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There at the creation, still going strong

After 18 years, Mark Eppley remains an unorthodox technology executive who's still thriving despite a hardscrabble market that has elbowed aside many of his early contemporaries.

 

  
   
There at the creation, still going strong
By Charles Cooper
Special to CNET News.com
May 16, 2001, 10:10 a.m. PT

Not many executives would scale Mount Rainier's 14,400-foot summit just to test a new version of a company's flagship software product.

Then again, Mark Eppley does not fit the conventional corporate mold.

The founder and chief executive of Traveling Software (since renamed LapLink) happily admits to being an unorthodox guy. Indeed, Eppley's "Burnout party" at Comdex has been a perennial must do in the itinerary of any soul hearty--or foolish--enough to make it through the annual fall computer show.

In more recent years, Eppley has hosted "Spam Jams" at his summer home outside of Snohomish, Wash., where musicians, developers, friends, neighbors--and the odd journalist--mingle for the weekend. After Hormel threatened legal action against Eppley for appropriating the trademark "Spam," he was forced to rename his party invitations.

"Now it's 'the event formerly known as Spam Jam,'" he says.

But the familiar belly laugh that has entertained scores of tech journalists over the years and the easy manner belies the more serious side to Eppley. The most remarkable fact about the man is that after 18 years, he's still here and doing quite nicely, thank you, in a hardscrabble market that has elbowed aside many of his early contemporaries.

After dabbling with the idea of a career in the military--he received a football scholarship to the Air Force academy--Eppley briefly tried law school but finally discovered his life's work when he founded Traveling Software in 1983. He ran the company for the next 13 years before turning over the reigns to former Compaq Computer executive Kevin Bohren.

That was an experiment gone wrong, but it allowed Eppley time to recapture the hunger for the CEO job, which he reclaimed in October 1998.

Eppley sat down for an interview shortly after the release of LapLink's latest product, an upgraded version of its PCsync file transfer and migration application.

Q: After 18 years in the business, how does it feel to be a survivor?
A: (Laughing.) Survivor's a good term for that. Most of the scars have healed up--though we do have some new ones to show.

You recently dropped the .com suffix after the renaming of the company as LapLink.com in 1999. It sounds like you succumbed to the dot-com frenzy. A moment of weakness?
Yes, we succumbed--but just for a short period of time. Well-meaning individuals told me, 'You've got to get rid of your product business. You've got sales and earnings and you can't have that.' And they were serious! We were in the middle of the dot-com frenzy and it seemed right in that the intent was to raise the awareness of all of our company. We've always been a networking software company going back (to) the days when using CompuServe and MCI was the way to send e-mail.

You weren't alone. The Internet dazzled a lot of people.
The Internet is just an extension of our environment, and people are finally coming to realize that it's not the end-all, be-all panacea. But it still is a very healthy, thriving environment.

OK, let's talk about the Internet. How do you envision LapLink fitting into what is essentially a new world order for the company?
We're building on it in ways you couldn't do in the pre-Internet days. Back then, we started out with cables, then we added modem support, then network support for both Novell and Microsoft and then plain IP support. But that was all for local area networks. Now we've got this worldwide mother of all LapLink cables where everybody's plugged into the Net and we can reach everybody.

But throughout nearly two decades, you've stuck pretty much to file transfer and migration products. Why?
I don't know if that's totally accurate. We had our forays from file transfer in synchronization and had a product in 1989 called ViewLink.

Refresh my memory. What did it do?
For lack of a better way of explaining it--and we can thank Esther Dyson for this one-- they called it an "associative access manager." It was built on DOS and was being used as a stepping stone to OS/2. Anyway, why have we followed this path? Because that's our expertise and focus and where we add the highest value.

Sticking to your knitting, then, being the best foreign policy?
There are very complex issues that haven't been solved yet. Look at the number of companies dabbling with synchronization, and no one company has yet solved all of this.

Put things in perspective: How have expectations in file transfer and synchronization changed from the days when you were doing this on MS-DOS technology?
Well, the expectations now are well beyond what they were back then. It used to be that if the product worked one day of the week, people would tolerate it. Now with XP, who knows--maybe it's 3.5 days. Seriously, there are lots more devices in the mix than there were 10 years ago. Instead of just laptops and desktops, you also have cell phones and various flavors of PDAs in addition to the laptops, desktops and servers. There are just an endless number of devices that need to be synched.

But with greater standardization in how they communicate, does that make things easier from a development point of view?
Yes. It used to be an engineering treadmill. Now with standardization, that's just great. It makes it easier to focus on development.

Does the Internet bite into the need for separate file transfer products as yours? Do you see it as friend or enemy?
Both at the same time. It's no different than Microsoft. For products such as PCsync and LapLink, there's a great opportunity and will continue to be a great opportunity.

Speaking of your cross-town neighbors, are you talking to Microsoft about licensing or something closer?
We're talking to some very large and influential players.

In other words, next question. So then, where do you go with the product line from here?
Well, (Microsoft's) .Net (content strategy) and wireless is certainly a key driving environment for what we'll provide. Having these persistent connections open presents a huge opportunity for us. Industries do grow up. But that doesn't mean one cannot have fun and passion. You can do things related to file transfer with broadband for consumers and business that weren't possible before.

But if you stick with just file and data transfer, isn't your growth going to be limited?
Well, if I can have my technology embedded in every consumer device in your home or system on a desktop, that's not a small opportunity.

You're a private company today. You've remained private even during the boom times for tech IPOs. I'm curious: Why did you choose not to go public?
We had our chances, no doubt about that. I could say it was a conscious effort not to (go public), but that wouldn't be 100 percent accurate. Sitting here, in today's market, it's a good thing. But back a few years, remote access was hot and sometimes the best-laid plans--

You're not finishing that sentence.
I forget. How does it go? (Laughing.)

Do you feel as if you missed out on the gravy train?
I did when I first returned to run the company, because that was in the middle of the dot-com frenzy. Well-meaning individuals told me, "You've got to get rid of your product business. You've got sales and earnings and you can't have that." And they were serious! It seemed like such a strange period of time, but now, in a very weird way, with the downturn, it's a vindication that there is some rationality here. We do have a business and customer base--and a very passionate one, I might add--and we stick to fundamentals.

You bowed out as CEO for a couple of years. Did you lose the fire to run a company?
I think it's a fair assessment to say that I just burned out. My dad had died a little before that. But I just didn't have the fire in the belly. And in this business, as in any endeavor, if your head's not in the game, you're going to get hurt. But hey, my head's back in the game, big time.

You've climbed Mount Rainier and stayed up there for five days.
I was beta testing a new version of LapLink. It was a version that could do file restarts in the middle if you lost a connection.

So you climbed a 14, 400-foot summit to complete the world's first file transfer to the Internet? It's fun stuff, but doesn't it add to the flake reputation that you've built up over the years?
I was just proving a point--from an extreme location...We are now the second-oldest software company in the Seattle area after Microsoft--and certainly in the top five or 10 worldwide in longevity in the world. We are passionate about our products and customers. We sometimes go to an extreme to prove a point.

(For example, there's) the Mt. Rainier example with the then-beta version of LapLink for Windows 95 with automatic file-transmit recovery and speedsync. You will also note that at every Comdex burnout party--we sponsored a lot!--we featured some groundbreaking "first" with our products, whether it was the first wireless LapLink file transfer from a Harley or the first "underwater" LapLink file transfer at the old Sands Man O'War suite with the swimming pool.

I don't understand why some journalists want to beat us up about this. So we didn't sell out and are living on an island somewhere. But to call us flakes for being creative and passionate about our customers and products and what they can do...I am damn proud of my career and the many dedicated and hardworking people who have been with the company over the years. Because we are not Microsoft you can't say we failed or we are flakes. Sorry for the rant.

Is the industry still as much fun as it once was for you?
Well, life is what it is. In the early days of the industry, you had some unorthodox things going on because it was a whole new industry and it didn't have the attention of the suits. Industries do grow up. But that doesn't mean one cannot have fun and passion. The whole Mount Rainier thing was fun and passion, and we were showcasing capabilities of a product that was soon going to be announced.

What about being a small software developer in a land of--increasingly--giants? How has that changed in the last 18 years?
You do have to adapt at times. When I came back to run the company, for instance, the technology business was white hot. So if you had certain skills sets and could spell "engineer" and chew gum at the same time, then you were white hot. (In the past), if you couldn't excite engineering to work on something, you had to ship the code base offshore. That's not an issue anymore. Again, you have to be adaptable. We didn't survive for 18 years by accident. We're tenacious fighters and have incredible perseverance.

You alluded to the wealth effect from the glory days of Microsoft, Amazon.com and RealNetworks; it was both good and bad for the area, then?
It was both. Certainly, it brought lots of talent into the Northwest and trained a lot of talent. The downside is that in the glory days, it drove up salaries artificially.

Why didn't you ever sell the company?
Again, it's like that IPO question. Were we so idealistic that we wouldn't do that? No, we had opportunities and we'll have more in the future. It's inevitable that we'll be linked up with a larger company because you need certain critical mass and economies of scale. Nobody can predict the future, but if we have this conversation 12 months from now, we'll probably have a lot to talk about.

After 18 years, you've likely met everyone. Who's the smartest tech CEO you've ever met?
Steve Jobs and Bill Gates are right up there on the top of the list, but if I want to (name) some who aren't obvious on other people's lists, I would say Pat Sullivan. He's the guy who started ACT, sold the product to Symantec and later bought it back--and he made money on both transactions. Anybody who does that has got to be right up there. Another one is (Gateway CEO) Ted Waitt. He's a savvy businessman.

So who's the dumbest one you've ever met? (Former Symantec CEO) Gordon Eubanks for doing that deal with Sullivan?
No, I miss Gordon. I don't want to dis anybody, but I'd have to say that some of (modem maker Hayes Corp. founder) Dennis Hayes' moves just weren't good business decisions. I commend him for the investment in ISDN, but some of the decisions he made when the writing was on the wall...well, anybody in hindsight can point fingers.

You work not so far from Redmond. Is Bill Gates smart, lucky or both?
I would say 99 percent smart, 1 percent lucky--and that one percent happened awhile ago. I've got the utmost respect for Bill.