Two years ago all Chuck Krallman knew of laptops was his utter frustration with them. As president of a strategic-marketing firm, he relied on the computers to collect data around the world. "They came back with cracked screens, crashed hard drives, coffee spilled on the keyboards, crayon on the screens." He knew he could use a more rugged model, but could anyone else?

"I had a market-research company, so I decided to find out," says Krallman. He assigned three people to research the $1.5-billion laptop market. Through a quantitative survey of Fortune 500 buying directors, in-depth interviews, and focus groups, he identified what the market wanted and what it would spend. He used computer-aided research techniques to figure which combination of features would capture the greatest market share. He then modeled the market to select the best channels to sell through. After four to six months, actually launching the company -- Tusk Inc., in Lake Park, Fla. -- and designing the product became footnotes to the research.

Tusk plans volume shipments of its first product, an all-terrain portable computer, by the first quarter of 1992. The device offers the option of writing directly on screen with a stylus, making a keyboard optional. The market? Field personnel in vertical markets, including aircraft maintenance, utilities, construction, and the military. Licensing agreements with large computer makers are also in the works. "We got into this business because of the market research," says Krallmann. "It forces us to listen to customers. It's amazing how that can differentiate your product."

-- Anne Murphy