When last we left him, Ronald D. Roberts, one of the creators of Peachtree Software Inc., was blissfully unemployed. Peachtree, you'll remember, was an industry star for a few brief shining moments in the late 1970s and early '80s. At one point it claimed 30% of the accounting software market, and it was the company IBM called when it decided to sell accounting programs under the Big Blue banner.
Thrilling it was. Profitable it wasn't. The Atlanta-based company never made much money, and that wears thin after six years of 80-hour workweeks. So, in 1981, Roberts and his cofounders sold out to Management Science of America Inc. (MSA), a leading manufacturer of mainframe software. By the time he got around to cashing in his share, Roberts, who worked briefly for MSA identifying other software products and companies for it to buy, had netted around $1 million.
After that he went skiing ("I finally made the expert trails") or played golf and the banjo ("I play banjo better"). But today Roberts is back at work as founder of Clockwork Systems Inc., which makes billing software for lawyers. "Doing nothing forever was never an issue," he says. "I'm not a red-eyed entrepreneur, but I do like problem solving."
Red-eyed or not, he's an example of that once-rare species now growing more common: the two-time company builder. This time, before starting up, he spent a year and $150,000 of his own money thinking about his product and studying the marketplace, in which he believes he's found a hole. His target is not the large firms whose complex needs the big players are trying to serve, but small firms with 50 lawyers or fewer. The market is huge. Of the nation's 272,000 law firms, the American Bar Association (ABA) says that 230,000 of them are solo practitioners.
Still, it's too early to open the champagne. Some industry executives don't think the dollars are there in Roberts's chosen niche, which is filled with many small competitors. Roberts, though, remains undaunted. His program, he says, has the right features, is expandable, and fits demand -- the ABA estimates that less than 10% of the nation's law firms have any billing software at all. And besides, he says, he has done this once before. That makes it a bit easier.
This time the process of building a company is taking less of a toll. While Roberts was growing Peachtree, a Sunday off was "a major event," and he watched his marriage dissolve. Now he's working 50 hours a week, minus the occasional afternoon golf game, and is involved in a peaceful courtship. He's selling $10,000 in software a month, a figure that has been steadily increasing, and expects to show a profit by year's end.
And if this all works out, would Ron Roberts try to start a third company? Well, no. "I'm too old to do this again."
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