Despair not, budding entrepreneurs, you still can make a small fortune in software by starting a business from your bedroom. Of course, it helps if your name is Dan Bricklin.
That name should be familiar. Overcoming the handicap of a Harvard MBA, Bricklin pioneered the PC software industry back in 1979 by co-creating VisiCalc -- the first real electronics spreadsheet.
VisiCalc literally spawned the personal-computer software revolution, inspiring a fleet of entrepreneurs -- for example, Lotus' Mitch Kapor -- to launch their own companies. All told, said Bricklin, now 34, more than 800,000 copies of VisiCalc were sold. The program was the industry's first megahit -- grossing well in excess of $100 million in revenue.
Time passed, and so did Dan Bricklin's old company. He's now running his newest software venture out of his home in Newton, Mass.
"I'm trying to keep this small," he said. "Being an MBA, I like doing everything myself. I now have only one employe -- I think I may end up with three."
Bricklin's efforts now are focused on a clever piece of software, modestly titled "Dan Bricklin's Demo Program."
You must remember, of course, that in the PC software community, "Dan Bricklin" is a brand name -- and that's precisely the community at which this software is aimed.
The Demo Program is a little like a slide projector, but instead of showing vacation scenery, it displays computer screens on the IBM PC. The program lets a programmer quickly and easily lay out what a single screen of his program would look like -- much as a storyboard lets a cartoonist see what the finished cartoon will look like. The programmer can easily assemble and link dozens of these screens to simulate what the program ultimately will do.
In essence, the Demo Program lets software developers rapidly create prototypes of their programs. They won't actually work, but they give both the programmer and customers the chance to get "the feel" of what the programs are like in action. Consequently, this Demo Program can be a powerful software development tool.
In the vernacular of computerdom, Dan Bricklin's Demo Program is a wonderful "vaporware" generator. Vaporware is the term for software that doesn't quite exist yet.
"Vaporware isn't all that bad," Bricklin said. " This kind of prototyping can save businesses millions of dollars because they can test programs without completely developing them."
He added that the program is "terrific" for developing training programs to teach people how to use personal computers; little bundles of screens can simulate a session detailing how to make the software work in a particular way. For example, how to build a Lotus macro.
The Demo Program -- which began shipping in January -- already has gotten good reviews, including one from PC Week magazine, which called it a "gem."
Bricklin said he's already sold more than 1,000 copies of the program and that the order rate has been doubling each month. (A check for $74.95 made out to Software Garden Inc. and mailed to P.O. Box 238, West Newton, Mass., 02165, will get you your copy.)
As an industry pioneer and entrepreneur redux, Bricklin has some pungent observations about the state of the software business.
"The market is by no means dead," he contended. "It's just that people didn't run their businesses well." Too many companies, he said, pursued a "growth at all costs" philosophy that destroyed them when the industry surge began to level off.
"People were investing $2 to get $1 return because they thought the $1 would eventually become $5," he said. "Of course, that didn't happen."
Similarly, he feels that many companies have the wrong mindset for how to view the software business. "Maybe software is more like doing a movie -- you put capital into it and milk it, and then you know when to get out," he said.
Too many companies try to become multiproduct companies without appreciating that there may not have been a meaningful synergy between the software products they sold.
"There's nothing wrong with having only one hit in your life," Bricklin said.
At this time, Bricklin said he sees most of the PC industry's growth coming from existing rather than new customers. That's because he doesn't see any new computer applications on the horizon that will drive PC sales and because he thinks most existing markets are saturated.
"I believe that a new application catches on when it improves something by new orders of magnitude that is, 100 times ," Bricklin said.
That was certainly true of VisiCalc and the spreadsheet, and is probably true of his new Demo Program and software development, because development is genuinely hard and time-consuming work.
But does Bricklin foresee what new application will inspire a wave of new customers?
"If I knew, I'd be doing it," he said, "and I'm not doing it."