Harvard Business School Working Knowledg e Archive

Entrepreneur Daniel S. Bricklin: A Class Act - A Class Inspiration Returns to HBS

1/18/2000
An extraordinary career based on the development of innovative, cutting-edge technology products was launched twenty years ago from the front row of an HBS classroom where Daniel S. Bricklin conceived the electronic spreadsheet, the first "killer app" of the information age. Bricklin (MBA '79) returned to Aldrich Hall 108 a few months back to see his accomplishments honored by Dean Kim Clark and HBS.

Dan Bricklin and Bob Frankston by Richard Chase
(Photo by Richard Chase)

Crunching numbers for case studies late into the night was never Dan Bricklin's idea of fun. So, while sitting through yet another HBS case discussion in the spring of 1978, calculator in hand, Bricklin (MBA '79) had an epiphany: there should be a computer program that could speed up the tedious computations case analysis often demanded. His concept, the electronic spreadsheet, later became what some have declared to be the single most important factor in the rapid proliferation of personal computers.

Bricklin, who took a shine to computer programming while still in high school in the 1960s, earned an undergraduate degree in electrical engineering and computer science at MIT. He then worked at Digital Equipment Corporation as project leader of an effort to create a stand-alone word-processing system. Following a brief stint at FasFax Corporation, he arrived at HBS in pursuit of an education that might help him keep ahead of succeeding generations of younger programmers.

At HBS, the challenge of nightly case preparation proved the catalyst for Bricklin's revolutionary idea. "I invariably realized in class that the numbers I was running at home were wanting," he recalls, "either because of an error I'd made or because I had not computed the numerous variations required." One day, sitting in the front row in Aldrich 108, "somewhat below the professor's sight line," Bricklin relates with a chuckle, "my mind wandered, and I imagined a sort of trackball on the bottom of the pocket calculator I was holding. I envisioned a computer screen on which you could make and change data entries quickly, simply, and—much as in word processing —efficiently, with minimal keystrokes."Click for image of spreadsheet

Bricklin made good use of the School's computer resources as he struggled to germinate the seed that would grow into today's ubiquitous spreadsheet, and he found near unanimous encouragement from the many professors with whom he shared his idea. Especially supportive was a young, then untenured professor of information technology, James Cash. "Jim told me, 'Anything you do to improve the computer's human interface has got to be good,' " Bricklin recalls.

By the summer of 1978, Bricklin had decided to run with his idea. Given the demands of his HBS studies, he wisely teamed up with former MIT classmate Bob Frankston, who did much of the programming work on the project. Together, they founded Software Arts, Inc., early in 1979.

"Those were the days of the minicomputer," says Bricklin. "Personal computers were yet to be taken seriously." Nevertheless, he decided that his new software program was better suited to PC use. Before long, Bricklin and Frankston had launched their first product: VisiCalc, the first commercially available electronic spreadsheet. Designed to run on Apple II computers, it retailed for $100. Putting the significance of the accomplishment into perspective, Bricklin's friend and Lotus Development Corporation founder Mitchell Kapor has likened the spreadsheet's impact on the computer era to the building of the transcontinental railroad: "It accelerated the movement, made it possible, and changed the course of the nation."

Bricklin continued as Software Arts' chairman until 1985. Ever the entrepreneur, he then moved on to launch a new venture, Software Garden, Inc. This time, his focus was an entirely different application, a unique software tool called Dan Bricklin's Demo Program that enabled programmers to more easily simulate other applications and to create new prototypes. Continuing to design software over the next several years, Bricklin addressed diverse needs such as repetitive laser printing and pen computing. Eventually, however, the World Wide Web's explosive growth proved difficult to ignore.

"Product is my thing," Bricklin explains. "I like to develop new metaphors and new ways to help make computers easier to use." With his early career exposure to word processing, he was quick to see the potential for a tool that would make Web site development equally simple. The resulting product, Trellix, developed by Bricklin and his colleagues in 1996, does precisely that by eliminating the need for Web site developers to learn the often cryptic HTML coding language. Today, Bricklin is chief technology officer at the Waltham, Massachusetts­based Trellix Corporation, a company he founded in 1995.

Asked to share his perspective on the Internet, Bricklin says, "Most people don't understand it. They fail to grasp the capabilities of its underpinnings." He likens the Net to a primitive road during the early days of the automobile, when few saw the potential that a massive interstate highway system might one day provide. "We need to understand not so much the technology," he explains, "but the progression of technology and what might be built with it. E-commerce, like electricity or the telephone, simply enables us to use technology to do what we now do, only better." It sounds like a medium in which Bricklin would feel right at home.

Dan Bricklin and Dean Clark by Richard Chase
Dan Bricklin and Dean Clark (Photo by Richard Chase)

Brass for Bricklin
"We don't make a habit of hanging plaques like this around campus," said Dean Kim B. Clark, as he unveiled a shiny brass tablet on the wall of Aldrich 108 honoring Dan Bricklin. An exception was made in this case, Clark told a spirited gathering of Bricklin's colleagues, friends, and family last June, because "the objective of what we do in these rooms is to transform students' lives so they can transform the lives of others." Bricklin's invention of the first electronic spreadsheet, said Clark, exemplifies this ideal.

Obviously moved by the tribute from Clark and further words of praise from HBS professor William A. Sahlman, Inc. magazine editor George Gendron, Lotus Development Corporation founder Mitchell Kapor, former business partner Bob Frankston, and others, Bricklin gave a brief speech in which he thanked a number of people for their support over the years, singling out his parents for special mention. "A printer by trade, my father taught me the importance of prototyping," Bricklin noted. "If you run a printing job, and it has a mistake in it, the customer won't pay. Being able to make last-minute changes is certainly a key concept in a spreadsheet."

The plaque commemorating Bricklin's accomplishment reads: "In this room in 1978, Dan Bricklin conceived of the first spreadsheet program. VisiCalc, original 'killer app' of the information age, forever changed how people use computers in business."

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From the Harvard Business School Bulletin, October 1999.

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