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Reprinted from Softalk 9/83, pp. 220-221.

What separates a successful business from a blockbuster? VisiCorp, nee Personal Software, presents an example of the latter. Its superstar product, VisiCalc, became such a hit that management decided to change the name of the company to reflect the product’s name. Was this success all due only to the merits of a software concept whose moment had come, or was the foresight and willingness of the management to take risks – from the word go – also a crucial ingredient?

Softalk first introduced its readers to the VisiCorp people and their forward-thinking approach back in October 1980. The company was still doing business as Personal Software then. Here was a firm whose growth became the archetype of the Silicon Valley success story.

Chairman Dan Fylstra.
This image can be zoomedChairman Dan Fylstra.
VisiCorp’s Dan Fylstra and his wife operated a software mail order operation out of their apartment in Cambridge, Massachusetts. That was in 1978, and their product line contained many games one might consider collectible today, some by nature of their obscurity, others by nature of the huge popularity they’ve enjoyed since they were originally released.

One such collectible hit program was developed by Canadian Peter Jennings, the cofounder with Fylstra of Personal Software, toward the end of 1978. This popular chess program, Microchess, along with the marketing savvy of Fylstra, made possible all that would follow for Personal.

With the success of this program under their belts, Jennings and Fylstra were in a position to begin parlaying the company, which started with an initial investment of $500, into one whose worth is now appraised to run somewhere in the area of $125 million. Armed with an understanding of the necessity to take risks, they felt compelled in late 1978 to embark on a course of action that could make or break the company.

They decided to go for broke, funding MIT grads Dan Bricklin and Bob Frankston with $100,000 worth of the profits from Microchess to develop what was envisioned to be a business forecasting tool or spreadsheet. The gamble paid off: VisiCalc became a long-running top seller, setting a standard that all competitors addressing the business software market would have to acknowledge.

President Terry Opdendyk, VisiCorp’s visionary helmsmen.
This image can be zoomedPresident Terry Opdendyk, VisiCorp’s visionary helmsmen.
By 1980 Personal Software had received $500,000 in private placement funds from a venture capital arm of the Rockefeller family, as well as all the management expertise that went along with the association. A few months before the Exec feature Softalk presented on the company in the latter part of 1980, Terry Opdendyk, formerly of Intel and, before that, of Hewlett-Packard, had been recruited to fill the position of president and chief operating officer. Jennings had begun to concentrate his efforts in advanced research and development, and Fylstra, now chairman of the board, continued to concentrate on what he then referred to as “doing an Apple.”

“We looked around the industry and liked what we saw at Apple, so we applied those elements of success that were germane to our business and made them our own,” says Fylstra. One of these elements was, by traditional standards, the premature installation in executive positions of people that appeared to be over-qualified, thus allowing the company room to grow into the capabilities of its management.

And grow the company did. With its change of name to VisiCorp and of residence to Silicon Valley, all the entertainment software that was part of its line early on was eschewed in favor of a complete line of business packages. Every one was called VisiSomething and was supported by a full-time staff of more than three hundred employees.

In the spring of 1981, it became obvious that if hardware trends continued evolving as rapidly as they were, certain things would be inevitable in the area of software marketing. Fylstra says, “One of our maxims is that user expectations always rise to a point just beyond what can currently be delivered.”

Plans were laid to develop a series of integrated multipurpose software packages that would complement VisiCalc and take advantage of the more powerful computer systems that consumers would be buying.

Now, two years later, VisiCorp is about to unveil VisiOn. Though analogous in many ways to the approach taken by Apple with the Lisa, VisiOn is distinctively software-based, allowing it to run on various machines, above the level of the operating system.

VisiOn and Lisa share a distinctive window approach to interacting with various data structures and a mouse that makes control keys and complex command codes a thing of the past. The VisiOn programs opt for a more verbal approach to menu selection, instead of the graphic icons that Lisa provides to represent various tasks.

VisiOn is scheduled to be in users’ hands by October. The package will run on sixteen-bit machines (eight-bit machines not being powerful enough to accommodate it) and will use expanded memory and hard-disk-storage capabilities. The approach is modular. Each application can be purchased separately. The initial release will offer three core programs, VisiOn Calc, VisiOn Word, and VisiOn Graph, each integrating substantial improvements over other similar applications already offered in VisiCorp’s product line.

In such a period of rapid technological growth as the present, when the nature of the workplace is being redefined by burgeoning technology, the nature of the relationship between labor and management must also be redefined. The awareness of this essential connection is reflected at VisiCorp in the share-the-wealth attitude toward employees that’s concretely implemented in the company’s profit-sharing and stock-option policies. The majority of VisiCorp stock is held by its employees in spite of successive founds with outside venture capital investors – a little more than nine million dollars’ worth – that the company has enjoyed to date. Management at VisiCorp stands committed to this approach that views worker participation as an essential ingredient for increased productivity and continued success.

Another solid commitment at VisiCorp, continued from the early days when Personal Software was just beginning in Boston, is the employ of the handicapped for product assembly. Last year VisiCorp was selected Handicapped Employer of the Year for the San Francisco Bay Area. The company currently employs hundreds of handicapped people from various organizations, including a disabled veterans’ group.

Looking always toward the future, Opdendyk sees the next frontier for VisiCorp to be in the area of communications and networking; he predicts a proliferation of local-area networks over the next few years. In consideration of this, all of the VisiOn line has the ability to communicate with mainframes and other micros.

The meteoric success of VisiOn, made possible by the powerhouse team of Fylstra, Opdendyk, and Jennings and backed by the support of those in their employ, bears witness to the viability of risk-taking in the area of marketing as well as in the area of organizational structure and policy. Most companies that endure and become giants in their fields achieve success because the motivating people who make the decisions are risk-takers.

But the nature of risks is that, sometimes, they don’t pay off.

Taking chances. A man like Howard Hughes predicated his life on taking risks, in business and personally. Plenty didn’t pay off for him, but most of the crucial ones did. Besides that eccentric and monumental souvenir, the Spruce Goose (flown only once, and only for moments, with Hughes himself in the cockpit), the giant and now diversified Hughes Aircraft Corporation remains a living monument to this innovator’s risk-taking prowess. At the helm today is Dr. Allen E. Puckett, chairman of the board and chief executive officer. He bought himself an Apple in 1979 as a tool to help him understand better the implications of increased computing power on the flow of information at Hughes. Softalk told his story in September 1981.

Above, Dr. Allen E. Puckett, Hughes Aircraft chairman, and his son Jimmy enjoy spending time at their computer workstation at home.
This image can be zoomedAbove, Dr. Allen E. Puckett, Hughes Aircraft chairman, and his son Jimmy enjoy spending time at their computer workstation at home.
At that time, Puckett had taught himself programming from the manual that came with his Apple and had devised some programs for his personal use to keep track of tax records and stock transactions. An enthusiastic yachtsman, Puckett wrote a program used in the Mazatlan Regatta to keep an up-to-the-minute account of each yacht in the race. The information that the program tracked, on each vessel’s position and current standing, during the race kept the participants and the media who were covering the event well abreast of each yacht’s progress.

In his position at Hughes, Puckett was preoccupied with a different kind of progress, that of adjusting company personnel to the electronic revolution. The chief executive officer had come to understand the coming computer age as an electronic triangle: data processing, data storage, and communication. “Group all three and you have a totally new capability in excess of human capability,” he said.

Convinced at the time that computers would never replace the necessity of human interaction – such as the team effort he saw as fundamental at Hughes – Puckett believed that decentralizing the job site through the use of personal computers at home would probably not be conducive to his company’s progress.

But nowadays, things are changing. Based on his experience of having the Apple at home, Puckett decided to risk an experiment. At the end of last year he picked the top fifty executives at Hughes, most of whom had no computer experience whatsoever, and provided them with micros for their own use at home. Puckett hoped to enable those in management to gain a better understanding of, and communicate more intelligently with, the computer professionals who are shaping the information revolution.

The chairman now predicts that more and more home computers may become extended workstations, operating as terminals networked into company mainframes. At Hughes, this would be especially apt in the area of software design, which absorbs an increasing amount of development time on complex engineering projects, such as the engineering and design of a satellite.

On the home front, Puckett now has an IBM pc sitting adjacent to his tried-and-true Apple. And this new acquisition was good news to his fourteen-year-old son, Jimmy, who’s been writing his own Basic programs for some time – having another computer around gives Jimmy more uninterrupted time on the Apple for programming and for playing Axis Assassin, his current favorite. The elder Puckett worries about the preoccupation with game playing by Jimmy and his schoolmates, many of whom have Apples at home, too. Reassuringly, Jimmy praises WordStar for the ease with which he has applied it to school projects requiring word processing.

Whether you’re chairman of the board or merely a fledgling hacker, the Apple you spend your time with can be an essential partner in your personal formula for success. It sure helps to have something you can rely on when venturing into uncharted territory – always a risky business.

by Tommy Gear

Page added on 19th February 2006.

Copyright © 2002-2006 Marcin Wichary, unless stated otherwise.