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ROC Software’s Founders:
Danny and Wendy Compton, Becky and Jerry Rankin

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Ron Seybold, Editor In Chief


Married to MPE

The HP 3000 market draws its roots from mom and pop software companies — but in the last year it’s welcomed its first mom-and-pop-and-mom-and-pop firm. ROC Software raised its profile in the 3000 community last year with its acquisition of all MPE products in the Tivoli Software portfolio, products created by long-time 3000 suppliers Unison Software and Tymlabs. ROC took on thousands of customers in its acquisition, creating another MPE supplier seemingly overnight from the ashes of Unison and Tymlabs. The revival was all the more interesting because ROC was created by combining the talents of two married couples, Becky and Jerry Rankin and Wendy and Danny Compton. While more than a few HP 3000 software firms have been launched by couples, we’d never heard of any run by more than one couple. The Rankins and the Comptons are also across the street neighbors in Austin, making the company one of the most closely-held vendors in the 3000 community — literally.

In growing from three employees 18 months ago to 43 today, ROC might have seemingly appeared overnight, but the firm was really growing from MPE roots that go back well into the beginning of the 1990s. Starting from the RS Tech support and enhancement business that covered Unison’s Formation forms package for the 3000, the two couples took on the rest of the Unison and Tymlabs products built for MPE last year. Gathering up 12 former Tymlabs staffers to make a go of selling and supporting MPE/iX software may seem like a daunting task, but it’s on a par with making the intelligence, passion and ego of two married couples work as the cornerstone of a software company. Having run a marriage-based business in the 3000 community ourselves for five years, my partner Abby and I wanted to know how it works for others, and what ROC might bring to customers from such unique, family-style roots. We sat down with the Rankins and Comptons — ROC’s head of marketing, the president, the operations manager and its director of development — to learn what kind of vows ROC has exchanged with the MPE community, and among themselves.

My wife and I talk about business all the time in our relationship. We even have to put a moratorium on it at times. Is that how it works for you guys?

[A long pause, and then laughter]

Jerry: They all laugh and say yes, but I’m telling you it never stops. Because of the nature of how rapidly we’ve grown, we don’t take much time away. There’s always some tidbit in the conversation, so even if you’re talking about the kids, boom, somehow work jumps in there.

Danny: For us it’s gotten better, because Wendy had multiple offices in the house by the time we moved out of the house and into offices.

Wendy: There was only one FULL office...

Danny: We had an office called the Downstairs Office, if that helps any.

Jerry: We had two rooms in our house that were offices, one that was the “guest” bedroom that the guests couldn’t even get in. It was the same way. As we started working together and accumulating more things, we realized we either needed to get a new place to live, or an office.

Danny: We had a Series 925 and a Mighty Mouse [Series 37] in the house, and a LaserJet 2000.

Jerry: We would have had a 2680, but doggone it, Danny and I couldn’t lift it.

Danny: Getting the stuff out of the house has been good, because now when we go home we don’t work, and that’s a nice change of pace.

Becky: Yes, I actually have a formal dining room now.

Jerry: It has a formal dining table, with a whiteboard along the wall.

On top of all the familiarity of marriage, you folks live close to each other as well?

Jerry: That’s how we met. We live right across the street. Our kids started going to school together, they’re of very close age. Danny was the weirdest guy I ever met.

Wendy: That’s what Danny said about you.

Danny: I met Becky on Halloween. She had blue hair and was dressed as a clown, so the next time I met her I didn’t recognize her.

Jerry: I was working on some rent-to-own [PC] software and was doing support, and I wasn’t making enough money on that, so I was doing tons of data conversions. I’d be up all night working, and I’d look across the street and see lights on. I’d see Danny walking and talking.

Danny: I was working on a project that was being half developed in India, so when it was coming together I was doing all-night and all-day work.

So when did you know that you had the makings of a company together?

Jerry: We laughed at it before it ever happened, that it could happen.

Danny: Wendy and I decided we wanted them as partners. We bought into their company to get one of their partners to become non-active with them. The idea was to cement that so we could be working together. We talked about buying Formation as an idea: “Boy, they don’t want it. Wendy does a lot of work for the customers. Wouldn’t this be keen?” We stood in the front yard and kind of laughed about it. We decided if we wanted to do it we were going to have to put a real business plan together and go get it. That was a little slice of hell.

Jerry: That was a big slice of hell.

Becky: We all got to know each other really well.

Jerry: In one month, we worked on it every minute of every day, and get together in the evenings and just pored over it.

Danny: We went through the detail of how much we’d spend, and really tried to make a real business plan that made sure we knew what we were getting into — because it would really change the way our [current] company looked. When we decided it was something we could make a go of, we talked to Tivoli about it.

I was in on the meetings at Tivoli, because they were trying to decide what to do about the MPE stuff. I’d say, “I think we should do what we said we were going to do when Tivoli bought Unison, which was invest in MPE.” Tivoli had made a commitment to the owners of Unison to extend the Tivoli framework, so MPE could become one of their platforms. They weren’t doing that. I was pushing to do the right thing and support the platform, because we had all this revenue. And they finally kicked me out of the meetings, because they didn’t want to hear it. That’s when I said we have to put a plan together, because they’re not going to keep Formation.

Wendy: Because of all the [Unison/Tymlabs] products, Formation was the most different, and since I was so attached to the product.

So the first business plan was to work together on taking over the Formation business. How did you proceed to the rest of the Unison MPE products?

Jerry: We originally thought that Formation was the only thing [Tivoli] were pushing out the door at that time. We were comfortable with what we could do with that, and we all could personally benefit from that one product, do some enhancements and some work on it. It’s a great product. Wendy had a passion for it, and Danny had a passion for it. It had a very faithful customer base.

Danny: Before we could do another hell week, or business plan, Tivoli said they were going to divest themselves of the rest of the MPE products. We were floored.

Jerry: We had really put everything we’d had into the Formation deal. Now we were looking at the timing of it. We committed to having a new release of Formation by mid-summer of last year, but we didn’t know we’d be taking over all the rest of the products by June 1. The negotiation took up all the time.

Danny: We did a minor enhancement to Formation, and we’ve got two more enhancements coming up now. We’re catching up hard.

Jerry: The funny thing was, when we took over Formation we started selling the product. People were buying it. We weren’t planning on selling it, we just wanted to support it.

Wendy: Selling wasn’t our focus. We felt like it needed some time and attention before we could go out and sell.

Danny: Our original plan for Formation had support and development. No sales people. The point was to build up support first.

ROC seemed to come out of nowhere. Did anybody tell you while you were developing those business plans you were crazy to get into the MPE market?

Wendy: Yes.

Danny: Everybody did.

Jerry: It’s like the “working with your spouse thing.” Everybody thought we were idiots, that [MPE] was such a short-term thing.

Danny: The company that I was at before BSI was a 3000 shop. Wendy’s company was involved in the credit card processing industry in California, and that was a 3000 shop. We had a lot of industry experience, and didn’t stumble into the MPE space.

Jerry: We were PC only.

Becky: I remember the early conversations with Danny, and I’d say “What’s MPE?” and he’d say, “It’s a market where the rumor has been that it may go away — but the operating system is so stable and so reliable and people like it. And I believe it’s going to be around.”

Jerry: As everybody said, for the last five years it’s been dying, but the numbers keep growing. It made a big difference about how much we could pay, what our debt structure was. Since we’ve taken the products on, the same excitement still pops back up that took place with Formation. We made a commitment to ourselves that this company isn’t going public, not intended to be fattened up to be sold to the next guy. ROC Software was formed so we could take the products and do right with them, and put some value back in. We believe the customer base will reward us for that.

What are the advantages of being able to plan at the level of intimacy where you’re married to your partner?

Wendy: In working in large companies, there’s always a question of what somebody else’s motives truly are. I don’t think we have those issues, because our motives are so close together.

Danny: You trust that you know each other’s heart, that you know what you’re doing. It’s the best part of being in business like this: I know what he’s thinking, and what she’s thinking.

Becky: It’s scary sometimes.

Wendy: It allows the company to move more cohesively. You don’t have the power struggles. But it also benefits us in our personal lives. I wouldn’t want to not be involved with Danny’s work. We’ve always been involved in each other’s work, even before we worked in the same company. This adds an extra level to that, and I think it’s a really good and healthy thing for us.

Becky: I feel the same way. When I left the profession that I was in and started working with Jerry, we got so connected. It’s a wonderful way to be connected. He got so busy he needed extra help, and it was a big decision to change my career and start working together. I had a bit of a risk. A lot of our friends said, “Well, I couldn’t work with my spouse.”

Jerry and Danny [together]: We’d look at them and say, “We couldn’t work with your spouse either.”

Jerry: There’s times with the closeness of the relationship and the nerve endings at work, that it’s nice that she knows what my work is about. I don’t have the patience to describe what I’m doing.

The one thing that we want this company to stand for is the integrity that each of us stand for. We hold each other accountable to do what’s right. I can trust that [Danny] will slap me if my integrity starts dropping. We’ve spent a lot of time together and so we know each other, and it makes for a strong team.

Danny: Sometimes you’re in a meeting together, and somebody has to go pick up one of the kids. That’s the downside. But then there’s the times when I think of a cool idea when I’m in the shower, and I jump out and use a dry-erase marker to write on the bathroom mirrors. At any moment we can talk about stuff and brainstorm. For me, it’s part of being creative. It doesn’t always happen between nine and five.

One of the other interesting things is that ROC seems to be building itself on the remains of Tymlabs. Does it seem that way to you?

Danny: Well, we’ve got about a dozen of the people. We are really trying to create a place where we all wanted to work. One of the main topics at our retreat last week was, “Are we still maintaining the charter of a place where we all want to work?”

Do things like the financial planning class you’re offering to your staff make up part of that experience?

Wendy: We’ve got a whole lot of young people who are having their first experience with a full time job. We don’t just let them sit out there and flounder. We want to add to more than their job skill sets. We want to add to their life skill sets.

Jerry: Because we did go out and get a lot of college graduates, we still want to do what’s right, and help them be better when they leave if they choose to move on.

What’s it been like to introduce the legacy and legend of the HP 3000 to that younger generation?

Danny: We’re training them about operating systems and spoolers and job schedulers and backup. That’s real stuff that happens in the real world.

Jerry: We didn’t tell them this is an old dying. We said this is the coolest thing since sliced bread. They go out and talk to their friends and say, “Yeah, what do you know about MPE?” We’re like training the Marines here: There’s only a few good ones who know this stuff.

Danny: The truth is that MPE has all the things a real operating system has. A lot of would-be operating systems don’t have the fundamentals that are required to run a business. We interact with Maestro, so we’re training people on GUI and NT stuff.

Wendy: Because our customer base is out there in the real world, and has nothing to do with computers except using them, [our staff] gets to have the experience of talking to people in other industries. Being in this business, you get to see into everybody else’s world.

What are the surprises you’ve encountered in running an HP 3000 business as two couples?

Danny: I’m amazed at the people we’ve brought together. We have such a great group of personalities. I’m amazed at the strength of the players we’ve been able to bring together in a phenomenally small amount of time. I never thought I’d get 12 people I worked with before together again, because they wanted to be here.

Becky: I’m surprised how much I enjoy what I’m doing. We’re so like minded and all working toward the same goals. I enjoy that very much. I’m pleasantly surprised that it’s going so well.

How has working together as two couples changed your relationship as friends?

Jerry: I’ve learned a lot from being married to my wife for 15 years, and the same thing is true in “being married” to Danny and Wendy in this. They’re totally different people than I’ve ever been around. They’re creative people, people I can chase after instead of always getting to lead. We can be thinking about the same thing, but I don’t look at it the same way as Danny does. I always found it complementary. He forced me to grow a lot. If you look at my bookshelves, I’ve got “Learn Everything in 24 Hours” books stacked up.

Wendy: When you lead completely separate business lives, you always feel like there’s some part of your spouse’s business life that you are an alien to.

Becky: When Jerry still officed in the formal dining room and I’d be in the kitchen making dinner, I’d hear him take support calls. I’d hear him so much I could repeat. I remember thinking “I wish I could understand more about what he was doing.” It is wonderful to be that connected now. To be able to talk shop is great.

Do you think your structure gives you a business advantage that your HP 3000 customers would want to know about?

Danny: We were talking about being a mom and pop shop, and the 3000 industry came from that kind of startup. We’re truly a version of that. It’s almost one of the back-to-basics kind of things. I think only time will tell if we are capable of executing better than the average guy.

Wendy: When we first started this, somebody gave us a business magazine that said “Partnering with somebody is harder than marrying somebody.” The article said that being in a corporate environment with other executives is like having a marriage, and how much you have to work at it. Some partners went to a marriage counselor in the article. [Our friends] immediately looked at the article and said, “This is you guys.” Because we’re more intimately involved with each other, I think that gives us some advantage — in that we have more at stake to make this work. It’s not an easily dissolvable thing, like some businesses are.

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