The idea for SpaceManager, a real estate software program, came to Nathan Leblang the way a lot of good ideas do -- by accident.
Talking with a colleague about how to drum up business for their local architectural firm, Mr. Leblang hit on the idea of a graphic real estate database. The execution seemed simple enough: Load pictures of local office buildings -- interior and exterior -- into the company's computer system, then use the database as a selling point with real estate agents and other potential clients.
That's when the wheels started turning.
"I started thinking there might be a way to put in floor plans, a map of the city to see where the building is in reference to the airport, schools, whatever, and maybe link it all up to a central real estate database," Mr. Leblang recalled. "That led to the idea to create a program that didn't exist before."
There was just one problem. Mr. Leblang, an architect by training, didn't know anything about computer programming.
So he decided to learn. Fast. He checked out books on computer programming from the local library, bought books from the local bookstore -- and devoured them in the evenings. When he finished one batch, he got more. By the end of the summer of 1990, Mr. Leblang had mastered the basics of programming. He began writing his own programs on the weekends, learning by trial and error.
That's when the entrepreneurial bug began to bite.
On vacation in Bethany Beach with their 8-year-old son, Noah, Mr. Leblang and his wife, Susan, mulled over the possibility of launching their own software business. The risks of leaving a secure job with an established firm to start a business from scratch were dutifully debated, but in the end there was really never any doubt as to what the outcome would be, Mrs. Leblang recalled.
"The only way to know if this thing was going to fly was to give it everything you've got," she said. "We decided that we were prepared to go to the mat to make this work."
Mr. Leblang returned from vacation and gave notice to his employer. He then turned the couple's carefully planned investment portfolio into seed money for his startup. IRAs, stocks, bonds and mutual funds were liquidated and equity from their Roland Park home was siphoned off.
"We did things that would have made an accountant cringe," he said.
Mr. Leblang's dream finally took shape in August 1990, when SpaceManager Inc. officially opened for business.
Eighteen months and $100,000 later, the Leblangs have sold just one copy of their $1,000-a-copy software program. Another 20 orders are pending -- three in Canada.
"I never thought it would be this difficult," said Mr. Leblang, who still pulls all-nighters tinkering with the software. "It's like digging a hole in the sand. You keep shoveling sand out and sand just keeps filling in. It just never ends."
But things are beginning to look up.
Mr. Leblang pulled off a marketing coup last summer when he persuaded the state to start using the program to track properties statewide.
Under a deal struck between the Maryland Department of Economic and Employment Development and SpaceManager, Mr. Leblang donated the software to the state in exchange for DEED agreeing to promote SpaceManager among the Maryland counties and to other states.
Mark Jacobson, manager of market research for DEED's business development division, said he plans to use SpaceManager to assemble a detailed database of properties across the state. It will be used to locate properties for businesses and other organizations interested in relocating or expanding in Maryland.
Mr. Jacobson said he tried other software programs, but all fell short of expectations: they were either too slow, too cumbersome or technically limited. SpaceManager, he said, has none of those drawbacks.
"When our database is complete, it will be the best economic development property package in the country," Mr. Jacobson boasted.
As a result of the DEED connection, Harford, Howard and Cecil counties are considering using SpaceManager. Mr. Leblang said number of other leads passed along by DEED seem to be panning out, but no money has exchanged hands.
While waiting for commercial success, the Leblangs are living the life of struggling entrepreneurs. They manage to run a household and business with virtually no income, getting by thanks to an occasional outside architectural job and periodic donations from friends and relatives.
Once active in the Baltimore social scene, the Leblangs said they gave up going out on Saturday nights two years ago. Their main splurges these days are for fast food and rented movies. Mrs. Leblang said she doesn't even think about shopping for new clothes, and Bethany Beach vacations are but a fond memory.
They do treat themselves to an occasional night at the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, but they go on weeknights when tickets are cheaper.
The one thing they haven't scrimped on is their son's education. Noah, now 9, attends Park School, one of the most exclusive private schools in Baltimore. Tuition runs about $8,000 a year. Mrs. Leblang said they really can't afford Park, but school officials "are helping us work it out."
"If we'd known in August 1990 what we know now, would we still do this? I don't know," Mrs. Leblang mused. "It's hard to say. The energy of your vision propels you. The fact is, we're still very
excited. We think SpaceManager has great potential."
In its current format, SpaceManager stores color photographs of buildings -- interior and exterior -- along with floor and site plans, related drawings and photographs (including aerial shots), tenant lists (including tenant lease expiration dates), city maps and 200 other categories of information of interest to people in the commercial real estate business. Users get information, pictures and site plans from public records, creating a customized database in the process.
SpaceManager already features stereo sound. Once full-motion video is added, users will be able to take "walking tours" of buildings, or even whole cities, against an audio backdrop of, say, a local orchestra or national symphony.
The existing program is being marketed as a "stand-alone" system, meaning that information can't be electronically swapped between SpaceManager customers. At its core, the program is designed to allow customers to build simple, albeit complete, real estate databases on geographically defined areas.
Besides inputting information about properties across the state, for example, DEED is using the program to assemble voluminous U.S. Census and infrastructure data, such as housing. Information on airports, roads and schools will eventually be added, said DEED's Mr. Jacobson.
There are also plans to add video. Once that happens, DEED representatives will be able to give viewers a walking tour of the state in minutes. Such a travel log of Maryland might include shots of might include shots of Ocean City, the Chesapeake Bay or Baltimore's Inner Harbor, Mr. Jacobson said.
Mr. Leblang sees the program as the first step in establishing an international on-line service, a sort of international shopping service for Realtors and anyone else with an interest in commercial properties. He reasons that the databases of SpaceManager customers could be electronically linked, creating an international library of buildings and cities.
Under that scenario, a Baltimore business that was interested in setting up an office in, say, Rio, could simply dial up that city on the local SpaceManager system.
Once inside the system, the viewer could peruse the latest data on Rio's commercial and residential properties, look up information on schools and local government, tax tables, infrastructure data and a host of other information of interest to businesses.
Likewise, a domestic network would allow a business anywhere in the United States to check out the availability of commercial office space anywhere in the country with the push of a button. Cities could link into other cities, counties could swap data with other counties and businesses could visit potential relocation sites without leaving their offices.
The networking possibilities, according to Mr. Leblang, are endless.
"We're not there yet, but in five years we will be," he predicted.
That's a long way from where he started just 18 months ago.
Indeed, when the Leblangs started showing the newly minted SpaceManager program to real estate agents and other potential customers in 1990, he didn't get applause -- or orders. What he got instead was stony-cold silence followed by suggestions on how to change it.
It didn't take long to figure out that SpaceManager wasn't de tailed enough, wasn't colorful enough and wasn't customized enough for the commercial market. And it didn't run on IBM Corp. equipment, the choice of many Realtors. It ran only on Apple MacIntosh computers.
That presented Mr. Leblang with his first major problem as a software entrepreneur: He didn't know anything about IBM computers. He'd never used an IBM, let alone written a program for one.
His solution, once more, was to hit the books. Fast. At the same time he spent $7,000 on an IBM computer system for his office, an expense he had not anticipated.
But the programming changes didn't stop there. Mr. Leblang found himself retooling SpaceManager almost constantly to keep with the constant stream of suggestions, a process that tested his skills, patience and conviction.
"I'd be making another spaghetti dinner and I'd see him come in the door with that look on his face, and I'd say, 'O.K., what do you need to do now?'," Mrs. Leblang said.
The Leblangs still eat a lot of spaghetti dinners. But the software bugs are history and SpaceManager has a new lease on its corporate life thanks to DEED.
The question now is whether the Leblangs can succeed in differentiating their product among the hundreds of real estate software programs flooding the market.
Pam Hinton, a computer specialist with the Society of Industrial and Office Realtors, a professional association based in Washington, said database programs aimed at the commercial real estate market have only begun to surface within the past five years. Previously, she said, most programs were tailored for the residential market.
To make their products stand out, she said, some makers load up programs with fancy add-ons, like their own cameras for taking pictures of buildings. Those pictures can be loaded into desktop publishing systems to produce, in seconds, brochures or internal documents. Others feature full-motion video, stereo soundtracks and customized subject categories.
"There's a big demand for programs like these," said Ms. Hinton. "People need information and they need it quickly."
Big demand and the relative novelty of commercial programs create a window of opportunity for entrepreneurs like the Leblangs. But they'll have to act fast to gain name recognition before that window begins to close and front-runners assume their positions.
That's a concern for the Leblangs. Armed with a copyright, they believe SpaceManager is novel enough to hold its own against current competitors.
But Mr. Leblang knows it is only a matter of time before copy-cat programs appear. The trick, he said, is to make sure SpaceManager has a market niche -- and a recognizable name -- before then.
"We want to be the first, the fastest and the best," he said. "Just like Kleenex. We want SpaceManager to be the name people remember and ask for."