I’m experiencing a writing drought right now of proportions never experienced before. I love to write and yet the last month or so has been like pulling teeth to get anything down on paper, if you will. I realized that at least part of that is because I have always been reticent to dive into the weeds on what we are working on, mostly because I, for whatever reason, think it will scare all of you away.
Well, too bad. If you leave you leave because we are deep diving now, my friends! I’ve decided to write a series of posts on the thoughts and decisions behind Equals. I’ll make sure it is noted clearly in the title so you can ignore these if you prefer.
The concepts behind Equals came from an app my partner-in-code Rick Huebner invented in 1998 called MathPad. The concept was simple: what if the calculator was a piece of paper that you can write text, equations and variables on, then hit a compute button and it would fill in the missing values? It was a positive little seller but it had very small revenues compared to powerOne and we shelved it soon after Rick came to work for me in 2001.
It sat in holding for 10 years until it was brought up in 2011 in a multi-month exploration of new ideas. By 2011 we had already been selling apps in the iOS App Store for 2+ years and it was clear that selling productivity apps at $5 per copy was never going to make us enough money to even be in business, let alone support the two of us full-time. So we started hashing around for new ideas, still based on spreadsheets and calculators and numbers, that we could develop. We came up with a dozen ideas, built a few prototypes and started testing. Equals, which we were calling MathPoint at the time, was the most interesting and compelling of these partly because of its connection to our existing powerOne customers.
We spent months using MathPoint ourselves and with a few close friends of the company. We began to refine it. We eliminated all of the syntax complexity of Rick’s MathPad, we expanded variables to include numbers and spaces, which made them feel much more natural. We went from purely text-based notes to include formatting and started playing around with how to do that on iOS and the web. We even moved from an iOS-only app to a sync-based system to a web-first application. Refining and simplifying took forever. We came very close to releasing apps a few times but backed off for one reason or another each time.
Our momentum on the project was slow. Throughout we had two core problems: 1) we were moving more and more toward a web-based product as a starting point; and 2) powerOne was/is making so little money that it wouldn’t support even one of us full-time. So we took the value we had — iOS development experience and a well-regarded product — and sold those. We received a number of custom development contracts over the last couple of years, all of which kept us in business. Our income went from 100% product to 70% custom development work but we also had profits for the first time in years all while paying ourselves a break even salary.
As mentioned, though, our philosophy about where to release the first versions of Equals changed as well. We went from an iOS-only app to an iOS app that leveraged the web for syncing only to a browser-based app. I hope to get into this decision later but for now understand that at the time we made this decision we had very little experience with browser-based, HTML5 apps. We had worked with it a little in the iOS app, but very little.
So we got a development contract that basically paid us to learn HTML5. While the project was a huge pain, we were able to learn rudimentary skills and it brought us enough money to give us a window of development in the summer and fall of 2013.
We thought we were close. We reached out to some of our existing powerOne customers, getting them all excited, when we thought we were within a month of shipping. Unfortunately the window collapsed. One reason was because we had some health issues that our now dealt with. Another is because getting a releasable version turned out to be far more complex than we ever anticipated.
The window closed. By the fall of 2013, we were again running out of money. We closed more contract deals and focused exclusively on those. By early 2014, though, we had stockpiled enough money again to focus full-time on Equals. In fact, we have now stockpiled enough contracts and deals to likely need no contract work until the end of 2014, our longest window to focus exclusively on Equals (and get paid) in a very long time!
As we’ve been head’s down now for more than two months on developing a web-based version of Equals, we are finally getting very close. It has been interesting, though. Sometimes we think we are closer than we are and sometimes we are battling the technology for weeks on end trying to make it do what we want and sometimes we head down a path only to realize, after getting 95% of the way there, that it was absolutely the wrong technology or process.
It turns out the devil really is in the details. The amount of spec writing I’ve done in the past few months far exceeds the design work I’ve done in the history of the company, and of course every time we make a change it has ripple effects through the code. Add to that our relative inexperience with HTML5 and our time estimates have been way off.
Anyway, that’s enough for now. All I can say for certain is we are (finally!) very close. Yesterday I pushed to the live server our first partially working version and hopefully the remaining handful of missing pieces will lay in quickly over the next few weeks. The learning hurdles should be behind us now as we have the basics of the technology working. We need to finish up the last missing pieces and test and test and test.
Our goal is to roll this out slowly. We have never had to worry about server load before and we have never had to worry about client-server interactions and all the unknown unknowns that go with new technology on a new platform in a new environment. I’m also worried about the rudimentary nature of Equals. It is so early and there is so much to do. I hope Equals isn’t too far down on the minimum viable product curve.
I can’t wait to share it with you, though. It has been a slow train coming.
Would you like to know when Equals is ready? Tell us. Your email address stays between you and me.