File Bothell's LapLink under 'S' for survivor
Seattle Times business reporter
In 1983, "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial" was playing at movie theaters, Pat Benatar was on top of the music charts and Mark Eppley was just starting his software company.
Nearly 20 years later, Eppley and Bothell-based LapLink continue to plug away with the company's signature program, which over the years has been used by many business travelers and laptop users.
Since its introduction 15 years ago, LapLink's file-transfer and migration software has become an industry standard with 14 versions and 15 million users.
In an industry littered with casualties, especially with all the closures and acquisitions during the past few years, surviving two decades is something of an achievement.
Being able to survive is "phenomenal," said Kathy Wilcox, president and chief executive officer of WSA, the umbrella technology-industry organization in the area.
Eppley deserves recognition, Wilcox said, for his leadership and ability to morph the company along with the industry. "As the industry has changed, he changed with it," she said. "He went from DOS to Windows to the Internet and wireless."
For Eppley, LapLink's chief executive officer, the key has been focusing on necessity, not novelty.
"In today's economy, it's the must-have, not the nice-to-have, that will make it," he said. His advice for new entrepreneurs: "Make sure what you're building hits a must-have sweet spot."
Not that it has come easily. Eppley is hoping two new applications out this year will hit the spot and spur company sales, which at roughly $10 million are less than half their 1996 peak.
One program speeds transfer of data on all kinds of network and modem lines. The other, a remote-access program, could be the biggest boom for the company since Microsoft introduced Windows 95, Eppley said.
"That was the biggest upgrade wave, not just for us but for the market," he said. "What we're about to launch this fall is a LapLink version that will be equal if not better than that in today's marketplace."
LapLink started under the name Traveling Software in April 1983, making programs for Radio Shack's Tandy TRS-80 Model 100 computer, a rudimentary battery-powered laptop.
It wasn't until 1987 that it came out with the file-transfer software that made a name for the company. The original LapLink was a DOS utility that allowed computer users to move files between laptop and desktop PCs.
LapLink came up with some software "firsts," including the first laptop battery-level monitor and first synchronization software for personal digital assistants, both in 1988. But it also had its share of false starts and misfires.
In 1994, it introduced LapLink Wireless, which eliminated standard transmission cords. The software came with two controllers that beamed data between computers using radio transmission rather than infrared-dependent wireless links. "Bluetooth ahead of its time," the company Web site calls it.
Another product, WebEx, was the first offline browser and was developed by a California startup LapLink purchased in 1996. But when offline browsing became an issue in the browser wars between Microsoft and Netscape Communications, WebEx was caught in the middle.
"It was hard to foresee that this would be a strategic application for either side," Eppley said. "We punted."
LapLink dropped the product and sold the name.
Departure and return
Eppley left in January 1996, turning the company over to a former Compaq Computer executive, Kevin Bohren. In October 1998, he returned to find that the culture at his company was different and the whole industry had been turned upside down.
"My first three months back in 1998 was in the middle of the dot-com frenzy. It was an odd time to come back," Eppley said. The company had a popular product, loyal customers, a recognizable brand and profits. "I had consultants tell me with a straight face to jettison the core business, that it's just a boat anchor weighing the company down," he said.
What upset Eppley most was he sensed the passion at the company he started was gone. "We didn't have the sense of urgency," he said. "There were people just showing up and drawing a paycheck."
On his first day back as chief executive, he laid off 30 percent of the staff. At its peak, LapLink had 160 employees; now it has 32.
In September 1999, after 16 years as Traveling Software, the company changed its name to LapLink.com — "in a moment of weakness," Eppley said — only to drop the dot-com a few years later.
The company didn't get swept up in the initial-public-offering craze and go public, although Eppley said it has come close a couple of times.
"That was never LapLink," said Perry Steiner, a board member and a partner with Arlington Capital in Washington, D.C. "We never got caught up in that; it's always been a solid, small and very successful software company."
LapLink's next release is patterned on a project Eppley mothballed when he returned. Called Remote Network Accelerator and expected to be released at month's end, it's designed to speed up data transmission using compression technology and SpeedSync, which transmits only portions of files that have been changed.
LapLink also plans to introduce a major revision of its signature program next month. Eppley kept many details under wraps but calls the software the "culmination of a 20-year quest."
He said it centers on "weightless computing," the notion of providing access to information anytime, regardless of whether you have your PDA, laptop or wireless phone.
The software will be designed to simplify the complexities of using multiple devices on wired or wireless networks, regardless of which operating system the devices use.
It should be interesting to see what Eppley, known for antics such as donning costumes for the company's parties at the Comdex trade show, will do to promote the product. For other promotions, he showcased his love of outdoor adventure. In 1996, Eppley, an experienced climber, scaled Mount Rainer with a reporter, photographer and two guides, transmitting articles and photos using LapLink 95.
The next promotion and anniversary celebration is something more the speed of a company that's an old-timer: a tour bus. Details are sketchy, though. "We're still thinking about what can actually be done with a rented bus," Eppley said.
Seattle Times Eastside business reporter Tricia Duryee contributed to this story.