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
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
It was at this point that you started sending out flyers advertising
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
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.