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 Realtors 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, he had mastered the basics of programming. He began writing 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 investment portfolio into seed money for his start-up and siphoned off equity from their Roland Park home.
"We did things that would have made an accountant cringe," he said.
Mr. Leblang's dream took shape in August 1990, when SpaceManager Inc. 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. "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 looking up.
Mr. Leblang pulled off a marketing coup last summer when he persuaded the state to use 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.
As a result of the DEED connection, Harford, Howard and Cecil counties are considering using SpaceManager.
While waiting for commercial success, the Leblangs are living the life of struggling entrepreneurs. They 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.
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 at 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. "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.
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 click 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.