What's it like to be 80-plus years old . . . married to the greatest management writer in history . . . and starting the first company of your life?

For years my role as the wife of a professional speaker was to sit in the last row of an auditorium and shout, "Louder!" whenever my husband's voice dropped. I decided that there had to be a better feedback device, and if there wasn't, I was going to invent one. Then I decided, at the age of 80-plus, that I would start a business to sell it.

My children thought I'd gone off my rocker. Friends were more tactful, but I resented their sometimes patronizing comments. ("Marvelous that you can still do it!") Of course, the reactions weren't surprising. Though start-ups have become our national pastime, they're considered a young person's game--certainly not an appropriate activity for senior citizens.

But starting a business at 80 is really no different from starting one at any age. The only prerequisites are that you are still alive, in good physical and mental health, and the owner of a vast reservoir of energy. One's sense of urgency is a plus: if not now, when?

My product was going to be an electronic device: a microphone receiving the speaker's voice would transfer changes in volume to a visual display in which lights of different colors would indicate different loudness levels. The device had to be inexpensive and economical to use. It would take the place of a lot of elaborate audio equipment and reduce the need for the routine services of an audio engineer in an auditorium.

To convert my brainchild into a marketable product, I looked for help. Several consulting engineers turned me down--perhaps they didn't think much of having an old lady as a client. Others I turned down because they wanted too large a piece of the action. A former business associate suggested a 75-year-old retired engineer, Obie O'Brien, in Rescue, Calif. Obie and I met a few times, discovered that we could work together, and formed a corporation called RSQ, after his hometown. Obie calculated the future production costs for the units we were going to build (which turned out to be an accurate forecast), the price we would have to charge, and the number of units we would have to sell to come out ahead. That was our business plan.

Any investor would have been aghast at the informality of it. But at our age, we couldn't have attracted a venture capitalist anyhow, so why bother to be more specific?

A grandson designed a logo on his computer for the company, and in November 1995 Obie and I signed the documents establishing our limited-liability company. Obie built prototypes, one after the other, which we showed to prospective users. We incorporated their suggestions for improvements into successive models till we had the functional product we had envisioned.

The microphone and all the electronics were built into a chassis; light-emitting diodes in the shape of light bars were mounted in a separate holder, which was to be plugged into the circuitry. That way, the light signals--showing a speaker how loud to talk--could be displayed anywhere within the speaker's line of vision.

The prototypes, primitive though they were, got us some orders for the finished product as soon as it would be ready. Encouraged, we decided to build a few "real" samples to test the transition from a homemade product to a manufactured one. Or rather, we decided to have them built because we didn't have the resources to manufacture anything ourselves. I figured it wouldn't be a problem to buy the chassis and the electronic components and find an assembler to put them all together.

Well, how dumb can you be? It took me months, working full-time, to get those samples built. Decisions, decisions: Plastic chassis or metal ones? Cost versus weight. Practicability versus appearance. We needed a box that could be opened and shut by the user. What kind of cover should it have? Sliding? Fitted? Hinged? Nothing was available to meet our dimensions and specifications. I let my fingers do the walking through the yellow pages, culled the names of 10 or 12 chassis makers within an arbitrary radius of 30 miles, and drove from one to the next. Some calls were unproductive--the quoted prices were too high, or the quality standards were too low. Finally, I found a small sheet-steel fabricator with which I placed the order for the chassis. The owner, a retired navy man in his seventies, seemed to like working with other seniors.

Obie and a young electronics specialist whom he had co-opted had made out a parts list of 70 or 80 items, including the manufacturers' parts numbers. With that list in my pocket, I prowled through electronics stores, discounters, and surplus outlets, RadioShacks and Home Depots. It was no use going to manufacturers--they sold parts only in lots of hundreds or thousands. From dusty bins I scooped out capacitors and resistors, Schott and Zener diodes, jacks, plugs, clamps, whatnot.

Next I had to find an assembler, but I had no idea how to go about it. On a Saturday morning, as I raked leaves on my front lawn I asked my next-door neighbor, an engineer, who was also working in his yard, whether he knew an assembler who could put my device together. He did. He had worked for one some years ago, a really good guy.

On Monday morning I went to see Lee Hoffman at JDF Enterprises, in Placentia, 28 miles south of Rescue. The shop was well organized and had up-to-date machinery. Hoffman said he could put our project together. "But," he asked, "who is going to provide the two circuit boards per unit, according to your design?"

"I thought you would!" I said.

"No, we do only the assembly, connecting the boards to the microphones, the other components, and the controls on the outside."

"But who does the boards?"

"Steve. He has a lab in Corona, 40 miles to the southeast. I'll give him a call and tell him that you want to talk to him."

At 8 the next morning Steve arrived at my office. He looked at the drawings and agreed to build the boards. "But who is going to do the layout?" he asked.

"I thought that was part of your job!"

"No, like I told you, I build the boards, but I have to have a layout."

"Then who does the layout?"

"Helen. Would you like me to call her for you?"

I started to get the impression that this game of "I'll call X and say that you want to talk to him or her" was going to go on forever, but Helen, fortunately, happened to be the last in line.

I went to see her in Chino, only 10 miles away. She had a nondescript house in a nondescript neighborhood; only the tightly drawn black shades of the front windows hinted at the high-tech setup inside. Helen, an elderly lady in sweats, led me into her lab. Yes, she would do the layout for the boards but not right away. She was busy with a major project for another customer, and besides, she worked professionally only in the afternoons. Mornings she worked for her church.

She looked like such an unlikely techie that I asked her how she'd gotten into this kind of work. She used to be a teacher, she told me, till she took early retirement because of arthritis. She spent six months doing crossword puzzles and other busywork. One day she sent for a do-it-yourself radio kit--and then for another and another. Suddenly, it hit her that she could do a much better job of designing the kits, and so she developed a business for which there is more demand than she can fill. A thoroughly competent and conscientious designer, she did an excellent job for us.

While I was waiting for her layout, I wrote a patent application. Then I started to apply for a trademark. A lawyer recommended a professional search to find out whether our provisional name for the invention was available. The search, at $600, showed that it wasn't. Because we couldn't afford to spend that much searching for every other word we might come up with, I went the Lexis-Nexis route myself. A made-up word, Visivox, appeared to be available, and we applied for it as a trademark.

All that took much longer than we'd thought, even though we'd expected delays in the development process. One factor was that unlike the engineers of Tracy Kidder's The Soul of a New Machine, Obie and I couldn't devote body and soul to our project. Each of us had families, family crises, obligations, and other priorities with stronger claims on our time.

Still, we got the first five sample chassis built and painted, with the legends on right and all the parts put in. We agonized over the costs--sample building is expensive but essential to forestall potentially large errors.

Now we were ready to order our first run of 100 units, but we were not done yet. Every day there was some unexpected problem. The spray painter--24 miles to the south--would get on the phone, saying that all 100 chassis delivered for painting were faulty. The manufacturer had miscalculated the hinge clearance; after the paint was applied, the chassis lids wouldn't close. The 100 chassis had to go back to the manufacturer, who took each one of them apart to fix the problem. He wanted me to inspect the finished work, and the painter wanted me to inspect his work. Some days I would drive up to 200 miles just making the rounds.

I also had to think about marketing tools. Ideally, we would have had the brochures produced professionally, the copy as well as the graphics. But we were operating on a shoestring, and so we tried to do as much as we could with the help of family and friends. One of them reviewed the text I'd composed and remarked, "You'll never make it as a copywriter for Campbell Soup." I shrugged--what did soup have to do with it? I ordered a photograph of a Visivox from a professional photographer and looked for somebody to lay out and print our brochures. The first designer, who had come highly recommended, reproached me for waking her with a 9 a.m. call--she needed her beauty sleep, she said. I struck her off; I needed somebody with more get-up-and-go. Number two did beautiful work--I wished we could have afforded him. Number three, an all-woman outfit, was competent; we assigned our work to it.

So they'd stand out among all the direct mail, we had the brochures printed on orange-yellow stock. Envelopes of the same color cost a mint. In the yellow pages I found a manufacturer located in what I knew was a scary neighborhood. Unexpectedly, his was a modern building, and I bought 1,000 envelopes at one-fifth the price asked by a local retailer.

The next foray was to the post office to get a permit for the return-postage-paid postcards that were to be attached to the brochures. The local post office and that of the neighboring community quoted widely divergent prices. I drove to the one with the lower quote, only to find out that the one person authorized to issue the permits had already left for the day. At 2 p.m.? Sure, he worked from 4 a.m. to noon. The next morning at 9, I went to yet another post office, where, I had been assured, the permit issuer would be on duty. That was misinformation: it was two days before Christmas, and the man had gone home at 8. The fourth trip, however, was successful: the post office accepted a check for $100 in return for the permit.

There were still a few minor things to attend to, such as buying shipping cartons, bubble wrap, shipping labels, and sealing tape, but U-Haul and the discounters were glad to oblige.

Now we face another challenge: to introduce and sell a new product. Our initial efforts made the product look like a success. Whenever I have demonstrated the product, I've made a sale: to corporations that use Visivox for their internal seminars; to colleges, churches, and debating societies; and to well-known professional speakers. But now I have to organize national distribution.

My husband, the management guru, has watched all this with astonishment. People ask, understandably, if being the wife of the fellow who all but created management science has affected how I think about starting and growing a company--and they're a little disbelieving when I tell them it hasn't. He does my taxes (and I bless him for that; I hate doing them). But otherwise, he has no idea about start-ups. "I wouldn't know the first thing about a small enterprise like yours," he says to me. All the practical steps that consume so much time--they have nothing to do with him.

When Obie and I stand back now, we ask ourselves whether we would have started the venture two years ago if we'd known how difficult it was going to be. The sleepless nights. The worries about how to get around the next roadblock.

And the answer is yes. I got to know and work with a lot of people I would never have met otherwise--people my own age and people 40 or 50 years younger. When I talk electronics to a supplier--when I talk about the negative tip orientation of a charger cable or the type of pot (that is, potentiometer in the lingo)--I'm just another professional customer, not an old lady. I'm not just the standard figure expected by our ageist society.

Yes, I'd start a business again. Of course, I still have a long way to go with this one.

Doris Drucker is the CEO and founder of RSQ, in Claremont, Calif.

Published on: Oct 1, 1997