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Staying Power

Taking Off

Eight years after "Feelings" hit the airwaves, Rob Harshaw was talking to a cousin and a friend about a recent rash of commercial airline crashes.

"The thing about all these accidents was, you kept hearing a recurring theme," recalls Harshaw, 40. "The pilots thought they had completed the [preflight safety] checklist, but typically something distracted them, and they never went back and finished [the inspection]."

Harshaw was a defense laser systems specialist at Dallas-based Texas Instruments at the time, but his job enthusiasm was waning. Harshaw's cousin Tim Doell and friend Dennis Keith, having just sold a company that made air conditioners for jets, were hankering for a new investment. "Right on the spot," recalls Harshaw, "we came up with the concept for this device," a software program that wouldn't allow a pilot to take off until the preflight checklist was completed. In 1985, Harshaw founded Heads Up Technologies Inc. in Carrollton, Texas, with Doell and Keith as silent partners.

Harshaw designed the CMS-400 (Checklist Management System) so it would verbally present a checklist of preflight tasks to the pilot, who no longer had to rely on memory. The product was a success, largely because Cessna Aircraft Co. started installing the software in its jets.

But it wasn't until 1987 that Harshaw quit his job to run Heads Up full time. Having already devised his first hit, he began working on his next one. Employing the principles he used with the CMS-400, Harshaw created the PBS-250 Digital Passenger Briefing System. Because small aircraft frequently lack stewards, the pilots read the passenger safety information aloud. Harshaw's passenger briefing system's computerized voice sounded so authentic, pilots could now inform passengers with the press of a button. USAir Express, Mesa Airlines and American Eagle all lined up to purchase the system, as did companies with corporate jets, such as Domino's Pizza, Gerber and Coca-Cola.

"There were [similar products] out there; they just didn't work very well. This was a better mousetrap," Harshaw says, echoing Edwards' assertion that someone is always looking to improve an existing product.

By 1991, Harshaw had a firm that still hadn't quite taken off. Although profits were pouring in, there was a problem. "There are only so many airlines to sell products to," Harshaw explains. "To see dramatic increases in your business, you have to wait for new airplanes to be built or for competitors to go out of business."

Geoff Williams has written for numerous publications, including Entrepreneur, Consumer Reports, LIFE and Entertainment Weekly. He also is the author of Living Well with Bad Credit.

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This article was originally published in the June 1998 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Staying Power.

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