My Own Successful Startup Story ... In 1984

Mar 25, 2007

After reading Paul Grahams latest post Why to Not Not Start a Startup, I thought about my own software startup and figured it might be interesting to write it up. Doing a software startup today is a completely different animal than it was for me, but the desire hasn't changed much.

At my first job at General Dynamics I was the "boy wonder", the young guy who understood "PCs" when it was a mystery to everyone else. I had one of the first production IBM PC/XTs (whopping 10MB hard drive), a Lisa, and got to test some oddball new OS called Unix. One time I had two GD VPs buying me pizza at 4AM while I coded something for the IBM President. But in 1984 when the Mac was first released I got the itch to do something on my own.

Late in the year I quit and started working on spreadsheet templates for the oil and gas industry, working in the shared office of a friend of mine and some other folks. This proved to be not a great business (most of the folks in that industry didn't have PCs) but one day I had a great idea on how to build a spreadsheet program that was easier to work with and could keep you from making formula errors.

Now in 1985 starting a software business was much more of a pain that it is today. No web, no email, you could only buy software in stores or by phone, the only marketing messages you had to work with were ads in computer magazines, trade shows and user groups. Everything cost money, so raising capital meant working friends and associates for money. Eventually I raised enough money by selling stock and I got a couple friends (Bob Murphy and Ken Clark) to start coding the new application. Most of the money people were friends and business associates of my office mates and one of them acted as the CEO.

One of the coolest things I got to do during development was to go to Apple's first full developer's conference in 1986. Every one in the entire Mac world was there, Apple rented a boat for us to tool around San Francisco bay in, and we all joked that IBM (the evil empire at the time) could kill the whole Mac market with one torpedo. It was fun to be one of the group.

After working on it for 10 months we all went to the Boston Macworld show in August 1986 to check out the competition. In those days if you wanted to see other applications (and didn't want to buy copies) the only way to really see what other apps looked like was to go see them at shows. Demos cost money since you had to send them out on floppies (seems like the stone age now). I discovered my UI for the program (now christened "Trapeze") just plain sucked. So I started working 100 hours weeks for the next 4 months to totally rewrite the UI in time to ship it at the 1987 Macworld show in San Francisco. I lived on Jolt cola the whole time.

Trapeze was basically an object-oriented spreadsheet, where formula relationships were only by name and not by position. Instead of the fixed row and column grid it had free-floating blocks of data with real names. Thus a formula for a block named "profit" would be "sales-expenses" and the program dealt with the dimensions. Everything could be styled, formulas could generate charts, and blocks of text and imported graphics along with the data blocks could all be moved around freely.

The interface I came up included a feature that as far as I know, was first seen in Trapeze out side of some early Unix uses. The popup (now called dropdown usually) and the hierarchical menu seem so normal today, but there was no support in the MacOS yet so I had to roll my own.

In those days in order to sell software you had to deal with distributors and mail order firms in order to sell anything. Ads in magazines, show booths and press favors all cost tons of money. Our first orders were big and things seemed to be going well. Then our first review showed up in MacUser.

Kaboom, our bubble burst and the slide began.

The review was written by a guy how had had a bad day when he wrote that review. Later on we actually had lunch with him (long after the end of this story) and he admitted being angry at something that day and took it out on us. Unlike today reviews were the major way anyone heard an opinion, there wasn't any easy way for actual users to comment on products. So this one review (all the others were positive) put a dagger in our sales.

Our biggest selling issue was that you couldn't import Excel or Lotus 123 data, since it made no sense to convert. Many of our users were passionate about the advantages of our approach (one guy even built up a solid practice analyzing businesses, inputing the data into a worksheet which then constructed an entire business model and glossy report, which he printed on a laser) but we couldn't get enough of them.

In May 1987 I was asked to appear on a nationally syndicated computer show (Computer Chronicles) and got to demo Trapeze alongside Excel with its product manager from Microsoft. I was able to scoop them a bit by getting an unreleased (at the time) color monitor and Mac from Apple, and coding up Trapeze to support color (8!). You can watch the show (and see me in my finest white pimp suit).

By the end of the summer it was obvious we couldn't sustain the business and it was shut down (in rather ugly but private fashion) and Trapeze was sold to another company (Access Technologies, which later split up and part became Deltapoint). Trapeze did ultimately sell about 13,000 copies.

I gathered the engineers and support folks together and we started a Mac consulting business, which went on to work on portions of Persuasion (for a guy named Peter Polash who sold it to Aldus and made a fortune) and Deltagraph (still kicking today).

Eventually we all went our separate ways, Bob is currently at PalmSource and Ken works for the show lighting company Vari-lite. I am still full of ideas, and as you can see above am looking for more consulting gigs (hint hint) and writing this blog.

So why do I consider it a success, even though it failed? It was worth the risk, the effort, and a lot of fun (mostly). Today I still get emails from Trapeze users who miss the application (even I miss it). I learned a ton about programming. I still have lots of ideas I couldn't never have imagined had I stayed at General Dynamics (now Lockheed locally) and just been a drone.

So like Paul said in his essay, do a startup. No matter the result or the difficulty it's worth doing. I was 27 when I started but age, especially today, doesn't matter. With web you can start with almost nothing and still make a difference.

And maybe people will be sending you emails (or brain-to-brain messages or whatever is popular then) 20 years from now about how much they loved what you did.