Looking Back Before Moving Forward

In our last episode, I wrote about the changing face of Infinity Softworks and promised to post the “eulogy” I wrote on my way home from vacation In January 2007. I want to make sure you understand that my intention in sharing this information is to reinforce my belief that staying alive is a big chunk of the game. I hope I can write about amazing success stories for Infinity Softworks in the future. While we have only reached modest revenue, we have had plenty of successes in our past.

Without further adieu…

10 years feels like ages. I started Infinity Softworks in January, 1997. Of course, it wasn’t called that then. I was writing code for a handheld software publisher with no intention of creating a commercial company. I wanted programming experience as I realized, within 5 months of college graduation, that being an accounting major was not for me. In May, 1997, I graduated with a degree in accounting and minor in CS. By July, my business partner and I split with the publisher over creative rights and went out on our own.

My partner, I believe to this day, saw it as a way to pay for graduate school and gain some experience. While I agreed at first, I saw it as a business and continued to see opportunity even after he and consultants brought on to help left me alone to do what I wanted with it. I survived – another two years before I was convinced once again that the time was right to expand the company and grow the business. Infinity Softworks, the small seller of software financial calculators, was going to revolutionize the $1B calculator business. It was not to be. Instead we split our attention away from our chief customers who were in financial fields, trying to make a business out of something we had little experience in. Some months I felt as though I was adrift in the wind, desperately trying to find daylight… anywhere. It was not to be as we continued to shift in the hurricane force winds that were the handheld market. Personally, I was decimated and exhausted even by this time in 2003. Everything we tried failed. Selling handhelds with our software… Attracting major partners in finance fields to bundle a retail product… getting buy-in from major trade organizations particularly in real estate… partnering with hardware vendors to go after the high school market… getting buy-in from the College Board for a handheld with our software on the AP exam. How much can one person take? But through this all, and with continued cash flow decreases and only a glimmer of hope for more funding, I kept a small team together and kept going.

If the answer isn’t handhelds then maybe it is the web. Web services to schools that need better ways of teaching mathematics. But, in my second big blunder, I overestimated school’s interest in our software as an integrated tool. (My first big blunder was the overestimation of the handheld market’s near-term growth potential and our ability to get in front of and remain attractive to those customers.) By the time I realized this second mistake and realized that I couldn’t raise money, our time was up. The money was gone. We tried to adjust, yet again, but ran out of time. Most of my developer’s are now gone. I am left with rapidly depreciating assets, a slowing revenue base. It is enough reality to try my sole. And yet, on this flight back from Florida after a week off when I hoped the reality of my situation and what I should do about it would be visible to me as if a sign from God itself, I still contemplate mortgaging the home and ensuring its continuation for another 4 months while the situation sorts itself out. I can salvage one developer! I can keep the office open! I can try a little longer to make sure my investors are repaid even though I have, in the end, created such little value in the company. And in particular there is basically no value left for the reasons people invested in the first place – to revolutionize the world of software calculators in a very mobile world.

At what point does a CEO who has tried with all his might say enough is enough and move on? I have tried so hard to listen to my head and listen to my heart. I can’t tell anymore which is saying which. Should I fight on? Should I give up? Is my personal make-up such that I can give up? Can the conflict that rages in myself be quenched or will that conflict leave me with nothing but what-ifs and regret and holdings on. I know I have tried my best. To me, that is not the issue. It is not even a matter of what-ifs for what has happened in the past, but instead what-ifs for what the future could hold. What if I do let everyone go but keep fighting, keeping trying to drive the deal that turns the corner and then hire a team to make it happen? What if I learn Java and progress the project the way I see fit while I look for that elusive deal? What if I mortgage the house and keep a developer or two and still don’t have enough time to get a deal in place? Am I too early for this opportunity? Do I have the right skills, the right people, and as much as I want to believe it, determination and perseverance to overcome the brutal reality of the market? Do I have the energy to program again, to learn a “new” language from scratch and advance a company lock-stock and barrel as if it is 1999 all over again? Will I spend my days trying to do marketing and support and new development all the while living in my own world without input from elsewhere?

It is not 1999 anymore. I was so excited, even as my first business partner was walking out the door, about the handheld market. To me, it was a foregone conclusion that EVERYONE would carry a portable computer and do things on it. It was just a matter of figuring out what they would do and be the best person providing it. But reality caught up with me. Too much development burned me out. Again, up to that point, I chased deals I could not get, first with Intuit and then Microsoft, and then decided to develop a finance management solution even with out them. Where was it going, I think now? Wouldn’t I have been better off developing something new [that hadn’t been invented before] that would bring me more customers not the same ones over and over again, the same ones that would buy finance calculator and investment software and money management and expense tracking and every other finance application on the face of the planet. And the situation got out of control. I hired a developer that did a lousy job. I burned myself out trying to run a company, do the sales and marketing and write the majority of the code. I failed to enjoy any of the money that was flowing in nor the time I was afforded running a nice, profitable, small company out of my house.

It is not 1999 again. It was an experience I craved. The riches being tossed around took me in, the dot com craze that carried over into a mobile craze. I flew all the way to NY to raise money! For a first meeting! What a joke. It took me two+ years chasing money, trying to build a plan, losing focus on running the business and making it successful. By the time I came back, we had spent big chunks of the money we raised, the handheld and dot com crazes were over (as well as the excellent economy) and we were struggling to make payroll and build a sustainable business. In retrospect, it was all a nice, little idea. A business that could make money and pay two to three people well. So I am left with this aftermath. The attempts to move into other markets, the desire to build a company big enough to be sold, big enough to make sure my investors get their money back. I have been accused of thinking small, probably true to a certain extent. I have found it so hard to think big when I am wondering whether I am going to survive the next three months. I have been conflicted for years – focusing on the details to make sure they get done, the things that didn’t get done while I was away raising money, and trying to craft and execute a vision for the company. In the end, I am doomed by my own inexperience and inability to build a company that at one point had raised close to 600,000 dollars.

I have gained far more than I have lost over the past 10 years. While I have lost hair and gained weight, I have also gained wisdom, two degrees, a living wage, a wife and daughter. It was a nice, little business that didn’t satisfy my need to learn and grow individually. Then it became a struggle –thanks to recession and quickly changing seas in the handheld market. We were squeezed – by Palm, cheap competitors, and new incompatible operating systems. But we fought. For way too long we fought. We tried finding markets where we could sell handhelds, we tried shaking up the management staff, we tried new markets, we even tried leaving handheld computing.

So here I sit on an airplane on my way back from Florida after a week with family. I have no better clue now than I did before I left a week ago, or a month ago when it became clear we were going to run out of cash in February, or in October when the realization that we didn’t have an education business that would sustain us, or in August when the pending sale fell apart.