I first met Debra Willrett, founder of Expert Software Consulting, at the IEEE Consultants Network for Silicon Valley (CNSV) when she gave a great talk on the new CNSV website in February of 2006. When Francis and I learned that she was the inventor of the Macintosh application MacProject, an application that has defined a paradigm for interactive graphical project management tools for the last 25 years, we asked her for an interview for our Founder Story series. What follows is Debra’s experience of turning an application into a business.
Founder Story: Debra Willrett on Inventing MacProject
Q: Inventing MacProject is quite an accomplishment. What problem were you trying to solve when you started?
The initial motivation was to manage software projects. I was working in the lab at Hewlett-Packard, and my manager at the time was drawing large Pert charts by hand and taping them to the walls of our cubicles. But having a project with multiple people and complex dependencies between the components is a universal problem which applies to building nuclear reactors, bridges or software systems.
At HP , I was the user interface developer for a PC-based CAD system, one of a number of similar projects at HP at the time. My job was to build a graphical layout program for printed circuit boards.
When I saw a pre-release of Apple’s Lisa computer, I realized I had the components in place for a business. I had the problem to solve, the system to build it on, and the skills to build a WYSIWYG application with broad appeal. I proposed my product to Trip Hawkins, a member of the Lisa marketing team at Apple. Trip immediately understood the concept and we worked out a contract to develop the first implementation of my idea, LisaProject. This contract gave me the courage to quit my job at HP and work full time on pursuing my dream. By the time the Mac was released I was on my second revision, MacProject.
Q: What aspects of the process were a surprise?
The process was more challenging and exciting than I anticipated. Within the space of a couple of years, I started my first business (SoloSoft), negotiated my first contract, became the first Independent Software Vendor (ISV) for the Lisa, and shipped the first ISV application on the Mac. On the technical side, I wrote the first version of LisaProject in 6 months and released it to a community of users which grew to number 5,000 within 2 years. While I was supporting LisaProject, I wrote a new version, MacProject, for the yet-to-be released Macintosh.
Q: What alternatives existed when you started? What differentiated MacProject from your competitors?
First of all, Microsoft Project did not exist when I wrote either LisaProject or MacProject. The competitors at the time were complex non-graphical products. It took a specialist to understand how to apply them and consultants to help you figure out the data. I wanted to build something clean and elegant that anyone could understand and apply, even on a very small scale. Whether you are building the space shuttle or planning an event with friends, you are working with a group of people on a schedule and you need a vehicle with which you can communicate and monitor your plan.
Q: Today are many project management tools on the market: do you use any of them? What do you see as some of the aspects of project management still to be addressed by software?
I’m not a project management specialist today, but I have been asked for recommendations about what to purchase. More often I get asked the question, where can I get something like MacProject today? I think the tool that you pick should be easy to use and quickly be of value to you. Many solutions are more complex than they need to be. Also, project management is not done by one person working alone, so the social networking of the Web should revolutionize the way we approach the problem. I haven’t seen anything which I really like, so I’m thinking about getting back into the business. Stay tuned.
Q: It is very challenging to be both the inventor and the entrepreneur. Can you talk about your experience at SoloSoft and how you successfully structured the Apple deal? At the time, what were SoloSoft’s biggest challenges in negotiating the Apple deal?
My first contract with Apple for the Lisa was enough to pay the bills and keep the lights on. More importantly, building LisaProject gave me experience and relationships with people in Apple. I was in the right place at the right time when the Macintosh was developed. It can take years of work to make your investment pay off and many people get discouraged too early.
Another problem occurs if you ask for too much at the beginning. Until you demonstrate both your ability to deliver and the viability of your idea, you don’t have much leverage. The terms of the customer’s proposal for the first contract will reflect this. when They often feel that their work is worth more than it really is, and they walk away from a deal. I have also seen things fall apart when people get too fussy about every line on the contract.
You need to be flexible and realistic. In exchange, you can be firm about the issues which are important to you. One of the key terms of my contracts with Apple was that I would retain ownership of the software.
I also found that I could profit from being underestimated by others.
I requested a number of significant bonus incentives for meeting scheduled deadlines. Since software schedules are routinely slipped as additional features are added or the scope of the project changes, no one believes you when you say you will deliver something on time.
They will happily add terms in the contract which pay more for meeting delivery dates. And I happily collected on every one of my bonus payments. Of course, the customer also won, because having the new features earlier increased sales.
Once MacProject became a big success, there was pressure to restructure my agreement. Since I was making significant money, Apple wanted to reduce the royalty rate. Another consequence of success was that as the user base expanded, the list of desired features grew rapidly. I rejected many of these feature requests to maintain the elegance of the user interface. Nevertheless, the list of good ideas for new features eventually exceeded my ability to write the code. Tension developed between SoloSoft and Apple over this issue. I considered scaling up SoloSoft’s development team by hiring its first employee. Apple wanted to control the development by bringing it in-house. Apple offered to buy out the royalty stream. Any successful contract has to keep working for all the stakeholders. I was torn between my ambitions to grow SoloSoft into a large business and the demands of my growing family. I ultimately decided to sell MacProject to Claris, Apple’s spinoff of its software business, and went into a period of professional semi-retirement.
Q: You have started a new firm: can you tell us a little about what you’re doing with Expert Software Consulting?
Expert Software Consulting builds web applications for various types of clients. I like being my own boss. I enjoy the challenges of running a business, and I hope that some of my ideas today will enable me to make a larger contribution in the future. Recently a group of Stanford students led by B.J. Fogg created Facebook applications and found out that they had an installed base of millions of users within weeks with applications like “Kiss Me” or “Hug Me.” The Web is a phenomenal playground, and things are changing all the time. It’s exciting and fun to be a part of, and I enjoy going to work every day.
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