Passion is Essential

Published: October 1998
Jack Lawrence | Stamford Advocate

For Antoinette Allocca, a Stamford entrepreneur whose vision led to the burgeoning market for technical writers, passion is essential.

For Antoinette Allocca, the financial landmines of 1989 were threatening to destroy her business and derail her career. She was struggling alone-with agonizingly slow success- to sign up clients for her newborn company. She had exhausted her savings, cashed in her individual retirement account and stuck out in an effort to obtain bank financing to keep her tiny firm afloat. She was fighting daily to pay her bills and was, as she now recalls, teetering “on the verge of financial failure”.

And on a frustrating domestic note, she had to hire and fire a string of nine nannies before finding one who could provide the long hours of loving care she wanted for her first child, Simone, born early that year.

But Allocca, endowed with energy and determination, never stopped beating down her roadblocks that year or in the half-dozen that followed.

As a result, she now reports, 1998 is turning out to be a “blockbuster” year for her company, Essential Data Corp.

The firm, recently ensconced in airy, well equipped offices at 45 Church Street in Stamford’s Glenbrook section, now provides specialized technical writing and training services in the computer field to more than 100 companies, including some 50 on the fortune 500 list, in Connecticut and 15 other states. They include Pitney Bowes, Perkin Elmer, UBS AG and Aetna in Connecticut; Salomon Smith Barney, Morgan Stanley, Chase Manhattan Bank and Bankers Trust in New York; and Merck Pharmaceutical in New Jersey.

Essential Data employs 10 sales associates, a recruiter of technical writers and a secretary. The associates’ sales-based earning run from $50,000 to $400,000 a year.

The firm also has a pool of 115 technical writers who carry out computer-related projects for the company’s clients and can earn from $100,000 to $150,000 a year if they work full time. In addition, Essential Data has 15 other contractors who train clients’ employees in the use of computers.

To handle the steadily expanding roster of clients, Allocca plans to add five more members to the Stamford sales staff and open a five person regional sales office in Chicago this fall. Other regionals may follow. Allocca, 44 is president and sole owner, while her husband Mark Greenspan, 56, a former computer consultant and lawyer, is chief financial officer.

But what makes ’98 a true blockbuster is the gross revenue projection for this year; a hefty $20 million. That’s a $10 million increase over 1997 and a $19 million jump over 1996, according to Allocca.

How has Allocca managed to lead her firm up so high a mountain in its 10-year journey, especially in the past two years?

Much of that answer rests on how she perceives the future for her business, how she persists in reaching for her goals and how she shows her unabashed “passion” for the work she does.

Allocca, a 1978 graduate of Hofstra University, caught her vision of the future shortly after 1980 when she took a sales post with a small New York City firm that provided consulting services and permanent employees to corporations. Early on, she recognized that companies across America were rapidly increasing the use of computers throughout their operations. This “information technology explosion” was creating a hot market for the services of people experienced in computer-related fields like programming and technical writing.

Spotting a promising business opportunity, she began concentrating on a small, specialized and largely unrecognized market for technical writers- but not the traditional types who wrote engineering manuals and specification sheets for products like machinery, appliances and defense equipment.

Instead, she offered her client companies rarer breed of writer who could understand the work done by computer programmers and system developers. These writers took the technical information from the “techies” and translated it into non-technical language that the clients’ computer users and other staff members could more easily understand. Their writing usually took the form of user manuals, training manuals and detailed computer-system descriptions, which were then printed in book form or stored as online help in the computers.

By her fifth year, Allocca’s pursuit of her vision, her persistent sales efforts and her passion for the business were paying off: She had numerous major banks as clients, was making $250,000 a year and was getting “lots of satisfaction”

But a year later, she began to suffer what she now calls “burndown.” She wasn’t totally burned out, she says, but her ‘passion was gone.” She no longer looked forward to work and she believed she had “nowhere to go” in her career.

About the same time, she bought a house in North Stamford and began commuting to Manhattan, a daily trip that “was a big waste of time.”

So in mid-1988, Allocca quit her job in New York in the belief that she could increase her income eightfold and do it on her own terms. She began working out of her home but quickly found that was not a workable arrangement. She then rented a small-200-square foot office in downtown Stamford and shortly afterward was joined by Greenspan, who left a bank in Manhattan to recruit technical writers for the fledgling firm.

Allocca’s efforts to develop clients were hampered by a “non-compete” agreement imposed by her former employer that prohibited her from selling in New York City for two years. Although Essential Data acquired several corporate clients for its technical writing services during its first year income was dangerously slow in arriving. So slow that Essential Data, strapped for cash and unable to obtain financing, was “very close to failure” in 1989.

But income began trickling in during 1990, thanks to a big project awarded by a large corporation plus revenue from the services of 10 technical writers working out of Essential Data’s stable. Gross revenues hit the $1 million mark that year, impelling Greenspan to predict that “we’re going to make it.”

Allocca continued to serve as Essential Data’s sole salesperson for the next several years and produced gross revenues in the neighborhood of $1 million annually. During that time, she had two more children, Judy, born in 1990, and Joey, born in 1994. Her forth, Olivia, was born last year.

Then, in early 1995, the firm took a giant step forward by enlisting Dick Haeffele of Bethel to help sell the technical writing services. Haeffele, who had taken early retirement after 27 years with Dow Jones & Co., snagged several large accounts totaling $500,000 in revenues within the first six months.

Emboldened by that success, the firm moved to larger quarters in the same building, brought five more sales associates into the fold and hired a recruiter to develop a larger stream of technical writers for its pool. Although revenues remained at $1 million in 1996, the foundation had been poured for a major gain in the near future.

In 1997, when Essential Data broke the $1 million barrier and jumped to $10 million, the company moved to its present Church Street suite with its room for staff expansion.

Allocca recipe for success is made up of a variety of ingredients that blend together effectively for her business. Heading the list is “passion” – perhaps her favorite noun. She frequently uses the word, and when she does she’s alluding not only to the enthusiasm she brings to her own work, but also to the passion she expects her sales associates to bring to theirs as well.

Another element is the persistent pursuit of the niche market for technical writers that will grow along with the continuing surge in the use of computers by companies everywhere.

A third ingredient is Essential Data’s ability to find experienced sales “superstars,” reward them with outstanding compensation and provide an unusual familylike environment that shows they’re appreciated. (See Accompanying article.)

A fourth is identifying talented technical writers whose work will meet client’s demanding needs on many kinds of projects running for varying periods of time.

And a fifth is the ability of the sales associates to work closely with clients, not only to match the appropriate technical writer with each project but also to make sure that client’s needs are being met as long as the job lasts.

One satisfied client is Tom Casper, director of application development in computer operations at Pitney Bowes Credit Corp. in Shelton, who hires technical writers from Essential Data to develop documents describing the various components of his company’s computer systems and how they operate. “They’ve always brought quality people in,” says Casper, a client of the Stamford firm for 10 years.

Essential Data provides high-quality technical writers, excellent service and competitive rates, according to Bill Allender, assistant vice president for vendor management at Chase Manhattan Bank in New York City. Chase has been a client for seven years and stays with Allocca’s firm because it meets the bank’s very specialized needs including creation of user manuals and presentation of on-site training programs.

As might be expected in a small emerging market, Essential Data’s direct competitors seem to be few in the tri-state area and elsewhere.

“I’m excited about the possibilities for this field,” declares Ron Miskie, who founded one competing firm, Knowledge Transfer International Corp., in New York City in 1980.

KTI, a $15 million company, has a staff of 150 serving clients in the Northeast, nationwide and abroad. The firm’s sales people earn between $80,000 and $300,000 a year, with $120,000 as the average, while its technical writers are paid from $40 to $70 an hour, depending on the individual’s experience, complexity of the project and the area where the client is located.

“As companies recognize what we can do, we’re bound to grow,” says Miskie. With “knowledge management” such a hot topic today, he sees greater potential for companies that can meet the growing need for technical writing services.

Jane Sandlar, president and co-founder of 13-year –old SOS Technology Corp. in Eatontown, NJ., cites an estimate of a $4.8 billion market for computer technical writers and training specialists within the next few years.

Her firm provides 150 technical writers and trainers over the course of a year to clients from Boston to Atlanta and to other points in the United States and in foreign countries. She estimates there are about six competitors in her field.

As for Allocca, she sees a future of robust growth for Essential Data. “We’re penetrating only 1 percent of our target market today,” she says, referring to the 13,000 computer tech writing positions existing across the country and constituting a $2 billion market. Looking at the still-untapped her firm to annual gross revenue level of $50 million to $100 million within the next three to five years.

Good pay, relaxed atmosphere setting impetus for employees

Antoinette Allocca has found a common sense, not-so-secret formula for motivating her sales associates at Essential Data to reach goals that produce outstanding compensation for them and, at the same time, make solid contributions to the company’s bottom line.

Her formula is based on tow basic ideas: Give them the chance to make better pay than they got before or could earn with competitors now, and foster a family-type work setting that makes them feel appreciated, not just as workers but as people.

Four of the 10 sales associates have been on the team for two or more years and have developed accounts that are producing from $100,000 to $400,000 annually in earnings for them. The other six, more recently arrived, are making from $50,000 to $100,000.

What motivates these five men and five women, whose ages run from 26 to 62 and whose education’s range from a high school diploma to a Ph.D.?

Without exception, they all point to the opportunity to make excellent incomes simply by doing what they enjoy doing – selling. But the familial atmosphere is critically important to them as well.

Betty Bennett, 45, of Stamford, enjoys the flexible work hours, relaxed dress code and company-supplied daily breakfasts she finds at Essential Data. “This is the first time in my life where I’m being recognized and appreciated,” she declares.

Lisa Benne, 37, of New Rochelle, N.Y., points to the “balanced life” available to the staff members, the birthday parties Allocca holds in the office for employees, and daylong availability of food.

Mark Fazzinga, 42, of Hartsdale, N.Y., says: “My contributions to the business are appreciated” and “if I work hard now, there may be options, like retirement, later in life.” He also takes advantage of the well –stocked kitchen and flexible hours.

Dick Haeffle, 62, of Bethel, takes pleasure in the overall “family atmosphere” and the casual office attire, which are in considerable contrast to his experience in advertising sales for 27 years with Dow Jones & Co. in several major cities.

Sheila Klatsky, 50, of Scarsdale, N.Y., says the absence of an office hierarchy and the acceptance of worthwhile ideas “make you feel empowered.” The flexible work hours are also important to her.

Veronica Mollica, 26, of Greenwich, who joined the company in June, says “income is important – but not all-consuming” to her. She cites the support she receives, the work hours and dress code as advantages as well.

When Allocca finds any of the staff members are stressed from overwork, she’ll treat them to lunch in a local restaurant or send the women out for massages and manicures and the men for golf outings.

And on fairly frequent occasions Allocca and other staffers bring their children to work – which is about as family-oriented as an office can get.

Technical Writer have 6-figure incomes

Essential Data provides technical writers to clients representing a broad cross-section of business such as banks, brokerage and investment firms, pharmaceutical houses and insurance companies.

Their work includes writing user instruction manuals, descriptions of computer hardware and software, content for company Intranet sites and plans for recovering from disaster that might knock out a company’s computer systems. Some are writing materials relating to the “Y2K” problem, which will arise when many computers, programmed to recognize just the last two digits of a year, may become confused on Jan. 1, 2000, and behave as if it were the year 1900.

Before getting into this specialized kind of writing, they worked in diverse fields that included advertising, project management and library science, while one was an economics and premedical student.

Essential Data pays $50 to $70 and hour, with the actual rate depending on the writer’s skills, experience, complexity of the project and the location of the client. Those who work full time for an entire year can earn from $100,000 to $150,000.

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