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Mitch Kapor Spins A New Kind Of Disk


Once a week, Softsel Computer Products Inc. of Inglewood, Calif., publishes a "hot list" of leading software programs. By mid-March, after only a couple of months on the market, 1-2-3 was in second place (behind Home Accountant by Continental Software in Los Angeles). By the end of March it was No. 1. Lotus Development Corp. founder Mitchell Kapor eyed the heady progress of his company's sole product and, with the modulation of a trained disc jockey, roundly announced, "We're still climbing on the charts!" The studied delivery was, in fact, well practiced: A few years before becoming a software programmer, Kapor was a full-time DJ in Hartford.

If spinning rock 'n' roll tunes for a living seems an unlikely backdrop for the developer of one of the most complex and sophisticated programs yet developed for desktop computers, Kapor's next career was even more so. Sporting a degree from Yale University in psychology and linguistics, Kapor became a Transcendental Meditation teacher and wound up, in the late 1970s, working as a psychiatric counselor in a community hospital.

But then along came the personal computer, and with the acquisition of an early Apple, Kapor ascended into the mysteries of BASIC. "I got very excited about it," Kapor recalls beatifically. "A computer was something I could own, that would be under the user's control and was not some elaborate priesthood." Nonetheless, it was a transcendence that within a few years was to be worth millions of dollars.

On the Apple, Kapor devised a statistics and graphics program. Tiny Troll, as it was called (based on Massachusetts Institute of Technology's TROLL language), started producing positive cash flow. To hone now-needed business skills, Kapor enrolled in the Accelerated Master's Program at MIT's Sloan School of Management. It was then that he met Peter Jennings and Dan Fylstra of Personal Software Inc. (now called VisiCorp), marketers of the "Visi" line of business software. Kapor designed and developed VisiPlot and VisiTrend, and, accepting a job with PSI, the young man (he was 29) went west.

But although the Visi programs were boffo on the charts, Atlantic Coast-raised Kapor was homesick. He returned east both to recapture its congeniality ("it's a richer, more heterogeneous environment; there are better bookstores and more movie theaters") and to start his own business. "I really wanted to give my entrepreneurial spirit a shot," says Kapor. The shot, financially anyway, easily struck the small-business bull's-eye, since not only was he pulling in six figures a month from royalties alone, but he cashed in all his chips, selling PSI the rights to VisiPlot and VisiTrend for $1-2 million. In the fall of 1981, Lotus Development Corp. was founded in Cambridge, Mass. A few months later, venture capitalist Benjamin Rosen tossed in a few more dollars to capitalize the company's research and development. In January 1983, 1-2-3 was released and began its rise on the charts.

That is a remarkable progression for a person who self-admittedly turned out to be a mediocre programmer despite having been "a nerd manque" in high school. But, he explains, "the critical thing in developing software is not the program, it's the design. It is translating understanding of user needs into something that can be realized as a computer program."

Kapor was a bit of a math whiz in earlier years and in fact held an applications-programming position briefly. But, he says, "even though I had the talent, programming just didn't feel right. I never considered it very seriously. Some people get gratification from bending a machine to their will. I didn't. I found the kinds of contortions you had to go through to get a mainframe computer to do anything seemed to me to be illogical, irrational, inefficient, and fundamentally uninteresting. One reason it is uninteresting is that the kinds of applications that run on mainframe and minicomputers have been ones that primarily and directly serve corporate interests -- transaction processing, invoices, and things like that. Whereas personal computers most directly serve the individual user. Managerial and professional people hadn't really used computers, hadn't sat down at keyboards, until personal computers. Personal computers have a totally different feel. I like the idea of more direct involvement."

To Kapor, business is not merely an abstract gameboard for computer adventures but a complex, psychodynamic human institution that arouses passion. "I'm fascinated by management and organizations," he reflects. "How organizations get things done and how successful organizations are built and maintained, how they evolve as they grow from start-ups to small companies to medium companies to big companies." Predictably, Kapor senses a similarity between psychotherapy and management. "There's a common set of skills that are applicable in both areas, he argues. "There's a framework in business that relates to corporate strategy, but you have to have an intuitive approach, a feeling for how to accomplish things. Bad managers often lack people and communication skills. They may have the technological knowledge and the ambition and the motivation and the energy, but if you can't get a group of people working together, you can't accomplish much. It's a challenge to develop an organization that people feel comfortable with -- in the sense that it's an arena for employees to make professional contributions while having their personal part respected. It's a fascinating process and I love doing it."

In the summer of 1980 Kapor first had the idea for an integrated modeling program that could easily interface with nontechnical user. So did a number of other people, he admits. "It was sort of obvious. If you look at the stand-alone productivity tools of spreadsheets or graphing programs, because of the overhead of having to swap and load and reload to sit around and wait while all this was going on. So the notion of integration came out of observation: Wouldn't it be nice if we could reduce user frustration by putting together separate programs into a single multifunction application?

"At that point, some went off in different directions -- with VisiON and Lisa, for example. My idea was even simpler: Just have a single application that does these different things. The key would be that the user could solve his or her problem with less reference to the limitations of the machine and would not have to divide up his own creative problem-solving process along the lines that the particular programs have to be divided into. Rather than focusing on what a technology can do starting from the box and working back to the user, I wanted to start from the user and then figure out what you can do with the box to make users happy and productive. It's an absolutely consistent approach that I've taken in all the products that I've done. It ties into my background very strongly."

Despite the giant strides taken over the last few months alone by 1-2-3, Context MBA, Lisa, VisiON, and a few other integrated programs that are in preparation, Kapor feels that "we're nowhere near the end of the trail in terms of user interfaces." Kapor doesn't see "a hell of a difference" between 1-2-3 and MBA despite competitor Context's appraisals (see below). "The big difference is between us and Lisa and VisiON," he says. "Obviously there are some things in MBA that are, as of today, not in 1-2-3," he admits, but that doesn't concern him too much. "We are clearly killing them in sales," Kapor crows, with breezy confidence fanned by industry reports. "It's got to be by a factor of five. We blow them and everybody else out of the water in terms of total effectiveness that the package delivers." Even so, he predicts that 1-2-3 will be adding word processing and telecommunications modes -- capabilities that MBA already boasts -- in a revised version. As of this spring, 1-2-3 ran only on the IBM PC, but it will be written for other microcomputers in the near future.

To keep the competition keenly honed, Kapor usually gets to the office at 7:30 a.m. and "puts in an entrepreneur's standard 60-hour week." Still, why bother? Like many another young software architect, Kapor could have retired a millionaire by the age of 30. But plumbing the unseen depths of desktop machines is much too intriguing to trade now for a Cape Cod beach. "People like to work," Kapor pronounces, concluding a lecture on Transcendental Meditation and at the same time starting one on psychiatry. "They're accomplishment-oriented. They like to achieve things. And if it's fun, why stop? It would be crazy to stop."

Last updated: Jun 1, 1983

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