All in the family; Beagle Bros micro software. Robert Engberg.
All in the Family: Beagle Bros Micro Software
I walk up the cement steps to the Kersey home and get ready to knock. Next to the doorbell I see a little sign:
2 Rings = Doorbell
1 Ring = Trap Door
The first time I saw that notice I rang twice, just to be sure. Sharon greets me today. Since the Kerseys are neighbors there are no formalities to my entrance. Sophie the Beagle trots up to see if I belong.
Behind the couch I see boxes of computer disks ready for the UPS man. "We ship out everyday,' says Sharon, who controls the business end of the San Diego-based Beagle Bros Micro Software. "Business has been pretty good lately,' she adds with a twinkle in her eye that suggests the company's success amazes even the company.
Bert and Sharon Kersey sold over 6000 floppy disks last month. "Maybe we should say "200 disks a day,'' Bert adds; "it helps give a better idea of the volume.' Sharon adds, "When we tell people how much we sell, they don't always know we sell at 40% of retail. Eighty-five percent of our sales are to wholesale houses; only 15% or so are mail order.'
Yes, sales have been pretty good. The company experienced 2000% growth during the last two years.
I ask if Sophie is the namesake of the company. "We tried to think of a name that people would remember. Every other software company was Data-this or Soft-that,' Bert tells me. "We were driving home from San Felipe one day, and I recalled Walt Disney's Beagle Boys, those guys in striped suits who were forever trying to get into Uncle Scrooge's vault. We eventually hit upon Beagle Bros.'
Who hasn't heard of DOS Boss, Alpha Plot, Utility City, and Apple Mechanic? Over 500,000 Apple computer owners have, or will have, and perhaps a quarter of them will buy a Beagle Bros disk this year.
Four of the disks have appeared on the top ten national sales list for home/hobby programs; several times four disks were ranked among the first ten during the same month. Most of them have been programs to help programmers program. Someone suggested that Bert's programs make Apples perform like Ferraris and can make a Mario Andretti out of you.
Bert writers his programs in Applesoft ("No time to learn machine language') but there is pressure for him to expand, to convert his programs for Ataris, Pets, IBMs, and TRS-80s. He has even been asked to translate his Tip Books into German and French. Already his disks are sold in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, England, and Spain.
In The Beginning
Bert literally fell into the software business three years ago. At the time he was 37 years old, a bored and successful graphic artist working out of his home office; he "pumped out' mail order ads, billboards, logs, brochures. He even designed a scoreboard display: "You know, when the Chargers scored, the lights would flash. There were 12,000 lightbulbs which flashed nine times a second. They were controlled by a computer, which then I knew nothing about and cared little for.'
He made "Bit Move #1,' quit the graphics business, and bought a TRS-80. It broke so many times during the first three weeks he got his money back. Later he was persuaded to buy one of the new 16K integer Basic Apples.
The Apple became his work though it remains hard to distinguish between the Kerseys' work and their play. Sharon once told me, "If it isn't fun we won't do it.' While perhaps not literally true, it is true enough; who else in the microcomputer world puts a program called Naked City on a disk and then prevents the user from running it?
During that first year, Bert taught his Apple such useful tricks as spelling Sharon backwards and drawing blue cows in lo-res graphics. He also wrote some games. The first was called Text-Train and consisted of a little train composed of letters, which the player moved about and tried to connect, as would an engineer at the switching yard.
Originally Bert worked in the dinning room and the couple ate their meals on the kitchen table. The Kerseys recently added an upstairs office with enough space for Bert's two Apples II+'s (he still has his first although it has been upgraded to 48K with Applesoft in ROM), a new IIe, Epson and daisy-wheel printers, a typesetting machine, and Sharon's desk. The couple spends more hours of the day in that office than they do out.
There is never any doubt about the time. Behind Bert's workspace hang three large industrial-type clocks, each showing accurately the time for San Diego, Fresno, and Seattle.
A graph Bert keeps to track sales hangs by the staircase; it went off the chart in November "82, and I joke that he will have to cut a hole in his roof if business keeps up. He politely laughs and shows me the door leading to an anteroom where he keeps the photostat camera and a dark room.
A nicely framed Apple poster graces another wall, and tamper-proof windows fill the east and southern walls, letting in the summer breezes and winter sun. It is a pleasant room (important since the two spend 12-hour work days there) but already crowded. Disks are everywhere. "Disk City' Bert calls it.
There are as many reasons for the success of Beagle Bros as there are people who inquire about it. Bert thinks it is because of his determination not to work for anyone else. The pair are the sole staff (if you don't count Sophie the watchdog) except for some teenage relatives who stuff bags on Sunday afternoons. "They work hard and it gives them good experience,' Sharon says, "We don't want other employees. Don't want to be slowed down by someone else's coffee breaks. I know some people don't think it's good for a husband-wife team to work together, but . . . well, it has worked. We still like each other.'
Bert adds one more reason for the company's success, one less philosophical: "In that first ad, I promised something free . . . a chart of Apple commands. Instead of saying "Buy our wonderful games' my headline read "Free Apple Tip Book and Command Chart.' The small print said "with game purchase.'' Beagle Bros is now on their fourth Tip Book and umpteenth printing of the free chart.
What's in store for BB? "Better software.' A computer literacy guide for teachers and parents is planned this winter along with more utilities. Beyond that Bert doesn't know. "Things change so fast. I don't have a five-year plan. Yesterday some guy called up to complain about Fast-DOS (a disk to speed up the Apple DOS); that disk is six months old--obsolete. I sent him a copy of Pronto DOS. I don't know . . . Things change so fast.' Last February an interviewer from National Public Radio asked Bert why he doesn't have a corporation and a lawyer. "I just don't like talking to people like that.' And how long, he was asked, can that go on? "til 3:30.'
Bert talks to lawyers more now. Since the interview, Beagle Bros has incorporated and there is even a corporate Jaguar in the driveway. Bert bought it on one of the rare days he allowed himself out of the house.
Sharon adds "It might be nice to get a motorhome, park beneath some pine tree, let Bert program and'--she points to the piles of disks and orders spread throughout the room--"spend some time away from all this.' But even as she speaks I notice Bert doesn't add any more to the plan. He might do it (the pair did vacation for a few days at Lake Shasta last summer) but Beagle Bros is more than their business. To the Kerseys it is family and it is growing up fast.
Photo: Bert and Sharon Kersey.