Some company start-up dates:
In 1983 Ben Franklin wasn't like ABC's Shark Tank.
Who are Ben Franklin Technology Partners of Northeastern Pennsylvania?
"We provide early-stage technology firms and established manufacturers with investments, networking opportunities, and technical and business expertise. Ben Franklin staff work with companies to enhance their entire way of doing business."
Who are Ben Franklin Technology Partners of Southeastern Pennsylvania?
"For over 30 years, Ben has been the leading seed stage capital provider for the region’s technology sectors, investing over $175 million in more than 1,750 regional technology companies, many of which have gone on to become industry leaders. Ben Franklin has also launched university/industry partnerships that accelerate scientific discoveries to commercialization, and has seeded regional initiatives that strengthen our entrepreneurial community."
"Ben Franklin Technology Partners is an initiative of the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development. In addition to its numerous investment partners, Ben Franklin receives funding from the Ben Franklin Technology Development Authority. "
In the spring of 1983 it wasn't quite like that. Inspired by the fact that the description of our company on the Ben Franklin web site was kind of sparse I decided to tell our story of how Ben Franklin Technology Partners got its start.
"Software Consulting Services was the first Ben Franklin incubator company anywhere in the state." From the BFTP/NEP web site prior to 2016.
Let me introduce Michael G. (Mike) Bolton. He worked in Lehigh University's development office. Development office people seek donations from alumni. Mike couldn't help but wonder with Bethlehem Steel and other heavy industries in the Lehigh Valley going into decline, would Lehigh's student and (eventual) alumni recruiting efforts be compromised? Would Lehigh fall as the Valley's industries fell?
Mike was to launch his big idea - The Ben Franklin Project. He would seek to join new entrepreneurs with expert faculty and state funding to grow local tech businesses. The idea made the newspapers.
One of the organizations about to leave the Valley was the American Newspaper Publishers Association Research Institute. The ANPA was given land on Sullivan Trail in Forks township in the late 40's by Easton Express publisher, Larry Stackhouse for its research institute. By the 80's it was time for a new facility and the ANPA decided that it would be located in Reston, VA.
I was by then the Research Manager of Computer Applications for the ANPA/RI. Prior to that I'd been a ANPA/RI software developer. Before that I was employed by Lehigh University as a systems programmer. I was simultaneously teaching as an adjunct faculty member and the Co-Director of the Computer Science Group in the Graduate School of Lehigh's Department of Mathematics (along with Prof. Sam Gulden.)
This was my second career. Before getting a BS in computer science in 1971 from the University of Delaware, I was employed as an architectural draftsman (and an Associate Member of the American Institute of Architects) working in the Planning Office of the U of Delaware.
Martha, my wife, didn't like Reston at all. She was an army brat who had grown to love the stability she found in the Lehigh Valley. I would quote her as saying, "You can go to Reston, if you want, but you will sleep alone." It wasn't quite that bad, but you get the idea.
I had worked for the ANPA/RI for almost a decade and loved nearly every moment of it. I had a great team, recruited from the best of my Lehigh students, got to travel all over the world representing newspapers, consulted with publishers on their computing needs, invented cool stuff and built software that I got to see deployed and used by grateful newspaper staff.
Most of the six member ANPA Computer Applications staff didn't cotton to moving to Reston either. One of my concerns was the political atmosphere surrounding the move. You can imagine what that was like.
Nevertheless, Jerry Friedheim, then VP of the ANPA, was surprised to find that a project in automated newspaper design (Layout-80) that he thought was in four test sites was actually fully deployed and in production at 38 newspapers with over 125 more queued up to get installations.
"Who will support this if you and your staff go? Find some vendors who can support it and license it to them." said Jerry. Eventually six vendors to newspapers signed up for licenses.
Now Martha and Mike Bolton come back into the story.
When Martha and I came to the Valley, I got the job at Lehigh and she got a job at Pennsylvania Power and Light also as a systems programmer.
When we (actually, she) decided to start a family in 1974, Martha found that PP&L (at that time) didn't have much flexibility for career women who wanted to be nursing mothers. So Martha took the leap and founded Software Consulting Services. Working from our home in Allentown and, with infant Sharon in tow, she wrote software for companies like Ingersoll Rand and Lehigh Valley hospitals. Martha was an early adopter of personal computer technology, even supplying PC productivity software to American Express and others. This was so noteworthy at the time, that Martha and her start-up were mentioned in Inc Magazine and the Wall Street Journal.
SCS bought one of the first (if not the first) Apple II's sold at ComputerLand of the Lehigh Valley. With good credit, a business plan sketch and the distribution rights to the Pascal Validation Suite, SCS bought a $20,000 PDP 11/23 mini-computer to make tapes for the PVS distributions. First National Bank of Allentown lent us the money. They and their successors were our bank for many years, until they effectively left the Valley.
I represented the newspaper industry on the ANSI X3J9 Pascal Standardization Committee for the ANPA and newspapers.
Then came the decision point in early 1983. Bolton's Ben Franklin Project made the news. I said to Martha, "This sounds like us." So I called Mike and told him our story. SCS would be one of the licensees of Layout-80. It would employ me and three of my ANPA staff. We wanted to be a Ben Franklin company. SCS and Martha had two employees at this time.
Mike came to visit me in my ANPA/RI office. He had another development office staff member with him. I told of my plan to join SCS full time. He wasn't just interested, he said we were exactly what he was looking for. High-tech, innovative, national exposure, part of the Lehigh community, etc., etc. He seemed absolutely beside himself. Then he asked, "When would you like to do this?" "We are leaving the ANPA/RI on April 29th and want to be relocated and in business on Monday May 2nd," I said.
His face dropped. "We don't have any funding." "That's okay," I said. "SCS has a positive cash flow, good credit and my ANPA severance pay. We will be fine without any money from Ben Franklin.
Unfortunately shortly thereafter there was more bad news from Bolton. It seems the Centennial Building on Lehigh's Goodman campus was to be the home of the Ben Franklin incubator. At first it was used for training teachers of gifted children, then teachers for normal children (whatever that means) and finally for children with emotional and discipline problems.
I walked into the building and couldn't believe my eyes. There were holes bashed into walls, wires and plumbing fixtures torn asunder, ceiling tiles here and there. Broken furniture, etc. It was a mess. Then Bolton said, "The good news is that the university will put up $35,000 to renovate the building; the bad news is that the university's architect says she can't get to any new projects for at least six to nine months." We were two months away from launch.
"So what you need is a set of plans and specification for the incubator renovation done by a credentialed architectural draftsman? Would it help, if the draftsman had large university planning office experience?" "What?" "I'll have drawings and specs ready by next weekend." "But what about the university's architect?" "You can let her pick the colors. I was never very good at that." And so it was.
Bolton very much liked that I knew how to handle issues of university bureaucracy. It made him think of what fun working with entrepreneurs could be.
He didn't know of my being a rebel in the ranks at Lehigh's computing center where I advocated using high level languages like Pascal to write the systems programs they thought should be written in assembler. And the EE department's antipathy toward using anything but COBOL and FORTRAN since that's what employers said they used, never mind that these antiquated languages (and Lehigh's own primitive Wizard) made doing modern computer science almost impossible. So I found a tolerable and happy environment in the math department. During my academic teaching I had several hundred undergraduate and graduate students. I mentored a number for their masters degrees. Seventeen of Lehigh's faculty took the courses I designed and taught. And when last I checked some 30 years after I stopped teaching there, the catalog described "CES411 - Advanced Programming Techniques" with almost identical copy to mine for M411.
So SCS licensed Layout-80 from the ANPA. My boss Erwin Jaffe retired. His boss, Bill Rinehart was furious. And Bill's boss, Jerry Friedheim, seemed delighted and saw that we got booth space cheaply at the next ANPA trade show.
About one month before the change over day, I got a call from the ANPA's Chairman of the Board, Bill Marcel, publisher of the Fargo (ND) Forum. He said he wanted to get Layout-80 installed. I said, we could do it for him, but the ANPA had shut down the distribution in advance of the move. "No," he said, "I don't want it from the ANPA, I want it from you and Martha. I want the Forum to be your first newspaper customer."
SCS announced software support for Layout-80 and all 38 current users volunteered to pay. We had a support customer base and several dozen new customers lined up in our first week after I joined SCS.
The ANPA further helped us by recommending me and SCS for newspaper consulting work. I did a lot of this "Technical Advisory Services - (TAS)" during my nine and one-half years at the ANPA.
We moved in several weeks before Bolton moved into the offices I designed for him and Ben Franklin.
As a side note - we did the wiring for our data lines and AC power on our own. (I trained as an electrician.) We wired our phones to the point where Chadwick Telephone - yes, that Chad Paul - had connected.
Funny thing happened with the phones. I was on my first SCS-based TAS in Buffalo NY. I was hired by Warren Buffet to review the technology and staff of the IT department of the newspaper he had just bought, The Buffalo (NY) Evening News. When I called back to the office I couldn't get through. I thought we hadn't done the phones right. Brenda, the secretary I brought from the ANPA, informed me that all three outside lines were often busy. The phones were ringing off the hook, not just for support issues, but new business!
Martha and I had used the brand new spreadsheet tool, Visicalc, to plan out business scenarios on our Radio Shack TRS-80. We made a set of projections - one if we did poorly, one if we did well and the average of those being what we hoped and expected. For our first 12 months we did the sum of all three projections. We grew a staff member, bought another computer and signed several new customers every month.
In 1983 SCS became the poster child for Lehigh's Ben Franklin project. Martha and I found ourselves meeting and greeting visiting dignitaries and politicians like Senator Arlen Specter. One could hear Ben Franklin's Mike Bolton say, "See how well this university facilitated and state sponsored partnership with entrepreneurial companies works!"
SCS got a Ben Franklin grant of $5,000 in 1984 to fund start-up work on SCS/Track. Descendants of this technology are in production use at newspapers throughout the western hemisphere.
By 1985 the Ben Franklin project was well established. My final patent for the ANPA, was called ReQueSt-DB - Relational Queries on Sequential DataBases. The invention was a method and apparatus that allowed an advanced cable TV set-top box and an inexpensive cable-end device to distribute easily searchable classified ads to hundreds of thousands of cable subscribers. This was over ten years before Craigslist decimated newspaper classified advertising.
The application process for funding was less formal then. (Mike Bolton said, "Rich, I have 100 grand for innovative projects by incubator companies. Would you like some of it?")
The ANPA wanted to see electronic classifieds developed and so arranged for SCS to get the intellectual property. Ben Franklin provided funding that allowed hiring one programmer for two years to complete a ReQueSt-DB demo sufficient to show that it worked quite nicely.
Bark Lee Yee, founder and owner of the Lehigh Valley's Twin County Cable said he could build the electronic devices in Taiwan. He wanted me to get support from newspapers.
I got an audience with Rupert Murdoch and his technical team at the New York Post. I presented ReQueStDB to Murdoch and company as if pitching to investors on Shark Tank. At the conclusion of the meeting I was told they would get back to me. A while later one of their technical guys called and said Mr. Murdoch wasn't interested, saying that it seemed unlikely to him that anyone would ever want to read classified ads on a VDT (video display terminal.) And, besides, wasn't I just looking for funding?
ReQueSt-DB evolved into a web-based software version in the 90's and is in production use in newspapers today.
In 1996 SCS received the Ben Franklin Incubator Graduate of the Year award and, for doing so, was presented with a Certificate of Special Congressional Recognition by Paul McHale, Member of Congress.
SCS's business with newspapers and media companies continues to grow. It now includes installations of its mission critical software in over 250 organizations publishing an estimated 1,500 products. SCS's world-wide impact includes serving major newspaper groups like Tribune (owner of The Morning Call), Advance (owner of the Express-Times), Gannett, Lee Enterprises etc. Besides having large US newspaper customers, the very largest newspapers in Brazil (Folha DE S.Paulo in São Paulo, and O Globo in Rio de Janeiro); in Buenos Aires, Argentina (Clarín and La Nación) and in Montevideo, Uruguay (El País); etc. use SCS software every day. (Nineteen countries in all.) Publications in English, Spanish, French, Portuguese and Chinese are designed, sold, produced and managed with SCS's newspaper applications. Even so, SCS has been able to provide systems to small nearby shoppers and newspapers, including PennyPower in Coopersburg and the Bucks County Herald in Lahaska.
The Ben Franklin web site has been upgraded to have a more complete description of SCS. We are proud to be the very first Ben Franklin company, and to have helped get it all started.