Reinventing PowerOne #4: Failing First Contact

This is the fourth in a series of articles discussing the reinvention of the award-winning calculator, PowerOne. Read the entire series here.

Steve Blank, the influential author of Four Steps to the Epiphany, said that business plans rarely survive first contact with the customer. PowerOne version 5 was no exception.

Launched with the name FCPlus in March of 1998, PowerOne as a calculator survived Palm OS, Windows Mobile, Windows, BlackBerry, and now iOS and Android. In the olden days PowerOne sold for as much as $160. On iOS and Android that had fallen all the way to $4.99.

By the time 2012 hit it was clear that $4.99 one-time was not sustainable and we were already spending most of our time on contract work to pay the bills. It was also clear that there just wasn’t enough of an appetite for sustainably priced productivity software like ours amongst our existing prosumer customers. We didn’t want to abandon them, though.

We started playing around with the concept of a scientific notepad that could do math (called Equals) but couldn’t find a market. And then in 2016 we took the natural language programming concepts we developed for Equals and started to explore how easier creation and sharing changed PowerOne itself.

We spoke to lots of people over the years of which we were hearing hints of a different market opportunity: a tool to keep sales teams performing the correct calculations accurately and consistently. These sales teams were everything from traditional software sales to a concrete company to equipment financing to sports apparel and more.

While what they wanted to calculate was different, their stories were the same: a remote set of sales people who too consistently used the wrong quote form, screwed up the spreadsheet, or calculated with pen-and-paper incorrectly. Someone wanted to make sure everyone was on the same page.

So we started rebuilding PowerOne with these customers in mind, also realizing that many of our existing customers were already sales people: real estate, financial planning, banking, construction… they were all selling a service whether they called themselves sales or not.

But a funny thing happened with time. While these stories persisted, delusions of grandeur seeped into my head. A free product in this category could be applicable to millions of customers! We could become the YouTube of calculation! And our existing customers are the linchpin to make this happen! They’d all download (it’s free!), propel us into the top 100 where more people would find us and the flywheel would be spinning!

It’s not that I ever lost track of the sales team opportunity, it’s just that I believed we could leverage free to get lots of users who would then be clamoring for the subscription services for their team. It would all be so easy!

I can tell you one thing about 21 years of running Infinity Softworks: it has never been easy.

And the first two weeks after launch were no exception.

The hints came early. I reached out to some press through personal contacts and only really heard back from one, and he wasn’t interested. My new release didn’t even garner an email response, even from those who traditionally review and discuss productivity software for iOS. The first cracks appeared in my delusional visions.

And then my own customers destroyed the rest of my reality distortion field. In the first two weeks, less than 5% of our active customers even clicked the link to learn about the new app and only half of those people created an account.

The downloads never got high enough to push us into the top 100 of our category let alone into the App Store’s top 100. That flywheel I envisioned was dead stopped.

I spent part of week three depressed, got over it, and refocused myself on the sales opportunity. I knew from the beginning we’d need to rely on a different customer. Now I’m getting back to that realization.

PowerOne launched three weeks ago today. We have seven leads and a bunch of past contacts to follow up with. We have a good idea of the features we need to implement to start charging a subscription. Our monthly price keeps moving north as we have yet to get any meaningful pushback. We are starting to turn the flywheel, even just a little.

It’s not going to be easy – it never is with startups – and it’s going to take persistence. Unlike delusions of grandeur, however, persistence is something I have plenty of.