Usually people start companies because they've either spotted a need and created a product, or invented a product and located a need. But other folks launch businesses by just sort of stumbling into them.

Take Bruce Johnson, who tinkered with computers when he wasn't running his movie theater or video store in Osage, Iowa. When the local police department needed help interpreting bids on a computer system, he agreed to help.

The police wanted a system that would use automatic phone calls to check on housebound elderly people, but none of the proposals had the right software. So Johnson wrote some. "I was new to the community," he says, "and figured it was a good public service." He got $300 for expenses.

Soon after going on-line, the network saved its first life. Associated Press picked up the story, then "Good Morning America." As hundreds of calls poured in, Johnson, who held the copyright, took the hint. Year-old Northland Innovation Corp. has sold 75 Are You OK? systems, with marketing help from an Osage police officer.

-- Leslie Brokaw