President and Owner
Commercial Logic, Inc.
A Story About how a Vision for Simple Excellence Leads to Viable Solutions
Peter Coburn is probably the antithesis of what most people imagine when thinking about a president of one of the major companies dominating the software industry. In fact, his demeanor is so flexible, uncomplicated and peppered with a good sense of humor, that it’s hard to even picture him as head of Commercial Logic, Inc. (CLI – www.cli-usa.com), one of the most popular providers of time and billing software—used by many of the nation’s leading accounting and consulting firms.
From the gentle haven of Lyme, NH, you’ll find Coburn ensconced in a part of the country booming with high-tech companies and a good deal of culture, thanks to its neighbor, Dartmouth College, and a location that is a less-expensive community to live in than Boston. As owner of CLI, Coburn provides both a high-end (PowerPM) and low-end (Millennium Practice or MP Blue) product. PowerPM is designed to provide time and billing, as well as contact management, accounts receivable, tax tracking, staff scheduling and other functions, while MP Blue integrates with a company’s accounting system rather than act as a stand-alone product. Among the firms using CLI are Weaver and Tidwell in Dallas/Fort Worth, Friedman Alpren & Green in New York City, and Alder Green Hasson & Janks in Los Angeles.
Coburn’s established his roots in the business community just out of college. Growing up in the Boston area, he attended Harvard, and then moved on to the University of Vermont, where he finished up a bachelor of arts degree in math and a master of arts degree in history (which he did just for fun!). He taught in independent schools, worked for the state of Vermont as a systems analyst and even raised money for private schools. Then the computer bug bit him.
“In 1979, I began a computer consulting company because I thought the computer field was getting pretty interesting,” he says. “The Apple computer was out on the market, and a number of other pre-IBM microcomputers started popping up as well. With my knowledge of mainframes, I knew I had something to offer, so getting into the business was somewhat easy.”
Coburn worked out of his house, and after partnering with Jim Darragh (who still owns half the company), the two were asked by a service bureau in Burlington, VT to write time and billing software for a large DEC mainframe. The bureau supplied time and billing outsourcing services to accountants and lawyers, but it wasn’t until one of the firms using the bureau’s services called, that Coburn got his break.
“The firm called and said they liked the software, but the fees with the bureau were killing them at $1,000 a month,” says Coburn. “The firm asked us to write a program for an affordable computer, like an early version of the PC. We first developed software for the CPM operating system, which was the precursor to MS-DOS. We converted to DOS when the IBM AT came out.”
Today, 300 firms varying in size from five to 1,000 employees use his products. Coburn likes to think he remains a market leader by holding steady with the philosophy he began years ago: Price the software not per company, but on a per user basis. He also maintains a close relationship with his clients by constantly keeping in touch with them, regularly attends industry trade shows and is a member of the Information Technology Alliance (ITA), now part of the AICPA.
“Our clients are our best asset,” he says. “We provide all direct tech support, for starters, so when you call in, you won’t get an operator. You’ll reach one of our technicians who is ready to work on the product. We also do proactive CRM (Customer Relationship Management) calling two to three times annually.”
Coburn also likes to think that his product’s appeal is its flexibility, especially with MP Blue. The rationale is that since AR is done very well by a number of accounting systems, and programs like Act! and Goldmine are market leaders, Coburn has placed the focus of MP Blue on what he knows best: time and billing. Coburn prefers to link his programs with a better AR and contact management system that work well with his own core product.
“The vendor that can do everything has some weak points; you’re better off putting together the best of breed,” he says. “If you absolutely need a vendor who is all things to all customers, we cannot supply that.”
Coburn is preparing for entry into the wireless industry through an interface with the Palm OS. Even his attitude on this sets him apart from others: “I don’t think I have to care about wireless, because the people inventing the Palm devices will manage the way my software works in a wireless environment. When you get down to it, I don’t care if my data goes wireless or via the Internet. Instead, I should be able to design the product so it doesn’t care, either.”
Coburn welcomes comments and questions to [email protected].