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Videographic visionaries; Truevision, Inc.

Videographic Visionaries Truevision, Inc.

They are a talented crew committed to taking computers where no one has gone before. Their videographic boards and software applications make it possible for computers to achieve graphics of galactic proportions. In the printing and graphics industry, their product is the standard.

They are Truevision, Inc., of Indianapolis.

"We have all the major players signed--paint systems, digital printing, prepress," says Joseph Haaf, Truevision's director of sales and marketing." In national broadcasting, anyone using graphics is using one of our adapter boards. Everyone's using our product."

That's no exaggeration.

Everyone's using them for everything. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration uses Truevision technology in its space and shuttle program to create still images and a variety of images with higher resolution in the same video camera. The Korean broadcasters of the 1988 Olympics, whose charge was to design the most advanced, technically proficient system, used Truevision products for photo-finishing--or "grabbing"--a clear image in 1/30th of a second and zooming in and digitizing it. On the lower end of the scale, customers are trying on clothes, experimenting with new hairstyles and having their pictures printed on T-shirts, thanks also to computer-graphics technology.

Truevision's standard is international. "We'll have people at our trade shows from South America, from Australia, from Europe, and they're so excited to meet someone from Truevision," says Dennis Collins, marketing communications manager. "Our presence overseas is greater than our presence in this country."

Trade shows bring another important factor to light. People at technical shows are astounded, Collins says, when they find out that the guy manning the Truevision booth is the company controller: "And you know how to demonstrate the product? What a radical idea!"

The company was built on radical ideas.

The Truevision nucleus consists of a group of talented young engineers who worked at American Telephone & Telegraph Co.'s Bell Laboratories in Indianapolis. Their assignment to design a video-text terminal grew into a system that also included color capability and pull-down menus. Ma Bell didn't take the bait. It was 1984 and AT&T had a court-ordered divestiture on its hands. When the engineers offered to walk, the consumer products lab director made them a counteroffer.

In June 1984, the engineers took the offer and became AT&T's first entrepreneurial venture, known as the Electronic and Photo Imaging Center, or EPICenter. By October, they were taking orders for their flagship creations: the Video Display Adapter and an Image Capture Board. The first allows the user to display the created image; the second allows rendering of the image. Both can display more than 32,000 colors with 256- by 240-pixel resolution. (Pixels are to pictures what squares are to a sheet of graph paper. The greater the number of pixels, or squares, the less-jagged and the more clear an image will be.)

It was make-it-or-break-it time for everyone at EPICenter. They were on their own, in spite of AT&T's initials in front of the company name. They were given only two guidelines: to turn a profit in two years and to maintain a set amount of cash flow. Otherwise, AT&T would close EPICenter's doors for good. They delivered, while at the same time opening a new market, designing and manufacturing new inventions and meeting a payroll--not to mention grossing more than $1 million their first quarter.

In midstream, they realized they'd made incredible progress--without a general manager. Thus, with confidence in themselves, they were able to convince another AT&T employee, Cathleen Asch, to leave New Jersey to create a framework for their business operations. Through the contacts Asch made, EPICenter was introduced to the network of sales reps for Sony Corp.'s monitor group.

By this time, the company's TARGA video capture and display boards for International Business Machines Corp.'s personal computers and their compatibles had made a sizeable impact on the market. So much so, in fact, that the very name TARGA was nearly a generic term for videographics boards. Success was sweet, but it was time for another radical idea.

They cut the apron strings. They began negotiations for the first employee buy-out of an AT&T business. Ironically, their own engineering helped swing the deal. The computer system for customer credit and collections developed in-house convinced Bank One to lend them money for the buy-out. After nine months of talks, Truevision made a maverick leap into the corporate world with 29 employee-owners and a 25 percent stockholder (AT&T) on Oct. 31, 1987.

One and a half years later, Truevision, Inc., has grown to 46 employees, has a network of 500 authorized Truevision resellers and has foreign distribution networks in Canada, the United Kingdom, France, Italy, Switzerland and West Germany. While short on years, the company pursuit of technological innovation has yielded a long list of products: 25 hardware products, including a videographics adapter with varying degrees of memory, resolution and colors plus overlay and blending capabilities (the TARGA, ATVista, NuVista and HR Card series, by name); 12 software products, including the award-winning TIPS imaging software; tool kits for hardware; and cables for various pieces of hardware.

"The industry (computer graphics technology) is not very visible," says Haaf, "but the results are very visible." Through its 50-odd products, Truevision travels around the world and touches modern-day life. Doctors use the TIPS software to show plastic-surgery candidates how certain options would change their appearance and to make scientific X-ray analyses. Use of Truevision technology runs the gantlet--from surveillance, sales presentations and desktop publishing to animating television commercials, videos and feature films.

Truevision's production schedule is aggressive and capital-intensive, but there's a reason for it. "Our focus is not to look at the market and copy it," says Collins. "We're pioneers. The TARGA came out in 1985, ATVista came out in 1987, the whole NuVista line in 1988."

Adds Carl Calabria, director of engineering, "We'll be introducing some exciting technology this year. Being at the forefront is such a challenge, yet so rewarding. While everyone else spends the next two years trying to catch up to us, we'll be off generating the newest state-of-the-art technology."

Truevision introduced its three newest products at the MacWorld computer graphics convention in January. One was a one-megabyte model of the NuVista. The second, the HR Card, is a display-only card designed for computer-aided-design systems, prepress markets and medical imaging. The third inventions, the ATVMX and the NuVMX, are memory expansion cards that add eight megabytes to existing boards without taking up more than one slot in the computer.

"Everything you do with graphics, whether it's displaying or modifying colors, is very memory-intensive," Collins says. "The VMX allows for 12 megabytes of memory (in addition to the maximum available in a standard board), which is 20 times more than the standard IBM product comes out with and 12 times more than the standard Macintosh."

One of the biggest surprises for competitors is how small Truevision's staff is. "They just assume that people of our posture and status in the marketplace are really big," Collins says. "They see this office (their only one) and ask where the other one is." The industry standard, he says, is $150,000 in revenue per employee, which Truevision has exceeded many times over.

"So people either think we have a hell of a lot of people in terms of our sales, or, if they know how few people we are, they assume that our sales are a lot smaller than they are," explains Haaf. Sales volume for 1988, he says, was "well into eight figures."

The second jolt to others in the industry is Truevision's choice of location, says Collins. "Why Indianapolis, compared to the (Silicon) Valley?" they ask. Indianapolis has a strategic advantage for shipping, he points out, being within 500 miles of more than half the nation's population.

"There's also something to be said for the Midwestern work ethic," Haaf joins in. "There are good, solid people out here who are not job-hopping from one high-tech company to the next. We have an incredibly low turnover rate. Our people are very dedicated at what they do."

Every Truevision employee is a customer-relations expert. In the early days, everyone knew the price structure and took orders over the phone. Today, there still is high employee participation at trade shows. Working at the shows turns up new items on customer "wish lists," or features to keep in mind for future product design. Authorized resellers also work the shows so customers can see visible solutions to real-world problems, says Collins.

They have another novel idea about customer relations: They don't sell their products themselves. Rather, they allow the resellers to show prospective buyers the available technology and to help them custom-make a system they need. "That has made us friendly with a lot of people," says Collins.

"Little things can differentiate a company," Collins continues. Truevision trims the leads, which are small, sharp pin mounts on adapter boards, so it doesn't feel like sticking your hand into a bed of nails when installing the boards. "People have come in and talked about having to trim their leads," he says. "When they see it already done, they say, 'Hey, we've never had anybody do anything like that before.' It's easy to make something cheaper, but making things better is the tough thing. Our whole goal is to make it better."

Another way Truevision makes things better is through its annual art contest. In its effort to "put the best technology into the hands of the best computer graphic artists, in order to further the development of the industry," Truevision awarded $175,000 in equipment to 29 finalists in the animation, fine-art still image and commercial-art still image categories. A total of 750 entries came from four continents. The winner of the fine-art still image category was commissioned by Christie's of London to create a series of computer-generated posters.

Truevision also produces a quarterly newsletter with product news and tips, which also includes "third person" announcements by other hardware manufacturers and software developers. Three hundred such parties, according to company literature, build their products to work with Truevision's modular "host" boards.

Truevision calls its unorthodox style of management the "three-legged stool theory," which presupposes that Asch, Haaf and Calabria will operate as equals. "It's an intimate structure that has developed over time and has been real successful for us," Haaf says. "It gives us a real balance of viewpoints in making major decisions for the company and setting strategic direction. (Our positions) make for a balance of marketing, financial and engineering considerations."

It's not the only avenue they use in decision making. All 46 employees meet every Wednesday for lunch to discuss upcoming business. The staff has grown so much that the lunchroom, let alone the floor of the building where it does business, is so crowded that Truevision will be moving into new facilities on the city's north side later this year.

The lunches accomplish two purposes: communication and group input in decision making, which become crucial with company growth. Anyone may suggest items for the agenda and everyone is expected to share his opinions. "This is a very vocal group," says Asch.

Each lunch is provided by one of the employees on a rotating basis. Buying lunch for 46 people can be a stiff proposition. "We've been accused of hiring people," Calabria says, "just so we don't have to do staff lunch so often."

Truevision hires according to a 2 percent rule. All individuals, whether in engineering, sales or marketing, must represent the top of their field. After seeking them out, Truevision invests heavily in its employees. "We will never be the biggest employer," admits Asch. "But all along, we never threw bodies at problems. We threw our brains at the problems."

Truevision has been told its benefits package is unheard of for a small, startup company. It even includes life insurance, which is no easy feat for a company with a personnel mean age of 32. Health is another prime consideration. Smoking is prohibited and use of Truevision's corporate health-club membership is encouraged. At least two days a week, two hours or more are devoted to basketball or wally ball.

The relaxed attitude extends to employee dress. One engineer, who shall remain nameless, wears a "cosmic cowboy" T-shirt, shorts and white snakeskin cowboy boots. Morale is further raised in a singular way. Initials of all Truevision employees are stamped on every videographics board.

Fun is the working philosophy at Truevision. "Having fun is what we're all about, doing stuff we enjoy, that we're proud of, putting our names on it and getting behind it with everything we've got," says Calabria. "If you go with that philosophy, it's very hard to fail."

Indianapolis has also played a big role in Truevision's success. The most recent growth has been with support services that have been almost 100 percent local. "We're using some local people. We feel that our success is accruing to Indianapolis as people become settled here. There's a lot we'd like to throw back into the community," says Asch. Not only does Truevision recruit its employees locally but it also manufactures most of its products in Indiana.

"Just as we've demonstrated our commitment to the community by keeping our manufacturing here, there's great opportunity for other relationships," says Calabria. "We are also going to provide a unique opportunity for Indianapolis, in that we have the hub, if you will, of technology around which other industries can flourish." The staff has even coined a new phrase for the area--"Silicon Prairie." After all, not all talented people live near water," says Calabria, refuting an industry myth that talented people can't be lured away from the coasts. "We're in a specialized area and looking for very specific skill sets, and yet we've not had a problem locating them."

It took true visionaries to buy out a company without investment bankers or venture capitalists, to install sophisticated financial techniques and to invest in new technology without depending on outside funds. Now, Truevision faces a transition from entrepreneurial start-up to a mature company. It's products have been proven the premier choice for this type of technology. The challenge will be able to deliver technology that solves problems while holding the company's leadership edge.

Truevision's engineers are in a field where "reverse engineering," or copying, is popular. They have foiled that trend by designing four of their own custom silicon devices. Inventing these proprietary memory chips to protect their innovations has also increased available circuitry space by about three-fourths.

"There are limitations in terms of products space that you can take up in the computer. And if you want to keep functionality, you have to go into things like designing your own chips instead of relying on just circuitry and componentry," says Collins. Functionality assures that other software producers can build products that need Truevision technology.

"So the real key is designing products that are flexible, that we can move around to different hosts," says Calabria. "They're innovative and we're protecting our innovation. We're looking out into the future, helping the memory vendors design the next generation of components, so we can take advantage and continue to push the state of the art."

Spoken like a true visionary.

PHOTO : Into their work: Truevision's co-equal management team includes (from left) Cathleen Asch, finance; Carl Calabria, engineering; and Joseph Haaf, sales. They lead the world in personal computer boards for mixing graphics and video.

PHOTO : TARGA: A brand nearly generic for videographics computer boards.

PHOTO : One of the biggest surprises for competitors is how small Truevision's staff is. The 46 employees, most owning stock, meet for lunch each Wednesday to talk business.
COPYRIGHT 1989 Curtis Magazine Group, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1989 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Cover Story; includes article on usage of graphics technology
Author:Hoffman, Lisa
Publication:Indiana Business Magazine
Article Type:company profile
Date:Apr 1, 1989
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