Looking Back: The Story of TOPS

Posted by Andrea Drennen, CMCA on October 22, 2014


Today marks the 29th anniversary of the founding and initial release of TOPS Software. On this special day, we thought it would be fun to share with you a story our founder, Jeff Hardy recently told at the closing ceremony at the CAMfireConference in Las Vegas, NV.

I am often asked, "How did TOPS come into being?"

Here's a scary thought: I've been in the Condo HOA industry - this is my 40th year in the Condo HOA industry. I know, I'm shocked too, shocked. It's also my 40th year as a member of CAI. I joined CAI in 1974, beginning of '75. But I'll tell you how my progression went in this industry, and where TOPS Software came from. I think it's an interesting story and hopefully you will too.

In 1973 I moved from New Jersey down to Maryland, and not long after I bought a house that was a Townhouse, in a Homeowners Association. And I'll tell you, I never even had heard of a Homeowners Association before I bought this home.

So I'm buying the home and they said:

"Oh yeah, you're part of an association."

"What's that?"

"Well, you have to pay dues every month, and they're going to cut your grass, and you know it's 'maintenance free' living" (Who believes that myth, right? 'Maintenance free living'.)

So I said "Wow, that sounds pretty good."

So I moved in there and we were a growing community, growing to 684 homes. (How many of you would like to manage a community of that size? That's a pretty good size, right?)

So we were forming the initial Board of Directors, and having time to kill, I volunteered to be on that initial Board of Directors, and because I worked in accounting by day for a large Fortune 500 company (in fact I was an Accounting Manager and a Division Accounting Manager with 4 divisions of the company under me for accounting in the D.C. area), I became the Treasurer of the community.

So we're having our board meetings every month as Boards do, and we didn't even have the representative for our management company - our community manager attending our meetings. This is 1974 - it wasn't typical back then for a manager to come to the evening meetings.

Talk about shooting in the dark - we definitely didn't know what we were doing as a board. Worse, we were getting financial statements from that management company, who was using a rental software application to render the financial reports, and I as an accountant, couldn't understand them.

They were unfathomable, the financial statements.

Finally I said, "This is something that I think I can do better."

So I set up a management company, I got a couple of partners - my brother was an attorney, a good friend of mine was a CPA, and of course I had an accounting background, and we formed a Management Company.

We started out with one 45 unit community, and we pretty quickly - this was 1977 now - pretty quickly built up to about 17 communities - 1800 to 2000 homes, and it's 1979 now and we are killing ourselves trying to keep books by hand.

The Origianl Version of TOPS Worked on a TRS 80

This is 2 years before the IBM PC came out. So I knew that if I didn't automate my accounting, it was going to really limit the growth of my management company. So I looked at the computer marketplace back then, and there were 3 microcomputers available. There was Apple II, had already come out. I guess the guys were in their garage putting the Apple computers together. There was a computer called an Osborne, which has since dropped by the wayside, and then there was another computer company that made microcomputers that really is a store that you think of, but they used to make their own computers - Radio Shack, the TRS 80 (Trash 80) and that's what we bought.

I started working with a series of programmers to develop what became TOPS, but I developed it first for our own use, and we had the first working version of it in 1980, and it transformed my management company.

At that time, there were no hard drives available for a Trash 80 or any of these little microcomputers. Everything was floppy disk based, and they were the big 8" floppies. So the first version of TOPS ran on 8" floppy disks, and Radio Shack introduced something they called an expansion bay, with three floppy drives down below. We would have bins with all these diskettes that had program diskettes, and you had to put your program diskette in the main unit and then you'd put your data diskettes down in the expansion bay, and you were swapping floppies the whole time to go from community to community and to work.

It was way better than keeping manual ledgers and manual ledger cards on each owner posting by hand what they paid - in the '70s that's what you had to do.

The first version of TOPS was in 1980, and I think the first time we showed TOPS to the industry was at a CAI conference in Philadelphia in 1984, and we were swamped, because we were the only software for Condo/HOA management. There were rental applications, but nothing for Condos and HOAs.

In 1985 we actually released the software; and it's 29 years ago this month that we actually installed the very first TOPS application for a management company down in Raleigh, NC. I know that out of the 5 day work week, I logged 81 hours at their office, and my partner programmer logged 79 because he went back to the hotel and took a 2 hour nap while I stayed up all night and worked out through all the kinks to get that first application going.

We started to grow pretty rapidly. We were doubling in sales every year because we were the only application really for Condo/HOA back then that had also been designed by somebody with an accounting background that owned a management company and had a management background.

And I think you can still see some of the seeds of that today in TOPS, because we do get comments from people saying, "I can tell whoever designed this has walked in my shoes - that has actually done community management."

So we do think that's part of our story, that TOPS was developed by somebody from the industry, with an accounting background, and that's me.

And that's where we came from.