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.

View From The Cheap Seats: A Journey Through Game 1 of the World Series


I am a diehard Cleveland Indians baseball junky. I don’t know how it happened but I’d like to blame it on a recessive gene. If my dad and stepdad would have only raised me to be a Yankees fan, I’d have been a lot happier. Except this year.

This year the Indians are in the World Series and, for anyone who has somehow miraculously avoided the topic, are playing the even more pathetic Chicago Cubs. The Cubs haven’t appeared in the World Series since 1945 and haven’t won in 108 years. The Indians have lost three times since 1945 — 1954, 1995 and 1997 — and haven’t won the World Series in 68 years. If you are counting at home, the last Cleveland World Series win came three years BEFORE MY FATHER WAS BORN, which makes my dedication to Indians baseball even more asinine.

I have been to two other World Series games before last week. I went to game 4 in 1995 when the Indians lost to the Atlanta Braves and I went in 2013 when Boston and St. Louis duked it out. Both of those games were courtesy of my endlessly generous uncle and cousin, the latter of whom works for the Red Sox organization.

Monday morning my father called and said if I can get to Cleveland in time for Game 1 Tuesday night, we have tickets for Game 1 and Game 2. (Again, courtesy of my cousin for getting us tickets and my father for paying for them.) I hopped a red eye and found myself amongst the bedlam of downtown Cleveland, Ohio around 3pm.

Bedlam, frankly, is probably an understatement because on this night not only was it game 1 of the World Series, it was also opening night for Cleveland’s Cavaliers, the first team from Cleveland to win a national champion in any major sport since 1964, nine years before I was born. The Cavs got their rings. Progressive Field, where the Indians play, and Quicken Loans Arena, the Cavalier’s home, are across the street from each other. There had to be 100,000 people in a five block radius.

The first thing I noticed was the noise. There was sound coming from everything. There were vendors hawking their wares, cars excitedly honking their horns, music blaring from all corners. This one guy was driving up and down Euclid Avenue screaming out his window and honking his horn, looping around the downtown block to Tower City and back, over and over.

The entire city was in a daze. Nothing for 60 years and then this! The city was electric.

My dad and I went into the stadium early, about 6pm for the 8pm game. We walked around the stadium, the entire time getting colder and colder. The sun went down, the wind whipped up a little. I wasn’t dressed warm enough and was already starting to shiver.

The beer guys were all standing around yelling beer here. In one spot there were five or six of them, all with the same beers, yelling at the fans drifting by in small patches. Most people were still outside.

We stood and spoke with a beer vendor somewhere in deep centerfield bleachers for a while, watching as the stadium filled. We talked to him about the Indians, the Cavs, the Browns, about the business of selling concessions, how he does at it, where the best spots in the stadium are to sell.

We wandered past the team gift shop but noted how long the line was and didn’t go in. We looked at some of the smaller popup shops but didn’t buy anything but a program. We took pictures of ourself overlooking the field, played with the new Portrait mode features of the iPhone 7, and generally wasted time waiting for the national anthem.

Our seats were way up in the upper deck just on the third base side of home plate. They are actually excellent seats as you can see the entire field really well and the steepness of the steps means I could generally see the play even when everyone was standing.

The temperature kept dropping and the wind was whipping and I wished I had worn my heavy winter jacket.

They unfurled the largest American flag I’d ever seen and sang the National Anthem and took part in all the pre-game ceremonies. Then the first pitch and the crowd went insane. I don’t know if I’ve ever heard it louder.

It didn’t hurt that the Indians dominated the game and won 6-1, but the fans around us made the whole thing fun. The buddies in front of us, all Catholics I’m assuming from the way they crossed themselves before every tense moment, had to strike a very specific pose otherwise the Indians wouldn’t get out of the jam.

The people four rows down would always stand a little too soon and stay standing a little too long, forcing everyone else to stand behind them. At first it was annoying with lots of calls to sit down but then it became whatever as the game wore on and the party in that upper deck continued.

A guy three rows down, also a stander, was so excited he kept buying beers and nachos for other people if they said or did something he liked.

The two people to our left were family friends of my cousins. The father had been a season ticket holder himself for years and had been at every Indians World Series since 1954. (Not a large selection — that’s four including this year.) I don’t think he was there in 1948, the last time the Indians won the World Series, but my memory could be wrong on that. He was alive as he said he was 11 for the 1954 game.

The two people to our right, a father and son, drove 2.5 hours just to be at the game — without tickets. He was hoping to buy a pair on the street so his 11 year old could see what the father had waited a lifetime for. The father said he had a pocket full of money and that that was what they were going to spend. He then said he had to dip into his other pocket. They were driving the 2.5 hours home after the game.

The people behind us spent the entire game screaming insults at the Cubs and their players. Of course the only ones who could hear them were us and the few rows around us, but that didn’t matter. Her best line, “Chicago: your toll roads sucks.” I think the guy three rows down bought her a beer for that.

It was a thrill going to this game with my dad. Between my dad and my stepdad and my uncle, I went to plenty of games as a kid.

Back then the Indians mostly stunk. They played in this massive stadium with almost 80,000 seats that was shared with the Browns football team. The most fans I ever saw for an Indians game was in the summer of 1986 when the Indians were actually pretty good and we went to a game with 65,000 fans in the stands. I don’t remember who won — the Indians played the White Sox by my memory — but I’d never seen that many people at a baseball game before and was pretty overwhelmed.

It was more likely we were at a game that was so cold and wet that we left in the seventh inning on opening day. The Indians were losing horribly. Or the game against Milwaukee with only 3,000 fans in the stands and you could hear your own voice echo through the stadium. I never saw a first pitch until I was a teenager. Neither my dad nor stepdad were good at getting anywhere on time.

Sometimes we’d sit in the bleachers, especially on those warm Cleveland afternoons in mid-summer. Other times we’d sit in my uncle’s seats. My uncle used to give us tickets a few times a year. Dad and I would stop at Lou & Hi’s deli in Akron, pick up pastrami sandwiches and massive pickles and eat like kings sitting high above home plate.

This game started at 8pm and by 11pm the wind was whipping pretty good and the temperature had dropped to the low 40s. With a wind chill it was probably in the mid- to low-30s up there. It was actually more comfortable to stand then sit as those cold plastic benches were just like sitting in snow. Luckily there was no rain.

Throughout the evening the stands thinned as fans ran for warmer locations around the stadium, and by the time Perez hit the home run in the eighth to seal the game, we had plenty of room around us.

The game was amazing, the scene was a massive party. I’ve never seen Cleveland so optimistic.

My dad and I had tickets to Game 2 also, but Game 1 was the special one, especially since the Indians won. I stayed an extra day and flew home on Friday, landing during the fourth inning and made it home in time to watch the last three.

As I write this the Indians are leading three games to two and the Series heads back to Cleveland. The stress is overwhelming. I am up all night trying to figure out what the Indians will do and or not do in this Series, excited one minute about how far they’ve gotten without three of the best players in baseball, believing this is the year my lifelong love, the Cleveland Indians, finally win the World Series. And then the next minute it is all doom and gloom, worried the the magic has worn off and the Indians will be the first team in over 30 years to lose a Series when up three games to one.

None of it makes sense of course. But here I am, celebrating fandom to its fullest.



Backing up and how I lost 6 months of data

In the last episode of Release Notes podcast, Joe and Charles spent a half an hour discussing backing up desktop computers. In the last five minutes, the two discussed backing up iOS devices.

On Mac OS X, I use both CrashPlan and Time Machine. CrashPlan is $60/year and backs up offsite via my Internet connection. Time Machine is provided by Apple and backs up to an external hard drive. I also store much of my data in Dropbox, which syncs with my laptop and gives me a second copy of my most important documents. On iOS I use Apple’s automatic backup to iCloud.

And it is with iCloud that things went horribly wrong.

When the iPhone 6s+ launched in September, I upgraded immediately. I had skipped a year so was still using a 5s. I did what I always do when moving devices: I backed up to iCloud, got the new device, re-installed from that back up and then reset the old device. No problems encountered this time, too.

But I had a faulty 6s+ and had to trade it in for a new one. I backed up to iCloud, went to the Apple Store and they swapped out devices. To swap out devices, though, I had to reset my broken 6s+ before installing on the new one.

During reinstall, I noticed that some apps were acting funny and there was missing data, in particular all my iMessage messages were lost and so was six months of activity data. We tried to recover from multiple backups but it appeared every one of them was corrupted. I spoke with Apple support both on the phone and in store, was even escalated and no one could help. All my data was lost. I had to set up the new 6s+ as a new device.

From now on when I move devices, I will not only backup to iCloud but I’ll also do one last backup to iTunes. In iTunes, choose the device and, under the Backup section, choose “This computer” and “Encrypt iPhone backup,” then Sync. When done revert back to iCloud backup.

Encrypt backup is required to backup messages and activity data, as both are encrypted on the device. This is also why Apple couldn’t help me recover either, although I find it inexcusable that at least activity data can’t be recovered independent of a backup file (same as calendar and contacts).

The way it was: channel sales before app stores

There aren’t a lot of us around who existed selling mobile software before iOS and Android. I believe there is a misconception over the way things were back then though and how we built out sales channels. My history in mobile dates back to 1997. Compaq was still its own company (and producing its own mobile hardware devices), Dell was the king of device sales, and Apple was barely an after thought¹.

We built a multi-pronged channel approach to generate revenue. Channel is the place of marketing’s 4 P’s (product, place, promotion, price). I even had a dedicated sales woman who was a queen at managing channel. It was a big deal back then! Now… well, not much choice. You can sell through Apple’s App Store, Google’s Play store, Amazon’s Appstore, Mac App Store, Windows App Store and maybe your own site depending on the platform. Most other channels are gone, although enterprise sales probably still have value-added resellers and other channels.

  • When I started out we had a partnership with a retail publisher. Macmillan Digital Publishing bundled us with a few other titles and sold through CompUSA, Best Buy, Office Depot, Staples and the like. We received a $1.00 per title, and the bundle, which included about five titles, sold for about $50. All were shareware titles and we did five of these over 3 years. The last one was a suite of titles we developed. It was a good deal for us. It was a channel we couldn’t attack directly at our early age and lack of funding, basically putting us in front of a group of customers who otherwise wouldn’t have known about us. We bundled a lesser product — a Lite version in the parlance — and then upsold our higher end version for $20 more. It didn’t drive a lot of up-sell traffic as we didn’t “own” the customer relationship and really couldn’t promote the higher-end versions effectively.
  • Once this bundle started selling, we started selling from our own web site as well. We sold two versions: the Lite version for $20 and the Pro version for $40. We drove people to the Pro version with ads in a magazine included in the box with each PalmPilot sold. I remember writing my first check — $20,000 — for an ad. My hand shook. Eventually our prices changed. The Lite version became free, a Personal version was $10, and then we had other versions from anywhere from $30-160. Our average selling price was $37 net.
  • We sold through online resellers, most prominently Handango and PalmGear (and a few others I can’t remember on the Windows Mobile side). These guys started our as good partners and a 20-25% cut of the revenues (they received), but they slowly started to raise their prices and, at the end, were demanding 60-70% of the sales revenue. When Steve Jobs stood on stage and said he was only charging 30% and what a great deal that would be, he was referring to these guys. Very little mobile software was ever sold through retail channels. Handango and PalmGear were the go-to places.
  • We, on the other hand, did sell through retail. Not just the aforementioned bundles but also through some very select channels. The Franklin-Covey retail stores were a perfect match. We also sold through (physical CDs, not electronic downloads in those days), Dell’s and Palm’s stores. Each took about a 30% cut. We had the opportunity to go to other retail, especially Costco which did a lot of sales back then, but we turned them down. It wasn’t the cut of the revenues we worried about, which was 30-50%, but instead was the terms. These stores could return the inventory at any time for a full refund and they ordered in the tens of thousands. This meant we couldn’t spend the money until we were certain it all sold, and we weren’t confident enough in our niche, vertical products to expect it to do well in a horizontal market like these.
  • Of the retail we did pursue, Franklin-Covey was the biggest of these sellers, although Palm, Amazon and Dell sold a lot of software for us as well. We sent and they sold thousands of titles through Franklin Covey retail stores. Palm, Amazon and Dell were a little different. They would place smaller orders and we would deliver them, mostly just in time or even drop-ship direct to customers. This mitigated the inventory risks.
  • While it wasn’t a sales channel, our biggest market opportunity came in 1999 when we started bundling with PalmPilots. We were on a CD that came in the box with other titles. The Palm deal led to other deals and at one point were bundled with about 85% of handheld computers sold. We gave away the Lite version and charged for the higher-end products. We even gave customers a little something for free (some extra calculations) if they came to the site and registered.  We built a 400,000 person mailing list and figure we distributed close to 20 million calculators in that time period. This became our primary marketing effort pretty quickly and, it turned out, drove about 75% of our sales. (I only know that because when the deals dried up our sales plummeted by that much.) I don’t think we ever truly utilized that marketing list. That was probably our biggest opportunity wasted. We did occasional mailers but didn’t really understand the impact that attention could have driven for us. It was extremely expensive back then to email them, honestly, and our minds were elsewhere…
  • … like the education market. When we focused on vertical markets and education in the early 2000s we signed up a number of value-added resellers and others that helped generate some income, but most of the education sales were speculative. We needed standardized test approval to be adopted and, well, that didn’t happen in the end. This is a story I’ve told before. We did do some smaller sales to a school or classroom. It was nice to send a single disk and paper saying how many computers it could go on, and get multi-thousand dollar checks in return. With standardized test adoption we would have seen districts and states adopt. That would have been big money, dwarfing all other revenue we had at that time easily.

Channel was a big part of our marketing strategy and, frankly, besides bundling, channel was our biggest strength and catapulted Infinity Softworks into being one of the best revenue businesses in the handheld era². Unfortunately it didn’t last long — our peak revenues were from 1999 to 2004 — and we never did figure out a way to break out into massive growth. The world was very different back then.

¹ In 1997, when graduating college, I thought I’d either develop Mac software or Palm software. The PalmPilot had just come out a few months before and it seemed like it had more promise. Oh well.

² That’s not saying a lot, although much better revenue then today for an indie developer with a small team.