1977: Me in Cuba with Fidel

Castro, in person, was amazing. I loved the guy. I should remind you that my Spanish was fluent by 1977, when this happened. It was six years since we moved to Mexico City and my life there was in Spanish, from the radio talk in the car to all the dealings in the office. I was even writing finished copy for the UPI news service, in Spanish, for some sporting events that required instant posting.

Castro held court for more than two hours with more than a hundred executives of multinational corporations, about half of them American. He gave a short speech to start, but most of this was free-wheeling answers to the executives’ questions. He’d raise his voice at times in anger, and I’d seeth with him over the injustices inflicted on him by the American power. He told us that for years he never slept in the same place two nights in a row, because the CIA was so determined to assassinate him. And when Castro spoke, I believed. Then just a few minutes later, he’d lower his voice, in complete sincerity and conviction, as he talked about his goals, his dreams, what he wanted to do for his people. And over and over he’d answer with wisecrack and instant wit to rival the best of the best standup comedians. Over and over he’d raise the hairs in the back of my neck as he fell into his quiet and almost poetic best visions. He was a master. I would have followed him anywhere.

I took this amateur-looking picture and it’s the only one I have. Castro was charismatic and cordial with the executives who attended. Here he was signing autographs. I didn’t get a picture with him and me in it because I was mostly in the background, doing the work.

No, I didn’t get him alone, or in a small group. There were more than a hundred people in the room. But I sat near the front, on one side, taking notes, getting a privileged position because I was charged with reporting it.

I was also favorably disposed. I came to the occasion after my hippie-oriented youth, the summer in Haight Ashbury, the cumbaya group in the Trinity Alps, marching against the war in Vietnam and for civil rights. I’d had a lot of reinforcement from my colleages in journalism in Mexico City, Latin American correspondents, generally sympathetic to Cuba and distrustful of the U.S. My understanding of history had Castro as the freedom-fighter leader that kicked Bautista the U.S.-supported dictator out of Cuba in 1959; who turned to Russia for support and safety only after the U.S. had thoroughly rejected him. And my understanding of Cuba had it as an exceptionally poor country because of U.S. sanctions, but still one that treated its poor better than most other Latin American countries. At the foreign correspondents’ club in Mexico City, people said that Cuba was the worst place in Latin America for the rich, but the best place in Latin America to be poor. The poor in Cuba had better schools and medicine than the poor in any other Latin American country.

Going to Cuba for six weeks was a big deal for an American in 1977. It was the cold war. The US had severe restrictions on American travel to Cuba. It took exemptions and approvals from the American government, which were available because I was working at the time for Business International, so there was business interest. And Business International had some leverage into the government through CEO Orville Freeman, who had been a Nixon cabinet member. It also took getting a visa from the Cuban embassy in Mexico City.

It happened because sugar crops elsewhere failed in 1977 so Cuba’s sugar was suddenly and all at once way more valuable than it had ever been. That meant Cuba had an influx of hard currency. Unlike all its Castro history before 1977, Cuba could purchase goods from western nations, maybe even from the U.S. There was even talk of Western foreign investment. Business International, meanwhile, served more than 300 multinational corporations with newsletters, seminars, conferences, and consulting. So Business International set up a foreign investment conference in Havana. More than 100 multinational clients agreed to attend, pay a hefty fee, and send senior executives.

And that led to my being included. By that time I’d been with Business International three years and they liked me and my work. My Spanish was fluent after six years living in Mexico City. I was a damned good journalist. I had co-authored book-length studies on international business and the Mexican economy. They needed a book-length study on opportunities in Cuba, as part of the conference. So I got to go to Cuba in 1977. American, or not. And I got there bringing along, quietly, secretly, my sympathy for Fidel Castro.

The picture above is me in the office we worked in, with one of my Cuban teammates, holding the book-length study we did for the conference. If you look closely at the picture of Castro above, right above his hand, the corner of that study is sticking out from the arms of one of the officials.

And, sadly, that sympathy for Castro died during my weeks in Cuba. I came expecting to see a heroic people fighting against all odds for freedom, justice, and equality. I left with my illusions punctured, feeling confined and claustrophobic in a country with no freedom, people who spied on neighbors and turned them into dark secret police, who lived in fear.

What happened? What changed my mind? Several weeks of working on a book-length economic study of foreign investment opportunities in Cuba as part of a team. It was me and two other Business International employees, business journalists both of them, one Latin and another American with deep ties to Spain; plus three Cubans who were assigned to the team. One of the Cubans was the driver, the two others were economists supposed to help us do the study.

Working side-by-side with my Cuban colleagues popped all my illusions about Cuba. As time passed I realized, more each day, that each of the three of them was afraid of the other two. They never let down their guard. They took us to meetings with public officials, to historical places (most notably the Bay of Pigs, where Cuba defeated a JFK attempt to take Cuba back from Castro in 1962), even to ought-to-have-been fun places like the most popular beach and downtown Havana old section full of music and restaurants.

Restaurants were lively, generally full of music; but the food was dull. Everything available seemed a variation on rice, black beans, and fried bananas. Shredded pork or beef was prized as a special dish, even though the meat was stringy and tough. Fish, surprisingly, was rare.

The cars were overwhelmingly older American cars from the 1950s.

Our hosts, the Cuban organizers of the conference, seemed to make daiquiris instantly available to all of us at all times. Cubans circulated through every meeting and every event with full trays of daiquiris. After time it felt more intentional, sabotaging us by preying on our weakness, than hospitable.

The three Cubans were always wary and tense. They laced slogans and revolutionary patter throughout their conversations, with us and with each other. They competed constantly with each other on who could most use the word compañero (comrade). And so too on who most loved the revolution, Cuba, and Castro. There was never a slip in conversation that might have indicated some dissatisfaction with even the tiniest detail in their lives. They had no complaints, ever, about old cars, refrigerators, work schedules, food, anything.

And finally, there was the special claustrophobia of the opposite of free enterprise. By 1977, although I was still a business journalist, I was starting to dream about owning my own business someday. I was making more money with freelancing than the salary that Business International paid me as an employee. I was close to Raul Garcia Moreneau, Vange’s sister’s husband, who owned and operated his own travel agency. I spent a lot of time with Raul and Vange’s brother Horacio, who was a salesman for Gillete. Horacio and I often dreamt out loud about owning a business, and Raul, who did own one, encouraged us. During the weeks that I worked with the Cuban colleagues, I came to realize that the one who was a driver had no hope of ever going out on his own and owning several limos, or starting a travel agency. The ones who were economists had no hope of ever going on their own and taking on private clients. Their only hope for advancement depended on convincing their use of “compañero” and revolutionary clichés. Success and promotion was about loyalty, not work, or even competence.

I flew back to Mexico City on an evening flight on a Cuban commercial plane that was propeller driven and older than I was. The bureaucracy and red tape and inspections and such had been onerous on arrival, but seemed much worse to me as I was leaving. All I wanted from Cuba, at that point, was out of there. Getting back to Mexico was a huge relief.

1979: Hong Kong or Stanford

Hong Kong was magical. March of 1979. Exotic. Huge hotels along the waterfront. Me running along the bay, on the Kowloon side, in dark blue sweats, in the early morning. The Star Ferry crossing the bay between Hong Kong and Kowloon, amidst big ships, small junks, basking in the view of the peak.

I was in Hong Kong scoping out a transfer from Mexico City to Business International in Hong Kong. Most mornings I woke up early and ran two or three miles along the Hong Kong bay before showering and going into work at Business International’s Hong Kong office. Many of those days I woke up early enough to take the Star Ferry across the bay and run on that side, then take the ferry back.

Hong Kong Star Ferry

I’d been there twice before, as a tour guide (that’s in my story elsewhere here: “1973: Around the World in 31 Days.” Hong Kong was a sensory explosion, the first time, a deep dive into a romantic Asia of movies and dreams, after the relatively tame and disappointing days in Japan. Exotic food smells in the streets. Neon light show at night. A bright shining star among cities.

This time, however, I was there to stay, in theory. Business International was transferring me there from Mexico City. I wanted that transfer badly. I’d worked towards it for two years, negotiating with the Latin America and the Asia group. Then I was there, at Business International’s expense, staying in a hotel, taking six weeks to work with the Hong Kong office, find an apartment, and prepare to move my family.

Intriguing as that scene might be, the real story here started the previous January, in the once-upon-a-time Berry family home at 23260 Eastbrook Ave., Los Altos, CA. I was along in the very early morning doing pushups in the streaming morning sunlight near big glass doors in the living room, when my dad walked in, in a bathrobe, carrying a cup of coffee.

I was up from Mexico City visiting there for two reasons: first, I needed another operation on my nasal polyps, and for that I wanted Dad’s friend Bill Baxter. Second, I was fed up with Mexico City, Business International, and business journalism. I interviewed with the three big San Francisco based banks hoping for a job in international banking. At dinner, the night before, I shared my disappointment: the best interview I had was a straight shooter man who told me I had little or no chance with my journalism background (not business) and without an MBA.

I stopped with the pushups when Dad sat down on the couch and plopped down a copy of the San Francisco Chronicle business page, indicating he wanted to talk with me. I treasured one-on-one talks with Dad.

He showed me that the lead story that day was about the skyrocketing starting salaries of Stanford MBAs. I was making about thirty five thousand dollars a year, working three jobs in journalism. Stanford MBAs were getting hired for $60, $70, even $100 thousand dollars a year, according to that story.

“Dad, I can’t possibly do that,” I said. I was grateful for the thought and made that clear; but it seemed impossible. “Married, three kids, I can’t go back to school.” And furthermore, the story said they were accepting only about one of every 25 applicants. And it was expensive. Stanford.

“I know, I know,” Dad said. “But just do me a favor. Do yourself a favor. Apply for it. What do you have to lose?”

I did apply. I drove over to Stanford that day, got the forms, and filled them in. Over the next few weeks, I did the essays and took the GMAT. I had Notre Dame and University of Oregon send my transcripts. I paid the application fee. But I didn’t have high hopes, because it was so hard to get into Stanford’s MBA program.

From Los Altos I traveled to New York, at Business International’s expense. They were good to me. They arranged business meetings in San Francisco so they could pay my airfare there for my operation. Then they flew me to New York for more business meetings. And I took those New York meetings as an opportunity to wrangle my transfer to Hong Kong, because we were sick of Mexico City. and I’d pretty much forgotten about the pending application to Stanford because acceptance seemed unlikely and the money seemed impossible.

The Hong Kong office wanted me. The work was similar to what I had in Mexico City, business journalism refocused on the information needs of large multinational corporations. I missed my fluidity in Mexico and years of acclimation, plus the language. I was invited to dinner in a would-be colleague’s high-rise apartment. It was small, cramped, unimpressive on the way up, but they did have a gorgeous view of the bay from the inside. I checked out apartments on the west side of the island, where more expats lived. I arranged to buy a used Honda Civic from a man who was being transferred out as I was transferred in. Another colleague invited me for a whole day out on the bay in the Chinese Junk he and his wife leased. We visited two small islands. It was indeed far, far away from Mexico City and the United States. I agreed to buy a used Honda Civic from a Business International expat who was getting a transfer out while I was coming in.

It took two or three weeks for the glamor to wear off. I had wanted the transfer badly, so it was hard to see the downside. But I did, eventually. It started with salary. Business International wasn’t offering me the luxury life of the corporate expat. It was going to be hard to find an apartment we’d like. The private schools were expensive. We wouldn’t have enough money to get off of the island with the kids. The sparkling beauty of it all became cloudy, humid, and oppressive. I was afraid I was making the wrong decision. In Mexico City we had the extended family, Vange’s mother helping with the kids, good times on weekends, and we knew the territory.

Towards the end of my Hong Kong stay, I lived with a persistent knot in my stomach. I’d painted myself into a corner, made a bad choice, and seemingly left no way back. To make matters worse, I was alone with my decisions. This was 1979. There were no cellphones, no Internet, no email, and phone calls even with calling cards were $2 and up per minute. I did not have the benefit of discussions with Vange. I could only guess what she’d want.

When I finally got back home to Mexico City, Vange had been holding a telegram from Stanford. I was accepted to start the next September, 1979.

And thus began a flurry of worry. Meetings, long discussions, lots of stress, all about Stanford vs. Hong Kong. The whole extended family in Mexico City cared and joined in the discussion. We were even invited to dinner at the home of Hans Krombacher, German, head of ITT in Mexico City, boss of Vange’s mother’s boss, the ultimate businessman. Krombacher said go to Hong Kong, get business experience; academia was useless. I asked Luis Orcy, my favorite mentor, US-Phd head of economic studies of the Mexican Central Bank, who said Stanford. The family was divided. Vange and I just didn’t know.

Money was a big deal. I had guessed right on the 1976 devaluation of the Mexican peso, and we’d bet on that by buying a buildable residential lot on long-term payments, in pesos. At the time we thought we were going to stay in Mexico City for decades. But with Stanford, we could also turn that win into about $30,000 of savings. We knew that wouldn’t last; but it could get us started. Once there, we thought, I could set part-time work. I was already working lots of part-time writing things (tourism brochures, advertising) in Mexico City. Maybe we could make it work.

It was particularly hard to not take Krombacher’s advice. I had tremendous respect for Eva, Vange’s mother; and she had tremendous respect for Krombacher. He’d taken ITT in Mexico from also-ran to major corporate player. Eva had watched as he did. She was secretary to his head of marketing, so she had an inside view.

Finally, it came down to two key moments. First, we decided that if Stanford gave us the married student housing on campus at Stanford, Escondido Village, we’d go. Escondido Village meant a two-bedroom two-story town house on campus for $245 per month. Aside from that special situation, rents in Palo Alto were astronomical. And Escondido Village was on the Stanford campus, in a complex made for Stanford families.

Second, it came down to an important moment, for me, with Vange. At the moment of truth, when we had to make a decision, she said: “Let’s take the risk for Stanford. That’s what you want. We’ll take the risk together, and if we fail, we’ll fail together.”

We got the housing. We said yes to Stanford and no to Business International and Hong Kong. We sold the lot. We really never looked back. As I write this, in 2022, 43 years later, I shudder to think of having ever consider Hong Kong instead of Stanford. We made the right choice.

Afterwards:

By June of 1979 we left for Stanford driving our 1975 Rambler station wagon. The picture here below was taken during that driving trip. That was in San Diego, the day after we’d crossed the border into the United States.

A week later, in early July, we moved into 100C Escondido Village. We had a tiny two-story two-bedroom townhouse on campus at Stanford. My classes were walkable. The kids’ nursery school and elementary school were walkable. Stanford was paradise. Skies were blue instead of purple, everything seemed clean and bright, and we all loved those two years at Stanford.

August of 1979. Five cousins on the couch at Escondido Village. Vange’s sister Laura and her sons Raul and Rodrigo came up to visit several times while we lived there. This was their first visit.

—-

I had to absorb anger from people in Business International. The guy whose car I was going to buy in Hong Kong was disappointed. Norman Wellen, CEO of Business International, called me to shout at me. “Why didn’t I tell them I’d applied at Stanford?”

“Because you wouldn’t have given me Hong Kong if you knew that?”

“But we spent money on your transfer.”

“You would do the same thing.”

Norman was furious. But the same week we moved into Escondido Village I started doing market research consulting for Creative Strategies International, in San Jose, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Business International. Norman didn’t block that. And five years later he asked me to become CEO of Creative Strategies International, when founder Larry Wells was threatening to quit. So he got over it.

I worked for Creative Strategies for three years and had a good time there. I kept up with some of the people in Business International, but never had any contact with the Hong Kong office again.

——

For the record, just a few years later, Krombacher killed himself by jumping out of an eighth floor window of the Waldorf Astoria. But that’s a different story. He was in a second marriage after dumping his wife of 30 years, and had business problems.

1981: My Stupid MBA Mistake

It was August of 1981, early morning, in the office of John Lutz, managing partner of McKinsey Management Consulting in Mexico City. I was three months out of Stanford with an MBA degree, working for McKinsey Management Consulting in Mexico City.

The McKinsey offices sat in a very stylish high-profile office building overlooking a critical freeway junction over Chapultepec Park, linking the fancy Las Lomas residential area with Polanco and the Paseo de Reforma main business district. The streets were wet from rain overnight, and the freeway was, as almost always, jammed. The sky was dense, a mixture of rain clouds and smog.

Mortified, but I had to quit

I was mortified to tell Lutz that I needed to quit. I’d only been there a few weeks. I didn’t like to see myself as the archetypical fancy MBA blowing off the first job. I was 33 years old, married, and my wife was expecting our fourth child. I was way too mature for this stuff.

I certainly didn’t belong there. I’d been entrepreneurial for 10 straight years, making my own way with freelance journalism and, later, my own consulting, and I wasn’t up to faking awe for the partners. And as a family, we didn’t belong in Mexico City. I had loved that place for nine years in the 70s, it had been good to me, but I was done. And Vange was just as done, even though it was her city. It had become too big, too hard to deal with. We had left in 1979 and shouldn’t have gone back in 1981.

The above was our young family in 1979 on the driving trip from Mexico City to Stanford campus.

Furthermore, as I’d come out of the business school, I chose McKinsey for the wrong reasons. It was the job that made me look best in the eyes of my peers. It wasn’t just the money and prestige, it was also the competition. With McKinsey, I’d won.

Wrong job, wrong choice

But the job I’d chose was meant for a 26-year-old single person blinded by ambition and unencumbered by relationships. Like most professional firms, success involved putting up with a corporate culture that spent 12 to 14 hours a day in the office, whether or not there was work to be done. The firm actively discouraged families by encouraging long-term business travel but without families, and by running 5-day strategy meetings at beach resorts and forbidding families coming along, even at the family’s own expense. I was not supposed to disagree with partners. Lutz’s previous one-on-one with me was to complain about my second-guessing a partner, in a cocktail setting, in front of a client. But the issue on that one was about an imminent peso devaluation, and I was right and the partner wrong. Staying quiet about peso devaluations never occured to me. After all, I’d been the Business Week correspondent in Mexico for years, and I’d learned to read the signs. I’d bet right on devaluation and earned enough from it to pay for a year in school. Also, aside from that one, an associate I was supposed to put up with one of the partners who parked his six extra cars in the reserved spaces of associates, one of which was mine — in Mexico City, where parking spaces were so scarce you could take hours looking. Oh, and at the end of the day, as an associate, I was warned not to leave before all of the six partners had left. It would have meant hanging around, with nothing to do, from six to nine, while Vange and our three kids waited at home. I ignored that advice, of course. I mention it here because it illustrates the awkwardness of that job, for me.

So, back in the office with John Lutz, did I tell him why I was leaving? That I didn’t like the job, had made a bad decision, didn’t like Mexico City either? No. I didn’t. I told him I needed a lot more money.

The lesson: tell the damned truth

This is one of the best arguments ever for telling the damn truth, even when it’s embarrassing. I’m still embarrassed, but I’m older now, and, well, I think this is a good lesson to share.

The next day they doubled my peso salary. But I still left, and I left looking and feeling really stupid. Why didn’t I just tell the truth in the first place? If the first conversation was hard, the second, when I told him I was still leaving, was ten times harder.

I’ve made a lot of mistakes. You can’t build a business from scratch without making mistakes. It’s an entire category on my blog, more than 150 posts. This dumb MBA mistake wasn’t my worst, but it’s one of the easiest to explain afterwards, and I hope one that might help others avoid making it too. There is a moral to this story.

As it turned out, the mistakes were choosing the job in the first place, and then not telling the truth about why I was leaving. But leaving, the main decision, was not a mistake. I had arranged a job waiting for me with Creative Strategies International in San Jose. For me and my family, returning back to the San Francisco peninsula, Silicon Valley, seemed like returning from exile back to paradise.

There are two morals to the story. First, never make decisions to impress others. Second, never slant away from the truth to make a hard moment easier. Give it a spin instead, and you risk looking twice as bad later.

1983: Oh No! They’re Developing Their Own Compiler

Late summer, 1983. I asked Philippe how his software project was going.

“They are writing a new compiler,” he answered. “They’ve decided there is no good PASCAL compiler for MS-DOS. So they are writing a new compiler first.” The “they” was a team of Danish programmers.

Oh no! Seemed like bad news

In that instant, I imagined myself as waving goodbye to money that had sprouted wings and was flying away. So you understand, the idea of “they are writing a compiler first” sounded something like having to climb Mount Everest first. They were supposed to take some software that ran in one operating system and convert it to a second operating system. Instead, they were recreating an entire programming language.

I was sure this was disaster. I had skin in the game. I’d foregone my consulting fees with Philippe and had taken one percent ownership in the company — Borland International — instead. And yet, in fact, it was the key to success. It turned out to be a spectacularly good move. The compiler they wrote became Turbo Pascal. Look it up. In fact, three links for you: 1.) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philippe_Kahn … 2.) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Borland … 3.) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Turbo_Pascal

The project in question was converting some menu interface software that ran on one existing personal computer operating system (CP/M if you’re interested in history) to a newer more marketable operating system (MS-DOS). You have source code written in PASCAL, a programming language. The PASCAL compiler reads the code and converts it to machine language, so that any computer using that operating system can run it as an application, a finished software product. To move that software application to another operating system, you start with the source code as a text document, load it into a PASCAL compiler built for the other operating system, and run it there (compile it) to create machine code that works in the new operating system. It’s called “porting” software.

In 1983, porting software was all the rage.

Personal computing was still in its infancy. There were a million or so early Apple I and Apple II computers around, and the Apple Lisa (look it up) just started. There were a single- million personal computers in businesses. One source says there were fewer than a million home computers, another says single-digit million microcomputers being used in business. Business computing on the new microcomputers (aka personal computers) was a huge growth market.

Philippe was Philippe Kahn, a software pioneer, a tall, portly Frenchman in his with an overabundance of gestures, enthusiasm, optimism, and drive. He had founded Borland the previous May. You can look him up too. He became a celebrity entrepreneur and was later credited with inventing the camera phone. He was about my age then, early thirties. I had done his business plan, and redone it, and I’d kept on revising almost weekly. He was not the easiest person to deal with, a bit more certain than I was used to, but I liked him and liked working with him. He was originally supposed to pay me a couple of thousand dollars for my consulting, but as time went on and my fees accumulated, he asked me to take equity and a seat on the board of directors instead of fees. I’m not sure I really had a choice, but I did take him up on the offer, so I became what we called then “a co-founder” of Borland International.

That moment with Philippe became on of those key moments, engraved in memory, for which you even remember where you were at the time. We were in the parking lot of the office building at Keily Blvd and Saratoga Ave. in San Jose, where I had my offices with Creative Strategies International, and Philippe had a rented single desk in some other software business. We had met for lunch and we were walking and talking on our way.

I’d fallen in love with personal computer software

As this happened, I’d fallen in love with personal computer software and programming, and made a career of it. I discovered programming with the BASIC programming language on the Tops 20 minicomputer in the basement of the Stanford business school. The admittance packet included a book titled “Teach Yourself BASIC” and I did. I became a paid monitor in the computer facility, helping other students with programming. I got my part-time employer, Creative Strategies, to let me program a forecasting system on their computer as a summer job. Later, while I went full time with Creative Strategies after the MBA, I wrote an entire bookkeeping system in CBASIC, for a consulting client. Then I started a group within Creative Strategies to do market analysis and market forecasts of that business. I became the VP in charge of micro (personal) computer software market analysis. Which is where Philippe found me, with the recommendation of my older brother, who was his lawyer.

The amazing board meeting

Two months later, early October of 1983, Philippe called a board meeting on a Saturday morning in his new offices in Scott’s Valley. Turbo Pascal was ready to go. It was sensational software, way better than the $440 Microsoft Pascal then available for MS-DOS. To give you the idea, if you were working with the existing PASCAL language, when you had a program ready to go you would tell it to compile and wait 20, 30, or more minutes. Programmers would set the compile and go to lunch. And, most of the time, the compile command would just stop with an error message, but not tell the programmers what error and in what line of code.

What we saw that October morning in 1983 was sensational. You’d manage the lines of code like normal. But when you told it to compile, it would start going and almost immediately, seemingly instantly, kick out an error message with the first error encounter, plus the line of code it was in, and what was the error message. It made programming in PASCAL 100 times easier.

Philippe’s business genius

Philippe seized the moment. I said he should price Turbo Pascal at $500 because it was way better than Microsoft’s $440 PASCAL; and price is the best marketing message. Philippe said no, we would price it at $49.95 and blow up the market. They would cost us only $5 to build (there was no Internet and no downloading so selling software was selling a disc and a manual. Philippe was right. We created a sensation. Philippe bet the business on a few full-page ads in the main personal computer magazines of the day. That worked. Turbo Pascal took off. Suddenly, almost overnight, Borland was a big deal. Everybody wanted Turbo Pascal. Sales poured in. Philippe hired people and Borland was up and running. And I am proud I was a part of it, although I don’t claim much credit. Philippe made the call against my advice. At least I had the sense to recognize sensational software when I saw it.

1988: Palo Alto Software Launch

I was asked how I started Palo Alto Software.

How? Slowly, carefully, bolstered by good product and reviews that validated, doing a lot of coding and documentation myself, and not spending money we didn’t have.

Spreadsheet templates

It started as spreadsheet templates. The first of those was published in 1984 to accompany a book “How to Develop Your Business Plan,” published by Oasis Press. In 1988 I separated from that book, and redid the templates to accompany my own book when I published “Business Plan Toolkit,” released in MacWorld January 1988. All of these early products were 100% my work, my spreadsheet macros and my documentation. It helped to have a diverse background, including 10 years as a professional journalist, foreign correspondent in Mexico City, plus a Stanford MBA. I could write about business so (people told me) others could understand.

I released ‘Business Plan Toolkit’ in January of 1988 at the San Francisco MacWorld exhibit. Laura and Sabrina shared the booth duty with me.

Funded mostly by consulting

Throughout the early years I kept up a healthy consulting practice doing business plans for some startups, and that plus market research and strategy consulting for some larger high tech companies, plus workshops on business planning for dealers of high tech companies. Apple was by far my best client, with repeat business in consulting on business planning from the beginning until 1994 (Hector Saldaña was a steady client for years, and a supporter of the business idea, and informal advisor). The consulting supported marketing expenses. There was no Internet to speak of until 1995, so the early marketing was a combination of small ads in the back of magazines and product reviews in major computer magazines. I did about $1.4 million worth of consulting for Apple Computer between 1982 and 1994.

During the consulting years I never lost site of the main goal of building my own business. I was sacrificing consulting revenues to prop up products. My mantra was “I want to sell boxes, not hours.”

When we moved it from Palo Alto to Eugene OR in 1992, I had three early equity shareholders (1% each) who agreed to surrender their shares because there was no value in them. One of them was my brother, Chip.

There is another chapter here on the darkness before dawn in 1994, when all seemed lost; and how I created Business Plan Pro to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. in 1995 PAS gained critical mass with Business Plan Pro so I was able to stop consulting and dedicate myself to the business. We grew quickly to more than $5 million annual revenues by 2000.

1983: Why Did I Start My Business

I was speaking to a group of students in 2007 when one of them asked me to comment on what makes an entrepreneur. The student who asked the question wrapped it in the mythology of the entrepreneur driven by the idea, stubbornly, tirelessly proving its value to the world. She wanted me to tell about me wanting to build something big.

Escaping Boredom

But I had to admit that my case was different.

I was running away from boredom, not building castles.

Me

When I left a good job at Creative Strategies and started on my own, in truth it was not because of something I wanted to build, not because of a creative vision, but rather because I thought I could make enough money to keep my family whole and do what I wanted. I wanted interesting work, and I wanted to choose my work. I wanted to actually do the writing and research, not supervise others. It was important to me that what I spend hours doing was something fun — I always found writing and planning and working numbers fun — even though I didn’t have the idea that would create the empire.

I wanted to actually do the writing and research, not supervise others.

Me

For the record, I thought at the time that I could make a living writing computer books. I was good at writing and liked it, and I was one of the early adopters of personal computers. I’d built my own and done some serious programming. Computer books were getting good money, or so it seemed after Stewart Brand had supposedly landed a $100,000 advance for a computer compilation related to his Whole Earth Catalog.

And I was wrong about that. I had to pivot to consulting, which happened almost immediately. I have more details in 1983: First Day of a New Business.

Or maybe you like this shorter version:

I was married, had kids, so we needed the money; and nobody else would pay me what I needed to make.

me

And the idea of a software product, that creative vision? Yes, that happened, but that came slowly, over years.

This theme continues in 1983: First Day of a New Business and then moves to 1988: Palo Alto Software Launch.

1993-94: PAS on the Brink of Doom

It was a dark February night in 1994 when I boarded a late plane from New Orleans headed home, dealing with impending doom. It’s the only time I ever asked for a changed seat for health reasons. Claiming severe claustrophobia (an exaggeration), I got my seat switched from a window in the middle of the plane to an aisle in the extreme rear. Everything about that flight remains engraved in memory wrapped in darkness and doom.

I felt lost and alone a few times during my career, usually in the deep on night in lonely hotels halfway around the world from home, the depths of business travel, my consulting years. A few times in airports, in Asia and South America. But never as alone as I felt that night, traveling with Paul B., my supposed partner since 1993, “my sales guy.”

The Huge Problem

“Tim, your boxes suck.” The words of Kathy Colder, a VP for the Fry’s retail chain of computer stores, rang in my ears. Fry’s was a big deal back then, a major retail channel, a market leader in the Bay Area, California, and the West Coast. And Kathy owed me nothing, had no reason to share the real truth, but did it out of generosity. She could have said nothing. She meant it as useful advice. It was her response to my expression of horror as I discovered, in her presence, the concept of “sell-through.”

Business Plan Toolkit

Sell-through was the immediate problem. I discovered, to my horror, that sales recorded as sales when they went into the channels weren’t really sales until the end user bought the product off of the retail shelves. I didn’t know that. Way worse, Paul B., my would-have-been partner, the one with the retail knowledge and experience, didn’t know it either. We were operating blind. Everybody else in the business tracked their sell through numbers carefully, but we didn’t even know they were available to us. We thought we’d sold a million dollars in 1993, but we actually owed $250,000 of that back to them. we’d sold them to distributors, who’d sold them to retail stores, who put them on shelves; but they didn’t sell through from the shelves. They sat on shelves unsold. And we had to take them back and return the money. And that included the boxes Paul Berger had given them for free, as promotional.

“Your boxes suck,” Kathy Colder said. “You designed them for yourselves but they are too drab. Go look at packages in a supermarket. Packages are supposed to sell, not to sit on a coffee table somewhere.”

Meanwhile, we had three kids in Notre Dame, Princeton, and NYU. The tuition expenses, after loans and scholarships, were about $75,000 per year. Palo Alto Software was our only income. We had next to nothing in savings. We’d left Palo Alto for Eugene in part to clear up our entrepreneurial finances, meaning we’d had three mortgages and $65,000 credit card debt at the worst point. We sold a nice home in Palo Alto and bought our longtime home in Eugene for half the proceeds.

The Bad Deal

Paul B. contacted me in 1992 shortly after we moved to Eugene. He’d been marketing packaging software for a Eugene entrepreneur whose sales had grown past three million dollars per year. He wanted to do it for and with somebody else; and as a partner, an owner, not as an employee. He offered to work for $1,000 per month (very little) if I gave him a shot at being half owner. My sales of template products ran about two hundred to four hundred thousand dollars a year, but that was less than my marketing expenses.

I made the deal with Paul B. I figured I had nothing to lose. Paul seemed to know how to build a software business with retail channels. We agreed that if he could get sales to $1 million in 1993, $2 million in 1994, and $3 million in 1995, then he’d acquire half ownership in Palo Alto Software. Of course I talked this over with Vange, and we both agreed that it was a reasonable risk. We were betting half of a losing and essentially failing business on making that a successful business. Furthermore, we didn’t have a lot of options. We had moved to Eugene. We lived off my consulting with Apple, which was mostly Apple Japan.

It turned out that there were two huge flaws in that deal. Both of which I had discovered in the two days prior to that long dark flight home.

First, Paul didn’t know the business nearly as well as he’d claimed. He didn’t know that sell-through numbers were available to us. He didn’t understand the importance of consumer goods packaging. He didn’t understand how sales into channels weren’t really sales; they could all come back.

Second, much more important, Paul B.’s targets were all about sales, and only sales, with no concern whatsoever for costs, margins, or returns. That was a big mistake. Paul B.’s incentives encouraged him to push up sales by pushing down prices. So Paul pushed the sales over the $1 million in 1993 by offering huge discounts to distributors just for putting our boxes on shelves. Buy two, get five was fine for him, because he thought that was a sale. In the last three months of 1993 he was giving so much away to channels that we were losing money on every unit. Margins in packaged software were running 85% to 95% (price less costs), but Paul had us running at about 10%, meaning that for every $60 unit we sold, we had about $54 in costs (mostly building other products that we were giving away for free). We weren’t covering fixed costs and expenses. Paul was destroying the business while increasing the sales.

Perhaps even more important, Paul didn’t understand retail software sales and the importance of the damned box. The box, the package, was 90% of the product’s sales pitch in one cardboard place. If the box didn’t sell it off the shelves, it wasn’t going to sell. Everybody in retail software — except me and Paul B. — knew that.

Of course it was all ultimately my fault. It was my business. But regarding sell through, returns, and packaging, I knew I didn’t know and I had reason to believe Paul did. He came to me as president of a software company selling more than $3 million per year in retail packaged software. His expertise was a given.

What happened? That’s my next story: 1994-95: We Saved It.

1994-95: I Saved It!

In February of 1994 Palo Alto Software was on the brink of failure. By February of 1995 it had a successful new software product with more than a million dollars of sales orders. Here’s how.

Note: I say I saved it because I did. That was me, in all the meetings, making all the decisions, doing the work, writing code, moving it all forward. But in all these hard times, Vange suffered with me, listened to me, took the risk with me, and advised me of her instinct about people, and her instinct about not spending money we didn’t have. She also supported me in the moral support sense, so that I didn’t feel alone, didn’t feel like I’d lose my family if I made the wrong decision.

The previous story here tells how it got that bad (1993-1994: PAS on the brink). I flew back from New Orleans in February of 1994 dealing with bad product, bad packaging, bad management, and the implied debt of about a quarter million dollars worth of unsold product coming back as returns.

Faced with all those problems, I doubled down. In my blogs and speaking I tell people to do what I say, not what I did. Don’t get yourself into a corner with no way out except digging deeper. Plan better. Anticipate better. But I didn’t. I was in that corner with no good option. My consulting income plummeted as my key people left Apple at about the same time. I had to make Palo Alto Software succeed. So I turned up the risk, doubled the bet. And won.

Step One: Undo the Bad Deal

My recovery plan started the day after the long dark flight from New Orleans. I called Ron Walro, my business attorney, then Paul B., then Ron again. Paul knew Ron and trusted him. I trusted him too. Ron was working on a mediation specialty for his practice and suggested a mediation session.

We met on the next Saturday morning. In one two-hour session we cleared the partnership language and got Paul B. completely out of Palo Alto Software. He got our $30,000 shrink wrap machinery and two Macintosh computers in exchange for signing away any and all rights and claims. I got Palo Alto Software back as 100% ours without any encumbrance. To Ron’s credit, each of us was relieved and happy with the solution.

Paul thought he dodged a bullet. He got out from what he thought was obviously doomed for failure. And he got his beloved shrink wrap machine. He had no faith in me or the business. He thought he’d escaped being associated with something that was so obviously going to crash and burn.

I did dodge a bullet. I got my company back. I got my freedom to do things my way. And I gave away nothing that hurt.

I hated the damned shrink wrap machine. I’d bought it only because Paul Berger was obsessed with it. From the day he started with me, until I finally agreed to buy it, I’d told Paul over and over that I didn’t want to manage packaging and assembly. I didn’t want to own the damned machine. Our core competence was business planning software. Packaging and assembly were fine as a per-unit variable cost and I didn’t want that to be assets and fixed cost to manage. Paul never stopped pressuring me. He was obsessed with the damned shrink wrap machine and owning the whole process I’d put the idea down — it was my company, so my decision — but he’d just wait a few days and then bring it up again.

This was a great example of mediation the way it should be. Both sides winning.

Paul B. was not a bad person. He was a tireless sales person. He was relentless with the distributors who held the key to our sales in a market that was all retail and mail order. He’d leave a voicemail every day for months without response and happily do it again the next day. He established Palo Alto Software’s relationship with distributors and retail chains. He was always honest and he always worked hard. As it turns out, I had trusted him too much, failed to manage him, just let him go on without supervision. My loose style of management was bad for his not knowing what he didn’t now, and his lack of strategic sense. And the incentives were wrong. I’d let him have goals on sales and sales alone, without regard for costs or expenses.

Step Two: Sales Reps

Do you know the concept of fixed costs vs. variable costs? It’s pretty simple conceptually. Fixed costs are like rent and salaries that you pay regardless of sales or financial health. Variable costs are like per-unit promotions and per-unit commissions that you pay only if you sell.

Sales reps are the ultimate variable cost. One bright spot in the darkness of the New Orleans revelation (1993-94: PAS on the Brink) was meeting Donna Corson, a successful sales rep, in the process of starting her own sales rep firm, who had also just moved to Eugene from Los Angeles. It was the great serendipity. I became Donna’s first local client. She took on all of my sales tasks in exchange for a 6% commission on sales into retail channels to be paid to her only after the channels paid us. I was one of only four or five clients and she was good at sales. People in the channels knew her and liked her. And she knew the business of packaged software sales. It was a match made in heaven.

Step Three: A Stand-alone App to Replace Templates

The huge underlying problem was trying to sell templates as software. I started Palo Alto Software with software called templates. These are programs that run with spreadsheets, also called macros. I had an excellent financial spreadsheet that linked all the assumptions together so that any change in any one would reflect in the others according to proper finance and accounting. The value I sold to my users was a finished professional spreadsheet standardized and well documented, with formula errors locked out. It absolutely required that my users have the related spreadsheet software (for example, Microsoft Excel) because my programming ran inside the spreadsheet. The spreadsheet software managed saving and printing and formatting.

Many people didn’t understand templates and the relationship between templates and the spreadsheet software they ran in. I sold the Business Plan Toolkit for $99. I got near constant friction from people who complained about saving, formatting, or printing, all of which were done by their Microsoft Excel (or similar). I had to take way too many calls wanting help with operating the spreadsheet, or their computers. In their minds, they had bought my $99 product and I should show them how to save and print. I couldn’t tell them their problem was using their spreadsheet.

So, essentially, going into packaged software with spreadsheet templates was a real problem of educating the market and supporting the spreadsheet software that I didn’t make, I have the money they paid for their spreadsheet, but I was expected to support it. I think the idea was essentially doomed from the start. And the evidence is that in the ensuing two decades, nobody I know of has been successful selling templates.

What I decided, in the days after my February 1994 shock, was not to solve the packaging, or sell-through management, or pricing, without first solving the problem. I needed a stand-alone business plan application. It had to manage not just the financials of the plan, but the text too; and charts, and page formatting, and the outline.

Furthermore, as of 1994, computing had evolved enough to make that stand-alone application possible, even with the programming limitations I had. First, the Windows operating system and computer power and data storage had improved and evolved. Second, Microsoft had published a visual programming language, which could create Windows applications, called Visual Basic. I learned Visual Basic and loved it. Third, a software developer published an Excel-compatible software tool that could build spreadsheet functionality into a Visual Basic application running in Microsoft Windows. The tool (I so wish I could remember it’s name, but I’ve done a web search, that history is lost) sold for $395 and its output was royalty free.

I said it was possible, but not easy. I couldn’t just do it myself like I had with the template products. I wrote about a third of the code myself, in Visual Basic, doing the spreadsheet portions and linking them to the application. I found a local three-person programming company (Cascade Technologies, which no longer exists; its founder was Ken Barley) to do what I couldn’t. They added a complete interface to include the words as well as the numbers, and keep it all, even formatting and printing, inside the one application. We bought Visual Basic add-on tools to manage the word processing, outlining, charts, and printing. I paid Cascade Technologies a $1,000 monthly fee for 12 months, plus a royalty of two percent of future revenue. We were still not able to spend money we didn’t have. But we managed to find that money, a bare minimum, to build the product. That product was the first Business Plan Pro.

Step Four: Packaging

In the packaged software business of the 1990s, packaging was 90 percent of marketing. Nobody read ads. Reviews helped a lot, But the real messages, the ones that mattered, were the box. The look and feel, the tag lines, the illustrations, the testimonials, the quotes from published reviews … the boxes sold the product.

Remember how Cathy Kolder (in 1993-1994: PAS on the Brink) said “your boxes suck?” She added, “it’s obvious you designed them yourselves, and you designed them to reflect your values, like recycling and earthy colors. That will never work. To understand packaging, go to a supermarket and look at the boxes. Especially the (bright orange and glaring) Tide boxes.”

So I knew that at the same time I was building a software product, I also had to create good retail packaging. As if it weren’t already completely obvious, I had also just hired Donna Corson the sales rep, and she took me on as a client only on the condition that we do completely new packaging and she had veto control. I was grateful for Donna’s input. Donna lived and breathed packaged software sales in retail channels. She knew and understood that packaging was everything. So I turned to local designer Dave Funk, who frequented local startup meetings, and hired him and his Funk Designs to create good retail packaging.

Here is the retail packaging we did for the first Business Plan Pro:

What Happened? We won!

We finished Business Plan Pro in November of 1995 and it hit the retail shelves in February of 1995. It was a success. It did get good sell-through. The channel tracking service everybody used had us as #1 in small business software by July 0f 1995.

Reflections of a Hypocritical Business Planner

Irony: I’m a business planner, and I have been for 30 years now; but the biggest decisions of my real life have been remarkably unplanned.

Rewriting history backwards

I could rewrite my own history backwards to make it all seem like it had been planned, but it wasn’t. Going from hippy to business planner to entrepreneur, I tripped over the most important right decisions, accidentally. It was a lot like a shiny metal ball bouncing around in a pinball machine, hitting obstacles and changing directions. Sometimes I made the wrong decisions and got the right results. Go figure.

For example, in college I studied what interested me: Literature. I wasn’t making a career choice, I was taking the path of least resistance. It was an easy step from Literature to Journalism, and — after 10 years with UPI and McGraw-Hill and others — from there to the MBA. And in 30-some years of business I keep meeting people whose careers seem to reconfirm the basic wisdom of studying what interests you. These are people who followed that path of interest and found, later, that it led to the right place.

Bad advice?

All of which could end up as dangerously bad advice, I suppose: if taking the downhill path leads only downhill. Sometimes you have to buckle down and work; but at least, if you’re doing something that interests you, the work feels better. That was certainly my case. I got my first job in journalism in Mexico City, by mail plus a plane trip from Oregon, because I was happy to work cheap and they guessed that since my wife is Mexican I probably spoke Spanish (which wasn’t true until a few months later). There was no planning there; it was a job, in 1971, when jobs were scarce (as they are now). It seemed to prove the wisdom of taking that pinball-like change of direction.

When I sold out

The next time I changed direction it was for the money. I switched to business writing from regular wire-service news journalism after three years of it because my wife and I had two kids by then and with kids, money became an issue. Before that, neither one of us cared that much. Journalism had enjoyed an aura of save the world for a while, but that gets old. That change doubled my income (from very little to a little bit more). I waded slowly and fearfully into business writing with about as much enthusiasm as an ophidiophobe (fear of snakes) wading into a jungle swamp. At first, it was just a sellout; but then it got interesting. I took business classes at night school. I really wanted to know what was going on underneath the press releases, in the numbers, where the truth hides.

So it took me 10 years to get from undergrad studies to business school, but that wasn’t a bad thing. By the time I got there I was — notice the theme here — once again interested in what I was supposed to be studying. I’d had enough of business journalism to want to actually know what I had been writing about (novel idea) and that made business school fascinating. And my years as journalist helped me get through business school while working full-time in consulting. I could write fast, and that’s a good thing in school.

Sometimes bad decisions have good outcomes

I made some very bad decisions that created very good outcomes. In some circles, we call that luck. Later I quit a good job to go on my own writing computer books, but with the help of my wife and my favorite former client, that became business plan consulting. And that — again with the help of my wife and some clients — became business plan software. It seemed like a natural progression. Just as it was critical to write for readers in Journalism, it was even more critical to write for users in software. And all of this changing directions meant that it wasn’t until 1994, 20 years after switching to business writing, 11 years after leaving that good job, that Business Plan Pro was first released.

And, while we’re on the general subject of unanalyzed decisions with good outcomes, doing what you want, in 1969 I asked a girl to marry me after knowing her about two weeks. As of 2023 we’ve been married 53 years. (And we both agree we were lucky. Don’t try this at home. Wait longer.) And at every key moment from literature to journalism to business to entrepreneurship, it was always two of us, never just me. When things were really dicey — like when we realized we had three mortgages and $65K credit card debt in developing Palo Alto Software — it was never “you idiot, what have you done,” but rather “we’ll take the risk together, and if we fail, we’ll fail together.” Knowing that you’re not going to lose a marriage over it makes it a lot easier to change directions.

1987: Business by Handshake

(Reposted from timberry.bplans.com)

As a four-year mutually beneficial relationship ended, turning our cooperation into competition, Emmett Ramey offered this as a final thought:

So now we’re competitors, but we can still be friends. The way I see it, it’s like two people fishing on a pier. I’m not worried about the fish nibbling on your line, because there’s plenty of fish nibbling on my line at the same time.

Emmett Ramey and I did business together for four years, money was spent and earned, and the business relationship ended amicably with an agreement to compete against each other, all based on a handshake, without either of us signing a contract.

Yes, it’s a true story. No, I’m not suggesting that this is the right way to do business; it’s an anachronism, definitely out of date. Still, it happened.

Emmett and his wife Ardella were owner-operators of Oasis Press in Milpitas CA when this happened in 1984. I was a one-man company called Infoplan, doing planning and market research, writing books and magazine columns, and working out of a home office.

We got together because I’d developed a business plan template, for use with Lotus 1-2-3 and Microsoft Excel, for the financial portion of a business plan; and Oasis Press had published Develop Your Business Plan, by Leza and Placencia. My financial templates worked very well with that book. We agreed that Oasis Press would buy the templates from Infoplan and add them into the book, as an option.

That deal lasted for about four years. I sweetened the pot for both of us by taking payment for a monthly column in Business Software magazine as a free black and white ad for Oasis Press, rather than money. The ad advertised the templates and the book. Oasis Press took the sales, and paid me for the add-on.

It worked really well until Emmett called one day, sounding embarrassed, saying that his authors wanted royalty payments from me for my software. That didn’t make sense to me. I’d already written books published by McGraw-Hill, Dow Jones-Irwin and other publishers, and business planning was my favorite topic, and the authors hadn’t contributed anything to my software. So we agreed, again without having to negotiate with lawyers or sign anything, to split it apart.

So I stopped selling the template for Develop Your Business Plan, and developed Business Plan Toolkit, which was released in January of 1988. Oasis Press continued to sell the book, but without software. It moved to Oregon in 1991 and was purchased by Entrepreneur Press in 2003.

And, with apology for repeating, I’m not recommending you do it this way now. I guess this was the exception, not the rule. And in this case, business by handshake worked perfectly well.