Had tennis courts been easier to come by for a couple of Massachusetts Institute of Technology students, Zoom Telephonics Inc. might never have been born.

Then, too, had Patrick Manning been able to nap in peace, the company might never have had the money to grow.

The story began eight years ago at MIT, where Frank Manning, Zoom's 36-year-old president and chief executive officer, and board chairman Bruce Kramer, now 35, were roommates and tennis partners. "We collaborated on projects as undergraduates," explains Manning," and always talked about starting a business together."

Their brainstorming sessions often took place over tennis -- when they were able to get a court. Reservations had to be made the day before, and the booking line was constantly busy; having a rotary dialer didn't help, either. So they rigged up an integrated circuit system that dialed the courts repeatedly and alerted them, with a ring, when a connection was made.

Once the automatic dialer was developed, Manning heard from his brother Pat, a St. Louis gas station owner, who asked if there were a way to turn off his business phone without alerting callers. The reason was that he didn't want a busy signal advertising the fact that he was home having a late-afternoon nap. Manning came up with "a fairly simple but elegant" on/off switch that impressed Pat enough for him to lend the guys from MIT, including Kramer's brother Peter, $80,000 in seed money for a manufacturing operation.

Today, Zoom employs 50 people in its four-story Boston warehouse, and has grown to $5.9 million in 1983 sales. "The wave of the future is the merging of voice and data," says CEO Manning, "so our strategy has been to develop computerized telecommunications products for small offices." Today's updated version of Manning's original invention, The Demon Dialer, uses a microprocessor that can store and dial up to 176 numbers.Another engineering spin-off, The Hot Shot, instantly connects the user with a frequently called number -- typically, a discount long-distance service's access line. Both products, along with Pat Manning's "silencer" switch, are marketed primarily to businesses through local phone companies.

The telecommunications business moves quickly, however, and the former roommates are moving, too. Last year, Zoom brought out a computer modem for Apple Computer Inc. that comes with an introductory subscription to The Source, an on-line information service; in 1985, it will release a series of modems for other personal computers, as well as a voice-mail and message system. The management team includes Peter Kramer as vice-president, Pat Manning as a Zoom director, and another Manning brother, Terry, as the company's communications director.

"We're not obsessed with having a family business," Frank Manning insists. "It just so happens that when we were looking for people we could trust and respect, there they were." His criteria for locating a venture capitalist -- part of Zoom's new financing strategy -- are similar. Money is not enough: "The particular person is what counts," he says. Since Zoom hopes to go public within a year, the Manning-Kramer team wants a financier who is not only well connected in the business community, but one who "we'll enjoy having at our board meetings."

Tennis expertise, presumably, is optional.

CORRECTION-DATE: January, 1985

CORRECTION:

In the December 1984 issue, Stephen J. Sherman should have received credit for the photograph on the lower left of page 77 and Spider Martin/Black Star should have received credit for the photograph on page 78.

In the December 1984 issue, Stephen J. Sherman should have received credit for the photograph on the lower left of page 77 and Spider Martin/Black Star should have received credit for the photograph on page 78.

Published on: Dec 1, 1984