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11.13.98  
Ask Software: From a Second Bedroom to the First Rank
Excerpts from In the Company of Giants: Candid Conversations with the Visionaries of the Digital World

Women who've both started and grown successful technology companies are hard to find in today's computer industry. Women who accomplished this in an even more male-dominated industry in the 1970s are almost unheard of. Sandra L. Kurtzig managed to sell her ware to large manufacturing giants while raising two sons. If we had to choose one word to describe this entrepreneur who built a $450 million company, it would undoubtedly be "moxie."

Kurtzig dropped out of Stanford's Aeronautical Engineering Ph.D. program with a master's degree and a yen for something more exciting than academia. By 1971, she found herself selling computer timeshare accounts for GE. At the time, the vast majority of businesses could not afford their own mainframes and instead rented time on others'.

On a sales call to a prospective client, her new company, Ask, was born. The customer, a telecommunications equipment manager, needed custom software that tracked inventory, bills of materials, and purchase orders. After some thought, Kurtzig agreed to write this software, quit her job and received $1,200 for her work -- a modest but sound beginning. Kurtzig found that other manufacturers were also badly in need of her software for manufacturing management, called MANMAN. Ask blossomed as it expanded its product line and its base of customers.

You moved from an idea to a company in an unusual way. Tell us about it.

The company started as a part-time job in the second bedroom of my apartment. I started with $2,000, unlike many other entrepreneurs who had a lot of venture capital. I clearly didn't have a grandiose plan for creating a half-billion-dollar company. I just wanted to produce some grandchildren for my parents, because they were getting on my nerves about giving them some grandchildren. I wanted to keep my mind active, so I thought I could have children and do something to supplement the family income and keep my mind occupied. So it started as a part-time job in the second bedroom.

I had read a lot of business journals. I read that American manufacturing companies were among the least productive of the industrialized nations and I thought to myself that it was because those manufacturing companies were only using their computers for payroll. It's important to pay your employees, but I realized that computers could serve greater needs in a manufacturing company. My first customer told me, "I really need something to track inventory and provide manufacturing information in a timely way." I thought that he was probably similar to a lot of manufacturing folks. After I developed the first series of software for that first customer, I went to a second company and said, "Can I help you computerize your manufacturing operation?"

It was at this point that you started sending out flyers advertising your services?

Right. The second company said, "We also need to organize our manufacturing operations and keep track of our inventory, but we're very different from the first company you worked with. Nothing you did there applies here." I said, "Well, tell me about your business." I would listen a lot to their problems. I realized that the problems of my customers -- although they thought they were very dissimilar -- in fact were very similar.

I took the base of what I wrote for the first customer and enhanced it with little nuances that were different for the second customer. Of course, I charged the second customer as if I started from scratch, because he thought he was unique. I didn't want him to think that he wasn't. I installed the software for the second company; they were very happy. I went to a third company, and the same thing happened. The customer said, "We're very different from the other ones. We're successful because we do everything differently." I listened to his problems and realized that again there were many more similarities than dissimilarities, even though there were some unique things he was doing.

We became the first company to really develop standardized software as opposed to custom software. At the time, it was considered very innovative to be standardizing software. We started developing software for the minicomputer market, specifically the manufacturing segment -- financial and manufacturing applications in the manufacturing segment. That's how the company began.

I did all the selling and the collecting of money -- I was sort of a one-man band. But two things happened. First, I never considered myself to be the best programmer, but my strength was in being able to communicate with very skilled programmers in terms of what was needed in the program. Also, by listening to my customer, I was able to learn enough about his manufacturing process to translate what he said and think through the design issues. I was also very hands-on. I did the bookkeeping at first, even though I didn't have a business background.

In growing the company, I knew enough about all the areas of the company, so when I started hiring people, I quickly knew whether they were BS-ing me or whether they were doing a good job.

Reprinted from In the Company of Giants: Candid Conversations with the Visionaries of the Digital World
by Rama Dev Jager and Rafael Ortiz
Copyright 1997 by Rama Dev Jager and Rafael Ortiz
Reprinted by permission of The McGraw-Hill Cos. Inc.
All rights reserved.

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