On October 22nd this year, TOPS Software will turn 28 years of age. While the software company was formed in 1985, in actuality, TOPS was conceived in 1979. At that time, my management company had grown to 1800 homes and we were keeping all the books in manual ledgers. Whew! It was a lot of work and was limiting the growth of my management company. I knew there had to be a better way, so started looking at computer options. There really were none, so TOPS was conceived.
I bought a Radio Shack business computer (remember, this is 1979—2 years before the IBM PC was released for sale in 1981) and started working with a neighbor who was a programmer to create the first version of what would become TOPS Software. The goal I told the neighbor was “I just need to know who owns each home and whether they have paid their assessments or not”. Sounds simple enough, but it took years of effort with a succession of programmers and lots of changes in computer equipment to get there. My management company was the guinea pig (or beta tester) for the new programs and believe me, we were on the “bleeding edge” of this new technology. But, despite the problems, it was an exciting time creating a software product that didn’t exist anywhere at that time. I knew when we were done we would have a software product we could sell to others in this industry.
In 1981 we bought 2 IBM PC’s with green monochrome monitors (no color monitors were available then—they hit the market in the early 1990’s) and ported all the software over to work with the MS/DOS operating system. That proved to be a challenge because every computer manufacturer had their own “tweaked” version of MS/DOS so what would work fine on an IBM PC would not work the same on a Leading Edge PC. Eventually, we also ported the software over to UNIX so my management company could work in a networked environment. Remember, back in the early to mid 1980’s there was no way to network MS/DOS PC’s together, so UNIX was the only way to go back then. We continued to work on developing TOPS on both MS/DOS and UNIX platforms literally working day and night on the project.
Of course we needed a lot more than just owner tracking to have a complete software system. We needed a general ledger and accounts payable modules as well as specialized financial reporting that fit the Condo/HOA industry. So we worked to created that as well to round out having a complete accounting and property management software.
We showed TOPS for the first time at CAI ‘s national conference in Philadelphia in 1984. It caused quite a sensation at this conference but also gave us a lot of feedback we needed to perfect the software (who knew that Condos were called “Regimes” in South Carolina?). It wasn't until 1985 that I felt we had a complete system that would work everywhere in the country and was ready for release.
Our first sale was to a management company in North Carolina and it was the UNIX version of TOPS. In 5 days, I logged 81 hours at the customer’s office while my programmer partner logged 79 hours (he went back to the hotel for a 2 hour nap). While it took a herculean effort, we got that customer up and running. We sold 4 copies of TOPS that first year. The next year we doubled the sales. That sales trend would continue for the next several years. By 1995 TOPS had over 400 customers and was the largest software for the Condo/HOA industry—a distinction that would continue to this day. In 1995 we also bought our largest competitor, Promaster Software, located in Houston, TX. Promaster had 300 customers, so overnight, TOPS was catapulted to over 700 customers. Promaster had some great features in it and we “borrowed” several of them and programmed them into TOPS—making TOPS broader in scope and better than it had been. We continued to grow our customer base all the while working to improve the capabilities of TOPS with new features and functions. With software, you are never done with development because the expectations of the market as well as the evolution of technology keep changing so rapidly.
Now, with over 3300 installations of TOPS, with tens of thousands of users managing millions of homes, TOPS has grown to be the most popular and widely used of all the specialty software for Condo/HOA management. How did TOPS become the industry standard for software? Simple, we learned over the years to give customers what they need in order to do their jobs better and to make the software easy to understand and use. Of course it helped that I had a background in accounting and owned a management company myself so I had a good understanding of the Condo/HOA industry and used that knowledge in the design of TOPS.
So TOPS Software is another American success story showing that vision, hard work and listening to your customers can lead to creating a market leading product. Happy 28th Birthday TOPS Software!