Getting Started, 30 years ago this week
Picking up where I left off yesterday, Escape Technology was ready for liftoff! My first step was to find an office. A good family friend was subletting a single office in a larger office space. The tenant was a mason's union, who affectionately called themselves "the mortar forkers." Clark's office was larger than he needed it, so I rented one corner of it from him. My first "desk" was actually a kitchen table borrowed from a friend. Clark had started several successful businesses and this proved very fortunate for me. Over the course of a few months he imparted what had worked, and what hadn't.
Probably the lesson that stuck the most was his belief in having a partnership. Each of his had disintegrated in time, so it was surprising that he was still favorable toward them. "But we would have never achieved any success without starting out together" he told me. I had just turned 27 and didn't feel I was any kind of business genius. This idea stuck with me.
Clark introduced me to some of his business associates and I got a few contracts to write custom applications. PC's were hot at this point, and small businesses were looking to automate processes that had previously been only possible for gigantic companies. Eventually I got a couple of local government gigs too. I did a project for the City of Burlingame. At one meeting I noticed a box labeled Novell Networks. I said I had been reading about them in Byte magazine. The idea of hooking PC's up together was pretty exciting.
I remember this gruff old guy saying "The purchasing department said we needed to check this out, but we don't really have time. So kid, if you want to play with it and see if it works, that would be a big help." And thus I installed and got working one of the first Novell networks in the Bay Area.
I was also teaching a lot of small businesses to do their own accounting with PC's. I very much enjoyed accounting, and it was a surprise to me that most "bookkeepers" actually didn't understand debits and credits! A couple of CPA's kept me busy with their clients whenever there was a lull in my contract development work. Little did I know how important my good foundation of accounting would become.
While the consulting work was fun, I was really looking to build a company. I knew I wanted to find a "vertical market," just like System Integrators had with the newspaper world. Having traveled all over the US and several international destinations, I also knew I didn't want to deal with all those hassles. One time zone seemed like a good idea.
With each new contract that came my way, I'd develop the custom software, and then research the market to determine whether this was "the one." By now I had moved into my own office.
This was a true "one person" office. But it was in a beautiful building and was really my own. Not sure if that was a color monitor yet. Probably not. I bought that Canon photocopier at a garage sale.
It was in this office that one day a gentleman named Barry Collins walked in. He was the lone technology person working for San Ramon Valley USD, and they wanted some custom programming that would run on PC's. Over the next year I wrote a number of individual modules for this district. And when the people I worked with there started introducing me to their CASBO friends, I knew I had found the market I was looking for. I had learned school business literally one department at a time.
One of our first trade shows. Note that we are selling Novell Networks and NEC computers. Barry's look seems to be "hmmm, is this thing going to work?"
Barry and Chad became my business partners. I was responsible for Sales, Admin and designing the functionality our systems needed. Chad was our programmer. Barry did installations and support. Our first addition was a support person. I felt it was imperative we had 9-5 telephone support. Chad had remained in Sacramento the entire time, and in around 1988 Barry and I moved there too, establishing an office that could house about 8 employees.
In 1989 we held our first off site, multi-day retreat. There we created the business plan we are still working today:
- Rewrite our individual business department modules into an integrated financial system.
- Develop a Human Resources system.
- Develop a Payroll system (which integrates with the above two).
- Begin selling the entire integrated system to school districts.
- Morph the whole thing into a system suitable for COE's.
Steps 1-4 were how we spent the 1990's. Of course we were also running the business, and eventually getting up to about 35 employees. We had hundreds of systems running all over the state. We also did a project with School Services of California, a multi-year budgeting tool that was eventually used by about 650 districts. We learned a lot working with them as well.
By now, most of you know the rest of the story. As 2000 rolled around, step #5 wasn't going to work as our system was DOS, not Windows. And we had our sights set pretty high; we knew we needed a SQL DB on the backend. So we embarked on a plan to re-develop all our functionality with modern tools, and become the leader in business software for California districts and especially County Offices of Education. With luck, hard work and the generosity of our customers, we did just that.
Looking back, it has been quite a journey. Fun, laughter, hard work, some blood, sweat and tears. I wish I knew how many total people we have hired over the years. Well over 100. Escape has always been viewed as a good place to work. We all took care of each other. I have enjoyed working with (nearly!) every person that we hired (okay, we had a few duds, who doesn't?).
More than anything, I wanted (and still want) Escape to serve our customer base well. That means serving many end users, with quality software that really ramps up their productivity. I'm amazed, pleased and proud of what we have accomplished so far, and excited about what we are working on. Honestly, we have never been better. The past five years have been the best (thank you Ramona!).
I feel Barry, Chad and I have learned a lot from each other. One of the favorite things I learned from Barry is to always thank every customer, at every opportunity. I'm grateful for them, and for Barry's input there. I have learned from Chad that we can develop software that is more far reaching than I can imagine. He's one of the smartest programmers I have ever known. His hand runs through most all our software.
Clark was right about the partnership. He told me "a three legged stool doesn't fall down. Maybe a few wobbles from time to time." I'm quite sure that we would not be anything like we are today, without this partnership. Our decision to focus on one aspect of one market has been a crucial one. Both for us and our customers. We learned to run our business in a clean, honest and professional manner.
Barry has since retired, but his many contributions are part of our culture. Chad and I are very grateful for each and every customer/end user, and the wonderful work done by Team Escape. I'm happy to say that all of us here at Escape love our work, and enjoy serving the customer base.
So many friends in school business have supported us over all these years. Especially those of you that took a risk on us when we embarked on new development - many thanks. Countless people working at Escape currently, and in the past, have made us what we are. I feel fortunate to have worked together with you.
30 years ago this week.... Have to say I'm pretty happy with how things have turned out.