Promoting their online service center for personal computers, entrepreneurs Pat Dane and Mike Walter bring their Odd Couple act to the Internet -- and beyond

by Rick Mathieson

They may not look like Manny, Mo, or even Jack, but a pair of cyber-entrepreneurs have brought their 'Pep Boys' mentality to keeping your PC "tuned up" and running smoothly. And they've opened up shop on the infobahn.

TuneUp.com, the brainchild of Pat Dane and Mike Walter, is the eight-month old online service center that offers the Internet's first and only one-stop solution for PC maintenance.

The idea is simple: Subscribers pay $3.95 per month for online access to an array of services that include virus checking, disk speed optimization, disk repair, and tips for keeping computers in tip-top shape.

Boasting over 3,000 customers since its introduction last year, the site has earned critical acclaim -- and has even been named one of the best five sites on the World Wide Web by the national Software Publishers' Association.

But as impressive as the site and its services may be, it's the odd couple pairing of Dane and Walter that is gaining interest -- and laughs.

"We try to bring a personality to the site, and to make PC maintenance unintimidating," says Dane, at ease in the team's sparce Palo Alto, CA office. "Of course, with Mike's picture on the home page, it could be a little scary."

"It's all about simplicity," adds Walter. "And I figure if Dane can use the site, it must be brain-dead simple."

Such banter comes naturally to these guys: They're brothers-in-law. Or as Walter likes to put it, they married "women from the same litter."

Shock jocks for the info age
on the heels of their online success, the twosome launched "Pat and Mike's World Wide Web Radio Show," last September.

Soon to be syndicated to stations nationwide, the show is 3/4 comedy, 1/4 news. And the show's dynamics reflect the hosts' 25-year relationship: the amiable Dane plays foil to Walter's irrepressible smart ass as the two former computer company executives chat about the feats and foibles of modern technology -- and the pop cyber-culture it has spawned.

Already, other media outlets are taking notice. In January, the Net-wits began taping segments for CNET's syndicated television show. And beginning this month, the TuneUp guys bring their irascible humor and timely insight to E Business Magazine with an all-new monthly column.

In honor of their addition to the E Business family, EB asked Pat & Mike to share insight on their early multimedia success -- and their formula for making money on the Net.

EB: Tell me about the evolution of TuneUp.com. Where did the idea for the site start, and how did you get it launched?

Mike Walter: Pat had this idea, back in the Fall of '95, that you should be able to take care of your computer the same way you take care of your car.

Pat Dane: The essential idea was to take the auto aftermarket paradigm -- which is [the understanding] that Americans don't want to spend any time tuning up their engine, changing their oil, or doing anything other than turning the key, stepping on the gas, and going. So I applied the metaphor to taking care of your PC -- because Americans don't want to fuss with that, either. So I wrote a business plan for something called 'Jiffy-Tune,' and I sent it to my brother-in-law here.

MW: I loved the idea, despite the fact that Pat came up with it. I mean, at the time, less than 10% of people with home computers actually owned a tool kit for their computer; 90% of users didn't have any virus protection for their hard drive at all.

PD: So we pitched it to some people we know at Symantec, and they bit. That's how we got our startup capital.

EB: You'd think that Net jockeys would be somewhat savvy about keeping their computers operating well. But it looks as if you've struck a chord.

MW: Well, I think it's a fundamental need in the marketplace. I think [even Internet users] are frustrated with their PCs, with having to learn all about the software packages, which are so feature-rich nowadays. And in order to install some of these programs properly, you have to make sure they're compatible with the other software you already have. You've got to understand all the features, and how to use them. It's a huge investment in time, and you have to actually read the manual.

PD: Americans don't like to read manuals.

MW: That's right. You could ask the question of almost any size audience: 'When was the last time you read the manual that came with an appliance you bought?' Most of them would sit on their hands. We just don't like to read manuals. So there's a huge opportunity in the marketplace for something like TuneUp.com, which offers you an easy, convenient place to go and have all this stuff taken care of for you.

PD: We read the manuals for you.

MW: Then we use what we call the "brain-dead simple approach" to testing our site, so that even if you've only got a small sign of brain wave activity, you can still use our site. I mean if Dane can use it, it's got to be brain-dead simple. We fill the niche.

PD: Actually, this one guy said he was going to check out the site, and he called and said he couldn't find it. And I said what URL did you enter? And he said that he entered TuneUp.com. And I asked, how did you spell it? He spelled it t-u-n-u-p.com. And I said, you left out the e!

MW: Hey, we can make it brain-dead simple, but you still have to get there yourself.

PD: Anyway, I think the major reason TuneUp.com is successful so far is that everyone in the computer business thinks alike. They all think about the way things used to be, and the way they should be: You build a product, right? You put a lot of bells and whistles around it, right? But to users, that's as complicated as hell. So we've taken a completely different approach, the one used by the Auto Aftermarket: I just want to drive in, get the stuff done, and drive out.

EB: You've signed up about 3,000 subscribers. But your strategy is to hook up with Internet service providers and let them offer TuneUp.com as a value-added service, right?

PD: That's correct. When you call the phone company for your home or office, they pitch you fax services, Call Waiting, Conference Calling, you name it. It's the same thing with telcos that are starting to offer Internet service. No matter what customer subscribes to Internet access, they need tune-ups. So we're positioning ourselves to the large telcos as the first service to offer tune-ups online. The telcos then resell us to their subscribers.

EB: Why do you think it's strategic to go through the ISPs, instead of just trying to get people to subscribe to the standard TuneUp.com site?

MW: We feel that everybody's now open for business on the Net. You've got your Amazon.com, you've got individualized news, Slate Magazine, and so on. All these companies are trying to build businesses by getting people to surf by and sign up. And the reality is, that's going to be a long, hard road to make that work.

PD: We've got three thousand customers, so we're definitely in business. And the telcos can leverage that business much further.

MW: Which gets you tens of thousands -- and hundreds of thousands of subscribers -- very quickly.

EB: So you're off and running online. But now you've also expanded into radio. How did that come about?

PD: Well, the radio show is a product of him harassing me.

MW: That's right. We've been in this relationship for 25 years now because we're related through marriage; we married women from the same litter. And we're still married to them -- which in itself is newsworthy.

PD: Very newsworthy, considering our hours.

MW: When we developed TuneUp.com, we put our personalities into the site as a way of developing some cachet, as a way of differentiating us from other sites. But it was also as a way of giving the site some intimacy, some feeling that, 'Hey, I'm dealing with real people here who are as dysfunctional as my uncle, and that I can relate to.' And that's worked exceedingly well. In fact, it worked so well that people started to compare us to these fellows that do this "Car Talk" show on NPR. We're actually more dysfunctional than they are, and, in our own way, sometimes funnier.

PD: So I had this good friend in North Carolina who just bought four or five radio stations. And we were there one day and the guy said, 'Listen, why don't you do a show. We'll give you a slot in the morning this Saturday from 11:00 to noon.'

MW: We pulled something together the day before, and we went in. About three minutes to show time, the guy says, 'By the way, what's the name of your show?' And I said, 'Well, the name of the show is ... um ... Pat and Mike's ... World ... Wide Web ... Radio Show.' I couldn't think of anything else. And he said, 'Okay, that'll do.'

PD: But the name sort of gave the show a life of its own, because we just started talking about more than computer tips. We started talking about the whole experience of the World Wide Web.

MW: It evolved into Pat and Mike the TuneUp guys, tuning up your knowledge about the Web. That's how it got started.

PD: That was about 20 weeks ago. The show's on only one station now, but we're going to go into national syndication in the next few months. And we're hoping Hewlett-Packard is going to be our first sponsor.

EB: Why do you think the show works so well?

PD: Well, when you go to AudioNet.com and go to the computing radio show page, there's like six shows there. And they're all about X-brand chips and Apple's going out of business, and --

MW: -- 'Oh, I have a modem that doesn't work, can you help me solve my problem?' --

PD: -- And it's as boring as all get out. We just entertain.

MW: To be fair, there is a place for those other shows. Because there are a lot of people using computers now and they want to call and get their questions answered. That's just not us. That's information-and-help. We're entertainment-and-information.

PD: So that differentiates us from them. We also do interviews with dead people.

EB: Come again?

MW: Yeah, we've had Elvis on. We interviewed him about his new Web site, jellydonut.com.

PD: We also do other interviews, with people like Samurai King, who is really a Japanese secret agent here in America. Japan's trying to buy up all the real estate so they can put sushi bars on every street corner. No one knows about this but us, so it's a scoop.

EB: How would you describe your relationship on- and off-the-air?

PD: I'd say the Smothers Brothers, but I'm not sure.

MW: No, we're closer to Jack Lemmon and Walter Mathau in Grumpy Old Men than we are like the Smothers Brothers. You know, Pat is a lot more gadget-and gimmick-oriented -- he loves the latest toy. I tend to be less convinced that new things will instantly catch on as great, great things. I read more books. I've had a more intellectual background in my life than he has. On the other hand, he's had a great deal more big-company sales experience and stuff like that. I guess we're everybody's dysfunctional uncles.

EB: What advice would you give other entrepreneurs who want to find your kind of success on the Net?

PD: For starters, get a good URL. We don't know where some people come up with their URLs.

MW: They're crazy! Fourteen or 15 letters, forward slashes, tildes, everything. You'd have to be some kind of idiot savant to find their sites.

PD: In all seriousness, I think that people are too fascinated by the technology of [the Internet]. We're losing track of what people want to buy. It's like our tune-up scenario. The idea is straightforward. Ninety-percent of the population don't use utilities and they don't use anti-virus software. They really should. Your computer doesn't run right unless you do. An entrepreneur needs to find an area of need. Where there's a problem, find a solution. Then price and distribute the solution.

MW: Yes. Remember: Not every good idea makes a good business. You need to find broad appeal. You need large markets, not niches.

PD: ... Sustainable fields ...

MW: You just can't make a business model out of a niche market these days, not by yourself. Say some guy comes out with this great Japanese language CD, which is aimed at people who teach Japanese. He couldn't do anything on his own. It's impossible to build a market out of a single element. The best thing for that person to do is go to a company that is already succeeding in that field -- like Berlitz, for example -- and try to sell them the program. That's the kind of thing we did.

PD: Now look at us.

MW: A couple of dysfunctional guys helping people keep their computers running well.

PD: And we're having a really great time while we're at it.