Dan Bricklin – The founder of VISACALC

Dan Bricklin

Dan Bricklin, the founder of VISACALC, the creator of the first elecronic spreadsheet has had a lasting impression on me. As I think about the big tech companies of today, I remember how different things were when computers were at their infancy and solutions were prototyped on pen and paper.

I learned VISACALC from Dan Bricklin at Harvard Business School. I have followed his career since then. He didn’t make the big bucks with VISACALC, but his impact in software development is unparallel. Lotus 123 took over shortly after VISCALC and became the defacto corporate standard. Eventually, paving the way for Microsoft domiance with Excel. In 2015, Dan was part of a TEDxBeaconStreet where he talks about his path to developing VISACALC.

While at Harvard business school, I remember 5 case studies that used VISACALC and was a tool that I became very familiar with. 

BEST – Balance Sheet/Income Statement/Cash Flow. A dream app for an accountant like me who couldn’t add without a calculator. The debits MUST equal the credits or the model doesn’t work. I used this model to develop proformas for the Board meeting (to which I wasn’t invited) for a company Safeguard Business Systems (SBS) who was looking to be acquired in France. Suddenly I had the whole Board of 15 (or so) white men, asking questions in my office.

I NEVER buried finanical assumptions – I learned from Dan’s paper and pencil metholodgy. The Board could see all my assumptions – developed carefully by listening to the plans for the acquisition. The orders flew hot and heavy – change this, change that. I always asked how had the strategy changed? Just change the numbers and stop asking questions. The rest is history – from that point forward strategy became THE NUMBERS.

In the end, Safeguard Business Systems was bought out by Mike Milken, the so called “king of junk bonds” and convicted felony. His usual strategy, which the UPenn Wharton School of Business taught, was to use the companies “tax appetite” to finance the purchase of the company. I am proud to say that I had used up the “tax appetite” with SBS Leasing (ran using the model I learned from Dan Bricklin), which invested in a motley group of leveraged leases that had nothing to do with Safeguard’s business. I learned that I was the only one at Safeguard who understood how SBS Leasing worked when the Board Chairman asked me to explain everything about SBS Leasing to the Wharton MBAs in charge of the acquisition. I told the Board Chair, that I would answer all their questions honestly and forthrightly. The Wharton MBAs had no idea how to ask the questions, the acquisition went through and can be listed as a failure on Mike Milken’s scorecard.

On a side note, Dan Brickman’s model was the influence for how Quickbooks and all accounting systems are based on – or should have been based on. The reason folks don’t understand accounting, budgeting, etc. is that the developers forgot Dan’s paper and pencil vs code method.

I’ll never forget how Dan Brickman took a standard accounting problem and created his own solution for it. He didn’t do it for the glory, fame, or money, but rather for his passion and love of software development.

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