Riverboat gambler at DataSoft
By Tay Vaughan
In less than three years of hard work, 29-year-old Pat Ketchum and his team of creative programmers and marketing wizards have built DataSoft into one of the most successful software companies in the home computer industry. ANTIC wanted to find out how they did it and what kind of people they are.
I visited the DataSoft headquarters in Chatsworth, California, a few days before the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) which is held every June in Chicago. I knew that DataSoft was a major CES exhibitor, so I expected to have a rushed and straightforward interview with Ketchum, to meet and talk with some of the other DataSoft team members, and to be politely sent on my way to write another of the success stories which are becoming so common in the home computer and electronics industry. It turned out instead to be one of the most interesting interviews I have undertaken.
Meeting me at the Burbank airport, Bridget Hardt brought the first ray of sunshine into this Southern California day. On the DataSoft team for only three months, she is Pat Ketchum's secretary. Bridget drove me through the freeway maze for the twenty minutes to the office.
Pat Ketchum's office is on the outside facing west, and has tinted windows for days when the Los Angeles sun really shines. Bridget introduces us and I settle into an easy chair on the other side of a modestly-large desk. Pat Ketchum and I begin to get acquainted.
ANTIC: You certainly have an impressive operation. How did DataSoft start?
KETCHUM: Actually, I was involved with a very successful distribution company called Unidata Investments. In 1980 Terry Koosed, Bill Morgan, and I tried to buy a software company, but Hayden Publishing ended up with it. We got so excited about what we learned, however, that we knew we wanted to be in this business. We were already into computer hardware with California Computer Systems. We were already into retailing and mail order with H.W. Computers. And we were already into integrated circuits. So at Unidata we had all the ingredients to diversify, and it was my task to organize the new software company DataSoft. We incorporated on June 12, 1980.
Scott Llewellyn, the young Vice President of Marketing, popped his head around the office door and asked "What time do we have to be at the costume studio in Hollywood?" "Everyone should be there at one o'clock," Pat answered, looking at me and asking "You want to come?" I was curious.
ANTIC: I know that Clowns and Balloons is one of DataSoft's popular games, but what's happening?
KETCHUM: [Smiling and with a glint in his brown eyes] We have chartered a big paddle wheeler out of San Pedro for a DataSoft party in two weeks. The company is paying for Mark Twain era costumes, food, and drink. We will be celebrating that we met our quarterly sales goal, that CES is over, and that DataSoft is three years old.
Thinking that a trip to the costume studio might be a chance to gain insight into the "real people" aspects of the company, I ventured that, of course, I'd love to go. It was already becoming clear that these people operated as a team and that they not only worked hard together, they also (importantly) enjoyed each other's company outside of the business environment.
ANTIC: How big is DataSoft?
KETCHUM: We don't release financial figures, but presently we have fifty people on staff and occupy about 22,000 square feet. And we have opened a new office in Milpitas [northern California] headed up by Gary Furr. We have grown 400% over last year's sales. Three years ago there was a "window" for microcomputer software start-up companies and we were there, but for the first six months, I would add, we lost a lot of money until we grew to understand the market. Since then we have been growing very fast.
ANTIC: Did you personally bring all these people together?
KETCHUM: Yes. We're like a big family, and it's something I really enjoy doing. I think that's why it has turned out so well, because it is a lot of fun! I'm not a programmer. I enjoy the sales and marketing aspects of the business. I like to deal with people and I'm good at negotiating.
Saul Bernstein and his wife Sally showed up, wondering when everyone was going to Hollywood for their costumes. Saul is a top-notch computer artist and helped with MICROPAINTER in the early stages of DataSoft. He's a member of the Board and part of the family. A professor of art at Cal State University at Northridge, he takes the computer age seriously. Pat's wife, Julie, arrived and five of us piled into a diesel Mercedes.
ANTIC: What sort of personal motivations drive you? Do you do this for money, fame, love?
KETCHUM: All of the above, but the most exciting thing is that we are really building something, a good company. It's a consumer company and very people-oriented. This orientation helps to sell DataSoft, and we have been able to acquire some very hot properties like ZAXXON and Dallas. I love to negotiate! For Dallas, a new adventure game based on the hit TV series, we dealt with Lorimar Productions for the marketing rights. They were tough negotiators and were very strict regarding quality control and who they dealt with. For ZAXXON, I negotiated directly with Dave Rosen, Chairman of the Board at Sega. I got to know this successful person very well, and he taught me a lot. The learning never stops.
ANTIC: It sounds like you are licensing much of your software. What's in the works now?
KETCHUM: We have also licensed the use of Heathcliff, America's top-syndicated cartoon cat, Mighty Mouse, the Terrytoon cartoon characters, and Bruce Lee. We are seriously diversifying our lines, and are creating divisions which will reach out to specific markets. The new "Gentry" line, for example, is for games and recreational programs, mainly produced by outside programmers, which we will sell very inexpensively. We have a serious home-management line, and we have children's educational software; that's where we will use a lot of the cartoon characters. DataSoft itself will remain the top-of-the-line label for the best games and recreational software.
At Western Costume Company, each employee underwent a metamorphosis. Suddenly the room was filled with riverboat captains, gamblers, and southern belles. Ted Hofmann, DataSoft's new Vice President of Finance, appeared in a broad-brimmed felt hat from behind a rack of clothes destined for the Santa Fe Opera; 'f can't find my gun and holster," he mumbled. Saul Bernstein slipped into the French ambassador's scarlet-lined cape and left for the prop room on the sixth floor to get his Croix de Guerre. I felt strangely displaced in this surreal warehouse of pretend things.
ANTIC: Who does your software programming?
KETCHUM: We have fourteen in-house programmers who program for various machines in Assembly Language. I guess the average age is 20 to 25 years old. Some material is received from outside, particularly for the Gentry line, and if we market it, we pay royalties to the author. About 50% of the material submitted from outside is actually accepted.
ANTIC: There are a lot of young people who toy with the idea of becoming professional programmers. What sort of advice would you have for them?
KETCHUM: Go to school, or read books, and develop structure for your programs. We have seen a lot of programmers who are very good but their code has no structure. It's brittle, so if you remove one section, the whole thing falls apart. It's a question of discipline as much as anything else, and this is important. If you start something, finish it! And keep it flexible and organized. We advertise continually for programmers.
In a corner of the costume dressing room there were two little people (midgets) trying on Santa's dwarf outfits for a Toyota commercial being filmed somewhere where there was snow in June. People were running about and fitters and designers were chattering in classic Hollywood argot using words like "baby" and "sweetie"
ANTIC: What do you see in the future?
KETCHUM: Well, we're beginning to market our products on ROM cartridges now. MOON SHUTTLE from Nichibutsu for the Commodore 64 will be our first, followed by POO YAN for the ATARI under license from Konami. We were the first third-party software company to sell through Toys-R-Us and J.C. Penney's. There still isn't a large enough computer base to market with national TV commercials and magazine ads, but it is coming!
ANTIC: You began DataSoft by writing programs mostly for the ATARI. Will you continue to concentrate on ATARI software?
KETCHUM: ATARI software still makes up about 70% of our sales. But we have also developed Apple programs, and we have eight or nine programs we are marketing to and through Tandy. We are also producing software for Radio Shack under a private label arrangement. In the beginning, though, we saw the ATARI as being a good computer system which was easy to program, and we saw very few software companies supporting it. There was a vacuum and we filled it.
By the time the clothes rack was filled with outfits labeled "DataSoft", I had missed my plane back to San Francisco, but I had not missed the fun. And I had, for a brief moment in time, watched a very successful company from the inside.