Steve Achelis' s Vision

Equis International- A Vision for the World of Financing


Steve Achelis (pronounced a-kay-lis) started his company, Equis International, in 1983. He was heavily involved in investing his own money, and was always looking for ways to get better returns. Originally bootstrapped from the basement of his home in West Valley City, Utah, Steve has grown Equis into one of the world's leading developers of investment charting and analysis software.

From the beginning, Steve has had a vision of how computers would change the way people invest their money. Long before personal computers became popular, he clearly saw that computers would be the great equalizer for investors everywhere - the average investor would have the same information and analysis tools that only the large Wall Street firms could previously afford.

At that time, Steve had absolutely no experience with computers. But he believed in his vision of the computerized investing market. So he took the first of many future business risks by purchasing a computer (an original Apple II+) and teaching himself how to write programs that would eventually change the world of investing forever.

As he started to build a company around this new breed of software, Steve's only business assets were his energy and enthusiasm. He would sit in front of the computer and write code for days at a time (often in his bath robe, eating all his meals at his desk), making sure that what he was creating would have real value for investors.

As a result, Equis helped to create an all-new industry: computerized investing. Equis has customers in over 70 countries, and 140 independent user groups spread across the world. Since 1983, Equis has sold more than $25 million in investment software and data. His products have received numerous awards, including PC Magazine's Editors' Choice Award, the Readers' Choice Award from Stocks & Commodities Magazine (the industry bible) every year since its inception, and many others. Plus, the financial press continues to give Equis software rave reviews, including Barron's, The Wall Street Journal, and many others. Steve's company is so highly regarded as the leader in its industry, it was recently acquired by Reuters - the global leader in financial news and information.

His success with Equis stems from two very important attributes: (1) Steve has the ability to see technology trends, and then turn that vision into products for customers; (2) Steve can then motivate, organize, and lead his employees to build that vision.

Giving back to the community has always been a priority for Steve and his wife Denise. In 1990, they created The Achelis Foundation to donate money to charitable organizations throughout Utah. Equis was also a charter member of the Utah Information Technology Association (UITA) - one of the largest technology organizations in the country. Equis is actively involved in sharing business ideas with smaller UITA members to help them grow and develop as Equis has.

Getting to the Vision

In the early 1980s, Steve was actively trading the markets while working as a mechanic. While reading a popular investment book, he realized that one day all of the charts and calculations being shown could be done by anyone with a personal computer. So Steve decided to risk it all. He quit his job, bought a computer, and taught himself to write software. His wife, Denise, worked as a bookkeeper while the couple struggled to build the business.

Steve's original vision was to enter what was then a very narrow vertical market and create a product for it as if it were a horizontal market. The main competitor was selling their product for $1,900 with a manual printed on a dot-matrix printer. Steve priced his product at $195 and provided his customers with high-quality packaging, documentation, marketing materials, and product support.

He worked out of his house to keep overhead down. He also wanted his employees to share in the growth of Equis, so he compensated them based on the company's performance - something he still does today.

Steve's core management belief is that if you trust people, they'll perform. "I'm not naïve enough to think that everyone is rewarded for their good deeds," says Achelis. "But I'm certain that what comes around goes around. If you treat people - employees, customers, and business partners - right, they'll reward you."

In those days, computerized investing was a new industry. The challenge was to educate people and sell them at the same time. "Many of our marketing efforts - advertisements, trade shows, user groups, and brochures - were really educational pieces hidden in a sales wrapper," Achelis says. "We tried to use every marketing tactic available," Achelis continues. "One of our biggest successes was to create unique packaging that people would be proud to display, and which would get the attention of their friends." This high-quality packaging has also won numerous awards over the years.

As he read industry publications, Steve created a database of industry influentials - almost a Who's Who of investment software. Then, every day, he wrote personal letters to different people in the database to build relationships and position Equis as the company that really was trying to help investors. Many of those relationships are still valuable to Equis today.

Even though Equis is now a strong industry leader, Steve still strives to instill the customer-oriented attitudes that helped his company get where it is today. This is particularly important as Equis takes advantage of the new opportunities presented with the acquisition by Reuters and the explosive growth of the Internet.

Equis Product Line

Equis was created with one central vision: to help people make better investment decisions with their computers.

Steve's ability to grow and develop Equis into a world leader is largely a result of his ability to stay focused on this vision. Through the years, he has had many opportunities to take the company into different directions. But he's always stuck with what he knows best - investment software.

Here's a complete look at the Equis product line:

MetaStock is the star of the Equis product line. It helps investors chart and analyze their investments to reduce their risk and maximize their profits. Clearly the market leader in its category, MetaStock continues to win industry awards and rave reviews. ($349)

MetaStock RT gives investors all of the charting and analysis tools found in MetaStock, but is used by professional traders to track the markets in real-time. With MetaStock RT, users can plot price quotes as fast as they are released by the stock exchanges. ($495)

The DownLoader is a program designed to be used with MetaStock and other similar software. Investors use The DownLoader with their modem to retrieve stock quotes at the end of each trading day and save them on their computer. Then they can analyze those quotes with MetaStock. ($99)

Pulse Portfolio helps investors keep track of all their actual investment transactions, their portfolio value, their return rate, and more. It handles nearly every type of investment available - even futures, collectibles, and real estate. ($195)

The Technician is similar to MetaStock. But instead of charting individual stocks and other investments, The Technician helps investors monitor the direction of the overall stock market to determine whether or not it's a good time to invest overall. Equis also maintains the database to which users of The Technician can subscribe. ($49, plus $10/month for database subscription)

Innovative Approaches

Early on, Steve knew that he needed a strong staff to help him accomplish his goals with Equis. So he developed a variety of ways to make Equis the best company in the world to work for: bonus trips to Hawaii, cruises, and cash. He also instituted a quarterly profit bonus plan that gets paid to every employee, from top-level managers to part-time shipping clerks. Steve even provides free health insurance to all employees.

When the company was at only 20 people, he had the foresight to hire a full-time in-house Public Relations staff to promote Equis around the world. It's been a valuable tool to access the influential people in the industry, such as the press, user groups, business alliances, and industry VIPs. In the last year alone, the number of independent Equis user groups has grown from 65 to 140 - largely through the help and attention of the PR staff.

Steve knows that helping customers is the best way to succeed. "Treat them fairly, and help them become better investors" is still the bottom line in most company meetings.

Equis customers are active investors who need access to accurate investment information. Steve recognized the importance of partnering with key information providers in the industry to make it easier for customers to get access to that information. So Equis created a software product called The DownLoader and positioned it as the information "faucet" for historical investment information. In fact, the DownLoader gives customers access to more data suppliers than any other software program of its kind.

These partnerships gave Equis customers access to high-quality data, competitive prices, and a wide variety of information. It also brought Equis significant new revenue in the form of data royalties that helped the company continue to grow. With data royalties, Steve was also able to keep the price of his software affordable and increase market share.

Through the years, one of Equis' main strengths has been superior product development. In fact, Equis' flagship product, MetaStock, was far ahead of its time in the mid-1980s with an easy-to-use interface that let the customer track his investment charts in individual chart windows within the program. Equis customers were benefiting from this well-designed graphical user interface well before Microsoft or IBM got into the "Windows" game. And it was all implemented in the DOS operating system.

When Achelis saw that Windows was becoming mainstream, he developed products built around an object oriented interface - a trend that is just now surfacing throughout the industry. As a result, it places Equis far ahead of competitors in the development race.

Future Plans

Achelis sees a very simple plan for Equis: to help people use technology to make better investment decisions, from top-tier investment firms to the average next-door-neighbor investor.

He plans on accomplishing this through combining the company's strong product development skills, existing business partners, and new opportunities available through the recent Reuters acquisition.

These plans include:

Leverage Equis' core technology strength by tailoring products that appeal to both ends of the investment spectrum: mass market individual investors and high-end institutional investors. This is why he chose to partner with Reuters, because it gave him better access to both of these important markets.

A strong Internet presence - not only as an online storefront, but more prominently as a software solution to investors who want to analyze the investment information they find on the Internet.

Give customers access to more types and sources of investment information. This not only pleases customers, but increases Equis revenues.

By constantly monitoring what Equis customers are looking for and then giving it to them, Achelis will continue to position Equis as the industry leader. And he has the track record to prove he can do it.

Facing Risks

"Entrepreneurism is all about the willingness to take controlled risks."

And Steve's developed a keen sense of how to use risk in his favor over the years. In the start-up days, Steve was willing to risk it all by quitting his job as a mechanic to devote all of his time and attention to creating great software. Through the ensuing growth years, he faced the challenge of constantly-changing technology, which created an environment where a false move would result in sure failure. In his private life, Steve enjoys adventure sports such as back-country snowboarding, mountaineering, and windsurfing.

When hiring employees, Steve looks for three qualities he thinks are crucial to success. He wants employees who are honest, hard-working, and willing to learn.

As overachieving employees contribute more to the success of Equis, Steve rewards them with more responsibility and accountability. That's how he's grown his team of key management employees. By careful promotion from within Equis, Steve ensures that every member of the key management team is familiar with Equis as a company, how it's run, how it fits in the industry, what the strategic issues are, and how it can succeed in the future. The Equis management structure is very flat, and is shared by many important employees. For strategic planning, key management members include:

Mike Denison, Vice President of Sales and Marketing. With experience as a writer and an MBA degree, Mike has helped grow the company's marketing for the past six years. His contributions include building the direct mail efforts into a vital revenue source for Equis, increasing the marketing scope by creating an in-house advertising department, and leading the charge into electronic marketing through email and the Internet.

Ken Hunt, Programming Manager. Ken has a wealth of experience from his days as a military simulations programmer, combined with his 7 years at Equis developing state-of-the-art investment charting and real-time data handling software. Ken is actively involved in creating new Equis software and manages the team of software engineers.

Allan McNichol, MetaStock Evangelist. As a broker and trader, Allan's insight into how customers use Equis software is priceless. He plays a vital role in designing product interfaces and features. In addition, Allan travels the world speaking to Equis user groups about MetaStock and other Equis products.

John Slauson, Technical Writer. With nine years of Equis experience, ranging from Technical Support Manager to creating all product documentation to managing the company's Internet presence, John rounds out the key management team with unique insight into the Equis market. He currently helps develop the company's key business partners and industry VIPs into revenue-generating relationships.

Attitudes About Capitalism

Steve readily admits to being a capitalist, and that he creates products that support capitalism.

He says that, "growth comes from risk, and the system must therefore reward risk." But he's quick to follow with his belief that the system doesn't adequately support people on the lower end of the social strata, and that everyone has an obligation to help the people that aren't supported by capitalism.

That's one of the reasons he and his wife, Denise, created The Achelis Foundation. Through this charitable foundation, Steve and Denise have contributed significant amounts of money to the Guadalupe School in Salt Lake City, Utah. The Guadalupe School focuses on helping children, through early intervention, develop the skills they need to succeed in our society.

"I've spent a lot of time searching for different ways to personally fulfill my responsibility of making this world a better place. One of the best ways I've found is through the influential work being done at the Guadalupe School."

Steve has also helped local students at Murray High School get a glimpse of life in the business world. Through a program designed to link successful local companies with ambitious students, Equis has helped several of these students understand not only how to get a job in the real world, but how to stand out and excel.

How does Steve summarize his views on helping others? "Everyone deserves the opportunity to succeed; and everyone carries the responsibility to see that those opportunities exist." Through his own actions, he strives to make this happen every day.

Questions for Discussion:

1. What questions did Steve probably ask himself in order to come up with his ideas for Equis International?

2. How would you define his management style? Why?

3. What did you learn about the investment industry by reading his case study?

4. What attitudes does Steve have about risk?

5. What did you learn about Steve as a person and his development as an entrepreneur?

6. How would you describe the responsibilities of Steve's key personnel and which of the jobs would you enjoy? Why?