Architect-turned-entrepreneur stakes family's future on an idea


February 03, 1992|By Leslie Cauley

The idea for SpaceManager, a real estate software program, came to Nathan Leblang the way a lot of good ideas do -- by accident.

Talking with a colleague about how to drum up business for their local architectural firm, Mr. Leblang hit on the idea of a graphic real estate database. The execution seemed simple enough: Load pictures of local office buildings -- interior and exterior -- into the company's computer system, then use the database as a selling point with real estate agents and other potential clients.

That's when the wheels started turning.

"I started thinking there might be a way to put in floor plans, a map of the city to see where the building is in reference to the airport, schools, whatever, and maybe link it all up to a central real estate database," Mr. Leblang recalled. "That led to the idea to create a program that didn't exist before."

There was just one problem. Mr. Leblang, an architect by training, didn't know anything about computer programming.

So he decided to learn. Fast. He checked out books on computer programming from the local library, bought books from the local bookstore -- and devoured them in the evenings. When he finished one batch, he got more. By the end of the summer of 1990, Mr. Leblang had mastered the basics of programming. He began writing his own programs on the weekends, learning by trial and error.

That's when the entrepreneurial bug began to bite.

On vacation in Bethany Beach with their 8-year-old son, Noah, Mr. Leblang and his wife, Susan, mulled over the possibility of launching their own software business. The risks of leaving a secure job with an established firm to start a business from scratch were dutifully debated, but in the end there was really never any doubt as to what the outcome would be, Mrs. Leblang recalled.

"The only way to know if this thing was going to fly was to give it everything you've got," she said. "We decided that we were prepared to go to the mat to make this work."

Mr. Leblang returned from vacation and gave notice to his employer. He then turned the couple's carefully planned investment portfolio into seed money for his startup. IRAs, stocks, bonds and mutual funds were liquidated and equity from their Roland Park home was siphoned off.

"We did things that would have made an accountant cringe," he said.

Mr. Leblang's dream finally took shape in August 1990, when SpaceManager Inc. officially opened for business.

Eighteen months and $100,000 later, the Leblangs have sold just one copy of their $1,000-a-copy software program. Another 20 orders are pending -- three in Canada.

"I never thought it would be this difficult," said Mr. Leblang, who still pulls all-nighters tinkering with the software. "It's like digging a hole in the sand. You keep shoveling sand out and sand just keeps filling in. It just never ends."

But things are beginning to look up.

Mr. Leblang pulled off a marketing coup last summer when he persuaded the state to start using the program to track properties statewide.

Under a deal struck between the Maryland Department of Economic and Employment Development and SpaceManager, Mr. Leblang donated the software to the state in exchange for DEED agreeing to promote SpaceManager among the Maryland counties and to other states.

Mark Jacobson, manager of market research for DEED's business development division, said he plans to use SpaceManager to assemble a detailed database of properties across the state. It will be used to locate properties for businesses and other organizations interested in relocating or expanding in Maryland.

Mr. Jacobson said he tried other software programs, but all fell short of expectations: they were either too slow, too cumbersome or technically limited. SpaceManager, he said, has none of those drawbacks.

"When our database is complete, it will be the best economic development property package in the country," Mr. Jacobson boasted.

As a result of the DEED connection, Harford, Howard and Cecil counties are considering using SpaceManager. Mr. Leblang said number of other leads passed along by DEED seem to be panning out, but no money has exchanged hands.

While waiting for commercial success, the Leblangs are living the life of struggling entrepreneurs. They manage to run a household and business with virtually no income, getting by thanks to an occasional outside architectural job and periodic donations from friends and relatives.

Once active in the Baltimore social scene, the Leblangs said they gave up going out on Saturday nights two years ago. Their main splurges these days are for fast food and rented movies. Mrs. Leblang said she doesn't even think about shopping for new clothes, and Bethany Beach vacations are but a fond memory.

They do treat themselves to an occasional night at the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, but they go on weeknights when tickets are cheaper.

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