“Mobile First Cloud First”

Ben Thompson’s Mobile First post is an interesting read and his perspective is always fascinating. (I pay $100 per year to be a member. I can’t recommend it enough.) It’s not the post itself that has me thinking, though, specifically, it’s footnote #4:

Microsoft’s “Mobile First Cloud First” strategy makes much more sense now, no?

Here’s the thought: can you really be mobile first without being cloud first? Mobile first means everything you do is different because people have a computer in their pockets all the time. (And by people, I mean all people on the planet in the next few years.) What enables mobile first, though, is that every one of these devices is connected to the cloud, and its the cloud that lets us connect outside the device.

So can you have one without the other?

I think a lot of us indie developers have tried for years to be mobile first without being cloud first, and I think that is part of the reason it has been so hard to make a living. Infinity Softworks is a perfect example of that. It came to be in the mobile era. I wrote my first apps for PalmPilot and later Windows Mobile, and we have made the bulk of our revenues over 18 years from selling apps for mobile devices.

The first generation of our products were fixed. It had a certain number of bundled calculations and that was it. But that was okay. The devices were underpowered and completely disconnected from the Internet.

The second generation of our products had some bundled calculations but also allowed customers to write they own. They were still on disconnected devices, though. Yes, you could email a file but that is a far cry from being Cloud First. Again the devices were largely disconnected though, at least they were until 2007 when we wrote a BlackBerry version, and then 2008 when we could write for iPhone. Over the past few years, though, those connections have only gotten better and more pervasive. Our apps have not.

Even to this day powerOne is primarily a stand-alone application that has very minimal connection to the outside world. The only cloud connection it has at all, besides emailing results and formulas, is an in app library of calculations you can download from, but even that is buried at the bottom of the home screen in a tiny button. It’s hardly front and center in the product.

These first two generations were Mobile First, but neither one was Cloud First. Over time, as the devices have gotten better and faster connections, our revenues from powerOne have waned. I’m thinking there’s a connection.

A few years ago we set to work on the third generation of our products (a little at a time). We started out writing mobile apps but about a year ago we switched and started developing the web version first. While I didn’t have words for it at the time I sensed that the cloud was important to making a sustainable product and that by developing a web version first it would help us shift our mental framework.

Now we think in terms of systems rather than mobile apps. For the first time I believe we are thinking Mobile First Cloud First, and I believe it will have a huge impact on our fortunes.

 

“If niche is something that millions of people use every day.”

We went out to lunch in mid-October. I was a mess. I was learning Android development, had a ridiculous goal of shipping before Christmas. I had a lot of code to re-write. Between Thanksgiving and Christmas I averaged 15 hour days and took off only one afternoon where I was so tired I couldn’t do anything but stare at a football game. I have no idea who was playing.

At one point I couldn’t even tell you what we were doing anymore. I was completely lost. I was tying myself up in knots trying to describe the business while note using the word “calculate.” Calculate, of course, is uncool, and if we are uncool then how are we ever going to attract customers and attract investors.

It was mid-October and the development team was at lunch. I looked at the guys and said, help me. I can’t even describe the product anymore. I don’t know what we do.

They looked at me like I was nuts. We are writing a web and mobile app that makes it brain-dead easy to perform calculations.

But that’s nerdy, I protested.

Duh, they said.

So that’s it, I asked. We are writing an app that makes it possible to perform your calculations anywhere, the first time in weeks I could say what we do without hesitating, and the first time in a year I could sum it up in just a couple of words.

We are niche, I protested.

Sure, they said, if you think that “niche” is something that millions of people do every day.

Since then I’ve wondered if part of the reason I’ve been able to grind on something like calculation software for so long is because I picked something most people wouldn’t touch. If I wanted to write the next Twitter, I think I’d be drowned out by the amount of funding going into the space. But because I picked something out of favor, as most productivity software is these days, it affords me the ability to think about it and iterate on the ideas for a very long time.

Make no mistake, though, that lunch was a turning point for me. For the first time in ages I was okay with what we do. We like numbers, we try to make them easy to analyze and understand. Calculation is the name of our game.

Fine, we are uncool. I can live with that as long as I can find enough customers who think we are cool to make it possible for us to keep working on our products for years to come.

Scale is a four letter word

I’ve been in fund raising mode, if not actually raising money then at least mentally, since 2001. I have had mixed success, raising a round in early 2000s and various debt rounds since then.

The thing that matters most when raising money from seasoned investors is scale. Scale means getting as many customers as you possibly can in the shortest amount of time as possible. But charging for something adds friction to the process and thus slows scaling. So the idea of generating income from what you produce can be anathema to scale.

This is why we have so many free software products these days. Funding dictates this due to the god called Scale.

I was addicted to this for years. We needed low priced and free products because the way you make money is to charge a little to a lot of people, and you can’t have a lot of people until you have scale. Of course I didn’t have venture funding to help me out so we constantly played games, releasing some free and some paid apps in an attempt to scale and make money at the same time. I was praying at the alter of two completely different gods, two that rarely got along.

By realizing my true calling as a grinder, by now focusing on building a sustainable business that lets me grind away at my chosen craft for years and years and years, I no longer have to pray to the scale gods.

And that changes how I think about our products, how we price them and deliver them. I don’t need scale. What I need are enough customers willing to pay me a fair wage to use our products, and I need enough of them to be profitable and make a living that can pay for a small team, for my house, my family, and save for the future including my kids’ college funds. I no longer have to be the cheapest solution and I don’t have to appeal to everyone. I can now focus on being the best once again for my core group of customers.

Praying at the alter of two gods — revenues and scale — was very hard. I no longer feel pulled in two directions.

Fail slowly

Fail fast.

That’s the mantra of the modern era. If you spend time on something you are stupid, useless, something.

Fail fast.

Another word for “fast” is “half-assed.” I was taught if it’s worth doing it is worth doing well. I want to play with an idea, let it formulate and bubble, let my thinking expand, show it to people, get feedback, find out I’m wrong, find out I’m right.

Do it right. Take my time.

If I move fast I miss the feedback, or interpret it incorrectly. It takes time to listen and it takes time to think.

I’ve been working on my next thing, Equals, for many moons. We started a prototype in 2011, showed off the ideas to a few, gathered feedback, almost shipped it, didn’t.

It wasn’t right.

We spent more time on giving us time than we thought we would. We needed contract work to keep going and a bit of luck with some existing contracts. We refinanced some debt to buy us more time.

We refocused. What was really missing? What was the feedback really saying? How do we build a product people are willing to pay for?

To me I don’t slap together a little code and shove it under a few people’s noses and see whether they get a disgusted look on their faces.

My code is my craft. The products I create are just that, my creation. Maybe, in the end, I’m reading the feedback incorrectly and the product won’t generate much money.

But at least I knew I put my best foot out there. I took my time to create something I’ll be proud of.

I’d prefer to fail slowly.

I am a grinder

I never thought that, at the age of 41, I’d be re-evaluating my life like I did as a 20 year old. Unlike at age 20 though, at age 41 I was evaluating my professional life.

I didn’t start Infinity Softworks with a clear focus. I had noticed, while in college, handheld computers and it seemed logical that every person on the planet would carry one. I was completing a degree in accounting but didn’t want to work in the field and, being someone who had written code for seven years but never actually thought to major in it, I thought what a great way to learn. I’ll write apps for finance and business and accounting, but for handhelds. I wrote a calculator first that solved a problem I had in college and next thing I know I’m writing calculation software for the next 18 years.

I’ve always had a chip on my shoulder about start-ups, I always wanted to be a leader, and I decided years ago that the best way to be a leader was to raise money. People listened to people that raised money, right?

The second invention story for me and Infinity Softworks is that I didn’t know what I really wanted to do when I graduated so I figured I’d start a company and do everything. With that I’d figure out which parts I loved the most and focus on those.

It took me years but crafting great products is what I love to do, and what I’d love to spend the rest of my career doing. I consider it a craft, honestly, one I have now been honing with intention since 2008, both as a product manager and as a developer.

This has always conflicted with the money/thought-leader piece though and I never could reconcile the two. If I raise money then I can craft better products with more developers, but raising money means I need to spend more time running the business and less time focused exclusively on crafting great product.

I’ve also been concerned about hiring less than A players. Crafting great product means working with the best and, let’s be honest, competition for the best in software is insane. We’ve got a great, small team where I know what I’ve got. I wasn’t certain I could find more, which distracted me from building great products.

About two months ago I realized that I had been trying to cast myself into a role that I wasn’t wonderfully suited for. Can I raise money? Sure. But that isn’t what I want to do. What I want to do is focus on customers and how they interact with my products, and sweep everything else out of the way. I want to single-mindedly hone my craft.

These thoughts were going around in my head when Fred Wilson wrote an incredible blog post that opened my eyes. After all these years of not knowing who I was or how I fit in, after all these years of being conflicted by statements like “fail fast,” I finally had a word to describe me.

I am a grinder.