Hero Worship

The First Lady Of Software

Sandra Kurtzig

Founder of ASK Computer Systems Inc.

Launched: 1974

"I think luck is seizing opportunities. There are opportunities all around. There are millions of good ideas, but it's those people who seize the ideas and seize the opportunities that appear lucky." --Sandra Kurtzig

In today's male-dominated software industry, women founders and CEOs are practically nonexistent. But while software titans like Bill Gates and Oracle's Larry Ellison have become the poster boys for Silicon Valley success, the first multimillion-dollar software entrepreneur was a woman. Starting with just $2,000, Sandra Kurtzig built a software empire that, at its peak, boasted around $450 million in annual sales. And it all started as a part-time job.

In 1972, Sandra Kurtzig quit her job selling computer time shares for General Electric to devote more time to starting a family. An admitted workaholic, Kurtzig knew she couldn't give up working altogether, so in hopes of making a little extra money and "to keep her mind occupied," she launched what she thought would be a small, part-time contract software-programming business in her snug second bedroom.

Her first client had asked her to create a program that could track inventory and provide manufacturing information. Realizing that other manufacturers might find such a program useful, she recruited several bright computer and engineering graduates and directed them to write standardized applications aimed at solving the problems of local manufacturers.

Unable to persuade Silicon Valley venture capitalists to invest in her start-up, Kurtzig was forced to launch ASK on retained earnings alone. To gain access to the minicomputers her company needed, she persuaded executives at a nearby Hewlett-Packard plant to let her and her programmers use one of the company's series 3000 minicomputers after hours. "They let us in at 6 p.m., and we came with sleeping bags and stayed until 6 a.m.," she recalls. It wasn't long before Kurtzig's part-time job was taking up 20 hours a day. By 1978, ASK had its first salable products--a package of programs called Manman (short for "manufacturing management") that improved both inventory control and production management for companies.

Kurtzig struck a deal with HP to sell its minicomputers pre-loaded with her programs--which meant ASK could market a complete product to computer-wary managers years before computers would become common tools of the industry. The system was a hit, and sales quickly soared from $2.8 million in 1979 to $39 million in 1983. Meanwhile, Kurtzig took the company public in 1981. Between 1981 and 1983, following a small equity offering and a two-for-one split, earnings per share doubled, making Kurtzig worth $65 million.

But even with her tremendous success, Kurtzig was tired of the fast-track life. "When you're the CEO, you live it seven days a week, 24 hours a day," she says. Wanting to devote more time to her children and realizing she couldn't do that and continue at ASK, Kurtzig resigned from most of her duties in 1985, keeping only the title of chairman.

For a while, ASK continued to prosper. Over the next four years, profits increased. But sales flattened out after reaching $79 million. More ominous, the company was living off a software package whose last overhaul coincided with Kurtzig's relinquishing control. In 1989, when it became clear ASK was facing the first of what would likely be several quarters of flat sales, ASK's board of directors persuaded Kurtzig to rejoin as CEO, hoping she could turn the company around. It was an offer she just couldn't refuse. "When push comes to shove," she says, "well . . . ASK is my baby, and ASK is what I know."

Upon her return, Kurtzig asked employees to rate the performance of the division's managers. The top-rated managers were rewarded with greater responsibilities; those that got low ratings received pink slips. She also stopped the practice of senior managers giving themselves hefty raises and bonuses.

She repositioned ASK as a database provider and re-engineered the software to run on a variety of computers. By 1992, the Mountain View, California, business was back on top, boasting sales of $450 million, making it the largest public company ever founded and run by a woman. Kurtzig once again retired. Two years later, ASK was purchased by Computer Associates International Inc., a provider of software support and integration in Islandia, New York.

Today, Sandra Kurtzig is chairman of the board of E-Benefits, a San Francisco insurance and human resources service provider she founded with her son Andrew in 1996. Kurtzig was instrumental in laying the groundwork of the modern business-to-business software industry. Her innovative approach of creating easy-to-use software for complex manufacturing tasks has been a model for virtually every successful software company in the industry today.

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This article was originally published in the March 2000 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Hero Worship.

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