ASK Computers was founded in 1974 by a pair of women entrepreneurs who saw the potential of developing application programs that would enable small businesses to use microcomputers. Most small companies lacked the resources to hire full-time information technology (IT) personnel, so they were dependent on an employee with the most computer experience who became their office “computer guru.” In many cases this person was left to his or her own devices and often spent time tinkering with the computers instead of performing his or her job duties.
ASK’s initial products were a series of application programs that included modules for payroll, budgeting and other analysis. They were designed to run on the Hewlett-Packard and Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) microcomputers that were becoming popular in businesses. As computers became cheaper and more widely available, ASK began to see its sales decline as customers cut back on expenditures.
In 1979 Kurtzig and her co-founders came up with the company’s most significant innovation, a program called Manman, a contraction of manufacturing management. The software allowed small manufacturing companies to plan such aspects of their business as purchasing materials and production schedules on a scale previously only possible with large mainframe computers. At a five-figure software cost, Manman was aimed primarily at mid-sized manufacturers, although smaller companies could rent time on one of ASK’s computers ASK Computers Toronto to run the software.
As the company grew to be a major force in its field, Kurtzig became dissatisfied with the level of control she retained over the operation of the business. She stepped down as president in 1980, but she continued to work at ASK on a consulting basis and also started a publishing company.
Eventually the ASK managing board approached her to take a more active role in running the business, and she agreed. Over the next several years she revamped the way that the company was organized and focused on new products. She also changed such minor things as the quality of food and beer served at the weekly Friday evening company picnics in an attempt to reconnect upper level management with the rest of the staff.
By the fall of 1984, ASK planned to offer a version of its original product, Manman, for about one-third less than its previous price. This reduction was made possible by the availability of lower-priced minicomputers from Hewlett-Packard and DEC, which were the product’s two hardware platforms. The move aimed to protect its market share with smaller companies and emergent middle-range manufacturers, while retaining the ability to offer time-share facilities to larger firms.
In addition to these structural changes, ASK shifted its focus from the design of new products for the larger computers to those that could be used by smaller workstations. The emphasis on this strategy caused work on new projects to slow to a crawl, and the company’s primary position in the industry was lost. This overall caution, described in a Wall Street Journal article as a “toe in the water approach,” further alienated the company from its customer base and ultimately led to financial failure.