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Getting More Out Of Visicalc

VisiCalc and other electronic spreadsheets became more popular because they quickly answered 'what if' questions. Now many users find that these programs can do much more.

If you have a personal computer on your desk, you are more than likely familiar with VisiCalc or one of the other "electronic spreadsheets." Many a desktop computer has been purchased specifically to take advantage of these programs, which allow even an unsophisticated computer user to change a few critical assumptions and, in the blink of an eye, recalculate an entire financial model (see "How VisiCalc Works," INC., November 1981, page 104).

Ingenious businesspeople are no longer using these programs just to answer "what if" questions for budgeting or other kinds of financial planning. They have found that the automated grid, or rowand-column format, of the spreadsheets can be employed for a wide variety of other applications.

* The avionics department at Atlantic Aviation Corp. in Wilmington, Del., uses VisiCalc as a primitive, but effective, graphics tool. Engineers and salespeople in the 20-employee department rely on the row-and-column format to plot the layout of wiring and electronic components for aircraft. By assigning each connector in a particular circuit to an easily changed grid location and then linking the connectors by horizontal lines, they can quickly determine which layouts will work best. "It produces a diagram that both our installers and our customers can use," says Dennis Hudson, the avionics salesman who introduced the procedure. "I know we're only using 10% of VisiCalc's power, but without it, we would have needed a full-time draftsman just to produce these drawings."

* Jim Gaston uses VisiCalc on his Radio Shack TRS-80 Model II for accounting and cash management applications. The software has permitted him to gain better control over the cash flow from his $2.5 million-a-year business, White River Resort in Lakeview, Ark. "Before I got VisiCalc, there was no way for me to keep day-to-day records for the different profit centers at the resort," says the owner of the 250-acre facility, which features trout fishing and golf. The manual accounting procedures on which he had previously relied allowed only monthly reporting of transactions at the resort's airstrip, restaurant, and 22 other sales centers.

Gaston allots one row of the electronic spreadsheet to each revenue source; at the end of every business day, he simply enters the latest sales figures. By consolidating these daily sales reports, he can also quickly compare year-to-date and month-to-date sales figures, as well as prepare monthly sales-tax and alcohol-tax reports and even trial balances for his accountant. "We covered our hardware and software costs in the time we saved with our CPA in the first year," he says.

* Charles Speake, a Honolulu-based management consultant and publisher of the Hickson Financial Marketing Report (P.O. Box 1444, Honolulu, HI 96806), a monthly newsletter on small business finances, has adapted VisiCalc to a wide variety of uses, including keeping tabs on extpense-account reporting. "We created the expense-account template for a construction firm with personnel traveling around the outer islands," he explains. "We listed 45 expense categories; every month all they have to do is key their expenses into the proper cells in the matrix and it totals the figures and prints out a report."

Speake's other uses for VisiCalc range from balancing his personal checkbook register (he has created a tidy five-column grid, which indicates the date, check number, deposit and debit columns, and running totals) to reconciling an ailing company's account books with those of one of its suppliers. Computer veteran Speake calls electronic spreadsheets perfect for "quick and dirty" solutions, systems analyst jargon for programs that can be easily thrown together although they may lack sophisticated error-detecting features of custom-written software.

Many tasks for which computer owners usually buy separate software -- such as general-ledger accounting, database management, and inventory management -- can be accomplished with VisiCalc-type programs, claims Bob Korngold, co-publisher of the newsletter Spread Sheet. "Most people haven't come close to using VisiCalc's full powers," he says. "VisiCalc is becoming a whole dataprocessing department in itself." Devoted to exploring the finer points of VisiCalc and its competitors and to describing some of their unusual uses, Korngold's Spread Sheet is, for the most part, written by subscribers. (Six issues cost $25; P.O. Box 254, Scarsdale, NY 10583.)

Another newsletter, this one devoted solely to VisiCalc applications, is published by VisiCalc's inventors, Software Arts Inc. (SATN, for Software Arts Technical Notes; six issues cost $30; P.O. Box 494, Cambridge, MA 02139.) SATN runs articles on uses ranging from calculating monthly mortgage payments to tracking team standings in a sports league.

Books on VisiCalc applications are also beginning to appear. The most accessible for business users is An Introduction to VisiCalc Matrixing for Apple and IBM, by H. Anbarlian ($22.95; published by McGraw-Hill, 1221 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020). The spreadsheet applications the book explains -- creating appointment calendars, credit card records, payroll reports, organization charts, stock-portfolio analyses, and projections, among others -- can be easily adapted to other personal computers and other VisiCalc-style programs.

There is even an instructional video cassette, "The Microcomputer: What It Can Do and the Power of VisiCalc," by business microcomputer consultants Barbara and John McMullen (available for a $35 rental fee from Martha Stuart Communications Inc., Distribution Center, P.O. Box 246, Hillsdale, NY 12529).

Business users who have neither fluency with electronic spreadsheets nor time to learn the programs can now add on to them preformatted applications, which are available on disks from independent software publishers. These templates provide already-designated columns and rows; users simply fill in their own numbers.

Templates for VisiCalc, SuperCalc, and other popular programs include tax-preparation models from Professional Software Technology (priced at $49, $99, and $149; P.O. Box 269, Rockport, MA 01966) and agricultural applications created by AgriSoft ($19.95 per disk; Suite 202, 1001 E. Walnut St., Columbia, MO 65201) VisiCalc's publisher, VisiCorp, recently issued its own set of seven interrelated applications worksheets; available on a single disk under the title "VisiCalc Business Forecasting Model" ($100) are such easily filled templates as Income Statement, Statement of Cash Flow, and Cost of Goods Sold.

Businesspeople who have experience with electronic spreadsheets can make them even more useful by buying so-called utility programs, which are available on disks. These allow users to perform functions they couldn't do with the spreadsheet alone. Different VisiCalc files can be rapidly merged with the aid of Visiblend from Micro Lab Inc. ($50; 2310 Skokie Valley Rd., Highland Park, IL 60035). With this program, a user can, for instance, combine yearly budget figures to create a five-year plan. If a businessperson wanted to display a VisiCalc program simultaneously on his Apple computer and on a salesperson's Apple in an office 3,000 miles away, he could use ordinary telephone wires with Reflexive VC software published by Arrow Micro Software ($45; 11 Kingsford Crescent, Kanata, Ontario K2K 1T5, Canada) and the appropriate hardware (a modem).

In another communications application, data from large computers can be downloaded into a VisiCalc model on an Apple II via the $180 Connector program sold by Context Management Systems, creators of the MBA spreadsheet for the IBM Personal Computer. The Connector thus makes a central database directly accessible to individual microcomputers for further data analysis.

In fact, VisiCalc applications are limited by not much more than the user's imagination. Fritz Maytag, president and master brewer of the Anchor Brewing Co., based in San Francisco, uses his VisaCalc at home as well as in the office; frequently he will test some new "what if" in the middle of the night. "You have a psychological advantage when you can go into a morning meeting with suppliers or distributors, having tested various pricing assumptions the night before," says Maytag, whose 15-employee operation -- one of the few surviving small breweries in the United States -- produces 25,000 barrels of premium beer a year. Maytag uses one of his VisiCalc models to break out prices at the per-bottle, per-six-pack, and per-case level to improve pricing decisions. "I'm not a particularly sophisticated user," he adds, "but I can appreciate VisiCalc as an intellectual achievement, something like a sonnet."

Last updated: Oct 1, 1982

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