Planning, Startups, Stories


Tim Berry on business planning, starting and growing your business, and having a life in the meantime.

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 son Paul Berry joined me in 1998 and developed the web business with downloadable software. We grew quickly to more than $5 million annual revenues by 2000. (Paul 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?

  • AJ

    Tim, thank you again for answering my question. I am also glad, it amused you :-).

    • AJ, well yeah, to be asked to talk about oneself, it gives me a chance to share that story without the sense of just plain bragging. It does amuse me.