Tuesday, October 14, 1997 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Profits From A `Boring' Device -- Eastside Entrepreneur Has Prospered Selling Software

Seattle Times Eastside Business Reporter


To say Greg James doesn't care for computers is an understatement.

He doesn't own a home computer, of course. His one-word assessment of the machines is: "Boring!"

It's a strange attitude for an entrepreneur who is making a small fortune repackaging and selling computer software.

Or maybe it's not so strange. James, founder and owner of Kirkland-based CounterTop Video-Audio-Software, figures the company's growing success reflects the fact that he doesn't think like a computer nerd.

"Nobody here has ever worked for Microsoft," he says proudly. "To me it would be a negative if somebody (from Microsoft) applied here because they probably don't have the faintest clue how retail works."

James, who first made his mark producing and distributing specialty videotapes, has spent 10 years learning retail by selling his wares first through hobby stores and now through mass-market retailers such as Costco, CompUSA and Sam's Club.

First million-dollar month

CounterTop's eight employees have put seven CD-ROM products on the market this year. Its educational and entertainment videotapes sold well enough to bring revenues to $1 million in August, the company's first million-dollar month.

This month the 447 Sam's Club stores nationwide set up pallet-size displays of CounterTop's hottest new release, the five-disc "Family Bible Reference Set," along with two other Good News Software products aimed at children.

How James got into the business isn't a simple story.

A 1975 Bellevue High School graduate, he dropped out of the University of Washington a few credits shy of graduating with a major in international relations. He worked his way up from bouncer to part owner of The Vogue nightclub in Seattle's Belltown area.

With a little experience behind a video camera, James "bluffed" his way into joining a crew taping an Abbottsford, B.C., air show in 1986. The producer went out of business before the tape was completed, and James kept the footage in lieu of back pay.

Hoping to produce an instructional soccer video - his brother is Seattle Sounders player-coach Bernie James - Greg James sent the air-show tape as a demo to Simitar Entertainment. Simitar released the air show tape as "Wings of Thunder," and it sold well to aviation buffs.

"I made about 75,000 bucks on the deal," James said. "I was going, `Wow, I like this business!' "

With KOMO-TV weatherman Steve Pool, James produced 13 "I Wanna Be" videos, a children's series on careers, for Simitar. He formed a distribution company, CounterTop, in 1990. Since then, he has distributed niche-market videotapes on aviation, military affairs and "America By Rail," which has sold 300,000 copies.

CounterTop's biggest hit to date, the "Learn Country Line Dancing" series, has sold nearly 2 million copies since its 1993 release.

This year the company is moving full-tilt into the CD-ROM market, taking discs that flopped or sold only modestly as stand-alone products and repackaging them as five-disc bargain sets.

"Most of these people are babes in the woods," James said. "I found people who had spent a quarter of a million dollars on a CD-ROM title and then they would do their box design in their basement, so they had these good programs and this horrible, horrible packaging."

His first, modest CD-ROM success in 1995 was "Super Games Galore," whose 250 "shareware" titles included productions by filmmaker George Lucas' LucasArts. Last year's "The Math Resource Center," a joint project with Venice, Calif.-based Encore Software, was an even faster seller.

This year's five-CD sets include "A World of Art," "Complete U.S. History 1776-1914," and "Total Civil War." The boxed sets retail for about $30, less than some of the discs sold for individually.

"Family Bible Reference Set," a joint venture with Wisconsin-based Rhinosoft Interactive, is CounterTop's biggest hit of the season. James was initially dubious about Rhinosoft owner Greg Swan's idea of mass-marketing Bible titles that previously were sold primarily in Christian bookstores.

Swan, who calls James a "brilliant" businessman, won his friend over by telling him about the 70 million-plus born-again Christians who study the Bible, and the $500 million worth of video and computer products sold each year by Christian bookstores.

Runs business in his own way

Muscular, blond and given to working in jeans and T-shirt, James runs his business his own way. He has never used a personal credit card and gave into his assistants' pleas for a company credit card only three months ago.

Last year, deciding the company was overstaffed, James eliminated seven of its 15 positions.

The answering machine in CounterTop's cramped quarters in a Totem Lake industrial park warns callers that the office will be closed Friday afternoons in the summer when the weather is nice.

James would rather be out hiking or sailing his 40-foot yacht, he explained: "I don't take the stuff that seriously. I feel life is more important than business. We work hard here. I think working smart is better than working 13 hours a day."

The work-hard, play-hard ethic seems to be working. James projects 1997 revenues of $5 million to $6 million. Next month CounterTop will move into a new Redmond location three times the size of the Kirkland office.

It all comes down to giving people what they want, at a price they like. "My whole deal is, what's Joe Six-Pack going to be doing?" James said.

Keith Ervin's phone message number is 206-515-5632. His e-mail address is:

Copyright (c) 1997 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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