post

Newtek and the Video Toaster

Had a conversation with a buddy about the Video Toaster and the shrink-wrapped copy of the VHS marketing video I still own called “NewTek Revolution.” This friend sent me a link to this video below which I haven’t watched for at least ten years. Underneath the video is an original post from 2005 I did that I wanted to repost since this conversation brought back a lot of fond memories made more acute in today’s time of user generated content, video delivered everywhere on the ‘net, and how startling it is that the tools have changed so dramatically in such a short time.

 

Newtek Video Toaster startup screen (click for larger view)

When I think what could’ve been with NewTek and the Video Toaster, I must admit feeling a twinge of sadness. NewTek could’ve been the next Apple Computer if, in my opinion, one thing would’ve happened that was a pretty clear tipping point.

In April of 1990, NewTek introduced the Video Toaster. A board-level product (with great special effects and switcher software) that plugged in to the only video-ready computer at the time (the Commodore Amiga). It revolutionized the video business and kickstarted the desktop video category.

Two guys I’d become acquainted with, Reid Johnson and George Johnson (no relation but college buddies), owned a video dealership that had introduced the Video Toaster to the Minneapolis/St. Paul area to great success and acclaim. Tim Jenison (founder & owner of NewTek) and his VP, Paul Montgomery (sadly now deceased), were so enamored with what they’d done that they hired Reid and George to open a sales headquarters in Minnesota.

Needing someone that had channel experience to assist them, they hired me.

What an adventure! The Toaster began selling like hotcakes and we had dealers scrambling to carry it. We had three major distributors that were buying up all our production. The company nearly tripled in revenue in a year.

This was *the* cool company too. We were showcased on the NBC Evening News with Tom Brokaw. Our Christmas party had people like James Doohan (Scotty on Star Trek), Wil Wheaton (Star Trek Next Generation) and the guy that played Lurch (Carel Struycken) in the Addams Family movie that year, as well as a host of others. NewTek had a whole “cool friends” network which included people like Penn & Teller. 1993 brought NewTek and its founder, Tim Jenison, recognition in the form of a Prime Time Emmy Award for Technical Achievement from the American Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.

We also had a “spokesmodel” named Kiki Stockhammer that could demo better than anyone I’d ever seen…and she drew crowds of men at all the video related events. I’ve lost track of her and wonder about her some times.

Driving toward a tipping point that would either make us a great company or a small cool one only, we had a strategic planning session out at Pajaro Dunes on Monterey Bay in California. Its claim-to-fame was the volume of Silicon Valley companies that had had sessions like it there (including Steve Jobs and the Macintosh team). Brad Carvey (Dana Carvey’s brother) was my roommate in our rented house with 8 bedrooms — as he’d been the key hardware design engineer on the Video Toaster — and was just a great and really smart guy. I recall spending hours talking with him one night…and ultimately I fell asleep listening to the crash of the waves from the Bay.

What was the tipping point? We all knew that we had to get off the Amiga since Commodore was on pretty shaky financial ground. Visiting Irving Gould at his Commodore Bahamian headquarters, our leadership tried to convince a reluctant Gould to license the chipset so we could build a board for the Macintosh and the PC. Alas, Gould wouldn’t since he was making too much money in currency arbitrage moving containers of finished Amiga’s around the world. Also, the Video Toaster was nearly the *only* reason Commodore was selling any of the boxes anyway so he had little incentive to license the chipset that would eliminate his primary sales channel and reason for Amiga computers to live.

Commodore declared bankruptcy in late 1994…making any further discussions a moot point and eliminating the platform upon which the Video Toaster relied.

My own back-of-the-envelope projections indicated we’d have been a $100M company and more within a year or so had we’d been able to license the chipset. Instead, NewTek has gone off on other adventures (Lightwave 3D, etc.) and is roughly a $5M company today. Sigh….

NOTE: For a nice history of the company, read the article here.

About Steve Borsch

I'm CEO of Marketing Directions, Inc., a trend forecasting, consulting and publishing firm in Minnesota. Prior to that I was Vice President, Strategic Alliances at Lawson Software in St. Paul where I was responsible for all partnerships at this major vendor of enterprise resource planning software products and services. Read more about me here unless you're already weary of me telling you how incredible and awesome I am.

Comments

  1. Ashraf Tawakkol says:

    I do remember those old days. Going through reading this post made a lot of memories flash back in my head on how quickly and dramatically the digital media authoring tools developed wether they are 3D animation tools or image and video processing tools. Saying so, and in reference to comparing that with now user generated content, I guess my favorite clause still stands for this “ITS ALL ABOUT STORYTELLING”. If it was not for storytelling we would have not seen such a development in tools, and f it was not for storytelling again we would have not seen such a boom in user generated content. Thank you so much for this post and the lots of memories it brings back :)

  2. Video toaster? It was “just” the most incredible techinical achivement in video I can remember! This deeply changed my life and my “way of thinking”, trying to understand how it works. I’m a hardware designer and all-around-amiga-lover, every time I see the “revolution” video, I remember how simple, elegant and well-done was the toaster board, and I try to follow this with my designs. I dream of someday creating something so sleek and perfect like the toaster. Greetings from Brazl!

  3. Tim Kane says:

    Anyone know where I can get a Video Toaster t-shirt? I
    recall trainspotting one of these worn by Garth in Wayne’s World,
    and have wanted to get my hands on one ever since!

  4. Steve Borsch says:

    I know I don’t have any idea but I’ll bet the NewTek folks could point you in the right direction. G to http://NewTek.com and send them a note.

Leave a Comment