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The home computer industry might have never got its start if it wasn't for Computerland, the first retail chain of stores to sell personal computers.


William "Bill" Millard began selling make 'em yourself computer kits in 1976. His IMSAI "computer" was based around the Intel 8080. He sold them through a mail-order company in San Leandro, California. Most of the customers were workers at JPL.


The kits sold so well, Millard decided pre-made micros would sell even better. Since pre-made micros could carry a higher profit margin, Millard reasoned they could support a storefront operation. Millard planned a franchised chain called Computer Shack. Tandy however sued for violation of its Radio Shack brand name. He changed the name to Computerland and opened his first franchise in Hayward, California.


The stores did well but Millard almost cooked his own goose. He made the classic Osborne Error. He announced an improved version of his IMSAI computer long before there was product to ship. Sales vanished nearly over night. Computerland was nearly ruined. Fortunately, the Apple II hit the market. Computerland helped bring the Apple II to consumers. When the IBM PC hit the market, IBM went straight to Computerland to push Big Blue out the door.


By 1984, Computerland hit a billion dollars in sales. Millard became the tech world's first Billionaire Bill (Forbes listed him as the 31st richest American in 1984). Unfortunately, Computerland became embroiled in a heavy duty lawsuit and franchisee revolt. Former early employees began to sue for stock they swore they were promised. Franchisees banded together into an association to demand a better deal from head office. The lawsuits and franchisee revolts sapped much of the spirit out of the company. Millard eventually sold the company for $200 million, moved to Saipan, and quite literally disappeared.


-- Karl Mamer





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