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September 20, 1987|VICTOR F. ZONANA | Times Staff Writer

In 1984, Richard D. James found himself out of a job at the age of 47 when Dow Jones & Co. disbanded a money-losing financial information radio service.

James, who had worked as the radio service's director of programming, also had over 20 years of experience as a financial writer for the Wall Street Journal.

So he teamed up with A. Richard Immel, another former Wall Street Journal reporter, and bought a personal computer. The pair established Immel-James Associates, a firm that writes speeches, annual reports and position papers for corporate clients throughout California. Their firm also holds seminars that teach clients how to deal with the news media.

Emboldened by their success--and bitten by the entrepreneurial bug--the two former newspaper men have taken on a third partner and are now collaborating on the start-up of a new magazine called Synopsis: The Computer Digest for Business.

"It was tough to shell out $3,000 to $4,000 for a computer when I was without an income," James recalls. "But without having a secretary, and with all the writing and revision that we have to do for corporate clients, it would have been hard to succeed without a PC."

As James' experience illustrates, it is no mere coincidence that the 1980s, which have been hailed as "the decade of the entrepreneur," is also the decade in which the personal computer entered the mainstream of U.S. business. Over 700,000 new businesses were incorporated in the United States last year, about double the average of 350,000 a year that prevailed during the 1970s.

Experts say that the statistics considerably understate the level of entrepreneurial activity in this country. "The numbers do not include non-corporate businesses and the thousands of small businesses that start up and fold without being picked up by the system," says Kenneth Beckman, an economist with the U.S. Department of Commerce's Survey of Current Business.

Still, given the steadily growing number of personal computers during the decade, there is ample evidence that "the entrepreneurial and personal computer revolutions are feeding upon one another," says Michael Corning, a certified public accountant who also installs computerized accounting systems for small businesses in Oregon. "It is a classic case of positive feedback."

Of course, not everyone is cut out to be an entrepreneur. Many people prefer the security of a steady job. And even among those whose tolerance for risk fits the entrepreneurial profile, some resist the use of personal computers.

For example, people who have not had contact with PCs before often have no idea where to start. Others--particularly middle-aged and older men--remain supremely uncomfortable with the idea of using a keyboard.

But if a person can get past these hurdles, "a personal computer can harness and supercharge an individual's enthusiasm and creativity," says Corning, the Oregon CPA. Once you combine the sheer processing power of a computer's hardware with the cognitive power and creativity of your brain, everything changes for you. I mean everything."

Corning's career is a good case in point. Until 1982, he lived a fairly conventional existence as an accountant with Arthur Andersen & Co. and moonlighted as a professor of finance at Portland State University.

Today, he works out of his own home, earns "more money than I could have made in 10 years at Arthur Andersen" and is an evangelist for entrepreneurship.

"The good job is the cruelest myth in America," Corning declares. "Most jobs are so narrow compared to people's skills. A computer lets you run your own business, all alone, and helps you tap all those unused skills."

Corning's conversion to computing occurred in 1984, when he bought a PC to track customers, orders, invoices and sales for a gourmet mustard business that he ran as a sideline.

The accounting system that Corning designed around Ashton-Tate's Framework program proved to be so effective that he began marketing it to clients in his accounting practice. That is when Corning's practice took off.

"I had to give up teaching because I didn't have time for it anymore," Corning says. "Now, I'm going to have to start hiring people or subcontracting out some of my work."

Corning expects to hire computer-literate high school students for part-time work. He says that he doesn't need to hire accountants because all the accounting expertise is built into the computer program.

Lawyers can also benefit from the productivity improvements brought about by personal computers. "I could not have started out in practice on my own if I had to have a secretary," says Olin R. McGill Jr., an attorney in Middlebury, Vt. "It wouldn't have been an option."

New applications for personal computers such as desktop publishing are also spawning new entrepreneurs. Desktop publishing allows people with PCs and laser printers to put out newsletters that look like they came from a print shop; hundreds of entrepreneurs are taking advantage of the new technology and getting into the newsletter and even the magazine business.

Those who succeed often succumb to what can only be called the rapture of the entrepreneur.

"You find yourself working at 10 o'clock at night, or Saturday mornings," says James, the former reporter who expects to be publishing his own magazine by this time next year. "At the same time, there is no sense that this is work. There is nothing more exciting than starting a business from scratch."

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