Le origini di Sap Business One

SAP Business One, which began as a small idea, is now more than 20 years old, and with nearly 1 million users in more than 160 countries, is a leading product in the global Small Midsize Business market. It is an entrepreneurial success story showing that with the combination of vision, determination, passion and self-belief one can overcome enormous challenges.

What follows is a series outlining the story of how an idea launched in Israel became SAP Business One. In each episode of this blog series, we will cover a milestone of the product with stories and anecdotes of people that took part in the exciting journey.

Dall’idea al prodotto

In the early 90’s Shai Agassi and his father, Reuven Agassi, started The QuickSoft Company. One of the cornerstone developments of the group was the Awarded Object Oriented Navigation System that later was the basis of the Drag & Relate functionality of SAP Business One. The team was busy in those days in developing applications for school management and administration in the USA, as well as catalogue management for a global cutting tools company.

At the time, the financial software available for small and midsize businesses was dominated by DOS operating system. Nevertheless, the biggest player of financial systems and the distributer of Apple computers in Israel joined forces to develop a financials software system for the Macintosh (Apple rebranded to “Mac” in 1998). Despite good intentions, they failed.

Reuven Agassi: “we wanted to implement innovative technologies in the business world in order to create reliable software solutions that are better than those available in the market.” 

In 1994 the Agassi family and QuickSoft struck a deal to work with the Israeli Macintosh distributer to try again. According Reuven Agassi, the founder, “we wanted to implement innovative technologies in the business world in order to create reliable software solutions that are better than those available in the market.” Once it was in advanced stage, Reuven asked Shai and co-manager Udi Ziv how long it would take to translate the application from Mac to Windows OS. They estimated 2-3 weeks, but it took much longer. To make sure development will be on time; the employees worked very hard and many times finished the day work after midnight.

The first versions backed up on 88 MB tape, while today the size of the application is ~ 10 GB.

One of the challenges was that the Windows 3.1 did not support the Hebrew language and the developers had to manipulate the code to write from right to left. This done in all forms and menus and caused delays in the development team that consisted of one developer and two other employees that provided the accounting background, since the first version focused on accounting only.

For context, it is worth understanding the market at the time. The market position of Apple, with its graphical computing hardware based on high profit margins, declined in the early 90’s, while Microsoft improved its DOS based Windows 3.0 system, began looking for new markets while targeting business users. For QuickSoft management to bet also on the business-oriented market approach of Microsoft Windows was for sure the right direction.

The basic infrastructure of the product came from the MAC school management software and included forms and Database elements called Atoms. As you can see in the main menu snapshot of the windows version of Menahel, there are many Mac GUI elements.

A typical User interface of “Menahel” 1996-2002

The initial product was called OCEK (Practitioner in English) and this is the reason that most of the Database files in SAP Business One start with O (OINV, OCRD, etc.).  Starting 1995 the new name of the product became MENAHEL – (Manager in English) The name in Hebrew is also the abbreviation of “Management information and accounting for businesses “, The very early release of MENAHEL was available for both Macintosh and Windows operating systems, and for a few years there was parallel development on the two systems (i.e. every new release had two versions).

Long before the current licence key, we used a security plug to protect the product.

In the next installment, I will focus on the first challenging days and the efforts to penetrate the conservative and mature DOS based accounting software market with a young innovative product based on the new Windows operating system and work environment. To make sure this activity will focused on the new market and work properly, the Agassi family established a new company called Menahel.

If you ask yourself, why the default user name to access SAP Business One is “manager” then the reason is that originally in the Hebrew version the access was using “Menahel” (Manager in English) as a user name and password.

For the people who are used to the typical Silicon Valley founding stories, the history of TopManage will sound like it comes from a different era. That’s because it did.

QuickSoft (the company where the product originated from) was what we would have called today an ISV — we built software projects for other companies for profit. TopManage was the first product we were not paid to create, and eventually had the longest and most successful future. The first year of the product was full of ups, downs, some successes, and many failures.

I asked Gadi Shamia, who started working on the “Menahel” project in 1994 and in 1996 joined the founding team of the company; to share a few stories that will shed some light on the first year of the product.

Gadi served as VP of Sales, Marketing and product manager. At SAP Gadi started the SMB field effort in the US and later run the small business global product. Gadi Shamia is currently the Chief Operating Officer at Talkdesk, a San Francisco company. What follows is how Gadi described things.

Gadi’s story :How i joined QuickSoft

If you think start-ups are crazy today, think again. I was introduced to the founder, Shai Agassi, one evening in late 1993. This was the pre-email/mobile phone era so I gave Shai a call at 8:00 PM one night, and he asked me to come immediately for an interview. My interview started at 9:30 PM and I was hired at 11:30 PM. Shai’s parting words were “let’s start your training.” To his disappointment, he could not find the lead engineer, so I ended up being trained by her second in command. The training ended at 1:30AM and I was ready to start working the next morning.

 Launch

Our product was the most innovative small business management product in Israel, and probably in the world. It was a native Macintosh product, with a hyperlink architecture so a click on any data field took you to a detailed information screen and had a beautiful user interface, but we did not think it was enough for the launch of the product.

We had just bought a new Macintosh Quadra 840AV with plain talk technology and were keen on demoing how to operate your business with voice commands. Yes, it was 1994, a full 20 years before SIRI has emerged… The programmer that built the integration was Luiz, a new immigrant from Brazil, with a thick Brazilian accent. He trained the product to response to his voice and to open the various menus. Alas, he did it with the same thick accent. Onstage, during our launch event, Shai Agassi, one of Quicksoft founders, was demonstrating the new product using Voice commands: “Menahel, Heshbonit!” (Hebrew for TopManage, Invoice!”). Nothing. He tried repeatedly and the computer refused to budge. Finally, Luiz came on stage, spoke the command and TopManage complied. We should have let the product speak for itself!

 The first tradeshow

In 1995, we had a few dozen Mac customers, but our growth was limited by the size of the market back then. We decided to convert the product to Windows, which was not super common as a business OS, but more popular than Mac.

With a cross-platform product and big hopes, we booked a booth in a large computer trade show in Tel Aviv. There, on a large screen, we started showing off our flashy product. As I said before, the product was well ahead of its time, and the few boxes we created as props, were sold on the spot. We phoned the office and asked them to prepare as many boxes as they can and bring them back to the tradeshow.

With a 30 day, money back guarantee promise and a ground-breaking product, we were selling packages like crazy. We probably made $50,000 in sales in 3 days. We were sure that this was our breakthrough. That was until customers started using the product in earnest. The product was still in its early days, and there were just too many bugs. The 30 day, money back guarantee that we promised was put to work many times, and we learned a valuable lesson: Writing the last line of code for a new product the night before a trade show is not ideal.

The first Windows version included 4 diskettes of Menahel and 2 of PCAnywhere (Version 3.2 , Windows 3.11)

 Our first salesperson

A couple of months after the tradeshow things looked bleak. With most of the packages returned and no channel for new sales, we became a bit desperate. Our marketing manager had an idea– let’s hire a full-time salesperson to knock on doors. We immediately fell in love with our new salesman, who was tall, well-spoken and good-looking. Our expectations were high and boy he delivered! Every week we added new customers and things looked up and up for the third time. I was running our support, QA and training back then, so I was responsible for new customer on boarding. The first customer he signed up asked for instructions to integrate our product with his Truck Scale. We didn’t have this feature, and he wanted his money back. The second asked for multi-tier inventory management. We didn’t have this feature, and he asked for his money back. The third asked for our MRP module to be activated. We didn’t even know what MRP stood for back then. You get the picture. He was gone by the end of the month, and so did our hopes and dreams.

 Our first sales director

With no more time to waste, we decided to hire the best money can buy– after months of convincing, we were able to lure the director of sales from our biggest competitor, a DOS based program that dominated the market for 15 years. He knew exactly what to do: he needed a sales office in downtown Tel Aviv and an assistant and he would show us how it is done. We didn’t have much money, but we believed that he alone could solve all our problems. After all, he was part of the established team! We got him an elegant office with a demo room in a fancy office tower. We bought fancy furniture (to impress the customers), and hired an assistant. Everything was per spec, but no customers came knocking on the door.

Three months after I got a call from our company leadership: “you need to move to sales and help the sales director, or we won’t have a company!” I protested saying that I never sold a thing and I like running support. The answer was even shorter now: “if we don’t sell software, we don’t need support.”

The next day I reported to our sales office and start conducting 4-6 field meetings a day. To everyone’s great surprise, I converted 1-2 of those to paying customers. I guess that the clients appreciate deep product knowledge over salesmanship. After doing it for a month, the sales director left and I was asked to run the sales organization, turning my temporary assignment into a permanent one.

As you can see, our first years were not easy, but no startup is… We loved what we did and gave it all (staying in the office past midnight was somehow a regular thing). This passion led us to learn from each of our failures, rather than giving up.

The next chapter will be around the first days of Menahel as a formal company and the challenges to penetrate the DOS crowded and conservative accounting solutions market. You will also be able to see examples of – How the product user interface looked then comparing to the current version.

e and password.

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