Sometimes things go even better than planned. And that can be really exciting.

This is a true story.

I thought I would tell it here now because of a dinner meeting last Monday night with someone who could be in a similar situation. That’s a maybe, unfortunately. He’s a nice guy; it’d be nice if he or I could be sure.

The turning point of this story was one Saturday morning in October. This was years ago, but the memory is still fresh.

We met in the company offices, three or four rooms over a Jaguar repair shop in Scotts Valley, California. Philippe Kahn was founder, president, CEO, marketing director, chief programmer and almost everything else of Borland International. The meeting included me, Philippe and at least two of the other three members of the board of directors.

In case the reference to board of directors sets you off, let me clarify that although it (and every other California corporation) had a board of directors, this was definitely not a big company. It was almost entirely Philippe. He had two, maybe three other people working there. Most of his programming talent was in Denmark.

I wasn’t happy about meeting on Saturday. We had four kids and I worked a lot, so I tried to keep Saturdays free. But Philippe hadn’t asked before as strongly as he did that time, so I thought it best to go.

I’d grown impatient with Philippe and Borland. When the company was formally set up as a California corporation in May of that year, the idea and the business plan were to move a menu system called Menu Master from the CP/M operating system to the DOS operating system. And throughout the months of that summer, every time I asked about progress, Philippe told me not to worry: “They’re writing a Pascal compiler.”

Now to be fair, in software, then as now, the normal interpretation of “they’re writing a compiler” to convert a software product from one operating system to another is “forget it, the programmers are lost in themselves, this is never going to work.” I hope you get my drift. It’s a big project. Writing a compiler is roughly equivalent to creating a new programming language. You don’t do that just to convert a software product to a different operating system.

So with that as background, you might understand why I may have been a little bit grumpy that Saturday morning when I had to drive an hour to go to that meeting.

And then Philippe showed us Turbo Pascal. The compiler his Danish programming team had written wasn’t just a means to convert Menu Master to DOS. No. Instead of that, it was a fabulous piece of software in itself, far better than Menu Master, one that hundreds of thousands of personal computer users would love to have.

Philippe gathered us around the computer and showed us Turbo Pascal. I don’t think Menu Master was ever mentioned again, at least not by anybody in that meeting. I don’t know for sure, but I guess the other three board members had been as impatient as I’d been. They, like me, saw instantly how good the somewhat accidental new product was.

Philippe never wavered. It was clear that he had seen it first and acted immediately.

Borland had no money. Philippe had borrowed $20,000 from his father to get it started. He’d done a deal or two for Menu Master to be built into some CP/M computers (an OEM deal with the manufacturer) to keep it going.

However, money or not, he pushed full speed ahead. He played telephone games with his one receptionist, tricking some ad salespeople to give him a couple of full-page ads (Byte Magazine and Dr. Dobb’s Journal) on credit. That was about $20,000 worth of advertising.

By the time we learned about it, it was already done. He bet the company on those ads. If they flopped, it was going to be hell to pay the bills.

But those ads produced more than $40,000 of immediate direct sales. The orders came pouring in. Philippe had to add people to take the calls.

So for the next month, he doubled the ad commitments to $80,000. And sales doubled again.

So there it is. Every so often it happens. A product takes off because people want it. And, wow, that’s exciting to watch.

That was in 1983. Borland International grew to more than $60 million in annual sales and went public before the end of 1986.

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Tim BerryTim Berry
Tim Berry

Tim Berry is the founder and chairman of Palo Alto Software and Bplans.com. Follow him on Twitter @Timberry.