“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.

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.

Death To Calculators: A Personal Journey Trying To Disrupt Math Education

Every year when school starts some influential newspaper writes an article about how hardware calculators persist and why they are favorable in the classroom even though they cost as much as a general-purpose smartphone on contract. This year it’s the Washington Post. They never come talk to me, though, which they should. To this day I’ve run a software company who has the only software product accepted for use on a national standardized exam. Here’s my story.

I remember the call like it was yesterday. I was in my car, driving to a Board members house in Corvallis, Oregon, when the phone number with area code 212 popped up. I pulled off the side of the road and hit the green Accept button and said, “Hello?” as if I didn’t know who it was. Unfortunately I also knew what the answer was going to be.

The year was 2004 and I had just spent the past three years wooing The College Board, jumping through hoops to get a Palm device with our graphing calculator software, powerOne, accepted on the Advanced Placement Calculus exam.

Before I could convince The College Board, though, I had to convince Palm. Palm really started to spin up their education efforts in 2000 or so, hiring an incredible team to go after the market. This Palm team understood that it needed industry-focused software to sell its devices and assembled some of the best mobile developers at the time. Palm helped pay for us to be in front of the market and demonstrate the power of mobile computing in the classroom, put together studies and influential educators, and made a market possible. With our help, we’d close the deal, selling devices and software to 64 million students and educators in the US alone. The opportunity was there for the taking.

Palm, though, wanted little to do with us at first. They had partnered heavily with another company for math software and didn’t realize that their solution wasn’t enough for high school math. It took a while and the help of an advocate on the team, but eventually Palm came around. Shortly after that we lucked into building our own strategic team around the opportunity, including a marketing person with years of experience in education and two influential math educators who advised TI, HP and Casio when they gained acceptance on the AP exam.

Our small team started putting the pieces in place. We made contacts at The College Board, we met with people on the committee that eventually would need to give their thumbs up to any deal, we met with hundreds of teachers, school district administrators, even state officials, who could give their mark of approval. We were building a massive pipeline of hundreds of schools and even two states that were willing to buy powerOne and Palm devices as soon as we gained AP approval.

Why AP, and why AP Calculus? What’s amazing about AP Calculus is it is given to only a few hundred thousand students a year yet it dictates math technology adoption for 64 million. Historically AP Calculus is the linchpin exam for technology in the math classroom. When TI got hardware calculators in, they started with AP Calculus and many of the most influential high school math teachers teach at that level.

So why wouldn’t schools use TI calculators in AP Calculus and software calculators on modern technology for everything else? Because schools can’t discriminate. They can’t decide who is tracked for AP and who isn’t. They aren’t allowed to make these kinds of decisions. And teaching kids to use TI calculators when they are preparing for an exam is futile. Have you used one of these things? Every time I pick one up I need a manual.

Schools choose to use the same technology for all their students, unfortunately making math less accessible to millions in the process. Our research showed the teachers spent as much as half of the class time training kids on which buttons to hit on the calculator to get the results they needed. When I’d show powerOne to educators, mouths would drop. Keystrokes were minimal because of the touch screen and you could do things — like drag the tangent around a curve — that you could never do on a TI. I remember one teacher literally crying and another proclaiming that her kids would finally understand derivatives after years of using hardware calculators.

Before that, though, we needed The College Board.

The rules for AP technology are specifically designed to eliminate touch devices, pen input and anything with a keyboard. The College Board didn’t specifically say these are the devices you can use. Instead, they said these are the technologies your devices cannot have. Pens and keyboards ruled out the Palm. We needed an exception.

Our advisors explained the process to me: first, we need to convince the head of AP programs that this is worth considering. Our goal was to show him data on how hardware calculators were the past, how they were holding back students, and how Palm devices were already gaining acceptance elsewhere in our schools. Put pressure on the Board to modernize.

If we got past that step, then we’d go in front of the committee. The committee was concerned about implementation details, so not only did we have to prove that powerOne could do what the tests needed but also that we could secure the devices, keep kids from cheating, and make it possible for the test proctor (who was likely a football coach or similar who needed a little extra pay each month) from screwing this up.

If the committee gave their approval then we’d likely see a limited roll out to a few hundred districts the first year before mass acceptance after that. From there, we could start negotiating with AP Statistics, SAT and other national and state testing programs. We were certain, however, we wouldn’t make it that far as one of the big boys would gobble us up. We figured we had 18 months of independence from acceptance to buy out.

So we got a meeting with the head of AP and a small group and pled our case. We got no response for months. And then we got lucky again. The previous head left and a new head came in. Once he was settled we connected again, went to New York again, and pled our case again. This head had vision. He was young and wanted to put his mark on the program and after a few months (like hours in education time), signed off. We were headed to the committee, where our lobbying efforts had already begun.

This is where the timing gets fuzzy for me. Somewhere in the period — the spring of 2004 — Palm fired their education team and we went in front of the AP committee. I can’t remember the order so let’s start with Palm. This was post-merger where Palm bought out Handspring and brought back its founding team. That team decided it wasn’t big enough to focus on handheld computers and smartphones at the same time so fired almost everyone involved with handhelds, including the education team. It was a monumentally stupid move. At a time when Apple was about to sell hundreds of millions of iPods, Palm gave up.

The committee, on the other hand, was much more friendly. They heard our story, saw a product demonstration (they all had the software on Palms before that), and saw a prototype of our answer to security (which was actually more secure than hardware calculators). Little birdies told us we did very well and that we’d soon get approval.

So here I am in my Honda Civic driving to a Board members house when my phone rings from the 212 area code. I knew the call was coming from The College Board soon, which was in New York City, but didn’t know when. The head of AP called to tell me that we did gain acceptance from the committee but because of Palm’s decision, the Board was not going to roll out trials.

We did spend some more time with the Board and made some important contacts. We spent the next couple of years working on a new education product, this one web-based. In retrospect it wasn’t very good. We did, however, get a contract to provide a web-based graphing calculator that is still in use on a few national and state-based exams, but the decision by Palm followed by the decision by The College Board pretty much ended my hopes of upsetting math education for the better.

In the end, math education is what it is because The College Board acts as a de facto regulatory body. Without The College Board, nothing will change. And while articles gush about the lasting abilities of TI calculators and list a plethora of reasons why it has and will remain that way, I can tell you that there is one and only one reason anyone still uses those monstrosities: because The College Board says you will.

A Baby Is Born

On Wednesday morning I loaded a new version of Equals, entered in a very simple equation (a=b+c) and defined each of its variables, entered a value for ‘b’, a value for ‘c’ and, when autocalc took hold a second later, saw a result for ‘a’. As my development partner, Rick, said in his email alerting me to his progress, “It’s alive (just barely).”

On Thursday it was a little stronger. It could calculate ‘b’ and ‘c’, and I could add a second equation, which if set up correctly, would also calculate. This morning it is smart enough to even add missing variables and perform calculations for alternative forms of the note.

The process of watching this program come to life the last few days is as close as I’ve been to the days and months following the birth of my daughters 8 and 6 years ago. The three months after a baby is born is called the fourth trimester. The baby is too small and weak to do much of anything for itself except cry, eat, poop and sleep, but it is getting stronger. After those additional three months of gestation, the changes start coming fast and steady.

On Wednesday morning the baby was born. Over the next weeks we will work through Equals’ fourth trimester. It will get stronger and more capable, able to support more than just a few of us at the same time, able to perform more complex calculations, ready for new features and capabilities.

Before we know it it will be asking for the car keys and heading off to college.