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.

Reinventing PowerOne #1

This is the first in a series of articles discussing the reinvention of the award-winning calculator, PowerOne.

It’s hard to rethink a 20-year old product in its entirety, but that’s exactly what we have done over the past few years.

To understand how hard this is, understand that PowerOne (originally called FCPlus) started in the old world of software. It was a time before we could guarantee each of our customers had an email address. There was no ordering online so we established an 800 number for our customers to call. We shipped physical products and worried about retail distribution. We charged a purchase price, anywhere from $60 to $160 per copy, plus upgrades. Our customers didn’t even complain!

It was a different era.

The beginning of the end occurred in the mid-2000s with the rise of cheap servers and web services. Free+subscription and free with ads became the new norm. Then the old era officially died on July 10, 2008, the day the iPhone App Store launched. Upgrades were dead. Prices of software dropped to pennies on the dollar. There were suddenly thousands of competitors with little ability to differentiate at the point of sale, with prices too low to advertise.

We plugged away with the old model originally thinking that volume could make up for lower prices. We had a nice blip when the iPad launched. We were featured a bunch and the competition was less, but that faded, too. We were stuck in a spiral: PowerOne got older and older and we couldn’t afford to put the resources into updating it for the money we were making.

Our backs were against the wall.

Either we needed to completely rethink the product and the way we were marketing it, or we needed to say PowerOne had run its course and it was time to move on.

Frankly, we questioned everything. What made PowerOne unique? What did the customers that loved the product really love about it? What were modern customers willing to pay for? What did we expect PowerOne to do for us? Who was using it and were these people even our customers? Was it the right presentation on the right platforms?

I even went back to school, taking a marketing seminar course through Seth Godin that gave me insight and a framework to think about this transformation.

Over time, a few truths emerged:

  • The templates make repetitive calculations faster, easier, and more error-free.
  • The “value” of the calculations we used to charge for, though, had dropped to zero as there were so many other options to answer the same questions.
  • The calculator for doing one-off calculations was important but not a differentiator.
  • In the modern era, we expect ours apps to stay up-to-date across devices, make it possible to share with others, and take advantage of modern device features.
  • Creating templates was way too painful.
  • One-time pricing has been replaced by free or free+subscription.

So we went back to the drawing board, painstakingly making progress. We completely rethought the language for creating templates, focusing on defining them as if they were math sentences and eliminating as many “rules” as possible.

We iterated on the business model 25 times.

We tried throwing out features to see how it worked then adding them back in when the product became unusable.

We constantly questioned our own assumptions, over and over and over and over again.

We even completely developed and threw out three products, going so far as to name it something else to free us of the mental bounds created by years of PowerOne.

Five years later, the new PowerOne emerges today.

PowerOne is a different kind of calculator focused on automating repetitive calculations. We have over a hundred pre-created templates ready to use for everything from finance to engineering, investing to mathematics, business to construction.

Even better, you can create your own and share them with your team. We have versions that run online in any desktop or mobile browser, or offline on an iPhone or iPad. (Please tell us if you’d like an offline Android version.)

And everything but team sharing is absolutely free.

Create your free account and download for iPhone and iPad, available now.

And please, keep paying attention to these pages. Each week I will add a new chapter to the story of reinventing PowerOne.

My appearance on the Release Notes podcast

I was interviewed by the good folks over at Release Notes the past two weeks. In part 1 I talk about the how mobile was in the early days, how we marketed and sold applications, and our complicated relationship with Palm. Click here to listen to the first part (~37 minutes).

In the second part, I talk about the future, about the transition we have undergone as the mobile market has changed and expanded, and what drove us to reinvent powerOne. Click here to listen to the second part.

It was an honor to be on the podcast. A special thanks to Charles and Joe for having me.