Tag Archives: Sabrina Parsons

How did Tim Berry grow Palo Alto software?

I was amused to check in with Quora this morning and find somebody had asked me to answer “How Did Tim Berry Grow Palo Alto Software?” Obviously that’s a question dear to my heart. So here’s what I answered, which seems fitting for this blog today.

Business Plan Toolkit
The first Business Plan Toolkit in 1988

Slowly, carefully, bolstered by good product and reviews that validated, doing a lot of coding and documentation myself, and not spending money we didn’t have.

It started as spreadsheet templates. The first of those was published in 1984 to accompany a book “How to Develop Your Business Plan,” published by Oasis Press. In 1988 I separated from that book, and redid the templates to accompany my own book when I published “Business Plan Toolkit,” released in MacWorld January 1988. All of these early products were 100% my work, my spreadsheet macros and my documentation. It helped to have a diverse background, including 10 years as a professional journalist, foreign correspondent in Mexico City, plus a Stanford MBA. I could write about business so (people told me) others could understand.

Throughout the early years I kept up a healthy consulting practice doing business plans for some startups and some larger high tech companies, plus workshops on business planning for dealers of high tech companies. Apple was by far my best client, with repeat business in consulting on business planning from the beginning until 1994 (Hector Saldana was a steady client for years, and a supporter of the business idea, and informal advisor). The consulting supported marketing expenses. There was no Internet to speak of until 1995, so the early marketing was a combination of small ads in the back of magazines and product reviews in major computer magazines.

It was a major struggle for years.  I was sacrificing consulting revenues to prop up products. The motivator, for years, was “I want to sell boxes, not hours.”

My wife’s role was especially important during those long hard years. She didn’t give up on me. We have five kids and we depended financially on my consulting, but she stick with my idea of “boxes not hours” as I continued to use scarce funds to keep the product dream alive. We had some money to deal with because my role in Borland International paid off in 1986, but we were still struggling, with small houses and used cars. And by the way we’re still married as I write this in 2016.

When we moved it from Palo Alto to Eugene OR in 1992, I had three early equity shareholders (1% each) who agreed to surrender their shares because there was no value in them. My wife and I moved to Oregon because we wanted to. She said to me: “we put up with all the downside of you having your own business; let’s get the upside and move to where we want to live.”

By 1994 I was in deep trouble, with a quarter of a million dollars of unsold product stuck in retail, coming back from channels. The template products never made it. And in the words of Kathy Colder, a key purchasing executive from Fry’s, “Tim, your boxes suck.” At the worst point, we had three mortgages and 65K$ credit card debt.

Business Plan Pro
Business Plan Pro circa 2000

What I did then was decide not to just repackage, but to build stand-alone product instead, dumping templates entirely.  I found a local three-person programming company (Cascade Technologies, which no longer exists; its founder was Ken Barley) to take my templates and my vision and create stand-alone product for Windows using Visual Basic and an Excel-compatible spreadsheet we were able to buy as a tool, and include in the software. It added a complete interface to include the words as well as the numbers, and keep it all, even formatting and printing, inside the one application. I wrote about a third of the code myself, in Visual Basic. My vendor got a low monthly fee for 12 months, plus a percent of future revenue. We were still not able to spend money we didn’t have.

That effort was launched in 1995 and became successful as Business Plan Pro so I was able to stop consulting and dedicate myself to the business. My daughter Andrea Breanna joined me in 1998 and developed the web business with downloadable software. We grew quickly to more than $5 million annual revenues by 2000. (Andrea left in 2001 and became CTO of Huffington Post in 2007 and founded RebelMouse in 2012).

In 1999 we took on a minority investment from Palo Alto venture capital, RB Webber and Associates. That was our first outside investment. In 2002 we negotiated a buyback with them because after the dot-com crash valuations had plummeted and the company was worth more to me and my family members than what an acquirer would pay for it.

I stepped aside in 2007 and asked Sabrina Parsons to become CEO while I focused on blogging, writing books, speaking, and teaching. She and the team released LivePlan in 2012 and that – a web app, SaaS, browser based has become very successful, having had several hundred thousand paid accounts already. I’m still chairman, and founder, but Sabrina and her team get a pretty free rein to run the company. Market share and awareness keeps growing and we’ve had several years of double-digit growth in revenues again, after the great recession. And it is entirely family owned.

Here is the source on Quora: How did Tim Berry grow Palo Alto software?

Please Give Me A Step by Step Startup Map, Personalized, and Free Too!

There was a comment posted on this blog last week. It’s well-written and touches the heart. It also plays some chords I get to often, worth calling out in a blog post. It starts…

I’m a 40-something woman and I want to start my own business. I have a visionary mind and I’m very analytical (almost to a fault…). I have been working in [mid-level clerical jobs] for over 7 years now and I’m hitting a dead-end in the industry. Not to mention, I’m tired of the cube life. I have worked even booths at home-shows and fairs for virtually nothing and less. I have half a clue as to how to operate, but I have no idea how to get started.

… so of course I’d like to help. And then she adds…

Because of the down-turn in the economy and the job market, I have been working as a temp for the last 2 years and our home is way under water. As a result, I have no money – we live literally from week to week.

… which makes want even more to help. But then I get to this:

… the research I’ve done so far has revealed that I know nothing. I just discovered that if I get a food cart, it has to go through an approval application review at $130 hr w/ a minimum of 2 hours. None of the books I’ve read have mentioned this expenditure.

She goes on:

If it sounds like I’m asking for some hand-holding, well, yes I am. I want to do this so badly, but fear has always been my own self-defeating nemesis. All of that to ask you: Do you have a map? Any direction you can provide would be GREATLY appreciated! I don’t want to think I’ve covered the bases only to find out – oh, sorry, you screwed up. You now owe us big money. I can’t afford that. Anyway, I’m hoping you can offer something…

Do I have a map? Well, yes, sort of. Although, to be be honest, when she doesn’t have $260 for an approval, it’s hard to imagine any way she can actually build a real working business. That level of spending for approvals and licenses and such is really hard to avoid.  Isn’t the food cart itself going to take spending? And complaining about those books that didn’t mention it makes me nervous about giving advice. I’m thinking they probably waved a hand or two at licenses and approvals, because most people assume there will be some fees along the way. My own book 3 Weeks to Startup makes only general references to this kind of detail. It’s hard (probably impossible) to generalize with a book, to make it useful, and also include specifics to the level of detail of approvals required for a food cart in some specific location.

Still, I do have suggestions:

  1. Chris Guillebeau’s book The $100 Startup. It’s brilliant. And so well-written, in such delightful detail, that it actually makes the $100 number seem believable, although I still take it as more symbolic than specific. Chris is a gifted writer and he’s actually done what he’s recommending. And besides, a book with a chapter titled “Hustling: The Gentle Art of Self Promotion” that’s subtitled ‘Advertising is like sex: only losers pay for it’ deserves to succeed. Warning: it will cost you $15 or so.
  2. I’m disappointed getting a request for a map as a comment on a website that tries, and oh so hard, to be a map. You’re reading this at www.bplans.com. Her comment was on this blog, on www.bplans.com. I’m obviously biased but I still think this is the best place in the world for free start-you-business information. And I’d like to think that map is right here.
  3. Sabrina Parsons (@mommyceo) and I wrote the book 3 Weeks to Startup, published by Entrepreneur Press, in 2008. I like it a lot. It’s not nearly as much fun as Chris’ book, but it has a lot of good information. Unfortunately, it does, like the books you complain about, talk about licenses and permits without giving specific numbers. Warning: it will cost your $15 or so.
  4. Find your local SCORE chapter with the search at SCORE.org. Make an appointment and talk to one of the SCORE counselors.
  5. Do some Google searches for obvious search teams like “cheap startup” or “startup no money” and see what you get, but go very carefully with this one, because those waters are seething with sharks looking to take your money.

And a final thought: lots of people want the personalized step-by-step map, but building a business isn’t like that. Nobody but you can wade through the thousands of pages and flood of information available, sift and sort what works for you, and recreate a specific personalized guide. Everybody’s map is different. Thousands, maybe millions, of us have tried, in books and websites. But what you need is sorting and sifting and digesting it all, and then recreating a special customized personalized message for you, and that would take days, maybe weeks, of somebody else’s time. You have to do it yourself.

Q & A: My Advice For Starting Your First Website

I received this question yesterday from the ask-a-question form on my website at timberry.com:

I would like to create website design for my company. What do I need to do?

To start you could search in Google for how to create a website. The good news is that you’ll get good results. The bad news is how many: 89.1 million hits.

So I’m going to add one more? Yes, because you asked me too. And I have a step-by-step suggestion that takes work but not money, and not too much work. In my opinion. And with this you’re forewarned: there are millions of good answers. All of this is just my opinion.

  1. Go to WordPress.com* and sign up as a free user with a new blog. And don’t worry, I’m did understand the question – I’m recommending this as a way to make your first company website, not a blog. But WordPress calls it a blog, regardless; so I use that term here.
  2. Choose a unique name for your blog. Try your company name or something useful for marketing. The WordPress site will give you any unique name you choose followed by “wordpress.com.” For example, Sabrina Parson’s Mommy CEO blog is at mommyceo.wordpress.com.
  3. Choose a theme for your new blog.  WordPress will help you. There are thousands of themes, each of which gives you an already-designed format related to fonts, colors, placement of links and buttons, and so on.  For our purposes, make sure it’s a theme that shows buttons for pages. For an example, just look at the blog you’re reading. The buttons along the top of this blog are related to pages, not posts. Try them. See what I mean.
  4. Now do some pages: if you don’t feel competent writing about yourself or your company, find somebody else you trust to do it. You’ll probably start with an “About” page, and then maybe a general contact page showing your address, phone, and email addresses. You can get wordpress plugins to customize a contact form, but for now, list your email address in text with the @ written out as “at” so web crawlers won’t pick up your email address.
  5. Now, if you’ve followed these steps, you have a company website, having spent maybe two or three hours.

From here, in the now-immortal words of Buzz Lightyear, it’s “infinity and beyond.” You might want your own domain name (like my timberry.com, for example), and you’ll find ways to do that as a WordPress installation too. (timberry.com is hosted at MediaTemple for a little over $200 per year). You’ll be amazed at the variety of WordPress plugins for additional features and functions.

* WordPress is probably the most popular of the blog platforms, and it’s free if you do it like I’ve suggested. But there are many others, several with similar offerings regarded already-designed themes. I’ve also used Blogger (free) and Typepad (for an annual fee) and I like them both.

Disclaimer: Just in case you’re wondering: No, I have no relationship with WordPress, no commissions, no paid endorsements. I use it and I like it. This is free advice. Sad commentary, that these days a recommendation is suspect of ulterior motives. That happens so often that I don’t blame you for wondering.

Family Business Succession 4 Years Later: The Rest of the Story

There I was, minding my own business, watching my twitter flow, contemplating my next blog post, when what should appear in my twitter but … Sabrinawell, you can see it here to the right, in the Tweetdeck version: mommyceo is Sabrina Parsons, my second of five grown-up children, who has been running Palo Alto Software for the last four years. So I clicked the link to see what she wrote. We do talk a lot, of course, and we’re still in the same company, but I’ve been traveling, and I wasn’t aware of this one. She called her post Family Business Succession: four years later.

She writes (and the “he” in this is me):

He talked to me one day, and the next day, without much planning, or transition strategies, or anything, he told me and then he announced the change to the whole company.

That’s true. I did. She also credits me for staying out of her way:

Does he actually let us make the decisions? What happens when he doesn’t agree to the decisions? What does he do now? The simple answer to the question is yes, Tim actually did back off, and stay true to his word.

And that makes me proud. It isn’t easy. You build a company up and you get used to running things, and that’s a hard habit to break.  Me and my ego like to think that my every opinion should be treasured, but they aren’t. The novelty wore off and then it took some real adjustment. Fortunately, I passed  the baton to a strong woman with a lot of confidence in herself and a good team.

Sabrina’s post details some of the accomplishments. The company has done just fine for the past four years, after the big transition. We both have the right to be proud.

My biggest insight for others in similar situations is what I call the safe harbor concept. I didn’t just pass the command on and then sit around back-seat driving. I passed the command on and dove head first into blogging, twitter, speaking, and teaching. I didn’t want retirement. I love business, entrepreneurship, and business planning, so the change meant being able to do more of that. Without my having a lot of stuff to do, stuff that I think is important, I would have gone crazy; and probably I would have driven my daughter crazy, too.

10 Blogging Tips. My 1,000th Post on This Blog

Last night I was halfway through a draft post patting myself on the back, illustrated with champagne glasses, when my youngest daughter, Megan, called from San Francisco, where she lives now. That’s @MeganBerry to you, blogger and social media expert,  marketing manager of Klout.com. So I asked her this: “What do I do with my 1,000th post?”

stacked stones“Do something that matters,” Megan answered. “Do something special.”  She talked about favorites, lessons, advice, and reflections.

So, about 12 hours later, this is it, number 1,000. Gulp.

I started in 2006, but did only a dozen posts in the first year. I really started in April 2007, with reflections on family business, a personal note about passing the torch to a second generation. I changed jobs then – my choice – from owner-entrepreneur-president to blogger president of Palo Alto Software.

My personal favorite posts are on the sidebar here to the right. My favorite search is the one for fundamentals, particularly the series of 5 posts on planning fundamentals. My favorite categories come straight from the blog title: planning, startups, and stories: that’s specifically the categories planning fundamentals, true stories, and starting a business. And I also really like advice, reflections, and business mistakes. But I like most of my posts here. You kind of have to, to keep doing it.

Here are 10 blogging lessons I’ve learned:

  1. Imitation isn’t just flattery, it’s learning. When I said I wasn’t a blogger, Sabrina Parsons said “you will be. Just start reading blogs.” So I did. And I imitate a lot of other bloggers I like to read. So many that I can’t name them all here; but my thanks to Guy, John, Pam, Anita, Ann, Steve, Seth, Matthew, Ramon, and so many others. Every blog on my blogroll here to the right.
  2. Titles make a huge difference. That’s not just blogging. It’s been true for a long time. My daughter Andrea Breanna, CTO at Huffington Post, teamed up with his younger sister Megan to teach me titles. And Ironically, what they taught me was a lot of what I learned at UPI plus the power of questions, and lists of 5 and 10.
  3. Short and simple: short sentences, short posts. Short thoughts? I like one-word sentences, and one-sentence paragraphs. And short posts, in theory: despite how much I admire Seth Godin’s short posts, I try, and usually fail.
  4. Break grammar rules. Carefully. Rarely. Like right here. There’s no verb in either of the previous two sentences, so this post would have gotten me an F in Brother Salvatore’s 12th grade English class. 30-some years later, I’m glad he gave me that F on a 10-page paper for using “it’s” instead of “its” once. That lesson was worth it. But jeez!
  5. Pictures add meaning. Thanks to John Jantsch for that one. And to Shutterstock for supplying me with the bulk of the pictures I’ve used on this blog for the last year. And don’t ask me to explain the illustration on this one. I didn’t want champagne glasses or cakes and candles.
  6. Write Often, and keep writing. Find your pace. Honor consistency. Once a month doesn’t feel like a blog, but three good posts weekly is better than two good and three not so good. Break your routine occasionally for mental health. I write a lot and like it.  I’ve done 1,000 posts here in three years. Plus 700 on Up and Running, and another 200 or so on Small Business Trends, Huffington Post, Amex Open, Industry Word, and Planning Demystified. Plus some guest posts on others. It’s easier to maintain momentum than overcome inertia.
  7. Love the comments. Thank you. Not you spammers. But even you critics with annoying comments. Especially you critics with smart well written disagreements. Not the dumb generic praise intended only for your own SEO benefit, which I delete.  But I love the comments, they make it live.
  8. Love Twitter. Twitter has done wonders for my blogging, my daily work flow, and my growing satisfaction with web 2.0 or social media or whatever you call it. If you don’t get twitter, it’s not clutter, it’s not what they had for lunch, it’s blog posts and links and what’s going on in the world, as shared by people you like, now. My 18-point Twitter Primer feels as valid today as when I posted it.
  9. Tell the damn truth. You can’t fake it for long. Keeping track of all your various personae is exhausting. Write as yourself, or maybe (just maybe) who you really want to be. I know this is a lame old quote, but I heard it first from Chris Guilleabeau and I like it: “I have to be myself. All the other people are already taken.”
  10. Tell don’t sell. Lots of us blog for business. Much as I sincerely love the books and software I’ve done, I don’t blog about them here. Sure, the sidebar sells, I hope, but my posts don’t.

Here’s advice, in honor of this being post number 1,000:

  1. Anything anybody can believe is an image of truth (paraphrasing William Blake).
  2. Time is the scarcest resource. Time, not money.
  3. Your relationships with the people you love are WAY more important than proving that you were right.

Dear reader: thank you.

(image credit: Arsgera/Shutterstock)