ASK Computers, founded in 1972 by Sandra Kurtzig and her husband in the second bedroom of their California home, became one of the world’s most successful software companies. Its defining achievement was a program called ManMan, which helped businesses manage material purchases, production schedules and other administrative tasks in ways previously available only with large mainframe computers. As technology made computing power less expensive, ASK struggled to keep its market share despite its dominance in the business of information systems geared toward manufacturers.
By the early 1980s, ASK’s success began to wane. The company’s ASK Computers research and development activities shifted to focus almost exclusively on upgrading existing programs. Work on new products virtually came to a halt. This overall caution, described by a Wall Street Journal article as a “toe in the water approach,” made it impossible for ASK to develop the breakthroughs necessary to maintain its primary position in the field.
Eventually, ASK’s management began to lose touch with its employees. As a result, the company lost its entrepreneurial edge. The management team grew further apart from the staff and became more concerned with rearranging the company’s corporate structure, as well as instituting minor changes to the quality of food and beer served at the weekly Friday evening parties.
In an attempt to revitalize the company, Kurtzig spearheaded ASK’s acquisition of a small software firm known as Software Dimensions. The purchase was a significant investment and the first for ASK outside of its own operations. The move was intended to expand the company’s product line so that its programs could be used with smaller hardware, as opposed to the larger computers for which it had been designed.
The company’s most successful new program, Accounting Plus, was a major hit. In 1983, ASK recorded earnings of $250,000 on sales of $3 million. In addition to expanding its product line, the move enabled ASK to sell stock to the public for the first time.
By the mid-1980s, ASK had a number of problems. ASK was losing market share to competitors offering similar information systems in less cumbersome formats. In addition, the booming personal computer market was making it harder for ASK to sell its more costly software products.
ASK’s sales and earnings slipped in 1986, and the company’s managing board was concerned about its future. Kurtzig sold off large blocks of her own shares, which triggered a shareholder lawsuit, but she did not withdraw from the company’s day-to-day operations. She was a strong advocate for reviving the company’s entrepreneurial spirit, and she focused her efforts on promoting ASK Micro. Her goal was to create a series of small, inexpensive programs for use with personal computers, as well as more advanced and sophisticated programs to run on older Hewlett-Packard and Digital Equipment Corporation minicomputers. The company renamed itself ASK Micro. By the late 1990s, ASK Micro had 91 offices in 15 countries. ASK produced an array of software for business applications. Its flagship product, Manman/X, was an update to the original ManMan software and was marketed as a means of connecting manufacturing departments with other parts of a company.