Businessweek Archives

How Tiny Quark Became A Media Star


Information Processing

HOW TINY QUARK BECAME A MEDIA STAR

Fred Ebrahimi was just eight when he learned firsthand about the power of the press. The Iranian native was in front of his house when the police dragged off a group of neighbors, who were later executed. "Their big sin was they had a hand press and were publishing leaflets against the Shah," Ebrahimi says. "I have a hang-up about freedom of the press."

Today, at 52, Ebrahimi is doing his own small part to help a free press thrive. He's president of Quark Inc., a Denver-based supplier of desktop publishing software that is helping to streamline the production of everything from Time Warner Inc.'s Entertainment Weekly to The San Francisco Examiner. Desktop publishing got off the ground in 1985, when Seattle-based Aldus Corp. brought out its PageMaker program. But that low-cost electronic page-layout system for Apple Computer Inc. Macintoshes was best suited to preparing newsletters, brochures, and pamphlets. Quark in 1987 came up with a low-cost, industrial-strength publishing package that made it possible for Macs to work in the big leagues: magazines, newspapers, and advertising.

Suddenly, Quark is hot. Its latest package, the $795 XPress 3.0, does many things that PageMaker cannot. XPress boasts the ability to manipulate precisely full-color photographs, graphics, and text. "It's the only desktop publishing package that can give us the control we need," says Bruce F. Simons, vice-president for computer imaging at advertising agency J. Walter Thompson Co. in New York. The agency's creative directors use Quark-equipped Macs to design ads for Rolex Watch USA Inc., Eastman Kodak Co., and many other clients.

"Quark has become the brand name for people on the top of the food chain in desktop design," says David H. Good- stein, president of electronic-publishing adviser InterConsult Inc. in Arlington, Mass. That has put tiny Quark on a steep growth trajectory: Ebrahimi says the privately held company's sales will jump from $30 million in 1990 to $50 million this year, and he predicts net profits of $12 million. In 1992, he projects sales of more than $100 million.

ELITE IMAGE. But Quark's sudden suc- cess also is posing some problems. Aldus--a relative colossus, with $135 million in annual revenues and an enormous market share--seems to be taking dead aim at Quark's niche in professional publishing. It's quietly telling customers about forthcoming technology for handling color photos that may surpass Quark's. And a spruced-up edition of its best-selling PageMaker package matches some of XPress' professional typographic features. To stay ahead, Quark is getting ready to sell a version of XPress for IBM PCs and compatibles, its first non-Macintosh product. That should help Quark capture a piece of the broader desktop-publishing business that Aldus dominates. The trick will be to hold on to its elite image while grabbing a share of the bigger market.

Quark's owners have already taken on some big challenges. The company was started in 1981 by Timothy E. Gill, then a 27-year-old programmer who had been laid off from a job at a software company. "I'm introverted, and it was easier to start a company than interview for jobs," he says. Drawing on his scientific background, he named the company after a theoretical subatomic particle. Then he spent his days and nights developing a word-pro- cessing program with simple page-layout features for Apple III computers. As the company grew, Gill realized he was not cut out to be much of a manager or a marketer. In 1986, Gill teamed up with Ebrahimi, whom he met through a lawyer that both men knew. Educated in the U. S., Ebrahimi had come to Colorado in 1981 to get into real estate. Gill asked Ebrahami to run the businesss while the younger man managed development of the first version of XPress. To market it, the two men--who own the company in a 50-50 partnership--put up $100,000 of their own money.

Soon after its release, designers in publishing and advertising who had been frustrated by the limitations of other page-layout programs latched onto XPress. It cut costs by letting them do in-house the expensive prepress work they used to farm out. It even eliminated the need to pay for many color separations, the series of four engravings needed to print a color photo. That can cut the cost of preparing a color page for printing by about 50%, to around $ 425, says Goodstein at InterConsult. Equally important, bringing the work in-house improves quality, customers say. "We get a better product because of the controls the technology gives us," says Simons at J. Walter Thompson.

Established magazines, ad agencies, and newspapers are converting slowly to this new technology, but many startups are jumping in feet first. At Entertain- ment Weekly, workers weren't locked into an existing system. So they went straight to Macintoshes and Quark XPress. The results have been so good that Time Warner Inc. management is trying to convert all its magazine design to personal computers. Says Christine Kronish, Entertainment Weekly's technology manager: "It's the direction that all magazines are moving toward."

Meanwhile, Quark, with only 200 employees, is feeling growing pains. A version of XPress for Next Inc.'s workstations was due this year, but the company now says it won't be completed until 1992. And customer relations are sliding, because the company hasn't put enough resources into customer service. "Users can't get through to customer support," says Sandra F. Rosenzweig, editor of Publish, a trade magazine.

Ebrahimi admits there are problems but shrugs them off. "If we make a few mistakes, let it be," he says. His main ambition is to keep Gill's program the favorite for the most demanding desktop designers. As he puts it: "The question is: Can we go to the moon or not?" To be sure, Quark has already passed its booster phase.

QUARK VS. ALDUS

QUARKXPRESS 21%* Popular among demanding customers such as advertising agencies and magazine publishers because it handles full-color photographs and can precisely control the spacing between words, characters, and lines of text ALDUS PAGEMAKER 69%* Gave desktop publishing its start and remains tops for preparing books, corporate newsletters, brochures, and other business documents. Aldus is known for excellent customer support *Market share of programs sold worldwide through 1990, on Apple Macintosh only

DATA: INTERNATIONAL DATA CORP., COMPANY REPORTSSandra D. Atchison in Denver and Evan I. Schwartz in New York


Best LBO Ever
LIMITED-TIME OFFER SUBSCRIBE NOW
 
blog comments powered by Disqus