For a decade, Ron and Audrey Turner nursed their tiny software company along.
Like dozens and dozens of other small software manufacturers in the Spokane area, they created their products and hoped for the break that would allow them to push their efforts beyond the status of avocation.
The break for their company - Soph-Ware Associates - came in the early 1980s when Florida-based textbook publisher Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Inc. hired them to write a program that would make it easier for teachers to assemble tests based on Harcourt textbooks.
By 1991, Ron Turner says, they were doing $250,000 in annual sales, almost exclusively on the Harcourt contract.
But, “It was a narrow, precarious niche,” Turner says. “A bad way for us to do business.”
So when Harcourt decided to pull all their software work in-house in 1991, Soph-Ware Associates was faced with starting over.
Turner returned to an old job as a professor at Eastern Washington University in order to keep some money flowing in.
“We really scrambled,” he says. “We had a tough three years.”
But through it all, Ron and Audrey Turner and Soph-Ware’s third principal, Timothy Douglass, kept at it. And they decided to focus the company’s energies on software for the transformation of printed text to electronic documents.
And now, with the help of the Spokane Area Economic Development Council, Ron Turner thinks Soph-Ware Associates has found its new niche - one that has the potential of propelling it to $10 million in sales in five years.
Cindy Blackwell, program manager for the EDC’s Contracting Assistance Program, steered the company to a successful $75,000 grant application with the U.S. Department of Energy. The grant is one of many offered by federal agencies designed to solve a problem the agency has, and at the same time, allow the contracting company to develop a product that will sustain the company’s success beyond the life of the contract.
During the three years the Turners and Douglass were forced to reinvent their company, they developed an expertise in Standard Generalized Markup Language (SGML), essentially a set of international editing standards for translating written documents to electronic documents and back again.
They even wrote a recently-published textbook on SGML that Turner expects to become a standard primer on the subject.
In its contract, the DOE wanted someone to solve a problem common to large organizations attempting to publish serious documents in the Internet. Different computers using different formats must be able to assemble and digest documents from all over the world, and make those documents easily available to a broad variety of users.
Using SGML, Soph-Ware’s task is to show the DOE it can provide a means for a student in a public school, a university professor or a medical researcher to find the documents on a given subject - often spread out over a variety of DOE sites and access them efficiently.
Not only must Soph-Ware deal with the technical problems, it must also line up $150,000 in private funding to match DOE’s $75,000 grant.
Turner’s hope is that a major publishing house might be interested. He says Simon & Schuster, for example, is dedicating much of its energy to electronic publication and will need just the kind of products Soph-Ware is trying to develop for the DOE.
If Soph-Ware is successful in the grant’s first phase, the second phase is $750,000 in funding from DOE to convert the proven concept to specific software products.
The grant makes Soph-Ware Associates a partner with Batelle Pacific Northwest Laboratories, which is in the business of helping convert products created through government research grants to commercial applications.
Turner holds a doctorate in romance languages from Harvard. He also worked as a software engineer for American Sign and Indicator Corp. Audrey Turner holds a degree in library science. And Douglass is a Whitworth graduate with a degree in computer science.
They learned their lesson about diversification in the loss of the Harcourt contract, Turner says.
Now, in addition to its pursuit of the DOE grant, Soph-Ware has its textbook venture going. It offers training services in electronic publication. It assists in course work at EWU. It offers consulting services to publishers seeking to move into the electronic publication field. And it offers type-setting services.
But the bottom line, Turner says, is that, “We’re writers. We do that, and we do heavy-duty software. We hope to keep our skills focused around those things in the future.”
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