with the response, "Really, I'm sorry!" And then, "How would you like it if I erased everything on your hard drive?" this time with two options: "Okay" and "Okay." Click either one, and this came up: "Of course, you knew that I really was just kidding," and your response was "Of course."
For Dave, this was a comic monologue rendered in interface, a sheer delight. Shortly thereafter, he converted the $11,000 that the boys owed him for freelance work to a partnership in Mackerel.
The stack went on to garner acclaim, winning two prizes in MacWorld's SuperStacks contest. Gord and Kevin took it to MacWorld, and for the first time, they got to see an audience enraptured by their work. When it was over, Kevin mentioned that he had seventy copies with him on floppies, and the stage was mobbed. Gord recalls Kevin standing onstage, frisbeeing floppies into a sea of outstretched arms, laughing.
Fred Williamson was a good ten years older than the boys, but he was dating Gord's sister -- eventually, they married -- and he hung around the office. A former actor, Fred ping-ponged between construction jobs like Shinto temples and the weird world of sales. He sold everything from bricks to ad-space in Computer World Canada, at a time when selling for a PC mag was considered way more arcane than selling bricks.
Fred took one look at the Mackerel stack. "Look," he said. "If I can understand this stuff, other people can understand it. I can sell this. You guys need a town crier. You pay me 15% commission, and I'll go out and do it." He never got his fifteen points. They made him a partner instead.
Fred is the consummate salesman. He lugged his MacPlus into communications agencies, into museums, into ad offices, and pitched. No one had any idea what the hell he was talking about, but man, he's entertaining, with a twinkle in his eye and silken tongue made of pure blarney. Fred invented his market niche. He'd go to Comdex and meet you in a third-floor elevator. By the time you reached the first floor, he'd have your business card. A week later, he'd be in your office with his MacPlus, selling.
The Mackerelites grew and prospered and built wicked-cool, beautiful multimedia. The office grew. Oliver Meurer, a German emigré who had the trademark Mackerel mischief in his eye, came on board to run production, and he begat more, hiring people through an interview process based entirely on his gut.
J. Random Applicant begins by showing up at the office, clutching a copy of the Mackerel Stack in one hand and a portfolio in the other. He asks around and gets directed to Ollie.
"Are you the person who does job interviews?"
"I guess," Oliver says, smiling disarmingly.
"Well, I'm here for an interview? I booked it earlier?"
"What interview?" Oliver asks, totally deadpan.
"I -- I had an interview. I set it up with someone over the phone?"
Oliver stands at this point and takes J. Random Applicant out for lunch. He refuses to look at Random's portfolio. Instead, he feels him out, gets a sense of who he is, whether he'll fit, whether he'll learn.
From Kevin: "Schools weren't turning out people who could do what we were doing. We were hiring talented, smart people and teaching them ourselves."
If Ollie liked you, he'd throw you at Kevin for two or three days, and Kevin would talk multimedia at you all day, and Gord and Ollie would drink with you all night, and before you knew it, you were hired, given a heroically uncomfortable chair and a Macintosh and put to work.
The next-generation Mackerelites are a mixed bag. There isn't a one of them that isn't hip and downtown as all get-out -- walking into the old Mackerel office was like stepping into some weird Hollywood vision of sexy young geeks in great clothes, firing Nerf darts at each other and disappearing into the overflowing kitchen for company-sponsored Shiatsu massage from a geek therapist who logged in regularily to the company BBS.
They came from all walks of life. Joey DeVilla, the only production grunt with a background in computer science, was seven years into a four-year CS degree at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario, was DJing one night at a campus bar, and running a hunk of video wallpaper that included screen captures from the Mackerel Stack, recently downloaded from a BBS. One of the dancers caught him in the DJ booth and mentioned that he knew the guys in Toronto who built the thing. The next morning, Joey packed his things and hopped a train to Toronto, and demanded that Ollie hire him.
There were theater people, radio people, techno DJs, a telephone psychic, art-school grads galore, bartenders, bike-couriers -- visitors often remarked on how much the Mackerel office looked like a courier dispatch, right down to the room full of commuter bikes the Mackerelites brought to work with them.
It was a golden age. Mostly. The company was strapped for cash, its people were underpaid, but a sense of wicked-cool fun pervaded the shop. When you worked for the Fish, you knew you were working on the shit.
The thorn in the partners' side was that none of this beautiful stuff was theirs. It was all fee-for-service, promotional materials for software publishers and car vendors and museums and nuclear power stations. They dreamed of another Mackerel Stack, a product, something they owned.
Gord became the reluctant president, after an unsuccessful bid to have the book-keeper take the job. He left behind his role as a designer and put on a suit and hit the road, looking for investors. Gord says, "I talked to 15-20 investors a year for the last three years of the company's existence. I had every snake-oil salesman from the film industry cross my doorstep saying, 'This is how you raise money for interactive media.'" The search was fruitless, and worse, it created a rift in the partnership. Dave, always on the side of the cash-strapped studio, was at odds with Gord over the number of managers and execs on the payroll, the better to woo investors.
All this was compounded by the hand-to-mouth nature of the studio. Things hit bottom when, before Christmas 1994, the books just wouldn't balance. Gord, sitting at his desk, fired off a message on the in-house FirstClass BBS: We're out of money -- who doesn't need their paycheck this month? This was just before everyone was due to leave on Christmas vacation, a total desperation move. But he had a Smurfs' Family Christmas moment:. Slowly, his mailbox filled with responses, each piece announcing by a sample of Ollie shouting "Achtung!"
The Mackerelites came to the rescue. In 15 minutes, over 20 people had responded: "I'll pass my paycheck, I only need half my paycheck," and the $25,000 shortfall was covered.
Straight up Jimmy Stewart karma, is what it was. Gord knew he was working at just about the best place anywhere.
And it was.
Mackerel was known in Toronto circles as the "Hardest-Drinking Multimedia Company in the World." Legendary for its parties, where fishbowls full of cigarettes were set out along the bar and cellulite "Fortune-Telling Fish" were passed out as party favors, the Fish was clearly a place where they knew how to cut loose..
Gord, Ollie and several of the Mackerelites raved together, despite the fact that the senior Fish were a good ten years older than the target demographic at the all-night dance/drugfests. Karl borst, an early hire at the Fish, recalls the first time he bumped into Gord at a rave: "Here I was, telling all my friends, 'this is my boss!' And they're going, uh? And I realized that for most people, your boss isn't someone you party with."
The Fish partied in the office, too, playing massive, multiplayer games of Marathon till the wee hours of the night, gaming through levels designed by the 3D artists in loving replica of the Mackerel office. They invited other multimedia houses down to go head-to-head against them, and generally kicked booty.
Gord may not have had much luck bringing in investment capitol, but he was the social nexus of the shop. In an industry when most "employees" are freelancers waiting to happen, with an up-to-date résumé in on their desktops and an eye on the *.jobs newsgroups, Mackerel's people were bone-loyal. Through half-pay layoffs and minimal pay the rest of the time and the grim days when the partners shouted at each other from behind closed doors, they stuck with the Fish.
Then they found an investor.
Combined Media Incorporated was the brainchild of Gord Haines, the former number-two man at Alliance, a big-name Canadian film distributor. He conceived of a plan to marry three disparate companies and create a lucrative cross-media presence.
The three companies were the creative nutbars at Mackerel; the editorial staff of Owl Magazine, a children's title whose name is often chased with the epigram, "a national treasure;" and a newly formed TV production studio dubbed Owl TV. The idea was, the TV people and Mackerel would leveraging Owl's national brand-identity into interactive products and television stations.
Haines secured the proper due diligence from the various players and went hunting for a backer. He found it in the shape of Working Ventures, who agreed to front CDN$500,000.
Gord and the Mackerelites threw a hell of a party, complete with beer-tickets, free smokes, competing Mackerelite DJs, and a wall-screen cycling through a mad-libs program that cheif programmer Joey DeVilla wrote in Director.
When it was all over, the real party, the after-party, started. At 0230h, Gord gathered up the remainders of the party, the CMI people, his staff, and walked them around the corner to an old warehouse. "We opened up this big black door, me and this 55-year-old man and a 48-year-old employee of mine, and there were at least 150 people going nuts to Jarrko [one of Mackerel's freelancer/DJs] spinning jungle music. I took them over to the fridge, and said, 'Oh look, it's full of beer. Take one.'"
That was the Mackerel rave, and it came complete with booze and pills and beautiful people dancing as hard as they worked. It seemed like the Fish was off the hook.
And then they saw the new office.
Just a few blocks away from the old Mackerel space, in the heart of the TV ghetto, stands "The Wedding Cake;" a white, monstrous Holiday Inn on the corner of King and John. The Holiday Inn offices were presented to the Fish as a fait accompli, and, to add insult to injury, the award-winning designers wouldn't be allowed to design their workspace. Instead, an outside consultant was brought in who would nod politely at (and promptly forget) everything the Fish had to say. Annabel Slaight, doyenne of Owl, picked out a color scheme that has been variously described as "hideous shades never found in nature," "shocking and oppressive," and worst of all, "Windows 3.1."
Kevin Steele still marvels at the chutzpah: "Who would pick colors for artists?" These are, after all, the same designers who scanned the bricks from their old office, matched them to their Pantone equivalents, and designed accordingly.
The Wedding Cake is roundly regarded as an atrocity. The senior Mackerel managers were separated from the production staff, placed in a glass-walled "executive row." The furniture, awful industrial-grey workstation-supports, were purchased over howls of protest, prompting a telling quote from a senior Owl person: "We're not buying furniture for people, we're buying furniture for work." The lighting in the studio was provided by ugly, flickering fluorescents.
The Mackerelites took grim possession of their digs, and immediately began to fight back. The first day in, the fluorescents came down en masse. The pampered TV people with their room-service catering and the prim kids-lit publishers at Owl knew that the Mackerelites had arrived.
They settled down and got to work, building a six-figure AOL Canada site for one of the Owl properties, the Mighty Mites, and still doing fee-for-service to cover the bills. The formerly nonprofit Owl was anything but a cash-cow, and as for the TV people, they spent and spent and spent as only a video freak can, but only managed to get one show, Mrs. Cherrywinkle, on air. CMI was paying out over $30,000 per month in rent, on the Wedding Cake and on the old Owl and Mackerel offices, still lease-locked.
Thunderheads were on the horizon. The company BBS, Mackerelink, had been founded as a place for free-form consensus building, party-inviting, and general bitching. Local multimedia geeks logged in regularily, just to chat and hang out with the Fish. Traffic in Mackerlink's public conferences fell off, and in private email, the Dilbert cartoons started flying.
The shoe dropped. Less than a year after the deal was signed, Gord Haines called a meeting where he announced that Mackerel was being cut loose. The venture backers had taken a look at the books, seen the Mighty Mites project writ large in red ink on Mackerel's statement, and decided that the company was a turkey. It would have to pay its own way thenceforward.
So the Fish began to wriggle off the hook. Pete Mosely, a huge, shaven-headed turnaround specialist, was given the presidency of the company, and he began a round of hard-ass negotiations to buy back the fifty-share of Mackerel from CMI. The four partners were looking at assuming a $1,000,000 debt, moving back into the old offices -- after all, they were paying for 'em -- and cutting everything back to the bone. It was too much for Dave, and he walked.
The weeks that followed were hard. The Mackerelites, a family in every sense but genetics, saw their imminent separation. Whatever shape the new Mackerel assumed, it wouldn't ever be the same. As it turns out, they never had a chance to find out. Working Ventures, always at laggerheads with Gord Haines, demanded his resignation. Haines called their bluff, and they took their ball and glove and went away. Mackerel, already half-way disentangled from CMI, was suddenly the last man standing, and on the hook for over $3,000,000 in accumulated debt.
Owl circulated a vituperative memo blaming the whole thing on the Fish, claiming that they hadn't brought in the business necessary to keep the ship afloat. This was something that Annabel Slaight would repeat to the press in a series of poor-little-me interviews about the death of a "national treasure." The Fish finally called it quits. Jimmy Stewart dropped dead.
They threw a wake.
It started informally. Mackerelites, creatures of habit, showed up to work, making half-hearted attempts at building résumés with the company's CD-ROM burner. Someone bought a case of beer. Someone else got a bottle of good Scotch.
Gord Gower, president again, sat down at his keyboard and wrote a letter. It told the world that Mackerel was finally dead. It dared the competition to come and hire away the individuals that had made it possible. It announced of a final Mackerel blowout at the same bar where they'd celebrated the CMI deal.
He spammed everyone in the Mackerel rolodex with it.. He cracked open a beer and looked out the glass wall that demarcated executive row, and waited for the replies.
He didn't have to wait long. The sample of Ollie shouting "Achtung" fired again and again out of his Mac's speakers, and his mailbox overflowed with letters of condolence from the competition worldwide, from old Mackerel friends and camp-followers, from the trade press and from shortsighted poltroons who hadn't known a good thing when they saw it.
Gord took another drink, and considered the wall again. He hefted the bottle, then, he threw it. Smashed the glass to flinders, walked to the wreckage, and collapsed to his knees, sobbing.
In a heartbeat, he was surrounded by his people, a chip-head group-hug that went on and on. He was led away to a sofa, and the Fish picked up the glass.
Later on many of them said that it was a tremendous relief, that cathartic shattering. Gord, who had given up on all art except the art of the deal, had finally returned to the fold. He'd given his people a defiant "Fuck you!" painted large with the aesthetic of a old-time mural painter.
The Fish are doing all right these days. They've scattered to the winds, but they still congregate. They still play Marathon. They still party.
Their work continues to win awards. Waiting for the Cage, a CD-Plus title for the band The Grievous Angels has just been selected as a finalist for the Macromedia People's Choice Awards. Cage is a project that Mackerelites Rick Conroy, Cindy Dabis, Diana Galligan, Michelle Gay, Patrick Lee, Aaron Linton, Ana Rewakowicz, and Kevin Steele, with James Blackburn, built during a half-time layoff, working during their unpaid Mackerel hours.
At the final Mackerel party, I bought a carton of smokes to put on the bar. It seemed naked without them. It didn't feel like a funeral, strangely enough. More like a graduation.
Meet the Mackerel Graduating Class of 1997.