A CEO explains why he hesitated before he started his software company, and what he learned.
Technology has made it easier to become -- or miss becoming -- an entrepreneur
I've always wanted my own business -- to have the buck come to a full and final stop at my desk. I thought I was on a steady course toward that goal. I should have known better. These days everything moves at light speed: product innovations, customer needs, business relationships. When my window of opportunity for entrepreneurship popped open, it was poised to slam shut in the blink of a cursor.
First a little history. In 1982 I joined a young company to market a system that enabled physicians to dictate medical reports into a central computer that digitized the voice and stored it on hard disks. The physicians used phones as the input devices, and transcriptionists could selectively access the voice files to transcribe them into text.
The living was easy. Growing industry, good people, comfortable income. I ultimately became vice-president of marketing and sales, and was able to control most of what I wanted to control. But after 13 years something was missing. Particularly disappointing was the reaction of my company to what I thought was a hot idea: software that could turn a PC into a dictation or transcription workstation. The engineers looked over my proposal and deemed it infeasible. End of discussion.
I needed a change. Perhaps I could fulfill a long-standing personal mission: persuading physicians to use the power of the computer to provide higher-quality, more cost-effective health care. An offer came along from a company that had developed a really cool clinical-decision support system. I left my long-time job at a high point to become that company's senior vice-president for marketing and sales. Now, I thought, I could do things my way. Wrong. Amazing what happens when you work for people who are as committed and stubborn as you are.
Meanwhile, my wife, Maria, and I had developed and patented an innovative speed-typing system called Smartype. Maria ran the company while I kept my day job. Smartype is PC-based software that reduces a transcriptionist's keystrokes by 70%. The handful of transcriptionists who had purchased it were experiencing dramatic improvements in productivity. But after funding Smartype's development out of our personal assets, we had little money left for marketing. We'd thought that if we built a better mousetrap, they would come. Not many did.
Then I discovered Internet news-groups -- in particular, a newsgroup for transcriptionists. I used this forum to provide useful information about Smartype and to encourage its users to share their experiences. The product took off.
One Wednesday evening I was scanning the newsgroup's postings when my eye caught a message titled "Would anybody buy this system?" The writer had described software that sounded as if it matched the idea I'd proposed at my digital-dictation job -- the one I was told couldn't be realized. I immediately E-mailed back, asking for additional information. On Thursday the writer and I exchanged more E-mail. On Friday we had a phone conversation. On Sunday I flew from Massachusetts to Virginia to check out his system.
The stuff really worked. It used PCMCIA sound cards to allow a PC to function as a dictation or transcription workstation. Plus, advanced compression technology permitted the efficient transmission of digital voice files over phone lines, ISDNs, LANs, and the Internet itself. On Monday, we had a preliminary agreement: I would set up a company to exclusively market the product in the health-care field and assist in finding distributors for the legal, insurance, and general commercial markets. One week later, we had a signed contract. No lawyers.
Bill Lupinacci, the message writer, had wanted one of the two big dictation companies to bring his product to market, but both had been slow to jump on it. I, on the other hand, had a driving need to have my own thing -- the right thing. When I learned the software existed, I told myself, "Just do it!"
We're now three months into our business. We recently unveiled the software at our first trade show. Nev- er has a product I've shown been received so enthusiastically.
It's not easy to find the right thing. This opportunity would have blown right by me if I hadn't been networked into the right market at the right time. Fortunately, staying tapped in has gotten easier -- you can do it right from your desktop. You don't want to be off-line when your window pops open.
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Joe Weber (email@example.com) is CEO of Narratek Inc., in Brookline, Mass.