Business lessons from Clive Sinclair

By Matthew Stibbe Matthew Stibbe
Sinclair Spectrum computer
I loved computers when I was a teenager. One of my favourites was the Sinclair Spectrum. At the time, Clive Sinclair was a genius-hero, a kind of British Bill Gates or Steve Jobs.

I never quite understood why everything fizzled out for Sinclair. I guess I always assumed that it was the old British story about lack of capital and lack of support for entrepreneurship. Plus a bit of comic overreach with the C5 electric trike.

Sir Clive Sinclair
Sir Clive Sinclair

Then I read Sinclair and the Sunrise Technology by Ian Adamson and Richard Kennedy. The Sinclair QL turns out to be the failure point. It was a kind of C5 in computer form. But more importantly than a single failed product, the article reveals a series of management failures that are intensely relevant for today’s start-ups.

Sinclair QL computer
Sinclair QL computer. Image: Old Computers

Sinclair’s timeless problems

  • Not being straight with customers. ‘The astonishing thing is that at the time the QL was launched there did not exist a complete working prototype of the machine.’ Not so much ‘minimum viable product’ as no viable product.
  • Divided management. After a new board was appointed, ‘Sir Clive [was], as ever resistant to any control of his activities, and he moved out of the Willis Road premises.”
  • Poor communication with partners. ICL had put in R&D money for the QL, but ‘Sinclair Research failed to tell the company when it decided to change the main processing chip from the good old Z80 of the Spectrum.’
  • Misguided financially-motivated shortcuts. The company decided on a less-powerful version of the 68000 chip. Bad move. ‘It ended up paying more or less the same price for a processor that does less, more slowly, than the correct choice. In any case, the price differences were a matter of a few dollars, and not of major significance to production costs.’

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Not invented here

  • Lack of organisation. Development of the QL was a ‘disorganised shambles’ without a project leader in Clive’s absence. There was no project plan, no schedule and apparently little coordination. ‘What the engineers wanted was not a better machine, but more time, better coordination, a consistent specification and things like that.’
  • Not invented here syndrome. The team clung to the problematic Microdrives, even when ‘Standard 34-inch [sic] floppy disc drives bought in from Japan would be nearly as cheap, and have both faster performance and higher storage capacity.’ It was the same thing with the virtually-unusable keyboard.
  • Marketing-driven engineering. The company decided not to include a monitor or a printer in order to keep the price down. This limited the system’s usefulness for business customers (its intended audience) and forced some weird compromises on the design. For example, it shipped with a non-standard serial printer interface and, instead of a monitor connection, it had a TV plug like the consumer Spectrum.

An inevitable outcome

The £399 QL appeared in 1984 and actually shipped many months after the launch. Initial deliveries were plagued with hardware and software problems and it was not a commercial success. A review in Your Computer said:

‘…it was slow, had an unfriendly editor, the Microdrives were prone to lose files and data, there was no documentation other than for the Psion packages, the network would not allow integration of Spectrums, the RS232 interface had bugs in it, Microdrive files on a well-used cartridge would take an age to load, the keyboard felt a bit clattery with a sticking enter key, and so on.’

Two years later, after Amstrad had bought Sinclair, they stopped selling the QL but also released the PC-1512 with off-the-shelf software, standard floppy discs, a monitor and a printer all included for £499. It sold very well because it did everything customers wanted and included all the stuff they needed. Unlike the QL.

The QL story represents everything that is bad and wrong about project management. The book is worth reading just to see how badly things can go wrong. It is a cautionary tale and essential reading for anyone involved in technology.

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Sinclair ZX Spectrum image: Bill Bertram