Three Minutes: Godfathers of the Spreadsheet

Three Minutes: VisiCorp Founder Daniel Fylstra

Dan Fylstra
After starting up one of the first PC software firms, Dan Fylstra successfully launched VisiCalc and then brought the innovative but overambitious VisiOn application suite to the market. Since 1990, his Frontline Systems has sold quantitative analytical tools.

PC World: What's it like looking back to the VisiCalc era?

Dan Fylstra: It was a very creative time. I guess I'd go back all the way to 1975 through 1980, so much happened. We had stars in our eyes. Others have said this, but we were children of the '60s--we wanted to change the world. This was our way to actually change the world, and in fact we did.

We sort of dared to think that these new machines were going to amount to something, that personal computing would blossom. It wasn't going to just be a neat hobby thing forever.

PCW:When Dan Bricklin came to you with the idea for VisiCalc, it was still simply an idea.

Fylstra:It was very much the gleam-in-the-eye stage at that point, but he was ready to work on it. And I said, 'That sounds really interesting, why don't we pursue this?' He wanted to prototype it and that's when I loaned him the Apple 2, the one I had bought from Steve Jobs. We had so little money to work with that that sort of thing mattered. We had this one Apple 2 because Steve Jobs sold to us at a discount.

The great thing was that this industry was being born and it was possible to bootstrap your way into it and that's what we did. But there were lots of things that weren't possible. For example, taking a small niche product and making it a business success would have been very difficult back then. But it's very possible today because search engines on the Internet let you efficiently reach a world market for the narrowest imaginable application and make money out of it.

It's still a very interesting time. It's striking how rapidly this industry has been willing to adopt and assimilate change.

PCW:How did you market a brand-new application category?

Fylstra:First, we created a number of example spreadsheets in VisiCalc of applications that were aimed at markets that we felt would be heavy users. A lot of these were financial applications. We had the classic pro forma financial statement, inventory planning, real estate analysis, and insurance analysis. We had a series of things like that, each of them kind of a useful application. These were assembled into a self-running demo that ran with the product. So we created a way for people to see tangible applications of the product.

Then I called on people at Apple, starting with Jobs and [co-founder Michael] Markkula, and they introduced us to their marketing managers. What we were trying to do was to leverage our way into the distribution channels with help from Apple and from [retailer] Computerland. I was able to go to these Apple regional dealer meetings and present VisiCalc, giving these live demos on a big screen in front of all these dealers. And it was oh's and ah's. They just hadn't seen anything like this before.

My colleague from Apple would get up and he had a presentation where he would talk about different markets that viewers could go after. One was home finance, one was accounting, one was corporate use, one was education, one was science and engineering. And he would then say what products fit into what category. VisiCalc fit into all of them.

That was not lost on the dealers. A lot of people just sat in front of this self-running demo and after a while they stopped it and started playing on the thing themselves. They learned it that way and they knew just enough to show it to customers.

PCW:How does VisiOn, VisiCorp's pioneering integrated application suite, look now?

Fylstra:I do wish that Scott Warren and Dennis Abbe, who are absolutely world class developers, could get recognition for what they did. Because they did it ahead of anybody else, ahead of Digital Research and ahead of Microsoft by several years. VisiOn had a graphical interface and mouse and standard menus, and an internal API for writing applications. It actually had a multitasking operating system, which I think didn't appear in Windows until about Windows 3.0.

It was handicapped by the hardware at the time. On an 8088, it was sluggish. On an IBM PC AT, it performed actually quite well. But the problem of course is that when we launched it, most people were still just getting XTs. And then it was CGA graphics, which meant that the resolution of the characters and so on was limited.

So VisiOn was ahead of the hardware, but that's not all. It was ahead of the market. What I mean is that most customers entering the market at that time were not looking to buy this kind of discontinuous innovation, new, completely different technology. They were looking to buy the same kind of software that their friends and neighbors had already bought.

For most people, the idea of VisiCalc or Lotus 1-2-3 was a big enough step. Those products also were not ahead of the hardware, they were well matched to the hardware at that time. VisiOn shipped in September of 1983. It was seven years before Windows itself and Windows-based applications really started to take hold.

PCW:After VisiCorp, you started Frontline Systems, which extends spreadsheets.

Fylstra:Frontline Systems wound up creating the solver that shipped in Excel 3.0. That worked out pretty well for us. There are more than 100 million copies of our solver out there. That's always been a selling tool, a lead generation tool for other things that Frontline Systems has done.

PCW:When you see someone using Excel or another spreadsheet, do you tell yourself, aha, I'm one of the reasons that person is using that software?

Fylstra:A little bit. But I probably think, aha, another potential customer!

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