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Compu-K in South Lismore turns 42 tomorrow!

The Lismore App

Lara Leahy

30 June 2024, 9:00 PM

Compu-K in South Lismore turns 42 tomorrow!Compu-K is Ken, Diana (holding Leo) and Timothy

Diana and Ken Thompson’s business, Compu-K, in South Lismore is turning 42 tomorrow (July 2nd). They have witnessed the lifespan of the computing industry in Lismore from its infancy through its awkward teenage years into a fully mature industry that has become the basis of organisation and communication in life today.

Ken described computing in the 1980s as predominantly hobbyists scraping bits together, “It was people putting together a circuit board in a shoebox. And trying to source parts.  

“Dick Smith had some good stuff that you could build your own computer with. I just found that it was very hard getting some of the components. So, I started getting components and then people wanted to buy them and that ended up turning into a business.”

At that stage, there was no global distribution of complete computers.

“It was just something to play with and experiment with. It wasn't until the Microbee's came out, which was an Australian-made little computer. 

“The schools picked them up, and we set up places like Casino High and Woodlawn with Microbee computers. We were also supplying them from here to people. We supplied hundreds of them.”

Ken recalled that the work didn’t stop when they started coming pre-built.

”They built a factory down in Gosford, and they started pre-building them and selling them as a built unit. 

Diana mentioned that disabled people were assisting in the process. However, the process was not fully automated for some time. Diana recalls Ken spent the “entire Australia Day Bicentennial Weekend soldering new keys on keyboards for Ballina High School.”

It didn’t stop there. Ken said, “You couldn't get screens; it was a world of “you can't get it”. And so we went to K-Mart and we bought all these 14-inch black and white TVs. Then we would pull them apart, solder wires, put in plugs and converted them to take a video signal from the computer.”

“When colour came out, I rushed off, and I bought a colour TV. And we immediately sat down and tried to convert it. It was a bit more complicated than black and white. There was one point when the TV went bang, and smoke and flames flew out of it!

“We used to do exhibitions. They had all these booths, and people would show off their stuff. We used to go along and have a whole row of computers and screens and demonstrate things. But I don't think we ever sold anything.

“In those days, the job was to convince people why they needed a computer. Now everyone knows they need a computer. So the job is to convince them why they need our computer,” Ken explains the main difference between business then and now.

How have Ken and Diana managed to keep up with the exponentially expanding industry? Ken said, “Just be in it every day. That's all.

“You can't sell everything. And so you pick the eyes out of it. And you find what you would like, what you want to have.”

The other real factor is our location. Diana says, “You have to be mindful of the fact that we're in a regional area. Getting service and warranty for some things is just not possible. So you've got to choose brands that are actually backed by a reliable company.”

(Ken shows me the size of a new computer. Called a NUC, that small grey box is the size of computers now)

The secret to their longevity in business is not to provide “cheap” options. Ken advocates, “If there are two items, and one's better, but it's $5 more, I'll always go for that one. Because for five bucks, it's better to have better. 

“There's cheap out there. We want stuff that we can be sure of.”

Both Ken and Diana acknowledge the importance of the internet.

“The internet was a total game changer because before then, you had to wait for a manufacturer to send you a disk with the driver to make the printer work. Now it just downloads online, and it’s done. 

“Things were slower back then. People didn't mind waiting six weeks for something to happen. Now, if it doesn't happen in six minutes, they're upset. So, that's what the internet's done to us. But certainly, now it's made computers a necessity, rather than toy play.”

As with all businesses in Lismore, floods play roulette with your success. Ken and Diana talk about the role of floods in their business.

“In 42 years, we've had three floods. The first flood was when we were around the corner on Casino Street. We had six inches of water. So that wasn’t a major problem.”

“In 2017, we had 1.65 metres through the shop. And all the shelving collapsed, and all the stuff we put up on shelving just fell. We lost everything then. 

“In 2022, it went over the roof here. Previous floods had only been 50cm in here. So we put everything up at about two metres, thinking we should be right.

"So twice in five years, we lost everything. We lost customers' computers that were here for repair or waiting to be picked up. So we had to replace that.

“Most of the customers were on board with the fact that it was a flood. We did our best to try and get those people back on the road. 

“In the last one, we've just used that as an opportunity to minimise our floor stock. 

“It's certainly a huge disruption. We were back here within the week, tidying up. Everyone lost their computers so they were ringing us - even on the day of the flood.

“And so we were madly, taking deliveries - we had these tables out the front door while the rest of the place was being fixed up. Timothy and I would come in for a couple of hours, and we deliver would stuff and collect stuff, and then we take it home separately and work on it, repair it or whatever. And then, we would bring it back.”

“So we were not only cleaning up here, but also trying to get everybody around us back together.”

Speaking about their work, Ken said, “I still don't dread coming to work. I still enjoy it.”

Diana added, “We have met some fabulous people and some incredibly interesting people over the time.”

The customers show an allegiance to keep coming back, no matter where they move to.

“We've actually got customers in Melbourne. We've had customers in Singapore and New Zealand. Cara was in Africa. Natalie went to Russia.” The computer that went to Russia had to be deconstructed for customs inspection, and Natalie had to put it back together with Diana and Ken's help.

(Diana shows me the size of today's solid state drive)

Computers have had a meteoric rise in importance in our daily lives, and it was very interesting to see a glimpse into that aspect of Lismore.

If you are out and about in South Lismore, call in and wish Diana and Ken a happy 42nd anniversary.  

Compu-K is located at 83 Union Street, South Lismore.

Call Diana or Ken on 02 6621 8180 or email [email protected].

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