Texas Isn’t a Failure of Capitalism

The stories out of Texas are horrific. Rolling blackouts. Burst water pipes. Icicles dripping from ceiling fans. Electricity bills as high as $17,000. And to make it all worse, idiots all over Twitter claiming this is a failure of capitalism.

Capitalism is nothing more than an economic mechanism that allows markets to match supply with demand. In most countries around the world, the government tries to manage this. But governments are horrible at matching supply with demand. So here in the United States, we let the market figure that out.

A $17,000 electricity bill is actually unfettered capitalism working. It means that when supply is at its lowest and demand is at its highest, prices go up. But capitalism also assumes that consumers have choice and knowledge, and in many cases they do not, including this one.

The failure in Texas isn’t capitalism. The failure here is government.

Electricity, like lots of markets, is one where the company has way more knowledge and power than the average consumer. It is also a market where consumers have no choice.

The government of Texas, meanwhile, sells deregulation to unassuming consumers as a guise for “get the government off our back.” But all deregulation is doing in this instance is giving electric companies unfettered access to screw consumers.

The act of regulation is a critical role in capitalism. The act of regulation is the act of leveling the playing field between consumers and companies. But in Texas, and many other places across the country, government has failed to do its sworn duty to protect consumers. Instead, it has abdicated its role, throwing in with the companies, and screwing over those who voted.

You want a better country? Don’t throw out capitalism. Throw out the elected officials who aren’t working for you.

Why Companies Should Build Free Apps

The fundamental responsibility of marketing is to attain and then retain attention. When I was a kid, there were only so many ways to attain attention for large brands who need substantial volume: print advertising in magazines or newspapers, television advertisements, radio, retail. In other words, in order to attain attention large brands have to go where the consumers are and that’s where the vast majority of consumers were. The most popular shows on tv in the 1970s and 80s, for example, routinely attracted 28-35% of all viewers, which frankly was all of us. If a company wanted to get its name in front of 30% of the country at once, it could buy an ad slot on one of these shows. 

(Source: Benedict Evans)

Why do we care about attention? Because as the world is evolving it is proving to be the ultimate finite resource. We can make more money, we can extend our bank accounts with credit, but we always only have 24 hours in a day and we spend 1/3 of that time sleeping.

Once attention is attained then the role of marketing is to retain those people. In many ways, this was done the same way via the same channels, but others were also available. Sears sent periodic catalogs to people’s homes, for example. The best companies got those who browsed to buy, and those who bought to buy again.

The problem now is that the world has changed. Attention is far more difficult to attain. Remember those television 30 ratings from the 70s and 80s? Television’s influence has dwindled since then. From 2016-18 the top rated show was The Big Bang Theory with only an 11 rating.

The options have exploded with the Internet and mobile. Social and communication apps now control 50% of attention, but many of these are not platforms for advertising. The top six apps by active user are all social media apps¹. The long tail, though, is very long, and those consumers even on these six platforms are not paying attention in the way they did 40 years ago.

How about retail? The options there have expanded as well. We hear a lot about how Amazon is taking over retail but it still only accounts for 6% of all retail. Walmart another 9%. That leaves 85% scattered amongst millions of websites and retail stores, with dwindling focus on physical retail.

(Source: Benedict Evans)

So how do companies survive and grow? By owning its own attention and retention avenues. And apps are a critical component of that strategy.

What very few companies have figured out is that functional applications help solve both the attaining and retaining portion of the marketing puzzle. By creating functional applications that attract high volumes of user activity (read: sessions), companies can create a virtuous cycle where consumers actually seek out a company’s marketing and willingly (!) ask for it to be blasted at them over-and-over again in the form of an icon that sits in a favorite spot on the launch screen and an app that provides value.

Think about how many companies you willingly asked for more advertising. There aren’t many. Apps can make that happen.

My thoughts on this have changed over the years. Once upon a time companies built apps and sold them in app stores. We helped DEWALT do this with DEWALT Mobile Pro construction calculator (now discontinued) for years.

What I came to understand, and what DEWALT couldn’t, is that a free app that customers willingly downloaded and used was far more powerful then the income the app could generate. After all, DEWALT isn’t in the app business; they are in the construction tools business. By discontinuing DEWALT Mobile Pro, they gave up on millions of consumers who would use the app hundreds of millions of times, constantly reminding consumers of DEWALT and its brand, and helping DEWALT sell the construction tools that makes them a powerhouse in the industry.

¹ Interestingly this does not include Apple’s Messages app, which I will bet would be ranked easily amongst these six apps.

Course Correction – Reinventing PowerOne #7

This is the next article in my series discussing the reinvention of the award-winning calculator, PowerOne. Read the entire series here.

This newsletter was sent to customers that signed up for version 5:

We’ve been hard at work collecting feedback from you, and if you completed the survey I sent out, thank you! It was the capper to help Rick and me decide the best way to move forward. Over 13% of you responded, which is incredible! Rick and I are continually humbled by how much you care about PowerOne calculator.

As you know, we are trying something different. We have found that it is hard to make money charging for calculators and templates. Instead, we are focused on charging for features such as team sharing, scenario comparisons, and sharing quotes and proposals with customers. Our goal is that the free version of PowerOne will act as a marketing channel, hopefully leading more people to our paid tiers. The first of those features — team sharing — is rolling out in the next week. Please tell me if you are interested.

Here are some highlights about what we’ve decided to change based on your feedback:

  1. We have re-released PowerOne Finance Pro and PowerOne Scientific Pro to the App Store. They remain $4.99 (free if you purchased them previously). Rick and I are committed to keeping these classic versions available to all. However, the source code is old and with Apple’s continual rule-changing and operating system updates there’s no way we can guarantee that it’ll continue to work in the future. Still, we feel that this will help many of you as you transition to PowerOne 5.
  2. Speaking of PowerOne 5, we are making several changes based on your feedback:
    • That interface. To put it mildly, it’s been polarizing. For every person who loves it, one of you loathes it. While we were inspired by Apple Maps this major change has been difficult for some. We’re redesigning the app based on your feedback.
    • We have long planned to add themes (colors, fonts, and text sizes, etc.) to PowerOne, and we’ll continue along this path.
    • Accounts scare people so we’re going to offer some features of PowerOne to those of you using it without an account.

This is just the beginning. I am excited to make a better product and appreciate that you care so deeply for PowerOne.

Elia Freedman

Screwing Up – Reinventing PowerOne #6

This is the next article in my series discussing the reinvention of the award-winning calculator, PowerOne. Read the entire series here.

Last week I wrote this opening paragraph:

This has been a brutal month emotionally. I was dying for feedback, desperately looking for unbridled response. And unbridled response I received. My customers told me exactly what they don’t like about the new version, in no uncertain terms.

I’ve worked every day for a month and a half. I have barely taken a half day away, even on weekends, and thanks to my iPhone it never is really away anyway. Before that I worked for years on the new version. I’m exhausted but have so much to do. I’m not helping myself.

Heap on top of this a lot of negative feedback. I want the feedback and understand it is how the product gets better but at some point the negativity of it becomes pretty overwhelming, especially when exhausted as I am right now.

By Friday I had apparently had enough. I reacted badly to an email, failed to take the time to let it settle before responding, and called the person out for being angry.

Two days later and I am seeing things differently.

That person wasn’t angry; I was.

This time I got lucky. I apologized and it was accepted. But I sure don’t want that to happen again so I’m establishing some ground rules for myself:

  1. I need time away from email. I can see why some small developers hire people to handle email for them. In my case I can’t do that right now but I do need to do a better job of separating myself from the flow of support.
  2. I need time away from work. If it doesn’t get done, it doesn’t get done. I can only work so much and so fast. At this point it is not possible for me to working effectively when I am working. Time away will help that.
  3. I wrote a standardized response to negative feedback. I find it hard to tell whether the person is writing to share their feelings or whether they actually want to discuss what we are doing and where we are going. Instead of writing a response every time, I’ve now written a standard response I will copy (and lightly edit if I need to) then send. I also wrote a second option aimed at echoing back what I heard the person say so I can get more clarity on the issues.
  4. I need to remind myself to take more time before responding. If my reaction is negative then I can’t hit send yet even if it makes me look unresponsive. Looking unresponsive has always bothered me.
  5. Continue to use others as a sounding board, but make sure I listen to them. My wife has been reading over my responses the past few weeks to make sure I didn’t shoot myself. This time I ignored her and didn’t sit on it for a day as she suggested. Can’t do that again.

It’s hard to run a small company. Those of us who do it have to do so many different things. Our hearts and souls go into this work. It’s very easy to over-care. It’s also very easy to take negative feedback the wrong way and overreact.

Reinventing PowerOne #5: Listening

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

This has been a brutal month emotionally. I was dying for feedback, desperately looking for unbridled response. And unbridled response I received. My customers told me exactly what they don’t like about the new version, in no uncertain terms.

Some were gentle and some less so. Some shared their thoughts privately and some used App Store reviews to relay their displeasure.

What has been hard is separating out the exhaustion and ego to listen to them tell me how they feel. It wasn’t always easy but I did my best to listen and tease out real concerns from the inevitable “it’s just different” responses.

Some customers don’t like where we are going. The biggest customer complaint has been accounts. What I’ve heard is 1) a calculator doesn’t need accounts; and 2) I don’t want to create another account. We added accounts so we could fulfill functionality we felt was missing: a web version and syncing. I don’t regret that decision, although I do regret doing a poor job of explaining it at the point of decision. I’ve rectified that now by offering information about why accounts when confronted with the create account option in the app.

Some problems were easy to spot and solve. Bugs, assuming we can reproduce them, is one such example. A number of customers complained about missing calculator functionality as well. Rick and I were able to make adjustments and add these back in. A number of customers also complained about a horribly designed feature – amortization tables. In this case it was one I suspected would come up and did. I shipped something I was embarrassed about, listened to customers complain about its poor implementation, then adjusted quickly.

Those issues were ones I anticipated. There was another I didn’t. A number of customers complained about the calculator itself. I hated the old one as in order to perform anything other than basic math you had to skip around the screen:

When I designed the new one, I focused on information density. You now have everything available to you on one screen!

Except… I left behind simplicity. Some of my customers let me know in no uncertain terms that the new one was too dense. Given this feedback we were able to default to a simple option with quick access to history and a setting to show it permanently:

All of these changes required my customers to say something.

In some cases, however, we didn’t rely on the customer saying anything to us at all. Instead, we engineered PowerOne to give us feedback automatically. Those who upgraded had an option to import their templates from the old app. This process told us any templates they were using in the old app that weren’t available in the new one. This feedback helped us prioritize templates. We’ve now added over 300 templates to the library for markets ranging from finance and investing, real estate, construction, aviation, math, science and engineering.

The key to many of these is that our customers weren’t able to voice exactly how the problem should be resolved. Instead I had to work to tease out the problem then figure out a solution that would work. Customers are very good at understanding what they liked before and what doesn’t work for them now. They are not so good at seeing the future.

These changes are now available in version 5.1.