The last few years have been the hardest of my professional life. The entire world I grew up in — one of software development and sales — had transformed into something completely different. I realized that to stay relevant I needed to rethink everything I knew.
It’s hard to explain to someone who didn’t live through this change how hard it really has been. In my personal life, the only comparison I can make is the upheaval of having my first child. I went from ignorantly self-centered one day to having a dependent the next, one that required nurturing and training and food and time. It changed everything.
The software world I grew up in was pretty straight-forward. I wrote an app, I sold an app. I made changes to the app and sold those changes. We gave people time to try it. It was my relationship with the customer. I took direct orders and orders through resellers, all of whom shared that customer’s information with me. Retail sales, while slightly different, still meant the customer was my customer as much as it was the retail store’s customer. I gave the customer a little card in the box and asked them to register. If they filled it in they got discounts and upgrades. And no one told me what my product could and could not do. That was between me and my customer.
This world existed long before I started selling software myself, of course. When I bought AppleWorks in middle school, we went to a store and bought the discs (floppy!). In college I ordered software through company’s websites and online outlet malls. When I started Infinity Softworks in 1997 there was little question about the business model. I charged a price and sold our software to customers. That’s how all software was sold. Outside of AOL there was still little conversation about subscriptions and ads in apps.
While the Internet world was causing upheaval, the Mobile world remained in ignorant bliss. For the most part we still couldn’t connect to anyone anyway so business models mimicked the previously disconnected desktop market. In the Internet world entirely new business models were being explored. Advertising, two-way markets, three-way markets, networks effects, subscriptions, freemium, servers, bandwidth, space … it was an orgy of possibilities. But in mobile? Give away trials, sell a product, sell an upgrade. Yes, we did freemium, too, but I’m not certain anyone thought of it in those terms. It just meant the trial was indefinite.
My personal transformation began a few years before the iPhone and App Store. In 2006 we had spent two years developing a new education product — my first specifically developed for the web — and upon release found no buyers. I’d never had that happen before. Every major product I had ever created was met with love and at least a little cash. But not FastFigures. It was met with crickets.
When FastFigures fell apart I knew the company was in trouble. We had nothing else. Our dominant platforms — Palm and Windows Mobile — were stagnant at best and our sales had fallen 80% in the previous two years. So I started talking to a friend about an acquisition. His growing web-based education company needed product management help and was considering moving from grades 2-4 education into higher levels. I had technology and experience that could help.
During the acquisition discussions we had many conversations about web apps and education on the Internet and how that world was different from mobile. I also started exploring lean startup concepts. My transformation had begun.
The deal eventually went south and my lessons eventually went to the back-burner when the App Store launched and the gold rush ensued. It was so easy! Just build an app, put it in the App Store, and let massive volumes take over. Never mind that prices had dropped below the cost to market them. Never mind that connected devices meant different products. Never mind that English-speaking nations were no longer the dominant markets. Never mind that no customer information was being shared with us and we had no insight into how we were discovered.
We did okay for a while. Our sales grew and then the iPad happened and they grew more. We started experimenting with all the new-fangled ways to sell a product: freemium, in app purchase, multiple apps, multiple platforms, white labeling (developing our software in someone else’s name).
I knew we were in trouble, though, when everything we tried meant no increase in sales, just stagnation. We needed to do something else. We needed to get back to basics. Build a company, I told myself. So I started to reconnect with what that means and had meant on the web. I revisited my lessons. I researched the companies and businesses that were making it work and what they were doing right. I read about the failures and where they went wrong. I re-read Moore and Christensen and Blank and tried to digest old learnings with new eyes. We began re-thinking everything we knew, including the very product that had been apart of my soul for almost two decades. What does this mean in the modern era? What job are our customers trying to solve? Is it still relevant?
I won’t sit here and tell you it has been an easy journey. I have made many wrong turns that needed to be retraced. I ran into more than my share of walls that I have had to walk around, tunnel under or climb over. And I’ve done all this while trying to stay in business, doing anything we needed to fight another day, taking deals that helped pay the bills and other deals that helped teach us the technology.
I’m certain I hurt myself. I talked about Equals too early to certain people who I thought could help. I sent emails to customers far too long before we were actually ready. But I tried to learn from every one of these situations, striking up conversations with customers and engaging others who could help over and over again to expand and improve my thinking.
It’s been three years since I started this process in earnest, this transformation. And while I haven’t spent every waking moment on it — and not certain it could have been faster if I had — I feel that the corner has been turned. I have this theory that businesses move slow until they move fast. The whole point is to be ready to move fast when the business is ready.
I’m finally ready for the business to move fast. My transformation is complete.