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Monday, July 20, 1992 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Strategies

Visionary Software -- Software Keys On Improving Decision-Making

The computer screen shows a Japanese-style garden, serene and relaxing. An Oregon stream gurgles in the background. From time to time, you can hear a frog ribbit.

You sit before your computer, taking deep breaths and allowing your shoulders to relax. When you're ready, you hit the "return" key. A gong sounds.

You have just entered Synchronicity, and the world of Visionary Software. ----------------------------

PORTLAND - Let's get one thing clear. Paul O'Brien is not the type of businessman who would win the approval of the Washington state Republican Party.

The founder of Visionary Software, O'Brien starts an interview talking not about his corporate strategies but about the year he spent in India studying yoga and Buddhist meditation.

He invites a visitor not to attend a software symposium but to participate in a weekend yoga retreat. His office is filled with environmental newsletters, Greenpeace stickers and New Age publications.

O'Brien wants to improve the world by producing software that empowers corporate managers to figure out what issues are important to them in life, manage their time and set priorities.

"Business is destroying the planet," he says. "But in some ways business is also the only force powerful enough to save the planet. If we can empower our society's business leaders to learn how to make better decisions, we have done something significant."

That mission may be too offbeat for the corporate market that O'Brien hopes to tap. And for Visionary Software to sell products, O'Brien is realizing he must make his ideas palatable to a more mainstream audience.

His first product was Synchronicity, a program designed to help its users guide their decision-making by the ancient wisdom of the I Ching, a Chinese book of changes.

More than 20,000 copies of the program have sold since its inception three years ago, and it has an almost cult-like reputation as an entertaining New Age product.

"I am serious about our mission," he says. "But if we keep turning out products that are perceived as little more than wacky throwaways, we won't accomplish what we set out to do."

With that in mind, Visionary Software's more recent programs have emphasized a more mainstream line.

One product, Lifeguard, is designed to help users take computer breaks to avoid eyestrain, tight shoulders and injuries that result from typing too much.

Another product, First Things First, is a time-management tool that helps users set priorities, organize projects and keep track of daily tasks.

Changing a company's image is hard, but O'Brien appears to be heading on the right track. For instance, First Things First is only a few months old but has already outsold Synchronicity.

Dennis James, a software consultant based in Bothell, suggests why.

James is a fan of both Synchronicity and First Things First but for different reasons.

"Synchronicity is sheer entertainment, it's fun, the kind of program you play with at 2 a.m.," he says. "When we talk about First Things First, well, it's terrific. It's the best list manager I've seen. It does one thing very extremely well - priorities and lists."

At a time when workplace stress is growing into a leading health hazard, corporate executives and managers increasingly are searching for ways to learn to use time more effectively.

Although software programs aren't the answer for everyone, they could be one means of learning to organize time and priorities, says Nancy Field, a Seattle-based consultant who assists companies with strategic planning.

"It's no secret that one of our scarcest resources is time," Field says, "and the day-to-day struggle of managing an organization can take you away from larger issues such as the organization's future direction.

"The more tools that can help people set priorities that are available the better."

Visionary had sales of $1 million last year, and O'Brien expects sales to be $1.5 million in 1992.

The company's gross profit margin is about 15 percent.

Unlike most entrepreneurs, O'Brien never had a desire to own his own business.

His exposure to software came in the early 1970s, shortly after he left the stormy riot-torn Berkeley campus to study at the University of Oregon. He worked part time for the Oregon Research Institute, where a $200,000 mammoth-sized computer was housed.

Computers were in their infancy and it was years before the first commercial video games, but O'Brien and a friend used to spend half the night at the center playing a space-war game his friend had developed.

The experience addicted him to software design, something he realized he could not study at the time in college. He dropped out, and began working for a small software-design-and-marketing company full time.

Over the years, he rose through the ranks and began leading what he calls a "jet-set existence."

"I was very successful in material terms, but I wasn't very happy," O'Brien recalls.

After a ruptured disc put him in the hospital for 10 weeks, O'Brien decided he needed to take a sabbatical from the corporate world and learn what it meant to be human. He went to India, where he studied yoga and meditation, and began traveling throughout Asia and Europe.

Eventually, he returned to the U.S. and the software business. In the late 1980s, while working for a company that specialized in technical software for data communications, he got the idea to produce what eventually turned out to be Synchronicity.

Always a believer in the I Ching, O'Brien could see how office politics and the general corporate environment often stifled the decision-making process.

"I was a vice president and I would see myself confronted with dilemmas that logic couldn't solve, things like office politics," he says. "At the same time, I could see business decisions are made in the gut rather than the mind, which largely derived from how the person was feeling that day."

A program like Synchronicity could help, he thought, by helping people put some distance between personal ego and an issue.

Realizing he would not be able to market the program through his employer, O'Brien quit his job and, in 1989, used his entire personal savings of $25,000 to start Visionary Software.

An acquaintance from a weekly goal-setting session he attended in Portland put him in contact with an investor who loaned him an additional $30,000.

Although his capital was limited, O'Brien wound up making some shrewd marketing moves.

To promote Synchronicity, he handed out free demos at a MacIntosh computer trade show. After five uses, the program switches to an ad, which encourages users to call Visionary Software's toll-free line and order a serial number that will reactivate the program.

The scheme, which O'Brien still uses, essentially self-markets the software and can reduce his packaging and overhead costs.

O'Brien also realized early on, that for his product to sell, it needed to attract the attention of the nation's largest software distributors.

One way was to get Synchronicity onto the shelves of a nationally known retail software store, such as Egghead.

With that in mind, O'Brien began calling then Egghead buyer James repeatedly, trying to convince him to stock Synchronicity. As James recalls, he was able to put O'Brien off at first. But eventually O'Brien's persistence and earnest belief in the product convinced James to give it a try.

"It was pretty tough for little guys like Paul to get our attention," James says. "If you don't have a major advertising budget, and he didn't, we wouldn't pay attention."

Much of Visionary Software's future direction is grounded in beliefs made popular by Stephen Covey, a time-management expert and author.

Covey believes people can use time more effectively if they learn to prioritize such activities as strategic planning, training and relationship-building over mundane tasks such as attending meetings and dealing with every little daily nuisances employees encounter.

"My philosophy boils down to two basic approaches," O'Brien says. "You can either focus on getting your needs met or on trying to create something from a sense of mission.

"Either way, your needs will get met. But I believe that if you spend all your time on getting your needs met, you will have more anxiety, stress. The other approach is more fun, and perhaps, you will wind up contributing more to society."

You're deep in Synchronicity, letting your fingers press the computer keys at random. A gong sounds and the question you asked earlier flies off the screen.

The babbling stream and the frogs return, along with a reading from the I Ching. You can study the reading now, store it in your personal computer or make a printout.

You may see it as a fortune, a horoscope or something to reflect on before a serious business meeting or project. However you regard it, the wisdom is there. -----------------------------

VISIONARY SOFTWARE -- Employees: 9. -- Headquarters: Portland. -- Business: Software manufacturing. -- President: Paul O'Brien. -- 1991 sales: $1 million. -- Estimated 1992 sales: $1.5 million. -- Major customers: Egghead Discount Software, national distributors such as Marisel and SoftKat, corporate clients such as Kraft Whiz Corp. and Chevron. -- Major competitors: Producers of personal information management software. -- Strategy: To help businesses make better decisions by manufacturing software that helps them manage time, set priorities and focus on personal values.

Copyright (c) 1992 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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