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.


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.


Reinventing PowerOne #3: Accounts

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

I suspect the most controversial decision we made from our customer’s perspective was to require accounts. There were a number of reasons we decided to do this and was one of the reasons we decided to ship this version as a new app and not replace the old one.

A Better Product

First of all and most important, we felt we could provide a significantly better product. With the previous version of PowerOne I observed that it was a major problem to get a user’s templates from one device to another if, say, he uses both an iPhone and an iPad. And then if he made changes it was easy for those to get out of sync.

Furthermore, if I want to look at my history or memory of calculator calculations I shouldn’t have to remember on which device I did the math.

If one of our users has to install on a fresh device, it is also a pain to get set back up. She has to download all the templates she used from the library again.

And that doesn’t even include being able to use PowerOne on a desktop computer. Creating templates, in particular, is really nice with a full screen and physical keyboard, and I’ve heard from more than one person that running calculations on the web version when that person sits at his computer all day is fantastic.

And this doesn’t even include the future features we want to add that are also only possible with accounts.


But asking for an account is controversial. Based on early download data, it is clear we are losing about half of our customers before they create an account. People don’t want an extra account to manage.

Furthermore, more than one of our customers have equated accounts with a lack of privacy. While they have nothing to do with each other I at least understand why someone would think this.

Building a Relationship

The reality is that Apple pretends that the customers of my products are their customers, not mine. They do everything in their power to keep us at arm’s length from our customers.

Personally, I’m tired of having no relationship with my customers. I can’t make a better product if I can’t talk to them. I want to hear the good and bad. As a small independent developer I want my customers to know who I am, to feel comfortable asking for me by name on a support email, and to know that there are two people on the other end thoughtfully developing and designing this product.


The truth is everything is a trade-off and those trade-offs are even more acute when working with a tiny development team. Rick and I are it. We are developing PowerOne on multiple platforms, by ourselves¹. We don’t have a quality assurance team to test the app and make sure it is solid. We do that ourselves.

When we considered accounts we also considered some of the app with an account and some without. But that adds complexity to the app which adds extra testing burden now and forever. It also restricts what we do later as we can no longer count on our customers having accounts.

Rick and I decided the trade-off wasn’t worth it and required an account to use the app.


The hard truth is that there is no such thing as privacy, and hasn’t been for well over a decade. If you are using a product – any product – the company that designs that product has complete access to everything you do in that app and has access to many things you do on your device. Developers also have the ability to change the product on you at any time without asking your permission and forcing you to use it or delete it, given how app stores work today.

Some companies are nefarious. Some companies take your data and access your device. Some companies look at everything you do in their apps and figure out best how to make money off of you.

But most companies don’t. Most companies respect their customers and want to do right by them.

Rick and I took all of this into account when making the decision. Besides making the app free, this was easily the hardest decision and one we vacillated on the longest. But at the end of the day I’d rather have less customers who want to have a relationship with me and prefer the benefits.


¹ Rick and I do get help from a few part-timers, but none of them write code.


Reinventing PowerOne #2: Don’t Screw Customers

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

There has been a steady stream of companies moving from a one-time payment model to a subscription model. And in pretty much every one of these cases it is clear that, even though the company says it is doing this for the customer, they are not. In almost every case they screw their existing customers.

Whoa, you say, that’s harsh. Doesn’t the company have a right to make money?

Of course it does – that’s what a company does – but not at the expense of breaking the promise it made to its customers.

The promise we developers make to our customer is that in exchange for their money (or in the case of a free app, their time) we provide an app or service for them to use.

The app stores have added a second clause to this implied contract as well, the one that gets too many developers in trouble as they don’t consider it when building their wares: the developer will continue to ensure that the app runs on future versions of the operating system.

This is what the customer signed up for and all too often this is the promise that developers break.

But if the company is no longer making enough money to continue supporting the product then how can customers hold the developer to this deal? Don’t companies have the right to change the deal?

Absolutely not. The contract with existing customers has only one out clause: go out of business. The contract with new customers, however, has not been written yet. With them we can create a completely different deal.

Developers: we knew the terms going in. In fact, we wrote the contract. We don’t get to change the terms later.

When we set out to rethink PowerOne we knew that screwing our customers wasn’t an option. I set the terms of the contract and millions accepted those terms over 20 years.

I felt I had two choices. We could either:

  1. Change the terms for new customers while maintaining the products for our old customers.
  2. Make the new product free for (almost) all of the functionality we had before.

We chose the latter. After our first week, I am thankful we did.