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Ten years ago, Bob Mahoney, a high-tech consultant to Shell Oil and other companies, started a business-oriented electronic bulletin board in a spare bedroom in his Milwaukee apartment. He used his life savings and equipment bought by Shell to cobble together his system, built around a vintage $5,000 IBM PC; a $7,000, 30-megabyte hard drive storing some 700 files; and a $600, 1,200-baud modem. From such crude beginnings, the Exec-PC board has blossomed into a $1 million-a-year concern run out of an office in Elm Grove, Wis. Mahoney offers 650,000 files, from business programs to games, to more than 10,000 customers, who log on for $75 per year.

Mahoney is part of a burgeoning grass-roots trend: Some 53,000 public-access computer bulletin boards have sprung up in North America, according to Jack Rickard, editor of Boardwatch Magazine. Bulletin boards are the electronic equivalent of clubhouses or taverns, places where users congregate via modem to share software, exchange messages and files, and chitchat. Some board owners, such as Mahoney, make money at this, but it's rare: Rickard estimates only about 5% of boards are profitable, with 10% to 15% breaking even. Most operators are hobbyists who want to schmooze with computer comrades about shared passions, anything from model railroads to bird-watching. Frank Mahoney runs Irish Connection out of his home in Arlington, Va., for people with a Celtic bent.

FINDING A HOOK. Successful, broad-topic boards, such as Exec-PC or Aquila BBS in Chicago, offer many shareware files that users can try out before buying. These boards stress customer service. The trick to attracting users--whether for profit or fun--is finding a hook: Nashville Exchange lets you complain on-line to the mayor; others offer X-rated material or a way for singles to connect.

Starting a board is relatively simple and inexpensive. You'll need a spare PC, but even an antiquated IBM XT will handle the chores of a one- or two-line system. A slowpoke modem (1,200 or 2,400 baud) will do fine, though speedier modems (14,400 baud) are ever-cheaper and make a big difference in performance. A separate modem is required for every phone line, but makers offer steep discounts for system operators.

Software that answers the phone and lets callers get access to files can be obtained at little cost. Tyros can download $35 to $100 shareware programs on CompuServe or other on-line services. The RBBS-PC program may be downloaded and used for free.

The leading commercial software packages include Wildcat BBS (800 999-9619), Remote Access (800 648-9800), Searchlight (800 780-Lite), Major BBS (800 328-1128), TBBS (303 699-6565), and PCBoard (800 356-1686). Wildcat, which Rickard ranks along with Searchlight as a good choice for beginners, costs $129 for a single-line system, $249 for 10 users, and $799 for 256.

LIST KEEPERS. Newcomers should think small. You'll pay the phone company about $15 per month for each dedicated line, which can typically handle about 35 calls a day. Says Dan Linton, owner of Software Creations BBS, which markets shareware: "People think when they plug in a modem, the lights will go on 'round the clock. When we started, we got three calls a week."

Indeed, just because you build a system doesn't mean callers will check you out. For one thing, people have to know your board exists, so you'll need to get onto a board list in your area. Boardwatch publishes names of regional and special-topic list keepers.

Once folks start calling, you can easily spend hours answering messages, moving around files, and fixing hardware glitches. Operators often search boards in other areas for the hottest shareware programs to offer their own customers. You can also purchase shareware on CD-ROM. Night Owl's Publisher (800 682-7596) sells a 600-megabyte CD-ROM disk containing about 5,000 files for $49.

If you want your board to thrive, commitment certainly counts. Says Bob Mahoney: "Asks of services for home banking, investing, and education. "Only a minuscule amount of the information will be video," says John Warnock, chairman of Adobe Systems Inc., a maker of publishing software. And all these services can $pg

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