From QuickBooks to Slow Food
Ridgely Evers doesn't just write software for businesses, he keeps starting them up
Photo: Tekla Perry
For Ridgely Evers, developing new technology has never been an end in itself. In boarding school, technology got him out of waiting tables. In college, understanding technology was a means to world peace. In the 1980s, he preferred to write software than do bookkeeping, so he created an application that evolved into QuickBooks.
These days, Evers has his hand in a number of businesses—strategic consulting for large companies, developing cloud-based software for his own start-up, and running a 28-hectare commercial farm that grows, among other things, olives and grapes for DaVero Sonoma, a company he also owns, which produces gourmet olive oils and Italian wines. Farming is one process, he’s found, that technology cannot affect; plants simply have to grow themselves. And he’s just fine with that. "I really love and am proud of the diversity of my life," says Evers. "I never let myself get pigeonholed."
Evers, an IEEE member, built his first software product at age 17, as a high school student at St. George’s in Newport, R.I. The boarding school, required all students to take a turn at serving in the dining hall. Evers, who hated waiting tables, spotted what he calls a "perfect linear programming problem" in the dining hall. That is, the 250 students and 50 faculty members had to be assigned to new tables every two weeks, following a rule that students couldn’t sit at the same table or with the same professor in a six-week period. Creating the seating charts manually was a nightmare. So Evers wrote a program to do the seating charts, using a Digital Equipment Corp. PDP-8S, with 4 kilobytes of memory, a Teletype, and a high-speed paper tape reader. To make it work, he had to splice paper tape into a loop so the tape reader could cycle through it over and over as it looked for student records. This paper loop was fragile, so Evers had to sit with the computer while it ran his program; if the tape bent or ripped, the program would crash and he’d have to restart it. The senior who managed the dining hall was happy to let him do that instead of wait tables.
Evers bounced around a bit in his early college years, eventually landing at Stanford, majoring in international relations. That doesn’t sound like a very technical program, but in practice, it was. It was a new major, designed to take advantage of Stanford faculty members who had worked on the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks Agreement in the early ’70s, and it included physics and math as well as psychology, economics, and political science. Evers added computer science courses to that mix, simply because they interested him.
Graduating in 1977, he and two other students started a consulting company, initially doing work on nuclear weapons nonproliferation for the U.S. government, then later researching weapons systems and selling their reports. There were always at least two sure-fire customers for each report, he recalls—the CIA, and a company in Wisconsin that he later found out was a front for the KGB. Evers and his partners sold their company in 1980, and he went back to Stanford for an MBA.
Next came a real estate start-up in Phoenix geared to first-time home buyers, based in part on software Evers developed while at Stanford. He modeled a system under which first-time buyers could initially rent a home and then apply the appreciation of the home toward a down payment. To make this a commercial system, he needed to build a user interface; he did that in Basic, on an early IBM PC. The business sailed along until the savings and loan crisis took down his company’s principal lender and the Phoenix real estate market crashed in 1984.
In a second run at the real estate business, Evers and several partners started a brokerage for home buyers, not sellers. He built a system that mined data from Multiple Listing Service computers to make them searchable by a variety of parameters. He also built accounting software for the company, something he had done for his previous ventures.
"Manual bookkeeping is a stupid process," he says. "Spreadsheets are not a good place to do accounting either."
The business never took off, and Evers left, taking the accounting package with him. In 1987, he met Intuit’s founder, Scott Cook. Intuit is now a public company with about US $3 billion in sales annually, but at the time it was a start-up with about 30 employees. Cook looked at Evers’s accounting package and hired him as a consultant to write an invoicing add-on for Quicken personal finance software. Evers started working on the project, but he argued that small businesses needed a dedicated accounting package, not just an add-on to Quicken. Cook finally agreed, and Evers set out to build QuickBooks.
"At that point," he says, "we made a profoundly dumb decision—to build QuickBooks on the Quicken code base."
The Quicken code, written for computers with little memory or storage, was brilliantly tight. For example, the ASCII symbol set, containing the Roman alphabet, numbers, and special characters, is coded in a standard seven bits; computers digest data in 8-bit chunks. The extra bits are typically left blank, but in Quicken, programmers used them for all sorts of critical data—for example, to record whether or not the bank had cleared a transaction. It was a mess to work with, Evers recalls.
"We slogged to get it out," he says, "but we finally got it launched" after two years instead of the anticipated nine months, during which Evers came on board as a full-time employee. "That," he says, "was one of the dumbest financial decisions I ever made, to switch from being a consultant with a percentage of QuickBooks sales to an employee with stock options."
Meanwhile, the engineering team grew to nine people; Evers himself led the design, created the architecture, and wrote about 25 percent of the code. It came out in 1991, its simple-to-use interface making it stand out in a market of about 25 hard-to-use accounting packages. Within a few months, QuickBooks had a 65 percent market share, Evers says.
Today QuickBooks is still the world’s most popular small-business accounting package. It’s been updated a number of times, but the basic functionality differs little from the original version. And that, says Evers, who left Intuit in 1993, is a problem. "Honestly," Evers says, "if you are keeping the authoritative version of your business’s data on a hard drive, you’re an idiot."
He thinks accounting software should long ago have moved online, or in more contemporary terms, into the cloud. Intuit does offer a version of QuickBooks online, but it is stripped down in terms of features and harder to use. And so, in 2003, Evers started NetBooks, a cloud-based system for small businesses that would do bookkeeping and a lot more. The company effectively died in 2008, after a deal that would have sunk $20 million into the company fell through, a casualty of the 2007 venture capital crash. Evers turned most of his attention to helping other companies plan business strategies, as part of a consulting firm called Tapit Partners.
And he also started putting a lot more energy into a little side business that was getting not so little. Evers had bought some undeveloped land in Sonoma County, Calif., in the early ’80s. "It just resonated with me," Evers says. "Perhaps because I’m an aging hippie—I went to Woodstock; I got teargassed at the May Day riots in Washington."
After a few years, Evers began thinking that he should put the land to some agricultural use. He was spending a lot of time in Italy while his then wife worked on an art history doctorate, and out of boredom, he began tasting local olive oils. When he found one he loved, he set out to reverse engineer it. He traced it to an 800-year-old grove of olive trees on a small family farm in Tuscany, Italy.
By 1990 he had 2400 cuttings from that farm’s trees sitting on his Sonoma County property. It wasn’t easy to negotiate with the U.S. Customs Service, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the Pest Exclusion Branch of the California Department of Food and Agriculture—no one had imported olive trees to the United States in the 20th century. He lost a third in a freeze that December, but he planted the remainder; today he has some 4500 olive trees. In 1997 his DaVero olive oil won a blind tasting in Italy, the first American olive oil ever to do so. (The name comes from davvero, an Italian word that translates as "indeed" but is used around food to mean "yum.")
In early 1999, an Italian friend slipped a bottle of DaVero’s ’98 oil into the Gambero Rosso tasting of new Italian oils, and the judges named it the best Tuscan olive oil of the year, until they discovered the deception a few minutes later—a story suspiciously like that of California’s famous win in the 1976 Judgment of Paris wine tasting.
Today DaVero produces between 900 and 2000 cases of olive oil a year, sold to select restaurants and direct to the public through its Web site and tasting room. Evers later planted some grapes—Sangiovese and the much rarer Sagrantino varietals—and now produces several hundred cases of wine annually, and the company is growing rapidly. Make no mistake—this is run to be a profit-making business, not a hobby.
Although the growing of olives and grapes is not enhanced by the application of technology—in fact, Evers runs his operation biodynamically, a philosophy that goes beyond organic farming to consider the farm itself as a living organism—the business of selling olive oil and wine was ripe for technological help. He built a cloud-based system for inventory, marketing, order taking, and shipping—everything, in fact, except bookkeeping, which he still does in QuickBooks.
With himself as his best customer, Evers has gotten most of the bugs worked out of his business software, and as the consummate entrepreneur, he’s about to spin it off into its own company and sell it to other businesses involved in specialty foods or wines. He’ll call the company Captina.
In spite of his peaceful surroundings—his home office is in the center of his farm, overlooking a scenic pond that is part of his irrigation system—Evers’s life is fairly frantic. He’s running the farm with the help of a full-time manager; consulting as part of Tapit; serving on the board of the SCORE Association, a nonprofit that does small-business mentoring; running DaVero; and lobbying in Washington on behalf of Establishment Capital Partners, a project intended to change the tax code to make it easier for small businesses to get investment capital. Phones, their different tones alerting him to change hats, ring constantly.
In his "free" time, Evers built his house over a 10-year period. In 2010, he spent a month building a tasting room for DaVero. His next project: laying a fiber-optic cable to bring high speed Internet to his house. He and his wife, Colleen, a chef, made a deal a few years ago, he says, "that we were going to cut back to half a day—and we each get to choose which 12 hours."
A version of this article appeared in print as “From QuickBooks to Slow Food.”
To Probe Further
For more about Ridgely Evers, see the Back Story, "For the Love of Olives."