As a child, David Troy fancied the word toad. He used to call his buddies toads, and sometimes he gave his possessions the name "toad." It wasn't so much that he had a thing for baby frogs; he just liked the way the word sounded.
Now an adult, Troy, of Arnold -- and a lot more people -- have reason to use his favorite word, for he incorporated "toad" into the name of a successful company he founded as a preteen.
Today, ToadNet, an Internet service provider with 25,000 users, is one of the largest independently owned companies of its kind in Maryland.
In a field littered with dot-com carcasses, ToadNet has maintained a strong showing, posting healthy revenues in 2001 and projecting even bigger ones for this year.
What is ToadNet's secret? Technical expertise, an innovative sales plan and patience, said Adam Edelman, a consultant hired by ToadNet to help the company expand beyond the Baltimore-Washington region into such cities as Philadelphia and New York.
"It was all the old-fashioned Business 101," said Edelman. "He (Troy) didn't get into tons of debt."
Penny Lewandowski, president of the Greater Baltimore Tech Council, agrees.
"He really does have both feet planted on the ground," Lewandowski said of Troy. "You don't always find that."
Indeed, Troy employed a simple approach to running his business from the start -- the day his parents purchased a $99 computer kit for him in 1984, when he was 12.
The kit had very little memory, but Troy loved it.
With the guidance of his father, Troy learned how to do simple programming. Before long, he had developed his own bulletin board, a single-user dial-up electronic message board on his family's home phone line. His household was soon getting a barrage of phone calls at all hours of the day and night.
Troy's mother, Patricia Troy, could take it no more. She ordered her son to get his own phone line. He did, but he didn't stop there.
In 1986, Troy, now 14, and a friend, Ray Mitchell, who was 17, met and began buying computers wholesale and reselling them. They called their business Toad Computers.
Troy and Mitchell discovered each other when Mitchell posted a disk drive for sale on Troy's bulletin board and Troy bought it. To this day, Mitchell thinks Troy got the better of that deal.
By the time Troy was in 11th grade, he and Mitchell had developed a sizable Atari game mail-order business. Mitchell was a student at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, by this time, and the two would alternate shifts manning the phone lines for the business.
In 1988, when Atari changed its rules and required that its distributors have a retail storefront, Toad Computers moved into a 900-square-foot office that was formerly a weight loss center, off of Ritchie Highway in Severna Park.
"He asked us if he could borrow money," recalled Patricia Troy, also of Arnold. "We told him, why don't you go to the bank and get a loan?"
So, the Severn High School student did just that, taking out a $25,000 loan to purchase inventory.
"My parents were willing to cosign on the lease, but they were very clear they were not going to fund any of this," Troy said.
By 1991, the business was pulling in close to $1.5 million, which was impressive for a teenager's first job.
The two friends bought themselves new cars. A Saturn for Mitchell and a Honda for Troy. Toad Computers had found its niche selling computers to artists and musicians. The two counted Prince and the Neville Brothers among their customers.
But the business was not all work. One day, a woman named Jennifer came in to buy a computer. One thing led to another, and Jennifer ended up becoming ToadNet's first employee. A year after getting the job, she and Troy were married. "It's a pretty good way of securing your employee," Troy now jokes.
As a quality control manager, Jennifer Troy looks after the human side of the business: customer relations. Around the time that Jennifer came aboard, ToadNet moved into its current location, a 4,000-square-foot space in Severna Park Plaza.
Along the way, Troy has found time to obtain a liberal arts bachelor's degree from Johns Hopkins University. For his thesis, he created a Web site for the Maryland State Archives about an 1870 Baltimore parade celebrating the passage of the U.S. Constitution's 15th amendment instituting equal protection of rights for all races.
Ed Papenfuse, a Maryland state archivist and Troy's thesis advisor, said his former student became interested in the subject of the parade, one of the largest civil rights protests prior to the 1960s, during a class Papenfuse taught.
"David was the best student in the class," said Papenfuse, adding that Troy was the one who loaded every piece of information about the parade onto an electronic file.
The Web site that Troy built, which links information about the parade to original documents and photos, won a university prize for best thesis, Papenfuse said.
Life was sure treating Troy well.
By the mid-1990s, however -- as Windows 95 took off -- the market for alternate operating systems such as Atari was beginning to dwindle. With competition from major retailers such as Best Buy and Dell, "you just can't make money being a small computer store anymore," Mitchell said.
To make matters worse, the Asian currency market took a nosedive in 1997, leading to a flood of cheap imports. Troy suddenly found his $2,500 computers on the market for $899. He sensed it was time to get into a different line of business.
In 1994, commercial providers were allowed to begin doing commercial operations with the World Wide Web, which until then had been a National Science Foundation geek toy.
Troy purchased what's known as a T-1 line -- a telephone-like line that gives computers high speed connections to the Internet -- from which he began to sell goods and services for his Toad computer store.
The business got a boost in 1996 when the Telecommunications Act allowed new companies to compete with telephone carriers, which in turn allowed Internet service providers such as Troy and Mitchell's business to buy up phone lines. The company set up a partnership with Annapolis-based Core Communications. Toad could now serve users throughout Maryland and the region without having to pay steep long distance fees.
Meanwhile, it had been a long road with ToadNet, and Mitchell was feeling burned out. In 1996, he accepted a buyout from Troy, who shut down Toad Computers and launched ToadNet. Mitchell now works for Knox Financial Group in Baltimore.
Troy's new Internet company took off, but as a small company with no venture capital, ToadNet had to focus on a more basic business need: profitability.
To help further his company, Troy said he has considered merger and acquisition-like activities. But he said the deals he has been offered to date "would have put the customers in jeopardy."
Despite the struggles, Troy has managed to grow his business.
Last year, ToadNet began offering nationwide dial-up service. And this year, the company is projecting revenues of $5 million, thanks in part to an increase in wholesale broadband business. Twenty percent of ToadNet's broadband business is selling to other Internet service providers.
Today, Troy still runs ToadNet from the same strip mall in Severna Park where he launched the business. But after a son was born in 1997, Troy decided to spend more time at home. Now, he has two small children and goes into the office rarely, preferring instead to work from home, where he has set up a server.
ToadNet has 25 employees and operates its own tech support lines during the day, then contracts out tech support in the late evening hours.
Kyle Byron, a high-speed Internet connection technician for ToadNet, said he gets around 100 calls a day from people asking for computer help.
Gerald Landy of Baltimore-based Autographics is new to ToadNet. While he has experienced some problems with the service, he said, he is happy with it and would recommend it to friends.
"We've had some interruptions (in the service)," Landy said. "But they have been minor."
Before going to ToadNet, Landy said Autographics had a contract with another provider but canceled it because it had a lot of hidden costs. "With ToadNet, everything was upfront and spelled out," Landy said.
Looking back at the last few years, Troy said he feels like he is standing in a city where the buildings surrounding him have all collapsed -- a reference to the fall of the many dot-com companies.
"But you look around," he said, "and see that you're still there."