As word of mouth spread about QubeCalc and InstaCalc, sales slowly picked up throughout 1987. Then in August of 1987, we got our first “national” mention when Brit Hume wrote this article reviewing some shareware programs.
He actually called and talked to me about how much he liked the program, but I probably should have told him how to spell my last name. My mom was so excited when she saw a syndicated copy of the article in her newspaper in Albuquerque. I still have 3 or 4 copies of the article she cut out and sent to me.
The next month we decided to try and make this software thing a full-time business. My wife Laurie was getting tired of trying to answer tech support questions during the day while I was at work and thought it might be nice if I got to answer the phones instead. So we packed up and moved to Sandy, Utah.
Laurie’s parents were split on our decision to leave a nice paying engineer job and move 800 miles to be self-employed. Her mom thought we were making a huge mistake, but her dad said we needed to go for it. He said if we didn’t try we would always wonder “what might have been”. Although there were many rough times during the early years, looking back now makes me appreciate even more the wisdom of that advice.
The first snag we hit after moving to Utah was our company name. When we applied for the same FormalWare name, the state told us we couldn’t use it because it was confusing with a tux rental (formal wear) company. Looking back now I realize that since we were in different industries we should have been able to use that name, but I was just a business novice, so I just accepted the decision and changed the company name to FormalSoft. I chose that name simply because we were under a tight budget that let us keep our same logo, and required a minimal amount of changes to packaging and advertising materials.
We did tweak the logo just a little bit, making the bow tie and disk more “realistic,” but deep down I have always loved my simpler logo better.
The first several years in Utah were bumpy ones. Expenses always seemed to exceed sales, and we didn’t have enough of a track record to get outside funding. If it weren’t for our maxed out credit cards and loans from our parents, the company would have never survived those years.
But then in February 1988, we thought our fortunes had changed forever. We started getting a bunch of phone orders from people who told us our software was awarded PC Magazine Editor’s Choice, which at the time was probably the highest honor a computer program could receive. And not only that, but we now had two Editor’s Choice awards.
Sales took off and we figured we were on easy street, but this was to be a great learning opportunity. Within a few weeks, sales had dropped back down and were barely higher than before. Fame is fleeting, especially in the software business. We realized if we wanted to continue to grow, we needed to do more advertising, but at least now we had these awards to use in our promotions.
We bought a pop-up booth to use at trade shows and in April 1988 we attended our first trade show, the West Coast Computer Faire in San Francisco. I only owned one computer, so we hauled that out to California to demo our software to customers.
Over the next couple of years, we took our booth to numerous trade shows, including the big one in Vegas, COMDEX Fall. Very rarely did we break even, but we kept pushing hoping that eventually we would get noticed.
NEXT: More products, and a chance encounter
NOTE: This is Part 2 in our ongoing series documenting the history of our company. If you’re just joining us, be sure to read Part 1.
Now that I had both a company and a product, all I needed to do was figure out how to sell software. My engineering degree certainly hadn’t taught me that, and I knew that selling a spreadsheet in the world of Lotus 123 was way beyond my budget. So I decided to try out a new way of selling called “shareware”. This was a newly emerging way to sell software where you made your program free to share and distribute, but asked customers to pay for it if they liked and continued to use it.
I sent copies of QubeCalc out to all the shareware distributors, including the big ones like PC-SIG, Public Software Library (PSL), and Public Brand Software. Many PC Users groups also had shareware libraries that were happy to add my program. And then there were the bulletin board systems (BBS). This was before the invention of the World Wide Web (WWW), and if you wanted to download a program, you did it from a dial up BBS. My phone bill became my biggest advertising expense, uploading QubeCalc to bulletin boards all over the country. I would spend hours uploading, and was up late every night because long distance charges were much cheaper after 11pm.
Despite all the time and effort I put into trying to start a software company, it was a good thing I still had my job as an engineer. From the time I started the company, it was almost 4 months before we had our first sale. And it happened to be to one of the shareware distributors we had sent a copy to months earlier. On this copy of the invoice from our first sale, my biggest dilemma was what invoice number to start with. I didn’t want to use 10000 because I didn’t want them to know we hadn’t sold a copy yet, and 12345 seemed a little too obvious as well. So I finally used 10234 as the first number in our order system.
For obvious reasons I didn’t have thousands of manuals sitting on a palette, so they received a glorious hand bound manual just like this one I made the same day (except that theirs didn’t have my name written on the cover). As you can tell, my artistic abilities were (and continue to be) unparalleled.
Now that we had our first sale, we were ready for the big time. Sales started slowly coming in for QubeCalc, and I had just about finished writing our second program InstaCalc. InstaCalc was also a spreadsheet program, but it had the special ability to “terminate and stay resident”. Younger computer users will never be able to appreciate the magic of a “TSR” program. In those old DOS days (before Windows), a computer could only run one program at a time. If you wanted to run a different program you had to completely exit the program you were in, and start the new program. If you wanted to go back to the first program, you had to completely exit and then start the other one back up. There was no clicking to switch between programs… in fact there was no clicking at all since most computers didn’t even have a mouse.
InstaCalc would load itself into memory and then “terminate”, but it didn’t actually remove itself from memory (it “stayed resident”). So you could then start up another program (like your word processor), and InstaCalc would wait in the background until you pressed its “hot-key”, and it would then pop up over the top of your other program. When you exited InstaCalc it would switch right back to your other program. It was like magic.
And with the release of InstaCalc in early 1987, we doubled our product offerings, and upgraded our manuals (no more laser printer covers for us).
I was still gainfully employed as an engineer, and our sales weren’t enough to make me want to give that up. But my wife and I did talk about “what ifs”. Little did we know that in less than 6 months we would be trying to rely on this software company to completely provide for our small family.
It’s our 30th birthday, but you’re getting the presents! Whether you’ve been a part of the RootsMagic family for 30 years or 30 minutes, we want to hear your story! Tell us about the time you “first felt the magic”- that is, the moment you fell in love with our software. Just fill out this entry form by Monday, October 31, 2016.
The five (5) best stories, as judged by RootsMagic staff, will be placed online from Wednesday, November 2 through Wednesday, November 9, 2016 where the public will be able to vote for their pick of the best story.
Results will be announced on Friday, November 11, 2016. The person who submitted the story with the most votes will receive a SHOTBOX Photography Light Box Deluxe Bundle, and autographed copies of RootsMagic and Personal Historian bundles (over $250 retail value). The four (4) runner-ups will all receive autographed copies of RootsMagic and Personal Historian bundles (retail value $79.90).
Don’t forget, you have until Monday, October 31 to submit your entries at https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/RootsMagic30. Good luck!